PR, democracy, and socialism

Submitted by sm on 7 April, 2007 - 7:49

By John O'Mahony
(Socialist Organiser, 5 January 1989)

Democracy is one of the most abused and prostituted words in the political dictionary. Mrs Thatcher is a great "democrat" in her speeches and demagogy—the self same Mrs Thatcher who has done more in the last decade to increase the element of autocratic state control in our lives than any prime minister since the end of World War 2. The same Mrs Thatcher who works as the relentless agent of the economic tyrants who control British finance and industry, and therefore rule our lives, completely outside any democratic control or accountability.

People like Mrs Thatcher give democracy a bad name. And there is far worse, in a world where even the totalitarian states of the Eastern Bloc call themselves "People's Democracies". Nevertheless, the socialist who is not a democrat is not a socialist. There can be no socialism unless people democratically control their own society - at every level, from overall governmental administration down to the affairs of their own factory or office.

True, the Thatchers of this world have helped the Stalinists to convince lots of good socialists that democracy is and always must be a sham. Working class socialists look around them in Britain and see that whatever about the legal equality of all citizens when it comes to voting, in fact people like Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell are a very great deal more equal than others.

Whatever about formal equality, formal free speech, and so on—and even those formal rights are very important in themselves, and worth defending until we can do better—in reality the wealth and power of the bosses in industry and in the media give them massive advantages. They can manipulate and dominate the lives of millions under the cloak of a formal democracy which is thereby neutralised and emptied of content.

The programme of democracy which the early British labour movement, the Chartists, fought for as long ago as the 1830s and '40s—annual parliaments, for example — has not yet been realised. The limited democracy and comparative liberty we have now is better than any form of police-state dictatorship. But it is, nevertheless, very much of a sham.

The socialist who concludes that democracy must always be a sham is not only giving up on democracy, but on socialism itself. Without democracy "socialism" becomes a Iying label for one or another form of dictatorship by a new ruling class elite.

Socialists must be consistent democrats. That does not mean that we make a religion of the forms, methods and institutions of the half-sham bourgeois democracy we have now. It does not mean believing that we can get socialism peacefully and legally by way of the existing institutions: the whole of history teaches us otherwise.

No ruling class gives up its power and wealth peacefully; a ruling class threatened by socialism will smash up its own legality and its own democracy and use violence to crush the socialists. Look at what happened in Chile—with the active support of the US government—in 1973. The army smashed what had been one of the oldest democracies in the world, in order to overthrow a legally-elected Socialist government. They would try to do the same thing in Britain if socialism threatened.

But socialism must include a fight for consistent democracy. Consistent democracy throughout society—the original idea expressed in the name the workers' parties of Europe chose for themselves 100 years ago, Social Democracy—can only be achieved when private ownership of the means of production is replaced by a democratically-controlled collectivist system. To fight for socialism is to fight for democracy—every inch and every millimetre of the way.

The discussion on proportional representation now getting under way in the labour movement can only be taken to sensible conclusions if these considerations are fully taken into account. Proportional representation is normally a far more sensitive measure of registering electors' opinion than the system we now have in Britain. It allows each vote to have roughly the same weight, while the first-past-the-post system gives many votes no weight at all. In a word, PR is more democratic.

On the level of principle, socialists cannot be opposed to improving and extending bourgeois democracy, however small the extension may be. Therefore, on principle we must declare ourselves for proportional representation. The arguments against this are weighty but short-term and narrowly empirical. Yes, proportional representation is being argued for by Labour's right wing. Yes, it is used by those who think it will ensure that there will never again be a majority Labour government. Yes, it is now linked to the half-hidden programme of that section of the Labour Party leadership who want to go for a Democrat-SDP-Labour coalition. But to come out in principle against a bettering of the electoral system is not the best way to fight the right wing and the coalitionists. It is more likely to discredit the left.

In fact there are some prominent left-wing advocates of PR—like Arthur Scargill—and some prominent right-wing opponents of it, like Roy Hattersley. In any case, how can PR be argued against outside the quite narrow circles of the left itself?

We are against bettering democracy because we think it will be bad for our party? Isn't that what Thatcher and her labour movement understudies say about us anyway, that we are against democracy? Isn't that, also, just another way of saying what the faint-hearts and coalitionists say: that Labour can't win? The left version is that we can win— but only with the rigged electoral system that the ruling class set up long ago... Yes, we can win! Yes, we can get an overall democratic majority! We can win with socialist politics and a crusading labour movement.

That's what we say now to Kinnock and the other fainthearts and trimmers. Or should we amend it to say: Yes, we can win—provided the ruling class doesn't marginally extend democracy? The idea is absurd. Yet that is what we would have to say in honestly, and if we don't say that all we are left with is mumblings and private intra-Labour arguments about which system is most advantageous to us — arguments we could not possibly use generally.

A parallel—a limited and partial one—is perhaps useful here. In the early years of this century, there was quite strong resistance among socialists in countries like Belgium and France to votes for women. Women got the vote in France as late as 1945. Why? Because some of the socialists calculated that women were more backward and conservative, and more likely to be under the influence of the Catholic Church, than men, and that to give them the vote would massively strengthen the parties of the status quo. At any given moment, that might have been an accurate calculation. Socialists like Rosa Luxemburg nevertheless championed votes for women, arguing that if the socialists could not break through to the women then socialism was going to be impossible anyway.

So too with us. We want to kick out the Tories as soon as possible. Any Labour government would be better, if only because it would be weaker (whatever its leaders might want) under pressure from the labour movement. But if we argue in principle against an extension of democracy because we believe the less democratic system is the only one under which we can win, then we put ourselves in an invidious position. That, in our opinion, is the position in principle. There is more to it, of course.

As we have argued above, what we have in Britain and similar countries is a feeble and in many ways sham democracy, in which the ruling class has massively unfair advantage. That democracy needs more than tinkering with before it will be anything like real democracy. It will take a socialist revolution to make the qualitative leap from what we have to the democracy the working class needs.

Socialists cannot in principle oppose PR; but here and now there is nothing that compels us to make a religion of it—nothing that compels us to support the Labour right wing's campaign for this small improvement in a grossly deficient system and say to hell with the consequences.

PR is now the cry of the coalitionists in the labour movement. The coalitionists must be opposed and defeated. They must be told: yes, PR is good, but there are more pressing things before the labour movement— the battle to kick out the Tories and to ensure that the labour movement has real alternative policies and is not dominated by pink Thatcherism.

They must be told that their campaign for PR not only detracts from the main question of fighting for a working class alternative to Thatcherism, but gives immediate advantages to the ruling class and its parties. That— rather than the untenable and (from the point of view of consistent democracy) unprincipled opposition to PR as such—is the way to answer the coalitionists.

On that basis the left should say to the right wingers who want to distract us now with a campaign for a little bit of democratic tinkering— no, not now, not this campaign. Right now, the labour movement must fight to get rid of the Tories and to put in a government based on the working class and committed to secure its needs. Labour must contest every parliamentary constituency.