Revolution and proletarian democracy
A socialist revolution is an uprising of the proletariat — the working class, those who do not own the property necessary to run a business but must instead work for someone else. A socialist revolution is an awakening that causes the mass of workers to resist their oppression. In order for this outburst of energy to create revolutionary change, the working class must have a way of expressing that energy politically.
Historically, that political form is the creation of a new democracy for the working class. This new working-class democracy exists both separately — and in opposition to — the existing capitalist political system.
This new political system is meant to represent the interests of the working class and the oppressed. It is composed of, and run by, members of the working class to carry out their interests. As Russian revolutionary leader V.I. Lenin described:
“What is the class composition of this other government? It consists of the proletariat and the peasants. … What is the political nature of this government? It is a revolutionary dictatorship, i.e., a power directly based on revolutionary seizure, on the direct initiative of the people from below, and not on a law enacted by a centralized state power. It is an entirely different kind of power from the one that generally exists in the parliamentary bourgeois-democratic republics of the usual type still prevailing in the advanced countries of Europe and America.” (tinyurl.com/y7aldeq5)
If the emergence of a new working-class political system is necessary for revolution, it is important to understand that this system does not form spontaneously. This system, wherever it has emerged, is forged by intense organizational labor.
The primary problem for the working class is not capitalism per se; it is division. The members of the working class far outnumber the capitalist class. If the only problem faced by workers were oppression by capitalists, then those capitalists could easily be overthrown in a single evening by the collective action of the working class.
But collective action is easier to describe than to undertake. The working class in most countries, especially the U.S., is not united. It is divided along many lines including — but not limited to — race, gender, sexuality, sexual preference, disability, age and citizenship status. The capitalist class does everything it can to reinforce these divisions so that workers do not see their common interests as a class.
If the primary problem of the working class is division, then the primary task of revolutionaries is organization. In order to create a working-class democracy, that class must be united through intensive organizing efforts. As the most class-conscious members of the working class, revolutionary socialists are obligated to take on the work of organizing. We must sew up the tears in the fabric of our class. Only then can a working-class democracy be constructed.
Deep organizing is the process of political agitation, education and organization. Political agitation means that workers, on an individual level, must be outraged by the oppression they face, rather than resigned to it. Agitation explains to workers that their problems are not an inevitable consequence of the structure of the world, but result from deliberate choices made by the oppressor.
Political education is necessary for identifying, in the clearest terms, exactly who the oppressors are — the capitalists and the violent state agents in their service — and how precisely workers can best resist them. Organization is the process of building political structures. In a revolutionary context, that structure is working- class democracy.
What happens when the working class is organized into a democratic political structure? What happens to the capitalist political structure which exists to manage society’s economic exploitation? Can these two systems co-exist?
They cannot. A situation where two rival political systems exist in the same country is inherently unstable. If one government is legitimate, the other cannot be. But who determines legitimacy? It is not a matter of passing laws (two rival governments can both pass laws which directly contradict each other). What determines legitimacy is the backing of the people.
Rule by the working class is actual democracy. It is rule by the majority over the minority. The capitalist system is the reverse — rule by the minority (capitalists) over the majority (workers) — and it is therefore inherently undemocratic.
As political organization increases and more and more workers are brought into the working-class political structure, the legitimacy of the working-class structure increases. As political legitimacy is a zero-sum game, the capitalist system will begin to lose its legitimacy in turn. Only one political system can survive. A study of social revolutions shows that this process plays out whenever the organized working class and oppressed rise against their oppressors.
The Russian word for “council” is soviet. In the early 20th century, the czarist government of Russia grudgingly permitted the creation of councils, or Soviets, of the working class and peasantry. These Soviets took up local political questions. Initially, this was a reform meant to placate the masses by giving them a political outlet for their frustrations. But with the advent of World War I and the rise of working-class organization, the nature of the Soviets changed.
Class-conscious workers engaged in intense organizing drives, and this led to a rise in the number of Soviets. Workers formed Soviets within their workplaces and networked those political bodies to larger, citywide Soviets in places like Petrograd. Even the simple act of participating in a workers’ Soviet had a radicalizing effect on workers.
The demands of workers grew as they felt they had some control over their workplace or their government. As radicalization increased, so did the influence of the Bolsheviks, the revolutionary wing of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party. At the same time, the rising power of the Soviets meant a decline in power first for the Czar — leading to the 1917 February Revolution and his abdication — and then for the capitalist Provisional Government that replaced him.
