Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 22, 2014

Who’s Afraid of Democracy?

Filed under: democracy,Iran,Lenin — louisproyect @ 5:44 pm

Who’s Afraid of Democracy?

A guest post by Reza Fiyouzat

The engineers know better, but the common story about Edison finally finding the one filament that did work suggests that it took more than a thousand tries. The social project of building a socialist society must surely be more complicated than that, and therefore will require many tries. So, let’s not be disheartened. We do know what does not work. That is a good continuing point; not a starting-from-scratch point, but a point of progress.

In the Manifesto, Marx draws a comparison between the transitions from feudalism to capitalism to the epoch of the transition from capitalism to socialism. In other words, for Marx, there would not be one major event that would bring about world socialism, but a series of events and a long period of class struggles that would eventually overthrow capitalism as the dominant mode of production and social relations.

Looking at it as a historical process, we must then assign characteristics to this process, so that we can determine at what stage of the historical process we stand today, and where to go from here. Traditionally, it has come to a few choices; one way to look at the transition to socialism is as a two-stage revolution with two historically distinguishable stages, the first ‘democratic’ and then ‘socialist’, with strict rules to be followed at each stage, in some prescriptions with experts at the helm of a revolutionary command center directing the revolution, deciding all the important decisions. Or, we can see it as a dynamic historical process with ups and downs for both sides of the class struggle, yet a process that can be influenced by the wise tactical and strategic interventions of revolutionaries, yet a process that has to be moved from below. Or, you can just characterize it as an uninterrupted process (as some do), or as the Trotskyist school suggests, a permanent revolution. If I were a Trotskyist, I would propose a reformulation in favor of a permanent revolution/counterrevolution.

All these different formulations point to the same basic historical fact: the fact that class struggle does not take a break. You’re either winning tactically or strategically, or you’re losing tactically/strategically. So perhaps too much energy is expended in some socialist quarters in the debate over ‘how many stages’ we should have. All sides agree that it is a historical process, not a one-step event.

For this reason it is important to take into consideration Gramsci’s insightful concepts of ‘war of maneuvers’ (as in, what we should do during revolutionary periods) as contrasted to ‘war of positions’ (characterized by spontaneous mass struggles that arise in non-revolutionary conditions, and what socialists should do in those fights). This conceptualization is much more productive than the simplistic and ultimately mistaken dichotomy, ‘reform v. revolution’.

For both Marx and Lenin, the transition to socialism was a dynamic historical process with ups and downs. In these ups and downs, the task of the socialists and revolutionaries is to find ways to intervene in spontaneous movements that arise and infuse them with the revolutionary input that would shape and elevate these spontaneous struggles to higher levels of self-consciousness, with wider outlooks, and help turn them into movements that could lead to the popularization of socialist answers to capitalist contradictions, thus creating the conditions to take a revolutionary leap as a society.

That is why for Lenin it had become clear that the most conscious and committed communists and socialist workers and intellectuals needed to organize themselves in a political party exactly because they are supposed to intervene in every struggle caused by the never-ending contradictions that capitalism throws up periodically. Your intervention is likely to be a lot more effective when you have an organizational capability for analyzing, planning and acting when you need to do so. This is just elementary politics.

Now, a political party based on ideas of Lenin and his fellow revolutionaries, at a particular time and in a particular place, should not be reduced to an organizational fetishism, attempting to replicate the Bolshevik party. The principle we need to take into account is far more basic, and is the antithesis of fetishistic. The basic principle is simple: Be Organized! For the obvious reasons that the other side is highly organized and a very violent and effective fighter.

The organizational form itself cannot be the main problematic; the form can and does vary and nobody can eliminate the possibility that, besides the old forms that have proven effective, newer forms of organization are possible and even necessary. Some will work, and some will not work, like the Occupy Movement’s ‘lack of structure’ structure. But the reason Occupy Movement fizzled out quickly had less to do with a ‘lack of organized structure’. ‘Lack of structure’ went along with a more fundamental lack. There actually was a structure, I went to regular peoples assemblies: the hand gestures and the people’s mike, as you remember, even came in handy for the late night comedians to get easy laughs. The structure, however, did not allow for a clear articulation of what concretely it was fighting for. It became the hallmark of the movement to declare even (and proudly so) that they must not explicitly state demands! Which, if you think about it, is the antithesis of a movement, in a way.

