Paul Foot

Socialist Worker Stop the war demonstration special

Real democracy

(15 February 2003)

From Socialist Worker, No.1838, 15 February 2003.
Downloaded with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Parliament is not nearly democratic enough. We need a revolution to get genuine control, writes Paul Foot

IF YOU asked George Bush what he thinks he is fighting for in Iraq he would reply, if he is capable of an answer, that he is striking a blow for democracy. The people of the US, Britain, Spain and other European countries elect their governments. The people of Iraq do not. So the war against Iraq is a battle for democracy against tyranny.

What is it, this representative democracy that apparently drives our government to war? It is an idea that only took hold in Britain in the 20th century. The first election when most people could vote for their government was in 1918. In the same year the chief beneficiary, the new Labour Party, formed itself into a proper organisation with a set of liberating aims. In the course of the century several Labour governments with parliamentary majorities have been elected.

Until 1997, all of them were in almost permanent strife with a set of people who had an enormous amount of power but precious few votes. Industrialists, for instance, only had one vote each. But they could arbitrarily sack or cut the pay of hundreds of thousands of people who also had one vote each.

Bankers and financiers had one vote each, but they could affect the lives of millions with a flick on the tiller of the exchange rate. The tussle between elected Labour governments and the small, tightly knit group of politically motivated men who controlled the wealth, armed forces and media was never much of a contest.

Though the extent of their victory varied, the rich won every time. One result was the decline of aspirations of Labour governments. They became indistinguishable from Tory governments. The Blair government has handed more and more power and influence to capitalists, landlords and moneylenders. The rich have got richer and the poor have got poorer.

Fewer and fewer people bother to vote. In 2001 far fewer people voted than in any election since 1918. The experience of Labour governments has exposed the weakness of democracy both to maintain the enthusiasm of the voters and to represent the people who need it most – the poorest and the weakest.

Tony Benn is one of the few politicians of the period to recognise what was happening, and to act accordingly. In an introduction to a volume of his diaries published in 1987, he wrote that the lessons of his long experience in parliament “led me to the conclusion that Britain is only superficially governed by MPs and the voters who elect them. Parliamentary democracy is, in truth, little more than a means of securing a periodical change in the management team, which is then allowed to preside over a system which is in essence intact”.

When he finally decided not to stand for parliament he said he was leaving to play a more active part in politics. One response to this gloomy history is to reject the very notion of representative democracy. This is a profound error.

Parliamentary democracy, and things like free speech, a free press and free association, are invaluable to any campaign for a more egalitarian society. The fact that this article, and Socialist Worker, can be published is a precious part of a democratic heritage, won in years gone by much braver people than we are.

The objection to parliamentary democracy is not that it is democratic or representative, but that it is nothing like democratic or representative enough. The revolutionary writer and fighter Karl Marx wrote 140 years ago about the revolutionary Paris Commune in 1871. He noted three central features.

First, it was freely elected by a majority. Second, its representatives got the same wages as the people who elected them. And third, the elected government formed the executive as well as the legislative power. That means that it not only passed the laws, usually in the form of decrees, but also carried them out. The forms of the new power made it possible to convert political promises into political action.

Similar alternatives to ordinary parliamentary institutions have occurred again and again through the 20th century – in Russia in 1905 and 1917, in Germany and Hungary in 1919 and the ensuing years, in Spain in 1936, in Hungary in 1956, and in Portugal in 1974. In the best cases workers threw up organisations based on elected councils, with their representatives paid the same and subject to instant recall.

These councils were more efficient and effective representatives than their parliamentary equivalents because they were more democratic. They formed themselves quite naturally in the struggle for emancipation by the exploited masses. And they all emerged at times of revolution.

The reason for that is very simple. The existing power structure, including parliamentary democracy, is tolerated by the controllers of wealth only as long as that control is not threatened.

It follows that the only real democratic alternatives to parliamentary democracy can emerge when the minority control of the capitalists is challenged. In each of these cases of revolution, the pendulum swung back to different points of reaction-either to terrible tyrannies or to parliamentary democracies every bit as feeble as before.

The chief reason for this decline was the failure of the revolutionary forces to organise their new strength, to unite their forces powerfully enough to stave off the reaction and move forward to a new social order.

It is a grim irony of history that on the one occasion where the revolutionaries were led by a party – Russia in October 1917 – the working class base of that party was destroyed in civil war before it could consolidate its advances.

The lessons are plain. There are democratic alternatives to parliament, but they are only likely to emerge when there is a challenge from below to the economic rule of the minority.

How can we encourage such a challenge? Revolutions cannot be created out of thin air. They can only arise in an atmosphere of confidence. So the only way to work for a revolution and a more democratic society is to relate to the day to day struggles that always absorb the exploited lives of the working people.

Every strike, every demonstration, every manifestation of revolt carries with it the seed of revolution. The pompous and self absorbed activities of the representatives of parliamentary democracy work against such a revolution because they constantly dampen down, mock and humiliate live protest.

They pretend they are democrats, but by their actions prove the opposite. The seeds of a new more democratic society can only be sown in struggle against the old one.

Last updated on 10 May 2010