Democracy, not referendums
Jack Conrad advocates working class representatives, working class party politics and the working class programme of extreme democracy
Too many groups, publications and individuals on the left are calling for a second referendum on Europe. Some do so because they fear that even the softest of a soft Brexit will be a national disaster. Some do so because they believe in a so-called direct democracy.
I have already dealt with those who want to keep Britain in the European Union through holding a second referendum, a referendum on the “Tory terms”. See my polemic with the social-imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.1
The AWL is, of course, notorious on the left for providing thoroughly dishonest ‘socialist’ excuses for US-UK wars of intervention, a hypothetical Israeli nuclear strike on Iran, the ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt in the Labour Party and the big-business opposition to Brexit. As an organisation it is visibly evolving in a neocon direction. The best thing honest AWL members can do - those who retain a vestige of socialist principle - is to table a conference motion insisting on the immediate closure of the organisation.
My intention here, however, is to deal with the honest arguments of those socialists who call for referendums to be constitutionally enshrined. They do so, of course, in the mistaken belief that this would represent a substantial democratic advance.
Specifically, I shall cross-examine the case for referendums presented by Andrew Northall in a recent letter to the Weekly Worker.2 A necessary background check. As I understand, over the course of some long years comrade Northall has undertaken a rather unusual journey. From the daydreams of the Socialist Party of Great Britain he has arrived at the nightmares of ‘official communism’.
Nonetheless, it must be made clear that what the comrade writes is entirely on his own behalf. He is not a spokesperson for the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain (nor any other organisation). Even so, his views are far from uncommon on the left. Hence my reply can serve a wider purpose.
Comrade Northall begins badly. He makes a complete hash - first of the term ‘democracy’ then of the term ‘dictatorship’. He sees them as being in “contradiction”. Hence, when it comes to the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, there is, he claims, “a tension between democracy and power exercised by and/or on behalf of the working people”. Blame for this muddle lies with history … but also with the appallingly low level of Marxist education provided by the publications and groups of the contemporary left.
In fact, at least when it comes to classical Marxism, the dictatorship of the proletariat simply meant victory in the battle for democracy. For Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels - and their fellow radicals - ‘dictatorship’ did not stand in contradiction to democracy. Dictatorship, certainly as used in the writings of the Marx-Engels team, was an “accompanying aspect of democracy”.3 Therefore in the late 1840s Marx and Engels envisaged a class alliance of the small peasants, the urban petty bourgeoisie and the proletariat (= the people) which would sweep away the old order of European states and then carry through the decisive measures needed to “safeguard the achievements of the revolution, popular sovereignty, from all attacks”.4 In words that Marx and Engels would have readily recognised, though never used: the ‘dictatorship of democracy’. Effectively this was, of course, the line the Marx-Engels team promulgated in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung.
Eg, Marx-Engels scathingly remarked vis-à-vis the timid Frankfurt assembly of 1848 that all it needed to do was to “dictatorially oppose the reactionary encroachments of the outlived governments and it would have won over the power of public opinion, against which all bayonets and rifle butts would have shattered”.5 In a phrase: act decisively, act energetically, act “dictatorially”. That way democracy could be realised.
As for the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, Marx-Engels used the term alternatively with the ‘rule of the proletariat’. That, in essence, is all the fearful phrase meant to them. The dictatorship of the proletariat emerges from the rule of democracy and itself leads to communism (and consequently the end of the state and classes). Naturally, again for Marx-Engels, the dictatorship of the proletariat represented the rule of the majority. Marx-Engels forthrightly opposed the minority regimes of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. But they also opposed schemes for putting into power revolutionary minorities (including those committed to educating the proletarian masses and instituting the reign of equality).
It is in this light that the Bolshevik perspective of replacing tsarism with the ‘revolutionary, democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ needs to be understood. Those brought up within the common-sense tradition of seeing ‘democracy’ and ‘dictatorship’ as polar opposites, see a contradiction. The formulation appears to be a hopeless oxymoron. However, it made perfect sense to the Bolsheviks and their audience in Russia.
