Upon completing Victor Sebestyen’s biography of Lenin, I find myself meditating on Communism’s complicated relationship with democracy. Communist nations consider themselves democratic. I was surprised to come across so many explicit references to democracy in Xi Jinping’s address at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party. I had to look it up. China believes they are a Socialist Consultative Democracy. But rather than allowing popular participation, their policies reflect the will of the people or perhaps reflect the people’s best interests or… The USSR suffered this same challenge. They attempted to speak on behalf of the people but were afraid to allow freedom of speech for the people.

Communism is incompatible with democracy. Marxists will struggle to accept this reality. So much of the Communist experience is reoriented through Lenin’s approach. Samuel Huntington credits Lenin as the originator of the one-party state. Lenin focused on the institutionalization of the Communist Party. Marx never considered the necessity of a revolutionary institution. For Marx this would have been an inherent contradiction. Marxist philosophy is truly a rebellion against social institutions. Yet Lenin realized revolution was an impossibility without institutional support.

The global experience with communist governance is the centralization of political power within a political party rather than the state or bureaucracy. One of the great ironies of political science has been those countries known for state control have kept so much power out of the hands of the state. Instead, political power was centralized within the party. The institutionalization of a single political party has made communism less than a dictatorship in practice. It is not really an autocracy if autocracy refers to the centralization of power into a single person. Perhaps an oligarchy is closer to reality. Yet this fails to recognize the institutional role of the party in its decision-making process. Indeed, oligarchy is a clumsy term because institutions are necessary to establish the relationships and norms of the power dynamic. Without a strong institutional framework, oligarchies collapse amidst infighting and disputes.

The Party, for Lenin, was a means to block the public from popular participation. The principles of Communism are policy-oriented rather than process-oriented. Lenin was found of saying, “The end justifies the means.” He recognized it was not possible to reconcile a democratic political process with his principles of public policy. Any compromise would represent an abandonment of his convictions. While it is possible to believe in democracy and socialism, communism required such a radical social transformation that compromise was an impossibility.

And yet Lenin found it necessary to compromise with his principles. He allowed the Kulaks private ownership of their farms. He sought private investment from the firms who left after the revolution. He reversed some of his original policies to encourage economic growth. Why? Sebestyen notes Lenin commitment to Marxist philosophy was always flexible. But why couldn’t Lenin operate within a democratic political system? Why has communism required authoritarian governance? Lenin compromised on policy to legitimize his use of power. China has done the same through its own market reforms. The economic system has become increasingly capitalistic, yet its leaders refuse to acknowledge they have abandoned Marxist principles.

Every ideological worldview suffers from the same challenges. Those who profess their inability to compromise because of their political principles have not worked out this approach to its logical conclusion. Lenin recognized his principles required more than campaigns and electioneering. It required revolution. But their principles would not allow popular participation even when they claimed to work on their behalf. Lenin believed in trade unions until the unions were used against his own regime. Democracy does not require polarization or radical differentiation. Instead, it requires common sense and the willingness to work through problems with those who have different interests and perspectives. This was always an impossibility for Lenin.

jmk, carmel, indiana, democracyparadoxblog@gmail.com

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