Max Shachtman


The Fight For Socialism


The Government and Democracy

“SUPPOSE everything that has been written above is true. The experiences of everyday life are full of examples of how true it is that capitalists try to squeeze everything they can out of the workers, and of how little concerned they are with the interests of society in their mad pursuit of profits. However, you have forgotten something. The capitalists cannot simply act any old way they wish. They cannot simply ride roughshod over everybody and everything. They are, after all, only a minority of the population. And what is most important, in addition to capitalists and workers, there is the government.

“The government is there to protect the legitimate interests of the entire public, capitalists, workers and middle classes. Maybe there is a class struggle. But the government is there to act as the impartial umpire, giving both sides a fair decision. And if the men in the government should fail to serve the public interest, remember that we live in a democracy. If we do not like the government we have, we simply vote it out of office. Everyone has the same vote, and every year we get a fair chance to elect the right kind of men to office. The capitalist may try every one of his tricks in the factory. We only work there, and he is the boss, he owns it. But on the outside, he is no better than we are. In the polling booth, he has no more votes than the humblest worker. If we want, we can elect good men to make up a good government. Then the tricks of the capitalist will do him mighty little good. The government will see to it that he does not go too far. For example, the government has adopted into law a good deal of progressive labor legislation and progressive social legislation in general. And the people can get the government to adopt more of the same. Thank heaven for our democracy, which makes it possible for us to have an impartial umpire over all, a government of the people, for the people, and by the people.”

That is how most people, including most workers, argue. It is what they have been taught from their first day in school, from the pages of their newspapers, over the radio and from the theater screen. Often, it even seems to be that way in reality. Let us look at the reality a little closer, and, as we have done up to now, examine it fundamentally.

There is undoubtedly such a thing as an impartial umpire in any dispute or contest. But only under two conditions. One, that both sides have equal rights and powers in selecting the umpire. And two, that both sides have equal, or fairly equal, strength in the fight. Under these conditions, an honest umpire can really see to it that both sides fight it out fairly and squarely, abiding by rules that are commonly agreed upon, and without taking undue advantage of the other.

If two fighters are of about the same weight, and each one has an equal voice in selecting the referee, there is no danger that one fighter will be awarded the prize if he is unfair and knocks out his opponent by a blow below the belt. But if Jones has a big edge in the weight class, is able to choose his own referee by putting up more money, and allowed to fight, with a horseshoe in each glove, Smith has lost the fight in advance, and the referee is anything but impartial.

Or suppose two thirsty men start on a race for a waterhole fifty miles away. The judge and manager of the race is kind, and noble, and above all, impartial. He provides both men with the same good map of the road. He lectures each of them against hitting the other on the head to knock him out of the race. He even sends along an impartial policeman to see to it that each man retains his copy of the map and does not interfere with the other man.

However, there is an automobile available for the race. One man built it, but it is not his property, and he has to run the race on his two feet. The other man is to run the race in the automobile, because it is his property.

The judge points out:

“I am here to see to it that both of you have a fair chance to get to the waterhole. However, the race must be run according to the laws, rules and regulations. The law insists on the right of private property. This man owns the automobile. He has paid his license tax to us for the right to use it. I must uphold his property rights, and my policeman is here not only to direct traffic but to enforce these rights. Both of you have equal right to a map, and equal right to use the road. The race is fair and square. Off you go!”

If the judge were the kindest and most honest man in the world; more than that, if he had been chosen by the foot-man, if he were that man’s oldest personal friend, and sympathized entirely with his need and desire to get to the waterhole first – he could not possibly be impartial if he insisted on the other man’s right to his automobile-property. With the best will in the world, with the best intentions on justice, the basis on which he conducts the race puts the “impartial judge” on the side of the automobile-man and against the foot-man.

In other words, it is impossible to conceive of an impartial referee in a contest between unequal forces.

Capitalist society, like all class societies, is divided into unequals. So long as one class continues to own the means of production, and another class owns nothing but its ability to work, which it is compelled to sell to the other class in order to live – the best government in the world, composed of the best men and adopting the best laws, cannot possibly establish equality between the two classes. If one class owns, it will always exploit and rule the class that does not own. What then, is the government for?

