Against war, for democracy

It is not enough to point to the absence of popular democratic control, argues Kit Robinson. The working class and anti-war movement needs a positive programme

The rise of the anti-war movement and the visible weakness of Blair, as he attempts to defy massive popular opposition to the projected war with Iraq, have pushed to the fore questions of democracy. In particular, they have highlighted the undemocratic nature of the parliamentary system, with its built-in obstacles to the popular will: the separation of powers between parliament, the elected legislature and the executive, which operates in the name of the crown and the royal prerogative. Indeed, the fact that Blair is able, at least theoretically, to override the will of parliament by means of a simple decree in the name of the monarch, together with the insulation of the people's elected parliamentary representatives from popular accountability, gives rise to a great deal of inchoate discontent from the masses opposed to the war. The left, and in particular the Socialist Workers Party as its largest organised component, has been compelled to notice the potential power of democratic questions in this situation. One positive result of this is, of course, the initiation of the People's Assembly, which offers a forum for the expression of mass discontent with the government and its anti-democratic actions that goes beyond simply protesting in the street. There is the potential for such a body to act as an organising forum for more forceful actions against the war than simply peace marches: from mass civil disobedience to political strikes, to potentially many other tactics that could conceivably be born as a result of the inventiveness of a real mass movement. If the People's Assembly were able to attract a sufficiently wide range of delegates from local anti-war and community organisations, trade unions and workplaces, schools, universities and colleges, and political groups (including of course the deeply alienated Labour Party grassroots), it could conceivably acquire real popular authority and begin to play a vital role in mass social struggles which are virtually certain to result from the current upsurge of anti-war protest, giving a focus to and concretising the need for an alternative government. What is also quite interesting about some of its coverage of the anti-war movement is that the SWP has begun to address the question of democracy, analysing the political situation in democratic terms - the March 8 issue of Socialist Worker carried among its anti-war coverage some rather interesting material on this question. Dealing with the implications of the parliamentary rebellion against the war by 122 Labour MPs the week before, it noted that the popular view was not reflected in parliament - the overwhelming anti-war sentiment among the populace as a whole was translated in parliament into a two-to-one majority in favour of the government's pro-war motion. A short article on 'Britain's unrepresentative democracy' made some useful historical and theoretical points about parliamentary democracy in a more general sense. Looking at the current situation, it correctly noted that ""¦ parliament, rather than being a mechanism by which mass pressure is applied against the ruling class, is a mechanism for taming the representatives of mass feeling". It looked back to an earlier period of British history, where such was the relationship of the political system with capitalism (and indeed earlier forms of exploitation and privilege) that the right to vote was restricted by means of a property qualification that excluded most of the popular masses from any say whatsoever: "Great rows that split the establishment in the 19th century were debated out in parliament when the mass of workers were not even allowed to vote for MPs ... So the argument over free trade versus protectionism was debated in parliament by people directly representing different wings of the ruling class." Later, after the capitalists had been forced by the mass struggles under the banner of Chartism to concede the abolition of the property qualification, the situation evolved to the point that "decisions were more likely to be taken within unaccountable bureaucracies, or involving the senior political leaders in the Tory and Liberal parties". The writer notes that the formation of the Labour Party at the beginning of the 20th century meant a "huge" step forward, as it "broke a 40-year monopoly of the two openly capitalist parties over working class politics". But it is also correctly pointed out that "the mechanisms that insulated the centres of power from democratic control affected the Labour Party too, right from the start "¦ as time has gone on, each Labour government has adapted more and more to running the system". Noting that, "except for waiting for the next election in several years time, there is no mechanism for voters to turf out their MP when he or she fails to reflect overwhelming public feeling", the author concludes that "more and more people are asking why decision-making should be left to an institution that is as undemocratic as parliament. That raises deep questions for the Labour Party." Indeed it does "¦ and not just for the Labour Party, but also for the whole of the working class and anti-war movements. Unfortunately though, the SWP does not actually theorise or elaborate any answers to these questions. In particular, it does not raise any concrete political demands that could qualitatively increase the influence of the masses over how we are ruled. The "questions" are simply left hanging in the air, and no real attempt is made to answer them. This is a crucial weakness of the SWP's anti-war agitation, and reflects a wider problem that cripples the politics of many groupings on the left. That problem is one of economism, or the downplaying of the importance of an active fight for democracy as an integral part of the struggle for socialism. Yet the initiation of the People's Assembly, or some would say 'people's parliament', has implicit in it the need for something more substantial than simply leaving these questions unanswered, to be solved spontaneously when the revolution comes along. The SWP, unfortunately, is an organisation that has long prided itself not only on not having a programme, but supposedly on not needing such a systematic elaboration of aims, strategy and tactics - a party programme was short-sightedly dismissed by SWP founder Tony Cliff as being merely akin