Real democracy needs organisation

Collective discipline is absolutely fundamental to majoritarian politics, writes James Turley

There is a need for sober analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the Real Democracy Now! movement in Spain. Clearly, the inspiration provided by the Arab Spring is both its great strength and weakness. Even with its brutal complications in Libya, Bahrain and elsewhere, the Arab reawakening has become a beacon for the downtrodden everywhere, and justly so. With the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia and especially Mubarak in Egypt, the illusion of invulnerability every ruling order has to sustain was torn aside. The symbolism of Real Democracy Now! protestors occupying central squares in major Spanish cities is lost on no-one, with Tahrir Square now an icon for popular power.

On one level, then, the Egyptian movement is a profound asset to the Spanish protestors, as it is to all of us. The dangers lie in, first of all, idealising that movement (and, indeed, overstating the stability of its successes in the uncertain post-Mubarak situation); and secondly, misconceiving the lessons we must draw from it.

Ironically, the great advantage enjoyed by the masses in Tahrir Square consisted in their enemy himself. Hosni Mubarak, it was widely known, was detested by ever broader sections of the population. His regime, and others like it, was weakened considerably by the onset of the global economic crisis and consequent soaring food prices and intensifying labour disputes among especially textile workers.

Many different classes and political trends could be united around, essentially, a single demand - Mubarak must go! This was not some crass projection of resentment onto the man unlucky enough to be in charge at the wrong time. A Marxist has one programme for Egyptian society, a liberal reformer another, and the Muslim Brotherhood yet another; but none of these programmes had any chance of success with Mubarak and his post-Nasserite regime in place, strangling all popular initiative. The common interest between different trends was limited, but quite genuine.

At this stage, however, things are necessarily far from clear-cut. The Egyptian military, having rid itself of Mubarak, now seeks to implement some token ‘democratic’ reforms which will leave it still the major force in the country’s political direction. The Muslim Brotherhood looks set to cut a deal with the army itself. Meanwhile, strikes continue, and the left and workers’ movement - suddenly able to operate much more openly - are themselves in a process of reconstitution.

For those, like the Spanish protestors, interested in ‘real democracy’, it is clear that the job is not done in Egypt. Yet the time of unity around a single agitational demand has clearly passed; developments in the Egyptian workers’ movement, such as the new Democratic Labour Party and so forth, are encouraging because serious and sustained political organisation is so necessary to keep the revolutionary momentum, as is a clear programme.

The Spanish protests can unite, for now, around the slogan of ‘Real democracy’, or the slogan of ‘System error’. These are not, however, cognate to ‘Mubarak must go’. After all, there was a very simple way in which the latter could be fulfilled - Mubarak could, and did, resign from his post. The ruling order was constituted around the practice of maintaining autocracy, in his person and in those of Sadat and Nasser before him; and so the enforced overthrow of Mubarak could only come as a serious body-blow to the apparatus which propped him up.

To argue for ‘real democracy’ in a negative way - that is, to condemn what currently exists as undemocratic - is quite correct to a point, but even at the most immediate level the issue can be resolved in a number of incommensurable ways. The most likely, at this point, is the outcome indicated by the Spanish regional and local elections: the Socialist government becomes identified with the denial of democracy, and the official opposition party is propelled to power.

That, it is painfully obvious, will solve nothing for the Spanish masses. The People’s Party is a straightforward, rightwing bourgeois party; it will relish the kind of brutal austerity measures that torment the current social democratic government. Its last prime minister, José Maria Aznar, started his political career as a Falangist student and - since being dramatically turfed out of office in 2004 - now is a director on the board of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Such people have no interest in democracy, real or otherwise.

The Spanish movement, then, needs a programme for democracy which can rally the masses independently of the bourgeois establishment, which in turn means serious discussion of politics and political organisations of a type that the mainstream of that movement has hitherto attempted to avoid. One of the remarkable things about the recent coverage of Spain is that the left is almost invisible - this is understandable, given that the Spanish left is just as crippled by internal divisions and stale politics as its comrades everywhere else, but ultimately it is a weakness.

The trouble with the left is not that it advocates sustained political organisation, or that it attempts to ‘impose’ a rigid schema on the flux of human history; it is that, broadly speaking, it gets this task wrong. The parties of the ruling class are quite happy to impose grand visions, even where these visions are manifestly counterproductive (viz, the age of austerity); and they are able to do so because bourgeois politics is highly organised, both through formal political parties and through the structures of the state. In order to fight back, we just as much need the weapon of organisation in our armoury.

More substantially, however, they are of fundamental importance to democracy, which in the last analysis means nothing more than the rule of the majority. If the majority is to rule, it needs to join together, freely, around a programme. This can only happen in any meaningful way if all political voices are not only heard, but allowed to gain support.

The same is true of party organisation. The bourgeois parties and the ‘parties’ (in reality, sects) of the left are hardly a great demonstration of this point. Yet collective discipline is absolutely fundamental to majoritarian politics. Suppose Real Democracy makes only the steps towards party organisation necessary to run some candidates at the next election - what will be the sovereign body to decide policy, and more importantly to decide when elected representatives deviate from it?

Movements of this kind are almost invariably accompanied by a sense of novelty. The old politics is to be left behind; our movement will organise in new ways (UK Uncut is another contemporary example of this trend). The fact is that there is nothing new about any of this; indeed, similar perspectives were the target of Engels’ On authority over a century ago. The appearance of novelty is an unfortunate by-product of the tendency for such movements to fizzle out into irrelevance, their failures soon forgotten along with their existence.

The ‘old left’ belief in political parties may have become quite deformed; but even in its most historically illiterate forms, it is a response to real problems and as such ‘dies hard’. That the most comically irrelevant ‘Leninist’ sects persist, and ‘new’ anti-authoritarian political trends merely repeat, is basically a matter of social Darwinism - ie, party organisation is a selective trait.

Acquiring that trait will be critical in the success of popular movements, whether in Cairo, Madrid or Washington DC.