1950s >> 1959 >> no-660-august-1959
What is Democracy?
Most people support, usually in some vague, ill-defined way, the principle of democracy. However, if one questions people as to exactly what democracy is, the replies are varied and usually unhelpful. Majority rule; the rights of minorities; the freedoms of speech, thought and the press; the right to vote; the right to organise in Trade Unions—all these will be mentioned by one person or another as being essential ingredients of democracy. Democracy, though, has become such a dangerous, emotionally charged word that McCarthy carried out his witch-hunts under its banner, workers slaughter each other in its name, and people are incarcerated in gaols and prison-camps in defence of its holy writ.
It is a confusing concept that permits the perpetration of slavery in the name of freedom, slaughter in the name of peace, oppression in the name of tolerance, and what is perhaps more important, minority government in the name of majority rule.
In this country, the result of the party system so far has been that power has remained in the hands of the “right” people. The Labour, Tory and Liberal parties, either as Her Majesty’s Government or Her Majesty’s Opposition, are pledged to the support of the status quo —which means the continued subjection of the working class and the preservation of the sanctity of private property.
Basically, of course, the reason that enables these parties to continue in this way is the passive support of workers for the kind of world that we have today. Although workers may grumble and agitate about specific problems, and even join large-scale protest movements about such things as the H-bomb, it is only among Socialists that one finds a conscious desire for complete social change.
In other words, the theory of democratic control by a majority means in practice a rigid control by a minority supported by the passive acquiescence of the majority. In this sense “democracy” is a hollow term which cloaks class ownership.
Of course, the ruling class and government know this better than most, and consequently play on workers’ acquiescence and apathy through the vast means at their disposal—the press, radio, cinema, television and so on. Every kind of phony idea and concept is dinned into the working class by these means—“patriotism” (not so effective now, this one); “gracious living”; “getting on”; “making a world fit for heroes to live in”;—all these, and a thousand more, bombard workers from all directions.
Hard Won Rights
This is not to suggest that the hard won gains of adult suffrage, secret voting, organisation of Trade Unions, freedom of speech, and so on, are not important. Of course they are, but it is equally important to realise that they were not granted to the working class by philanthropic, liberal-minded rulers who were abdicating their power. They were wrested from the ruling class after years of struggle, and the dead of Peterloo, the Tolpuddle martyrs, and all those who have suffered for such causes bear witness to the fact that it is the working people themselves that must work out their own destiny.
Paradoxically enough, these hard-won rights are often used as a justification for our rulers to enlist our support in fighting wars or oppressing others. But of one thing the workers can be sure—wars are not fought over democracy or democratic rights. This appears obvious from the war-time line-ups of states—some ostensibly “democratic” and others flagrant dictatorships. So in the last war, one could find varieties of both, specimens on either side of the front. Similarly, today one finds that countries such as Portugal and Spain are looked upon as allies, while in South America, the many dictatorships are often in alliance with “democratic” America.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that terms like “freedom” and “democracy” are not absolute and must be examined in their social context. To talk of “freedom” today, in a world of social and economic class domination, is as absurd as talking of the “democracy” of the Western capitalist countries, all of whom practice in one form or another the suppression of minorities and the flouting of majority wishes.
So it is that, under capitalism, democracy can have only the most limited of meanings, and is usually given a meaning and justification that is completely opposed to its theoretical principles.
The principles of majority rule and the recognition of the rights of minorities can only really achieve practical fruition in a world freed from economic and social domination. It is only with the establishment of socialism that people will be able consciously to effect their wishes through democratic practice. Only then will today’s empty and hollow cry of “democracy” bear a meaning worthy of human organisation.