The road to something more democratic than Parliament

Submitted by AWL on 2 September, 2009 - 11:46 Author: Alan Johnson

I agree with much of Martin Thomas’ latest response in our ongoing debate (Workers’ Liberty 18) about the attitude of Marxists to Parliament in the transition to socialism. I argued (SO 619) that “the fight to deepen and defend parliamentary democracy, and to merge the power of a transformed parliament with the nascent power of popular local councils, born of and sustained by struggle, runs with the grain of complex advanced capitalist democracies and is a necessary development of the classical Leninist model of the transition [to socialism] in countries like Britain.” Martin replied (WL 18) that, while local workers’ councils might well emerge in defence of a left-wing government which was beleaguered by ruling class opposition and prevented from implementing its programme, “that is not the end of the story. If the workers’ councils developed beyond a certain level, the leftish Labour government which the ruling class initially wanted to sack would probably become its best defence!” and, therefore, the popular movement outside Parliament would indeed have to “counterpose a new workers’ power, based on workers’ councils, to the old parliamentary regime.” To argue for merging the power of parliament and councils, as I had done, would only be “disorientating.”
However, I think we are both in danger of presenting one particular ‘scenario’ as pretty much inevitable while in fact either of those ‘scenarios’, and others besides, are possible, depending on a wide range of factors which cannot be known in advance of the struggle. What we can know, from the wide experience of the international working class in revolutionary situations is:
1. That nowhere has parliamentary democracy been rejected in favour of direct council democracy because of propaganda for it by socialists. The prerequisites for the workers’ movement even entertaining the possibility of a transfer of loyalties are two-fold: a profound social crisis which sees the emergence of local workers, consumers, and neighbourhood councils composed of recallable delegates as organs of struggle, and the undermining of the democratic credentials of Parliament by the ruling class itself as it thrashes about desperately in response to this social crisis. These two developments could result in a collapse of confidence in Parliament as an open democratic institution and a growing confidence in the new local councils as legitimate democratic bodies: a situation often described in shorthand as ‘dual power.’ The key question in this shift in workers’ attitudes is the extent to which workers see their democratic rights and freedoms — of organisation, assembly, representation, expression, protest — as being best protected by the existing state institutions or by the new workers’ councils.
2. It would be wrong to say definitively in advance what the precise relationship between Parliament and the new workers’ councils will be as the social crisis unfolds. That will depend upon the political composition of the Parliament, the stage of the Parliament, the weight, character and leadership of the movement outside Parliament, and also the extent of something Martin seems to exclude altogether: the representation within Parliament of those political parties or movements which stand at the head of the extra-parliamentary revolt. The last is crucial for, as Lenin pointed out:
“the experience of many, if not all, revolutions, which shows the great usefulness, during a revolution, of a combination of mass action outside a reactionary parliament with a opposition sympathetic to (or better still directly supporting) the revolution within it.” (Left-wing communism: an infantile disorder)
Such a body of what Lenin called ‘communist parliamentarians’ armed with a programme able to link the opposition within and beyond Parliament, is essential in the transition, as examples from Germany 1918 to France 1968 have shown that popular movements outside Parliament can be halted or demobilised by the trump card of elections to a national representative assembly. To imagine a revolt outside Parliament could simply ignore such elections or deny their legitimacy is foolish, and was the target of my original piece. Lenin again:
“In western Europe the backward masses of the workers… are more imbued with bourgeois-democratic and parliamentary prejudices than they were in Russia; because of that, it is only from within such institutions as bourgeois parliaments that communists can (and must) wage a long and persistent struggle, undaunted by any difficulties, to expose, dispel and overcome these prejudices.” (Left-wing communism: an infantile disorder. Emphasis added)
From April 1917 to October Lenin argued in Russia for a policy which would combine a National Assembly and councils. (Collected Works, vol.24, p99; vol.26, p200)
Despite Martin this still seems to me to be the best line of march for socialists in Britain today. First, because it would key into existing and widespread anger with the corruption and centralised power of Westminster and its quango outposts. Second, because it would allow socialists ‘to go through the experience’ of trying to deepen and defend parliamentary democracy with the working class.
If Parliament should prove incapable of such democratic transformation and unwilling to forge a new relationship to the local democratic councils, (and my failure to entertain this possibility was an error as Martin rightly points out) then that discovery will be made by a mobilised working class as a practical experience. But in the west it is through that experience of fighting to deepen parliamentary democracy that the road to something more democratic than parliamentary democracy lies.

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