The Class Character of the Government

We have seen that the two basic classes of capitalism are in constant struggle. Capital always seeks to intensify its exploitation of labor. Labor seeks to resist the lowering of its working and living standards, and attempts to improve them. Capital always seeks to strengthen its power in society. Labor defends itself from this growing power and tries to develop its own.

If the class struggle were naked and absolutely unregulated, it could easily lead to complete chaos, to the exhaustion and even to the destruction of both classes. Above all, in view of the fact that the capitalists are so few and the workers so many, the workers could impose their will by sheer weight of numbers. Society did not always have the institution we know as government. (We shall see later that the word “government” is not quite accurate. It is used here only for the sake of convenience, and for the moment it will do.) Before it was divided into classes, the community did not have any special public institution, with a body of laws and a special body of men, like police, to enforce these laws. Primitive Communism existed. All property, if we can speak of property in those days, was owned in common. If there were arms and weapons, they were in the hands of the entire community. If they were used against other human beings, it was for driving other communities away from desirable lands, or preventing others from doing the same thing. Anyone who violated the prevailing customs was punished or banished by the community as a whole.

Government arose only with the development of private property, which means only with the development of the first division into classes. The first form of private property was human slaves. In order to capture them, keep them at work, and prevent them from rebelling or running away, a special group developed out of the old communal society, and occupied a special place in it. It was composed of the men with arms. Their chiefs became the chiefs of the community. They maintained the institution of slavery by force. Gradually, they supplemented this force by public laws and regulations, which guaranteed the rights of the slaveowners and set forth the conditions under which the slaves continued in servitude.

Government, then, originally was, and still is, a product of the division of society into classes. It exists in order to maintain this division. To do so, the government must function in the interests of the class that has the greater economic power, that is, of the owners of property. Thereby, the government maintains their social rule, that is, their domination of society. Under slavery, the government maintained the rule of the slaveowners. Under feudalism, the government maintained the rule of the feudal lords and the nobility over the serfs. Under capitalism, the government maintains the rule of private property, of the capitalists.

The government regulates the struggle between the two classes under capitalism. That is true. The government intervenes constantly in the conflict between capital and labor. It adopts laws that regulate this conflict. Suppose, however, the laws are not to your liking, and you proceed to ignore them. If you did not know it before, you immediately learn that there is a special body of men, with arms at their disposal, known as policemen, who promptly haul you before a judge. He decides if you have violated the law. Suppose you refuse to accept his decision on the ground that it is unfair, or inconvenient to you. If you try to leave the court and go about your business, you immediately learn something else. The policemen have prisons at their disposal, where you are deprived of your freedom in accordance with the law. And if there are many more than just one of you, and you all try to act in the same carefree way, you find that the government has even larger numbers of armed men – state constabulary, national guard or militia, army and navy – with which to enforce its laws and the decisions of its judges.

The government, therefore, is not primarily the Congress, and the President, and the courts, and their laws. All of them put together could do very little in the business of governing if any substantial group of men decided to ignore them. Basically, the government is special bodies of armed men separated from the rest of the population and prisons. You can judge for yourself how true this is by asking what everything that is usually called the “government” would mean, if it were not for these armed men and the prisons. Without them, the rest of the government would be so much talk and paper.

Now the question is: If the government regulates the class struggle, what fundamental standards does it use? It means nothing to answer, “the interests of all the people,” because the people are divided into classes whose interests are in conflict. It is likewise meaningless to speak of “the interests of the public.” The public is composed of capitalists as well as workers, and we are back again to the conflicting classes with conflicting interests. The standard used by the government is: the maintenance of the system of capitalist private property. Call it “free enterprise,” or the “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” or anything else you please. But at bottom it is all the same – capitalist private property.

The capitalist may criticize the government. The worker may praise it. But so long as that government exists for the purpose of maintaining private property and does maintain it, it is a class government. It is the political instrument of the capitalist class. Without private ownership of the means of production and exchange, the capitalist is not a capitalist. He does not have the power to rule society. A government that maintains the private ownership of capital – regardless of what else it does – is a class government that maintains the social rule of the capitalist class because it is upholding the most important foundation of that rule.

