Paul Foot

Socialism and democracy

(April 1997)

From Election special, Socialist Review, No.207, April 1997, pp.11-14.
Copyright © 1997 Socialist Review. Published on MIA with the permission of the Estate of Paul Foot. Paul Foot Internet Archive ( 2005.
Downloaded with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Roll on 1 May. Nothing could have been more gloriously crass of John Major than his decision to call the general election on May Day, the festival day for socialists all over the world. The date adds a sweetness to the excitement which accompanies all general elections and especially this one – an excitement which springs from the ability of all of us to take part in removing our government, in this case the most despised, mocked and corrupt administration of modern times. Anyone who says the election ‘makes no difference’ should remember their despondency on 9 April 1992 and compare it with the joyful anticipation with which we expect to greet the departure from public life of David Evans and William Waldegrave, and, who knows, perhaps even Ann Widdecombe, Peter Lilley and Michael Howard into the bargain. Even the vision of the removal vans outside Downing Street and the loading into them of the possessions of John Major and Kenneth Clarke is delicious beyond description.

Yet all these happy thoughts are marred by a more pervasive unease. In 1997, after almost a century of the Labour Party, our power to kick the Tories out seems absurdly limited to just that. We can kick the Tories out, but what then? Will the Blair government which comes to office take a single step to solve the problems which led to his victory? Will there be even the softest remedy for the horrors of the rampant free market? We have it on the firmest authority from Blair himself that everything will go on much the same as before. The man who uses the word ‘new’ as though he had invented it is now assuring us in almost every speech that his government will have nothing new to offer, and that the ‘change’ which he has advocated with such earnest passion will be no change at all. How to explain this contradiction between the thrill of our power to topple the Tories and our disgust at the Labour alternative? How has this apparently massive democratic power in which we can all participate shrunk to this little measure?

One answer, perhaps the most important one, lies in the relationship between parliamentary democracy and socialism. The idea of representative government – that the people should regularly elect their rulers – was popular before anyone even thought of socialism. The American and French revolutions at the end of the 18th century established forms of representative government for which most men could vote. In Britain there was a long and bitter fight to extend the vote from the small minority of wealthy men who’d had it from the Middle Ages, and whose numbers were only marginally increased by the absurdly named ‘Great’ Reform Act of 1832. Frustration with the results of that Reform Act built up into something truly great – the Chartist revolt which lasted from 1839 to 1848. In that final year, though the Chartists were beaten, revolutions broke out all over Europe and established new forms of parliamentary government. At the same time, the idea of socialism began for the first time to be widely circulated, most notably through the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.

Before Marx and Engels, socialism had been seen mainly as an ideal, to be imposed from on high by idealists. It was an almost ethereal concept of an equal society in which everybody shared – far too beautiful to be achieved or administered by the rather selfish and ignorant masses. Such idealists were inclined to dismiss the rising clamour for the vote as irrelevant to the socialist cause, at best a diversion, at worst an obstacle. Marx and Engels took an entirely different view. As Hal Draper puts it, ‘Marx was the first socialist figure to come to an acceptance of the socialist idea through the battle for the consistent extension of democratic control from below.’ The young Marx first came to politics as what Draper calls ‘a democratic extremist’. One of his earliest essays was a hymn to the freedom of the press – a hymn, incidentally, which never embarrassed him in later life and which he happily reprinted. The young democratic extremist was inspired by a loathing of censorship, of torture and imprisonment without trial, of arbitrary power of every kind. His outrage led him away from utopias and schemes in the heads of people at the top and towards retaliatory action by the people at the bottom. His socialism developed out of this democratic extremism. He identified the mainspring of the hierarchical undemocratic society he hated as the hierarchy of property. The most profoundly undemocratic aspect of capitalist society was precisely capitalism, the control over all the things of life by a handful of people who owned the means of production. Socialism, the social control of the means of production, could not, therefore, be counterposed to democracy. Democracy, control from below, was an essential ingredient of socialism, its very essence.

