Rosa Luxemburg wrote that democracy is indispensable to the working-class “because it creates the political forms which will serve the proletariat as fulcrums in its task of transforming bourgeois society.” But democracy in itself cannot solve a single problem of the working class. Democracy for the working class can only be consolidated and extended to the extent that the working class adopts a socialist standpoint. To renounce socialism so that democracy may be defended, means ultimately the renunciation of both socialism and democracy.
At the same time we must recognise that genuine democracy is more than these freedoms and the right to vote. While “one person, one vote” is an essential ingredient of democratic society, democracy implies much more than the simple right to choose between representative of political parties every five years. The Chartist movement, in the 19th century, saw that gaining the right to vote was meaningless unless it could be used to effect “change”. But today exercising our democratic right to vote for a conventional political party does not effect change. It amounts to little more than making a selection between rival representatives of power and class interest. If we cannot have democracy under the present social system, at least we may have men and women imbued with the democratic spirit. Indeed, every Socialist must be so imbued. In the light of this spirit he has faith in the capacity of the whole people to control the social system as a democracy. The realisation that genuine democracy cannot exist in capitalist society does not alter the fact that the freedoms already secured by struggle can be turned against our masters. The right to vote, for instance, can become a powerful instrument to end our servitude and to achieve genuine democracy and freedom. Working people with an understanding of socialism can utilise their vote to signify that the overwhelming majority demand change and to bring about social revolution.
At first sight, this suggestion of literally everyone taking part in social decisions may seem as unrealistic. Surely, it is said, these matters have to be left to the experts, and surely modern populations are far too large for active participation by everyone? Political theorists and political philosophers. They think the point so obvious that they state them far more often than actually arguing for them. Yet they are not obvious. In view of the demonstrated failure of legions of experts and government advisers to solve any of the major problems of civilisation, the less said about expertise the better.
How can millions of people all have a say in running society?
Marx in a response to Bakunin’s rhetorical question “There are about forty million Germans. Are all forty million going to be members of the government?” Marx responds: “Certainly, because the thing starts with the self-government of the commune.”
Marx’s theory of socialist revolution is grounded on the fundamental principle that “the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself”. Marx held to this view throughout his entire forty years of socialist political activity, and it distinguished his theory of social change from that of both those who appealed to the princes, governments and industrialists to change the world for the benefit of the working class (such as Robert Owen or Saint Simon) and of those who relied on the determined action of some enlightened minority of professional revolutionaries to liberate the working class (such as Blanqui and Weitling). Marx’s conception of what a fully democratic system would be like seems to had been influenced by events in France. Here’s how he described the Paris Commune of 1871 which he held up as an example of how the working class should exercise political power once they had won control of it:
“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. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time..In a rough sketch of national organization, which the Commune had no time to develop, it states clearly that the Commune was to be the political form of even the smallest country hamlet, and that in the rural districts the standing army was to be replaced by a national militia, with an extremely short term of service. The rural communities 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 imperatif (formal instructions) of his constituents.”
The democratic organisation of all people as citizens of the world would need to operate through different scales of social co-operation. Locally, in town or country, we would be involved with our parish or neighbourhood. Even now, there are many thousands of men and women throughout the country who work voluntarily on parish and district councils and in town neighbourhoods for the benefit of their communities. But these efforts would be greatly enhanced by the freedoms of a society run entirely through voluntary co-operation. Such local organisation would be in the context of regional co-operation which could operate by adapting the structures of present national governments. Whilst some departments such as Inland Revenue and the Treasury, essential to the capitalist state, would be abolished, others like Agriculture and the Environment could be adapted to the needs of socialist society and could be part of regional councils and would assist in the work of implementing the decisions of regional populations. With the abolition of the market system, communities in socialism will not only be able to make free and democratic decisions about what needs to be done they will also be free to use their resources to achieve those aims. Communities will be free to decide democratically how best to use those resources. Small units could be run by regular meetings of all the workers. In the cases of large organisations these could be run by elected committees accountable to the people working in them. In this way, democratic practice would apply not just to the important policy decisions that would steer the main direction of development, it would extend to the day-to-day activities of the work place.
These days developments are now taking place which relegate phones and TVs to the museums along with the stone-age axe. Even the feeblest imagination should be able to grasp the implication for democracy. This potential boon to humankind has itself called forth instruments which could, in a different framework, be of untold benefit. Such information and communications technology gives the opportunity for the population to keep themselves better informed and to take a more active role in decisions than at any time since the small city-states of ancient Greece. Information must flow freely, so all can have an opportunity of reaching a decision, of judging the performance of delegates and appointees, of deciding to challenge the actions of one body in a higher authority; and in real democracy, the higher authorities are those bodies which contain more members of the community concerned. Everyday life must be the signaling system that lets people know what their fellows want, the way of coordinating votes and decisions. A society of common ownership would have no need of constricting decision-making. Democracy would be an everyday process. When we own all the wealth in common we will have structures to ensure that we retain control of all decision-making levels where we feel we have need to involve ourselves and intervene. The more people can exercise a say in those actions, the more democratic the process becomes. Our aim of a democratic society is a practical possibility.
