The Left Wing: 4. The Passing of the Old Democracy

S. J. Rutgers

Published: International Socialist Review, vol. 17, no. 2. August 1916. Pages 96-98.
Transcription/Markup: Micah Muer, 2021.

Imperialism means the end of the middle class democracy, as we have already stated. Imperialism means the control of Big monopolistic Capital over all other grades of capitalists; means the Government of money kings (Plutocracy).

The old democracy is the form of government which best suited the interests of competitive capitalism in its growth. It permitted the capitalist class to rule with the help of the farmers and the old middle classes, against the interests of the feudal classes and land aristocracy. During the period of conflicting interests among the different groups of the bourgeoisie, the labor class succeeded in getting some results by using its political influence, together with some of the capitalistic groups. This was the period in which reformistic socialism originated.

The highest forms of this "democracy" were developed in countries with prevailing middle-class interests. The most perfect example is, perhaps, Switzerland, a country with prevailing small industries and small farmers. Another example is France, with its numerous class of small farmers. Germany never developed this system of democracy to its full extent, because of its special historical development. When in 1848 the bourgeoisie in Germany gathered sufficient strength to make a political revolution, and the King of Prussia barely escaped falling into the hands of the insurgents, the bourgeoisie decided not to use the situation to its full extent, not to establish a bourgeois democratic Government after the French model.

It has been generally admitted among European socialists, that fear for the growing influence of the laboring class, at that time, prevented the German bourgeoisie from striving for a fully developed middle class democracy, and that it therefore preferred to make a pact with the feudal classes. The result was, that feudal aristocracy put itself into the service of modern capitalism, and became a capitalist force of great importance.

Although in Europe this is the general conception, I have met American Comrades who ventured the supposition that it was not Feudalism that became the servant of capitalism, but that Feudalism maintained a leading position as such. That this conception is wrong is proven by the fact that German capitalism developed in a short time the most efficient capitalist organization of Europe. The fact that the German capitalists could leave their Governmental affairs to a special class of efficient bureaucrats had the double advantage of leaving them to their task of industrial development, and avoiding the more direct class conflicts with their workers on the political field.

They could leave this to the "Junkers" and pretend that reactionary measures were taken against the wishes of the "liberal" bourgeoisie. This not only proved the most efficient method of government during the development of capitalism, but it will be easily understood that this more absolutist form of Government proved to fit most admirably the capitalist conditions under the early Imperialism.

England, the oldest among capitalist States, also had a special development of its own. In the first part of the eighteenth century, during the beginning of capitalism, it was most brutal in its governmental system. But it soon gained a position of absolute control over world industry, and could afford to originate a democratic regime, in which the upper layers of the working class counterbalanced the interests of land aristocracy; the class of small farmers and the old middle classes being early ruined by the marvelous growth of young capitalism.

This necessity of giving political influence to parts of the laboring class is one of the reasons for the better situation which skilled labor in England has long enjoyed, but at the same time capitalist class thought it wise to establish a system of capitalist safety valves, which nowhere else has been developed in such a degree. Not only is the power of the Senate in England stronger than on the Continent, and is the power of Parliament restricted by an elaborate system of "traditions." But in England originated the dominating political power of the judges, a system afterwards introduced from England into your political machinery.

Whatever may be the historical differences in European "democracies" they are all alike in that they are middle class democracies, originating in the necessity of uniting different groups of capitalists, with somewhat different interests, into one strong government, in which occasionally some upper layers of labor might co-operate.

The same holds true in the United States. The original democracy was mainly a democracy of farmers and small capitalists, and it combined features of different European countries.

Now we have seen that under Imperialism the capitalist interests gradually consolidate into one common interest, under the control of Big monopolistic capital. This not only does away with the original capitalist necessity for "democracy" and turns it from a tool to further capitalist interests into a stumbling block, but we actually notice in all of the leading countries a passing away of the old democracy, growing reaction, and a tendency towards absolutism. In Europe, this process has been proceeding during at least twenty years, and it has been recognized in the "Left Wing" socialist press. Details will not much interest my American readers, and the few examples in my June article will be a sufficient indication for those who are familiar with recent European history.

But the United States having developed even farther into Imperialism than Europe, we must expect to find, and indeed, do find, the same tendency. It is, to my mind, one of the funniest experiences, to hear members of the working class in the United States, and even well informed socialists, boast of their American "political democracy." And it is one of the best features of your International Review to have constantly, issue after issue, year after year, pointed to the facts that illustrate the passing away of those old forms of democracy.

