Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Is Democracy Worth While? (1937)

From the April 1937 issue of the Socialist Standard

Is democracy desirable or not? This is a question that is being heatedly debated of late years, and many people are asking themselves the question very anxiously. Of those who put it some are filled with doubts, others are filled with apprehension. There are a number of people who fear that democracy has become a broken reed that will have to be thrown away, and this view is being strongly urged by some who feel that their economic interests are jeopardised by its continuance.

A good deal of the doubt about the value of democracy arises from a misunderstanding, a confusion as to what democracy really is, and the varying and contradictory definitions given by professional writers on the subject is one of the principal sources of this confusion. Some define democracy as a system of society, others as a form of government. Some define it as a method of procedure, others as an end in itself. There have been writers who have endowed it with mystic powers, giving the impression that if only we had real democracy our troubles will be over. Then there are the people who give a group character to democracy, and speak of bourgeois or proletarian democracy, as if there were different brands of this particular form. What these latter have done is borrowed phrases from Marx and Engels, and given them a quite unintended meaning.

Before there can be any reasonable discussion of the subject it is necessary to be clear about the meaning of the terms used. In the present instance the meaning can be got at by taking the generally recognised way of using the term “democracy," before professors and others commenced giving their exasperating definitions of it.

When the expression is applied to society those who use it frequently intend to signify the poorer section of the people as opposed to the aristocracy. When, however, the general statement is made that during the last century government became more democratic, the invariable meaning is that the governed had more say in the making of the laws by which they were governed. In other words, the basis of government was widened. The franchise was extended so that more and more of those who compose society took part in electing representatives to the places from which political power was exercised. To-day the capitalists rule by the consent of the majority of the people, though this is only so because the workers (who make up the majority) cannot conceive of an alternative social arrangement.

Behind all the confusion over the meaning of democracy there is one general idea, although it is often very little appreciated. When a club, a political party, or a society is spoken of as being democratically organised, the idea intended to be conveyed is that in all of them each member has an equal power in the control. The fact that sometimes this power is not sensibly exercised has led many to lay the blame on democracy instead of placing it where it really belongs. At bottom, then, democracy simply means majority rule—that the expressed wishes of the majority shall always prevail, but that also minorities will have freedom of expression, and will not be penalised for their views.

In order that the will of the majority may prevail certain conditions must exist which will make it possible to know at any time what views the majority really hold. For this purpose it is necessary that there should be (1) freedom of discussion and means existing for this purpose; (2). freedom and equality of voting; (3) freedom to select those who are to carry out the wishes of the majority, and (4) equality of electoral divisions or districts.

Immediately before the Great War these conditions obtained near enough in most of the advanced countries of the world. Since the War, on the pretext that democracy is a failure or obsolete, these conditions have been modified or nullified in certain European countries.

The first thing that strikes one, in relation to democracy, when taking a sweeping glance over past history, is that the question of the rule of the few or the rule of the many has been a burning one from very early days, and has been productive of considerable internal strife. The source of the strife has, however, been something of far greater importance that lay behind the question of ruling —the economic interests of classes.

The attitude of Socialists towards democracy is determined by the conditions that are bound up with Socialism.

Socialism is a system of society based upon the common ownership of the means of production and distribution. It is a system in which the wealth produced, and the work of. producing it, will be spread, as far as required, equally over the whole of society. Each will contribute to society to the best of his ability, and each will receive from society the best that can reasonably be done towards fulfilling his needs. In order to carry on such a system democratic control is essential. Each member must understand the possibilities and limitations of society so that each can help in the orderly arrangement of affairs and also so that no one will make unreasonable demands upon society.

Consequently, Socialism needs democracy— the participation of all members of society in the control of social arrangements.

Society at present is based on the private ownership of the means of production, and all laws are made and administered with the object of keeping this system in force. Those who own the means of production, the capitalists, as a class, are directly interested in the continuance of the present system and, consequently, they and their supporters do what they can to prevent a change. The capitalists have no objection to democracy providing the votes leave them in their privileged position. The doubts about democracy have developed when and where the capitalists feared that their privileges might be questioned. Hence, as long as the workers voted for the masters or their henchmen, democracy was all right, but when the workers begin to show a disposition to vote for their own nominees then the question is raised by the capitalists as to whether the workers are intelligent enough to know whom and what to vote for.

The present system is defended and the laws are enforced by.the armed forces, which are set in motion in this country at the behest of the group which has behind it a, majority in Parliament. Before any social change can be brought about it is necessary to get control of political power, and this can be done by obtaining a majority of Socialists in Parliament—the centre of political power—supported by the votes of a class-conscious majority in the country. This is another important reason why Socialists are in favour of democracy.

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