The Fundamentals of Communism
Case of the Czech Republic

Milan Valach

The current power elites’ greatest fear is represented by the revitalization of the left-wing ideal. That’s why they keep reminding the public about the repulsive practices of the Soviet Union and its controlled countries.

Every attempt at its renewal has to firstly cope with the practices of the ruling communist parties in the so-called eastern block. It was these parties that announced their rule as truly communist. I will try to show that this statement was and still is not true.

That is why the discussion about the essence of communism is still very much alive. It is topical because we still really don’t understand what communism was, and because of efforts to use one interpretation or other of the past for current purposes. Every attempt to objectively examine the totalitarian past fails immediately if it’s not based on clarifying the concepts that are being worked with and if ideologies, including their historical background, are not separated from the practice of them. Ideologies must also be separated from those who - rightly or not - called themselves their implementers. In the case of communism it is therefore important to separate its ideology, as it was gradually created in the environment of west-European philosophy and mainly its most in-depth Marxist version, from the practices of the political regime that arose in Russia after 1917. Whether this Leninist-Stalinist political model was in fact carried out according to Marx’s philosophy, or whether it had completely different roots, is to be examined only after the aforementioned is thoroughly clarified. Preconceived judgment that already knows the “answer” has nothing to do with science and testifies to ideological prejudice, or even to the blindness of a persons thinking.

   Communism as an ideology in its Marxist form

First of all the communist ideology is a part of European left-wing thinking. The term ‘left-wing’ itself was created on the 11th of September 1789 at a French constitutional meeting where the followers of the decisive power of parliament and the sovereignty of people sat on the left side and the followers of the monarchy and the mighty kings’ power on the right. Since then, the followers of strong authority, social inequality and their relevant historical traditions are linked to the right-wing. For a long time the right-wing felt a strong opposition to democracy and general voting rights, stressing obedience towards authorities, social hierarchy, natural differences between people and races. Logically, it was also against the thought of progress. The left-wing is heir to the radical tradition of the French revolution, besides roots that are far older, and can be also defined using three concepts of the revolution itself, those being equality, freedom and brotherhood.

Political parties, movements or individuals that are advocates of this ideology and are trying to put it into practice are therefore listed as leftist; they are marked as the left-wing. Those who are striving for the opposite are then labeled as right-wing.

This changed only after the Second World War and especially in the sixties of the 20th century. At this time the dividing criteria became fundamentally blurred. This has many reasons. Firstly, the experience with Nazism and fascism discredited many right-wing ideals for a long time.

A considerable role was also played by the democratical movement within society where the right-wing parties had to reform their programs, under the conditions of general voting rights, merely as an effort to maintain their political power. On the other hand, the left-wing radical parties were also much weaker.

If we take into consideration the whole evolution of the left-wing movement, of which communism is the most radical part, it evolves gradually from its ideological and core values formed by the concept of “equality, freedom and brotherhood”. These core values together form an unbreakable bond by highlighting opposition towards war and recognizing the value of peace and also the key value of creative and cooperative labor within a community. Brotherhood, more widely known as solidarity, is becoming widespread and is acquiring a universal character. This means it is becoming the ideal of a future society in which people of all races, genders or believes will live together. We can already find the left-wing ideal in this form in the works of K. Marx, which already strongly appealed to Czech and global minds between the two world wars. Their development into a more precise form lead Marx to the demand for a political system that would be based on direct democracy. It would, however, offer only a few general policies in the economic system, and with regard to the fundamentals of Marx’s materialistic philosophy of history it could not have been otherwise (I wrote about this is more detail in the book „Marx’s philosophy of history“, published by L. Marek, Brno, 2005 ).

It is necessary to explain the aforementioned statement about the content of the left-wing ideal - or ‘project’ to be more precise - in further detail in the context of the known attempts to install a dictatorship of the proletariat and the exchange of private ownership of the means of production for corporate ownership.

