Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789)

Democracy and rights

Mike Macnaircalls on the CPGB to reconsider its position on the question of national self-determination. In the first of three articles, he examines the meaning of ‘democratic rights’

The CPGB has used Lenin’s nationalities policy - that communists fight for class unity across national borders, but recognise the democratic right to national self-determination - as a fundamental orienting position in relation to a series of national conflicts. The idea is in theory common ground across the left, but in practice subject to a wide range of interpretations, which can result in taking opposite sides on ‘self-determination’ grounds.

In this series of articles I want to offer a theoretical critique of the ‘national self-determination’ approach. My argument is that the idea of national self-determination is not a democratic demand at all, but a variant on the land question, and that Lenin’s approach involved promising the nationalists something that communists could not deliver. The real relevant democratic demands are the equality of nationalities and the individual right to participate in politics in a language you understand.

The result is that the use of self-determination slogans (a) is a tactical response to the ascendancy in a particular population of political nationalism; (b) is subordinate to questions of international class unity; and (c) is also subordinate to defeatism in relation to the international military and covert state operations of the British state.

I will make the argument in more detail in three steps. The first concerns the nature of democracy, democratic demands, rights and ‘democratic rights’. The second concerns the material and class basis of nation-states and nationalist movements. The third is a re-examination of what exactly the ‘right to self-determination of nations’ might mean. I will end with a re-examination of some of the issues in relation to which we (CPGB) have used ‘right to self-determination’ arguments.

‘Tasks of the bourgeois revolution’

Traditional Leninist (including Maoist) and Trotskyist politics asserts that the bourgeoisie, in taking power from the feudal rulers, has three historical political tasks: solving the national question, the land question and the democratic question. A classic bourgeois state should therefore be an independent nation-state, which has a bourgeois-democratic constitution (‘representative democracy’), is secular, and has eliminated feudal survivals in landed property, local jurisdictions, etc. A state which does not conform to these characteristics is therefore either not yet a bourgeois state or has an ‘incomplete’ bourgeois revolution. On this basis, we get Trotskyist proposals for ‘permanent revolution’ and both classic Leninist and Stalinist variants: ie, that the proletariat must take the lead in solving the tasks of the bourgeois revolution.

In fact, there are no logical grounds either in Marx’s analysis of capital or in the general dialectical-historical materialism of the Marx-Engels ‘firm’ for supposing that any of these characteristics in their full sense are necessary to the class rule of the bourgeoisie. The traditional approach to the question is nothing but an unwarranted generalisation of the characteristics of the French Revolution. It logically implies that Britain has an uncompleted bourgeois revolution, which is frankly bizarre. It has grave difficulty in explaining the emergence of German and Japanese capitalism and imperialism.

Recent academic Marxist or post-Marxist writers, notably David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley, and Ellen Meiksins Wood, and recently Neil Davidson, have proposed that there is no such thing as the bourgeois revolution: the bourgeoisie normally takes power by a mutation of an old elite, and the revolutionary crises which affected the Netherlands in the late 16th century, Britain in the 17th century, and France (and much of the rest of Europe) at the end of the 18th century were anomalous.1 This is also in my opinion wrong.

There is a body of structural mechanisms which tie the feudal states - even the late absolutisms, including the late 19th century German empire and Italian and Spanish kingdoms - to the old order: status privileges of the nobility in relation to tax, private jurisdiction (even if only over peasants), status privileges and jurisdiction of the clergy, dynastic and religious basis of the monarchy, as opposed to its subordination to law. The bourgeois revolution involves the overthrow of these rights of the old elites. The process commonly involved more than one stage, but at the end of the day the Habsburg administration of the Netherlands, the Stuart monarchy in Britain, the Bourbon monarchy in France, the Tokugawa shogunate in Japan, the Russian tsarist empire, the kaiser regime in Germany, the Habsburg dual monarchy in Austria-Hungary, the Piedmontese monarchy in Italy and the Spanish monarchy all had to be zerbrechen(smashed up - Marx’s phrase in The civil war in France) for the bourgeoisie to take political power.

