Extreme democracy and the limits of capital

Our movement has long been riven by profound disagreements over democracy - its origins, significance and relation to the struggle for socialism and communism. There are always timid 'possiblists' who stress democracy to the point where it becomes something almost for itself. That was true in the mid-19th century of moral-force Chartism and, a few decades later, of the nascent trade union bureaucracy. It is also true nowadays. The pages of the Weekly Worker have over the last couple of years been repeatedly graced by Dave Craig and his argument that the Socialist Alliance should be programmatically self-limited to the extension of democracy under capitalism: abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, self-determination for Scotland and Wales and a federal republic, etc. The maximum programme for socialism and communism should, he says, be put aside. From the Marxist standpoint such advice, if taken, would have placed the Socialist Alliance on the far left "¦ of bourgeois radicalism. Liberalism thereby replaces socialism and suggests its own craven methods. Indeed, instead of socialism (communism) being vigorously promoted - for example, in the anti-capitalist milieu - as the only feasible alternative to capitalism, it is regarded quizzically or even as a threat. The merest programmatic mention of the rule of the working class and communism will supposedly have militant trade unionists and former Labourites scurrying away from us in a blind panic. Ipso facto the plan outlined in the book Towards a Socialist Alliance party is unrealistic and unworkable. In lieu of a revolutionary Socialist Alliance party - ie, a Communist Party - the best that can be obtained is a "communist-Labour party", which tolerates the snug communist minority and advocates socially circumscribed reforms. That is all that is possible under today's pinched circumstances. Ironically the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' is deployed in a thoroughly dishonest manner precisely to scare militant trade unionists and former Labourites. After all communist parties are "by definition" committed to the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' - and 'dictatorship', it is falsely implied, is the opposite of democracy, and therefore a rather dangerous concept; certainly not for the consumption of ignorant masses outside the closed circles of the initiated few. Suffice to say, for Marxists, 'dictatorship' means nothing more frightening than the 'rule' of a particular class. The term derives from the Roman dictatura - a temporary form of government voted for by the Senate during times of dire emergency. And this is how the word was translated into English and French by the movers and shakers of the American and French revolutions in the 18th century. George Washington, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, Jean-Paul Marat, Maximillian Robespierre and Louis-Antoine St-Just all dressed themselves in the costume of the Roman republic and borrowed its political terminology. So Marxism did not invent dictatorship as a way of describing a form of the state. Marxism did nothing more than ground all state forms in the palpable existence of class and the struggle of one class against another. Hence in the lexicon of Marxism there can be the rule, or dictatorship, of an exploiting minority, or the rule of the overwhelming majority: ie, the working class. Put another way, democratic republics like the USA or France - depending on the class struggle - could have a proletarian or bourgeois content. Only in the 20th century did bourgeois ideologues try to shift the linguistic meaning of 'dictatorship' so as to make it synonymous with absolutism or tyranny. That way, the dictatorship of the proletariat in the Soviet Republic could be damned as the self-confessed antithesis of democracy. Evidently contemporary Marxists therefore have every reason to dispute this semantic sleight of hand. Leaving aside the occasionally problematical statements of Lenin and Trotsky on this subject, the works of Marx and Engels are peppered here and there with now famous - infamous - references to the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' (or making those below "supreme"). Unless we are going to allow Marx and Engels to be traduced by bourgeois society and portrayed as sinister anti-democratic advocates of absolutism or tyranny, then there must be an ongoing battle to reassert and promote the unambiguous meaning the founders of scientific socialism gave to the phrase, which as Engels remarked in March 1891, has always "filled" the philistine "with wholesome terror" (K Marx, F Engels CW Vol 27, Moscow 1990, p191). Obviously, as we had to tell Martin Thomas of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, because of the combined effect of cynical, drip-drip bourgeois propaganda and the monstrous crimes of bureaucratic socialism carried out under the name of Marxism, the same goes for other hotly contested terms - 'communism', 'Communist Party', 'Bolshevik', etc (see 'Smoke and mirror polemics' Weekly Worker March 28). Democracy counterposed On the other wing of our movement we find those who counterpose democracy to socialism, or at least who say that socialists should maintain