Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Democratic Idea (1966)

From the July 1966 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Thirties was a period of intense and turbulent political controversy. As the world edged its way towards war, controversy grew fiercer and more violent. At no time since the French Revolution had political theory been so widely used to explain world events. Economic rivalries and nationalist pretensions were increasingly overlooked as Communist, Fascist or Democratic became terms of praise or abuse, according to which side one was on. As each milestone — Abyssinia, Spain, Munich — was passed, the issues seemed to crystallise into the simple proposition — Democracy versus Dictatorship.

The previous decade had seen the rise of Fascism. Fascist theorists extolled the virtues of dictatorship and derided democracy, while clever propagandists poured out these ideas in a never-ending stream, over the new medium — radio. Democracy was blamed for the miseries of the depression, and for the bitterness that was felt, understandably enough, by the veterans of the last world war. Democracy, they claimed, was decadent and the cause of once great nations falling into decay. Fascism was to be the cleansing fire that would consume the dross, and herald a great new age. Dictatorship became synonymous with Fascism, and democracy with Anti-Fascism.

This brought in some strange recruits to the cause of freedom. Heading the motley crew were the Communist Party, previously noted for their slavish devotion to that highly autocratic state Russia. When at last the storm broke it was "Democracy" and not "King and Country" for which the workers were urged to fight.

This leads to the question, What is democracy? What are its origins? How long has it existed?

Political theorists have divided democracy into three types, and like most classifications these are useful as a basis for discussion. The divisions are Direct Democracy, Representative Democracy and Constitutional or Liberal Democracy. The first, Direct Democracy, is as the name implies, one in which the right to make political decisions is exercised by the entire body of citizens by the majority vote.

The second, Representative Democracy, sometimes referred to as the "Convention System of Government," is the one in which citizens exercise their rights not in person but through representatives. These are chosen by the people and are directly responsible to them.

The third, Constitutional Democracy, is by far the most important, as this is the only one in operation on a large scale and is what most people think of as democracy. It is a form of government where there is universal suffrage, but where the powers of the majority are exercised through an existing constitutional framework — Parliamentary or Presidential. In this system restraints are designed to guarantee minority rights such as freedom of speech or of assembly, of religion or the press, but where the government once elected is not easily removed.

There has in the post-war world arisen a fourth and rather twisted version — the People's Democracy. It has been claimed, quite reasonably, that the economic inequalities that are inseparable from Capitalism make a mockery of democracy in practice, whatever may be claimed in theory. Developing from this idea, the theory was advanced that only economic equality would bring real democracy. When at the end of the last war the victors split and a new line-up appeared, both sides had to claim democracy. Russia and China, both harsh and quite open dictatorships, used the above theory to claim that countries whose inhabitants have neither political freedom nor economic equality were democracies. The term Democratic Republic has become a bad joke. Such a perversion need not detain us overlong.

Direct Democracy is believed by modern anthropologists to have been common practice in primitive societies, and to go back to prehistoric times. When, however, these societies developed into larger and complex states this tended to be replaced by more authoritarian government. Western political tradition, with its background in the Classics, looked back to the Greek City States as the origin of Democracy. In the fifth century B.C. many Greek City States practised Direct Democracy, with all their citizens taking a direct part in the affairs of the city. The term citizens did not, however, include women or slaves. This must be seen rather as a survival from the past, than the beginnings of the modern world.

The Greeks did not develop any form of representative democracy, which alone could have ensured their survival as a large, centrally organised state. Direct democracy obviously was impossible, with limited communications. By the fourth century B.C. this City democracy had declined and with the coming of Macedonian and later Roman domination all trace of democracy disappeared. Plato and Aristotle defined democracy as one of the systems of government, but did not think very much of it.

Direct democracy was to appeal again in the early days of America, particularly with the New England Town Meetings. In these, all citizens owning property attended in person and voted.

Representative democracy has never been established on any large scale, but proposals based on the theory of direct representation have formed the basis of many movements for Constitutional reform. As a result of this, modifications to existing constitutions in line with these theories have often taken place. Most Parliamentary or Presidential countries have bits of the theory worked into their constitutions. Switzerland is a notable example. One of the most famous of these movements was the Progressivist Movement in America. Two of the electoral reforms this movement helped to establish were the Direct Primary

Election used in some States, which takes away the nomination of party candidates from conventions and gives it to the voters, in a special election held in advance of the main election. There is also the Direct election of Senators. Prior to this, Senators had been chosen by State legislatures. Referendums and plebiscites are other methods by which the electorate vote direct on a particular issue.