So, the main problematic is not lack of ‘proper organization’. Our most real concerns should be to engage with and intervene in reality, and while doing so let’s not forget to pay attention to how we’re doing it, ergo, the need for being organized and self-critical, always learning from our own practices and mistakes, always looking for more effective means of achieving political goals that actually have an effect in the real world.

That is where we can win the battle of democracy. Not just in struggles that come out with declared socialist aims. No such mass movements ever happen anywhere spontaneously. People come out onto the streets for very concrete demands. They don’t come out shouting, “We Want Socialism!” Most people come out shouting, “We Want Water! We Want Bread! We Want No More Wars! We demand equal rights! We demand safety from the random violence of the State! We want water sources that don’t burn up when you light a match to ’em!”

Democracy is not just some nicety or luxury, as some socialists are prone to think. It is not reducible to elections. Democracy is the essence of pushing capital to its limits and then pushing some more till it cracks wide open. This means that, as socialists, we don’t sit back and grade whatever movement arises in the society, giving it a ‘Pass’ or ‘Fail’ before we decide whether or not it should be supported. Supported, as in, just in words even (not to denigrate the value of verbal support when that is all you can give). Notice the mentality though:  the movement hits the streets; we wait some time to give ourselves enough time to give it a grade; then what we mostly do is announce support or no support. The mentality is that of a reactive mode, not a proactive mode; not a mentality that tries to shape and change reality, but one that takes directions from social reality.

This mentality does nothing to intervene and affect the movements that arise spontaneously; to find, in the array of forces present, close allies and build them up and change the internal dynamics of the movement; to infuse good ideas into those movements, to facilitate their organizing, to bring them resources, etc. To intervene in all struggles thrown up by capitalism’s never-ending crisis-inducing nature, that is the duty of the socialists. Sometimes we get defeated, and sometimes we win and elevate the social discussion around particular issues, and make clear the universal elements in those localized struggles. And by so doing, we elevate the conditions to our benefit for the next struggle that is sure to come up. And only by doing all that can we shorten the timeline for creating conditions that would support a revolutionary leap. Revolutionary conditions don’t just materialize out of the blue all by themselves. They must be brought about.

Aside: This is why one can easily find fault with some socialists and Marxists who denigrate environmental issues as ‘liberal’ or ‘middle class’. Such arguments are erroneous on two counts because environmental issues negatively impact the working classes doubly. On one level, environmental degradations that lead to loss of quality of life are invariably targeted at working class and poor communities. Are socialists and Marxists justified in ridiculing as ‘liberal’, for example, the Appalachian poor working class residents, whose mountaintops are being obliterated, for demanding that their tap water should not be a fuel source as well?

On another level, environmental damages brought about by industrial capital must be looked at in terms of externalization of costs for particular capitalists (and capital is always concrete, not an abstract economic category), and therefore about maximization of profit margins. To externalize the environmental costs to the society (again, always targeted carefully) is an indication of the inherently anti-democratic nature of capital, something that should be exposed by socialists as such, and used to draw attention to the inability of capital to protect the environment, which belongs to all. On the flip side, by forcing environmental regulations on polluting industries, we reduce their profit margins, and place limitations on how freely they can exploit resources. For socialists to consider environmental issues as something to be denigrated as subsidiary, unworthy, below-me-so-blow-me, is to abdicate responsibility as socialists. End of aside.

Looked at in this framework, for Marx and Lenin (see his State and Revolution as well as his debates regarding the necessity for the independence of the labor unions from both party and state structures in post-revolutionary Russia, particularly debates starting in 1918 and continuing to early 1920s, before his death) the battle for democracy means exactly to push into the cracks (contradictions) in capitalist social contract and to force them wide open. As well, capitalist accumulation, by nature, will present us with an infinite reserve of spontaneous social movements sure to arise as capital develops, expands and consumes more spheres of social life globally.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx presents the now-well-known formulation, “winning the battle of democracy”. Elsewhere, Marx explains in detail how bourgeoisie presents an appearance of fairness when it presents the market as a place where equals meet and agree on a contract. According to the bourgeois ideologues, the market creates an equal playing field in which the two sides (labor and capital) come to a mutually agreed upon price for the labor hours to be purchased by the capitalist and provided by the laborer.