It is just as it was in our “race for the waterhole.” The judge may give both contestants a map and the free use of the road. If the foot-man protests too much against the odds, the judge may give him a concession by providing him with an extra pair of shoes in the race and a helmet to keep the sun from burning his head. He may arrange for a few benches along the road for the foot-man to rest on. He may send along the policeman to see that the automobile-man does not go too far, and run over the foot-man or break his leg with a tire-wrench. He may even add a special tax on the automobile-man’s gasoline. But if the foot-man tries to take the automobile that he built, the judge will order the policeman into action. No matter how friendly he may feel toward the footman, the judge and his policemen have as their basic job the protection of the private property of the automobile-man. In the most important aspect of the race, they are the automobile-man’s judge and policeman, not the foot-man’s.

Naturally, it is not a question of one capitalist and one worker. The illustration about the automobile-man and the foot-man was only an illustration. It is not meant to show that the government is the instrument of every individual capitalists against every individual worker. Life is full of examples that prove that this is not the case.

In the first place, there are quarrels and disputes in the ranks of the capitalist class itself, for it is divided into numerous groups with special interests of their own. There are divisions between capitalist groups of different regions of the country. There are the small capitalists who are fighting for survival against the big capitalists and the super-monopolists. There are some industrial capitalists whose main interests may lie at home, and some financial capitalists whose main interests may lie abroad, in the field of foreign investment. There are capitalists who press for a more violent policy against labor, and those who have reasons for making some concessions to labor. There are capitalists who want a “stronger” foreign policy, because they have direct interests abroad to protect or because they would enjoy far greater profits in a war boom; and there are other, smaller, capitalists who might prefer a “moderate” foreign policy, because of their own special economic interests. There are capitalist groups with special economic interests in Europe and others who care very little about Europe because their economic interests lie in Asia.

That is not all. There are individual capitalists who are so narrow-minded that they act in such a way as to endanger the existence of all the capitalists. For example, they might proceed against a very modest demand of the workers with such extreme violence as to arouse all the workers against all the capitalists, or against the capitalist government. Other capitalists, however, who are no less brutal and greedy, are more conscious of their class interests as a whole, and they might readily intervene to restrain their more narrow-minded brethren. In a period of general crisis and general discontentment the capitalist class may again divide among itself. Some will take the position that their class interests are best served by giving some concessions to the people, out of fear that the people might otherwise take far more by direct action. Others will take the position that the best way to handle the discontented is to bear down hard upon them, to “keep the mob in its place.”

In view of these differences and conflicts, how can the government still be called capitalistic? Obviously, it cannot act in a manner that would satisfy each capitalist individual or group. That is true. It cannot and it does not. Each capitalist, or group of them, exerts the greatest possible pressure to swing the government to its point of view. Through the newspapers and magazines they control, they try to bring to bear whatever “public opinion” they can. They make use of every legislator and government official under their influence or direct control. In the end, it is usually those groups of capitalists that are economically strongest – the big industrial monopolists, the big bankers – who prove to be politically strongest.

But even in those exceptional circumstances where this is not the case, the fundamental character of the government is not changed. Let us take an example.

In the days of the Hoover administration, the people suffering in the crisis were simply told that nothing could or would be done for them, that capitalism must take its natural course, and everybody must wait patiently until industry picks up again. War veterans who came to petition the government for aid were met with pistols and machine guns. Practically the entire capitalist class applauded this policy. But the result was a growing dissatisfaction, demonstrations in the streets, threats by workers and poor farmers that they would take matters into their own hands rather than be evicted from their homes and starve to death. This was making for a very dangerous situation for capitalism in this country.

A few of the capitalists – only very few, however – were a little wiser. They supported Roosevelt and helped put him in office. They knew what they were doing. Roosevelt began to appease labor a little. He made concessions to labor and to the little farmers. He put through a good deal of long overdue labor and social legislation. He acquired thereby a great reputation as a friend of labor. Many capitalists even cried out that he was either a radical himself, or a friend or a tool of radicals, and was driving the country to socialism. Nothing of the sort, however. In actuality, Roosevelt was an astute capitalist statesman. By his methods and actions he saved American capitalism from the violent social collisions that threatened it. He halted the growth of independent working class action for many years. (Of course, he was able to do this because of the comparative strength of American capitalist resources, on the one side, and the political backwardness of the American workers, on the other. But the fact remains that he did do it.)