There are countries, particularly in Latin America, with semi-dictatorships, which have elaborate constitutions based on Direct Representation. If these were observed the states concerned would be Representative Democracies, but they are largely a dead letter.

So a history of Democracy is largely a history of the Constitutional variety and the first thing to note is that it is modern. Furthermore, it is dependent on a literate population. Throughout history, throughout the succeeding systems of Slavery, Feudalism and now Capitalism, the types of government have been many, ranging from despotism to oligarchy; but Monarchist or Republican, none have been democratic. Modern democracy exists within a framework of ancient institutions, but these institutions were never democratic until recently. So a history of Parliaments, of Regional or City Councils, is not a history of democracy.

In fact, in most countries complete adult suffrage belongs only to this century. Some states such as Switzerland still do not allow women to vote.

The fact that the existing machinery of government was used and adapted to democratic ends has led to confusion. Such events as the founding of Parliament or the Signing of Magna Carta have been regarded as steps on the road to democracy. Nothing would have surprised or shocked Simon de Montfort more than the idea that he was a founder of democracy.

Ideas about the "rule of law", restrictions on the power of the monarch or the "rights and freedoms of the citizens" have been discussed for centuries. But none of the participants in debate equated freedom with the right to vote.

The English Civil War was not fought to establish democracy, but the war and the ideas it unleashed gave rise to a movement called the Levellers. One of the many demands that the Levellers made was a demand for manhood suffrage. This alone made them revolutionary, regardless of any other ideas they held. The whole idea was outrageous to the 17th century. General Ireton summed up the fears of the ruling classes when he claimed that political democracy would lead to economic democracy. This fear has not yet been realised.

Not until the 18th and 19th centuries did political theorists begin to advocate even limited democracy as a cure for the world's ills. Not until then did popular movements like the Chartists begin to demand universal suffrage.

So when the Fascists attacked democracy they were, in fact, attacking something of quite recent origin. This was part of their appeal. Many of the people who gave support to Fascism believed that they were returning to some kind of strong paternalism, like the oligarchies of the early 19th century. These they saw through the usual eyes of nostalgia and endowed with qualities they had not possessed.

They did not realise that Fascist dictatorships with their mass political organisations, their plebiscites to feel the pulse of the public and their reliance on proletarian support, were in themselves modern.
Les Dale

Direct Action (1999)

From the April 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Fly posters pasted up in Norwich invited members of the public to a Direct Action Forum. Stair, a comrade, asked me if I was interested in going along. I wasn't. But something told me I should get out there and become au fait with what people are thinking, though what people are thinking I often find perturbing. I had done it all over the years and now found it heart-sinking to know that there are still people who believe that cutting wires on perimeter fences and swinging about in the branches of trees is going to change anything. From experience I knew that one-day participants in these activities would grow weary of what they were doing and look for a job, return to their studies or take up a career. I recalled the nights spent in my house in London many years ago talking animatedly with friends about the class struggle. I was not to know then that some of those very same people would, in later years, go on to become MPs, trade union officials or have other establishment careers. For them the class struggle became a distant memory.

By the time we arrived at the pub where the meeting was to be held about forty people had already gathered. By 8.30 the small meeting room was filled to over-capacity with sixty, maybe seventy, eager, bright-eyed young people raring to go. I admit to a stab of regret that the word "socialism" would not have had half the appeal for those present as the words "direct action" obviously had.

The suggestion was made that we should break up into smaller groups to discuss what kind of action we would be interested in taking. I must confess that at this point I was feeling a distinct disinclination to join in this discussion. In fact the only direct action I could imagine myself taking was that of getting the hell out of it and going home. But Stair was enjoying himself. He kicked off by giving the group a short account of his own political history which was half as long as mine but which contained some of the same ingredients. He requested other members of the group to do the same. Like Stair they were young but they did not easily use the word "capitalism". They wanted to get involved, they said. They had social consciences and knew there was much wrong with society. The car culture, chemical factories, nuclear weapons, genetically modified foods and cycle lanes were among the subjects the direct actionists got excited about. One man announced that he intended to set up a peace camp in Norwich. They said "Nice one" and "Yeah!" to show him he had support in this. No-one thought to ask where in Norwich or even why. Giving some very good examples of why he thought the way he did Stair explained to the group that direct action was a misdirection of energy.

His analyses of the contradictions intrinsic in direct action did not go down very well. Mouths sagged open in disbelief, protests rose from fevered lips and (hopeless, this) psychological deafness set in. "But we've got to do something," they cried. We told them they could become socialists. Their psychological deafness increased.

When we regrouped the spokesperson for our group reported back to the main body of the meeting that there were people in his group who saw no point in direct action. Here Stair interjected with "You're just pissing about with capitalism." There was a puzzled silence but no-one took him up on this. And then it was business as usual.

