Popular Power

By Lisa Macdonald

[Feature talk presented to the Democratic Socialist Perspective Socialist Summer School, January, 2007, Sydney.]

A question of state power

Last month, I was lucky enough to spend a couple of weeks in Venezuela as part of the presidential election brigade. It was a brief opportunity to see first hand some aspects of the unfolding revolution and it was a fascinating and inspiring experience. The visit really fired up my desire to better understand revolutionary processes, and how popular power is constructed.

Despite itching to talk in lots of detail about the Venezuelan revolutionaries’ efforts to develop popular power in that very complex situation, I’m going to have to leave that to the relevant workshops. But I hope that this talk will encourage comrades, as you study the first revolution of the 21st century — the role of the military and the emerging civil-military union, the social missions and communal councils, the electoral process and character of the parliament, the leadership and its policies, and now the proposed new united socialist party — to think about, and learn from it in the framework of the Marxist analysis of state power and the practical experiences to date of building socialist democracy that I will cover.

As revolutionary socialists striving to get rid of the irrational, destructive and unsustainable capitalist system and ultimately eradicate class rule altogether, instituting popular power is in the first instance a question of the state.

The nature of the state is one of the most fundamental questions in politics and a crucial area of study for socialists. As Lenin pointed out, it is also one of the most complex and “has been so confused by bourgeois scholars and writers that anybody who desires to study it seriously … must … return to it again and again, and consider it from various angles in order to attain a clear and sound understanding of it.”

The state did not exist before the development of class society. In The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, Frederich Engels describes the state’s emergence as a result of the splitting of society into irreconcilable antagonisms — that is, its splitting into classes with conflicting economic interests. The objective irreconcilability of class interests require the creation of a structure of power, one which is seemingly “above” society, that will keep the conflict within the bounds of order.

Lenin explained in The State and Revolution, the state is “… an organ for the oppression of one class by another; it is the creation of ‘order’, which legalises and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the conflict between classes.”

The forms of the state have been extremely varied throughout class society but it is in all a repressive instrument for enforcing the dominance of the ruling class, comprised of an armed force (military, police, prisons), plus the associated legal institutions, parliaments and an administrative structure to implement the ruling classes’ decisions, collect the taxes needed to maintain itself, and so on.

Dictatorship of the proletariat

The capitalist state is the instrument by which the bourgeoisie maintains its dictatorship — its control of the main levers of the economy and politics. Throughout history, no oppressed class ever has liberated itself — become the ruling class — without asserting a period of dictatorship; that is, taking political power and forcibly suppressing the exploiters’ resistance to the change.

Basing themselves on the experiences of revolutions of their time, Marx and Engels concluded that for the working class to liberate itself and begin building a socialist society, it must destroy the capitalist state and, by degrees, expropriate capitalist property, centralising the means of production in the hands of a new state, one that is an instrument of working-class rule.

This is what is meant by the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, a term, first used by Marx, to mean the organisation of the majority of the population — the working people — as the ruling class.

Marxists, unlike anarchists, do not advocate the “abolition” of the state altogether, overnight. History shows that the proletariat must, in getting rid of the old capitalist state, create a new one — a “dictatorship of the proletariat” — if it is to progress towards abolishing ALL exploitation and create a communist society. The workers state is essential both to suppress the capitalists’ resistance to the revolution and to lead the enormous mass of the population in the work of constructing a socialist society.

But the state is in no sense a permanent feature of human society.

In a socialist revolution, in the process of creating structures that introduce democracy as fully and consistently as possible, transforming bourgeois democracy into proletarian democracy, a fundamentally different type of state is created. Now it is the majority of the population that comprise the dictatorship, and, as Lenin, drawing on Engels’ work, said:

Since the majority of people itself suppresses its oppressors, a ‘special force’ for suppression is no longer necessary. In this sense the state begins to wither away. Instead of the special institutions of a privileged minority … the majority itself can directly fulfil all these functions, and the more the functions of state power are performed by the people as a whole, the less need there is for this power.

The workers state will wither away as the socialist society comes into being on a world scale.

There is no short cut to replacing the capitalist state with a workers state. As a vehicle for transferring political power to the working class, the existing capitalist state is useless because its institutions, even in the most democratic capitalist state, operate to uphold the rule and defend the interests of the capitalist class.

The widespread reformist idea that the state stands “above” society, that its parliaments, courts, etc are “class neutral” structures that can be taken over and filled with working-class, rather than capitalist, content is an illusion.

The principal aim of the bourgeois legal system is to defend private property, defend the capitalist class’s control of the means of production.

