Chapter 1: Is direct action against an elected capitalist government undemocratic?
Marxists are democrats
The first thing that needs to be said about democracy is that they are lying about the Marxists and about our attitude to democracy. Those Liberals who "entered" the Labour Party long ago and made their careers as servants of the ruling class there, and those soft "lefts" like Kinnock who seem to believe in the divine right of the Liberals to rule the Labour Party, all lie through their teeth when they say that the revolutionary left is not concerned with democracy or is opposed to democracy, or will not defend democracy and fight for it.
The basic truth of the socialist labour movement and of unfalsified Marxism concerning the relationship of socialism to democracy, is this: whoever is not a democrat is not a socialist - nor a communist in the sense that Marx and Engels and Lenin and Trotsky understood the word and the goal. As long ago as 1848, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote: "The first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy." (The Manifesto of the Communist Party.)
Marxist socialists are democrats because we look to the working class and only to the working class to realise its own self-rule in socialism. The working class needs democracy for the same reason as it needs things like trade unions and political parties - because, unlike the bourgeoisie, it does not own major private property, and it can own the means of production and rule in society and in the state only collectively. It can know its own mind, assess its own experience, set its own goals and adjust them, and take care of all its own affairs, only collectively, and therefore only democratically.
This is true for the working class as a force fighting within capitalist society, and struggling to transcend it. It is true for the working class as the ruler of society, administering a planned economy.
Trotsky compared the function of democracy for the labour movement within capitalism and after it has overthrown it, to the function of oxygen for an animal. In both cases it is irreplaceable.
There are many qualifications (as we shall see) but that is the basic truth about democracy for socialists. When the right and the soft left say that the issue is "Parliamentary Democracy", they give it to be understood that the left are against democracy. They invoke the horrors of Stalinism against us as if this were the work of the left (who were the first victims of Stalinism!). They are engaging in a fraud.
For its effect, the right-wing's accusation depends on ignorance of what some socialists propose by way of reform of parliamentary democracy, or of what other socialists would replace it by - workers' councils. It depends on an absolute identification of "parliamentary democracy" with democratic rights, with liberty, and on the acceptance of Parliament as the opposite of tyranny and totalitarianism and the only alternative to them. It depends on the acceptance of what now exists as "the best in the best possible of all democratic worlds". And they do that now with all the more edgy insistence because the reality the Labour Movement lives with in Britain is that Parliament is being used to legitimate the naked class war directed at us by the Tory Government.
It is a thoroughly dishonest exercise in intellectual card-sharping, dependent on the mental equivalent of sleight of hand. They define democracy in terms of only one of its historic forms, and try thereby to rule out of court those who would advocate either a different form of democracy or a more or less radical development of democracy on the basis of the existing parliamentary system,
The decline of parliamentary democracy
In fact, the existing British system has had many different historical stages of growth and development. We have not known a steady perfecting of parliamentary democracy to an ideal present condition. On the contrary, the decline of the direct controlling power of the elected chamber, the House of Commons, has been going on for over 100 years In parallel to the extensions of the franchise after 1867, the ruling class has systematically created parallel levers of power, diminishing parliament. Real power has shifted from parliament to the cabinet, and then to the prime minister, backed by the unelected permanent bureaucracy.
The cry that parliamentary democracy is in danger is a truly ridiculous weapon to find in the hands of Labour parliamentarians who - like Michael Foot, for example - have for years and decades, in government and out, allowed themselves to function as so many mere parliamentary gargoyles, decorating and camouflaging the structure of unelected bureaucratic and military power which has grown to dominance within the facade of Britain's ancient parliamentary system.
Those who say we are the enemies of democracy have themselves surrendered many of the ancient rights of parliament to the civil service and the military. Many of them bear direct personal responsibility for the diminishing of parliamentary democracy, and for the consequent growth of political cynicism.
And now they discover that parliamentary democracy is in danger - and in danger from their critics and opponents in the labour movement!
Tony Benn has done tremendous work to bring to the attention of the labour movement the reality that now clothes itself in the traditional garb of the British parliamentary democratic system. He brings from his recent experiences as a government minister examples of the realities lurking behind the democratic facade, vindicating what revolutionary Marxists have said for many decades.
The permanent civil service to an enormous extent determines policy and ensures its continuity whatever government is in power: Benn once received a civil service brief marked, "For the new Minister, if not Mr Benn". Prime ministerial patronage ensures that Parliament's role as a scrutineer of government is undercut and atrophied.
Real control of the armed forces - whose subordination to parliament at the end of the 17th century was the decisive final act in securing parliamentary rule in England - is therefore less and less exercised by parliament.
The former Chief of the General Staff, Lord Carver, has publicly admitted that in February 1974, when the last Labour government was returned amidst massive industrial struggles, senior army officers discussed "intervention"! In a debate with Pat Arrowsmith Carver confirmed that the army officers had discussed a coup in February 1974. "Fairly senior officers were ill-advised enough to make suggestions that perhaps, if things got terribly bad, the army would have to do something about it." The top brass put a stop to it - but the top brass of the Chilean armed forces who were represented in Salvador Allende's cabinet didn't stop the fascistic coup of 1973 which pulverised the Chilean labour movement. They organised it.
In Britain the "fairly senior officers" of 1974 are now probably "senior" or close to it. Five months before the events Lord Carver referred to, the Times had commented on the Chile coup in this alarming fashion: "Whether or not the armed forces were right to do what they have done, the circumstances were such that a reasonable military man could in good faith have thought it his constitutional duty to intervene." (Times, 13 September 1973).
