Discussion: How do we rule? Direct and representative democracy and revolutionary power

A meeting of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers Deputies, April 1917.

By Doug Enaa Greene

January 14, 2015 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal – I want to begin by stating that I am a firm and unapologetic advocate of the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat [to replace the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie we presently suffer under]. To deny the necessity of that dictatorship is to leave power in the hands of those who wield it – the exploiting capitalist class. And without the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, you cannot lay the foundations of a society that provides for human needs and allows for the full development of human potential.

It is not enough for communists to be able to win power, although that is absolutely necessary, but communists also need to think sincerely and seriously on the question of how exactly do we “rule”? How do we make a revolution that lasts? What are some of the challenges and obstacles that we face in developing a society that is democratic and egalitarian that overcomes the inequalities and defects of capitalism? What type of institutions and decision-making bodies do we need? Is direct democracy an answer to these problems? What are its limitations? In general, what challenges, obstacles and dangers do we face as we build a new order that truly is revolutionary, representative of the masses and can last?

I'd like to begin by briefly outline some of the problems that workers confront under capitalist society. Capitalism is a social relation and a process whereby an alien force dominates labour power and its continual reproduction. Labour power is thus marked as a commodity when it is subordinated to capital for the creation of value. For capitalism, the fundamental operating drive is not the satisfaction of human needs, but accumulation for profit and the enrichment of the capitalist class.

The separation of workers from control over their own destiny and subordination to the rule of capital is not enforced strictly economically, but also politically via the state. For Marxists, the state is not some kind of neutral apparatus standing above classes. It does not serve the population impartially. It is not accountable to the common people, even in the most democratic republic. The state is an instrument of class rule. The state seeks to maintain and defend bourgeois class domination and exploitation while holding down the oppressed classes that potentially threaten to overturn the system. As Lenin says:

Democracy for an insignificant minority, democracy for the rich – that is the democracy of capitalist society. If we look more closely into the machinery of capitalist democracy, we see everywhere, in the “petty” – supposedly petty – details of the suffrage (residential qualifications, exclusion of women, etc.), in the technique of the representative institutions, in the actual obstacles to the right of assembly (public buildings are not for “paupers"!), in the purely capitalist organization of the daily press, etc., etc., – we see restriction after restriction upon democracy. These restrictions, exceptions, exclusions, obstacles for the poor seem slight, especially in the eyes of one who has never known want himself and has never been in close contact with the oppressed classes in their mass life (and nine out of 10, if not 99 out of 100, bourgeois publicists and politicians come under this category); but in their sum total these restrictions exclude and squeeze out the poor from politics, from active participation in democracy.[1]

Communists of many different currents have proclaimed in theory that breaking with capitalism and establishing the rule of the proletariat means break with the limits of capitalist representative “democracy” and establishing a form of participatory democracy, modelled after the Paris Commune of 1871 and placing the working class in full control. What is upheld from the Commune are its many progressive features: it fused the legislative and executive functions of government that made officials more sensitive to the needs of who the represented that is more capable of checking and coordinating their administrative functions with the processes of production, furthermore the source of power was to be “the people in arms”, not an armed body standing opposed to the people. Direct democracy of this sort of workers’ control was also to be extended into the factories and other areas of life that would abolish the law of value and place social needs first leading to the establishment of a socialist society.

Yet it is in the passage from theory to practice that things become more difficult and challenging, as we can observe from the subsequent history of communist revolutions. The Commune lasted only two months and could only prefigure some of the later complexities that come with making a revolution that can not only rule securely, set up institutions to serve the masses and to endure for the long haul.

We know that on the morrow of a revolutionary seizure of power, it will not be possible to do away with the law of value at a single stroke. This idea is an utter fantasy with no basis in reality. Yet a socialist state can begin to end the dominance of the law of value and capitalism in the economy and society. This begins with “despotic” inroads on private property of the bourgeois, taking from the ruling class the key links of the economy and placing them under the control of the proletariat, thereby restricting the commodity/money relations, denying the “freedom” of the class enemy to enslave and to exploit. Here communist line and leadership must be in command and consciously directing and transforming society with the aim of overcoming the divisions, defects and inequalities of class rule. This means that over a long transition period, the law of value is subordinated to the planned creation of use values and building and creating a new communist society. Here I must emphasise that the construction of a communist society is not mainly or solely question of direct workers’ control over production or direct democracy, but what is occurring in society overall.