Bourgeois parliament — though highly progressive compared with pre-capitalist times — by its very nature excludes the majority from the actual exercise of political power. Parliamentary democracy leaves the working people unorganised and the actual administration of state power is in the hands of a bureaucracy consisting of unelected officials.

And the bourgeois state’s military and police forces are aimed at controlling, and when necessary repressing, the overwhelming majority. The capitalist class has repeatedly shown that it will cast aside “democracy” and unleash extreme violence against the working class to defend or re-establish its rule.

So the working class needs to destroy the capitalist state, in the first place its repressive apparatus, in order to begin to develop its own institutions of state power.

The exact forms those new institutions take will vary a great deal depending on the different objective situations each revolution faces, and the different experiences of the leaderships and the masses. However, every successful revolution has learnt from and build on previous experiences of popular power, adapting the lessons to their own circumstances and needs.

The 1871 Paris Commune provided the first really valuable experience for beginning to understand the specific forms that popular power needs to take. That early experience, which Marx analyses in detail in The Civil War in France, has been considerably developed in subsequent revolutions, in particular the Russian and the Cuban Revolutions, and in the rest of this talk I will look at some of those experiences, focusing on Cuba as the most advanced current experience. In the process, I’ll refer to some of the features of Venezuela’s struggle for popular power.

The workers state, political power
and democracy

Unlike all previous forms of class rule, in which the state was an instrument for the suppression of the majority by a minority, the workers state represents the interests of the great majority. Its institutions must therefore be radically different to those of any previous state.

Even in the most democratic capitalist regimes, the existence of private property, class exploitation and the consequent social and economic inequality result in massive restrictions on democratic freedoms for the big majority. In contrast, a defining feature of the dictatorship of the proletariat is the maximising of democracy — not the bourgeois form of democracy based on an abstract “equality” of each individual before the law, and which takes no account of class power, but a democracy that reflects and advances the class interests of the majority — that embodies their right not to be subjugated and exploited by a powerful minority.

Government and
participatory democracy

The first qualitative step in establishing the democratic power of the working class is the revolutionary replacement of the capitalist government by a working people’s government based on organisations of mass struggle.

The Russian soviets — the committees of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ delegates that cohered the demands and actions of the different sections of the population in revolutionary struggle in Russia early last century — remain the most advanced form of such organisations in history. It was the soviets’ high level of development — including their centralised, nationwide congresses and thorough democracy, within which all political currents in the revolutionary upsurge vied for leadership — that enabled the revolution to so rapidly (and relatively bloodlessly) replace the old state apparatus and the bourgeois Provisional Government with a workers state in the October 1917 insurrection.

In the years that followed, the general poverty and backwardness of Russia, the destruction of its productive forces and many revolutionary cadre by war, and its international isolation created conditions that fostered a growth of special privileges and a general decline in mass political activity. This decline also affected the soviets, which became unable to stem the rise of the privileged layer, which after Lenin’s death moved decisively to consolidate its rule by restricting democracy, and, most decisively, destroying the soviets and the Bolshevik party that led them.

Nevertheless, the nature and work of the soviets in the early years of the Russian Revolution remains the richest source of lessons about how the oppressed can overthrow their class rulers and construct popular power, and a crucial subject of study for all socialists.

From that revolution, and the Paris Commune before it, we know that the political form of a workers state needs to be along the lines of a democratically centralised system of popular power in which a national assembly, made up of representatives from committees of working people’s delegates elected from workplaces, neighbourhoods and mass organisations, would be a working body. That is, it would function as both a legislature (law making) and executive (implementation). Such a structure is the antithesis of the situation in capitalism where the business of the state is performed behind closed doors by an unelected bureaucracy unaccountable to the people, while “Parliament is given up to talk for the special purpose of fooling the ‘common people’”, as Lenin put it.

Today, the Cuban Revolution has the most developed forms of participatory democracy in the world. They are not without real problems, not least because there is no blueprint for constructing institutions that will advance proletarian democracy, and Cuba is having to feel its way forward. But also because 45 years of economic blockade and political and ideological attack by the most powerful imperialist power in history has forced this tiny country to make many concessions and temporary retreats.

Since the establishment of the workers state in Cuba, but especially since the “rectification process” launched in 1986, weaknesses and problems in Cuba’s proletarian democracy have been the subject of considerable discussion and debate within Cuba — that’s a whole other talk. However, the basic approach of the revolution’s leadership to facilitating the fullest possible participation of the masses in the socialist transformation (and its avoidance — in the main — of the bureaucratic distortions that restricted and eventually killed off popular power in the USSR, Eastern Europe and China) remains the most instructive available for socialists today.