After the meeting Stair was optimistic. He said he felt we may have sown a few seeds. The thought uppermost in my mind was that I would be loath to attend any other direct action forums in the future. The spectacle of all those youthful faces aglow with enthusiasm for something so tenuous caused me to experience an emotion akin to sorrow. All that wonderful energy going into little more than thumbing noses at capitalism. What a shame.
Heather Ball

Why the Daily Mail Hates Karl Marx (1998)

From the July 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

Only the most isolated and politically ignorant could have failed to notice the campaign launched recently to defame Karl Marx and discredit the Marxist viewpoint on the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Communist Manifesto.
Hardly a newspaper or magazine failed to join in the collective rubbishing of Marx, the Marxian world view and the possibility of a socialist alternative to the market economy. Radio and TV were at it too. Newsnight was among several programmes contributing fairly lengthy pieces while Talk Radio primed Peter Hitchensred-baiter supreme at the Daily Express—to denigrate Marx in an hour-long programme one afternoon, though his particular excesses were reined-in by an invited interviewee from the Socialist Standard and many of the subsequent callers.
Simple Simon
Possibly the worst episode in this whole sorry campaign was the publication by the Daily Mail on 7 May of an article by one of its regular buffoons, columnist Simon Heffer. Entitled "Obscenity of Celebrating This Man`s Anniversary", this was an article which did not bother with the usual niceties of argumentation and logical analysis or concern itself with such trivialities as facts and figures. It was, instead, one of the most puerile attempts to discredit the working class movement, its history and political development, that there has been in Britain for a long time. In it Heffer accused Marx of being responsible for mass murder, famine, persecution and dictatorshipand that's just for starters. Never one to understate his case, Heffer claimed that Marx was a man "who has caused more misery, bloodshed, death and ruination on our planet than anyone else in history" likening him to Hitler, but worse.
To take the most serious accusationthat of mass murderHeffer makes this charge in the almost certain knowledge that Marx never personally killed anyone, did not personally advocate killing anyone and never occupied any position whereby he was able (or willing) to order systematic murder, like say Hitler or Stalin. Moreover, this crude accusation comes from a journalist who takes his coin from a newspaper which openly supported Hitler and his cosh-wielding friends in the British Union of Fascists during the 1930s. Unsurprisingly, given this level of argumentation, he goes on to call the defenders of Marxism "hypocrites".
In his article Heffer labels Marx "an atrocious man". Accusing him of almost everything short of eating babies, he contends that Marx "plunged his family into poverty and near-starvation while devoting himself to his writings". Though the truthunsurprisinglyis rather more complicated than this, how this accusation can be squared with Heffer's adulation for people like Keith Joseph and Enoch Powell, who were not exactly renowned for their warmth, generosity and personal devotion to others, is difficult to see. But, to take Heifer's sneering tone, he is a Christian and of course Jesus never let his personal convictions or over-weaning sense of his own self-importance impinge on the material well-being of those closest to him . . .
Economical with the truth
Heffer's foolhardiness in this article knows no bounds. Even journalists with the tightest of deadlines to meet know that one of the golden rules is always to check statements and sources before going to print. Not so Heffer. For how else can one account for the following statement:
" . . . his conviction that there was only so much wealth, and that the rich could only enrich themselves at the expense of the poor—was understandable in Marx. He was, after all, one who entirely misunderstood economics. He would not believe that the size of the cake, as well as the size of the slices cut from it, could continue to grow. As a result of this he advocated the persecution of those who controlled the means of production: the capitalists."
There is, to use the old aphorism, so much wrong with this statement it is difficult to know where to start with it. Fundamentally, it is not Marx who "entirely misunderstood economics", it is Heffer. Marx never said anything so daft as the size of the capitalist cake could not grow, and none of the many standard modern economics textbooks that otherwise give little credence to Marx would be as slipshod to say that he did. On the contrary, Marx spent much of his time examining the dynamics of how capitalism grows in practice over the long-term through the accumulation of ever vaster amounts of capital.
Effectively, Heffer has it the wrong way aroundit is not a fixed amount of wealth production in capitalism which forces the rich to exploit the poor if they are to get richer still, it is the rich's exploitation of the poor which provides the very basis for the expansion of capital and therefore of the size of the cake itself. If the rich (the capitalists to be precise) didn't exploit the poor (the workers), or simply weren't able to for some reason, then there really would be no growth of the system, no accumulation of capital. One of Marx's crucial discoveries in the field of political economy was that the working class of wage and salary earners gets paid less than the value of the goods it creates, the difference being a surplus value which accrues to the owning class in the form of ground rent, interest and profit. If capitalists are to successfully compete against their rivals in the market a large proportion of this surplus value generally needs to be re-invested in new and more efficient techniques of production, thereby leading to a long-term expansion in the overall productive capability of society. If there is no exploitation of the working class to produce surplus value, there can be no new investment in production and further expansion of the system. There can be no capitalist growth without working class exploitation.
