This talk, excerpted below was given by James Cannon to a west coast educational of the Socialist Workers Party in 1957 in the aftermath of McCarthyism and the Blacklist, during the explosion of the Civil Rights movement in the south and the height of the power of the Soviet Union, of the Stalinist negation of workers democracy . I’ve never particularly identified myself with the Cannon wing of American Trotskyism, yet I have a profound appreciation of Cannon. He was an authentic American revolutionary and was at his considerable best when explaining the deep truths of capitalist society and of the class struggle in that particular Kansas vernacular of his.
We are now witnessing, as part of the Occupy movement, a mass yearning for a democracy that is real in foks lives. And this yearning is being practiced, not without difficulty, in the hundreds of assemblies now gathered in towns across the country. People want power over their own lives and a say in their future and their present as well as that of their community. The egalitarian spirit is more apart of what makes us human than the competition capitalist society celebrates and fosters; every generation since the advent of social division in human society has seen, in some way, a rebellion against it. Even now, in the most powerful ‘democracy’ the world has ever known a democratic rebellion brews.
The full text of Cannon’s speech can be found here.
Comrades, I am glad to be here with you today, and to accept your invitation to speak on socialism and democracy. It is a most timely subject, and in the discussion of socialist regroupment it takes first place. Before we can make real headway in the discussion of other important parts of the program, we have to find agreement on what we mean by socialism and what we mean by democracy, and how they are related to each other, and what we are going to say to the American workers about them.
Strange as it may seem, an agreement on these two simple, elementary points, as experience has already demonstrated, will not be arrived at easily. The confusion and demoralisation created by Stalinism, and the successful exploitation of this confusion by the ruling capitalists of this country and all their agents and apologists, still hang heavily over all sections of the workers’ movement. We have to recognise that. Even in the ranks of people who call themselves socialists, we encounter a wide variety of understandings and misunderstandings about the real meaning of those simple terms, socialism and democracy. And in the great ranks of the American working class, the fog of misunderstanding and confusion is even thicker. All this makes the clarification of these questions a problem of burning importance and immediacy. In fact, it is first on the agenda in all circles of the radical movement.
The widespread misunderstanding and confusion about socialism and democracy has profound causes. These causes must be frankly stated and examined before they can be removed. And we must undertake to remove them, if we are to try in earnest to get to the root of the problem.
Shakespeare’s Marc Antony reminded us that evil quite often outlives its authors. That is true in the present case also. Stalin is dead; but the crippling influence of Stalinism on the minds of a whole generation of people who considered themselves socialists or communists lives after Stalin. This is testified to most eloquently by those members and fellow travellers of the Communist Party who have formally disavowed Stalinism since the Twentieth Congress, while retaining some of its most perverted conceptions and definitions.
Socialism, in the old days that I can recall, was often called the society of the free and equal, and democracy was defined as the rule of the people. These simple definitions still ring true to me, as they did when I first heard them many years ago. But in later years we have heard different definitions which are far less attractive. These same people whom I have mentioned —leaders of the Communist Party and fellow travellers who have sworn off Stalin without really changing any of the Stalinist ideas they assimilated—still blandly describe the state of affairs in the Soviet Union, with all its most exaggerated social and economic inequality, ruled over by the barbarous dictatorship of a privileged minority, as a form of “socialism”. And they still manage to say, with straight faces, that the hideous police regimes in the satellite countries, propped up by Russian military force, are some kind of “people’s democracies”.
When such people say it would be a fine idea for all of us to get together in the struggle for socialism and democracy, it seems to me it would be appropriate to ask them, by way of preliminary inquiry: “Just what do you mean by socialism, and what do you mean by democracy? Do you mean what Marx and Engels and Lenin said? Or do you mean what Stalin did?” They are not the same thing as can be easily proved, and it is necessary to choose between one set of definitions and the other.
There is no doubt that this drumfire of bourgeois propaganda, supplemented by the universal revulsion against Stalinism, has profoundly affected the sentiments of the American working class, including the bulk of its most progressive and militant and potentially revolutionary sectors.
