Democracy not 'justice'

Do Salma Yaqoob's and George Monbiot's 'Principles of unity' provide a solid basis for a common political programme? Mike Macnair thinks not

George Monbiot and Salma Yaqoob have circulated for discussion and comment a draft document entitled ‘Principles of unity: our common ground” (from now on I will call this document ‘the M-Y platform’). Though the M-Y platform contains a number of perfectly acceptable specific proposals (as well as some communists would reject), the principles it proposes are precisely not common ground among the British left. However, several left organisations and many leftists will probably not grasp why the principles of the M-Y platform are profoundly opposed to their fundamental aspirations.

The Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain leadership rejected the Socialist Workers Party’s initial ‘peace and justice’ approach, on the basis of the correct gut instinct that even the CPB’s own British road to socialism strategy needs the class movement of the working class (the ‘labour movement’) at its core, though like the Trotskyist entryists in the Labour Party (Socialist Appeal, Briefing, Workers Action) they equate this class movement with building the Labour Party left. But in their practice in the anti-war movement they promote ‘peace and justice’ values, as does the remnants of the international ‘official communist’ movement of which they are a part.

The SWP leadership has displayed immediate enthusiasm for the new proposal - unsurprisingly, since it had already been pushing for some sort of ‘peace and justice’ platform. Yet the values of the M-Y platform are as clearly opposed to the formal Marxism of Socialist Worker’s ‘Where we stand’ column as they are to communist politics.

Alan Thornett of the International Socialist Group at the October 18 Socialist Alliance national council described the M-Y platform as “a very sophisticated proposal, very well written ... a very good start for discussion around a broad alliance”. The surprising thing about it was it had “so much agreement” with what the Socialist Alliance says. It set a good template for “a broader formation of which the SA will be an active and organised part” (quoted by Martin Thomas, http://www.workersliberty.org.uk/modules.php?op=modload&name=News-&file=article&sid=1277). This is perhaps predictable, since the Fourth International, to which the ISG is affiliated, is almost as politically muddled as the M-Y platform. But even so the FI’s and ISG’s commitment to political pluralism has blocked fusion between their forces and the SWP and its International Socialist Tendency and led the ISG to take its distance from the anti-democratic practical consequences in Birmingham of the SWP’s alliance with ... Salma Yaqoob. The idea of political democracy, which grounds political pluralism, is opposed to the idea of a society founded on justice.

The temptation which affects all these groups is the desire for ‘something bigger quickly’. Of course, we all want a bigger and more effective movement. But taking the line of least resistance leads to internalising the values of capitalist society and, in turn, only to political blind alleys - as István Mészáros explains at great length in his Beyond capital (1995). The current Brazilian government provides an immediate example; the fate of the ‘socialist countries’ a tragic one.

Specific proposals

The temptation is exacerbated by the fact that the M-Y platform contains, as I said at the outset, a good many specific proposals that communists (Marxists, socialists) can agree to. To strip these out of their context, they are:

Heads 7 (‘Ecological balance and sustainable development’), 8 (‘Promotion of non-violence and peace’) and 9 (‘A just immigration and asylum policy’) are statements merely of abstract principle, lacking concrete proposals.

It should be apparent that, once we strip the statements of general principle out, there is not enough here to amount to an election manifesto, let alone the “comprehensive programme” which M-Y are seeking to promote.

Social and economic justice

In addition, the M-Y platform contains some specific statements which are seriously problematic for communists (Marxists, socialists).

Under head 3, ‘Social and economic justice’, Monbiot and Yaqoob state:

“We believe that this emphasis on equal access to opportunities for all would not hinder, but foster, individual creativity and enterprise which is vital for a vibrant and sustainable economic system.

“Whilst supporting existing independently owned and operated companies which are socially responsible, we are also encouraging of a new kind of economy which encourages employee ownership and workplace democracy. We oppose the size and concentration of power of certain corporations which can act to undermine democracy, as they can use their considerable resources to further their own profits without regard to the impact on the lives of people and the environment.

“In the light of various financial crashes in the last decade due to the uncontrolled flow of capital, we endorse the restoration of capital controls to establish some degree of political control of financial markets at the national level” (my emphasis).