For instance, political control of society must necessarily be more representational than control over the workplace. The forms of control utilised in both cases will not be the same. In the example of the work place, there will undoubtedly be decisions that can be voted on at the shop floor by the workers concerned. For instance, cleaning the bathroom or whether to use an air conditioner, etc.

Once we have to make complex decisions that affect society as a whole, this cannot necessarily be decided and evaluated by the people directly. If you are setting up a planned economy for the United States or any country where there are a multitude of decisions that need to be made – what are the planning priorities, how much to spend, how much should wages rise, how is foreign trade determined, and the army? Various forms of representation and decision-making bodies are needed.

To give an example, if workers want to develop a major project like the Tennessee Valley Authority, this raises a number of questions such as: who is involved in deciding? Is it just the workers who are building the TVA? What about the people in the surrounding communities? Do the people vote by plebiscite? Or do they hold daily meetings in their factories? Who will determine the cost of the project, gain the necessary funding and evaluate the potential impact of the project? What if the project is destructive to the environment, but the workers in the area just don't care or don't know enough to evaluate the impact?

Let us take another example: the army. As proven by history, every socialist state needs an army to defend itself from hostile capitalist powers and internal counterrevolutionary subversion. The army will need to be provided for, maintained and deployed. How are those decisions to be determined? Is it done publicly? Should troop movements be voted upon? If voted upon, then by whom? The soldiers concerned? The workers in the surrounding community? Or society as a whole? Is there not some need for a military command and a political authority that acts in this instance? Should troop movements or the weaknesses in the military be aired publicly so the class enemy is aware of them?

And how do we know for a fact that people will make the best decisions for themselves by a vote? If you were to ask a majority of the south in the USA to vote on the teaching of evolution in schools, what answer would you receive? Or what if they voted to enact racist laws? Should we really give a shit if such reactionary things are supposedly legitimised by a vote?

Take the case of the Paris Commune, most of France actually didn't vote for it; they were either neutral or voted for the reactionaries at Versailles. In Germany in 1919 following World War I, most people either voted for conservative parties or the social democrats (who had supported the slaughter of WWI and proudly murdered revolutionary communists). It seems that we are making a series of assumptions that the people just instinctively “know” all they need to know about complex decisions and can never vote against their own interests. Well, the simple truth is that people don't necessarily know, and that they can and have voted against their own interests. Frankly, sometimes the majority is wrong and the minority is right.

Thus, the question of ruling and changing society becomes much more complicated than simply saying direct democracy is the solution. In fact, such direct control in the case of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the army or other large social decisions shows that direct democracy in this sense is an illusion and that something else is needed.

What I am getting at is that democracy, debate, accountability and decision making under socialism has historically been and in the future will be mediated by various forms of representation, accountable decision-making bodies, leadership and political parties. For one thing, the masses do not possess the same political understanding and there are lags in their consciousness from advanced to intermediate to the backward. When the people take ownership of society, they will do so in unorganised and chaotic ways. They will need to experiment and go through many learning processes to determine what forms of representation and rule will work for them.

In going through the process of revolution and change, the people will develop political lines, leadership, understanding, skills, etc. that in turn will be mediated through their parties, organisations, leaders and representational bodies. These lines will contend and clash with one another since not everyone is going to agree all at once. It will take time to implement new forms which have been developed by the advanced masses.

For instance, in revolutions there are advanced masses, cadre and leaders who have gone through a process of struggle and revolutionary development. They may be concentrated in particular factories or locales and innovate with bold new forms of workers’ control, ways of operating and revolutionise their lives in a profound manner. Now if we were to just let those advanced workers implement those measures at the level of a factory directly, they would no doubt vote for them. But what about the rest of society? This is where things are mediated. Advanced workers and revolutionaries may need to leave their places of work, to spread the revolution, investigate conditions and to exercise leadership and power in unfamiliar terrain.

Revolutionary change does not just happen at the factory level, but throughout all of society. If we don't have a process or a way to mediate that change, we may as well give up on communism.
So what I am ultimately saying is that we will need leadership and representation after the revolution. It will need to be accountable, encourage mass debate, input and transparency to the extent possible, create a more democratic society than capitalism but be able to make decisions that can lead the whole of society on the road to communism.

