Revolution #96, July 22, 2007

The Role of Elections Under Socialism

The following excerpt is from the article “Elections: The Hype And the Reality” ( Revolution #68, November 5, 2006) This is the article criticized in the letter "Reader Criticizes Revolution Article on Elections" (Revolution #96, July 22, 2007).

We have discussed how the “will of the people” cannot be expressed through elections in capitalist society. For the interests of the people to define the direction of society, there needs to be a whole different kind of system where the masses of people rule—the dictatorship of the proletariat, where society is not driven by capital's pursuit of profit. This is socialism.

Can there be lively debate, discussion and participation in the political life of society by the broad masses under the dictatorship of the proletariat? Not only can there be, but there must be. Within that, elections can play a role, though not the decisive role.

To understand why this is true requires breaking out of the framework of bourgeois democracy—where political participation in society is by and large limited to, and measured by voting and getting behind certain bourgeois politicians. As we have seen, elections under capitalism are not the means through which basic decisions are made and serve to legitimize the system and the policies of the ruling class. So how would all this be different under socialism, under the dictatorship of the proletariat?

Under the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, politics and in particular elections serve to pacify the masses and maintain the overall status quo of class society. But under the dictatorship of the proletariat, political institutions and the overall political life of society (including any role that elections might play) aim to lead and unleash the masses to change the status quo, to continually revolutionize society.

This has everything to do with the very character of socialist society as a transition to a communist world where the “four alls” have been achieved: the abolition of all class distinctions; the abolition of all the production relations on which those class distinctions rest; the abolition of all the social relations corresponding to those production relations; and the revolutionization of all the ideas corresponding to those social relations.

For a pathbreaking view of democracy and dictatorship in socialist society people should read and seriously study Bob Avakian’s talk, Views on Socialism and Communism: A Radically New Kind of State, A Radically Different and Far Greater Vision of Freedom [available for download at].This is a sweeping and mind-expanding vision of socialist society—learning from, building on, and in critical ways advancing beyond the great achievements, as well as weaknesses, of the building of socialism in the Soviet Union and China.

Here, we can only touch on the important dynamic under socialism, of the masses being constantly and more fully drawn into the running of and the transforming of society—and how there is a very important epistemological dimension (pertaining to the theory of knowledge) that interpenetrates with the political aspect of things.

In capitalist society, the masses of people are not allowed to participate in the running of society. And especially for the proletariat, conditions of life—for example, lack of education, poverty, working long hours to survive, etc.—make it extremely difficult for people to be politically active.

Under the dictatorship of the proletariat, the masses will have the right to fully participate in the political life. Their lives will no longer be controlled, mangled, and ruined by capitalist exploitation. And with the leadership of the vanguard party, the masses will be able to immediately and then, in waves, increasingly transform society—narrowing differences, for example, between mental and manual labor, men and women, or white people and oppressed nationalities. But to the extent that such differences remain, they will still present real obstacles to the masses fully participating in the intellectual and political and life of society. To take one example, socialist society will “inherit” the situation where a relatively small section of society do intellectual work and are trained to work with ideas, while the masses of people do manual work.

Another great challenge faced by socialism is the fact that for some time, a large part of the population still has to spend most of the time working to produce the requirements of society. This limits their ability to participate fully in all the different spheres in society. Other sections of society will be in a better position and more trained to engage in political discourse. For both these reasons, simply throwing every question in society “up for grabs” in an election would throw the door wide open to the restoration of the old society based on exploitation.

Under socialism, there will be class forces in society—both the old exploiters but also new exploiters generated by the remaining inequalities in society—that will be actively working to sabotage the building of socialism, to overthrow the government and restore capitalism. And for some time, socialist societies will very likely be surrounded and threatened with invasion and subversion by remaining powerful capitalist countries. Defending socialist society from such enemies will be a life-or-death challenge. In that context, simply throwing the fate of society open to the result of an “anything goes” election, or putting socialism up for a vote, would betray the revolution.

The proletariat needs to be firmly in control of the state. But within this framework, there has to be an ongoing process, led by the revolutionary communist vanguard party, in which the masses are increasingly able to know the world, to understand the complexity of things, to figure out right from wrong, truth from lies, etc.—in order to be able to actually run society and transform it toward the goal of communism. This will involve the masses increasingly participating in the exercise of state power, as well as other aspects of administering and governing society. And this underscores the importance of an overall atmosphere of intellectual ferment, debate in socialist society—where critical and creative thinking and dissent make for a more vibrant society where the masses are consciously participating in knowing and changing the world. In that context, some contested elections, as one part of the process of selecting government leaders, could contribute to helping the masses of people sort out different agendas, including through critically listening to positions that are opposed to the revolutionary regime, and that are articulated directly by opponents of the socialist government. Contested elections can be part of subjecting different elements of the socialist society to necessary critical examination. All this can further strengthen the people's ability to lead society towards the abolition of the four alls.

Elections, like everything else in class society, are conditioned and shaped by the fundamental class relations that exist. And under socialism, elections will reflect and serve the exercise of political power by the proletariat, with the role of the vanguard party leading the masses to understand and transform all of society as part of bringing about a communist world.

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