Democracy: Their System, Our Fight

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The democracy of our rulers is a pale reflection of the real thing, writes Sabby Sagall.

Bush and Blair constantly proclaim their abhorrence of dictatorship, their insistence that the war on Iraq was motivated by their love of democracy, a system they will generously endow on the Iraqi people once the 'terrorists' are crushed. We can be forgiven some head-scratching. Didn't the US, with British support or connivance, help to install the most brutal dictatorships in Iran (1953), Indonesia (1965), Congo (1965), Chile (1973), Colombia (1990s till now)? Don't the western ruling classes today tolerate and support the most corrupt, repressive regimes in the world - Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, etc? Have the leopards changed their spots?

Revolutionary character

But first, is democracy a gift they have bestowed upon us for which we, the people, should be grateful? The truth is that parliamentary democracy was achieved by struggle from below against bitter opposition by the Blairs and Bushes of the time. In Britain the right to vote was won by a labour movement that fought tooth and nail for universal franchise for nearly a century. It was a right that was conceded only gradually, and then solely because granting it had become less threatening than continuing to oppose it.

In 1837 the first independent working class movement for reform, Chartism, was launched. It had a potentially revolutionary character but the Chartists were finally defeated in 1848. However, in the early 1860s there was renewed agitation for working class suffrage. Huge rallies and demonstrations up and down the country, many consisting exclusively of rank and file trade unionists, demanded electoral reform. The most famous was the march on Hyde Park in the summer of 1866. The park gates had been closed by the police but the crowd pulled the railings down and stormed the park. There followed three days of intermittent fighting.

Under such pressure, Tory prime minister Benjamin Disraeli introduced the bill which in 1867 became the Second Reform Act. It granted the vote to the majority of urban working class men. The enlightened leaders of the ruling class had become aware that refusing to extend the suffrage to the majority of working men risked transforming a reform demand into a revolutionary movement. Joseph Chamberlain, a Tory politician, spoke in 1885 of the 'ransom' that private property had to pay in order to safeguard property rights in general.

However, in Britain, at the very time when the vote was conceded to urban male workers, our rulers were able to limit its effect. Once parliament ceased to be the preserve of the capitalist class, real power was gradually removed from the parliamentary arena and vested in an enlarged state machine with its panoply of powerful institutions - the civil service, the army, the police, the judiciary - all of which exist to further the interests of large-scale capitalism and are controlled by people unelected and accountable only to their superiors. The role of parliament has increasingly become one of rubber-stamping decisions on key economic and political issues taken in the offices of the prime minister, the cabinet, top civil servants and the boardrooms of big business.

The modern state arose in the final third of the 19th century because the capitalism of small family firms was giving way to the monopoly capitalism of giant corporations. These required the state to provide a variety of services. One should stress that the controllers of the modern state don't take orders from the bosses. It is not the case that the director-general of the CBI rings Tony Blair every day to give him instructions, though of course big business does exert powerful pressure. But if the state doesn't act at the behest of the ruling class, it certainly acts on behalf of it.

The evidence for this is provided by the appalling record of Labour governments elected by working people in the expectation that they would carry out reforms on their behalf. In 1931 Ramsay MacDonald attempted to solve mass unemployment by a 20 percent cut in benefit and then joined with the Tories to head a national government. Some still see the Clement Attlee government of 1945-51 as the 'golden age' of Labour. But Attlee used troops to break strikes. He pushed through a wage freeze, built nuclear weapons and helped to crush the Greek revolution. The Wilson government of 1964-70 froze wages, attempted to introduce anti-union laws and supported the US war on Vietnam.

Social democratic governments, elected by a majority of the working class, have always chosen to work within rather than against capitalism and, therefore, invariably pursue the interests and policies of big business. This doesn't happen because Labour leaders and MPs are inherently corrupt, but stems from the politics of 'parliamentary socialism'. Parliament incorporates most MPs into the system, cutting them off from their base. Moreover, MPs represent us not on a class but on a geographical basis. Therefore, unlike trade union shop stewards, they are responsible to no one between elections so that they become insulated from effective grassroots pressure. And they are subjected to all the conservative influences of the corporations, the media and the parliamentary system including the sticks and carrots wielded by the party leaders.