So Marx’s attitude to the rising tide of demands for universal suffrage was very different to that of most of his socialist contemporaries. He did not turn his back on the suffrage movement. On the contrary he consistently supported any demand which shifted power from the top to the bottom. He demanded the maximum suffrage, universal suffrage. He unconditionally supported the Chartists’ six points for extending the vote by secret ballot to all men. These demands (except one, for annual parliaments) have all been conceded. They seem today unremarkable – an integral part of capitalist society. Yet in 1839-48 they were the rallying standard for a vast working class army which linked their political demands – for votes and ballots – with economic demands to put an end to the exploitation of the poor by the rich.

On the other hand, Marx noticed that the new ‘democratic’ constitutions proclaimed by the revolutions in France and Germany were no threat at all to the rich. In a detailed analysis of those constitutions, he demonstrated how, in the name of universal suffrage, the freedom of the press and assembly, they reserved for the rulers the power to smash the freedom of the press and assembly and even to limit or abolish the suffrage. The thread which ran through all his discussions of these problems started in his democratic extremism. His criterion was, as Draper explained, ‘What will maximise the influence exercised from below, by the masses in movement, on the political forces above?’ If whatever was proposed did maximise that influence, if the masses were in movement, he supported it. If it cut down that influence and encouraged the passivity of the masses, he opposed it. An example in Britain was Marx’s approach to the Reform League which was formed in the 1860s to keep up the pressure for universal suffrage. Marx claimed, rather excessively, that he and his supporters in the International Working Men’s Association had effectively founded the League, and he supported it throughout. But when someone moved that the League’s founder and chairman, Edward Beales, should join the Committee of the International, Marx bristled with indignation. Beales, he grumbled, had parliamentary ambitions in Marylebone. As a campaigner for universal suffrage, he should be supported. As a parliamentary careerist, he should be shunned.

During most of Marx’s life the word ‘democracy’ had a revolutionary significance, which it does not have today. To most people it conjured up not just a representative parliament but a democratic share out of the economy as well. There seemed to be no difference between the power to vote for a government and the power which that vote would confer on the people’s representatives to redistribute society’s wealth. It seemed obvious on both sides of the class divide that if the majority, the workers and the poor, had the vote, the economic balance of society would shift towards them. Most of the Chartist leaders assumed that if they won their demand for universal suffrage, they would also win their demands for a fairer economic system. Universal suffrage meant working class power.

True, there were lurking doubts, especially from the United States where a wide franchise seemed to have made little difference to the ever expanding gap between rich and poor. This puzzled the London Working Men’s Association, where the People’s Charter was first drafted. In 1837 the Association, controlled by what later became the right wing of the Chartist movement under William Lovett, sent an address to the working classes of America, which asked:

‘Why, after 60 years of freedom have you not progressed further ... Why has so much of your fertile country been parcelled out between swindling bankers and grinding capitalists ... Why have so many of your cities, towns, railways, canals and manufactories become the monopolised property of those who “toil not neither do they spin”?’

No credible answer came to the question. But after the Chartists were defeated and the British economy glided into a period of unprecedented growth, the question came back with force on both sides of the class divide. Was it possible to concede political democracy without conceding economic democracy? Was it possible for the rich to tolerate a representative parliament without giving away a penny of their wealth to the workers? Could ‘democracy’ be defined to mean a parliament elected over long periods whose boundaries of power stopped well short of the domain of the swindling bankers and grinding capitalists?

Gradually, gingerly, as the nightmare of the Chartist revolt faded into the historical background, the newly confident British ruling class put these questions to the test. In 1867 a Tory government widened the franchise to skilled working men in the cities. In 1884 a Liberal government did the same for the better off workers in the countryside. In 1918 a Tory-Liberal coalition gave the vote to all men and to women over 30. In 1928 a Tory government extended this to all women. Thus the vote was conceded in four measures over 61 years. In general, the rulers found to their delight that the new democracy, restricted to politics and kept well away from economics, not only worked more smoothly than previously but encouraged large sections of the growing workers’ movement to join or support the Liberal Party and seek redress not through their own activity, as Marx had urged, but through ‘friendly’ Liberal members of parliament.

