Democracy and Delegates

When eight MPs resigned from the Labour Party to form a new political group, the so-called ‘Independent Group’, the call naturally went up for them to resign and contest a by-election under their new political colours. Equally naturally (since they all expected to lose any by-election) they refused. They were supported in this by most of the media on ‘constitutional’ grounds – that MPs are not the delegates of those who voted for them. As the Times (22 February) put it in an editorial entitled ‘Democracy and Conscience’:

‘In a deliberative democracy, the role of elected representatives is not to implement instructions. Rather, they owe it to their constituents to act on, as Edmund Burke put it to the electors of Bristol in 1774, their unbiased opinion, mature judgement and enlightened conscience.’

That’s clear, except that the term ‘deliberative democracy’ is tendentious as why can’t democratically-elected delegates deliberate?

Another opponent of ‘the delegate theory of representation,’ as he called it, was John Stuart Mill (in chapter 12 of his 1861 Representative Government, still taught in universities). He was against this because he thought that, with universal suffrage (to which he was opposed), it would mean ‘the exclusive rule of the operating classes’. He openly advocated ‘leaving an unfettered discretion to the representative’ as a way to prevent the working class imposing ‘class legislation’ in its interest.

So, the theory that elected representatives should have a free hand to vote as they chose, even if this choice was not what those who elected wanted, and that they cannot be removed if they went against their electors’ wishes, originated as an anti-democratic, anti-working-class constitutional practice.

The opposite view – that elected representatives should be subject to control by those who elected them – was the democratic view and, in the nineteenth century, was implemented in some cantons in Switzerland and some of the states of the USA, through provisions for electors to recall those they had elected. Recall votes still take place regularly in the US. The re-election of the US House of Representatives every two years is also a way of making elected representatives responsible to those who elected them (and why ‘annual parliaments’ was one of the Chartists’ six demands, the only one not to have been implemented). It means that electors there can change their representatives if they want after a relatively short period, whereas in Britain they can only do this every five years. Ironically then, had the eight Labour and three Tory defectors been members of the US House of Representatives they would not have been able to hang on for a further three years as they now are.

The Times, however, smeared the democratic position by associating it with Lenin:

‘The alternative notion that officials are mere delegates does have a philosophical lineage. It is to be found in Lenin’s The State and Revolution. This revolutionary blueprint was a guarantee that Russia under the Bolsheviks would become a totalitarian state.’

This is wrong on two counts. First, as just pointed out, this view goes back a long way before Lenin and, second, Lenin’s endorsement of it was not sincere or followed by any attempt to implement it.

Mill gave an example from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries:

‘In the Dutch United Provinces, the members of the States General were mere delegates; and to such a length was the doctrine carried, that when any important question arose which had not been provided for in their instructions, they had to refer back to their constituents, exactly as an ambassador does to the government from which he is accredited.’

Another example is the arrangement proposed for France by the Paris Commune, a democratic popular uprising that took over Paris at the end of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1. As described by Marx:

‘The rural communes of every district were to administer their common affairs by an assembly of delegates in the central town, and these district assemblies were again to send deputies to the National Delegation in Paris, each delegate to be at any time revocable and bound by the mandat impératif (formal instructions) of his constituents’ (The Civil War in France).

This is what anarchists advocate to this day. It was never implemented as the Paris Commune was ruthlessly suppressed in blood by the French government after less than two month’s existence. While it existed, as Marx noted with approval:

‘The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms’.

Lenin, who considered himself a Marxist, had to pay lip-service to this and duly quoted in his The State and Revolution, written in July 1917, this endorsement by Marx of a body elected by universal suffrage whose members were subject to recall ‘at short terms’ as the model political form. But he later switched the emphasis from elected councillors to public servants and wrote of these being reduced to the role of ‘simply carrying out our instructions as responsible, revocable, modestly paid “foremen and bookkeepers”’. By ‘our’ he meant the working class, but represented not by elected delegates but by a vanguard party that had appointed itself to represent them. This was quite different from what the Paris Commune practised and what Marx envisaged; it was a blueprint for a one-party dictatorship where any public servant considered to be not carrying out the instructions of the leaders of the vanguard party could be instantly ‘revoked’, i.e., sacked. After the Bolsheviks seized power in November 1917 one of their first acts was to dissolve the Constituent Assembly that had been elected by universal suffrage and the ‘revocation’ (and worse, imprisonment and exile) of their opponents began. Lenin wasn’t any kind of democrat, let alone a supporter of delegate democracy.

Some form of delegate democracy has to be the basis of the administrative structure in socialism as this will necessarily be a democratic society. Those elected cannot be left ‘an unfettered discretion’ to decide according to ‘their unbiased [oh, yes?] opinion, mature judgement and enlightened conscience’ as proposed by the anti-democrats Burke and Mill. That would be a recipe for class rule, as it was intended to be.