The bourgeoisie replaces these structural mechanisms for securing the loyalty of the state with its own. These are essentially three. The first is deficit financing of the state, central banks and financial markets. The second is ‘rule of law’ constitutionalism: that is, that law becomes the central ideology securing the coherence of the bureaucratic-coercive state apparatus. Even where military coups take place, their avowed aim is usually to secure the law against the dangers of democracy. The third is that the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie is an international state system, of which single states are only a part.

In this context ‘democracy’ and ‘the nation’ are in the bourgeois revolution political ideologies, by which the bourgeoisie mobilises the petty proprietors and the embryo proletariat against the feudal states. In the Dutch and English revolutions, their role had been played by Protestant millenarianism. As soon as the bourgeoisie has achieved power, all these ideologies are marginalised, or reshaped as ideologies of state power over the subordinate classes.

The land question is a little different, since it is a directly economic question. Feudalism involves the existence of a hierarchy of rights over the same land: the peasant’s right to cultivate it or to graze animals on commons, take botes or estovers from them, and so on; his landlord’s right to various dues and incidents, his landlord’s to military or other services and incidents; and so on up the chain until we reach the king, with a corresponding hierarchy of exploitative jurisdictions; and parallel claims of the clergy to tithes and similar rights. The transition to capitalist agriculture involves most of these rights-holders being expropriated, leaving a single ‘owner for all practical purposes’, who controls the use of the land and employs free labour, and a ‘sovereign state’. There is, however, no capitalist interest as such in the peasants becoming petty landowners (as they did in France), as opposed to being expropriated (as they were in England).

Democratic movement

On either this basis or the reasoning of Blackbourn and Eley, Meiksins Wood, and so on, it is necessary to explain the democratic movement of the 19th century in some way other than as a bourgeois movement. It is, in fact, not difficult to do so. This is the movement of the urban petty proprietors and the proletarians in process of differentiation. Its roots are in the left movements of elements of the urban petty proprietors and proto-proletarians (apprentices and journeymen) temporarily set free by the bourgeois mobilisations against the old order (Levellers, Babouvists and so on). It acquires its scale and solidity in the 19th century from the growth of the proletariat.2It is only the proletariat which has a stable and long-term common interest in political democracy. It soon becomes apparent that a real political democracy requires attacks on the right of property and communist measures, and at this point the proletariat and the petty proprietors part company: the radicalisation of Chartism around 1840 and the beginning of communism.

The ideas of ‘bourgeois-democratic demands’ and the ‘incomplete bourgeois revolution’ are therefore utterly misleading. They are also positively dangerous.

In the first place the logic of the argument may lead the proletarian party to give (‘critical’) political support to ‘bourgeois democrats’ in colonial (neo- or semi-colonial) countries, who merely use democracy as an ideology, as opposed to fighting together with them for common specific demands, while maintaining class political independence.

Secondly, since what the bourgeoisie calls ‘democracy’ is actually a particular form of rule-of-law constitutionalism, the workers’ movement may be led to internalise as ‘democracy’ or ‘democratic demands’ support for institutions which are actually elements of the rule of law, which is antagonistic to political democracy and institutionally connected to the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. ‘Traditional labour movement procedure’ in Britain has this character.

Thirdly, the French model leads to a ‘distributivist’ land policy towards the peasantry - that is, the redistribution of land to create and/or artificially preserve small peasant agriculture - which has been proved by the eventual failure of the Russian Revolution to be disastrous.

On the contrary, when we fight for democracy we are fighting for a direct interest of the working class, which is to a limited extent and unreliably shared by the petty proprietors and therefore forms the basis for a partial alliance of the proletariat with a section of the petty proprietors. The proletariat needs political democracy for the simple reason that its only power as a class is collective action, and political democracy is necessary to effective collective decision-making and therefore effective collective action. The Stalinists disproved the proposition that the proletariat does not need democracy, by testing it to destruction, on the largest possible scale.