The consensus between a political democracy and an economic hierarchy was jolted by the formation in 1900 of the Labour Party whose purpose was to represent organised labour in parliament. The founders of the Labour Party clearly intended to use any political power they might win through the vote for economic purposes. When he wrote the Labour Party constitution in 1918 Sidney Webb borrowed an old phrase from the Chartists, ‘the fruits of industry’. Clause Four of the constitution, which appeared on every Labour Party card for more than 70 years, was the classic definition of the Labour founders’ intention to use the new political democracy to pursue economic democracy, ‘to secure for the workers the full fruits of their industry’ by passing into law ‘the best available system of the common ownership of the means of production and distribution and exchange’. The intention was clear. Gradually, but persistently, elected Labour governments would use the power conferred on them by the vote to encroach on the power of the rich and transfer the ownership of the means of production from the rich to the people. This was not simply an intention. It was also used as a powerful argument to those who clung to the old ideas of democratic revolution. The argument ran like this. Why countenance revolution, with all its violence and unpleasantness, when the same ends – the common ownership of the means of production – can be achieved by peaceful means, through voting Labour to office in parliament?

The argument, which swept like wildfire through the rapidly growing labour parties in Europe, was contested by a revolutionary minority boosted by two enormously powerful pamphlets – Rosa Luxemburg’s Reform or Revolution (1900) and Lenin’s State and Revolution, written in the revolutionary summer of 1917. Both pamphlets continued in the tradition set out by Marx in the 1840s. Far from contrasting socialism with democracy, they started from the principle of a democratic society controlled from below. Lenin specifically hailed the ‘elective principle’ as indispensable to a socialist society. Rosa Luxemburg’s passionate identification with the spontaneous movements of the masses shines out of every sentence she wrote. Her whole approach was democratic from start to finish.

Like Marx’s, their argument was not at all that there is some choice to be made between socialism and democracy but that the two are indivisible. The problem, they argued, with the ‘democratic’ approach proposed by the main European workers’ parties was that their democracy was not strong enough to contest the hierarchies of the rich. It locked democracy up in a small parliamentary island, while control over the ocean – industry, finance, law, armed forces, police, media – stayed in the hands of the unelected rich. The contest between the new confined democracy in parliament and the boundless undemocratic hierarchies of the rich would be, they warned, no contest. The rich would win; and in the process the workers would lose confidence in themselves and lower their guard still further. For the essence of the parliamentary argument was that ordinary people could and should do nothing to emancipate themselves. They should leave the sophisticated business of emancipation to their betters, to the educated elite within the movement who would make their way to parliament. If and when, as was inevitable, this elite failed to achieve even a small part of the emancipation they promised, the workers would be left high and dry, rudderless and hopeless. If the educated elite couldn’t do the job, they would ask, who could? Passivity would lead to despair, to the triumph of the right, with disastrous consequences for democracy.

The experience of parliamentary democracy this century grimly vindicates what Lenin and Luxemburg predicted. This is not to pretend that no advances have been made for the workers by parliamentary endeavour. In Britain majority Labour governments in 1945-51, 1964-70 and 1974-79 all attempted to intervene in the world of the capitalist hierarchy, and reverse the priorities of the rich. The rate of their success has followed a consistent downward curve – each majority Labour government achieved less intervention and redistribution than the one before. But in general the overwhelming triumph in the continuing tussle between political (parliamentary) democracy and capitalist hierarchy has gone to the capitalists. Again and again Labour’s plans for intervening, for nationalising, for switching resources from profit to people, have been sidetracked, shelved or reversed. At the end of each period of Labour government, even the relatively confident one of 1945-51, the general impression conveyed by the defeated Labour ministers was of puzzlement, weariness, above all of impotence. The very idea of Labour ‘in power’ has shifted over the century to one of Labour in impotent office, not very different from the Tories in office. The resulting disillusionment has made it easy for the Tories and their media to turn the elections to their own advantage, and then to claim their ‘democratic’ victories at the polls as justifications for enlarging and reinforcing their hierarchical and entirely undemocratic monopolies.