The parliamentary embrace

In 1867 a leading politician, Lord Houghton, spoke of the 'moderation which unconsciously takes place in the minds of violent and narrow men after they have taken a parliamentary position'. Labour MPs who entered parliament in the belief that they could change the system end up, with a few honourable exceptions, being changed by it. This 'parliamentary embrace' was brilliantly described by J R Clynes, a leading member of the first Labour government, when it took office in 1924: 'As we stood waiting for His Majesty amid the gold and crimson of the palace, I could not help marvelling at the strange turn of fortune's wheel which had brought MacDonald the starveling clerk, Thomas the engine driver, Henderson the foundry labourer and Clynes the mill hand to this pinnacle beside the man whose forbears had been kings for generations.'

In contrast, real workers' power comes from collective organisation and pressure. Parliament can never reflect that since it disperses our strength, atomises us into a mass of powerless individuals who vote alone in a voting booth and become subject to all the ideological pressures of the bosses and the capitalist media. As Lenin said, one strike is worth more than ten election victories.

An alternative model of democracy was created by the Paris Commune of 1871 and the workers' revolutions in Russia in 1905 and 1917. In these cases, workers elected delegates who received similar wages to their members and were subject to instant recall. Parliament, however, performs an important ideological role for the ruling class in creating an illusion of popular control, and this is clearly its attraction for Bush and Blair.

This is not to deny that socialists can use parliament as a tribune from which radical ideas can be put across to help build workers' confidence. It just means that socialism cannot be created through parliamentary institutions.

The capitalist class has employed broadly four methods of subverting democracy. First, there have been cases where elections have ushered in a reformist party and the capitalists have made concessions. Tory politician Quintin Hogg said in 1943, 'We must give them reforms or they will give us revolution.' To fully grasp how this works, it is important to note the vital link that exists between the confidence of the masses and the way they vote. In 1945 British workers in soldiers' uniforms voted in their millions for Labour, despite Churchill's enormous prestige as the victorious wartime leader. But the soldiers' victory over fascism meant that their confidence was sky-high and they were determined to prevent a return to the misery of the 1930s.

So the 'ransom' conceded by private property meant that genuine reforms were won in the period following the Second World War, in health, education and housing. But these improvements were also in the long term interests of capitalism, which in its more advanced phase needed healthier, better educated, better housed workers. So the capitalists were able to distort the effect of these concessions by skewing them in their favour, thus limiting the potential threat they posed to their wealth and power. For example, huge compensation payments were made to the owners of derelict nationalised industries who were then able to invest in more advanced and profitable industries.

Secondly, in some historical situations strong working class or nationalist movements have seriously challenged capitalist power, for example in Spain in 1936 and Chile in 1973. Or at least the ruling class fears such a challenge, as in Germany in 1933. In these cases the ruling classes did not hesitate to overthrow the democratically elected governments, and - through fascism or military coup - went on to destroy the economic and political organisations of the working class.

Thirdly, when elections seem likely to usher in an anti-capitalist party, the ruling class has manipulated them to ensure victory for their proxies by threatening an economic boycott against a poverty-stricken and war-weary people. During the Italian elections of 1948 the US made it clear that any country voting communists into power would forfeit Marshall Aid. So the Christian Democrats polled 53 percent and the Communist-Socialist bloc, expected to win 51 percent, received 30 percent.

Similarly, in 1990 the people of Nicaragua, having fought a ten-year civil war against the US-backed Contras, were weary of war and of years of economic embargo. Disillusioned with their Sandinista leaders' economic and political strategy, and given the military stalemate and the promise of an end to the embargo if they voted for the right wing party, they did just that.

A fourth method is to prevent elections from being held. In Vietnam in 1954 the Communist-led Viet Minh nationalists won a spectacular military victory against the French colonial army at Dien Bien Phu. The Viet Minh demanded elections within six months, convinced that, given the confidence of the masses, they would win. But the French and the Americans made sure elections never took place. As Tom Lehrer, the great 1960s satirical songwriter, put it, 'Send the marines... till someone we like can get elected.' This is what Bush and Blair mean by democracy: a pliant legislature shackled to the free market.