“No-one combats freedom; at most they combat the freedom of others”, wrote Karl Marx sarcastically, in an article defending the freedom of the press. For a long time now, in politics, “democracy” has had the same status.
No-one combats democracy. At most they insist on their version of democracy. North Korea is officially the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”. The Iranian constitution insists on “the democratic character of the government”. On a less caricatural level, the 10 January coup in Momentum, Donald Trump’s executive orders, and the Tory government’s drive for a “hard Brexit” have all been defended as expressing democracy of some sort. This article will argue that if democracy is really to be the rule of the people, of the rank-and-file, of the majority, then:
• it must provide for the continuous formation, disputation, revision, and re-formation of a collective majority opinion, within which minorities have their say, and always have channels of opportunity to change or reverse the majority opinion;
• it must be structured, mediated, delegate, representative democracy, based on continuous organisation and discussion at every level, with free and adequate flows of information;
• it must include accountability and the right of recall at every level;
• and it must eliminate privileges for officials.
If those arguments are right, then British parliamentary democracy stands roundly condemned as a system of plutocratic semi-democracy or quarter-democracy. So it should. So should any “democracy” which retains the privileges of wealth, ownership of productive assets, and capacity to compel the majority to wage labour from which the privileged draw profits.
Marx and Engels, in the 1840s, started as enthusiastic democrats. Engels wrote: “Democracy nowadays is communism... All European Democrats are more or less clear communists”.
Democracy meant the rule of the people. It meant the millions of the worse-off imposing their priorities on the wealthy few. Karl Marx, a couple of years later, had declared: “Democracy is human existence, while in the other political forms humanity has only legal existence. That is the fundamental difference of democracy” (Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843).
In the turmoil around the revolutions of 1848 Engels and Marx came to understand that a formal, merely-political democracy was possible, which would preserve the rule of profiteers and of profit in economic life. In March 1850 they wrote that “the... Democratic party..., far from wanting to transform the whole society in the interests of the revolutionary proletarians, only aspire to a change in social conditions which will make the existing society as tolerable and comfortable for themselves as possible... They require a democratic form of government, either constitutional or republican, which would give them and their peasant allies the majority...
“As far as the workers are concerned one thing, above all, is definite: they are to remain wage labourers as before... The workers... must... inform themselves of their own class interests, take up their independent political position as soon as possible...”
And universal suffrage could be separated from what had seemed its obvious social content, and be annexed by manipulative governments ruling for the wealthy classes through entrenched state machines. In December 1851, Louis Bonaparte, elected president of France but in conflict with the elected parliamentary assembly which had come out of the 1848 revolution, staged a coup, dissolving parliament and taking all power for himself.
He had previously reinstated universal male suffrage — effectively abolished by the parliament in 1849 requiring each voter to prove from tax records three years’ residence at his current address — and now authorised his power by a referendum in which 92% approved his measures. He continued to rule until 1870, keeping universal male suffrage, having (tame) legislatures elected, and calling four further plebiscites on chosen questions, which he won by majorities of between 83% and 99%.
Marx explained how the conservative majority of the peasantry had given Louis Bonaparte his majority: “Insofar as millions of families live under conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class.
“Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organisation among them, they do not constitute a class. They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them” (The 18th Brumaire). The peasantry was atomised by economic fundamentals. Other classes can be atomised by political means. In the 1930s Trotsky would describe Stalin’s regime as borrowing Louis Bonaparte’s techniques.
“The democratic ritual of Bonapartism is the plebiscite. From time to time, the question is presented to the citizens: for or against the leader?”
In the early 1880s Marx wrote: “organisation must be pursued by all the means the proletariat has at its disposal, including universal suffrage which will thus [i.e. by organisation from below] be transformed from the instrument of deception that it has been until now into an instrument of emancipation”.
In earlier years Marx and Engels, like most democrats, had supported rules allowing citizens to initiate legislation by plebiscite, such as exist now in Switzerland and some US states. But when the German socialists included that idea in an 1875 programme, Engels wrote sourly: “‘legislation by the people’ such as exists in Switzerland... does more harm than good”.
Marx and Engels saw expansive democracy in the Paris Commune of 1871: “The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors... chosen by universal suffrage, responsible and revocable in short terms... The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time...
“The public service had to be done at workmen’s wages...
“The priests were sent back to the recesses of private life, there to feed upon the alms of the faithful... The whole of the educational institutions were opened to the people gratuitously, and at the same time cleared of all interference of Church and State.
“Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in communes...”
In the 1930s, Trotsky would put this idea that working-class democracy is centred in lively organisation, not in formal procedures handed down by the state, another way: “In the course of many decades, the workers have built up within the bourgeois democracy, by utilising it, by fighting against it, their own strongholds and bases of proletarian democracy: the trade unions, the political parties, the educational and sport clubs, the co-operatives, etc... These bulwarks of workers’ democracy within the bourgeois state are absolutely essential for the [eventual] taking of the revolutionary road” (What Next?).
The details of procedures inside working-class parties and other voluntary organisations will differ from those appropriate for a state. But the principles are the same, if only because democracy in working-class state power can only be built from democracy in working-class civil society.
“Correct and timely information”, wrote Trotsky, “is the basis of party democracy” (It Is Time To Stop, 1933). Why? Because it is the basis of continuous, informed, responsible discussion by members “constituted in communes”, i.e. in active collective units. In the Russian revolutionary movement, Lenin had berated the Mensheviks for seeking to take decisions by plebiscites. The Mensheviks had held a conference, he exclaimed in 1905 (A Third Step Back), and then “a [plebiscite] vote will be taken on the resolutions with no opportunity for the voters to offer proposals for changes or to have before them a complete record of the discussion of the resolutions... We have here the principle of Bonapartist plebiscites, as opposed to the principle of democratic representation...”
A little later, Lenin wrote an article appearing to call for a “referendum”, but actually insisting that the party promote collective debate at “rank and file” level.
“Socialists consider that the political consciousness of the masses is the main force... Only after this question has been openly discussed by all the Party members assembled is it possible for each one to adopt an intelligent and firm decision one way or the other. Only on the basis of such a decision can the election of representatives to the conference be, not the result of clannishness, friendship, or force of habit (‘We will elect our Nikolai Nikolayevich or Ivan Ivanovich!’), but the result of the considered decision of the ‘rank and file’ themselves...” (The Social-Democrats and the Duma Elections, January 1907).
There is in fact a mathematical theorem which proves that no consistent democratic voting system is possible if individual votes are considered as atomised, and if there are more than two alternatives to be voted on: Arrow’s Theorem, formulated by the mathematical economist Kenneth Arrow, who was an anti-Stalinist socialist in his youth and remains a liberal social democrat.
Arrow himself discusses improvements to voting systems to limit the problem: preferential and transferrable votes, rather than just first past the post, for example. But the chief political conclusion is that only the thinnest democracy can come from plebiscite-type voting:
• in which each elector votes in an atomised way without reference to collective discussion
• in which there is no accountability and recallability of those elected
• and no control over the way that propositions voted for are interpreted and implemented by the established authorities
• and those authorities can manipulate and tailor the details of voting methods to suit themselves
A snap vote on an unamendable two-way choice is taken in an atomised way or even online. It is picked up by an entrenched elite group to authorise whatever interpretation or implementation they choose. They rule out amendment or further debate as undemocratic. These typical procedures of plebiscitary democracy, exemplified by the Tories over Brexit or the Momentum hierarchy (or Blair in his day, in New Labour) is an example of how chosen species of voting can be used against all the generous, egalitarian, social impulses of democracy.