an "ambiguous attitude" towards democracy - the latter phrase surprisingly coming from Hillel Ticktin (see Weekly Worker August 30 2001). Democracy is considered to be either positively harmful or an optional extra. Such a viewpoint amongst communists and leftwing revolutionaries dates back to at least the first half of the 19th century: ie, to a time when the governing classes freely expressed an almost visceral contempt for the idea of democracy and loathing of those who advocated such an 'unnatural' and 'ungodly' system - in the words of the old hymn: "The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, the Lord god almighty ordered their estate." In those innocent times the idea of democracy was subject to much less dispute than today - no government apart from perhaps the USA pretended that it had established itself on the basis of a democracy. As Hal Draper also points out, in those days it had not yet become necessary, or fashionable, to "dedefine democracy out of existence". Hence the enemies of popular sovereignty attacked the democratic idea openly and forthrightly, "instead of embracing it in a crushing vice" (H Draper Karl Marx's theory of revolution Vol 1, New York 1977, pp285-86). The British 'liberties' celebrated by arch-conservatives like Edmund Burke and syrupy liberals such as Charles Dickens owed far more to the rights of land and money than the rights of the common man. Even with the extension of the franchise in 1832 only a tiny minority of the male population could vote. Property qualifications did what they were intended to do - excluded the vast majority and prevented democracy. Under these circumstances the bourgeoisie - ie, the class of medium-sized capitalist farmers, middle ranking civil servants and the burgeoning manufacturers - still in the main considered themselves to be part of the people. This was the case in Britain. It was especially the case in mainland Europe. Hence during the revolutions of 1789, 1820, 1830 and even 1848 the crowned heads of France, Prussia, Austria and Russia had ranged against them on the other side of the barricades the people - a political concept which embraced many outstanding bourgeois revolutionary democrats. Only in 1848 did the bourgeoisie begin stage by stage to decisively exclude themselves from the camp of democracy and separate off from the people. Understandably the extreme left of democracy had little love for the bourgeoisie. An exploiting class, it was, they knew, also prone to vacillation. However, certain ultra-radical elements, including the precursors of modern-day anarchism, despised the bourgeoisie and their commercial and money-grabbing spirit to such a degree that they gravitated towards the autocracy. Ferdinand Lassalle, the famed German socialist and would-be labour dictator, was one such figure. Mikhail Bakunin another. The former entered into secret negotiations with the kaiser's iron chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, with a view to cementing a proletarian-Hohenzollern united front against the bourgeoisie. The latter similarly tried to secure himself a royal patron and thus a shortcut to the social utopia - with everyone from Charles XV of Sweden, Louis Bonaparte in France and even the tsar of all the Russias himself, Nicholas I. Time and again Marx and Engels had to answer ultra-radicals who thought nothing of firing off pernicious articles aimed directly against democracy - the suggestion that the bourgeoisie represented the main enemy was for many workers simply common sense. In The German ideology they lambasted this, what they called the "old thesis", and accused its gladiatorial advocates of working gratis for the monarchy. But there existed another, more fundamental, reason why certain leftists tut-tuttingly deprecated, or actively colluded against, the fight for democracy. Apart from proletarian socialism - which is the forward, self-liberating movement of the great mass of the population as it breaks free from the limits of capital - there are other kinds of anti-capitalism: namely varieties of elitist socialism. These socialisms - statist, feudal, military, etc - owe everything to the whims, blueprints and scheme-mongering of labour kings, universal reformers or self-selecting cliques. Their carefully drawn plans for the flawless reconstruction of society could hardly be entrusted to the ignorant and servile multitude. Instead of the masses liberating themselves and remaking the world around them according to their interests and wishes, the far-seeing genius, the granite-hard revolutionary elite, the benign leader would preside over the envisaged transformation. For such socialisms democracy is a danger to be guarded against or carefully rationed. The stupid masses might, after all, prove less than enthusiastic about the fantasies dreamt up by the enlightened minority. Marx and Engels believed that, with the growth of working class confidence and the formation of the workers into a party, such contrived socialisms would prove to be a passing phase. Put another way, an infantile, or childhood, disease. As we know, that was not to be. The 20th century witnessed the complete surrender of social democracy to bourgeois society. It also saw the degeneration of the USSR and Stalin's counterrevolution