In the first and the second volumes of Capital, however, Marx clarifies how this ‘fair’ contract is in fact based on a history of forced expropriation of means of independent production for the workers, a historical process that stripped an entire class of the society, a vast majority, of all means of making an independent living, forcing that class to the position of having to sell itself, its labor power, in order to survive.

“The capitalist system pre-supposes the complete separation of the laborers from all property and the means by which they can realize their labor. As soon as capitalist production is once on its own legs, it not only maintains this separation, but reproduces it on a continually expanding scale” (Capital, Vol. 1, Part 8, Chapter 26).

Part eight of the first volume of Capital then goes on to chronicle a short history of that process of expropriations: forced land expropriations driving peasants off their lands, through to anti-vagabondage laws, maximum wage laws, “forcing down of wages by acts of parliament”, as Marx describes it. Further, the original accumulation of capital was infused plentifully with the wealth stolen from the colonies, explicitly enumerated by Marx in part eight of the first volume. In the second volume, Marx reminds the reader that money should not be mistaken for capital since money cannot become capital unless under social relations in which the complete expropriation of all independent means of living has already stricken the vast majority; just as money can only be exchanged for slaves under social relations that allow slavery.

However, exactly because there is a gigantic historical theft hidden behind bourgeois presentation of the marketplace contract as fair, Marx could call the historical bluff. More specifically, throughout his seminal work, Capital, he shows the workers the exact mechanisms through which the employer extracts surplus value from them, and how capital enriches itself while spreading misery among the workers and property-less classes.

This fundamental contradiction in the social contract presented by bourgeoisie opens a crack in the system. By exposing the mechanisms through which surplus value is created and extracted by capital, Marx in effect shows the workers how to fight back, how to intervene in the cycle of capitalist production and accumulation, how to minimize (to start with) the surplus extracted from them; and how through a protracted struggle in a historical process, working classes will eventually be able to expropriate back all the surplus value.

So, to answer the question in the title, it is clear that capital is definitely afraid of real democracy. That is why it has had to distort and twist the concept beyond recognition, reducing it to mere elections, and it has had to work hard and tirelessly at this task, with the aid of millions of organic intellectuals it trains and retains in its educational institutions, mass media, the culture industry, its think thanks, industrial associations, financial cartels, etc.

But even while distorting the meaning of democracy in the public mind, selling it as cyclical elections of representatives, capital never forgets to fight back against, and attempt to repeal and reverse, all the real democratic gains of previous fights by the working classes. Why else the 30-some-year long attack by the right wing in the U.S. on women’s rights such as reproductive rights, or attacks on laws protecting collective bargaining by unions, attacks on public education? The list can go on.

This brings us back to the false dichotomy opposing reform to revolution, and to some others who are afraid of democracy, in very unexpected quarters: some socialists. In this unfortunately posed dichotomy, reform is the all-negative, as contrasted to revolution. I believe that the error arises from the assumption that we are always in revolutionary conditions. Under revolutionary conditions, of course, it would be folly to advocate reforms, when in fact the ground is well suited for a revolutionary leap. However, revolutionary conditions do not persist at all times. They are rare. So, what do we do when conditions are not revolutionary? Pack it in and wait?

Socialists who truly believe that reforms are bad, to be consistent, must join the Republican politicians and fight for the repeal of all laws protecting the environment, all child labor laws, maximum hours-in-a-workday laws, workplace health and safety laws, equal rights legislations banning racial and other discriminations, women’s rights legislations, and so on.

Of course, no socialist would do such a thing. Why then hold such dichotomies as if they were true?

Any past democratic gain by our side is a limitation we have been able to force on capital, a limitation on how freely capital can act, and is therefore a positive. It is a platform from which we can deploy a more effective fight, something to be cherished and appreciated and not denigrated. For capital will not rest until it has snatched back every single one of those platforms.