Besides industrial workers, soldiers in the Petrograd garrison and sailors of Russia’s fleet also joined and participated in the Soviets. The sailors from the Kronstadt base near Petrograd were particularly revolutionary and were the first to push for an overthrow of the capitalist government and the establishment of a socialist republic. This participation of soldiers and sailors placed an armed force at the disposal of the revolutionary government.
As Lenin wrote a few months after the February Revolution:
“The working masses constitute the vast majority of the population, they control the Soviets, they are aware of their power as a majority, they see everywhere the promise of a ‘democratized’ life, they know that democracy is the rule of the majority over the minority (and not the reverse — which is what the capitalists want) … they cannot but aspire toward supreme rule by the people, i.e., the majority of the population, toward affairs being managed according to the will of the worker majority as opposed to the capitalist minority. … There is no other way out. Either we go back to supreme rule by the capitalists, or forward toward real democracy, towards majority decisions. This dual power cannot last long.” (tinyurl.com/y7jvezpe)
The Russian workers did indeed go forward. In the October Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks and the Soviets overthrew the Provisional Government. The revolutionary government that arose, which eventually came to be known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), set an example for the world of what working-class political power could achieve.
Red star over China
In China, an entirely new dimension of dual power developed when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was forced to openly rebel against the ruling landlord-capitalist Kuomintang Party (KMT). That dimension was the control of physical territory by workers, peasants and the CCP.
During the 1920s, the workers’ movement in China’s major cities grew rapidly, driven in large part by the organizing efforts of the CCP. At the same time, peasants in the rural countryside were organizing to overthrow the domination of oppressive landlords. Eventually, the CCP backed the peasant movement as well. In 1928, Mao and other members of the CCP established the Jiangxi Soviet in the remote, mountainous border region between the Jiangxi and Fujian provinces. The creation of not just a working-class and peasant government, but a sovereign territory required a tremendous amount of political organizing as a precondition. As Mao stated:
“[T]he regions where China’s Red political power has first emerged and is able to last for a long time have not been those unaffected by the democratic revolution … but regions … where the masses of workers, peasants and soldiers rose in great numbers in the course of the bourgeois-democratic revolution of 1926 and 1927. In many parts of these provinces trade unions and peasant associations were formed on a wide scale, and many economic and political struggles were waged by the working class and the peasantry against the landlord class and the bourgeoisie.” (tinyurl.com/ycvl7xwp)
The Jiangxi Soviet initiated radical land reform policies. Peasants enacted these changes through Peasant Associations, which were political organizations much like the workers’ and peasants’ Soviets of the Russian Revolution. Throughout the course of the revolution, the CCP was able to expand its physical territory through military means and its political influence through organizational means. Whenever the CCP’s military, the Red Army, pushed KMT soldiers out of a village or county, CCP organizers immediately followed — establishing Peasant Associations, reducing rent and fighting against the oppression of women.
Vietnam and the strategic hamlet
Beyond the creation of liberated base areas, the CCP had also realized that the process of revolution — of organizing working-class democracy — created lasting social changes that remained even when the enemy recaptured CCP territory. This insight was later seized on by revolutionaries in the Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF) during their struggle against U.S. imperialism.
The basic organizational unit of Vietnamese workers and peasants was the Village Committee. Village Committees executed a radical agrarian social policy. That policy included political education, redistribution of land that had been controlled by wealthy landlords, rent reduction and punishing those who lent money at exorbitant rates. The NLF also worked to increase agricultural production, open schools, punish corruption and eliminate brutal civil servants and village leaders. The Village Committee, like the Peasants Association in China and the workers’ Soviets in Russia, was a democracy of the peasants and proletariat.
Beyond village administration, Liberation Associations were also created so that various groups could use the struggle to combat the oppression they faced. There were Farmers’ Liberation Associations, Women’s Liberation Associations, Youth Liberation Associations and Student Liberation Associations, among others. The Farmers’ Associations had the most impact in expanding the NLF because of the rural nature of Vietnam. Women’s Liberation Associations caused the deepest social change, and the NLF took a very hard-line stance in support of women’s rights.