within the revolution. This anti-capitalism was spread to, or was copied in, many other countries - half of Europe, China, Vietnam, Cuba, North Korea, etc. Though Stalin and all the local Stalins - Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Kim il Sung, Tito, Pol Pot, Castro, et al - paid fulsome lip service to democracy (Stalin even declared that his 1936 constitution was the "most democratic in the world"), in actual fact the masses languished under a tyranny far more deadly, draconian and all-pervasive than anything experienced in 19th century Europe. Despite routine claims to provide for the full panoply of basic democratic rights - right to free elections, right to organise, right to publish, right to demonstrate, etc - reality was almost the exact opposite. There were no free elections nor the right to publish or demonstrate. The population was atomised, crushed and treated as state slaves. The democratic rights won and maintained through popular struggle in the advanced capitalist countries - north America and western Europe - proved far more substantive. Working people could organise independently of the state in the USA. In the USSR they were organised by and for the state. Bureaucratic socialism was anti-capitalism, but it was also anti-proletarian socialism. Democracy revolutionised Marx and Engels took an altogether different approach, compared to their liberal reformist and ultra-radical contemporaries. They neither viewed democracy as a thing in itself nor as threat. Rather than counterposing democracy to socialism, they saw their task as integrating the two objectively (programmatically and, crucially, in terms of the real mass movement). In general Marxism as a programme, says Hal Draper, can be defined as the "complete democratisation of society, not merely of political forms" (H Draper Karl Marx's theory of revolution Vol 1, New York 1977, p282). Marx and Engels began by prioritising the fight to democratise political forms. But for them this was an integral part of the fight for socialism and communism. Democracy meant unrestricted popular control over all aspects of society. Practically that posed the successive removal of all juridical, structural and socio-economic restraints on, or distortions of, popular control from below. That is why for Marxism democracy unmistakably points to socialism and communism. Without a social content there can be no consistent democracy. Without democracy there can be no socialism. Marx and Engels did not come to this conclusion simply through hours of quiet contemplation in their book-lined studies. The revolutions of 1848 - in which they were active participants - were key. In the heightened tempo of revolutionary events in France, and in particular Germany, helped to show Marx and Engels the correct relationship between socialism (communism) and democracy - their analysis was fully rounded off by the Paris Commune of 1871. This revolution produced a new kind of state, a semi-state, with a definite working class content, along with truly democratic forms. Far from taking an "ambiguous attitude" towards democracy, the Commune showed that democracy must constantly be broadened and taken to new heights so that all aspects of society come to be fully controlled by the masses. As democracy steadily advances, permeating everything, the state - a special body for administration and coercion - withers away. Its functions cease to have any purpose or are simply absorbed into society itself. What had to be imposed by force becomes mere force of habit. The revolutions of 1848-49 temporarily put power into the hands of the bourgeoisie in Germany and France. Both in terms of programme and social composition their governments were bourgeois but, compared with the previous regimes, were considerably more democratic. Marx and Engels themselves did not operate through a specifically workers' party - the workers' movement was still at a primitive level and their Communist Party consisted of no more than 30 secret local sections with a membership of barely over 200. They launched a daily paper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, as an organ of extreme democracy: "a democracy which everywhere emphasised in every point the specific proletarian character", as Engels said many years later (K Marx, F Engels CW Vol 26, Moscow 1990, p122). Marx and Engels mercilessly assailed a still intact Prussian monarchy, but did not flinch from criticising the shortcomings and pretensions of democracy, right and left. Their paper treated such 'internal' opponents with a combination of understanding and deserved "scorn". Ultra-radicals around Andrew Gottschalk - a member of the Communist League and leader of the Cologne Workers' Association - were instructively given particularly short shrift. Gottschalk urged his supporters to shun participation in the broad democratic movement and he soon clashed with Marx. Marx and Engels likewise rejected the 'left economism' of Stephen Born, who with the best of intentions sought to keep working class demands within the narrow confines of "occupational economic goals". This would have diverted workers from the pressing democratic tasks that faced the German people - for Engels founding a centralised republic and waging a war of extermination