In most of the World, most people would say that they are in favour of a system of democratic rule – whether their states embrace that system or not. The typical western European system of government is usually called a “democracy” or a “western democracy”, with political parties representing different interests competing for popular support in general elections, the victorious party or parties then forming a government.
Since these states are capitalist and, whatever about the victory of one political party or another are clearly run to protect and expand the interests of big business (monopoly capitalism), we must ask ourselves why for the most part the capitalists and their supporting parties support the “western democratic” system and why parties who make much of their support for social justice support this system too. And why the majority of people, who are of course not at all capitalists but are in fact exploited by them, participate in this system.
But first, let us note that there are those who don’t at all like the western democratic system: chief among these are the monarchists and the fascists. Monarchists aspire to a system where society is ruled by (usually) a single individual, whose entitlement to that office is through bloodline, through ancestry. Traditionally the rule of the monarch was influenced or moderated by advisors, whether officially appointed by the monarch or by interest groups, or unofficially as with the monarch’s personal friends or lovers.
Monarchy has a long history in human society, with inheritance mostly through male lines but by no means always. Usually it was supported by a social caste or two, an upper stratum in society, or aristocrats or priesthood and often the higher priests were themselves from the aristocratic caste. This system was called feudalism and the aristocrats and monarchy controlled land, taxing the various productive classes within society. Within the aristocracy there were frequent struggles for extension of their power and (taxable) lands and, at times, against the King also.
These struggles went backwards and forwards in societies and between states also until capitalism overthrew feudalism and put its own power in place. And since capitalists have always been in a minority and as capitalism was particularly weak in its early days, the bourgeoisie (capitalists) needed the support of small businessmen, artisans, labourers of town and country, small farmers …. to be successful, they had to give those masses a reason to support the capitalists. What they gave them was some variant of democracy. The capitalists (bourgeoisie) promoted “liberty” (freedom), as in freedom of thought and speech, of religious worship, of assembly, of writing, of movement but all within certain boundaries, the extent of these depending on the country and the times. Increasingly the bourgeoisie had to grant the right to elect a government not just to themselves but to other social groups also. Second-to-last to be granted after many struggles was universal male suffrage, which included workers without any property, but last of all was womanhood, also after fierce struggles.
Fascists are neither monarchists nor feudalists and though often having a single figurehead who would seem to wield monarchical power, their source is clearly within capitalism. In Germany and in Italy, fascism was supported by big industrialists but in the latter also by big landlords (who still ruled in quite a feudal way in parts of the country). Even in countries where fascist movements did not succeed in coming to power (for example the Blueshirts in Ireland and the Blackshirts in Britain), fascism was supported by elements of the ruling classes.
“EVERYBODY’S A DEMOCRAT”
Aside from the exceptions then, of monarchists, feudalists and fascists, everybody’s for democracy, right? Well, not really. The capitalists who support western democracy today may support the fascists tomorrow, if they consider it necessary. And some of the principal opponents of the capitalists, the communists, don’t support it either. They call it “bourgeois democracy” and see it as a way in which the capitalists fool the people that they are making choices to make a real difference while whichever party or parties come to power are going to ensure that the measures they take will benefit the capitalists or at the very least not harm their interests. James Connolly, a Scottish-Irish Marxist without a party, declared that “governments in capitalist society are but committees of the rich to manage the affairs of the capitalist class”.1
In fact we may observe here that many people who are not communists believe something similar, which may account for the fact that routinely around 30% of those eligible in the Irish state do not vote.2 In Scotland, England and Wales the average turnout traditionally has been slightly higher, until the huge slump in 2001 which recorded an overall UK turnout of below 60% for the first time.3 Post-Nazi West German general election turnout climbed from over 70% to reach its highest point of over 90% in 1972 and has been falling steadily since to over 72% in 2017.4
From the highest-performing of the Nordic countries to big European powers, the average legislature election turnout varies from between just over 60% to just over 80%, while in the USA it is around 55%, which means that between 20% and 45% of people in the western democracies do not participate in their elections.5 Such ironic statements as “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, the Government gets in” are common enough and “all the parties are the same” is an even more commonly-expressed sentiment. The satirical comment from Britain that “Guy Fawkes6 was the only man to enter Parliament with honest intentions” finds a general acceptance, even often among people who do vote.