Following the overthrow of Batista in January 1959, the Cuban revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro immediately disbanded what was left of Batista’s army and police, and created a workers’ and peasants’ militia. The workers’ and peasant’s government formed in July that year immediately legislated for radical land reform and other measures that began to expropriate capitalist property.

US threats to crush the revolution and persistent attempts at sabotage escalated, and the government was forced to rapidly take economic power into its own hands. Between August and October 1960, 41% of land was expropriated, 95% of industry was nationalised, 98% of construction, 75% of retail and 100% of wholesale trade.

At the same time, it launched a massive literacy campaign and established the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs) to organise the workers and peasants to repress counter-revolutionary activity. The CDRs, whose leaders were elected by neighbourhood assemblies of CDR members, grew rapidly, involving almost 70% of Cuba’s adult population as early as 1970, and took over the tasks of ensuring public security, combating hoarding and speculation, supervising distribution of food and other necessities, and organising mass vaccinations, and cultural and sporting activities. The CDRs, along with the militias and the creation in 1960 of the Federation of Cuban Women, enabled the involvement of Cuban women in public life on a mass scale for the first time, bringing hugely more human resources into the process of building socialism.

However, unlike the Russian soviets, which arose as instruments of united mass organisation and action in a situation of revolutionary crisis and became highly developed institutions of working class democracy, the relatively late formation of the CDRs and their lack of direct connection with the sphere of production — the workplaces — meant that, while they represented a great advance for the participation of the mass of people in everyday affairs, they were not able to address all the problems and needs of the revolution.

This was in part revealed in Cuba’s failure in 1970 to meet a sugar harvest target of 10 million tons, which served as a catalyst for a review of the state of popular power in Cuba. Out of that process, which involved mass meetings with workers in different branches of production, the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) concluded that workers’ decision-making was becoming increasingly symbolic and, in particular, that there was a need to replace administrative by democratic methods of government at every level if Cuba’s economy and democracy was to advance.

As Fidel Castro explained it at a Federation of Cuban Women rally in August 1970:

"We have scores of problems at every level … We must create the institutions which give the masses decision-making power on many of these problems. We must find efficient and intelligent ways to lead them deliberately forward to this development so that it will not be simply a matter of people having confidence in their political organisations and leaders … but that the revolutionary process be at the same time — as Lenin wished — a great school of government in which millions of people learn to solve problems and carry out responsibilities of government …"

This implies the development of a new society and of genuinely democratic principles — really democratic — replacing the administrative work habits of the first years of the revolution … that run the risk of becoming bureaucratic methods.

Some progress was subsequently made in the revamping and strengthening the mass organisations, including the CDRs, but further steps were needed, and between 1974 and ‘76, using the CDRs as a basis, soviet-type institutions were created on the local, city, provincial and national levels — the Organs of People’s Power — working bodies combining legislative and administrative functions.

Raul Castro explained to a PCC Central Committee meeting in May 1973 that the principles of proletarian democracy imply the participation of all working people in the running and governing of society. He went on:

"This requires the corresponding institutions of power through which the working masses put that right into effect and can express and give value to their will … According to our understanding, these representative institutions are indispensable — so that the revolutionary people, considered as a whole … manifest their will and can really participate in the government."

In constructing the Organs of People’s Power, the foundations of Cuba’s national assembly, the Cubans drew on the example first provided by the Paris Commune and legislated that all delegates at every level — municipal (local), provincial and national — are elected, recallable by a vote of the majority of their electors at any time, and are expected to carry out their functions in their free time, or where they have to do them full-time, are paid no more than their usual wage in their regular job.

In Cuba’s elections there is no money involved and no number-crunching pre-selection process. At the local level, there must be at least two candidates for each delegate position, and at the provincial and national levels all candidates, usually nominated by mass organisations, workplaces and neighbourhoods, must attend meetings with workers and students, and in neighbourhoods, so people can meet and question them. Everyone over 16 years who is registered to vote can be nominated and elected, and it is not unusual for less than 50% of delegates to be re-elected.

By law, the PCC is not allowed to present or campaign for candidates. Voting is not compulsory but at least 90% of the population has voted in every election, although the percentage has decreased in more recent years.

There have been many changes and adjustments made to Cuba’s institutions of participatory democracy, which are constantly under review in relation to the mobilisation of the population to defend and extend the revolution. But still one of the best accounts of the fundamental principles and dynamics involved in People’s Power is Marta Harnecker’s book Cuba: Dictatorship or Democracy, which comrades should read.

