Revolution #68, November 5, 2006


To state it in a single sentence, elections: are controlled by the bourgeoisie; are not the means through which basic decisions are made in any case; and are really for the primary purpose of legitimizing the system and the policies and actions of the ruling class, giving them the mantle of a "popular mandate," and of channeling, confining, and controlling the political activity of the masses of people."

Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That?

by Bob Avakian 

The Hype
And the Reality

Bourgeois elections are not, and cannot be a way for the interests and desires of the masses of people to be implemented.

For starters, to be a serious candidate for any significant office, you need to have and/or raise millions of dollars. For the 2006 election, 2.6 billion dollars will be spent to promote candidates and issues (“Drugs Take Center Stage,” Wall Street Journal, 10/28/06). And beyond these billions directly spent to tell voters how to think about candidates and issues, the mainstream corporate media—which in this country has tremendous resources and reach—defines terms of societal discourse, and channels dissent, discontent, and rebellion into terms acceptable to the powers that be. Public opinion in this society is also manufactured through the ubiquitous pollster. In an illuminating online exchange, the polling editor of the Washington Post ranted against readers demanding that the Post take a poll on how many people wanted Bush impeached (this was by far the most reader-requested poll). He replied: “We do not ask about impeachment because it is not a serious option or a topic of considered discussion--witness the fact that no member of congressional Democratic leadership or any of the serious Democratic presidential candidates in '08 are calling for Bush's impeachment. When it is or they are, we will ask about it in our polls. Enough, already.” (“Poll: Bush Approval Numbers Up,” 12/20/05).

Further, the very process of becoming a credible candidate for serious public office involves rounds of screening and filtering to ensure that the two remaining candidates for any office reflect the interests of the ruling class. Those candidates who fail to espouse and effectively promote policies in sync with the interests of the ruling class will fail to raise sufficient money to run, open the morning paper to find the skeletons in their closets exposed, or in one way or another get filtered out through the election process. The end result is that whoever ends up in “the finals” at election time is an acceptable choice to the powers that be.

Most fundamentally, any elected official in this society operates within the basic economic structure of capitalism-imperialism. This is a society rooted in exploitation, where the wealth produced by millions in this country, and many millions more around the world, is appropriated as capital by the bourgeoisie. And this defines what any politician can do—even regardless of their own inclinations. You can see this illustrated sharply in this election, where despite massive opposition to the Iraq war, you will not have the option of voting against that war—for an immediate end to U.S. occupation of Iraq. That is because at this point, the consensus among the ruling class in this country is that withdrawal from Iraq now, a defeat in Iraq, would be intolerable to their global setup of domination and exploitation. [See "The Iraq War: '…And If the Democrats Win?'"].

Let us suspend disbelief for a moment, and imagine that somehow, someone was elected to an important political office with a program of withdrawing U.S. troops not just from Iraq, but from all of the 700 or so military bases it maintains in 132 different countries. Doing that would pull the legs out from the whole global network of U.S. imperialist exploitation that is enforced by those troops on those bases. The system could not maintain itself if something like that happened, and long before this politician got anywhere with such an agenda, the ruling class would step in and put a stop to this politician's career or at least his or her influence—through scandal, indictment, or some other means.

Legitimizing the System & Disorienting the People

In bourgeois elections, the issues are defined, the candidates are screened and selected, and the voters are told what to believe by the ruling class. And after all that, the results of elections are held up by those who orchestrated this whole process as a mandate from the masses to carry out an agenda that came from and serves the interests of the system.

To the extent that people's outrage and opposition are funneled into this process, elections act to disorient and disempower people. Decisions arrived at by the ruling class are imposed on society in a form that makes it appear that these are the decisions of the ruled. The dictated-to appear to be choosing their own rulers. You don't like the direction society is going? Well, you have only yourself to blame.

On another level, elections reduce the scope of anyone's influence over society to acting as an individual, cut off others with the same basic interests. And—importantly—for the alienated, radicalized, oppressed, and marginalized in society, the “mandate of the people” scam is used to keep them disoriented, and feeling isolated.

The problem is not just or mainly that the bourgeois electoral system is corrupt. The basic problem is that bourgeois elections are a highly effective form for the capitalist ruling class exercising dictatorship over the masses of people.

Never has a capitalist ruling class allowed the people it rules over decide in an election whether they will be exploited, oppressed, and live in a society driven by an addiction to profit. Enforcing such exploitative social relations is the real role of bourgeois elections, and behind that stand the armed forces, police, and judicial  system of the capitalist state.

The Role of Elections Under Socialism

We have discussed how the “will of the people” cannot be expressed through elections in capitalist society. For the interests of the people to define the direction of society, there needs to be a whole different kind of system where the masses of people rule—the dictatorship of the proletariat, where society is not driven by capital's pursuit of profit. This is socialism.