Heffer is also incorrect when he then goes on to infer that in the market economy opposed by Marx "all prosperity trickles down to improve everybody's lot". Again this is such a ludicrous statement that few defenders of capitalism would now dare utter it. They are no doubt awareunlike Hefferthat while the world capitalist system continues to sporadically grow and while the top one percent of the world's population continues to grow ever richer, the poorest on this planet are poorer than ever (indeed, about half of the countries in the world have seen their GNPs fall this decade whether they be free-market based nations or rigidly state-controlled ones). While Heffer poses as the considerate humanitarian he might care to fly to the Sudan to tell the starving millions the good news that Dixons now have a 21 percent share of their market, with profits up again, and that it will all be trickling their way shortly.
An aunt called Sally
It is evident that Heffer wrote this piece on Marx having read little or nothing by him, though in this he is not alone among those pundits who have an opinion on everything but knowledge of very little. If he did get to grips with reading Marx (or even motivate himself enough to read one of the half-decent books about Marx and his views) he might then be in a position to realise that, far from being an economic ignoramus, Marx correctly outlined:
  • the boom-slump cycle endemic to capitalism and how no government interventionhowever benignwould be able to prevent it;
  • how the market economy would eventually spread its tentacles into every aspect of human life, conquering the entire planet in the process;
  • how an excess issue by governments of paper currency beyond that required by additional value production is the real cause of inflation;
  • class division and the modern development of a world economy where the division between the richest and the poorest is the widest in human history;
  • the growth of a colossal credit-based financial apparatus that, as time goes on, becomes increasingly isolated from the realities of the wealth production process on which it depends.
Heffer was ignorant to this and much else besides (although the term 'ignorance' here may be taken to imply a certain innocence, which in this context would be mistaken). His only motive was to ridicule Marx and rubbish the method of understanding the world he bequeathed to the working class as irrelevant at best and downright dangerous at worst. Hence, like most of the knee-jerk attacks on Marx which have populated the media, Heffer's piece could not resist associating Marx and Marxism with virtually every hideous dictatorship created this century. Without any justification whatsoever, Heffer claimed that Marx wanted to eliminate liberty and is content just like all the other shoddy scholars throughout history, to damn a theory on the basis of the deeds of those who later claimed to uphold it without asking himself whether they actually did uphold it or not. Heffer would never dream of doing this with Christianity (or Conservatism for that matter) but Marxism is apparently fair game and therefore gets damned by association with every tin-pot dictator this side of the Khmer Rouge.
Workers' gain
Throughout the bitter and difficult struggle of the working class against capitalism, the workers have made a number of serious and identifiable gains. Some of these have been economic, others more political in nature, including those relating to the organisation and outlook of the working class. The method of understanding society and social change left by Marx and Engels is one of the most important of these. Without the theoretical tools left by Marxism the working class is bereft of a comprehensive understanding of the market system, class division and why capitalism must be overthrown in a democratic socialist revolution. It is precisely for this reason that it is so feared by the ruling class and their representatives and why, periodically, so much effort is expended on denigrating it. The recent campaigns surrounding the 150th anniversary of theCommunist Manifesto have been but a part of this entire process.
If anyone doubts the prescience of the Marxian analysis and views this defence of it as mere hyperbole, consider the following passages from the Manifesto about the development of world capitalism and the ruling capitalist class:
"The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation . . . It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e. to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image."
And yet:
"Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange, and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells."
In a world of uncontrollable global economic crises, permanent warfare, rampaging environmental destruction, unprecedented income inequality, social dislocation and delinquency, who can in all seriousness say that Marx was fundamentally wrong? And if his identification of the problems of the modern world and their trajectory is so accurateespecially for 150 years agohis proposed solution for them must surely command attention too. That, of course, is a different story, though one elaborated in the pages of this journal often enough and yet still some way up the steep learning curve now confronting the likes of Simon Heffer and those others still to come to terms with the fact that ignorance and abuse are never a defence for long against accurate and coherent analysis. That this is unlikely to stop the Daily Mail and its ilk is more of a reflection of their own self-serving, anti-working class viewpoint than of the alleged "evil" of a long-dead German philosopher with a funny beard and a penchant for libraries.
Dave Perrin