However, there are other indications that some Western socialists do not really understand the importance of democracy and democratic movements that arise spontaneously all over the world, all of which movements are pooh-poohed by these kind comrades, who are adept at missing opportunity after opportunity to be actually effective for the right side of the battle.

A case in point is the massive popular movement that filled the Iranian streets by the millions, in the aftermath of the too-obviously stolen elections of June 2009. Now, let me clarify that normally everybody in Iran knows the elections are a farce as a matter of routine. But in 2009, people came out agreeing to go along with the farce, and asked only that state functionaries at least follow the script they themselves had written; as in, allow the real votes for the two candidates to be counted fairly, since the state had allowed the two to run., So, when the functionaries suddenly did switch scripts in mid-process, then people had every right to take to peaceful massive protests to declare they were pissed off.

Let’s look at that historical moment, just for two more seconds. In Tehran alone, in a matter of three days after the hasty announcement of the results in favor of Ahmadinejad, in a highly irregular manner, more than three million people occupied the streets of the capital city. By contrast, if any political organization in the U.S. could bring three million people onto the streets (less than one percent of the U.S. population), they would announce it as a revolution in itself. Now, when that happened in Iran (a country of 70 million at the time), in just one city (and there were massive street protests in many major cities), some leftist writers and activists in the west argued that the whole thing was an imperialist conspiracy, the work of CIA. These socialists concluded that the movement as a whole was engineered in the west to destabilize the Iranian regime, and therefore the movement had to be condemned.

The enormous absurdities in that explanation are so numerous that will go way beyond the scope of this piece. Still. That is quite a conclusion coming from socialists, but believe it or not some were actually publishing articles arguing exactly that. Iranian socialists, of course, were shocked and awed, not so much by the sheer ignorance of such statements, in themselves enough to cause extreme alarm, but mostly because it sounded exactly like the propaganda by the theocracy that was busy shooting at peaceful demonstrators, imprisoning them by the thousands, torturing them at will, raping them, or threatening them with rape in their dungeons. So, yes, we were truly shocked by the depth of antipathy toward just plain human decency displayed by socialists.

How can CIA have such superpowers as to bring people onto the streets of Iran, in millions, at will? Really? I am sure CIA analysts get a good laugh when they hear of these superpowers they are supposed to have. It seems amazing that all the enormous and very real internal social contradictions, the suffocating puritanical social rules dictated by a theocracy of a minority, the massive economic pressures of mass unemployment and huge inflationary rates, all these obvious sociological factors figure not at all in the political explanations of these socialists. One would have hoped that socialists would have, by now, left the bizarro land of conspiracies and returned to the firm terrain of scientific historical materialism.

All kinds of social demands started percolating up to the surface as a result of that mass movement in Iran, a movement that initially took to the streets asking merely: “Where is my vote?” That movement very rapidly graduated onto more general demands regarding governmental accountability, political rights of free speech, free association and free assembly rights, just to name the obvious ones. Even the legitimacy of the theocratic state apparatuses came under open and loudly expressed social questioning. This was a huge move forward, and if it had been helped and supported, it could have led to better places and could have provided some breathing space for the Iranian working classes. Which section of the working classes would not benefit form the advantage of being able to organize freely and protected by law? Who would gain the most from legal equality between men and women? And who would lose the most? Who would gain the most from limitations put on state security forces so that they are not able to torture political prisoners at will?

How a big segment of the western left behaved toward the massive spontaneous movement of the Iranian people in June-December 2009 is indicative of a fundamental malaise that runs deep and far too widely in the global left: misunderstanding the importance and the meaning of democracy.

It is time for socialists, and leftists in general, to stop being afraid of democratic movements that arise spontaneously. It is time to expose capitalist development as inherently anti-democratic and to fight to win the battle of democracy anywhere we can.

Reza Fiyouzat may be contacted at: rfiyouzat@yahoo.com


  1. Excellent article with needed insights about the nature of multiple movements being thrown up by the contradictions, several coming to a head at once. Anti-fracking has a progressive base and more importantly a voter base. Mendocino County just passed a ban on fracking by 68%! Many dangerous environmental practices and repercussions are equal in importance to the militarization of local police, both of which have increasing numbers of ordinary working people agitated and ready to act with a reasonable strategy. Naomi Klein has put forward climate change as the key international environmental issue that cannot and will not be solved by capitalism. Where are the alternatives to pressuring corporations and capitalist politicians?