‘Revolutionary’ meant overthrowing, breaking apart, shattering, clearing away all remnants of the old tsarist state machine. ‘Democracy’ meant a government of the majority for the majority, and therefore regular elections; freedom of speech and assembly; the right to strike and trade union supervision over production; a popular militia instead of a standing army. ‘Dictatorship’ meant the bold, energetic, decisive rule of the majority against the dispossessed minority.
Only after October 1917 did the left begin to forget the teachings of classical Marxism. The ‘renegade’ Karl Kautsky and ‘official’ social democracy counterposed the ‘democracy’ that supposedly existed in western Europe and North America and the ‘dictatorship’ that had emerged in Soviet Russia. In fact, the democracy in such ‘bourgeois democracies’ owed its existence to the power of the workers’ movement and nothing to the power of capital. And universal suffrage remained a goal throughout most of western Europe and North America till well into the 20th century … and, of course, even when it was achieved, the bourgeoisie continued to rule - not least through turning elections into a means of deception.
Yet, because of national isolation, civil war, western intervention, economic sanctions, the sectionalism of the apparatus, etc, the regime in Soviet Russia did undergo a rapid degeneration. The rule of the proletariat and peasantry became the rule of the advanced part of the proletariat … and the narrowing continued to the point where eventually Stalin established his monocracy. Well before that, making the best of a desperate situation, Lenin, Bukharin, Zinoviev and above all Trotsky themselves counterposed dictatorship and democracy. The dictatorship of the proletariat - ie, what supposedly existed in Russia - was held up as a shining example others should emulate. And, no matter how undemocratic, no matter how terroristic, no matter how inverted, no matter that workers and peasants were viciously exploited, the Soviet Union was pictured not as a historic dead-end, but as a higher social formation.
The left still fails to treat democracy with the seriousness it deserves. Eg, under the rubric of the so-called ‘transitional method’ Trotsky’s latter-day followers - actually epigones - bank on routine, trade union-type demands rousing the masses and in essence tricking them into taking power. Such an economistic perspective has never worked, will never work, but it excuses the existence of the confessional sects, their endless splits over third-rate issues ... and the continuation of those politics in the form of the countless sects of one. Sadly, unity in a party based on the minimum-maximum programme of Marxism has become an alien concept, a foreign land.
Anyway, comrade Northall explains that “included” in his “own conception of socialism and communism has always been a much higher degree of direct participatory democracy than at present”. Quite right … but how that squares with describing the former Soviet Union as an example of socialism we will leave aside for the moment. The comrade continues in the admirable spirit of democracy:
Government and the administration of society should be everybody’s business. The working class and state power should be constantly accountable and subject to the peoples it serves, if it is to continue to be legitimate, to draw energy and inspiration from the masses and to lead eventually to the dissolution of formal state structures into public self-government by the working class and working masses.
But then we find the tar in the honey. “People”, says comrade Northall, “vote in their millions every week, and pay for the privilege, for crappy TV shows like Britain’s got talent or I’m a celebrity.” Having never seen either programme, I will take the comrade’s scathing assessment on trust. The problem is that he extrapolates from TV voting to voting on complex social and political questions: “Why shouldn’t we want the same people, but even more of them, to express their views on a similarly frequent basis on rather more important issues facing us, and therefore to participate more meaningfully and directly in both policy formulation and implementation?”
This is comrade Northall’s vision - and not only for the future socialist society. It is something he wants in the here and now: “If we support greater use of forms of direct democracy under socialism, then we should fight for them in the here and now under capitalism.” Not that the comrade wants to do away with representative democracy. “Of course,” he says, “there will always be a role for representative or delegate democracy, which may even continue to be dominant under socialism. But at the very least we, as democrats, socialists and communists, should be fighting for direct forms of democracy to supplement and enhance these.”