However, this does not mean that the various forms of representation be considered set in stone, but are open to development and change in order to better serve the people.
None of this is meant to say that there isn't a danger of substitutionalism, usurpation and the many varied problems of representation in general. Those problems exist. Yet that is part of the danger and opportunity of power and communist politics. We cannot simply come up with a formal solution that overcomes this danger.

Direct democracy in and of itself is not the answer, since it can be manipulated and cannot make changes to a complex society as a whole. Societal transformation by its very nature is mediated. And we can only come up with solutions in the concrete, in the living moments of struggle, which are tried and tested. These are problems we cannot walk around, but we need to struggle through.

I believe that if we are willing to do so, we can build a revolution that lasts and leads to the flourishing of communism.

[Doug Enaa Greene is a member of the Kasama Project and an independent historian living in the greater Boston area. He has been published in Socialism and Democracy, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, MRZine, Kasama, Counterpunch, Socialist Viewpoint, Green Left Weekly, Open Media Boston, Cultural Logic and Red Wedge magazine. He was active in Occupy Boston and is a volunteer at the Center for Marxist Education in Cambridge. He is the author of a fothcoming book Specters of Communism on the French communist Louis-Auguste Blanqui from Haymarket Books.[A modified version of this talk was delivered at the Left Forum in New York City in May 2014.]

Sources consulted

Bettelheim, Charles. Economic Calculations and Forms of Property. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975.

Dobb, Maurice. Soviet Economic Development Since 1917. New York: International Publishers, 1966.

Ely, Mike. “Conversation over Workers Control: Direct? Plebiscites? Continuing Revolution?” Kasama Project. http://kasamaproject.org/revolutionary-strategy/2768-0conversation-over-workers-control-direct-plebiscites-continuing-revolution

Ely, Mike. “Which socialism? Same terms, different roads,” Kasama Project. http://kasamaproject.org/revolutionary-strategy/3842-74which-socialism-same-terms-different-roads

Lebowitz, Michael. The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010.

Lotta, Raymond. Maoist Economics and the Revolutionary Road to Communism: The Shanghai Textbook. Chicago: Banner Books, 1994.

Mandel, Ernest. “Ten Theses on the Social and Economic Laws Governing the Society in Transition Between Capitalism and Socialism.” Critique: A Journal of Soviet Studies and Socialist Theory 3 (Autumn 1974): 5-22.

Marx, Karl. “Critique of the Gotha Programme”, Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/

Nove, Alec. An Economic History of the USSR: 1917-1991. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.
Zedong, Mao. A Critique of Soviet Economics. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977.


[1]V. I. Lenin, “State and Revolution”, Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/ch05.htm

Submitted by Andrew Pollack (not verified) on Wed, 01/14/2015 - 07:11


Great job, Doug.
The Mandel piece in the bibliography is essential. I'd encourage folks to read more from his archive as he deals repeatedly with the questions Doug so thoughtfully poses (and so properly leaves unanswered because, as he says correctly, getting to communism is a process, not a blueprint).

Submitted by J.Lowrie (not verified) on Thu, 01/22/2015 - 03:31

In reply to by Andrew Pollack (not verified)


I really feel Doug. does not address the burning question of how revolutions always end up getting betrayed. If direct democracy is not the answer, then what is? There is certainly no such thing as representative or bourgeois"democracies''. These are in fact moderate oligarchies and oligarchy means the rule of the rich. Thus the Leninist party is an oligarchy, which goes some way to explaining why such organisations sooner or later revert to capitalism. Remember Mao's Great Paradox,' Where is the bourgeoisie in China? It sits in the central committee'.
As Aristotle points out in his 'Politics' the mark of a democracy is selection by lot; election by ballot is the mark of an oligarchy. Moreover, democracies allowed only one year in office or government for life. As for leaders, they had very limited powers,being able only to advise, but not dictate ( of course democracies have all -citizen armies or rather the army is the people in arms). I fear the great " leninist leader" is more part of the problem than the solution. As Trotsky, before he embraced Leninism with all the fervour of a latter-day convert, predicted of leninism in his "Our Political Tasks" the party substitutes itself for the class, the central committee for the party and the supreme leader for the party. Then the supreme leader dies.
Representatives end up representing themselves. The communist party ,history shows, must not take power. It must smash the state machine and establish a democracy. To be sure this is only the beginning of socialist transformation, but to entrust power to a party elite or oligarchy is to ensure the revo;union is betrayed!