The revolutionary leadership of Venezuela’s embryonic workers state is clearly studying previous revolutions’ experiences in constructing popular power, and attempting to apply some of the lessons to their own — very different — situation.

Struggling against a hostile administrative apparatus, in a capitalist economy, the Hugo Chavez leadership of the workers’ government has nevertheless managed to mobilise large numbers of working people to eradicate illiteracy and begin constructing a framework — through the social missions, mass organisations and communal councils and community banks — for involving Venezuela’s oppressed and marginalised people in political, social and economic discussion and action.

Alongside the initiatives for worker control in the sphere of production, which I’ll come back to, the latest step along the road to mass self-organisation — the establishment of the neighbourhood-based communal councils, resourced by government via communal banks — is posing a serious challenge to the capitalists’ control of the administrative bureaucracy.

The communal councils are a very important development in Venezuela’s revolution and we should all follow their progress closely. The early councils have inevitably had mixed success, and there are many objective and subjective hurdles to be overcome. But the communal councils, based on 200-400 families in urban neighbourhoods and 20-50 in rural areas (which means that final decisions can be made by general community assemblies rather than via elected representatives only), and responsible for identifying and solving their community’s immediate needs, will be critical to constructing popular power in that country.

Alongside the revolutionary leadership’s now explicit commitment to replacing capitalist property relations with a “communal system of production and consumption”, as Chavez expresses it, their stated goal of moving the masses as rapidly as possible beyond “trust” in their leaders into playing an active role in making change in their own interests is evident in Chavez’s repeated calls — now also the catchcry of the communal councils — for the people to use the new institutions to present not just their problems but also their solutions.

Administration and bureaucracy

The development of such institutions of workers democracy is a prerequisite for the essential task of reducing the number of professional functionaries, as more and more administrative functions are transferred to bodies elected or directly involving the working people themselves.

The dismantling of the capitalists’ administrative apparatus, and its replacement with one that is fully accountable to the elected bodies of popular power is essential, not only to allow the self-management of society by working people as a whole but also, especially in the early stages of the transition, as a safeguard against bureaucratism.

Lenin explained:

"Under capitalism, democracy is restricted, cramped, curtailed, mutilated by all the conditions of wage slavery, and the poverty and misery of the people. This and this alone is the reason why the functionaries of our political organisations and trade unions are corrupted — or rather tend to be corrupted … and betray a tendency to become bureaucrats, i.e., privileged persons divorced from the people and standing above the people…

"… the [Paris] Commune showed that under socialism functionaries will cease to be “bureaucrats”, to be “officials” … in proportion as — in addition to the principle of election of officials — the principle of recall at any time is also introduced, as salaries are reduced to the level of the wages of the average workman, and as parliamentary institutions are replaced by ‘working bodies, executive and legislative at the same time.'"

The Cubans’ experience illustrates just how conscious the process of tackling bureaucratism, within both the workers state and the revolutionary party, needs to be. I don’t have time to go through Cuba’s permanent, and largely successful battle against bureaucratism in detail, but it is worth comrades reading the DSP’s pamphlet The Cuban Revolution and its Leadership and studying, in particular, how they have mobilised through the various organs of popular power to confront and defeat the problem — such as during the Rectification Process from 1986, when there were wholesales sackings of incompetent and corrupt managers under worker and union pressure; when the mass organisations’ media took the lead in denouncing corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency; and when local communities and workers led “dob-in-a-bureaucrat” campaigns.

In Venezuela, there is enormous ground to be won in the battle against bureaucracy, opportunism and corruption, which is rife. Large sections of the administrative apparatus are still under the control of the capitalists, or at least not in the hands of revolutionaries, and government officials obstruct and sabotage the development of the revolution on a daily basis (some Venezuelans say that up to 80% of public servants do no work).

The key strategy of the revolution so far has been, rather than directly confront the administrative bureaucracy, to use Venezuela’s huge nationalised oil wealth to bypass it by creating a parallel structure of popularly based institutions — the social missions and communal councils, and mass organisations. Most recently, the revolutionary leadership has floated a proposal to pay all public servants no more than the average worker’s wage.

The missions and increasingly the communal councils have rapidly growing respect and authority among the masses, and are not only the revolution’s main vehicles at present for the practical implementation of the new laws and social programs that are raising people’s standard of living, but also for training the people in collective decision-making and the whole gamut of planning and management skills, raising both their confidence and their ability to assert popular control over the future workers state.