The first paragraph amounts to swallowing whole the neoliberal orthodoxy about the essential role of “individual … enterprise”. How the infernal dynamic of capitalist markets undermining the biosphere is to be reconciled with the social collective decision-making necessary to enable “sustainability” is left unspoken. The opening clause of the second paragraph cashes this commitment: we like nice capitalists, and only oppose nasty ones. The third sentence concretises the issue: “we oppose the size and concentration of power of certain corporations ...” If we are to overcome problems like global warming, we need to be able to take collective decisions on a world scale. The problem is to bring under control the technology and social order which has become globalised. ‘Small is beautiful’ leads merely to the multiplication of decisions taken in ignorance of everyone else’s decisions - and so back to the infernal dynamic of the market. And of course relatively small capitalists like Grunwick or an Eddie Shah can act as tyrannically towards their workers as Coca Cola or Microsoft, and the mammoth corporations are often (not always) better employers than their smaller and poorer competitors.

In the middle we are told that we support “employee ownership” and “workplace democracy”; but the fundamentally antagonistic relation between workers and managers, both of whom are ‘employees’, disappears. “Employee ownership” under the market has proved to be nothing but either a loose cover for capitalist relations or a road to insolvency. “Workplace democracy” has also failed both under capitalism and under state ownership (Yugoslavia), because it is empty unless it means the subordination and accountability of the managers to the workers: ie, workers’ control - and this in turn poses the question of control over the whole, globally integrated process of production, division of labour, and choice of things to be produced.

The third paragraph calls for the restoration of “capital controls”: ie, foreign exchange controls as a limit on capital movement. Leave aside the fact that the result of implementing this proposal would be to crash the London financial markets and the banks, and thus pose immediately the question of general statisation and planification of the British economy to overcome the general failure of credit money which would be produced. Communists have no great problem with this result, though we would have a different tactical judgement about how to approach it. But how is it consistent with the proposition in head 6 that “We advocate the removal of the special privileges and controls of a few countries which maintain the unacceptable status quo”? The point of foreign exchange controls in Britain - as opposed to, for example, Malaysia or China - would precisely be to maintain the status quo, to protect ‘British jobs’ at the expense of Latin American, east Asian, etc jobs. Again we are faced with problems which demand solutions based on global cooperation - and what is proposed in M-Y’s head 3 is to break up the existing level of global integration achieved by capital.


In head 5, ‘Opposition to discrimination’ the first draft circulated asserted that “we support the right to self-determination of every individual in relation to their religious (or non-religious) beliefs, as well as sexual and reproductive choices.” In the second draft, “sexual and reproductive choices” have become “lifestyle choices”. An important and controversial principle - women’s right of access to contraception, abortion and new reproductive technologies - has been erased into an empty phrase. With this stripped out we are left with an illusory proposition. Individuals cannot simply exercise “complete self-determination” in relation to these matters: we live in a culture, subcultures and families which unavoidably shape the choices we make (even when we react against them). What could be asserted, and is not, is separation of church and state: the disestablishment of the Church of England (very pertinent right now with the dispute over gay clergy!) and an end to state support to religion through the law of charity and education law.

In head 7, ‘Ecological balance and sustainable environment’, we are told that we must “live in ways that respect the integrity of natural systems”. This statement is a bizarre one to address to people who live in Britain - who live in an environment which has been massively shaped by thousands of years of human intervention, from the slash and burn agriculture of our Stone Age predecessors which created much deforestation and some of the oldest moorlands; through the more recent charcoal-fired iron industry and large-scale wooden shipbuilding, which added further deforestation, but also created the managed hardwood woodlands of England; and the replacement at the same period of the open-field peasant agriculture of the later middle ages with the enclosed mixed farming culture, supporting hedgerows and the rural landscape which prevailed until the development of ‘industrial farming’.

Domestic cats and dogs, peas, potatoes and many more animals and plants are human imports to these islands. The human animal, with its interventionist characteristics, is a part of the “integrity of [the] natural system”. “Respecting the integrity of natural systems” is thus absolutely no guide to our conduct. What is it there for? We will see later ...

These are merely the examples which struck me most forcibly on reading the M-Y platform. The more fundamental problem is not the specific proposals, but the overall principles this document espouses.


In head 1, ‘Progressive unity’, Monbiot and Yaqoob write: “An impetus has thus developed to propose a comprehensive programme which articulates what people stand for - encompassing both ethical domestic policies and ethical foreign policies. One that aims to integrate justice-based economic, social and environmental policies at local, national and global levels, and which stresses cooperation not confrontation, and people not profit as its priorities.”