against the tsarist bulwark of reaction. Neither Marx nor Engels doubted, even for one moment, the advantages of a democracy under the emerging bourgeois system of production. Rather they sought to overcome those limits imposed upon democracy by the bourgeoisie: eg, property qualifications on the franchise and legal 'checks and balances' which nullified rights and liberties. Popular influence and control had to be maximised. That included arming the masses and thus making real the right to freely dispose of an unacceptable or oppressive government. For Marx and Engels German society stood between an uncertain future and the still present past. While constitutional assemblies had been established in Frankfurt and Berlin and wide freedoms gained, Prussian absolutism remained intact and still exercised executive power. Alongside the citizens' militia there stood the undiminished might of the Prussian army. The autocratic state had been weakened, but lived on. There was a dual-power monarchy. Consequently the workers and the extreme left of democracy had to unite their efforts in order to sweep away the monarchy, using the most revolutionary methods conditions allowed. Things would not, however, stop there. Democracy had to be given a social content and the rights and power of those below pushed forward again and again. Permanent revolution. That underlined the necessity of combating the backtracking tendency amongst liberals and other inconsistent democrats who sought a halfway house compromise with the autocracy in the form of a British-style constitutional monarchy. Typically the representatives of the bourgeoisie shrank back from a direct clash with the autocracy. With that in mind Neue Rheinische Zeitung encouraged the masses to pressurise, or intimidate, parliamentarians. This can be appreciated from the commentary around the motion proposed by the radical, Johann Jackoby, to the effect that all decisions made by the Frankfurt assembly should automatically have the force of law without needing consent by the monarch. The conservative deputy, von Berg, jumped to his feet in order to denounce this outrageous attempt by the leftwing minority to rouse outside support, an attempt which was "bound to lead to civil war". Engels coolly replied that the "outsiders" in question were the people themselves who had made the assembly through the March revolution. He caustically denounced Herr Berg and other such worthies for wanting to abolish political agitation, which is nothing more than the freedom of the press and the right to organise put into practice. Whether these rights do or do not lead to civil war is "not our concern", said Engels. It is sufficient that such rights "exist" and "we shall see where it 'leads' if they continue to be infringed", he warned (K Marx, F Engels CW Vol 7, Moscow 1977, p239). Engels took obvious delight in excoriating one particular deputy - a former young Hegelian opponent. Speaking to the Frankfurt assembly, Arnold Ruge made his political direction all too clear: "We do not want to quarrel, gentlemen," he politely reassured his colleagues, "over whether we aim for a democratic monarchy or a pure democracy; on the whole we want the same thing: liberty, popular liberty, the rule of the people." With such hollow catch phrases Ruge sought to simultaneously please the right and subsume the programme of the left into that of the right. What a brilliant idea! Such cowardice encouraged reaction to go onto to the offensive. As soon as it could gain sufficient strength, the autocracy began to "cheat the revolution of its democratic fruit" by chopping back on the rights won on the March barricades. Democratic clubs were closed, free assembly compromised, the democratic press hauled before the courts. The Neue Rheinische Zeitung fought back at every stage before constitutional phrases were transformed into Prussian realities and full-blown counterrevolution. The revolution was put to death in the name of the fatherland. Marx and his family sought safety in a Paris exile. Forms analysed In the decade that followed the European-wide defeat of the 1848-49 revolutionary wave Marx wrote extensively on constitutional forms. Hal Draper concludes that for Marx the distinguishing feature of a "truly democratic constitution" was the degree to which it "limited and restrained the independent scope of the executive power" (H Draper Karl Marx's theory of revolution Vol 1, New York 1977, p282). Democracy is only genuine to the degree which it means popular control from below. The first constitution Marx examined was the French constitution, adopted in November 1848. Marx showed how worthless were the fine democratic guarantees it supposedly enshrined. Every one of them could be made inoperable by subsequent laws decided upon by the government. Freedom of movement, freedom of the press, the right to hold opinions and to associate are all there. However, the constitution deviously stipulates that the "enjoyment of these rights has no other limit than the equal rights of others, and public safety". For Marx "public safety" was the joker in the pack and he showed just how the "enjoyment" of constitutional rights has in fact been systematically violated. Press freedom was taken away by the imposition of financial hurdles - stamp