Since we will start from Marx’s philosophy of historic materialism as the most influential left-wing philosophy, it is important to point out that within this philosophy the abovementioned ideals aren’t the result of any factual data, but the idealistic expression of personal interests of the suppressed and exploited social class, mainly the proletariat. The term proletariat itself refers to the social class that is deprived of the means of production and is forced to sell its labor in order to survive – to sell their man-power and ability to work to those classes or groups of people that own the means of production (as a privilege available only to a social minority). This act of selling oneself is already a form of self-humiliation which only leads to further humiliation in the form of submitting to those on which the proletariat depends on and which at the same time have power over it. Therefore the private ownership of the means of production is the main reason for social inequality, not only in terms of property, but also in terms of political power, and this inequality enables the suppression of the majority by this privileged minority (this fact is, however, older than Marx’s philosophy and we can find it in the works of J.J. Rousseau). Private ownership, since it is a privilege, does not liberate - at least not the majority of the society. On the contrary, it has exactly the opposite effect.

The concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat does not express anything historically unusual according to Marx. All bourgeois revolutions, thanks to which we don’t live in a feudal society anymore, installed the reign of the bourgeoisie, which dictated to the whole society its ideas about the arrangement of the society. The bourgeoisie overthrew the feudal system against the will of the feudal lords and the church, but the rule of feudal lords and the church has been replaced by the rule of the wealthy.

Similarly, in the case of a victory by the proletariat it will be necessary, according to Marx, to install a dictatorship of the proletariat, which shall - against the will of the capitalist ownership elites - dissolve the private ownership of the means of production and will enact general voting rights and other principles of a democratic society (freedoms of speech, assembly, merging and so on). In Marx’s time these were only illusory demands of radical political powers, mainly left-leaning.

The dictatorship of the proletariat could not be realized without democratic precautions. At first sight that looks like a contradiction. The proletariat, which at that time represented - and still represents now, according to the above definition - the majority of society, could not and cannot rule any other way but democratically. But this democracy has to be installed against the will of the privileged minorities. This imposition of democracy and equality is the content of the term “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

Let’s try and explain it using the example of contemporary Czech Republic, which has an estimated 8 300 000 voters. Image that we live in a time before democracy and that true power is only distributed among a small group, as it in fact was. The demand for freedom that is represented by the majority is in fact a demand for democracy. Let’s assume that we actually managed to reach this goal and that the rule of the privileged minority was replaced by the rule of equal and free citizens, which is the proper content of democracy as an ideal.

It then becomes clear, and again it was so in the real world, that democracy was installed against the will of the previous privileged minority. In other words, it was dictated to them. Yes, even now, we still live in a dictatorship and it would be no other way even if we fulfilled the democratic ideal to a hundred percent (reality is of course far from that but we can leave it out of our consideration for now). We could argue that within democracy, the minority even has the right to suggest the abolition of general voting rights and the re-installment of its dictatorship. It is necessary to accept this right; however it does not usually happen in the real world. But it is also necessary to request that this minority strive to get the majority on their side in democratic elections. If it wanted to gain power and install its dictatorship in a violent way, hence rejecting the democratic voting mechanism, the police and even the army is obliged to step out with force to protect the democratic system. The constitution stipulates the right to armed opposition to such attempts to throw off democracy, even to citizens in general. This principle is dictated even to those authoritative minorities. We are determined, at least on paper, to oppose a force that wishes to destroy democracy, with our own force, therefore with marginally authoritative means. The majority dictates this rule to the whole society, in as sense it implements its own dictatorship.

Under what conditions can this “dictatorship” of the majority take place? Let’s assume that with the old (so-called communist) regime a total of 1 300 000 people were satisfied and 7 000 000 were not (these are just figurative numbers). Should the installment of democracy be dictated by this majority, by the act of installing its power? We need to ask under what conditions these 7 million people can have true power. The answer has been known for a long time, and is expressed in the form of conditions which are needed in order for the power of such a large group to be possible.

So many people can not decide everything directly and at all times. That’s why they have to choose their representatives, who are sent to the center of political power in order to represent their interests. For them to be well informed and carry out their job righteously and also to want to be chosen as representatives, freedom of speech must be guaranteed - or more precisely, freedom of information and assembly, as well as passive and active voting rights and so on (these requests are part of the Communist Manifesto from the year 1848). In order for these representatives to truly represent their voters and not their own personal interests, they have to be controllable and recallable at any time (with respect to this Marx actually writes about the so called imperative mandates). As is clear, the dictatorship of the majority, meaning the proletariat, is only possible under the conditions of direct democracy and its content, since dictatorship diminishes with the establishment of this direct democratic system. And now the privileged classes, the capitalists, are deprived of their privileges (this being the dictatorship) and set under the same conditions as everyone else in this direct democratic political system.