We in the CPGB are committed to a radical extension of democracy under capitalism. Abolition of the monarchy and House of Lords, a federal republic, disestablishment of the Church of England, proportional representation, replacing the standing army with a popular militia, etc. Such demands constitute a central plank of our minimum programme … a minimum programme which we would carry out to the full in government before turning to the tasks of the maximum programme. Nowhere do we envisage turning to referendums. Of course, that is not a matter of principle. But a clear dividing line ought to be drawn between what might be appropriate under the rule of the working class and what is appropriate under the rule of the bourgeoisie.
Let us take comrade Northall’s model of democracy - Britain’s got talent and I’m a celebrity. Audiences vote as atomised individuals. And, as such, they are influenced, guided, manipulated by the programme and its format, the embedded commentators and above all the invisible hand of the directors, producers and editors. Selecting what to show, what to highlight, what to can is up to those who control the programme (and behind them the chief executives, and, in the case of commercial TV, the advertisers). Then there is the role of the popular press. Audiences might imagine they decide, that the power to make or break lies in their hands. But it is an illusion.
If that is the case with trivial matters, such as who is going to have the Christmas number one, or who is going to have to fly home early, it is certainly going to be the case when it comes to important social and political matters.
Nonetheless, comrade Northall thinks it is “perfectly appropriate for referendums to be held to take big, strategic decisions on questions of principle and societal directions of travel, including on moral questions, such as abortion, and then require other forms of decision-making and democracy to work through the detail and carry them out.” Okay, take abortion. In our view the principled position is to call for ‘free abortion on demand’. There should be no time limits: ‘As early as possible, as late as necessary’ is the right slogan. A woman should be allowed to decide whether or not to have an abortion, not the state, not the church, not a doctor. This is what our MPs would be committed to vote for. We favour neither a free vote nor moral opt-outs. To make an obvious point, through democratic centralism we shall impose discipline on our CPGB fraction of MPs; we cannot do that when it comes to the general population.
Under comrade Northall’s system, especially given present-day circumstances, all it would take is some medic ‘discovering’ that foetuses start thinking in the ninth week of pregnancy, a series of carefully selected ultrasound images and a concerted media campaign … popular opinion could easily be swung. And, of course, the question on the ballot paper is a factor in its own right: ‘Should unborn babies be killed?’
The same could be done with war and peace. Eg, the majority of people thought it was right for Britain to intervene in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. True, the same can be said of parliament. However, our perspective relies neither on persuading atomised electors nor on persuading reactionary MPs, but on building class organisation: trade unions, co-ops, socialist societies, the Labour Party and crucially a mass Communist Party, which, in time, will be capable of winning a majority in parliament. Through the process of agitation, education and organisation will come the ability to make revolution.
Showing just how easily people can be swayed, there is the case of Andrew Northall himself. He breezily admits that in 1975 he thought “it right to have a referendum”. Going into the then European Economic Community apparently “represented a significant change in the strategic focus and direction of the United Kingdom”. Comrade Northall approved of “throwing our [sic] lot into the European project and implicitly signing up to the integrationist agenda”. The supposed alternative was “the traditional stance of remaining a declining imperialist power, aloof and hostile to Europe, a special relationship with the United States and the Commonwealth, and maybe a return to past glories”. The script could have been written by a Roy Jenkins, a David Owen or a Shirley Williams.
It is also worth pointing out that since the mid-1940s Britain has been firmly subordinated to US imperialism ... and still is. However, until the 1956 Suez fiasco there were dreams of establishing Britain as the third superpower. Britain not only dragged its heels when it came to decolonisation: plans were afoot to extend the British empire in Africa and the Middle East. As for Europe, comrade Northall is wrong. Britain was not hostile to the European Economic Community. Winston Churchill favoured “a kind of United States of Europe” in 1946.6 But this would not include Britain. And, in spite of American preferences, the Britain of Clement Attlee and Ernie Bevin stayed aloof from the European Defence Community and the European Coal and Steel Community - joining would, they pleaded, have compromised both Britain’s “sovereignty and its global responsibilities”.7
Come 2016, comrade Northall changed his mind (had his mind changed for him?). It was “right to hold a further referendum”. Why? Because “Europe had evolved into something significantly different to what was claimed to be on offer in 1975”. Then there was the rise of Ukip. So we find comrade Northall supporting the referendum and declaring its conduct “fair”. Like a true constitutionalist he insists that the result “should be respected”. This time the script could have been written by a Nigel Farage, a Boris Johnson or a Kate Hoey.