‘Democracy in general’ and proletarian dictatorship

The Bolsheviks were confronted with efforts of the Mensheviks and Right Socialist Revolutionaries - as well as the bourgeois Cadets, other parties of the old regime and tsarist military figures, etc - to reverse the October revolution by a combination of force and sabotage. In Finland, the Baltics and Ukraine, German military assistance allowed a White terror to develop. From the time of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk the Left SRs and a part of the Menshevik-Internationalists sought to organise a ‘new October’: ie, overthrow the Bolsheviks. From spring 1918 the existence of a civil war, which had in fact begun immediately after the October revolution, was openly recognised.

Attempts to overthrow the new regime by military force and sabotage forced the Bolsheviks to a policy of repression. It is important to be clear that any government whatever would have had to use large-scale repression. The alternatives actually available to Russia in 1918-21 were not Bolshevik repression or soviet (or Menshevik-parliamentary) democracy, but Bolshevik repression, German occupation repression or White repression.

In this situation Kautsky criticised the Bolsheviks for abandoning the Marxist commitment to political democracy. The Bolsheviks’ response - expressed in Lenin’s The proletarian revolution and the renegade Kautsky, Trotsky’s Terrorism and communism and the Thesis and report on bourgeois democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat of the Second Congress of the Comintern - did not stop short at justifying their repression as emergency measures necessitated by civil war conditions. They also generalised these measures on the ground that the overthrow of the bourgeois state necessarily entailed civil war. (Even if this is true, it need not entail the whole gamut of measures taken by the Bolsheviks: compare the English and US civil wars, which did not involve the general destruction of freedom of speech and association.) In addition, they went on the theoretical offensive. ‘Democracy in general’, they argued, left out class, and by ostensibly giving bourgeois and proletarians equal rights, in fact maintained the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

The common error of Kautsky and the Bolsheviks here is the identification of democracy with rule-of-law constitutionalism. In Kautsky’s argument the Bolsheviks’ rejection of rule-of-law constitutionalism amounted to a rejection of political democracy. This would imply that ancient Rome was democratic and ancient Athens undemocratic, which would have startled most historical writers on these states, including Marx and Engels.

The Bolsheviks were correct to assert that a ‘democracy’ in which the rich have ‘equal rights’ with the poor is ultimately illusory. The rich will be able to buy votes, or to pay off officials, and thereby convert the democracy into an oligarchy; the only means of actually excluding the rich from political power in a class society is tyranny, and this, too, rapidly decays into oligarchy through corruption.

The converse of this, however, is that,, under the expropriation of the capitalists, ‘democracy in general’ becomes possible, since no individual has the private resources to corrupt the system. But state oligarchy and tyranny (Stalinism) are also possible, unless the new constitutional order contains constraints against elective, managerial, etc office becoming a type of private property.

(The Athenian case shows some effective constraints on office becoming private property. First, self-abolishing forms of majority rule are rejected: proposing an anti-democratic law in the Athenian Assembly was a criminal offence. Second, state officials are denied legal rights (to privacy, to make profits, to stand for election) which are given to non-officials. They were subject not only to term limits, but also to mandatory prosecution for corruption on leaving office; they could avoid conviction only by full disclosure of their financial affairs.)

The Bolsheviks abandoned the policy of workers’ control, which was their only suggested constraint of this type, in 1918. By 1921 elective, etc office had become substantially converted into private property, and Lenin’s only suggested solution was the futile expedient of creating a new bureaucracy to watch over the other bureaucrats: the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection. This was not even a liberal ­solution, but one drawn from the armouries of the ancient Chinese ‘legalists’, or of the Byzantine state and its Turkish Ottoman and Russian tsarist imitators. The argument against ‘democracy in general’ - whatever its merits as against Kautsky’s liberalism - was thus proved to be itself a legalist argument against the dictatorship of the proletariat.

What is political democracy?

The ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who was a critic of democracy, wrote:

The proper application of the term ‘democracy’ is to a constitution in which the free-born and poor control the government - being at the same time a majority; and similarly the term ‘oligarchy’ is properly applied to a constitution in which the rich and better-born control the government - being at the same time a minority.3

Aristotle’s chief conclusion from his analysis, and one which is worth remembering, is that states may have a mixture of monarchic, oligarchic and democratic institutions, and may thus be more or less democratic: democracy is a question of degree.