“People not profit” is, of course, a snappy tag lifted from the Socialist Alliance’s 2001 election manifesto. “Cooperation not confrontation” is presumably a synonym for ‘peace’. Neither resurfaces later in the draft. “Justice”, however, is a running theme throughout the text: head 3, ‘Social and economic justice’; head 4, ‘Workers’ rights’ (my emphasis); head 6, ‘International justice’; head 9, ‘A just immigration and asylum policy’; head 10, ‘A just legal system’. But what does “justice” mean as a guide to political action?


The idea of a society founded on justice has deep roots. In the European tradition it goes back to the ancient Greek philosophers, and was revived and reshaped in christian Europe by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, drawing on the transmission and development of the ideas of Aristotle by the Muslim writer, Averroes. In islam it goes back to certain passages in the Quran and forms a central element of the elaboration of the sharia, islamic law. Catholic ‘social teaching’ is ultimately derived from Aquinas; political islam from medieval muslim theorists. The idea of justice is, of course, far more widespread: it is found among, for example, Chinese Confucian theorists, though they did not make of it a principle of social order.

These deep roots make ‘justice’ an attractive idea for the attempt to build a broad coalition against the neoliberals. But they should also give socialists and democrats pause. The Greek philosophers were intellectual representatives of a social elite founded on slavery. Aquinas was a member of an exploiting clerical caste whose defence of its privileges included burning heretics, the promotion of crusades, and, in the last ditch before it was finally subordinated to capital, the promotion in the 19th and 20th centuries of anti-semitism and fascism. The islamic scholars, also in the middle ages and until quite recently members of an exploiting clerical caste, have shown a strong tendency to go down the same road (though not one unopposed within their own ranks).

Aristotle identified three types of justice. Corrective justice is what is supposed to be administered in courts. Jones has taken property belonging to Smith. He must return the property and/or pay damages for it and/or be punished. By this means the existing social balance is restored. Commutative justice is the principle that sales and analogous transactions should take place at the true value of the goods, without cheating, usury (taking interest, or taking excessive interest, on loans) or other forms of illicit profit. Distributive justice is the principle of ‘giving to everyone their due’ as a guide to the general ordering of society. But ‘their due’ is not necessarily equality. Some men may be fitted only to be slaves, so to give them their due is to enslave them: this was Aristotle’s defence of slavery. In christianity all men are equal in the eyes of god; in islam all men are equal in the eyes of allah. But this does not by any means imply substantive equality in this world. In both, religious law asserts the proper subordination of women to men in marriage and of children to parents. For a woman to claim equality with her husband or father is then just as much unjust as for a man to take another’s property.

Liberal justice

Catholics and political islamists fill the void at the heart of ‘distributive justice’ with the divine laws of their revealed religion. Those liberal political theorists who have attempted to use the idea have tried to fill it with a generalisation from the idea of commutative justice. There is to be a distinction between legitimate profit, which results from “individual creativity and enterprise”, and illegitimate profit, which results from theft or from contraventions of commutative justice. The underlying principles are said to be that we should ‘treat each other as equals’ (Ronald Dworkin), that we should ‘treat each other as ends, not as means’ (the neo-Kantians) or that a just social order is one that we would agree to, if we were forced to agree on a social order without knowledge of whether we would individually be rich or poor, black or white, and so on, so that justice results from a fictitious social contract (John Rawls). All these accounts support a broadly social democratic policy: ‘mixed economy’, progressive taxation, welfare state, liberal constitutionalism.

Liberal concepts of justice, in particular Rawlsianism, have become attractive to left academics because of the ‘green critique of Marxism’: that is, that the Marxist idea that we can get beyond distributive justice as a goal supposes an economy of such abundance that there will be no conflicts over resources, and that ecologists have shown that this is impossible. We are then forced back on distributive justice as a criterion for the distribution of resources. In fact, Marxism does not suppose a future of total abundance (for the details, Mészáros’s Beyond capital is again helpful). What it supposes is that economic development will be sufficient to allow us to get beyond a world in which, for some people to be freed to learn the skills of decision-making, etc, everyone else has to toil all their lives in subordination to the decision-makers.

In fact, we are arguably already at this level of development. Agricultural productivity is enough to feed the world comfortably, if capitalist market requirements did not mandate wasted resources in Europe and the USA and the starvation of the poor. The level of unemployment and capitalist overproduction in today’s world economy points precisely to the view that the resources exist for a radical shortening of the working week in primary production which would enable universal involvement in decision-making. Our present problem is that the infernal logic of capital turns the forces of production into forces of destruction - of ecological destruction, of economic destruction of ‘third world’ countries, and of war.