Communists have a consistent programme and consistent principles. However, there is nothing consistent about comrade Northall. Though he says the 2016 result “should be respected”, in 2018 we find him swayed by the call for a referendum “on both the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU and the proposed future relationship with the EU”. The electorate should have “options which include at least: endorsement; leave without an agreement; remain within the EU on current terms, renegotiate the terms of leaving”. This time the script could have been written by a Tony Blair, a Chuka Umunna or a Vince Cable.
By contrast, the CPGB does not tail the vagaries of public opinion. We have our strategic perspectives when it comes to the European Union and those perspectives were not changed by the result of the June 23 2016 referendum.
We did not conclude that referendums were undemocratic, fraudulent, a means of mass deception, because of sour grapes over the Brexit vote. We called for an active boycott of David Cameron’s referendum. As I have repeatedly argued, his objective was not to give power to the mass of the people. On the contrary he calculated on outflanking Ukip, wrong-footing Labour, satisfying his Europhobes … and hanging on as prime minister. There was no reason for the authentic left to give him any support whatsoever.
No, our objections to referendums are principled and long-standing. We opposed the Bonapartist operation in relation to the ‘Vote for the crook, not the fascist’ presidential election in France in 2002. Before that we urged an active boycott of Blair’s 1997 referendum in Scotland.8 Then the 1998 Good Friday referendum in Ireland and the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. All offered, from an elementary working class viewpoint, a bogus choice.
This position is perfectly orthodox in terms of classical Marxism. The background to the labour movement’s historic rejection of referendums lies with the resistible rise of Louis Bonaparte (directly elected as French president for 1848-52 and then elevated to emperor over the years 1852-70). His 1851 anti-parliament coup was endorsed by a rapidly called referendum, followed by a second referendum in 1852 which made him emperor.
Needless to say, Marxists condemned this ‘democratic despotism’. And Marx and his co-thinkers - Jules Guesde, Paul Lafargue and Friedrich Engels - presented their alternative in the minimum section of the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier. Here it was argued that the creation of a workers’ party “must be pursued by all the means the proletariat has at its disposal, including universal suffrage, which will thus be transformed from the instrument of deception that it has been until now into an instrument of emancipation”.9 The emperor constitution had to be abolished and in its place there had to be universal suffrage and representative democracy.
Similarly, social democrats in the United States took it for granted in the 1890s that they had to “abolish the presidency” (and the Senate). The only question was the ‘how’. Engels advised his comrades in America to stand presidential and senatorial candidates … provided they were committed to abolishing the post of president and the Senate.10
Karl Kautsky’s Parliamentarism, direct legislation by the people and social democracy (1893) is also worth citing once again.11 Kautsky’s arguments against legislation by referendum remain both relevant and persuasive.
In an age of class-based parties, from the standpoint of revolutionary change it is, he said, far preferable for the population to think about, organise around and vote for competing party outlooks for society as a whole. Referendums serve to blur and override the fundamental dividing lines between classes and their respective parties: precisely the opposite of what any Marxist wants to see.
Usefully, Kautsky makes a more general point about direct democracy in the form of referenda. Marxism strives, particularly through its emphasis on the necessity of a social democratic party, to bring about a situation in which the state is as weak - and the people are as strong and organised - as possible. He draws a vital distinction between, on the one hand, ‘the people’ as an isolated, unorganised mass who are not thinking about national or global politics and not organised into, or by, social democratic parties with a national focus and, on the other, ‘the people’ as a coherent, partyist force organised into, or by, social democracy on a higher level of political struggle.
