KOREA COLUMN 33
What is Real Democracy?
‘Democracy’ is about the most abused word in the political dictionary. Almost every reactionary politician you can think of - Bush, Cheney, Blair, Thatcher, Berlusconi – swears by it. Blatantly undemocratic regimes call themselves democracies: the ruling party of the Egyptian dictator, Hosni Mubarak, is called the National Democratic Party; the Stalinist one-party states of Eastern Europe called themselves People’s Democracies..
At the same time, however, democracy is invoked by people who cannot be dismissed as crooks and opportunists. Nelson Mandela proclaimed his willingness die for democracy at his trial before being jailed for twenty seven years. Similarly when Martin Luther King campaigned through the streets and jails of the Deep South until his life was actually taken, it was, for the democratic right to vote. Karl Marx was also a committed democrat.
Even more importantly, millions of ordinary people, over the centuries, have fought and died for democracy. The tradition stretches from the Levellers in the English Civil War, through the Chartists, the Suffragettes, the resistance fighters in the Second World War, the South Korean workers in the 1990s to the Burmese monks and the Pakistani lawyers of today.
Yet it is also true that millions of people who live under what is generally thought to be
democracy, in the USA or Britain for example, are disillusioned with it. Swap the word ‘politics’ for ‘democracy’ and they will rush to express their lack of interest or their contempt and their conviction that it doesn’t matter who gets in, ‘they’ are all the same.
To understand this it is necessary to view ‘democracy’ historically: it was not an abstract concept that fell from the sky or one day popped into the mind of some philosopher, but t was a political ideal and system that developed in specific circumstances The word ‘democracy’ itself, meaning ‘people’s rule’, originated in Ancient Greece but modern democracy comes from the struggle against feudalism in Europe.
Before the emergence of capitalism, between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, the prevailing order in Europe was the feudal system. This rested on a division in society between lords or aristocrats (large hereditary landowners) and peasants. These societies, which ranged from tiny principalities to huge empires, were ruled by a variety of princes, monarchs, and emperors, who each represented the dominant family in that territory and who frequently claimed that they ruled by divine right. At this time there was no democracy of any kind, and the mass of ordinary people had no political rights at all. Similar undemocratic systems existed in most of the rest of the world e.g. China and India.
Gradually, however, a new class of people began to develop within the feudal order. These were mainly artisans in the towns who became merchants, and small manufacturers – often they were called ‘burghers’ (townsmen), hence the later term ‘bourgeoisie, used by Marx.
Under feudalism the bourgeoisie were treated as second class citizens and denied political power by the aristocracy, even though many of them became rich and cultured. Increasingly the bourgeoisie came to resent the arbitrary power of the aristocracy and its monarchs, which they saw as holding back both their own advancement and society as a whole
Eventually the bourgeoisie was able to cast aside the aristocracy and assume its rightful place at the head of society. This involved a series of revolutions and wars such as the English Revolution of 1642, the American War of Independence and the French Revolution of 1789, as well as lesser battles.
But merchants and manufacturers cannot fight wars and revolutions by themselves. To win power they had to mobilise ‘the people’, the lower orders of urban poor of and peasants. In other cases the lower orders mobilized themselves and the bourgeoisie had to manoeuvre to place itself at their head. To do this they needed a political philosophy that offered something to the masses.
Out of these struggles was born the ideology and rhetoric of modern democracy – of the rule of law, of equal rights, of freedom of speech, of representative and accountable government based on election not inheritance.
At first, however, it was an extremely restricted democracy. The bourgeoisie did not think that people of no property should have the vote in case they used the vote to abolish property. Accountable government, yes, but accountable to them not to the working masses. All men are born equal, yes, but this doesn’t include black slaves, ‘natives’, women or, probably, factory workers.
But once the genie of democracy was out of the bottle it was not so easy to control. As the working classes grew in strength, so they seized on the idea of democracy and made it their own. The world’s first mass workers’ organisation, the Chartists, centred on the question of ‘one man, one vote’.
Then towards the end of the nineteenth century, the British bourgeoisie made a remarkable discovery – that it was possible for them to grant workers the vote without the workers voting to get rid of the bourgeoisie. Indeed it was even possible to persuade some workers to vote for their capitalist bosses. From this point onwards every political reactionary and shyster began proclaiming themselves true believers in democracy (while discretely crossing their fingers behind their backs in the knowledge that ‘sometimes’ democracy has to be dispensed with).
What conclusions should we draw from this? That the whole idea of democracy was or is a mistake? That democracy is irrelevant to real needs of working people? This would be a disastrous mistake. The problem with the democracy that exists in Europe, the US and many other countries today, is not that it’s wrong in itself or even doesn’t matter. It is that it is far, far too limited.
The democracy we have been talking about is political democracy. What is needed is political democracy plus economic and social democracy.
The capitalist class can live with political democracy because the decisive levers of power lie not in parliaments or governments, but, first, in the boardrooms of industry, business and the banks and second, in the permanent institutions of the state, above all the armed forces. The former it owns directly, the latter is bound to it by a thousand economic, social and ideological ties and by these means it can turn parliament into a talking shop and bend governments to its will, as we have seen with reformist governments round the world.
This is why Marxists call this form of democracy, bourgeois democracy: democracy that is based on the rule of the bourgeoisie. To move beyond bourgeois democracy to workers’ democracy, to democracy that means real power for the mass of people, it is necessary to extend it from the political sphere to the sphere of production and then other areas of social life. It means democracy in every factory, call centre,school, university, and hospital. It means democracy in the armed forces, the courts and the civil service.
But none of that can be achieved without overturning capitalist property and the capitalist state, without, in other words, a revolution which creates a new form of state that will enable the working class to run society. Thanks to the experience of the Russian Revolution of 1917, backed by other revolutions such as Hungary 1956 and Iran in 1979 we know that the core institution of such a state is the soviet or workers’ council based on the election of recallable delegates from workplace meetings.
However recognising the extremely restricted character of bourgeois democracy and understanding how this alienates millions of working people, does not mean it is not worth defending or fighting for
On the contrary even a freedom of the press that allows The Sun(PLEASE GIVE KOREAN EXAMPLE) to dominate the market also allows socialist papers to be published. Even a parliament reduced to a talking shop is a platform from which socialist ideas can be propagated. Even an elected New Labour government is preferable to no elected government at all. Even the rule of law which defends the property of the rich, offers some protection against the extremes of repression.
But it does mean that the working class should take the lead in the struggle for democratic demands and not be satisfied with just political i.e. bourgeois, democracy . Instead it should transform the ‘democratic’ struggle into a social revolution which alone will make genuine democracy a reality..
9 Dec 2007