This political system is the form in which only the interests of the majority of society can be expressed in the aforementioned left-wing ideal values and can be implemented and realized.

However, the political system is truly only a form; its basis is the economic system. Throughout the 20th century ownership elites were forced to change their public appearance and if they are not striving for their influence on politics to be completely hidden, they at least try to minimize it or portray it as generally beneficial.

It wasn’t so in the 19th century. Then, where voting rights already existed, they were always limited by the so-called property census, which only allowed the rich to vote.

Next to this imminent control of politics by the privileged classes (whereunto the private ownership of the means of production gave them the essential materials – the finance) there existed another essential, everyday experience with the rule over their employees. This led to a stereotypical obedience from the employees themselves. This destructive influence on the character of mankind, whose moral values and relation to the world in general become more and more abstract due to the submission to foreign power, has been discussed in many works: in Hegel’s famous dialogue between the lord and the rabbi, in the works of Marx (especially the Economical-philosophic manuscript from 1844), in the books of later authors like E. Fromm (e.g. Escape from Freedom which explains his concept of the authoritative character), and in R. Merl’s great novel “Death is my Trade” about the commander of the Osvětim (Auschwitz) concentration camp.

It will therefore only be possible to build a society based on human belonging and co-operation when this main basis and cause of material and moral poverty and suppression is destroyed - i.e. when the private ownership of the means of production is be dissolved. That is why the request for the future form is the common ownership of these means of production. Another advantage should be the elimination of periodic crises due to overproduction, which badly affect the workers.

To own something means to have true power of ownership and granted rights over the given thing, and the ability to actually use the power derived from ownership. The basis for private ownership is the expulsion of everyone else from this right.

Common ownership would then mean that this power would belong to every member of the society. And they can only have it in a system of direct democracy. For now, I will leave out the debate about if and how such an economic system could work. Karl Marx himself never got to the point of examining this question. As is well-known, he only managed to print the first part of his pivotal work The Capital, and the second and third parts were published by his friend B. Engels.

If we summarize the aforementioned description of the evolution of the left-wing ideal, we can say that it is an expression of the interests of the unprivileged majority of society and its efforts to put this ideal into practice. Only a system which gives true power to this majority and in which the majority rids itself of any inferiority and all relations in which a minority has power over the majority, can be labeled as a left-wing system. The right-wing always opposed this.

Marx could propose this new world of authentic human freedom based on true fellowship of all the people, but this new world will be possible only when these people themselves strive for it. So this solidary society of tomorrow has to be built up from the bottom.

   Communist practice

If we were to be exact, we would have to admit that despite the rhetoric of the ruling communist parties, communism itself was never truly installed. However, I commit this incorrectness with the awareness that the shortcut used in the title is universally understandable and established.

Let’s examine the features of these systems and try to get to their fundamentals. I will take their features to be the political form which was presented as true democracy or even as people’s democracy. We now know that for a system to be truly democratic, i.e. for it to allow the rule of the masses, it has to meet certain conditions. When these conditions are not met, the people have no real chance to establish their government and therefore no true power. These conditions include freedom of speech, information, and assembly as well as passive and active voting rights. To these Marx would also add methods of direct control of elected representatives by the public, an example of which is the right to recall a representative at any time.

None of these conditions were met in the communist regimes. For example, in the Czech Republic only those who were pre-approved by the National Front, which was controlled by the communist party, could take part in the elections. Therefore only those who were chosen by the ruling power elite could run for election. The creation of political parties outside of the National Front was not allowed. And we could continue with the well-known (I assume) denial of other democratic rights. The public can not really rule under these conditions. Rule was therefore in the hands of a small power elite, which did not allow any legal competition.

