The following comments on Democracy and the Franchise and Elections and Parliament are from an article on Bourgeois and Proletarian Democracy written by Wilf Dixon in 2005
Democracy as a form of state rule.
The bourgeoisie have surrounded the word democracy with a halo as if it is the holiest of holy words. The social-democratic ‘tradition’ prevailing in Britain hardly ever subjects the meaning of the word to the scrutiny it needs. Although this may be changing since we hear it every day fall off the lips of George Bush and Tony Blair. But I don’t think this questioning is going very deep because the social-democrats satisfy themselves with merely describing Bush and Blair as hypocrites or inconsistent on this question. Which, of course, they are. However, what U.S. imperialism seems to have discovered is that it has enough wealth and power that it can in many situations at the present time promote individuals, buy a bandwagon of raz-ma-taz and build a movement for optimistic change which can persuade enough people to vote for whoever. This has worked particularly in Poland, Eastern Europe generally and parts of the old Soviet Union.
‘Democracy’ needs to be stripped of the humbug that surrounds the word. Before the emergence of classes and the consequent emergence of the state which comes into being as a product of the irreconcilable nature of class contradictions in class society, that is in order that the ruling class can hold down the subject class, there would undoubtedly have been contradictions among the people of the gens and tribes. Contradictions that may have lead to violence. Almost certainly between contending tribes. There would also have been discussion and consultation to handle disputes within the tribes and families of whatever form with the elders holding particular authority. Engels’ brilliant work on the ‘Origin of the family Private Property and the State’, needs to be read and re-read to get an adequate grasp of this subject. ‘Democracy’, is not “allowing people to have their say” as it is commonly understood to mean. Democracy is a form of state. The word emerged to describe a form of slave state in Greece and Rome. The franchise did not extend to the slaves. Nor would any thinking person reasonably expect slaves, who are merely the property of their owners, to have a vote. I make this point to paint a more vivid picture of ‘democracy’ being a class question. A class question which is obscured under the rule of the bourgeoisie which came to power waving the banner of general freedom and democracy. However, my knowledge of Greece and Rome is scanty and not a subject of detailed discussion here. But I have no doubt that there are people here who can speak in depth on this subject. Democracy is a class question and always has been. It can be nothing else.
It seems that there were democratic forms of the state in Rome and Greece based on the number of slaves owned. Serfdom and feudalism under which land ownership is the basis of wealth of the ruling class of feudal lords, replaced slavery and the land tillers were no longer owned directly by their masters. However, by virtue of his landlessness the serf and later the peasant was inextricably tied to his master having to work increasingly longer on his lord’s land as payment for living and tilling for himself on the Lords land. There was no vote or representative body for the peasants except in as much as they could petition their lord or even the King or his ministers against grievances. Certainly, they had no representatives in Parliaments that may be called by the King in order to raise money or taxes. Here I am not attempting a detailed study of life in the shires, which in some respects may have allowed more freedom to influence the decisions of local dignitaries. I don’t know. It is worth thinking about. However, it occurs to me that in the era of the rule of finance capital the mass of the population are more powerless today under conditions of fully consummated and decaying bourgeois rule than they have ever been. Powerlessness manifests in many forms. I recently read an article drawing attention to the fact that it is common for people in modern bourgeois Britain to be attacked and relieved of their possessions while people stand-by and say or do nothing.
Two aspects of powerlessness are suggested here. The attacked individual may on the one hand meekly give up his possessions having no trust that others would help him if he or she resisted. People nearby, on the other hand, reveal their own sense of powerlessness and fear in failing to intervene. I have the feeling that this kind of thing is a product of individualist atomised western bourgeois society which, of course, could not be tolerated in socialist society but it is also unlikely to have existed in medieval society except where the attacker was the local lord or one of his flunkies. It is common for individuals to be attacked in full view of others without anybody intervening. The proletariat is certainly alienated from the final product of its labour more so under capitalism than ever before or in former stages of development of human economic activity. But this alienation alone does not explain the very real sense of powerlessness that prevails in modern imperialist Britain.
However, I must not digress too much from the subject before us today. The distinguishing feature of the present day parliamentary democracies of the developed capitalist west is that suffrage has been extended to the whole adult population. Universal Suffrage is comparatively recent. In Britain even the Levellers and also the Diggers although I am not completely sure on the latter; who were the most revolutionary wing of Cromwell’s army, called for universal male suffrage. In Britain, women were ‘granted’ the vote in 1929. Before that, only women of certain property and independent means were ‘given’ the vote. The idea was that in order to have the right to vote, one had to have a stake in the system. The propertyless have always been despised and mistrusted. I would be interested to have a class breakdown of the near 40% of the population who didn’t vote at the last election.