The trend towards small majorities in winning parties and of coalition governments (or governments ruling with the tolerance of an opposition party) also suggests that people can see less and less difference between the established political parties. The Irish state for example has had coalition governments of some kind since the 1981 General Election (and that itself was a very interesting year electorally, with the election and near-election of a number of Republican Hunger Strikers on both sides of the Border).
People vote for all kinds of reasons apart from a belief in the party for which they are voting. Some vote according to local or family tradition, while others vote for one party in order to keep out another they consider worse. Voting for a popular individual is by no means rare. Some vote to exercise what was a hard-won right and also to try and get what they consider the best out of the system. But voting in general elections does not really reflect the fundamental social desires of the population. We can see this when for example polls show that most people do not want cuts in services, yet all the main parties either propose cuts in services or have refused to rule them out of their program when in government.
It might appear that people could put together a party campaigning for social justice, get the workers and a section of the lower middle class to vote for it and take power in that way. That is certainly the whole basis on which social democratic political parties with trade union backing have sold themselves for the past two centuries. But it seems possible only in the absence of examining history and the current realities.
Public opinion is formed not only by people’s experience but also by years of the system’s indoctrination and by the current mass media – the latter not only favour the system in place but often the newspapers, radio stations and TV programs are owned by one or two capitalists. When the mass media is owned instead by the State, it follows the interests of the ruling sections of society. Low confidence in the people’s own potential also plays a big part. There are in addition legal and financial constraints, domestic and foreign, on a party in government breaking with the capitalist norms. In the last analysis, there is always the Armed Forces and the coup.
The best that a worker’s party can do through the electoral system is to cause the capitalists some difficulties around particular initiatives or introduce a few reforms but without changing the system itself.
DEMOCRACY: THE SAFEST OPTION
Given the apparent potential, despite all its difficulties, for a party to hamper the designs of the capitalist class, why do capitalists continue to support this system and as a general rule to prefer it over others, even over fascism? It’s not just because in general, despite wide-scale cynicism and falling election participation, the system works well for them. And it’s not just because fascist societies are inherently unstable in the longer run. No, it’s because the democratic system is much better for capitalism than the other alternative, which is social revolution.
When enough people feel that they are suffering under a system and that that system cannot be changed through voting, what will be logical conclusion? Clearly that a new system is necessary, one that serves the people rather than the capitalists — but that system cannot be achieved through voting. Have enough of the people thinking that and becoming organised around imagined alternatives and social revolution will be the result. Western democracy perpetuates the illusion of potential to change the system to reflect the people’s needs and desires, while fascism clearly does not.
Therefore the capitalists, who in their daily dealings of expropriation of the labour power of billions and natural resources have no belief whatsoever in democracy, go to substantial lengths to promote parliamentary democracy as either the best system of government or at least the best possible system in an imperfect world. For the capitalists, parliamentary democracy is the safer option and it worries them that engagement with the process is falling. The capitalists promote parliamentary democracy through the history and principles taught in the educational system, through laws enacted, through the mass media, through novels and films and through promotion of political or philosophy commentators. And also through denigration of who they see as opponents of their system historically or in the present. The ideal of democracy, whatever about its actual practice, is high in our culture.
ORIGINS OF DEMOCRATIC SYSTEMS
The word “democracy” comes to us from the combination of two Greek words: “demos” and “kratos” The first word means “people” and the second “power”, literally “people’s power” or “rule by the people”. It is supposed to describe the Athenian city state system developed and practiced five centuries Before the Common Era (or 500 BC) and which waxed and waned for many years until the city came under Roman dominion. However this democracy of voting rights extended only to male freemen, a very small portion of the population. Around the same time, the city state of Rome also developed a kind of democracy, built around distinct voting colleges or social groups but ruled overall by the Senate, where most of the members were upper-class patricians. Women and slaves were again excluded from this democracy, as were immigrants.
The big slave-owning societies gave way to feudalism and much is made of the Magna Carta of 1215 in Britain when barons forced King John into a written agreement to respect laws and rights – but whose? Yes, in the main, the barons’, with some limited rights for serfs and ‘free men’ (whom the barons would have needed to fight for them against the king if necessary).