to possessing "a blueprint for a machine gun, as opposed to the real thing". One might retort that a machine gun that has to be improvised ad hoc without a proper design and blueprint is likely to be most dangerous to the unfortunate individual that has to fire it. Nowhere is the fallacy of this reasoning more obvious than in the current situation. The need for answers to the questions that the SWP is referring to is the need for a programme that systematically takes up the question of democracy under capitalism, seeking by means of mass struggle to extend democracy to its limits, and thereby pass beyond the capitalist mode of production itself. We must consciously fight to extend democracy into every sphere of life. Rather than simply grumbling about the unaccountability of MPs, it is necessary to demand radical changes to the remit of all elected representatives. In particular, the right of constituents to recall their MPs, local councillors, or whoever holds elected office - perhaps through a petition, automatically triggering new elections whenever a demonstrable majority demands it - must form a crucial part of the extension of democracy. This must of course apply not only to individual elected representatives, who should be paid no more than the average pay of the citizens they represent, but also to the government as a whole. Abolishing the division between the executive and the legislative would, of course, mean the abolition of any unelected source of power. In every 'democratic' capitalist country, there exist means of robbing the democratic institutions of any real day-to-day power, of blunting and stymieing the popular will. In Britain, this takes place at a formal constitutional level by means of the executive power, personified by the prime minister, who derives his authority not from parliament or the people, but from his appointment by the monarch. It is this constitutional norm that gives Blair the formal right to override the will of parliament and the people - in order to declare war, for instance. Other institutions also exist to provide a counterweight to the popular will, from the House of Lords and the Privy Council to the standing army, which swears loyalty not to the people or even to parliament, but again to the monarch. Once again, it is that crown power that gives Blair, as the representative of the monarch and not the people, the formal right to declare war irrespective of the popular will. Indeed, this formal allegiance of the armed forces to the crown can be even more dangerous: when sections of the establishment feel that their power is threatened by the will of a politically conscious movement of the lower orders, this anti-democratic allegiance to a completely unelected institution would be the means by which the army, particularly with its unelected officer caste, could be used for a wholesale attack on the democratic rights of the mass of the population. A consistently democratic programme must therefore call for the abolition of all these anti-democratic institutions, from the monarchy to the House of Lords, to the Privy Council, to the standing army itself, which must be replaced by a people exercising the right to bear arms - not of course in an anarchistic or nihilistic sense, as with the widespread infestation of privatised weaponry that disfigure American society with anti-social shootings and killings, etc, but in a democratic sense of a popular militia with elected and recallable officers. This is the only effective means to protect the population from unelected power and the threat of tyranny that flows from the very nature of class society. But in order to really have a genuinely democratic society, one in which the people really do rule, we need to go much further than even these measures. Democracy needs to be extended from the sphere that is conventionally regarded as 'political' - parliament, local government, the sphere of the public power in general - into the economy itself. For it is a fact that under the present, capitalist system, elected governments are subordinate to the owners of capital, who really exercise the decisive power in the economy. This is pretty obvious, of course, when one looks at the United States, where the oil barons are able to buy and rig national elections, and instigate blatantly imperialist wars. It has become increasingly obvious on this side of the Atlantic too in recent times - what with the Tories as the traditional party of big business being pushed out over the last few years by New Labour, fighting rather well for their enormous shares of the patronage of businessmen and the super-rich. The capitalist perversion of democracy has always been a democracy for the rich - which is why we must demand democratic control of the wealth of society by those who create that wealth - ordinary working people. We must demand the election and right of recall of all management in industry, the right of ordinary workers and employees to collectively control and where necessary veto all management decisions, exercised collectively by means of trade unions or other independent organisations of the workers. Parallel to those institutions viewed conventionally as political in the parliamentary sense, we need a whole new extension of popular control and democracy in terms of the economy, through workers' management and ownership. Indeed, the two spheres of democracy need to become merged, so that the wealth of society can be collectively used for the benefit of the mass of the people, according to rational, conscious and democratic planning. This cannot simply be confined within the framework of one country like Britain. On the contrary, such an endeavour would have its own dangers in terms of stagnation and the return of some new form of oppression. What is needed is not so much nationalisation - in the narrow and old-fashioned sense of the social democratic/Stalinist paradigm - rather the internationalisation of democracy and popular control over the globalised economy. Indeed, the international character of the current massive anti-war movement, standing on the shoulders of earlier international mobilisations such as the European Social Forum in Florence last year, points in its whole dynamic to the potential for a new form of international, revolutionary-democratic, mass socialist movement. A democratic, internationalist programme is indeed in tune with this new period of mass ferment and potential radicalisation, and should be embraced by the left as offering a real way forward.