In the process, inevitably, these popular institutions are also confronting the bureaucratism and corruption that persists in some sections of the pro-Chavez political parties and mass organisations. The missions in particular have organically generated new layers of leaders from the previously marginalised grassroots, who are scathing in their rejection of the old political culture and any opportunist orientations to the socialist project being led by Chavez.

This development in Venezuela is testament to the profoundly democratic aspirations of working people and affirms the historical fact that every time class struggle sharpens the working people spontaneously strive to create forms of democratic self-organisation that will strengthen their main weapon — collective action — and advance their collective interests.

The military

Even after the bourgeoisie has been overthrown and a workers state established, the fundamental guarantee against all abuses of state power lies in the fullest participation in political and economic activity by the working class and its allies and the broadest possible workers democracy — but also the arming of the working class.

In all successful revolutions to date, armed force has been a necessary component of the battle to overthrow capitalist rule. Whether through the desertion of large sections of the capitalist army to the side of the masses and/or through a guerrilla army fighting alongside the political mobilisation of the masses, the working class has always had to wrest power from the bourgeoisie by force of arms.

Even in Venezuela, where Chavez and his supporters won government in a bourgeois electoral system, defending that victory and the radical changes it made possible meant defeating the 2002 capitalist coup. The routing of the US-backed coup leaders was led by the masses mobilising in the streets but relied for its quick victory on the intervention of the Chavista National Guard.

Until the capitalist class is decisively defeated internationally, every step in the development of popular power will have to be defended by armed force — a force that knows that its interests lie unequivocally in advancing the revolution. That means, in the first instance, dismantling the bourgeois army and police, and replacing them with a popular militia — the armed people — linked to the workplaces, mass organisations and neighbourhoods, with commanders drawn from the ranks of working people.

Beginning in October 1959, the Cuban government created a 200,000-strong workers and peasants militia, into which it dissolved the 3000 guerrilla fighters who had made up the Rebel Army. This signified the Castro leadership’s conscious reliance on the organised mobilisation of the mass of workers and peasants to carry through and defend the expropriation of capitalist property and the construction of proletarian democracy.

In Venezuela, the revolution has proceeded in very different circumstances, whereby the Venezuelan army’s unique structure and the self-organisation of progressives within its leadership made it a force for social change, rather than maintaining the status quo. Nevertheless, the approach being taken to the military by the Chavez government is not so different from previous revolutions.

The leadership is creating what they call a “civil-military union” in which professional soldiers are being politically educated and “integrated” into the civilian population and the revolution through, for example, being assigned to carry out the work of the missions. The military are also carrying out the work of the police force — in fact often defending the people against the police, which remains largely under the control of the anti-revolutionary forces. Another component of this civil-military union is the establishment of reserves in which civilians volunteer for military training.

Of course, for so long as imperialism’s power has not been broken, any workers state will also need to build a professional, revolutionary army. Only when there is no longer the threat of imperialist military attack will it be possible to make the militia system the sole form of defence. But the army of a workers state must have an overtly working-class character, without an officer caste system with its associated hierarchy of ranks and privileges.

In general, the extent of the arming of the people as a whole is a pretty sure measure of the progress towards proletarian democracy in the transition from capitalism to socialism. This is evident in the experience of Cuba, but also in its negative dynamic. Trotsky pointed out, for example, that a symptom of the usurpation of power by the Soviet bureaucracy after the Russian Revolution was the reversal of the organisation of the Red Army on a militia basis, and the consequent development of a privileged officer caste, reinforced by a law forbidding the people from carrying even non-explosive weapons.

Ultimately, the capacity for self-defence and the armed strength of a workers state are dependent on increasing the level of the mass of people’s political understanding and conviction; political mobilisation; and internationalist education and activity. Furthermore, when the revolution is under attack from imperialism, the strongest possible workers democracy also undermines the imperialist powers’ military strength by increasing the attractiveness of the revolution to the working people within the imperialist countries themselves.

Worker control of the economy

The key task of the working class in the socialist revolution is to take collective ownership and control of the means of production and reorganise all economic activity, on the basis of a democratic plan, to benefit society as a whole. Without a constant development of working people’s control of production and the economy, participatory democracy in all other spheres of social life is meaningless — and popular power is impossible.

As Lenin says in The State and Revolution (Resistance Books, 1999,p69):

"Taken separately, no kind of democracy will bring socialism. But in actual life democracy will never be ‘taken separately’ … it will exert its influence on economic life as well, will stimulate its transformation; and in its turn will be influenced by economic development, and so on."