After all that has happened in the past quarter of a century, the American workers have become more acutely sensitive than ever before to the value and importance of democratic rights. That, in my opinion, is the progressive side of their reaction, which we should fully share. The horrors of fascism, as they were revealed in the ’30s, and which were never dreamed of by the socialists in the old days, and the no less monstrous crimes of Stalinism, which became public knowledge later—all this has inspired a fear and hatred of any kind of dictatorship in the minds of the American working class. And to the extent that the Stalinist dictatorship in Russia has been identified with the name of socialism, and that this identification has been taken as a matter of course, the American workers have been prejudiced against socialism.
That’s the bitter truth, and it must be looked straight in the face. This barrier to the expansion and development of the American socialist movement will not be overcome, and even a regroupment of the woefully limited forces of those who at present consider themselves socialists will yield but little fruit, unless and until we find a way to break down this misunderstanding and prejudice against socialism, and convince at least the more advanced American workers that we socialists are the most aggressive and consistent advocates of democracy in all fields and that, in fact, we are completely devoted to the idea that socialism cannot be realised otherwise than by democracy.
The socialist movement in America will not advance again significantly until it regains the initiative and takes the offensive against capitalism and all its agents in the labour movement precisely on the issue of democracy. What is needed is not a propaganda device or trick, but a formulation of the issue as it really stands; and, indeed, as it has always stood with real socialists ever since the modern movement was first proclaimed 109 years ago. For this counteroffensive against bourgeois propaganda we do not need to look for new formulations. Our task, as socialists living and fighting in this day and hour, is simply to restate what socialism and democracy meant to the founders of our movement, and to all the authentic disciples who followed them; to bring their formulations up to date and apply them to present conditions in the United States.
The authentic socialist movement, as it was conceived by its founders and as it has developed over the past century, has been the most democratic movement in all history. No formulation of this question can improve on the classic statement of the Communist Manifesto, with which modern scientific socialism was proclaimed to the world in 1848. The Communist Manifesto said:
All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.
The authors of the Communist Manifesto linked socialism and democracy together as end and means. The “self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority” cannot be anything else but democratic, if we understand by “democracy” the rule of the people, the majority. The Stalinist claim—that the task of reconstructing society on a socialist basis can be farmed out to a privileged and uncontrolled bureaucracy, while the workers remain without voice or vote in the process—is just as foreign to the thoughts of Marx and Engels, and of all their true disciples, as the reformist idea that socialism can be handed down to the workers by degrees by the capitalists who exploit them.
All such fantastic conceptions were answered in advance by the reiterated statement of Marx and Engels that “the emancipation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves”. That is the language of Marx and Engels—“the task of the workers themselves”. That was just another way of saying—as they said explicitly many times—that the socialist reorganisation of society requires a workers’ revolution. Such a revolution is unthinkable without the active participation of the majority of the working class, which is itself the big majority of the population. Nothing could be more democratic than that.
Moreover, the great teachers did not limit the democratic action of the working class to the overthrow of bourgeois supremacy. They defined democracy as the form of governmental rule in the transition period between capitalism and socialism. It is explicitly stated in the Communist Manifesto—and I wonder how many people have forgotten this in recent years—“The first step”, said the Manifesto, “in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.”
That is the way Marx and Engels formulated the first aim of the revolution—to make the workers the ruling class, to establish democracy, which, in their view, is the same thing. From this precise formulation it is clear that Marx and Engels did not consider the limited, formal democracy under capitalism, which screens the exploitation and the rule of the great majority by the few, as real democracy. In order to have real democracy, the workers must become the “ruling class”. Only the revolution that replaces the class rule of the capitalists by the class rule of the workers can really establish democracy, not in fiction, but in fact. So said Marx and Engels.
They never taught that the simple nationalisation of the forces of production signified the establishment of socialism. That’s not stated by Marx and Engels anywhere. Nationalisation only lays the economic foundations for the transition to socialism. Still less could they have sanctioned, even if they had been able to imagine, the monstrous idea that socialism could be realised without freedom and without equality; that nationalised production and planned economy, controlled by a ruthless police dictatorship, complete with prisons, torture chambers and forced-labour camps, could be designated as a “socialist” society. That unspeakable perversion and contradiction of terms belongs to the Stalinists and their apologists.