Even if it meant defying the most powerful capitalist groups in the country, the Roosevelt Administration protected the social system on which these groups are based. The government remained true to its class character and interests.

In other words, the government remains capitalist even if it is compelled, for a time, to defend the foundations of capitalism against the greed, or the short-sightedness, or the helplessness of this individual capitalist or that one, this group or that one, or even most of the capitalists.

For this reason it is wrong to call the government “the capitalist class.” It is the executive committee of the capitalist. class. In every decision it makes it bases itself on the upholding and strengthening of the social rule of the capitalists, represented and made possible by the private ownership of capital. Its decisions rest not so much on what is best for this or that individual capitalist, but what is best for capitalist society. If the decision gives an inch to labor, the basic fact is not changed. If the decision results in a blow to one capitalist, or a group of them, the basic fact is still unchanged. The government is the executive committee of capitalism, the over-all manager of its common affairs.

A machine whose basic function is to maintain the rule of one class over another is necessarily also a machine of oppression. That is essentially the reason for the prisons and the special bodies of armed men separated from the population as a whole. The class whose rule is preserved by these arms stamps the government with its class character.

These bodies of armed men are not “neutral” in the class, struggle, although capitalism makes tremendous efforts to convince people that they are. In every important and decisive conflict, the armed men and all the other instruments of the government, stand on the side of private property, that is, of the capitalist class. When workers are thrown into unemployment, threatened with homelessness and starvation, the police and militia are not turned out to force open the factory gates and compel the capitalist to continue employing the men so that they may live. But when workers go out on strike against a wage cut or for better working conditions, it is not very long before the police and militia are sent out to “protect private property,” and also to protect the scabs and their “right” to break the strike.

(By the way, capitalism has not only the official bodies of armed men at its disposal. When these do not suffice, or cannot be conveniently employed for one reason or another or – worse yet! – if they are becoming unreliable from the capitalist standpoint, they are supplemented by “unofficial” armies: thugs, professional strike-breakers and gunmen, company police, fascist or other reactionary gangs. The economic power of the capitalists enables them to recruit and maintain these anti-labor bands.)

The capitalist government is therefore an instrument for maintaining the power over society of the capitalist class and for suppressing the class that is ruled over, the workers.

The Class Character of Democracy

But what about democracy? What about the democratic rights that all of us enjoy? Can it be denied that they give us the possibility of having a genuinely democratic government, in case the one in office does not function in the interests of the people?

To answer these questions it is necessary first of all to make a more accurate use of the word which, for convenience’s sake, we have thus far used loosely, namely, “government.” Up to now, what we have dealt with is not so much the government as it is the state. What is the difference?

The state, as used here, should not be confused with such territorial divisions as we have in this country – the state of Maine, the state of Oregon, and the like. The state, in any class society, is that public power which rises above the contending classes for the purpose of regulating the conflict between them in the interests of the economically dominant class. The state is an instrument of that class for the preservation of its social rule and for the suppression of the class that threatens it. The essential characteristics of the state are the prisons, the special bodies of armed men, and the large permanent officialdom, the governmental bureaucracy. The state machinery that arose and was developed to preserve capitalist private property makes up the capitalist state.

The capitalist government differs in form in different capitalist countries and at different times. The government represents the particular political form in which the capitalists rule. In one country the government may be a representative democracy; in another, a military dictatorship; in one, it may be a constitutional monarchy; in another, fascist dictatorship. All of these countries, however, are capitalist states so long as all of them are based on capitalist private property and its preservation.

What do the different governmental forms depend upon? A number of things. First, there are historical forces and forms that have been inherited in one way or another. Then, there is the stage of development of the given capitalist country. Finally there is the factor of the relationship of class forces – which is stronger and which weaker, which is more and which is less conscious of its interests, which is better and which is less able to fight for its interests, and so on.

Where the government is an outright capitalist dictatorship, which mercilessly suppresses labor and the labor movement, which wipes out representative government and all democratic rights and institutions, the capitalist state operates in a naked form. It is easily recognized for what it really is. Its class character is unmistakable. Where there is not such a naked dictatorship, the class character of the government is not so easily recognized, but it is capitalist just the same.

This can be seen if we examine closely the realities of the most democratic capitalist states, like England or the United States. Let us take the latter first.