The disillusionment has entered into the very soul of the Labour leaders themselves. The failure of their predecessors to keep their promises, and the Tory majorities at the polls from 1979 seem to have convinced Blair and his colleagues that capitalism is all powerful. The aspirations of their predecessors to intervene in the capitalist economy to protect and assist the people who vote Labour have been abandoned. In the past, they say, Labour made promises to their supporters which they broke. Their shock remedy has been not to make any promises to Labour supporters, and to talk instead of ‘newness’ and ‘change’ not in policy but in style and personnel. The process of 100 years of conflict between a political democracy and a capitalist hierarchy has left us with a choice between a bemused bespectacled grinning prime minister in his fifties, and a grinning prime minister in his forties who for the moment is neither bespectacled nor bemused. No wonder so many rich and powerful union bashers and exploiters are flocking to Blair.

A common New Labour justification for this process is that, although they no longer regard themselves as socialists, they still remain fervent democrats. They perpetuate the divide between socialism and democracy which was initiated by the sectarians of the 1840s. In truth, however, the experience of a century of failure has detached them from democracy as well. Perhaps the most depressing feature of the whole New Labour retreat has been its leaders’ willingness to jettison the most elementary democratic freedoms. The enthusiasm with which Jack Straw joined up with possibly the most odious Tory minister of the century, Michael Howard, to propose sweeping new powers for police and special agents to enter and bug people’s homes was the most ominous sign of New Labour’s threat to civil liberties. The commitment to ‘socialism from above’ has now been replaced by a new exciting concept, ‘democracy from above’, personified by Detective Inspector Straw and his merry men bugging the homes of dissidents, rounding them up, shoving them in prison, and shackling them to their hospital beds as they fall ill. Straw stands in the long lugubrious tradition of social democratic ministers who set out to change the world but decide before long to continue to administer it by repression.

In their desperate enthusiasm to run the corrupt capitalism of the age, Labour leaders have moved far to the right of their supporters. The course which they have plotted ­ never mind the degrees to which they will be blown even off that course by a militant capitalist class – will place them almost at once in conflict with large groups of their supporters who will be boosted by the electoral victory and even less tolerant than in the old days of Labour prevarication. There are tumultuous times ahead in which the need for a new mass socialist organisation will be at once obvious and desperate. In building such a new organisation, the history of the century spells out two vital lessons. The first is not to dissipate our energies once again in seeking to regulate or alter capitalist society from the top, but to mobilise and coordinate the enormous forces at the disposal of the workers and their movement. The second, and even more important, is to avoid the sanctuary of the ivory tower, and the temptation in hard times to retreat into a sectarian dugout, where the floundering of what is left of democracy can be observed with grim and irrelevant delight. The sidelining of socialism has led to the sidelining of democracy, and socialists will have to fight for both with renewed determination. One of the oldest tricks of Labour ministers in office who propose to legislate against democratic freedoms is to pretend that these ‘bourgeois issues’ are the preoccupation of the ‘chattering classes’, and have nothing to do with good old salty proletarians like Jack Straw or Harriet Harman. This is bilge. Socialists are going to have to lead the battle for elementary democratic rights – for trial by jury, for legal aid, for the freedom of the minority press, against media witch hunts and baton happy policemen.

Marx’s rule of thumb is just as vital as a century and a half ago. Anything, however remote or small, which builds and sustains control from below is part of the overall struggle to change the social order, and worth fighting for. When he was repeatedly asked what socialism would be like, he grew irritable and impatient. The nearest he ever came to a blueprint was when he told his idealist correspondents that if they wanted a glimpse of the new society they should join the fight against capitalism. The seeds of the new society are sown in the struggle against the old one.


Last updated on 12.2.2005