A primary factor in the ability of a workers state — especially those in underdeveloped countries — to defend itself and advance towards socialism is its economic growth, for it is in increasing growth that the revolution can begin to both improve the material conditions of life of the people and enable more labour-free time for all so that working people as a whole can participate in directing and constructing socialism.

In turn, achieving economic growth in a socialist revolution requires the transfer of economic power into the hands of the working people — that is, the direct involvement of the masses in the management of production and the economy as a whole. As Fidel Castro explains repeatedly, it is workers on the job who often understand better than their leaders what is needed to increase production, efficiency, and so on. “We began as revolutionaries through the study of theory, the intellectual road”, he said in July 1970, “… And it would have helped us if we had come from the factories and known more about them…”

In any revolution there will be a need in the initial phase to persuade a layer of managers and middle-class technicians to place their skills at the service of the working class until workers have acquired the administrative experience and technical skills to independently manage state-owned industries and participate in national economic planning. But in general, and by its very nature, the working class — those who have always done the work — are capable of rapidly taking control of their own workplaces, which in turn serves as a school for participation in a planned economy managed by the people.

On the question of what specific forms of workers’ control are required to maximise participation (and therefore productivity) in the early stages of a socialist revolution, there is an increasingly rich body of experience in the development of cooperatives, worker co-management and worker control of enterprises, through to the involvement of the mass of people in regional and national economic planning.

One of key lessons from these experiences is that the task of increasing working people’s control over production and the economy is inextricably linked with mass participation in the administration of the whole of government.

Harnecker observes in Democracy or Dictatorship that Cuba’s People’s Power assemblies, being based more on residential/geographic units than production units, as the Russian soviets were, often led People’s Power assemblies to address problems from the standpoint of consumers, rather than producers who have an understanding of what is possible on the basis of the productive forces at a particular stage in the revolution. This had the potential to seriously distort people’s expectations and their ability to contribute to solving the society’s problems. The parallel development of assemblies and councils to increase workers’ input into both the running of their enterprises and broader economic planning was therefore a crucial balancing input to the work of the People’s Power bodies.

Having said that, we have also learnt that involving the population in the administration of state functions cannot be achieved only at the point of production. Self-organisation of the masses is required in all areas of economic and social life — workplaces, neighbourhoods, hospitals, schools and so on — in order to integrate into the process the most marginalised and often the poorest sections of the population, such as women, the elderly, oppressed nationalities, informal workers and the unemployed, etc .

There is no question that it has been the extent of the population’s participation in all aspects of decision-making that has enabled the Cuban economy, and therefore the revolution, to survive against under-development, imperialist blockade and the collapse of its main trading partner, the Soviet Union.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s economy was revealed as being in deep crisis. There were various reasons for this, which I don’t have time to go into, but suffice it to say that between 1989 and 1993, output fell by 35%, trade by 85%, investment collapsed and the US tightened the blockade. The leadership declared a “Special Period in Time of Peace” and, following 80,000 meetings across the country, the PCC drafted a plan for wide-ranging economic reform.

The leadership was clear that the success of the survival plan was entirely dependent on the commitment of the mass of Cubans to “sharing the pain” and taking responsibility for restarting the economy. This required a strengthening of the organs of popular participation in all aspects of Cuban society, and between 1992-93, significant reforms were made to the People’s Power system, including the development of the People’s Councils, which involve the whole population of an area, including the work collectives, and are empowered to coordinate all government instrumentalities, mass organisations and work centres operating in the area.

In 1994, three million Cubans participated in special “workers’ parliaments” to develop practical measures to make the economic reform work.

The strengthening of direct mass involvement in government, and the careful preparation and explanation of the reforms by the leadership, produced results. After 1994, GDP growth increased, the recovery spreading to almost every sector, debt and the state budget deficit declined, labour productivity rose, and wages and living conditions improved slightly.

Today, all Cuban workers are by law entitled to discuss the central economic plan as it applies to their workplace. If they don’t think the plan is realistic they can reject it and the whole matter has to be negotiated further between the workers’ representatives and the planning authorities, with any new proposal having to be ratified by the workers’ assembly in the enterprise.

Cuba’s economic situation has improved considerably, but the economic reforms, especially the changes in the planning-market mix, brought new social problems that the Cubans continue to struggle with today (for a more detailed examination of these, read the DSP pamphlet The Cuban Revolution: Defying imperialism, building the alternative, Resistance Books, 2005). It is clear that the Cuban leadership is acknowledging and confronting these problems in the framework of campaigning around the values of the revolution, engaging in the “battle of ideas”, and by trying to find ways to increase mass discussion and direct participation in every area of the state as the revolution’s most fundamental safeguard.