So what do we say about universal suffrage? Does it change the character of elections in a bourgeois republic? In the sense that universal suffrage cannot change the nature of the state in a bourgeois republic, no. Parliaments elected by universal suffrage are acceptable to the ruling bourgeoisie. But in the sense that at certain times it is possible for the working class to utilise and gather strength through participation in parliamentary elections, it does. In State and Revolution, Lenin said that Engels regarded universal suffrage as a measure of the maturity of the proletariat. In an introduction to Marx’s Class Struggle in France, Engels speaks at length regarding the successes of participation in Parliament in Germany as against street fighting at a time when the proletariat couldn’t hope to match the weapons technology of the army and or when the loyalty of the troops to their commanders could be guaranteed. I’ll quote from pages 659 to 667 of my volume of selected works:-
“Thanks to the intelligent use which the German workers made of the universal suffrage introduced in 1866, the astonishing growth of the party is made plain to all the world by incontestable figures….Then came recognition of this advance by high authority in the shape of the Anti-Socialist Law…..
“…the German workers rendered a second great service to their cause in addition to the first, a service performed by their mere existence as the strongest, best disciplined and most rapidly growing Socialist Party, They supplied their comrades in all countries with a new weapon, and one of the sharpest, when they showed them how to make use of universal suffrage.
“With this successful utilisation of universal suffrage, however, an entirely new method of proletarian struggle came into operation, and this method quickly developed further. It was found that the state institutions, in which the rule of the bourgeoisie is organised, offer the working class still further opportunities to fight these very state institutions. The workers took part in elections to particular Diets, to municipal councils and to trades courts; they contested with the bourgeoisie every post in the occupation of which a sufficient part of the proletariat had a say. And so it happened that the bourgeoisie and the government came to be much more afraid of the legal than of the illegal action of the worker’ party, of the results of elections than of those of rebellion.
“For here, too, the conditions of the struggle had essentially changed. rebellion in the old style, street fighting with barricades which decided the issue everywhere up to 1848, was to a considerable extent obsolete.
It is important to remember that this introduction was written in 1894 and published in 1895. But there is also an interesting remark referring to France and Spain on page 659 which I will read now:-
‘There had long been universal suffrage in France, but it had fallen into disrepute through the misuse to which the Bonapartist government had put it. After the Commune there was no workers’ party to make use of it. It had also existed in Spain since the republic, but in Spain boycott of elections was ever the rule of all serious opposition parties. The experience of the Swiss with universal suffrage was also anything but encouraging for workers’ party. The revolutionary workers of the Latin countries had been wont to regard the suffrage as a snare, as an instrument of Government trickery.”
Engels is not saying that boycott is incorrect in the case of Spain, although in the context of his points regarding participation in parliament giving the opportunity for the working class to accumulate strength as in the case of Germany, he may be advising the Spanish or indeed the revolutionary workers of the Latin countries in general to learn from the German example. Be that as it may, the quote indicates to me that Engels regards intelligent boycott of elections as well as intelligent participation as both valid. Let us also note from here, though, that this period in which the German social-democrats utilised the Bundestag and came to be regarded as the leading Party of the 2nd International continued until the outbreak of the First World War. It was the period of peaceful development of the working class movement in the imperialist countries which had blunted its revolutionary will and fostered opportunism such that the majority of the Parties of the 2nd International supported their own imperialist bourgeoisie in a predatory imperialist war.
Parliament and Elections
As I pointed out earlier, Engels in an introduction to Marx’s Class Struggle in France speaks at length on the importance of utilising Parliament in order to assist the working class in gaining strength. He even says that at a time when confronting the bourgeoisie at the barricades brings defeat, it is preferable or that participation in Parliament has brought more success than erecting the barricades. So what is the point at issue here? The point at issue is the question what is to be gained from participation in parliamentary elections. By participation we are, of course, talking about putting up candidates. I am going to come back to this question because as it is an important practical one about which we cannot allow ourselves to be satisfied with the general view alone. A general view which seems to have reduced the question of participation in bourgeois elections and Parliaments to one of ‘it is a good thing’, therefore, we must do it. I blame opportunism and social-democratic prejudices for such shallowness. It is absolutely essential for communists, in imperialist Britain especially, where opportunism prevails in the workers’ and revolutionary workers’ organisations and legality and legalism prevails, to expose Parliament as an instrument of bourgeois class rule.
In ‘State and Revolution’, page 53 of the Chinese edition, under the heading ‘Abolition of Parliamentarism’, Lenin first quotes Marx writing of the Paris Commune:-
‘The Commune,’ Marx wrote, ‘was to be a working not a parliamentary, body, executive and legislative at the same time….’
‘….instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to represent and repress (ver- und zertreten) the people in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in Communes, as individual suffrage serves every other employer in the search for the workers, foremen and bookkeepers for his business’.
Revisionism in Britain gave us the British Road to Socialism and the main argument against the so-called peaceful road to socialism centres around the nature of the state. And so it should. But what about the kind of democracy the proletariat itself needs in order to exercise its power. The commune, and of course later the soviet, must be executive and legislative at the same time. It must be a practical body and to be a practical body it must be close to the masses in the factories and workplaces. This is a new form of political power. In fact it is not political power in the sense we have come to know it. That is the bourgeois sense of being in or out of ‘office’
It is worth noting here that the adoption of the British Road to Socialism also meant the CPGB switching from factory to constituency organisation. The two forms of organisation quite starkly outline the difference between bourgeois and proletarian democracy.