duty, etc - while the rights to associate and assemble were effectively removed through decrees which put everything under police "supervision and caprice" (K Marx, F Engels CW Vol 10, Moscow 1978, p569). Voting was undermined using similar devices. Labour books and internal passports were made obligatory so as to make the worker dependent on the employer and the police. Behind the facade of freedom, freedom was repressed. In other articles discussing the draft constitution of Schleswig-Holstein and the Prussian 1850 constitution, Marx showed to devastating effect the gulf that existed between the grandiloquent phrases about liberty and the actual police state which reduced all the rights of the people to a "dead letter"(K Marx, F Engels CW Vol 16, Moscow 1980, p80). Under the Prussian constitution most of the population was denied the franchise. Those privileged enough to be trusted with a vote were, however, subject at all manner of heavy restrictions. Elections were indirect, constituencies could be altered by gerrymandering, and each of the tax-paying colleges of electors - high, middling, lower - were given equal representation despite their greatly unequal size. Marx wanted to curb bureaucracy and the powers of the executive. He also, as Hal Draper lists, consistently stood for the widest range of freedoms - opinion, assembly, to organise and to demonstrate, etc. He indignantly railed against all property and educational qualifications put in the way of voting. Marx generally advocated a unicameral representative assembly. No upper house to delay legislation and block change. The single-chamber parliament can more effectively stand up to the executive and is subject to greater and more immediate pressure from below. However, Marx was fully aware that parliament and the whole political system of what we call 'bourgeois democracy' could be used as a "safety valve" which dissipated the anger and passions of the population. That did not imply that democracy as such was a swindle, but that democratic forms were used by capitalism - the plutocracy - to "frustrate genuine democratic control from below" (H Draper Karl Marx's theory of revolution Vol 1, New York 1977, p306). The supreme example of this was the USA. Not because there was less democracy there, but the reverse. Unlike the monarchical and Bonapartist pseudo-democracies of Europe, the USA, through the revolution of 1776 and the pressure thereafter exerted from below, had taken the formal structures of democracy to highly developed forms - a free press, presidential and congressional elections, referendums, the election of judges and local sheriffs, an armed people, etc. The USA was therefore the least unfree country in the world. To successfully dominate with such a system, establishment politicians had to perfect the art of lying, double dealing, corruption and divide-and-rule manipulation. Duping the masses, persuading them that they are masters of the country's destiny, assumes cardinal importance. Again it should be stressed that such an assessment led neither Marx nor Engels to shirk from the ongoing struggle to remove all obstacles, shortcomings and perversions inserted into democracy by the bourgeoisie - note their writings on the 1861-64 civil war - the second democratic revolution. Equally it should be stressed that for Marx and Engels the working class should not only fight for formal democratic rights but for a society that would satisfy the wants of all. Engels called this a "social democracy" in his 1845 book The condition of the working class in England. That class agenda was neatly summed up by the physical-force wing of Chartism, led by George Harney and Ernst Jones. It wanted the "charter and something more". That "something more" referred to the social programme which explicitly challenged bourgeois property and wealth. That battle could not be fought on the narrow ground of democracy or politics. Another principle must come to the fore - the principle of socialism which transcends everything that is merely political. "Merely political," as Hal Draper explains, "is merely political democracy" which stops short at governmental forms and does not extend into social questions - the "democratisation of socio-economic life" (H Draper Karl Marx's theory of revolution Vol 1, New York 1977, p310). Marx and Engels recognised that democracy under capitalism inevitably had two sides. There was the mystification by which the masses were reconciled to their exploited position and bamboozled into imagining themselves to be free. On the other hand there is the popular drive to win democratic forms and give them a social content. The liberation of the working class can be achieved only by taking democracy to the extreme of popular control from below, something which must entail "extending the application of democratic forms out of the merely political sphere into the organisation of the whole of society" (H Draper Karl Marx's theory of revolution Vol 1, New York 1977, p310). Such a struggle is conducted not only before the revolution, but after it too. There can be no revolution without the masses first educating and empowering themselves through the struggle for extreme democracy. By the same measure there can be no socialism without extreme democracy. Jack Conrad