All the great Marxists defined socialism as a classless society—with abundance, freedom and equality for all; a society in which there would be no state, not even a democratic workers’ state, to say nothing of a state in the monstrous form of a bureaucratic dictatorship of a privileged minority.
Forecasting the socialist future, the Communist Manifesto said: “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association.” Mark that: “an association”, not a state—“an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”
Trotsky said the same thing in other words when he spoke of socialism as “a pure and limpid social system which is accommodated to the self-government of the toilers … and uninterrupted growth of universal equality—all-sided flowering of human personality … unselfish, honest and human relations between human beings”.
The bloody abomination of Stalinism cannot be passed off as a substitute for this picture of the socialist future and the democratic transition period leading up to it, as it was drawn by the great Marxists.
And I say we will not put the socialist movement of this country on the right track and restore its rightful appeal to the best sentiments of the working class of this country and above all to the young, until we begin to call socialism by its right name as the great teachers did. Until we make it clear that we stand for an ever-expanding workers’ democracy as the only road to socialism. Until we root out every vestige of Stalinist perversion and corruption of the meaning of socialism and democracy, and restate the thoughts and formulations of the authentic Marxist teachers.
But the Stalinist definitions of socialism and democracy are not the only perversions that have to be rejected before we can find a sound basis for the regroupment of socialist forces in the United States. The definitions of the social democrats of all hues and gradations are just as false. And in this country they are a still more formidable obstacle because they have deeper roots, and they are tolerantly nourished by the ruling class itself.
The liberals, the social democrats and the bureaucratic bosses of the American trade unions are red-hot supporters of “democracy”. At least, that is what they say. And they strive to herd the workers into the imperialist war camp under the general slogan of “democracy versus dictatorship”. That is their slippery and consciously deceptive substitute for the real “irrepressible conflict” of our age, the conflict between capitalism and socialism. They speak of democracy as something that stands by itself above the classes and the class struggle, and not as the form of rule of one class over another.
Lenin put his finger on this misrepresentation of reality in his polemic against Kautsky. Lenin said: “A liberal naturally speaks of ‘democracy’ in general; but a Marxist will never forget to ask: ‘for what class?’ Everyone knows, for instance (and Kautsky the ‘historian’ knows it too), that rebellions, or even strong ferment, among the slaves in antiquity at once revealed the fact that the state of antiquity was essentially a dictatorship of the slaveowners. Did this dictatorship abolish democracy among, and for, the slaveowners? Everybody knows that it did not.”
Capitalism, under any kind of government—whether bourgeois democracy or fascism or a military police state—under any kind of government, capitalism is a system of minority rule, and the principal beneficiaries of capitalist democracy are the small minority of exploiting capitalists; scarcely less so than the slaveowners of ancient times were the actual rulers and the real beneficiaries of the Athenian democracy.
To be sure, the workers in the United States have a right to vote periodically for one of two sets of candidates selected for them by the two capitalist parties. And if they can dodge the witch-hunters, they can exercise the right of free speech and free press. But this formal right of free speech and free press is outweighed rather heavily by the inconvenient circumstance that the small capitalist minority happens to enjoy a complete monopoly of ownership and control of all the big presses, and of television and radio, and of all other means of communication and information.
We who oppose the capitalist regime have a right to nominate our own candidates, if we’re not arrested under the Smith Act before we get to the city clerk’s office, and if we can comply with the laws that deliberately restrict the rights of minority parties. That is easier said than done in this country of democratic capitalism. In one state after another, no matter how many petitions you circulate, you can’t comply with the regulations and you can’t get on the ballot. This is the state of affairs in California, Ohio, Illinois, and an increasing number of other states. And if you succeed in complying with all the technicalities, as we did last year in New York, they just simply rule you out anyhow if it is not convenient to have a minority party on the ballot. But outside of all these and other difficulties and restrictions, we have free elections and full democracy.
But even so, with all that, a little democracy is better than none. We socialists have never denied that. And after the experiences of fascism and McCarthyism, and of military and police dictatorships in many parts of the world, and of the horrors of Stalinism, we have all the more reason to value every democratic provision for the protection of human rights and human dignity; to fight for more democracy, not less.