    Marijuana Legalization is another mass movement that socialists have missed altogether that first gained acceptance for medical purposes and is now at 80%+ support across the board, no matter what state or region. General legalization is around 52-58%, depending on the poll. Fearful of being busted for weed, socialists of all stripes ignored or opposed marijuana reform issues, blind to the future importance of the issue to large numbers of people. Now that it’s becoming legal in one state after another, it is clear there was no socialist vision for a plant of enormous importance to the masses, only attitudes and policies riddled with fear and prejudice, no better than those employed by the capitalist state. The cultural clash between the masses and the socialists of the ’60s, including Trotskyists, shows a lethal blindspot.

    Comment by Pebbles Trippet — November 23, 2014 @ 11:15 pm

  2. “For both Marx and Lenin, the transition to socialism was a dynamic historical process with ups and downs. In these ups and downs, the task of the socialists and revolutionaries is to find ways to intervene in spontaneous movements that arise and infuse them with the revolutionary input that would shape and elevate these spontaneous struggles to higher levels of self-consciousness, with wider outlooks, and help turn them into movements that could lead to the popularization of socialist answers to capitalist contradictions, thus creating the conditions to take a revolutionary leap as a society.”

    A rich and fruitful formulation. Nevertheless, to recognise, quite rightly, the value of the idea of ‘the war of manouvres’ in a ‘normal’ situation does not require ditching the theoretical categories of reform (as in reformism) and revolution. What is not the issue today remains an overall consideration to keep in mind and may (will?) be the issue some day. Luxemburg had a point about “socialist answers to capitalist contradictions”.

    Comment by D_D — November 23, 2014 @ 11:35 pm

  3. BTW I get, and value, the thrust of the argument that broad struggles and broad political formations should not be shoehorned into ‘left reformism’. I am making the same general point I think: the need to avoid confusing participation in, and the development of, the struggle for and around reforms, transitional processes, with reformism, left or tight.

    Comment by siptuactivist — November 23, 2014 @ 11:52 pm

  4. Comments 1 and 2 from same. WordPress’ little ways.

    Comment by D_D — November 23, 2014 @ 11:56 pm

  5. The well known anecdote about Edison and the lightbulb that opens this piece is the sterotypical example of the cogency of the commonplace doctrine of pragmatism which sectarians become increasingly obsessed with railing against the more isolated and divorced from reality they become.

    Comment by Tom Cod — November 24, 2014 @ 4:54 pm

  6. I support a more egalitarian society by any means necessary. But I do support mercy for those people living on Easy Street in Anytown USA when they make a good faith effort to adjust to new rules. Let me try to explain concretely what mercy means in this case.
    Imagine an American family living on easy street. One wage earner is a school district superintendent the other is an ear, eye and throat medical doctor. They have three children between the ages of 15 and 21. They live in a five bedroom house and also have a three bedroom holiday house on the shore. This family has one car for each driver.
    When this couple married they lived in a two bedroom apartment and they were happy. But as their income increased they committed themselves to live styles that required more and more money. I think that it is reasonable that such people be assured that so long as they do not blow their money at a casino or on drugs that they will be left with enough money that they can put their kids through college and not have to sell their five bedroom home although they may have to put in an apartment in the basement or upstairs if they want to have money for a vacation.
    This couple may be guilty of the serious crime of voting Republican as opposed to the less crime of voting Democrat but I think that such people deserve an elevator that takes them down in a manner that they do not have to fear that the elevator is going to suddenly plummet to the basement.
    In Iraq and in Syria those who were living on easy street have fought tooth and nail to prevent change. I suspect that these Iraqi and Syrian counter revolutionaries were terrified of what was in store for them if they made peace with their opponents. Does anyone suspect that those living on easy street in America would not have the same temptations as Syrians and Iraqis if they were placed in the same position. Therefore they have to be in a situation that costs benefits risks analysis favors surrender. There are others who should be harshly punished whether they surrender or not. These people need to be divided from what would normally be their supporters,
    In an interview with a communist web site Micheal Albert said something along the lines of, imagine that our country is on a journey. We come to a river and there is a lot of disagreement about how to get over the river. This river is the obstacle between capitalism and socialism. Micheal Albert is certain that the grass is greener on the other side. But there is another Micheal who has something to say about this. His name is Michael Hudson. If I understand what he is saying it is that the grass is greener on the other side is an illusion. You are now traveling through a desert. That is not an illusion. Move quickly, yet do not actually try to cross this river. but to build your (our) community as close to the river as you safely can. My name is Michael McKennzie a 1981 graduate of St. John’s University in Minnesota. Curt is only my stenographer. From my vantage point which is quite oblique I can not really say which way is best. What I can say is that if a community is first built near the river the members of the community can become more acquainted with what is on the other side before it commits itself to such a move.
    The essence of what is wrong with America today is that it is inhabited largely by a people who are a hostages to their fears rather than a masters of their hopes. It is clearly no accident that this is the state of affairs. It seems to me that the delay of the American leadership to lead the society that it is in charge of will mean that it will suffer the same fate as the Donner Party did when it was trapped in a snowy mountain pass.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — November 26, 2014 @ 11:52 am

