“Absolute power corrupts absolutely!” as it is commonly said. This idiom has proved to be true on countless occasions.
In 1957 Milovan Đilas, a prominent Yugoslav dissident and Communist thinker, published his magnum opus “The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System.” In it, he exposed the material privilege the nomenklatura had in Soviet society and the paradox of what has become the 20th century Marxian interpretation of “dictatorship of the proletariat.’
Milovan Đilas believed that Eastern Communism was perpetually in a state of false transition; it was centralizing state power and rendering the revolution(s) fruitless. He was correct in his analysis, and he only validated the well-established idiom of power [quoted above] that was espoused by John Dalberg-Acton in the mid 1800s. The vanguards of 20th century Communist systems did little to nothing in bringing their respective society to classlessness. Rather, they created a new class of wealth and power that were perhaps more oppressive than the system they initially overthrew. This is the true paradox of the 20th century Marxist experiment.
But here lies the conundrum of Marxist thought; how is the transition to egalitarianism achieved, and is the irony of establishing dictatorship necessary in reaching the Communist ideal?
Milovan Đilas would argue that true egalitarianism would not be achieved through an Orwellian vanguard, and I tend to side with his sentiments. Eliminating democracy and ousting dissenters creates an environment based on fear and passivity. Karl Marx, in his criticism of capitalism, noted the systemic alienation of the proletariat from production. He hypothesized that the capitalist means of production separated the worker from the output of his labour and made him surrender his self-autonomy and destiny to maximize the surplus value of the bourgeois; In essence, ripping apart individuals [workers] from their right to be directors of their own actions. The Marxist experiments of the 20th century did very little to fix this and include the workers (i.e reincorporate them into the means of production), rather it perhaps even furthered their alienation, another ironic paradox, through obedience and mass-surveillance, making them puppets of the domineering state.
But what is the missing link to eliminating this unnatural alienating aspect in production? Simply, you must let people be free, rather then servile to the state (state socialism) or corporatist demands (capitalism). In revolutionary Catalonia this was tried and something radical was done to put production into the hands of the workers. Money was abolished, being replaced with a voucher system, and industry functioned on direct democracy. Goods were allocated effectively, and needs were met. Most importantly, some from of horizontal power was reached and there was solidarity in the workplace; it was a beautiful creation and lasted until its demise by the onslaught of fascism in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. While it existed it was a true living example of a tried attempt in eliminating alienation, as Marx described, and real progress toward classlessness.
The only similar attempt made by the self-described Communist states was in Yugoslavia, where Tito attempted to institute independent socialism which was one of the reasons for their split with the Soviet Union [known as the Informbiro period]. Milovan Đilas was very much involved, advocating workers’ self management in state run industries. However after Đilas’ imprisonment, the main architect of the workers’ experiment was Edvard Kardelj who favored decentralized workers communes rather then state-controlled industries. Sadly, the project failed to get the traction it needed. Although Yugoslavia was distinctively better than its Communist counterparts in Eastern Europe and Asia, it still failed to give the workers the sufficient power over production they so deserved – however they should be applauded for attempting it, albeit insufficiently.
This is the issue of 20th century vanguardism that we cannot overlook. The creation of a “New Class” is an major issue in leftist thought and we must be weary in calling for its future reestablishment. An examination of 20th century failures would be wise in formulating the basis for Post-Marxist thought, and we must always remember that freedom should never be compromised; because someday we might find little of it left. Slavoj Zizek in his essay “A Permanent Economic Emergency” published in the New Left Review writes,
“What was wrong with 20th-century Communism was not its resort to violence per se—the seizure of state power, the Civil War to maintain it—but the larger mode of functioning, which made this kind of resort to violence inevitable and legitimized..”
He goes on to say that when a state believes that it is the “instrument of historical necessity” it has no limitation on the terror it can inflict in achieving its ends. This is the danger, and I stand by localized, decentralized power as a probable solution; and if not that, a less oppressive vanguard of weaker stature that derives its true might from the regional workers’ communes rather then from itself. This, I feel, is fair and truly progressive in the Marxian sense.