To press home the point, Kautsky refers to contemporary studies about the conservative effects of referendums in Switzerland. Louis Blanc had already made a similar point back in 1851 (ie, in the midst of Louis Bonaparte’s power grab). Blanc highlighted the Girondist roots of proposals for political decision-making by referendum. When in 1792 Louis XVI was condemned to death by the French convention, the Girondists demanded a referendum (in vain, true). They were convinced that this was the only the way to stop the revolution falling into the hands of the sans culottes.
Notwithstanding that, Kautsky claims that referenda might be useful in the weaker, less autocratic states (“Maybe in the US, England and the English colonies, even under circumstances in France”). However, far more importantly, he stresses the expansion and deepening of existing representative democracy. In terms of Britain, for example, this would involve the election of judges, the abolition of the House of Lords, short parliamentary terms and the abolition of extortionate electoral deposits, which effectively debarred working class representatives (the experience of Chartism is in the forefront of his mind).
The rise of social democracy - which Kautsky is convinced will also spread to Britain with time - not only counters the capitalist monopoly over the press and its systematic corruption of public opinion, but, through the establishment of a workers’ press, leaders, speakers and parliamentarians, would be trained to take the social democratic message to ever wider masses. Indeed, through party organisation the working class learns how to impose its agenda on society ... and thereby prepares itself to rule.
Despite its undoubted shortcomings, Parliamentarism, direct legislation by the people and social democracy retains its worth, not least because we have seen the entirely negative effects of referendum campaigns over recent years. In Northern Ireland the left fell in behind the 1998 Good Friday agreement - that though it constitutionally institutionalised the sectarian divide of the working class; in Scotland the working class split into two hostile camps over independence and the non-Labour left hopelessly collapsed into petty nationalism.
Referendums under capitalism are inherently dangerous. They bypass representative institutions and serve, in general, to fool enough of the people, enough of the time. Louis Bonaparte knew it. Benito Mussolini knew it. Adolf Hitler knew it. Each legitimised their personal rule using a referendum vote. But even with the Elizabethan constitutional monarchy referendums have the great virtue of appearing to be the epitome of democracy. That is exactly why Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and David Cameron decided to use them. Referendums reduce complex questions to a simple, binary choice. As a bonus referendums wonderfully serve to cut across previous class solidarities and therefore produce radically false alignments. Hence, when it came to the June 23 2016 referendum, one half of the working class found itself aligned with Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Graham Stringer. The other half were behind George Osborne, Jeremy Corbyn and Nicola Sturgeon.
Yet it is surely in the nature of politics that choices are complex. There is rarely a straightforwardly ‘right thing to do’. Usually there is not only a choice to be made between option 1 or 2, but from options 1 to 7 and, within these, 1 (a) (i), 1 (a) (ii), 1 (b), … and so on and so forth. To reach a decision, then, it is necessary to reduce the range of options. That is, of course, why the Labour Party, before the Blair ascendency, had (1) recognised the right of Constituency Labour Parties to introduce amendments to proposed motions, (2) allowed for compositing procedures, and (3) even then facilitated discussion at conference before a vote was taken. Without such basic democratic rights being restored (and radically extended), the probability is that what we will get is yet more manipulation, demagoguery and the reliance on a personality cult around this or that leader.
Usually, the calling of referendums is the exclusive preserve of those ‘above’: ie, emperor, president, duce, Führer or prime minister. However, if, instead of that, ‘popular initiatives’ were constitutionally enshrined, there lies the distinct possibility of further enhancing the power of media barons, rogue billionaires and ultra-reactionary lobbies and interest groups. Ask people if they want to increase public spending on the health service (a popular initiative that could easily be promoted by big pharma) and my expectation would be a ‘yes’ vote. Ask people if they want to pay less in tax (a popular initiative that could easily be promoted by the richest 1%) and once gain my expectation would be a ‘yes’. The only way a government can reconcile two such conflicting referendum results is to slash the budget for education, housing, infrastructure, etc.