What do you mean by your "democracy?"

Is it the fact that your "Boss" sometimes pats you on the back and calls you a jolly old boy, asking you about your wife and the kids, perhaps indexing your name for future reference? If so, there may be some democracy, although even this is on the decline.

Does political democracy simply mean that you have a vote for Congress, or for some of the political officers? Suppose at the moment you have to vote somebody with a revolver tells you how to vote, or somebody with a bag of dollars is willing to pay for the vote, and you need the money badly. Or suppose they fool you about your interests at school, in the press and in the church, and prevent you from getting your own informations about your class interests. Political democracy requires something more than a vote, something more than a formality.

Democracy means that your class must influence the Government in the broadest sense, according to its importance and its number. A farmers' democracy means that the interests of the farmers are taken care of.

Nowadays the workers are in the majority, but nobody supposes that they can dictate a policy that takes care of their interests. Many of you only look to political forms and the vote, and don't understand why there is no such thing as political influence of the working class.

But when you look at the facts there will be no longer any doubt.

It is not the most important fact, but it is an interesting one, that far more than one-third of the workers do not even have a vote: Negroes in the South, immigrants in the North, and men who must keep moving in pursuit of jobs are barred, and this percentage has been vastly increasing in the last twenty years, so as to surpass, nowadays, that in most of the European countries.

But even if all of the workers of the United States had a vote, this would not make a real difference. Congress has lost so much of its influence that it is only a lame wing of the real Government. The Senate has increased its power and exercises it with real class consciousness.

The power of the President of the United States, in important issues like peace and war, is greater even than that of the King of England. It is of little importance that the Constitution tells you that Congress declares war, because Congress simply has to approve the results of the diplomacy of the President and the executive powers. This has been shown again and again in the last months, and it makes no difference in practice, whether this is a result of Presidential aggression or Congressional self-elimination.

The most effective method of doing away with democracy, however, is in the political function of the judges, with the Supreme Court as its highest and unparalleled form. Nowhere in the world will you find an equally reactionary institution. What becomes of the influence of your Congress, as compared with that of the executive power of Governors, Mayors, Judges, and the Police? Look over the pages of your International Review and see what has become of democracy in your courts, and under the rifles of your most brutal police and militia. And yet, these institutions form a part of your government as well, and certainly are of much more importance in the practical life of the workers than Congress. What becomes of your freedom of speech and press, as soon as you use them for a real attack on capitalist institutions?

If you look beyond the form to the facts, there proves to be no greater lie than that of political democracy in the United States.

Some clever headed theoreticians will answer: we cannot deny the facts, but there is something in the form, because this will enable us to have real democracy in the future. They forget two facts: first, that in the whole capitalist world, and especially in the United States, there is no tendency towards more democracy, but that on the contrary, a primitive middle class democracy is on the decline, is lost, and second, that if, by some unexpected wonder, the workers should succeed in using the old democratic forms in a real fight, the capitalist class would change the forms, rather than allow an easy victory to its enemies. The reality is, that Capital deliberately fools you with the form, as long as you allow yourself to be fooled, and that this is the only reason and the only "advantage" of this sham "democracy."

It is one of the most important necessities, if you wish to get out of the present stagnation, that you realize without and reserve that there exists no such a thing as political democracy in the United States, and that the old forms of parliamentary methods will not develop into real political democracy, and therefore, have only a restricted, temporary meaning to labor.

It certainly is an advantage that present-day "democratic" forms enable socialists to demonstrate effectively the class differences and class antagonisms. Congress can be a valuable platform for socialist propaganda, as for instance, is shown by the activities of Karl Liebknecht, in the Prussian Diet. But we must see its limits; we must understand that in the class struggle it is only power that counts, and that old parliamentary forms will be changed, in fact are uninterruptedly changed, as soon as they are no longer in the interest of the ruling class.

The old style of parliamentary action is rapidly losing its significance for the working class, but remember, that there is a very great difference between what we nowadays call parliamentary action and the political influences of the working class.

About this difference and the future of a new "mass" democracy on the industrial, as well as on the political field, will deal the next and last article in this series.

What this difference is, and what is the future of a new "mass" democracy on the industrial as well as the political field, will be the subjects of the next and concluding article in this series.