The most succinct modern statement of the meaning of political democracy is Abraham Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. This statement poses two questions: what is “government”, and who are “the people”?

The first question, what is “government”?, is intimately linked to two issues. The first is that capitalism makes a radical separation between ‘the political’ and ‘the economic’. This separation, as Meiksins Wood argues, allows the capitalist state to present itself as democratic, because on ‘political’ questions we are allowed a vote, while the regime in fact operates as an (economic) oligarchy.

The second is that modern liberalism rejects church, or direct state, control of speech and of certain aspects of sexual morality. This rejection flows from the concrete struggle of the bourgeoisie, the petty proprietors and the embryo working class against the concrete exploiting jurisdictions of the medieval church and feudal manor, and the descendant of these jurisdictions: the economic-regulatory, speech and morality, controls of the late-feudal, absolutist state.

Theoretical political liberalism, from the time of 19th century author John Stuart Mill, obliterates these origins and attempts to abstract the struggle for negative liberty from its concrete rejection of clerical or absolutist-state rule. On the basis of this false abstraction, liberal theory purports to define general limitsto government, or a concept of government which is ‘neutral between theories of the human good’. This will then both ideologically support the ‘free market’ and provide a place within liberalism for the clergy.

The resulting doctrine is logically incoherent. This incoherence is exploited by counter-enlightenment purity campaigners who assert that within the ‘neutral’ liberal state they should have collective ‘self-determination’ to pursue their collective theory of the good - as Christians, as Muslims, as representatives of their ‘national traditions’. This will allow them the right to exercise a dictatorship over the women and children of ‘their own people’.

It is, nonetheless, true that capitalism does separate politics and economics. The state is a distinct entity, an apparatus of extra-economic coercion, and both freedom from state tyranny in everyday life and maximum democratic control over the state are in the best interests of the working class. It is better for the working class (a) to live under a liberal regime than a counter-enlightenment purity regime and (b) to obtain as much democracy as possible within the liberal regime. Politics does not collapse into economics even under war conditions: this is the burden of Lenin’s 1915-16 polemics against ‘imperialist economism’, and it is clearly right even if Lenin’s concrete conclusions on the national question may not follow.

It follows that politics also does not collapse into economics (or politics and economics collapse together) at the moment at which the working class takes political power. For politics and economics to be transcended, class - that is, the permanent subordination of grunts who do the shit-work to individuals who spend their whole adult lives as decision-makers and managers - has to be transcended. This requires a whole raft of changes which can only begin in the workers’ movement - and start to be introduced in the society as a whole when the working class seizes political power - and will probably take generations to complete.

‘Human rights’

Modern liberalism expresses its arguments in terms of ‘rights’ and ‘human rights’. These formulations are ideological, aka apologetic.

A right is a claim to a benefit or power which is protected by law or some law-like system of rules. To say that I have a right to my house is to say that I own it: ie, that if someone takes it I can get it back by legal process. To say that I have a right to free speech is a little more complex. It means that some legal rule prohibits the state, or other individuals or groups, from interfering with me speaking or punishing me for speaking. What is actually a positive restraint on the actions of the state or other individuals or groups is presented as a negative freedom-right of the individual, and this in turn is presented as being ‘owned’ by the individual.

This reformulation has both an institutional and an ideological aspect. The institutional aspect is that it allows ‘constitutional rights’ and ‘human rights’ to be litigated. Courts can thus overturn political decisions in order to protect rights. Not very surprisingly, the rights which courts are generally keenest to protect against politicians are classic property rights. A very clear example of the limited protection of other rights is the second Belmarsh case, where the court of appeal held that the international and national laws and human rights instruments prohibiting the use of torture, and evidence obtained by torture, did not prohibit the home secretary using evidence obtained by torture in order to decide who is a ‘terrorist’; the House of Lords modified the ruling, but in a way which still allowed the use of material which was probably obtained by torture, but could not be clearly shown to be.4

The ideological aspect is that, by reformulating rules which prohibit tyrannical acts by the state as ‘rights’, the rights of private property can be made to appear as ‘human rights’. Thus, as I pointed out in a more extended treatment of the politics of law in 2003,5 human rights documents from the earliest to the latest have the protection of private property at their core.