Juries and lots
Comrade Northall is much influenced by Alvin Toffler and his book The third wave (1980). Toffler predicted, we note, the erosion of the nation-state, the increasing importance of transnational institutions such as the EU, an end to the centrality of mass production, a nano, cloning and communications technological revolution on a par with the neolithic, the decline of money power and the rise of direct democracy through the internet, etc. Hence comrade Northall’s recommendation that alongside some sort of residual representative democracy there ought to be rule by juries (ie, randomly selected people who will for a fixed period of time make the key decisions in society). Here is what he says:
While there may always be a role for elected representatives, whose main current work and expertise is devoted to the formulation and implementation of policy, this could be supplemented and enhanced by taking into account the views of randomly selected sections of the population, to ensure decision-making as a whole is properly reflective of the wishes of society.
Perhaps such a measure could be introduced under communism. Why not? Then ‘every cook will govern’. Of course, that is up to future generations. But today we do not live in a society of associated producers, we live in a class-divided society dominated by the ideas of the exploiting class of capitalists. To forget that, to blur what is appropriate in terms of working class strategy and tactics under capitalism with what is appropriate under socialism and communism, is akin to calling for the working class to abandon class politics now in the name of fulfilling the maximum programme.
In that muddled spirit, comrade Northall says we “must start to develop an approach to democracy in line with Marx in The German ideology and Lenin’s State and revolution, where politics is increasingly taken out of the hands of career politicians and bureaucrats, and starts to become literally everyone’s business, alongside all the other aspects of people’s work and lives”. Such tasks are though for the future. We should proclaim such a vision now in order to educate, inspire and galvanise: ie, this is what we are aiming for.
But under our present-day circumstances communists are obliged to find the ways and means to organise workers into a self-conscious class that is (a) capable of overthrowing the capitalist state and defeating counterrevolution; (b) ready to pursue the class struggle under socialism - it will be mainly peaceful, acting against the survivals of class society in the form of the petty bourgeoisie and tendencies in the state apparatus that might lead it to pursue sectionalist interests; (c) ensure the spread of the socialist revolution internationally - crucially to the big and powerful countries.
Comrade Northall has no liking for what he calls “career politicians”. A jury system would certainly put a stop to that … if it could be implemented. But such a measure would not serve the cause of communism. No, once again it is the power of media barons, rogue billionaires and ultra-reactionary lobbies and interest groups which is enhanced.
Under capitalism the CPGB favours a radical redistribution of power downwards. Local democracy needs to be restored and enhanced. When it comes to parliament, we favour annual elections, proportional representation, the right of parties to recall their MPs at any time and a ‘party max’ imposed on our representatives: all CPGB members elected to public office would have their salaries capped at the level of the average skilled worker (the balance being handed over to the party). Moreover, as already explained, our MPs would be expected to vote as a bloc according to the decisions of the party’s central committee or some other such appropriate body. And, of course, communist MPs will have to undergo a careful selection process. What decides will not be their gender, their ethnic group or their sexual orientation. No, what matters to us is their record in the class struggle and their proven loyalty to the party. Our MPs will certainly be expected to devote themselves body and soul to the struggle for socialism (on a personal and family level, a risky business).
That is our eminently practical, historically tried and easily achieved method of combating self-serving careerism.
1. J Conrad, ‘Against a second referendum’ Weekly Worker April 8 2018.
2. Letters Weekly Worker April 12 2018.
3. H Draper Karl Marx’s theory of revolution Vol 3, New York NY 1986, p58.
4. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 7, Moscow 1977, p16.
5. Ibid p50.
6. C Wrigley Winston Churchill: a biographical companion Santa Barbara CA, pxxiv.
7. D Sanders Losing an empire, finding a role London 1990, p63.
8. See J Conrad Blair’s rigged referendum and Scotland’s right to self-determination London 1997.
9. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/ works/1880/05/parti-ouvrier.htm.
10. F Engels to F Wiesen (in Texas) in K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 50, New York NY 2004, p119.
11. See B Lewis, ‘Referenda and direct democracy’ Weekly Worker September 18 2014; K Kautsky, ‘Direct legislation by the people and the class struggle’ Weekly Worker March 31 2016.