All means of production (or at least the majority of them in other so-called communist countries) were owned by the state. Apparently agricultural cooperatives were an exception but when we come to realize that all decisions within these cooperatives were directed from the ruling power elite, this co-operation is nothing but a name. The members of these cooperatives were not the owners, since they didn’t have the power to decide anything. The power over the cooperatives and other state owned means of production was held by the communist power elite. Common ownership meant ownership by those who had true power in the given system. And this was a small and privileged elite.

Now we need to make a little detour. We have already mentioned that ownership of something means having the power to use and abuse this item – to totally consume, destroy, sell and so on. Our view on ownership, however, has been formed on the basis of small ownerships and so we usually imagine the owner to be a single person (though in current economies other forms of ownership dominate, as when a given firm has many owners with different asset shares). A classic example is a joint stock company, where the individual shareholders have voting rights represented by the proportion of the shares they own. None of them can single-handedly control the company; this can only be done in concert with other shareholders. This certainly does not stop their continual struggle to obtain the so-called controlling percentage of shares.

If we look at the nature of ownership at the time of so-called socialism, based on the previous assumption, we get precisely this picture of a “joint stock company”. Only the share of ownership was not derived from the number of shares, but from one’s position on the ruling hierarchy. From an economic point of view, the main difference was in the elimination of economic competition between individual companies. This was related to the fact that practically all of the companies were owned by one firm, i.e. the powerful center of the communist party, which formed a super-monopoly.

(This center is not at the same place in all the stages of evolution of so-called real socialism, but that is outside the scope of this paper.)

Regarding the nature of ownership of the means of production, it must be noted that these were treated as if they were privately owned. This closely relates to the fact that in socialist states, true power was in the hands of a small privileged minority that owned these means thanks to its power.

Of course the year 1948, in which the Czech Republic fell to the hands of the communist party, was the year in which private ownership of the means of production was transferred to new private hands, only for the same to happen 40 years later in the so called velvet revolution in 1989. In other words, communist elites did not want to dissolve the power or assets held by the rich; they simply wanted to become the rich and privileged themselves, which they managed to do in the end. Nor does the official ideology of these ‘communist parties’ change anything in this factual account of their rule. Indeed, as Karl Marx mentioned, what is important is not what people or regimes say about themselves, but what they really are.

After 1989 there is an important difference, this being the fact that none of the new power elites is strong enough to take the ownership into its hands as a whole - or more precisely, that the power elites are not unanimous.

Systems imposed by the communist parties were based on private ownership of the means of production and on the unlimited power of this small ownership elite. From the point of view of historically created definitions of left and right-wing parties, the communist regimes were right-wing regimes. Communist parties were in fact right-wing parties hiding behind partial left-wing slogans.

Misunderstanding of this fact leads not only to confusion and misconception in discussions about communism itself, but also to comparison with Nazism. Above all, it is not in the interest of current privileged individuals and all apologists of the current capitalist system to understand the substance of the communist regime as the rule of a privileged minority over the controlled majority.

It would lead to the discovery that despite all the differences, the principle of power in capitalism is unpleasantly similar to the fundamentals of power in communism and Nazism. It is important to mention that this alienation of the left-wing ideal, and its misuse to defend a fundamentally right-wing practice, was possible because the citizens or the left-wing minds did not understand the meaning of power after the fall of capitalism. Instead of the control of the chosen representatives from the bottom, the right to recall them at any time, correction of the decisions made by politicians by way of binding referendum, the change of ownership of companies into the hands of the employees and so on, they believed their leaders and completely surrendered to their decisions.

If the left-wing was always strong in the criticism of the fundamentals of power during capitalism, it completely overlooked the matter in a ‘more righteous’ social system. That’s why it was possible to deceive the left wing. If we now strive for a left-wing ideal, we need this guidance of history in order to avoid the mistakes of the past.

This article was first published on the pages of the Czech server: ZDE

Note

1)The National Front was the integration of all political parties and public associations (labour unions, interest, sporting and others). No similar social organization was allowed to exist. The lead role in the National Front was played by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. This meant that all the executives of all the integrated associations had to be approved by the communist party before they could be elected. The same applied for election candidates. Only the citizens that received the approval of the communist party were allowed to stand in an election.


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