In addition, the language of rights has an ideological aspect in the ideologies of bourgeois revolutions and counterrevolutions. When I assert that I have a natural right to my property, or to political liberties, I am claiming that, irrespective of the positive state law, it is legitimate for me to use force to protect my ‘rights’. Such rights claims were therefore prominent in the Dutch, English, American and French revolutions. The US ‘human rights offensive’ from the later 1970s deployed the language in support of counterrevolutionary movements to restore capitalism in eastern Europe and elsewhere, or to restore more directly US-dominated capitalism in parts of the world governed by national-Bonapartist regimes.

Both by committing political decision-making authority to courts and by presenting the protection of private property as the core of the struggle against political tyranny, the language of human and constitutional rights is opposed to political democracy.

Marxists have nonetheless made extensive use of the language of the defence of ‘democratic rights’. In part this is a result of the confusion between democracy and liberalism, which was endemic in the Second International.6 In part it results from the misleading logic of the concept of the ‘uncompleted tasks of the bourgeois revolution’.

There is, however, a rational core to this usage. Some of the liberties protected by bourgeois constitutions are actually restrictions on the state power, which are important for democratic control of the state: freedom of speech, freedom from arbitrary arrest, the right to vote and some others. Trial by jury, which is protected by the US but not by the British constitution, is directly a democratic form. A state whose form includes these liberties will therefore be more democratic than a state which does not. In this sense, though the legal form of the liberties as ‘rights’ is anti-democratic, their presence in the constitution is pro-democratic. The question posed is whether national self-determination is a ‘democratic right’ in this last sense: a pro-democratic right.

‘The people’

Who are ‘the people’? It is a familiar story that the “We, the people of the United States” of the US constitution referred to a narrow electorate, which certainly excluded women and black slaves, and to a considerable extent excluded employed workers. Aristotle’s “majority” was the free-born and poor: in reality, ancient states also drew a sharp distinction between citizens and non-citizens. These options are at most relatively democratic. Another option is ‘the people’ = ‘the nation’. Translated into German, ‘the people’ becomes das Volk: are German Jews members of the Volk? The idea that ‘the people’ = ‘the nation’ grounds the 19th century idea that a democratic state will necessarily be a nation­­-state. It is this idea which is, in turn, the real ground of the idea that national self-determination - the right to a nation-state - is a democratic right.

This brings us to the crunch of the problem. A state is a territorial entity. It is a standing army of soldiers, backed by a sitting army of bureaucrats, which has control of some definite territory. Nations or nationalities, whether we include Stalin’s territorial criterion for a ‘nation’ or not, are composed of people. And people, unlike land, move around. At the borders of territorially compact nations, they get mixed up: the Marches of Wales, Alsace-Lorraine, Belgium, South Tyrol, pre-1945 Sudetenland, the Ukraina (which means, exactly, borderland) ...

In the capitalist epoch of world economy the problem is even worse. To avoid possible confusions with the effects of 19th and 20th century colonialism, we may look at an older example. The 18th century population of London included at least English, Welsh, Scots, Irish, former French Huguenots, Jews, substantial numbers of Dutch residents and a significant group of slaves, ex-slaves and ex-mariners of African origin. Which of these were part of ‘the people’ so as to be participants in the democratic movement, and to have a claim, in a democracy, to vote?

The answer is all of them. Political democracy is about the people controlling the government: ie, the coercive-bureaucratic state. It is that which makes it political democracy. The state is a territorial entity. It follows that, unless we are to follow the Greeks by turning ‘the people’ into a limited juridical entity - ‘citizens’ - then ‘the people’ who are to control the government must be the inhabitants of the state’s territory, including those who are not members of the majority (or historic) nationality in that territory.