The testimony of a labour Minister
Tony Benn, 11 years a member of Labour governments in the '60s and '70s, governments supposedly in control of Britain, has recently summed up the state of British democracy. These are some of his conclusions:
"Despite all that is said about democracy and our traditional freedoms, the people of Britain have much less control over their destiny than they are led to believe...and a great deal less than they had a generation ago. In short, the powers which control our lives and our futures have become progressively more concentrated, more centralised, more internationalised, more secretive and less accountable.
The democracy of which we boast is becoming a decorous facade behind which those who have power exercise it for their own advantage and to the detriment of the public welfare."
Benn is especially concerned with the loss of British autonomy to the IMF and the EU. But the following has nothing directly to do with Britain's position in the world:
"A hereditary House of Lords, topped up by the pliable recipients of prime ministerial patronage, still has great power to delay or obstruct the policies adopted by an elected House of Commons. It also has an unfettered veto, in law, to protect itself from abolition.
The Crown still retains an unfettered legal authority to dismiss an elected government, dissolve an elected House of Commons, and precipitate a general election at any time it chooses. To do so it need only call upon its prerogative powers as used by the Governor General of Australia when the Labour government of Gough Whitlam was dismissed...
"All cabinet ministers derive their executive authority, in its legal sense, not from election as leaders of the majority party in the Commons, but as members of Her Majesty's Government, formed by the prime minister at the Crown's invitation...But the courts and the armed forces swear allegiance to the Crown and not to the elected government."
Though Benn's writings are of great value in opening the eyes of the broad labour movement to the realities behind the parliamentary facade none of this is very startling to Marxists. For example, Trotsky wrote this in Where is Britain Going? in 1925:
"'The royal power', declare the Labour Party leaders, 'does not interfere' with the country's progress...The royal power is weak because the instrument of bourgeois rule is the bourgeois parliament, and because the bourgeoisie does not need any special activities outside of parliament. But in case of need, the bourgeoisie will make use of the royal power as a concentration of all non-parliamentary, i.e. real forces, aimed against the working class."
Tony Benn asks what would happen "if a government elected by a clear majority on a mandate of reform were to introduce legislation to complete the process of democratic advance". This: "The Lords veto, the prerogative of the crown to dismiss and dissolve, and the loyalties of the courts and the services to adjudicate upon legitimacy and to enforce those judgements might all be used to defend the status quo against a parliamentary majority elected to transform it."
Writing not long before Denning ruled the electors of London incompetent to vote for the higher rates and cheap public transport policy on which the Labour majority on the GLC campaigned and won the election, Benn felt obliged to add: "This may seem far-fetched, but at least these forces opposed to democratic reforms could argue that they were operating in accordance with the letter of the constitution, even though in no sense with its spirit...The British constitution reserves all its ultimate safeguards for the non-elected elite.
"The democratic rights of the people can, in a crisis, be adjudicated to be illegal, thus legitimising the military in extinguishing them" (from 'Britain as a Colony', in Arguments for Democracy, 1981).
It is the measure of the soft left, like Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, though no more than you would expect from the Labour right, that just at this point they discover that it is the serious left which threatens the future of parliamentary democracy in Britain!
Who defends democracy?
It is the ruling class who threaten the democracy we have now. Under the influence of profound social crisis, the British political system will begin to display its undemocratic side as, and to the degree that, the ruling class begins to have need for extra democratic safeguards.
Read what Ian Gilmour, a former chair of the Tory party, says: "Conservatives do not worship democracy. For them majority rule is a device...Majorities do not always see where their best interests lie and then act upon that understanding. For Conservatives, therefore, democracy is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
"In Dr Hayek's words, democracy 'is not an ultimate or absolute value and must be judged by what it will achieve'. And if it is leading to an end that is undesirable or inconsistent with itself, then there is a theoretical case for ending it. 'Numbers in a state', said Burke, 'are always of consideration, but they are not the whole consideration'. In practice no alternative to majority rule exists, though it has to be used in conjunction with other devices."
Listen to the brutal truth expressed by Bonar Law, Tory leader during a Tory/landlord revolt against a Liberal government (and later a prime minister): "There are things stronger than parliamentary majorities".
On the eve of World War 1, sections of the British ruling class and the army, and the entire Tory party, raised a storm of revolt against the Liberal government's decision to give Ireland Home Rule. There was an officers' revolt in the British army in Ireland. They armed and drilled a large - orange - private army (with German guns). They succeeded. They forced the Liberal government to abandon its plan to solve Ireland's British problem by way of an all-Ireland Home Rule parliament. Eventually, partition and all that has flowed from it came as a result of this Tory revolt.
Under the pressure of the social crisis, British parliamentary democracy can and probably will enter a downward spiral of decline - especially when the working class and the labour movement begin to recover from the effects of the slump and start to fight back.
The reckless distortion and savage misrepresentation of the left by the establishment media which is poisoning the political climate in Britain now, that is itself a small token of how willing the ruling class is to use the big stick when necessary.
A "democratically" entrenched Tory government is now legally devastating the working class and constitutionally trying to beat down the labour movement. The issue is whether to fight the Tories or let them destroy much of what the labour movement has won.
When the Parliamentary Labour Party denies the labour movement's right to fight back against the Tories in the name of the divine Right of Parliament and when, against the labour movement, the PLP claims for itself the status, respect and prerogatives of the once-sovereign parliament of the UK, then what was said of another historical parody can justly be said of them.
The PLP is turning into the ghost of British parliamentary democracy. It is attempting to crown itself irremoveable sovereign lord of the labour movement, perched atop the near-ruins of the decrepit parliamentary system - a system which it can neither replace, regenerate, reform nor (if it comes to it) defend against the assault of the ruling class.