Thursday, January 28, 2010
The Question of Democracy
The end of the Soviet experiment was probably as revealing as its birth. In the middle of the 1980s, Russian Communism struggled to reinvent itself. It was losing the war against the West, but hadn’t yet given up the fight. Russian Communism had a difficult and ambiguous task: it was competing with the capitalist powers, learning from them, and compromising with them—all at the same time. Gorbachev era propaganda pieces such as the 1986 pamphlet, USSR: 100 Questions and Answers shed some light on the final stages of the Russian communism, but are ultimately very hard to interpret.
Was the state in the age of glasnost issuing self-conscious lies, immersed in tragic self-deception, or making sincere efforts to explain the merits of the socialist system? Many of the 100 answers are a mixture of these three things, although some questions were harder to answer than others. The case of Soviet Union’s conception of popular sovereignty is instructive. What did Russian leaders—to say nothing of ordinary people-- think about their own system of government? What did the word democracy mean to Communists?
In hindsight, it’s easy to say that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian regime whose rhetoric meant very little. But whether Communist apologists meant what they said or not is beside the point. The fact is that this Marxist creed, even as bastardized by Stalin and decades of corrupt rule, was still meaningful, still an important if weakened counterweight to capitalist modernity.
How did Communists describe their own government to outsiders? They said a few things that are difficult to understand, defend, or even believe. Russia had one ideology and one party, the Communist Party. It was an ideology that ensured that the Soviet state operated by and for the people--the working people in particular. The state’s validity was predicated on its accomplishments. The USSR ended exploitation of “man over man,” guaranteed people jobs, housing, health care, education, and leisure time.
What about democracy? The authors admit that the Old Bolsheviks came to an early decision to avoid sharing power with political parties who supported the Old Regime. The Bolsheviks also excluded the Social Revolutionaries from power and thereafter ruled alone in the name of the proletariat and peasantry. The authors admit up front that the Communist Party made a decision to do away with any pretence of competition in the political process. Is this surprising? Even America’s founding fathers—men with long experience with British democracy-- had difficulty accepting some of the key elements of modern democracy, including political parties. The Soviet System also did away with elections within the Party.
The authors make assertions regarding the one-candidate system that can only be described as naive. In fact, they seem to know very little about how democracy works in the West. They describe their election process accordingly. Unlike in the US, where the wealthy effectively buy their elected posts, Soviet candidates are put forth by public bodies of active citizens, usually trade union or local soviets. These candidates are often or mostly working people. Often they are women.
Soviet elections are about validating the choice of some authoritative public body. Although candidates don’t compete for office, the authors assert that Russian local government (in contrast to American government) is always elective. Everyone in government is nominated by a public body and then formally validated by election, once vetted in the media. No one is appointed. There are two million Soviet elected officials, all but 90 or so of them endorsed by the required 50 percent of the voters. Some are Party members; a large percentage are not. Russian elections didn’t offer voters much choice. Fortunately everybody shared the same political platform. Elected deputies received input after they were elected in the form of “mandates.” Citizens put forth platforms that effectively force officials to carry their concerns to the central authorities.
The whole edifice only makes sense if you accept the premise that bourgeois democracy is a fiction, and that Russian government brings the greatest good to the greatest number of people. The best features of democracy are ignored and it’s a fatal flaw in the communist system. Does this make any democracy better than any socialist state? Probably so, although there are developing nations that practice democracy and do next to nothing to ensure that their citizens receive food, shelter, and a modicum of education and health care.