Democracy needs no boastful big leaders with egos to polish, no self-important experts and specialists linked to large corporations. Democracy needs no rallying cries of flag-waving nationalism. Democracy, in essence, is simple and easily understood. Democracy speaks the whole truth, reveals all the evidence, enables informed discussion and decisions and requires inclusion for all in dialogue. Crucial to the question of democracy is not just the ability to make decisions about what to do but also the powers of action to carry out those decisions. Politically for socialists it is the heartbeat of every activity.
There is a view of some of our critics that envisages only a minority-led revolution, with an active minority leading a mass of merely discontented but not socialist-minded workers. Even if such a revolution were to succeed it would not, and could not, lead to socialism . They are not thinking, as we are, in terms of a majority revolution, one involving the active and democratic participation of a majority of the population. Even if such a revolution were to succeed it would not, and could not, lead to socialism. For socialists in the WSM, democracy is not an optional extra or simply a means to an end. It is part of our end. Unless a majority of industrial and white collar workers want socialism and organise themselves without leaders to get it then socialism is impossible. On the other hand, if they do want it, nothing can stop them getting it, not even a hypothetical abolition of political democracy by a recalcitrant capitalist government. No government can continue to govern in the face of active opposition from those they govern. Faced with the hostility of a majority of workers (including, of course, workers in the civil and armed forces, as well as workers in productive and distributive occupations), the capitalist minority would be unable, in the long run, to enforce its commands and the workers would be able to dislocate production and transport. Even if a pro-capitalist minority somewhere were to try to prevent a change of political control via the ballot box, the socialist majority will still be able to impose its will by other means, such as street demonstrations and strikes. But we doubt that it will come to that.
Democracy is not just a set of rules or a parliament; it is a process, a process that must be fought for. The struggle for democracy is the struggle for socialism. It is the struggle for an idea, a belief that we can run our own lives, that we have a right to a say in how society is run, for a belief that the responsibility for democracy lies not upon the politicians or their bureaucrats, but upon ourselves. We want democracy to extend to all spheres of social life. For us that’s what socialism is – the common ownership and democratic control of the means of life by the whole community. But genuine democracy will not be achieved by relying on economists or other supposed experts to design it.
William Morris wrote about democracy in a passage he explains the mechanism of democracy :
“Said I ‘So you settle these differences, great and small, by the will of the majority, I suppose?’
‘Certainly,’ said he; ‘How else could we settle them? You see in matters which are merely personal which do not affect the welfare of the community – how a man shall dress, what he shall eat and drink, what he shall write and read, and so forth – there can be no difference of opinion, and everybody does as he pleases. But when the matter is of interest to the whole community, and the doing or not doing something affects everybody, the majority must have their way . . . in a society of men who are free and equal – the apparent majority is the real majority, and the others, as I have hinted before, know too well to obstruct from mere pigheadedness; especially as they have had plenty of opportunity of putting forward their side of the question.’ ”
Socialism and democracy are complementary; more than complementary – indivisible. In the sense that a democratic society can only result from free, conscious choice, it is a by-product of freedom. But in both a social and a political context freedom can only exist as a by-product of democracy. Whichever way round it is will not matter, when it is thriving in that community yet to be established, where though it still rains, we still quarrel and new problems confront us every day – we have learned to accept that, just occasionally, we may be wrong but rejoice in the fact that tomorrow we retain the incontrovertible right to be wrong again. Democracy can not be left to mature on its own like a good wine but needs to breathe out of the bottle, kept fresh by continual practice. Socialism will involve people making decisions about their own lives and those of families, friends and neighbours. This will not just be the trappings of democracy but the real thing – people deciding about and running their own lives, within a system of equality and fellowship.
The World Socialist Movement does not intend playing into the hands of the global ruling class and their political mouth-pieces. We don’t intend making it easy for them to treat world socialism as an “undemocratic” threat. Where it is available to workers we take the viewpoint that capitalist democracy can and should be used. But not in order to chase the ever diminishing returns of reforming capitalism. Instead we see democracy as a critically important instrument available to class-conscious workers for making a genuine social revolution. And in the process of making a revolution the really interesting work can start of course: that of reinventing a democracy fit for society on a worldwide human scale. A democracy that is free from patronage, power games and the profit motive.