But, leaving this aside, liberal concepts of justice actually necessarily fail to address the problem they claim to address: the problem of natural limits. This is because the core idea of commutative justice is completely hopeless in dealing with relations between generations. We do not enter into contractual or even quasi-contractual relations with our children: our obligation to support them is quite independent of any expected return. But the ‘problem of natural limits’ - that is, the problem of acting with an awareness of the constraints imposed by the limits of the biosphere - is precisely a problem between generations. It is not today’s adults who will suffer the worst effects of global warming, but our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. For liberal theories of justice, our unilateral obligation to future generations disappears: it is ‘women’s business’. Rawls, for example, deals with the problem by assuming that his contracting parties are “heads of families” (A theory of justice p128f): that is, patriarchs. We have semi-silently returned to the gender assumptions of the catholic and islamic theorists.

This hole at the heart of liberal distributive justice is filled in the Green Party’s politics and in the M-Y platform by the doctrine that we must “live in ways that respect the integrity of natural systems”, discussed above. When greens are pressed on the meanings of this concept, it usually turns out (there are a few honourable exceptions) to mean ‘small is beautiful’ and some form of neo-ruralism, a society of peasants and artisans. But this utopia actually points, in the real world, towards disaster.

In the first place, real-world peasant and artisan society is based on the institutional subordination and exploitation of women and youth. This utopia then becomes in the real world of capitalism a natural element in patriarchal-authoritarian politics, just as the German equivalent of green politics before 1933 fed into the rise of Nazism (see Anna Bramwell Blood and soil: Richard Walther Darre and Hitler’s ‘Green Party’ 1985). Secondly, because peasants and artisans depend on the exploitation of family labour, there is an economic incentive to have many sons. Real-world peasant-dominated societies are thus precisely characterised by the Malthusian dynamic of overpopulation leading to ecological disaster. Once we seek a social retrogression from capitalism, there is no stable stopping point short of the ‘deep green’ idea of the death of most of the world’s population and a return to hunter-gatherer existence. Thirdly, “justice”, in the sense of an equal distribution of small property, actually carries with it the demand for the ‘man on horseback’, for the strong state.

Judges and states

Corrective justice obviously assumes the institution of private property. Commutative justice equally obviously assumes the market. Distributive justice appears at first sight to assume nothing: the ancient and medieval philosophers merely slotted into it their own ideas of ‘natural social order’; the liberals regarded it as a generalisation of commutative justice. But this is not, in fact, true. All three ideas of justice assume that there is a neutral judge - who is to restore the fractured social order in corrective justice, to oversee the ‘true value’ in commutative justice, and to distribute benefits in distributive justice. In christianity and islam the ultimate judge who validates the general idea of justice is god. In practice the judge is the state: whether this state takes the form of a caliphate or emirate, papal monarchy, secular monarchy, elders of the Genevan Calvinist church or … the modern state.

In fact, this idea of the distributive-justice state is at least arguably a generalisation of the role of the father as provider and distributor in the patriarchal family. Anyone who has been a parent of young children will remember the child’s complaint - ‘It’s not fair’, in relation to some perceived advantage his or her brother or sister has received. When we demand distributive justice from the state, we are expecting the state to act towards us like a parent.

It is impossible to see how it could be otherwise. A just distribution of goods and advantages is something quite other than a democratically agreed distribution of goods and advantages. In demanding justice, we are asserting our inability to take conscious collective control of our lives, to acquire freedom. We are, necessarily, setting up the state as a judge over ourselves.


Yaqoob as a self-identified muslim may be in search of a new caliphate to implement the just society. The independent ‘green left’ Monbiot can hardly have this aim (still less the Morning Star’s CPB and their international co-thinkers, and the left academics, when they, too, promote ‘justice’). What is really involved is setting up as an alternative to today’s capitalist politics yesterday’s capitalist politics: the ‘social democratic consensus’ identified with the prominence around 1960 of Tory politician Rab Butler and short-lived Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell - in short-hand ‘Butskellism’ - and partially theorised by Rawls.

