What Does the Ruling Class Do When It Rules?, Part 3

In Part Three of What Does the Ruling Class Do When It Rules?, Goran Therborn discusses the “democratic socialist” strategy for the conquest of the state power. He argues that movements at the time his book was published in 1978 must contend with the ambiguous relationship between socialism and democracy, given the polarization of the world between the US and the USSR, and Western European parties attempting to form “popular coalitions” with bourgeois parties.  Therborn sketches an alternative political strategy based on a critical look at the relationship between socialism and democracy, which is crucial to the conquest of state power in advanced capitalist societies. While the global context may have changed considerably, Therborn nevertheless provides crucial elements for a theory of the relationship between socialism and democracy in our present society.

Many Leftists have argued that democracy and socialism are compatible with each other. According to the socialist understanding of democracy, it is not enough to have democratic political institutions based on universal suffrage. Rather, the state, as part of the political transition to communist society, must assist in transfer of ownership of the means of production to the people themselves in order to enable their collective use. Therborn argues that the Marxist tradition has failed to explicitly demonstrate the inherent paradoxes of bourgeois democracy, which is a regime of rule based on an exploiting minority (capitalists) that rules by means of a system of officially free elections (p.g. 248). According to Therborn, Marxists failed to develop a fully-fledged political theory that simultaneously takes into account the specificity of the legal and the political, the socio-economic context of struggling classes, and the interaction of these two aspects.

In attempting to address the above-mentioned failure of Marxists, Therborn argues that Gramsci and Mao Tse-Tung share important similarities in their approaches. For both, it is crucial not only to win over the majority of the working class, but also to link the struggle of the proletariat with other oppressed classes and strata. Moreover, both Gramsci and Mao theorized the socialist revolution as a protracted war and not as a single insurrectionary blow (p. 250). Therborn acknowledges that Gramsci and Mao perceived problems inherent to the mass “democratic” basis of bourgeois rule with clarity. Nevertheless, he remains critical of the gaps in their analysis.

Stages of socialist struggle

Reflecting on the history of the socialist struggle at the time of his writing, Therborn identifies four decisive stages of the development of the democratic socialist strategy in the advanced capitalist countries:

1). The classical strategy of the Second International: the state is an instrument of class rule, but its class character is derived from the governmental and legislative apparatuses.

2). The Bolshevik strategy of the early Comintern: the goal is to smash the state apparatuses and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat.

3). The Popular Front strategy, after World War II: a clear distinction is made between democratic and tyrannical, e.g. fascist, forms of bourgeoisie dictatorships or class rule.

4). The fourth strategy, at the height of the Cold War: a growing tendency to de-emphasize the class character of non-repressive state apparatuses, and advocate “democratizing” rather than “smashing” bourgeois state apparatuses.

These strategies are differentiated based on six aspects: the character of the revolution, level of working class organization, the relationship of the working class to other non-bourgeois classes, the capitalist class, the class character of the state, and the main route to state power (p. 263).

External and internal dimensions of struggle

Therborn argues that given that most West European parties at the time had implicitly accepted the bourgeois state apparatuses, while the USSR and Eastern Bloc countries relied on bureaucratic domination, the socialist movement must realize that the class struggle is an intrinsic aspect of our vision of the future, and thus any utopian longing for a communist society must be complemented by the fact that it will inevitably be a product of the compromises, ironies, failures, and victories of the present. The methods and tactics of the present cannot be justified by claims that future society will resolve all contradictions; claims which are often made by brutal and authoritarian rulers to justify their clinging to power. Rather, the future is the dialectical image of struggles in the present.

Therborn refers to this as the “future as history” in the last chapter of the book, and it informs his belief, present throughout the text, that only persistent attempts to break down bureaucracy and the proletariat’s reliance on “experts” will enable us to achieve our goals. Practically-speaking, in terms of strategy he argues that there should be a separation between the socialist party and an independent labor movement that remains outside electoral politics. The latter can put pressure on the former in order to ensure that the socialist party fulfills the task of dismantling the state apparatuses.  According to Therborn, cadres must simultaneously belong to a labor movement independent of the state and exercise powers of non-commanding direction over bureaucrats and managers (p. 279). One possible example in the Sri Lankan context is the massive protests against state-mandated changes to the publicly-owned Employees’ Provident Fund, which were organized mainly by Export Processing Zone workers in 2011.

Finally, Therborn highlights the contradictions of nationalism and internationalism. On the one hand, communist parties in at-the-time newly independent countries shifted their focus to concrete problems and traditions of their own societies. On the other hand, national independence also involved accepting the bourgeois framework of the nation-state. In order to realize the concept of internationalism in practice, it is necessary to participate in the common struggle of an international movement. While many Left parties including those in Sri Lanka often abstractly and mechanically adhered to splits and divisions within the Communist International (e.g. Stalinists versus Trotskyists), while failing to generate a proper analysis of local conditions, we follow Therborn in arguing that any future party must nevertheless link itself to an international movement.

23rd May 2016