It is said that the worker has the same vote as the capitalist. If the government shows itself to be pro-capitalist, the workers, being much more numerous than the capitalists and enjoying the rights of democracy, can elect a good government, one that will not be a tool in the hands of the capitalist minority.

In the very first place, the fact that so many people, above all the workers, believe this, and act on that belief, shows that they live in a capitalist society. In every society, the prevailing ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. The idea that all classes, or the members of all classes, are equal, or are at least political equals, is one of the basic ideas of the capitalist class. It does everything it can to get the workers to accept this idea in order to conceal the fact that this is a society of unequals organized to maintain the rule of the capitalist minority over the big majority of the people.

Let us dwell on this point. In doing so we will get a clear understanding of just what kind of democracy we really have under capitalism.

It is obviously impossible to gain influence or control over the government without organization. The capitalists are organized economically, in powerful industrial and financial associations, and politically, in big parties. In addition, they have thousands of social organizations, ranging from Boy Scouts to fraternal orders, from veterans’ groups to sports societies. They have the wealth which makes it possible to organize, control and maintain them. They have always enjoyed the unrestricted right to organize them. The workers, on the other hand, are limited in their ability to organize by their lack of wealth. Moreover, they have not only had to fight the most violent battles to establish the right to form their own class organizations, like unions, but they are constantly forced to fight for it all over again. Capitalists have no difficulty in maintaining their political parties. But countless restrictions and obstacles are placed in the way of independent working class parties, even in such matters as getting on the ballot, and above all in the fact that the workers do not have the wealth that the capitalists use to maintain their parties and conduct their election campaigns.

The right of organization means nothing without the right of assembly. An organization which cannot meet is an organization in name only. All people enjoy an equal right of assembly in a democratic capitalist country, but only in form and not in reality. If one class owns all the big meeting halls, or the wealth with which to hire them as often as it pleases; and the other class owns only the smallest halls and does not have the wealth to hire the large ones frequently; then the exercise of the right of assembly, even under a formal democracy, is limited by the class position of the workers. On paper, their organizations may have an unlimited right to public meetings. But if they do not own the halls in which to meet freely, or do not have the funds to hire such halls as often as they want or need to, they do not enjoy the right equally with those who own the halls or have unlimited funds for hiring them.

The right to organize and the right of assembly mean nothing without the right of free press and free speech. How can you organize if you do not have the means of informing others of your aims and the means of answering falsehoods spread about you? How can you organize if you cannot talk to those you want to bring together?

The right of free speech and free press, too, is enjoyed equally by all only in form and not in reality. The economic power of the capitalists enables them to own the daily newspapers (in this country the workers do not have a single daily newspaper of their own!), and the vast majority of all the weekly and monthly periodicals. They have the biggest and best printing presses; they monopolize the paper mills; they have the biggest news associations; they have tremendous distributing machines. Where they do not own the press outright, they control it firmly, through advertising, through shareholding, through control of the sources of news reporting, or simply by virtue of the fact that the owners and editors have a thoroughly capitalist point of view themselves. In any conflict of interests between labor and capital, the press always takes the fundamental capitalist position. Newspaper lies and misrepresentations about labor’s views are notorious. Even if the government never interfered with the right of free speech of labor or organizations (as it often does, especially in times of sharp conflict, and especially in the case of militant labor organizations); and even if the government never interfered with the right of free press of labor organizations (which it actually does do, as in the case of free speech) – class inequality in the exercise of these rights would still be the basic feature of capitalist democracy.

The capitalist class owns and controls the means of creating and influencing opinion through its control of the press, the radio, the movies and the theater, the schools and the church. In a thousand different ways it instills its class ideas into the minds of the workers. It poisons their thinking. It not only gets them to believe that capitalism is eternal and good, but that socialism is evil, unnecessary and impossible. It even gets many of them to oppose such an elementary necessity as unions, which is the main reason why the entire working class is not 100 per cent organized. It is really able to exercise the right of free speech and free press to the maximum extent. The workers, in the best of times, are able to exercise the same right only to a minimum extent. (In times of violent crisis of capitalism, as under fascism, the state entirely deprives the workers of even their most formal democratic rights.)

If the capitalist class can do ninety-nine per cent of the talking and writing, because of its economic power, and the working class only one per cent – then we do not have a genuine democracy but, as we have called it, a capitalist democracy.

