Marxism and Democracy

It is not possible to explain in an understandable way what the attitude of the Socialist Party of Great Britain is to Marxism and democracy without first dismissing the mass of representations and half-truths surrounding the term Marxism, and distinguishing between widely differing concepts of democracy.

For us Marxism means essentially the mature, stated, view of Marx and Engels on the materialist conception of history, the economic analysis of capitalism and the way in which the working class must use the “parliamentary system” to achieve power as the necessary preliminary to the establishment of Socialism. This is the legitimate way in which the term should be used but it is not the way in which it is commonly used by the media or by numerous organisations all over the world that have chosen to label themselves Marxist. Leading politicians and commentators habitually use it as a term of abuse to blacken the Labour Party; like the description of that Party as “Marxist”. Neither in that Party’s aim, nor its economics (they are Keynesians) nor in its political propaganda can this usage be justified. Tackled about this, well-known columnists have taken refuge in a defence that amounts to no more than that “nowadays everybody does it”, a complete abdication from their proclaimed role of providing genuine information for their readers.

As regards the organisations that style themselves Marxist, some do this in total ignorance of the writings of Marx and Engels while others make use of statements made before a lifetime of experience had brought maturity.

There is as much confusion about democracy as about Marxism. Hardly any organisation now admits to being anti-democratic; the National Front pays lip-service to democracy as does also the Russian dictatorship.

The formula used to justify the Russian system goes like this. “Democracy is majority rule. If the majority can be persuaded, pressurised or forced into placing the Communist Party leadership in power, that is democracy.” It is of course a mockery. There is only one, officially endorsed, candidate in each constituency; through the censorship all information is government-controlled; and all political parties except the Communist Party are prohibited so that there is no legal way in which opponents’ views can be put to the electorate. Bukharin once put it in a sentence: ‘There is room in Russia for any number of political parties as long as one is in power and the others are in prison.” In Russia it is possible for people to be arrested for openly refusing to vote (The Times 30 July 1978). Yet notwithstanding the risk involved, the official account of the last elections to the Supreme Soviet disclosed that some 330,000 people did vote against the official candidates.

All of this is far removed from the concept of democracy in socialist society. In socialism, objective information will be freely and fully available — no vested interests to give slanted versions. All will be able to hear and discuss different policy proposals. Decisions will be by majority vote; and will be accepted and operated by the minority, unless and until they can persuade the majority to change its views. Above all, because there will be no coercive state and all members of society will have free access to the means of life there can be no question of the minority being penalised in any way.

What about democracy in “parliamentary” countries like Great Britain? Objective information is not fully and freely available here but under normal conditions a socialist political party can operate legally and can answer capitalist propaganda. It can state the socialist case and contest elections, and as the overwhelming majority of the electors are working class it is open to the workers, through Parliament, to gain control of the machinery of government, including the armed forces, for the purpose of establishing Socialism when they so decide. Marx and Engels have always appreciated the value of the vote. In 1848, in the Communist Manifesto they wrote:

    “We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle for democracy.”

Looking back, half a century later, Frederick Engels said:

    “The Communist Manifesto had already proclaimed the struggle for the general franchise, for democracy, as one of the first and most important tasks of the militant proletariat . . .” (Introduction to Class Struggles in France 1895)

Only four years after the Communist Manifesto Marx emphasised the point in an article in the New York Tribune (25 August 1852):

    “The carrying of universal suffrage in England would . . . be a far more socialistic measure than anything which has been honoured with that name on the Continent. It’s inevitable result, here, is the political supremacy of the working class.”

In their early years of political activity Marx and Engels had been optimistic about the speed with which developments would take place. With greater experience they had to recognise that the obstacles — the resourcefulness of the ruling class, the adaptability of capitalism, and the slowness with which socialist ideas were accepted by the workers — were much greater than they had supposed.

Engels, in the work already mentioned summarised this:

    “The time is past for revolutions carried through by small minorities at the head of unconscious masses. When it gets to be a matter of the complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must participate, must understand what is at stake and why they are to act. That much the history of the last fifty years has taught us. But so that the masses may understand what is to be done, long and persistent work is required  . . . Even in France the Socialists realise more and more that no durable success is possible unless they win over in advance the great mass of the people, which, in this case, means the peasants. The slow work of propaganda and parliamentary activity are here also recognised as the next task of the party”.

Engels, however, still underestimated the difficulties of the situation, this time through his misjudgement of the quality of membership of the social democratic parties. They were more and more being recruited, not for the socialist objective, but by the attraction of the “immediate demands” attached to the social-democratic programmes. They were still dependent on “leadership” and it remained for the Socialist Party of Great Britain to show that the whole leadership idea is alien to democracy and the socialist movement.

Edgar Hardcastle

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