Most remarkable about the organizational efforts of the NLF was that they often occurred directly under the nose of the U.S. imperialists and their puppet governments. In the early 1960s, the U.S. and its puppet Diem regime instituted the “strategic hamlet” program. This was a system of concentration camps by another name. Large villages were turned into highly militarized security zones with checkpoints and barbed-wire fences around the border.
Nevertheless, NLF organizers were able to access these strategic hamlets and continue organizing the revolution. By day, villagers obeyed the puppet government. But at night, NLF organizers provided political agitation, education and organization. Barbed-wire fencing could not block the spread of the revolution across South Vietnam. As in China, the social changes caused by the revolution could not be undone by the imperialists merely seizing or maintaining military control.
Today, the U.S. is in the midst of a rebellion that might transform into a revolution. Which class is in motion? It is the Black working class — and those who would struggle alongside them in solidarity — spurred by the intolerable violence perpetrated by the police on a daily basis. According to the New York Times, the Black Lives Matter protests may be the largest in U.S. history. (July 3)
This is not the first time that a Black-led rebellion has engulfed the country. Why is it that the Black struggle causes such dramatic shifts in the political landscape of the U.S.? It is because of the essential role that the oppression of Black people has played in the process of capitalist wealth production.
The U.S. capitalist system could not have come into being, nor can it continue to maintain itself, without the aid of white supremacy and the oppression of Black people. Likewise, anti-Black racism could not continue in the face of the powerful social movements that seek to end it, without the power and influence of the capitalist ruling class — which stokes racism in order to divide the working class, suppress wages and maintain political control.
Any working-class revolution in the U.S. will need to directly challenge the status of the Black working class as super-oppressed workers, as well as the violent repression suffered by the Black community at the hands of the police.
In the U.S., as in every country where the working class and the oppressed have risen up against capitalist exploitation, the only means of creating these social changes is through the organization of working-class democracy. Over the past several years, there has been a rise in Workers’ Assemblies, bringing together members of the working class to struggle against oppression.
This expansion of real democracy must continue and must accelerate. The struggle of the Black working class — as well as the task of uniting with white, other people of color, the gender-oppressed, the disabled and the able-bodied, elders and undocumented workers — can only be advanced through the organization of Workers’ Assemblies along the soviet model. And that level of unity can only be achieved through deep organizing. This is the inescapable duty of revolutionary socialists during a period of monumental change.
Can dual power exist in the U.S.?
The creation of working-class democracy inherently creates a legitimacy crisis for the capitalist ruling class. Only American exceptionalism could lead one to believe that the ruling class of the U.S. would be uniquely invulnerable to such a crisis should the workers of this country organize against their oppressors.
A unified working class would in the first place be totally destabilizing for the capitalist exploiters. The unity of workers in the world’s largest economy would likely result in crashing profits for the ruling class. A unified working class struggling to win better wages and benefits could shut down entire sections of the economy. If the capitalist ruling class were to give in to worker demands, capitalist profits would plummet, causing a ripple effect for capitalists around the world.
Politically, the capitalist government of the U.S. is already held in low esteem. It has proven totally incapable of handling the challenges of modern society, shown most acutely by its failed response to the COVID pandemic.
Anyone who still remains under the false impression that the U.S. government is not completely driven by capitalist greed would have those notions quickly disabused by the rise of a true working-class democracy. There is no doubt that the working class here would come to the same conclusions as the Russian working class a century ago. Our options would be to accept the “supreme rule of the capitalists” or “go forward toward real democracy.”
It is only the power of the state, which some on the left still grudgingly respect and fear — the power of the police to crush social movements with ruthless violence. But where were these mighty stormtroopers six weeks ago when freedom fighters in cities across the country set police vehicles and precincts aflame? Where was the power of the state when workers reappropriated corporate wealth by smashing store windows and taking what they needed?
The police, like so many institutions in the U.S., are in decay despite the influx of expensive military equipment. The current rebellion has shown the limitations of the coercive power of the state to stop even spontaneous and disorganized resistance. It has no hope of controlling a united working class acting decisively. Under these conditions, the emergence of a workers’ state — the working class acting in its own self-defense — is not just possible, but likely.
We stand on the precipice of a revolution that will be both rapid in its expansion and all-encompassing in its scope. The capitalist ruling class has never faced a direct challenge to its hegemony in the heart of the U.S. empire since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The impact of such a clash will have earth-shattering repercussions. The outcome of this conflict will be determined by the will of the working class — the will to organize, the will to struggle, the will to win.