Democracy and majority rule

Being the majority nationality does not make it democratic to exclude minority nationalities from political power. We may reach the same conclusion in another way. It is tempting on the basis of Aristotle’s definition, and commonplace, to identify ‘democracy’ as ‘majority rule’ (Lenin in State and revolution in fact succumbs to the temptation). Tempting, but mistaken. The obvious counter-example is a referendum which vests the people’s sovereignty in a single leader (a technique used by the Nazis and by the Khomeini Islamists in Iran). The referendum is a clear instance of a ‘democratic’ majority decision: but the state regime after the referendum could not plausibly be called a democracy. On Aristotle’s definitions, it is a clear instance of tyranny (and an example of Aristotle’s criticism of democracy as leading to tyranny).

This sort of self-abolishing majority rule is merely an extreme example of a more general phenomenon. If democracy means the rule of the majority (so that the minority are excluded from political decision-making, even if only until the next general election), the result is that there must be a rule of decision within the majority. Majority rule then turns into the rule of the majority of the majority, which in many cases is actually a minority; and in any case leads to the rule of the majority of the majority of the majority ... and so on in ever-decreasing circles, ending in the personal rule of J Stalin or A Blair. This may sound like an abstraction, but is in fact an important practical part of the way in which majority rule, both in parliamentary regimes and in the less openly tyrannical of the bureaucratic-centralist organisations, like the Mandelite Fourth International, turns into oligarchy - the rule of the few, whether the ruling class few or the bureaucratic few.

Rather, the underlying basis of democracy is actually an agreement or understanding in principle that everybody gets to participate in political decision-making. Within this principle, majority rule is a subordinate convention for taking specific decisions. The random selection of officials and decision-makers, as in Athenian selection by lot and as in jury trial, and term limits on office-holders, may be more democratic in effect than a majority-rule electoral system which vests prolonged power in the persons elected. Equally, restriction of the franchise on national grounds to protect the ‘right’ of the national majority to a state ‘of their own’ is anti-democratic.

The equality of nationalities

The logic of my analysis so far yields the conclusion that political democracy requires the equality of nationalities within the state. For present purposes it is not yet necessary to have a tight definition of a ‘nationality’ or ‘nation’. We can take a ‘nationality’ within a state to be a group of users of a distinct mother-tongue language and/or a distinct inherited cultural formation: thus including Jews and Roma as well as national groups which live in a compact territory somewhere. A state which discriminates in political participation against members of a minority nationality within its territory will to that extent to be undemocratic or anti-democratic. All the more so one which discriminates in political participation against a majority nationality.

The same underlying idea, that democracy is about everyone getting to participate in politics, carries with it a genuine ‘democratic right’: ie, a pro-democratic right of individuals. This is the right to participate in politics in a language you understand. The reason why this is a pro-democratic right is that if the official languages of the state exclude those some of the state’s inhabitants speak, those inhabitants will be to that extent excluded from political participation.

This gives rise to a curious contradiction. The argument for 19th century assimilationism was in the last analysis a democratic argument: by adopting one language for the whole state and educating everyone in it, we ensure that everyone can participate in politics. But, in selecting the ‘majority language’ as that to which everyone was to assimilate, the state denied the other democratic principle: the equality of nations. The Esperantist movement was in origin partly an attempt to escape from the logic of this contradiction.

Another response to it was the rise of minority-nation nationalism, to which the doctrine of the self-determination of nations is a response. Self-determination suggests that nations, whatever they are, have the right to form independent states - though communists usually argue that it is better to have larger states, and nationalists argue that they should form independent states.

But this, in turn, poses the question: what is a nation.



1. D Blackbourn and G EleyThe peculiarities of German history Oxford 1984; E Meiksins Wood The pristine culture of capitalism London 1991; N Davidson How revolutionary were the bourgeois revolutions? Chicago 2012.

2. AH NimtzjrMarx and Engels: their role in the democratic breakthrough New York 2000. Compare also J SperberRhineland radicals Princeton 1991.

3. E Barker (trans) Politics 1290b, Oxford 1948, p193.

4. Ajouaou and others v home secretary [2004] EWCA 1123, HL [2005] UKHL 71.

5. ‘The war and the law’ Weekly Worker September 25 2003.

6. More argument in ‘Republicanism and Marxism’ Weekly Worker May 29 2003.