Fundamentally, the same may be said of the right to vote, without which it is impossible even to speak of representative government, much less of workers controlling the government. In the first place, this right is automatically limited by the class restrictions placed upon the other rights dealt with above. Your right to vote has genuinely democratic meaning only if you have equality with the capitalist class in exercising the right to organize, the right to free speech, free press and assembly. It is by organization, by speech and writing, by meeting, that votes are influenced. Economic power gives the capitalist class an overwhelming advantage over labor in influencing votes and thereby determining elections.

That is not all. Millions of workers are disfranchised; they have no vote. First, there are millions of Negro workers and poor farmers who are prevented from voting by a multitude of cynical legal devices and sometimes by outright terrorization. Then, there are millions who are forced by capitalism to be migratory workers, without a permanent residence, and therefore without the legal qualification for voting. Finally, there are millions whose only crime is that they were born in another country; their contribution to society is equal to anyone’s but they have a thousand difficulties placed in the path of acquiring citizenship and the right to vote.

Furthermore, as has been indicated, working class political parties are handicapped by lack of funds with which to operate and to campaign. Especially the radical parties, which tell the truth about capitalism, are suppressed in the newspapers and on the radio. It is made hard for them even to get on the ballot.

But even that is not all. On numerous occasions and in many countries where militant workers have sent their own candidates into office, and these legally elected legislators fight for labor’s interests, the representatives of capitalism do not hesitate to violate their own laws by expelling these working class representatives from the legislative halls. This has happened many times, not only in countries like Finland, Italy, Germany and elsewhere, but in the United States as well, as at the state capital in Albany, NY and even in the Congress of the United States itself (Berger case).

Still the full picture has not been drawn! In reality, the situation is much worse for millions upon millions of people who have not yet been dealt with. We have seen how workers in the capitalist countries enjoy democratic rights only in a distorted way, in a way rigidly limited by the class nature of society. But every big capitalist country rules not only over its own working class, but over nations and peoples it controls as colonies or half-colonies.

Take the case of Great Britain, which prides itself on being the most democratic country in the world, with the oldest and most democratic Parliament. It has the largest empire on the globe. Just one of its colonies, India, contains almost one-fifth of the entire population of the world. All these people are ruled and exploited by Britain. The Indians do not even have the elementary democratic right of self-government, the right to rule themselves. The British rule over them. A few million British thus decide the fate and rule the lives of hundreds of millions of Indians without even the formality of democracy which the British worker enjoys. Great Britain is only one example. The United States, ruling the Philippines, Puerto Rico and other colonies, is another example of several other big imperialist powers, each with its own colonial empire. A minority of countries, representing a minority of peoples, rules by sheer force over the lives of the big majority of the world’s population. It is therefore right to call the most democratic of capitalist countries, like England or the United States, an imperialist democracy.

In other words, political equality is a myth when there is no economic equality. Equal rights is a myth when there is no equality of economic rights. The democratic rights that exist in some capitalist countries are enjoyed mainly, primarily and most effectively by the capitalist class. Even at its best the democracy that exists under conditions where the capitalists own the means of production and exchange is a capitalist democracy.

For the reasons already set forth, the most democratic government ever produced in a capitalist country remains a class government, and it cannot be anything else. The reason for its existence, its basic purpose, is the maintenance of capitalist property, which means the domination of society by the capitalist class, which means keeping the workers in the condition of the exploited and oppressed class of society.

Capitalist society is organized against the working class. The capitalist class is an irreconcilable enemy of labor. The capitalist government exists to keep labor in the position of the exploited class. What can the workers do in these circumstances? Are they doomed forever to be wage slaves of capitalism? Must they endure the exploitation and misery of capitalism without hope of changing society and their position in it? Are they helpless before the enemies arrayed against them? Or is there a way out?

“We are not helpless,” replies a thoughtful worker. “We are not just so many submissive individuals. We have learned something about the capitalists and how to defend our interests. We are organized. We now have our unions. Whatever the capitalists may or may not to do, whatever the government is or wants, it is no longer possible to exploit and oppress us at will. Our unions are here to protect us, and both the capitalists and the government are forced to deal with them.”

Let us consider now the labor unions and their position in the class struggle.

Max Shachtman

Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 23.4.2005