The bourgeois Parliament is part of the state apparatus of a bourgeois democratic republic or monarchy. I will try and make some points on why the proletariat does not need a Parliament. I am of course talking about a proletariat that holds power. The main aspect of this is connected with some important questions of Marxism on the nature of the state.
The state came into being with the emergence of classes and class contradictions. As such it is not a neutral body but an organ of repression. What distinguishes the bourgeois democratic republic from the feudal or slave states is the existence of a parliament elected by universal adult suffrage with the power to legislate Government policy and create laws and statutes. As the argument goes, because the Parliament is elected, it therefore expresses the will of the majority or the popular will. Hence, Parliament is said to be not an expression of class rule but a prize which parties expressing the interests of the classes they represent should seek to win. Unfortunately, there are two things which prevent the bourgeois parliament from becoming the expression of the will of the oppressed masses. One is that the Parliament once elected, with the ruling party having the majority of seats, it is immovable until the next election and its members can be bought by the high salary that goes with being an M.P and the thousands of threads that tie the most freely elected Parliament to the economic power of the bourgeoisie. The other is that real power resides in the executive authority of the bureaucracy, civil service, police and standing army. Parliaments come and go, but this powerful body, handpicked for its loyalty to the existing social order, cannot be removed by the legislative assembly. Should a Party of the working class and oppressed masses gain power and begin to meddle with the sacred property rights of the ruling class never mind begin to dispossess them of their wealth and privileges, there is always the standing army to disperse the Parliament and murder the peoples’ leaders.
In the absence of such a standing army, Marx and Engels were prepared to consider the theoretical possibility of the proletariat winning a majority of Parliamentary seats and using this power to buy out, rest by degrees from the bourgeoisie their power and thus gain power for the proletariat. England apparently, was such a country in the mid nineteenth century. Be that as it may, there is no example in history where a class holding power has given up that power without a fierce and violent struggle. Marx and Engels admitted of this theoretical possibility but only a charlatan and a bourgeois trickster would attempt to make such a consideration the main plank of a Marxist understanding on the proletariat’s struggle for socialism.
Based on the experience of the Paris Commune Marx and Engels introduced one amendment to the Communist Manifesto:-
‘‘One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.’’ (quoted by Lenin page 43 of State and Revolution Chinese edition).
The point is not to lay hold of the ready made state machine of the bourgeoise,
But to smash it and replace it with the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat organised in communes or soviets. The bureaucratic state must be smashed. That is the power of the bourgeoisie in the military bureaucratic state apparatus of repression and coercion, replaced by the armed proletariat or a peoples’ militia. The right of the proletariat to bear arms in order to exercise its power as a class is the most important expression of peoples’ democracy. Lenin quoting, Marx at length, explains in detail, contrasting anarchism with Marxism on the question of the state, that the bureaucracy will not disappear immediately. However, the communes and later the soviets will be working bodies expressing the needs in production and life of the working masses and therefore not requiring the bureaucratic apparatus of repression of the bourgeois state machine. These communes will have their authority centralised through a national body made up of representatives of the communes with the commune having right of recall of its representatives and criticism of their activities. This is democracy and centralism in a new kind of proletarian state, which is not a state in the strictest sense. It is a state in transition expressing the power and will of the formerly oppressed masses. With the securing of that power, and the creation of a new society and new morality and relations between people in that nation and internationally, the state begins to whither away and the day will come as stated in the Communist Manifesto when the state is a thing of the past consigned to the museum of history along with other antiquities like the spinning wheel and the bronze axe
Opportunism and Parliamentarism
The Oxford dictionary definition of opportunism is the ‘adaptation of policy to circumstances regardless of principle’. I have always understand it to mean and preferred the more precise definition from a Marxist-Leninist perspective of it meaning the sacrifice of long term aims for short term gains. Opportunism can be expressed in terms of any ideology but with regard to the subject we are dealing with today, Marxist Leninists or even those who call themselves Marxists and are reluctant to also call themselves Leninists, pride themselves that their participation is revolutionary, while that of the reformist parties is not. It is not good enough to make such assumptions because opportunism is a slippery animal and all practical experience of participation in parliamentary election campaigns must be carefully assessed and summed up as to its successes and failings in furthering the long term interests of educating and organising the revolutionary proletariat.
Of course, we are not here to lecture the Labour Party on how to utilise Parliament. The New Labour Party signalled to the bourgeoisie that it is a fully consummated bourgeois party of the American ‘democrat’ type when it abandoned clause four. Its only fig leaf making it possible for some ‘left’ representatives of the working class to justify their membership of the Labour Party. Tony Blair has done the working class movement a favour by removing this fig leaf. By becoming the preferred ruling Party for the British ruling class, New Labour can be perceived as stronger. But it is in fact weaker and the fact that it is becoming increasingly exposed as a Party of imperialism makes it of less use to the British ruling class. The more intelligent representatives of British imperialism understand only too well the roll that reformism and illusions among the working class in its reformist representatives plays in bolstering the rule of the bourgeoisie.
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