Tony Cliff

Marxism at the Millennium

Chapter 13
Marxism and democracy

Turkish socialists, friends of mine, tell me that there is a widespread belief in Turkey that if the country joins the European Community, democracy will be guaranteed. Before dealing with this specific argument, I would like to develop a more general picture about the relations between democracy and a change in society.

The word “democracy” was coined in ancient Athens, and it means “rule of the people”. However, neither slaves, nor women, nor non-Athenian residents, were entitled to vote in this democracy,

Universal suffrage by itself does not guarantee rule by the people. As a matter of fact it was Napoleon III who used universal suffrage to impose his dictatorship through plebiscites: the central state mobilised the backward provinces against advanced Paris. Similarly Bismarck, who introduced universal suffrage to Germany, used it to strengthen the power of the Kaiser, the princes and the Junkers against the socialists of Berlin.

When one looks at democratic capitalist states like Britain, France or Germany, one finds that there is universal suffrage, members of parliament are elected democratically, but the democracy is formalistic and skin-deep. Members of parliament are elected, but the judges, police officers and army commanders are not. Above all, people have no right to democratically elect the boss of the factory, nor to remove him if they wish. Capitalists and proletarians are equal in the eyes of the law. When the law says, “Neither the poor nor the rich are allowed to sleep in the park,” formally they are equal. In the same way, when the law says, “Everyone, rich and poor, is entitled to stay at the Ritz Hotel,” the law does not discriminate against the poor.

The paper magnate in Britain has only one vote, like any other citizen. As a matter of fact, Rupert Murdoch, who controls a massive press empire – his daily paper the Sun sells four million copies a day; in addition he has the Times, the News of the World with a massive circulation, and the Sunday Times – has no vote, being a US citizen, which he took up for commercial reasons. British workers pay 23 per cent of their wages in income tax and 10 percent in national insurance,

Rupert Murdoch pays only 0.5 percent of his profits in tax, as he registers his companies in the Cayman Islands tax haven. Of course the workers and the capitalists are equal in the eyes of the law. Of course the printer who works for Murdoch is not disadvantaged legally. I am ready to bet that if I went in for the Olympics to race against Linford Christie, the quickest sprinter in Britain, I would beat him, although I am 82 years old, on condition that I sit in a good car with a good chauffeur.

Above all, formal democracy does not eliminate the oppression of nations or races. In Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), the 200,000 white in habitants had democratic rights. This did not undermine the oppression of the five million blacks. On the contrary, it strengthened the unity of the whites against the blacks.

The fact that Israel is a democratic state does not mean that the three million Palestinians, thrown out of their land by this same state, have the right to return to their land, or the right to determine their destiny. The key criterion whether popular democracy is being strengthened, is the extent to which the oppressed gain real power. In 1902 Lenin wrote that when a worker goes on strike for wages, he is simply a trade unionist. But when he goes on strike against the beating of Jews, then he is a real revolutionary socialist. He went on to say, “We are the tribune of the oppressed.” In a state in which there is a dominant nation and an oppressed nation, a central duty of socialists belonging to the dominant nation, is to fight for the right of self determination of the oppressed. To get unity between the proletariat of the oppressed nation and the oppressor nation, it is necessary for the proletariat of the oppressor nation to put the emphasis on the right of separation of the oppressed; while the proletariat of the oppressed nation has to argue strongly for unity with the proletariat of the oppressor nation.

The precondition for the above is that the oppression of a nation damages not only the proletariat of the oppressed nation, but also of the ruling nation. A white worker in the United States is privileged vis-à-vis a black worker. This is much more visible in, let us say Texas, than in New York, where wages, jobs, housing for white workers are better than for black people in Texas. And therefore, on the face of it, of course the white workers benefit from the oppression of blacks. But wages arid labour conditions and houses of white workers in Texas are much worse than in New York.

The key for real active, popular democracy is the struggle of workers united across race, nationality and gender.

When I watched the television and saw the terrible impact of the earthquake on northwest Turkey last year, it was so obvious that the earthquake did terrible damage to slum houses, whether inhabited by Turks or Kurds, while the houses of the wealthy were not affected. The pictures also showed clearly the role of the army. The Turkish army is the second biggest army in NATO, surpassed only by that of the United States. When it came to the earthquake you could see soldiers coming quickly to keep order, with guns, not bulldozers to save lives.

Turkey joining the European Common Market will in no way raise the self-activity of workers. The key for Marxists is the self activity of the mass of the workers. Of course every democratic right, however small, has to be treasured. But real mass democracy cannot be achieved except by mass action. As Marx put it, “The emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class.”

The whole tradition of the education system is that history is made from above. We learn about history and kings, emperors and generals. And therefore the illusion that if the prime minister of Turkey sits together with Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and Jospin, it raises real democracy, is an illusion we have to abolish.

Workers cannot achieve power by tricks, behind the back of history, but only by the class struggle.


Last updated on 12.12.2002