The first successful overthrow of monarchy by capitalism was in Britain in 1649, when a majority of Parliament, backed by commercial and financial interests in the City of London, rebelled against King Charles I (and eventually beheaded him). At the same time, movements such as the Levellers and the Diggers sought to impose their concepts of the rights of working people on to the Parliamentarians. Over the centuries there have been many struggles for rights to vote, to belong a trade union, for relief from heavy taxation and expropriation, for fair trial etc., including the Peasant’s Uprising of 1381 and the Chartist’s struggle of 1838 to 1857. People struggling for some measure of democracy and rights were dismissed from work, exiled, jailed, deported to penal colonies, tortured and executed. But universal suffrage, with the right to vote of every citizen at the age of majority (originally 21, then reduced to 18 in 1969) did not enter the British system until 1928. The Irish Free State beat that by five years, with voting rights in the 26 Counties for men and women over 21 years of age in 1923. Of course, this was also a time of considerable repression in the land.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
The communists espouse a system they call “proletarian democracy” but it has not had a great record overall so far. In Soviet Russia the Bolsheviks turned quickly on their former political party allies and on movements that had supported them among workers, peasants and the armed forces and after that on many members of their own party.
Other revolutionary socialist trends such as Anarchists, Trotskists and some Marxist-Leninists say the problem was not proletarian democracy but the “bureaucratic”, “revisionist” or “Stalinist” way in which it was administered. But how did that proletarian democracy allow itself to be used in such a way? Might that not point to a serious flaw in that system?
On the other hand, Anarchism and Trotskyism have not managed to hold a society long enough for us to judge their own systems of democracy (although critics would say that their general behaviour in managing their own organisations does not give cause for optimism) and states run by people claiming to be marxist-leninists opposed to the USSR have not produced anything like democracy for the people either.
Clearly a way for people to have an equal say in decisions and to participate in their implementation is a necessity for any kind of egalitarian social or political system. Clearly also, if a fair and just society is to be achieved, power must be taken out of the hands of those who use it to exploit the labouring people and to steal natural resources. Perhaps, after a revolution and the expropriation of the rich, the broad outlines of the parliamentary democratic system can be used by the people, combined with checks prohibiting for example involvement in any profit-making schemes and the power of instant recall of a representative when a certain number of the electors demand it. Constituencies might be based on industrial and agricultural sectors and other social groups rather than as they are now, on area alone.
We might want to do away with political parties and have individuals stand on declared policies for election. We could restrict the amount of electoral literature and posters permitted per individual. Of course, we could not prevent such individuals belonging to a party but their election would be as individuals advocating certain policies and they could be elected even if disowned by their party. Such a system would help erode the practice of putting the party first before the needs of the people and encourage the election of individuals on policy advocated and on track record.
Some advocate a decentralised system of self-governing communities relating freely with one another but it is difficult to see what chance such a system would have of working initially, when the old is being overthrown but also possibly mobilising for a comeback and with other parts of the world still under capitalism.
Much more than voting will be required for a real democracy, such as means of engaging people in decision-making at all levels and in toleration of criticism. In this latter area the performance of certain political individuals and all socialist or Irish Republican parties does not give reason for optimism. Again and again we see critics expelled or silenced, or even maligned and threatened, the cult of the individual, cliques pushing for power, the promotion of the party above the interests of the masses, written words censored, untruths promoted, critical thinking discouraged. And sadly, we see many people willing to go along with these practices, whether out of physical fear, fear of isolation or simply not wishing to desert a comfortable path.
It is uncomfortable to be criticised and it is easy to lose patience with critics. However, criticism should be tolerated not only in order to encourage freedom of speech but because no matter how right we think we are and how much we’ve thought it through, we can’t always be right. At the very least, the critics oblige us to justify whatever programs we put forward and criticism can reveal faults, great or small that might otherwise have been overlooked. Toleration of criticism also helps us to relegate our egos to second place next to what is good for an egalitarian social system.
It seems clear that toleration of criticism must be an essential component of any genuine revolutionary democracy. And if that is to be practiced after the revolution, it must be practiced NOW, in our organisations of struggle whether political or social. That practice of toleration of criticism in pre-revolutionary society is one of the most important fronts of organisational struggle at this moment, in preparation for the revolution and the construction of a just society on the rubble of the old. If we fail in this, everything else we do, no matter how well, will come to naught.
LINKS AND SOURCES OTHER THAN IN FOOTNOTES
1 James Connolly (2008). “Socialism and the Irish Rebellion: Writings from James Connolly”, Red & Black Pub
6 Guido (Guy) Fawkes was an anti-English Reformation Catholic who was discovered in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 to blow up the Houses of Parliament, for which he and others were executed in 1606.