Now it is undoubtedly true that the world was in many ways a more agreeable world before the turn of US capital to neoliberalism in the middle and later 1970s (and the resulting transfer of US support from consensus politicians to neoliberals, which enabled the victory of Thatcher and much else). It was also one in which both the working class everywhere and many third world countries were in stronger positions than they are in today. This is, of course, why the capitalist class - especially in the US - shifted their support from consensus politicians to neoliberals.

But even if it would be nice to go back to the 1960s, the idea poses two strategic questions. The first is: given that the US and British capitalist classes are deeply committed to the path of neoliberalism, how do we get there? Capitalist donations to political parties are channelled to those expected to deliver privatisation and ‘reform’. Even the most ‘leftish’ of the mainstream papers, like The Independent and The Guardian, remain unequivocally committed to this cause. There is absolutely no reason in present politics or historical experience to expect our rulers to back off from their current path unless they are as scared as they were in 1943-48. Creating even an effective political voice for an alternative demands winning the backing of some real social force which is capable of supporting a cohesive organisation autonomous from capital. It should be blindingly obvious that this means the working class.

Democracy versus paternalism

The second question is this. OK, social democratic society was more ‘distributively just’ than today’s society. The same can, frankly, be said of the Soviet and eastern European societies under Stalinism, as compared to the present ‘post-communist regimes’. Why, then, did millions of workers and middle class people in the USSR and eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s vote, strike and demonstrate ‘for freedom’, which turned out to mean, for neoliberalism? Why did British working class and middle class voters who would be targeted by Thatcherite ‘reforms’ either abstain in large numbers from defending Labour or vote in significant numbers for the Tories?

The answer is clear. Liberty and democracy matter. People want to have some control over their own lives. We are not children and the state is not our parent: we do not wish forever to be told, ‘Eat up your greens: they’re good for you’. The paternalist dictatorship of the bureaucracy as universal judge - whether it was a politburo or consensus politicians and civil service mandarins - may have been benevolent in its literal sense, of wishing to do good (ie, to create a just society). But the neoliberals were able to exploit its character as a paternalist dictatorship, and its inherent conflict with the human aspiration to control our own lives, to create broad support for ‘rejecting socialism’.

The implication should be clear. A political movement which founds itself on the struggle for justice sets itself on the path to paternalist dictatorship. In all probability, not enough time has passed since the fall of the Stalinist regimes and of ‘old Labour’ to let such a movement gain much force in society. But, even if it could, all it would produce is an episode leading to ... the return of the neoliberals.

Radical democracy

Marxism since its origins has stood for radical democracy. The idea is that through the class dictatorship of the working class over the petty proprietors we can reach towards the absorption of the petty proprietors in the working class and towards universal democratic cooperation, in which no-one is permanently subordinated to the rule of others (however theoretically benevolent). This orientation means the subordination of managers and technical specialists to ‘their’ workers; of union, party and sect leaders to ‘their’ members; of elected public representatives to ‘their’ voters; and so on. It has profound implications: in particular, ‘freedom of criticism, unity in action’ is indispensable to subordinating the leadership to the membership.

This in turn implies formal decision-making processes and votes, as well as openness and transparency. It certainly implies “not allow[ing] differences to become barriers to furthering our” common goals (M-Y, head 2, paragraph 3), but on the contrary, it does not imply being “committed to be respectful of these differences” (the earlier part of the same sentence). This is because ‘respect’ can all too easily be a ground of censorship of the expression of political differences, and has been within the women’s, black and lesbian/gay movements in the recent past. ‘Respect’ is then counterposed to political democracy. The same is true of “justice”: “justice” implies the judge, and thus the dictatorship of the judge over the democratic process.

The truth is that finding the road to democratic cooperation is the only genuine alternative to the infernal logic of capital. The path of “justice” is not such an alternative: it leads backwards, not forwards.

How to get to unity?

How, then, to approach the question of cooperation between Marxists and supporters of the path of “justice”? The best advice was given by Marx in his 1875 letter to Bracke - ignored at the time by the leaders of German socialism, and too often since used only as a justification for opportunism. The fact is that there is not agreement on fundamental principles. But that need not prevent “an agreement for action against the common enemy”, “a programme of action or a plan of organisation for common action”.

Get rid of the general verbiage about justice, which is a dead end. Concentrate on the common specific issues and demands on which the forces involved can unite in spite of their differences on fundamental principles. Leave the issues on which there is disagreement to debate and to the independent action of the participating forces. Secure the conditions of open debate within the common movement. This is the path that has a future.