Can there be lively debate, discussion and participation in the political life of society by the broad masses under the dictatorship of the proletariat? Not only can there be, but there must be. Within that, elections can play a role, though not the decisive role.

To understand why this is true requires breaking out of the framework of bourgeois democracy—where political participation in society is by and large limited to, and measured by voting and getting behind certain bourgeois politicians. As we have seen, elections under capitalism are not the means through which basic decisions are made and serve to legitimize the system and the policies of the ruling class. So how would all this be different under socialism, under the dictatorship of the proletariat?

Under the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, politics and in particular elections serve to pacify the masses and maintain the overall status quo of class society. But under the dictatorship of the proletariat, political institutions and the overall political life of society (including any role that elections might play) aim to lead and unleash the masses to change the status quo, to continually revolutionize society.

This has everything to do with the very character of socialist society as a transition to a communist world where the “four alls” have been achieved: the abolition of all class distinctions; the abolition of all the production relations on which those class distinctions rest; the abolition of all the social relations corresponding to those production relations; and the revolutionization of all the ideas corresponding to those social relations.

For a pathbreaking view of democracy and dictatorship in socialist society people should read and seriously study Bob Avakian’s talk, Views on Socialism and Communism: A Radically New Kind of State, A Radically Different and Far Greater Vision of Freedom [available for download at].This is a sweeping and mind-expanding vision of socialist society—learning from, building on, and in critical ways advancing beyond the great achievements, as well as weaknesses, of the building of socialism in the Soviet Union and China.

Here, we can only touch on the important dynamic under socialism, of the masses being constantly and more fully drawn into the running of and the transforming of society—and how there is a very important epistemological dimension (pertaining to the theory of knowledge) that interpenetrates with the political aspect of things.

In capitalist society, the masses of people are not allowed to participate in the running of society. And especially for the proletariat, conditions of life—for example, lack of education, poverty, working long hours to survive, etc.—make it extremely difficult for people to be politically active.

Under the dictatorship of the proletariat, the masses will have the right to fully participate in the political life. Their lives will no longer be controlled, mangled, and ruined by capitalist exploitation. And with the leadership of the vanguard party, the masses will be able to immediately and then, in waves, increasingly transform society—narrowing differences, for example, between mental and manual labor, men and women, or white people and oppressed nationalities. But to the extent that such differences remain, they will still present real obstacles to the masses fully participating in the intellectual and political and life of society. To take one example, socialist society will “inherit” the situation where a relatively small section of society do intellectual work and are trained to work with ideas, while the masses of people do manual work.

Another great challenge faced by socialism is the fact that for some time, a large part of the population still has to spend most of the time working to produce the requirements of society. This limits their ability to participate fully in all the different spheres in society. Other sections of society will be in a better position and more trained to engage in political discourse. For both these reasons, simply throwing every question in society “up for grabs” in an election would throw the door wide open to the restoration of the old society based on exploitation.

Under socialism, there will be class forces in society—both the old exploiters but also new exploiters generated by the remaining inequalities in society—that will be actively working to sabotage the building of socialism, to overthrow the government and restore capitalism. And for some time, socialist societies will very likely be surrounded and threatened with invasion and subversion by remaining powerful capitalist countries. Defending socialist society from such enemies will be a life-or-death challenge. In that context, simply throwing the fate of society open to the result of an “anything goes” election, or putting socialism up for a vote, would betray the revolution.

The proletariat needs to be firmly in control of the state. But within this framework, there has to be an ongoing process, led by the revolutionary communist vanguard party, in which the masses are increasingly able to know the world, to understand the complexity of things, to figure out right from wrong, truth from lies, etc.—in order to be able to actually run society and transform it toward the goal of communism. This will involve the masses increasingly participating in the exercise of state power, as well as other aspects of administering and governing society. And this underscores the importance of an overall atmosphere of intellectual ferment, debate in socialist society—where critical and creative thinking and dissent make for a more vibrant society where the masses are consciously participating in knowing and changing the world. In that context, some contested elections, as one part of the process of selecting government leaders, could contribute to helping the masses of people sort out different agendas, including through critically listening to positions that are opposed to the revolutionary regime, and that are articulated directly by opponents of the socialist government. Contested elections can be part of subjecting different elements of the socialist society to necessary critical examination. All this can further strengthen the people's ability to lead society towards the abolition of the four alls.

Elections, like everything else in class society, are conditioned and shaped by the fundamental class relations that exist. And under socialism, elections will reflect and serve the exercise of political power by the proletariat, with the role of the vanguard party leading the masses to understand and transform all of society as part of bringing about a communist world.

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