The facts that the nationalisation of property is a necessary but not sufficient condition for advancing towards socialism, and that the working class must take the productive apparatus into its own hands if the revolution is to deepen, is the subject of intense discussion among socialists in Venezuela today.

While the revolution has control of Venezuela’s massive oil profits, has begun to expropriate idle factories and is establishing new state-owned companies in key areas, much of Venezuela’s production and property remains in capitalist ownership. This is the context in which the revolution is nevertheless making progress in areas of land reform and experiments with non-private forms of ownership and control of production, including cooperatives, co-management and endogenous zones.

I don’t have time to go into these in detail, but comrades should follow the developments in the articles in Green Left Weekly and elsewhere. The important point is that these efforts to expand workers’ control, while still very initial and facing many problems, have the explicit (and legally sanctioned) aim — as explained by Michael Lebowitz — of constructing a new economic model geared towards democracy, participation and human development — a model that challenges the foundations of capitalist property relations.

The role of the vanguard party

Now a few points about the role of the revolutionary party in constructing popular power, in particular the party’s relationship to the masses.

In the inevitable showdown between the working class and the capitalist regime in periods of revolution, the resolution of that confrontation in favour of working people depends in large part on the existence of a revolutionary party/group that unites the most conscious, politically aware and self-sacrificing of the fighters generated by the class struggle, and that has the confidence of the broad masses. This has been the experience of every socialist revolution.

As the organs of capitalist power are challenged by increasing worker self-organisation, and begin to disorganise and disintegrate, a revolutionary crisis is created in society, characterised by the existence of two parallel, competing centres of power. In this turbulent transitional period, during which the capitalist class retains significant advantages, how the party leads will be decisive in progressing from insurrection to a workers state, and towards socialism. Unless it acts decisively to consolidate the organisations of mass struggle that have emerged in the crisis as the new institutions of state power, the revolutionary foundations of the workers’ government will be undermined as increasing sections of working people become demoralised and inactive. The capitalists would then be more able to reassert and rebuild the capitalist state machine. So the role of the revolutionary leadership collectivised in a party (or alliance of parties) is decisive in the conquest of power, and remains decisive in the process of constructing a classless society.

Throughout the process, the party strives to politically lead the activity of the working class — to win its support for the party’s ideas and policies. But in order for the socialist revolution to advance, it must be actually carried out by the masses themselves.

It is a central tenant of scientific socialism that: “The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”. Neither the taking of state power nor its use to build socialism can be successfully carried out by a revolutionary party acting “in the name of”, or “on behalf of”, or even “with the support of” the working class. Without direct mass involvement in and control of the process, advance is impossible. Neither government administrators nor any number of party officials can substitute for the class.

The Cuban Communist Party has confronted this issue very concretely — and consciously — during the course of that revolution. The process of institutionalising forms of mass democratic activity has proceeded fairly slowly in Cuba due to a shortage of cadre and economic problems caused by imperialist hostility. But despite the difficulties, the PCC has consciously striven to reduce its direct role in the administration of the state and economy, and in the workers’ organisations, over time increasing the separation of the party apparatus and state apparatus and wherever possible preferencing direct worker control and participation.

Raul Castro told the May 1973 PCC Central Committee meeting:

"The party’s leading position is conquered and maintained through struggle. This position is based on being the vanguard of the most advanced social class of society and acting as such: as the most faithful and determined representative of the interests of all of the working masses. Its authority is not based on force … Rather it is supported in the confidence and the support it receives, first and foremost, from the class that it represents, and secondly, from the rest of the working population. This confidence and support are won through a correct and rational policy, through the party’s links with the masses, using as its methods persuasion and convincing, and upheld by the force of its example and the correctness of its policy.

"But starting with these suppositions, we cannot take for granted … that the party represents the will of all the people and consider it to be the supreme organ of power. Because we would then be forgetting the principles of proletarian democracy that … imply the participation of all the members of the working class (and not only its vanguard) in the exercise of the proletarian dictatorship, that is to say, in the running and governing of society."

In Venezuela, the question of leadership and the party has developed very differently from all previous revolutions. The Bolivarian revolution has proceeded to date without the leadership of a revolutionary cadre party (although it could be argued that the Chavez group in the military has in some respects filled that role), or a mass socialist party. While the process has nevertheless made big strides forward, Chavez and many other socialists in Venezuela recognise that many of the problems the revolution faces in the struggle to create and consolidate popular power are tied to this absence. Thus Chavez’s call for a new, united socialist party.

