Revisiting ‘democracy and dictatorship’
Let us begin by quickly recalling two bits of Nigeria’s recent history. First, at the close of 1983, a military junta overthrew and supplanted the elected civilian government of Shehu Shagari, the first and only president of Nigeria’s Second Republic (1979-1983). Then, early in 1985, in the second year of the new military regime, which was headed by Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, an animated debate, similar to the one the country is now witnessing, raged in Nigeria’s national newspapers. The debate then was the relationship between democracy and dictatorship, or – as Leftists would more elegantly describe it – the “dialectics of democracy and dictatorship.” Thirty-three years later, with the global triumph of “democracy”, the question has transformed to the relationship between “national security” and “the rule of law” under “democracy”!
Incidentally, I joined The Guardian as a resident, full-time member of the Editorial Board when the 1985 debate was raging. And I joined the debate as a newly-inaugurated member of the Board and columnist. The present piece may be read either as an entirely fresh article provoked by the current debate over a recent statement by Nigeria’s current democratically–elected civilian President, Muhammadu Buhari, or as a review/update of my article, “Democracy and dictatorship,” published by The Guardian on Thursday, May 16, 1985. The 1985 article was provoked by the government of the same personage, Muhammadu Buhari, then Nigeria’s unelected military Head of State.
The broadest presentation of the central question in the 1985 debate was whether Nigeria, under military rule, was a democracy or not. It was as simple and straightforward as that – or as I saw it then, in 1985. A second question attached to the first, or issuing from it, was what should be done, if the regime was not a democracy. Leftists are often more interested in this type of follow-up questions. In any case, many participants in the 1985 debaters agreed that Nigerians should struggle to return the country to democratic rule, perhaps a better form of democracy than the Second Republic. Many others argued for a revolution – perhaps a socialist one – to re-define democracy. However, my attitude then was that a comprehensive answer to the first question carried the essential elements of the answer to the second.
Back to the central question of whether Nigeria was a democracy – a question that was, in essence, neither legal nor technical, but political. One answer was that Nigeria was not a democracy and should, in fact, not pretend to be one. Another opinion was that although Nigeria was not a democracy, there were certain democratic rights of the Nigerian people that ought to survive any change of government – “rights that are, more or less, conquests of humanity as a whole, rights that are incorporated in the United Nations’ Declaration on Human Rights to which Nigeria is a signatory.” That was how I put it in my May 1985 article: “Democracy and dictatorship.” Of course, there were other positions – some illuminating the questions, others confusing them. But I settled for the two described above as the main, dominant ones.
My substantive answer to this central question was in two parts. The first part was that Nigeria under the military rule of General Buhari and Brigadier Idiagbon was not a democracy, and that the Shehu Shagari civilian regime which it overthrew and supplanted was also not a democracy. The second part was that under class rule, democracy and dictatorship are not “polar opposites” but “dialectical opposites”; that “democracy” and “dictatorship” are polar opposites only in their “pure forms”; and that “democracy” in its pure form is realisable only in a distant regime projected by Marxists and some other strata of Leftists. By this composite proposition I meant that in actually-existing political class regimes, the best democracies contain significant dictatorial elements while even the worst dictatorships usually claim, or are portrayed, to be influenced by some known democratic principles and antecedents. Today, what I would add to this 1985 “disquisition” is that we can differentiate between regimes and social orders advancing to democracy and those that are not.
About five years after this debate and the appearance of my article “Democracy and dictatorship,” I received a copy of the August 1990 issue of a Moscow-published magazine called New Times. Pages (40-43) of the issue carried an article titled “Dictatorship and democracy” written in prison in 1918 by Rosa Luxemburg, a leading Marxist political economist and revolutionary of Polish-German nationality. She was the de-facto co-founder of what became the Communist Party of Germany: “de-facto” because she was murdered in prison in 1919 by rising German fascists before the party was formally proclaimed. The article was extracted from a larger article by Luxemburg titled “The Russian Revolution,” a long review of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Being incarcerated, she based her review on what she saw and knew before her incarceration and reports smuggled to her in prison.
I was pleased to see Rosa Luxemburg’s 1918 article five years after I wrote mine. But I noted then, in 1990 – and more strongly now, in 2018 – that the difference between Luxemburg’s title, “Dictatorship and democracy” and mine, “Democracy and dictatorship” goes beyond the arrangement of the two key words. Each arrangement indicates where the author concerned was focusing in the dialectics.
My reading of what Luxemburg was saying in her review was that the Russian revolution ought to be more democratic – notwithstanding the need and the fact, both upheld by her, that it was a form of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” which was conceived as a transition to socialism, to socialist democracy. The best that capitalism had been able to offer the world, she insisted, was bourgeois democracy. This bourgeois democracy was however, in essence, bourgeois dictatorship, the dictatorship of the capitalist ruling class.
Proletarian democracy should not be a mere “inversion” of bourgeois democracy – or else it would not transit to socialist democracy. Proletarian democracy should “proceed at every step from the active participation of the masses; it should be under their direct influence; it should submit to control by the people and it should rest on the growing political knowledge of the masses.”
Rosa Luxemburg’s review of the Russian Revolution was both critical and sympathetic. In addition to what I have already said, the following direct quotes from her “Dictatorship and democracy” further illustrate her provisional assessment – which unfortunately became the last one: “Any sustained rule by a state of siege leads to arbitrary rule; and any arbitrary rule leads to corruption”; “Without free press, without unfettered unions and freedom of assembly genuine rule by the people is unthinkable;” “The public life of a state with limited freedom is poor, meagre, schematic and sterile because by excluding democracy it shuts off its own sources of spiritual wealth and progress;” “Freedom for the government supporters is not freedom. Freedom is always for dissenters.”
Then, Rosa Luxemburg’s warning: “Unless the entire mass of people is engaged, socialism will be introduced by a score of intellectuals sitting round a green table. Control by the people is absolutely necessary, otherwise experience will be shared only within a close circle of officials of the new government, and corruption will be inevitable.”
But Rosa Luxemburg’s article ended on a note of praise, support and optimism: “At this stage, on the eve of decisive battles throughout the world…. Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first to march ahead of the world proletariat and show it an example. This is the most essential – and permanent – feature of Bolshevism. They have ventured out in the forefront of the international proletariat and given the struggle between capital and labour all over the world a mighty push forward. In Russia the problem could only be raised but not solved, because it can only be solved internationally.”
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