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Opinion - Gaze on divergent views on democracy under capitalism, socialism: A rejoinder

2021-05-21  Gerson Uaripi Tjihenuna

Opinion - Gaze on divergent views on democracy under capitalism, socialism: A rejoinder
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Ngarikutuke Tjiriange published a piece in the 14th May 2021 edition of New Era under the above heading. On 2nd October 1980, former boxing heavyweight world champion, Muhammed Ali came out of retirement to challenge the then reigning champion, Lorry Holmes. Lorry Holmes had been Ali’s sparring partner for a long time, and he responded by saying that he respected the ageing Ali too much and he did not want to have to box him. Ali’s camp insisted on that fight, much to their regret, and the rest is history. What I am trying to imply by using that analogy is that just like Lorry Holmes, I find it difficult to have to “box” my mentor. I am not saying I am a better analyst than Tjiriange, far from it! Tjiriange is my elder, my former lecturer at the then United Nations Institute for Namibia (UNIN) and a political mentor. However, if he goes public on a controversial issue, like the one he published last week, then, unfortunately, I have to say that I beg to differ with him – but with the greatest respect.

Unfortunately, Tjiriange’s piece has a number of serious flaws. To start with, his heading creates the impression that he would analyse democracy under capitalism and socialism, but when the reader starts to read the article, he/she would realise that the good doctor was far from doing that. Tjiriange could have helped us a great deal, if he started by defining what he meant by “democracy”, but he did not do that. In the second paragraph of his piece, Tjiriange asserted that: “Socialism is regarded by some of these people as being an undemocratic system under which rulers are dictators who have unreasonable power over the people of their countries.” That was the only reference to democracy or the perceived lack thereof under socialism in his opinion piece. Tjiriange in this particular context did also not tell us whether he was talking about socialism as an ideal system or socialism as was practised in the former socialist countries. There is a vast difference between socialism as it was originally conceived as a theory and socialism as it was practised in some of these countries.

 Tjiriange spent a great deal of time castigating the behaviour of the western capitalist countries from the time they were imperial colonial powers up to the present moment regarding the way they deal with developing countries whether it is in the form of external aggression, fermenting coups, reinforcing neo-colonial arrangements etc. No one denies that these evils exist, but unfortunately, this does not tell us why he argues that the socialist countries were or are more democratic than the western capitalist countries. What the good doctor did in this piece was to give a good lecture on how these countries (both capitalist and socialist) conduct their foreign policies. He said very little about the internal democratic processes in these countries. His heading created the impression that is what he was set out to do and that is why I find the content of his text a little bit problematic because it does speak to the heading. 

In March 2021, I published a piece in New Era under the heading: “What went wrong with the socialist project?” The idea was to provoke a debate so that we can learn from past mistakes. Like many activists from my generation, I used to find it very difficult to criticise socialist countries. That was for a number of reasons. In the first place, these were the countries, which were supporting our struggle for independence, secondly that was the type of society we were hoping to build in Namibia after independence. In short, we were very subjective in our approach; but rigorous hard-nosed scholarship should not allow room for subjectivity.

As I argued in that piece, the central ideal behind socialism, which was later to lead to communism, as conceived by Marx and Engels, was a more humane and more democratic society. The creation of a socialist state, under the leadership of the working class, was to, ideally, lead to a classless society and the abolition of the state as an instrument of class rule. Unfortunately, what unfolded in the then Soviet Union and other socialist countries was contrary to that original idea. In the former socialist countries, the Communist Party – the vanguard of the revolution – became a monster unto itself controlled by the party elite at the expense of the workers, peasants and other strata in society. The dictatorship of the proletariat (working class) was replaced by the dictatorship of the party. No other political parties were allowed and no free trade unions were allowed; the trade unions had to be affiliated to the ruling Communist Party. The state also controlled the media and almost all the aspects of social and political life; this resulted in the “suffocation” of the free competition of ideas. The means of production were owned and controlled by the state and there was no room for market forces of supply and demand. As we all know by now, in the absence of the free competition of ideas and products, the quality of political life and the quality of products is compromised. These internal contradictions - the absence of free competition of ideas and products as well the top-heavy centralization of political power – were the main cause for the collapse of the socialist states in Eastern and Central Europe. The notion that has been peddled by some socialists that western propaganda and sabotage were the main cause for the collapse of these socialist states does not hold water. The external contradictions (western hostility and propaganda) were secondary; it was the internal contradictions that were the primary cause of this collapse. Dr Tjiriange, a man who is well versed in the Marxist theory of dialectical materialism, would agree with me that in any social phenomenon, it is the internal contradictions that are primary, while the external contradictions are secondary. The total lack of democratic processes in the former socialist countries in Eastern and Central Europe was the main cause for their collapse. 

The notion of democratic centralism which the communist parties in the former socialist countries were known for, was no democracy at all because it implies that although all the members of the party were free to participate in discussions, the decisions of the higher organs of the party were binding on lower organs. The birth of the Solidarity Trade Union Movement in Poland in August 1980 – the first free trade union in a communist country - came about because of the lack of democracy in these countries. The Solidarity Trade Union Movement, under Lech Walesa, was initially created to advance the cause of workers’ rights but later came to spearhead political and social change in Poland. As we may recall, the people in other former socialist countries were, to a large extent, influenced by the Solidarity Trade Union Movement in Poland and the rest is history.

Eurocommunism, which was advocated by the communist parties in Western Europe under the influence of Antonio Gramsci’s writings and people like Enrico Berlinguer in Italy and Santiago Carrillo in Spain was a result of the disillusion of communists in Western Europe and elsewhere with the lack of democracy in the then socialist countries. In short, the idea behind Eurocommunism or democratic communism was to come up with a more democratic model of communism. 

I appreciate the fact that Tjiriange continues to write despite the fact that he is no longer getting any younger; that is a good motivation for the youth. My point, however, is, the fact that the socialist countries supported our struggle for independence – for which we are very grateful - should not obscure our judgement of their performance. When it comes to democratic processes, their performance leaves a lot to be desired; and that led to their demise. We owe it to the young people of our country, especially those who are sympathetic to socialism, to pinpoint those weaknesses so that they should not fall into the same pitfalls. The legendary reggae singer, Bob Marley has a song that goes like this: “Tell the children the truth, ‘cause they need to know.” I rest my case.

2021-05-21  Gerson Uaripi Tjihenuna

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