The exact form that the provisionally named United Socialist Party of Venezuela takes (a subject of intense debate in Venezuela at present) will be shaped by the specific circumstances in Venezuelan politics at present (the balance of forces in the existing pro-Chavez parties, the strength of the “organic” leadership already thrown up by the revolution, and so on), but in his December 15 comments on this question, Chavez argued that the very process of forming the new party must itself be a tool in the project of constructing popular power and fighting opportunism and bureaucracy.

The new party, he said, must be “built from the base”.

In your communities, in your patrols, battalions, squadrons, identify your neighbours who are supporters of the Revolution — you know who they are. Do a census, build the party from below. Make it a party that is not built for electoral purposes (although able to engage in electoral battles); make it a party that can fight the Battle of Ideas, one that can fight for the socialist project, one that allows us to read and discuss the way forward. Make this party the most democratic in the history of Venezuela.

And, choose your true leaders, which only the base can do. There's been too much anointing of people from above …. Choose the people you have faith in, whom you know — not the thieves, the corrupt, the irresponsible, the drunkards … We need to stress socialist morals, socialist ethics … The new party cannot be the sum of old faces. That would be a deceit.

In the unique revolutionary process unfolding in Venezuela, the new party’s formation will be a vital and instructive process that we should follow closely.

Conclusion

There is no blueprint for the massive reconstruction and remoulding of all aspects of social life that the creation of a socialist society entails. The process will inevitably generate huge debates among the mass of people and in the revolutionary parties every step of the way. Only the maximum possible workers democracy will enable the emergence of majority agreement around the most effective steps forward, and therefore make their achievement possible.

Of course, all the norms of a workers democracy may not be realisable under every circumstance. Under conditions of civil war or foreign military intervention, for example, restrictions on the rights to political organisation may be necessary. No class or state has ever granted full rights to those engaged in a war to overthrow it.

But any restrictions should be clearly and frankly explained to the whole working class as unavoidable and temporary. And under all conditions, the workers state should strive to maximise the real democracy enjoyed by the working people because this is the best means to mobilise their power; heighten their self-confidence and consciousness; and increase their participation in the administration of their own state. As Lenin said, the authority of the workers state is strongest “when the masses know everything, can judge everything and do everything consciously”.

While the present balance of forces in the class struggle internationally is definitely shifting in favour of our class — a shift that has been given a huge boost by Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution — all current efforts to construct popular power are under intense pressure from the imperialist powers. For us as socialists in an imperialist country, that requires that we do everything we can to defend those efforts, learn about them and therefore be better able to build practical solidarity with them so that they are better able to survive and deepen.

For us in the DSP, this internationalism is not just a revolutionary moral duty, but a necessary part of our own class struggle, because in the era of imperialism every advance for popular power anywhere in the world is a blow against Australia’s capitalist class too. In the process of building such solidarity we also learn more about the processes of socialist revolution and can understand better how to advance our own struggle for liberation in Australia.

In the end, the most important solidarity we can extend to the struggles for popular power in other countries is to advance the class struggle in our own country, strive to construct another bastion of resistance to imperialist power, and in the process contribute to the growing store of experience amassed by the socialist movement of how to eradicate capitalist rule and construct in its place a society based on actual equality, freedom and complete human solidarity.

READINGS

The State and Revolution V.I. Lenin (Resistance Books, 1999)

The Cuban Revolution and its Extension Resolution of the Socialist Workers Party, 1985

Program of the Democratic Socialist Party (2nd edition, Resistance Books, 1994))

The Cuban Revolution: Defying Imperialism, building the alternative. (Resistance Books, 2005)

Democracy and Revolution V.I. Lenin (Resistance Books, 2001)

The Cuban Revolution and its Leadership. Doug Lorimer, (Resistance Books, 2000)

Cuba: Dictatorship or Democracy? How People’s Power Works Marta Harneker, (1980)

Cuba: A Revolution in Motion Isaac Saney (Zed Books, 2004)

Fidel Castro: Collected Speeches Vol II “Our power is that of the working people”

“Socialist Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, Resolution of the Fourth International. In Socialist Worker, No 4, Winter 1978

The Collapse of Communism in the USSR: Its causes & significance Doug Lorimer (Resistance Books, 1997)

History of the Russian Revolution Leon Trotsky <http://www.marxists.org>

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