  7. The analogy between the Edison-filament story and the building of socialism is logically flawed in many ways and is so disruptive that, for me, it undermines this author’s credibility. Saying “the engineers know better” and then using the story quite literally anyway seems pointless.

    As a matter of fact, Edison used more theory and far less trial-and-error than this naive anecdote suggests. The thousand filaments are apocryphal, and it is naive in the extreme to presume that even Edison (who was a theoretical infant compared with the far more brilliant Tesla) would have been as crudely empiricist as this anecdote suggests.

    In the second place, if it did take a thousand iterations of an experiment to find the right filament for a light bulb, and building socialism were, let’s say, a thousand times more complex than that, it could easily require 1000 x 1000 iterations (i.e. a million iterations) of “the socialist experiment” to build socialism that works. If each iteration required, e.g., the lifetime of a Soviet Union (70 years), it would require 70 million years to exhaust all the alternatives. How silly can you get?

    Socialism can’t be built by trial and error. Neither can an airplane or a lightbulb. Why even bring this up? It smacks of Mao talking down to peasants.

    If the author thinks this is witty, the joke’s on him.

    I agree emphatically with the author’s brief for supporting reform in non-revolutionary times, and his ridicule of the kneejerk faith among routine “anti-imperialists” in e.g. the omnipotence of the CIA. It is not easy to say these things on the Left today, and it takes courage to say them.

    But I am not prepared to leap up cheering for “the massive spontaneous movement of the Iranian people in June-December 2009” without a somewhat more circumstantial review of the facts.

    It would be nice to find the good sentiments and the telling analysis–especially regarding the Ahmadinejad/CIA fable–either supported by a weightier intellectual foundation or presented in a less pretentious way and with a somewhat greater wealth of supporting detail.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — December 1, 2014 @ 8:10 pm

  8. Pete Glosser,

    I agree that Edison used more theory than mere trial and error. I also agree (with Lenin) that when it comes to social change, without a revolutionary theory you cannot have revolutionary practice. The point of mentioning Edison’s many trials was not to advocate pure empiricism. The point was to contrast Edison’s ‘simple’ task to the hugely complex task of building socialism. In both cases, the theoretical outlook, as you argue, is of utmost importance. In fact, my entire article was intended as a theoretical argument in favor of moving away from dead-end formulations that don’t lead us anywhere.

    As for providing a weightier foundation for the stolen elections of June 2009, previously I have done my share of bringing some light to that episode (Google, for example, “The Larger Context of the 2009 Iranian Elections”). In my article posted here by Louis Proyect, I just wanted to remind the reader how miserably a segment of the western left failed to side with the Iranian people and instead sided with a *theocracy*; not just any old state formation, but a freaking theocracy!!

    As for some of the tone in the article being “pretentious” … Well, now you’re just being unkind!!

    Best to all,

    Comment by Reza F. — December 3, 2014 @ 12:33 am

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