Socialists should not argue with the American worker when he says he wants democracy and doesn’t want to be ruled by a dictatorship. Rather, we should recognise that his demand for human rights and democratic guarantees, now and in the future, is in itself progressive. The socialist task is not to deny democracy, but to expand it and make it more complete. That is the true socialist tradition. The Marxists, throughout the century-long history of our movement, have always valued and defended bourgeois democratic rights, restricted as they were; and have utilised them for the education and organisation of the workers in the struggle to establish full democracy by abolishing the capitalist rule altogether.
The right of union organisation is a precious right, a democratic right, but it was not “given” to the workers in the United States. It took the mighty and irresistible labour upheaval of the ’30s, culminating in the great sit-down strikes—a semi-revolution of the American workers—to establish in reality the right of union organisation in mass-production industry.
In the old days, the agitators of the Socialist Party and the IWW—who were real democrats—used to give a shorthand definition of socialism as “industrial democracy”. I don’t know how many of you have heard that. It was a common expression: “industrial democracy”, the extension of democracy to industry, the democratic control of industry by the workers themselves, with private ownership eliminated. That socialist demand for real democracy was taken for granted in the time of Debs and Haywood, when the American socialist movement was still young and uncorrupted.
You never hear a “democratic” labour leader say anything like that today. The defence of “democracy” by the social democrats and the labour bureaucrats always turns out in practice to be a defence of “democratic” capitalism, or as Beck and McDonald call it, “people’s capitalism”. And I admit they have a certain stake in it, and a certain justification for defending it, as far as their personal interests are concerned.
And always, in time of crisis, these labour leaders—who talk about democracy all the time, as against dictatorship in the “socialist countries”, as they call them—easily excuse and defend all kinds of violations of even this limited bourgeois democracy. They are far more tolerant of lapses from the formal rules of democracy by the capitalists than by the workers. They demand that the class struggle of the workers against the exploiters be conducted by the formal rules of bourgeois democracy, at all stages of its development—up to and including the stage of social transformation and the defence of the new society against attempts at capitalist restoration. They say it has to be strictly “democratic” all the way. No emergency measures are tolerated; everything must be strictly and formally democratic according to the rules laid down by the capitalist minority. They burn incense to democracy as an immutable principle, an abstraction standing above the social antagonisms.
But when the capitalist class, in its struggle for self-preservation, cuts corners around its own professed democratic principles, the liberals, the social democrats and the labour skates have a way of winking, or looking the other way, or finding excuses for it.
But in the class struggle of the workers against the capitalists to transform society, which is the fiercest war of all, and in the transition period after the victory of the workers, the professional democrats demand that the formal rules of bourgeois democracy, as defined by the minority of exploiters, be scrupulously observed at every step. No emergency measures are allowed.
By these different responses in different situations of a class nature, the professional democrats simply show that their class bias determines their judgment in each case, and show at the same time that their professed devotion to the rules of formal democracy, at all times and under all conditions, is a fraud.
And when it comes to the administration of workers’ organisations under their control, the social democrats and the reformist labour leaders pay very little respect to their own professed democratic principles. The trade unions in the United States today, as you all know, are administered and controlled by little cliques of richly privileged bureaucrats, who use the union machinery, and the union funds, and a private army of goon squads, and—whenever necessary—the help of the employers and the government, to keep their own “party” in control of the unions, and to suppress and beat down any attempt of the rank and file to form an opposition “party” to put up an opposition slate. And yet, without freedom of association and organisation, without the right to form groups and parties of different tendencies, there is and can be no real democracy anywhere
In the United States, the struggle for workers’ democracy is preeminently a struggle of the rank and file to gain democratic control of their own organisations. That is the necessary condition to prepare the final struggle to abolish capitalism and “establish democracy” in the country as a whole. No party in this country has a right to call itself socialist unless it stands foursquare for the rank-and-file workers of the United States against the bureaucrats.
In my opinion, effective and principled regroupment of socialist forces requires full agreement on these two points. That is the necessary starting point. Capitalism does not survive as a social system by its own strength, but by its influence within the workers’ movement, reflected and expressed by the labour aristocracy and the bureaucracy. So the fight for workers’ democracy is inseparable from the fight for socialism, and is the condition for its victory. Workers’ democracy is the only road to socialism, here in the United States and everywhere else, all the way from Moscow to Los Angeles, and from here to Budapest.