Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Nature of Democracy (1977)

From the December 1977 issue of the Socialist Standard

Socialism is essentially democratic. It means a society of true equality. All people will jointly own the means of production and distribution, and will control them and administer all the affairs of society from that classless basis. Because means must harmonize with ends, the organization for Socialism is also democratic. Socialists reject leadership and censorship; the realization of the interests of the working class lies in full, free and informed discussion.

The capitalist class does not willingly give such facilities for the development of socialist consciousness and organization. It has to provide them as legal “rights" for the maintenance of its own political system, and their extent varies from country to country. Socialists are aware of the need for scope, and — unlike many foolish people who call themselves “revolutionaries” — avoid jeopardizing the opportunities we have. At the same time, we do not bow down in gratitude to the ruling class and promise to fight on their side in return for what they have grudgingly given. We compare their “rights” with the freedom Socialism offers; when increasing numbers of socialists give us bigger muscles, we shall want more room to flex them.

The other half of the lie, that Russia and China are communist, is that the West is free and democratic. This falsehood provides a vital propaganda weapon which the ruling class use to goad workers into the acceptance of war preparations. It can never be officially admitted that the reason is economic and concerns markets, resources and profits, not ideological concern for freedom and democracy.

Strategic Alliances
Alliances between allegedly free countries and dictatorships have no ideological explanation, they can only be understood in terms of commercial and military strategy. For example, Portugal while a dictatorship was “Britain’s oldest ally” and Uganda under Amin, remains part of the so-called Commonwealth, America sponsors dictatorships like that in S. Korea and fought a ten years war to bolster the power of its puppet tyrants in Vietnam. Russia and China infiltrate much of the world with massive investments, trade and military power, even in places where their “communist” comrades are in prison. The British and American ruling classes embraced Russia as an ally from 1941 to 1945 and tailored their propaganda accordingly. Churchill found no difficulty working with Stalin, whose regime he had spent twenty-five years denouncing as a “cancerous growth”, to organize the mass slaughter of Germans and Italians, whose leaders Hitler and Mussolini he formerly admired.

Today the world is one huge nuclear arsenal for the major powers. The smaller states are drawn into one armed camp or the other or come under the strategy of the big bandit. Nuclear weapons have no respect for non-alignment. Just as the major powers are motivated by the economics of capitalism, so also are the smaller countries. The conditions leading to conflict are always present in competition for markets.

After two world wars and scores of “minor” wars supposedly to ensure freedom, outside the phrasemongering of politicians and the media how much freedom and democracy is there in the world today? What do these words really mean? To arrive at a clear understanding, it is necessary first to grasp the nature of class society, otherwise freedom and democracy, like ideas about rights and justice, remain vague concepts. In our Declaration of Principles, we refer to the enslavement of the working class being a consequence of the ownership of the means of living by the capitalist class. This is the number one fact of life of capitalist society. The only sense in which the working class are free is, as Marx explains in The Communist Manifesto, that they are not tied to land or any individual employers, but being divorced from the means of production are free to sell their working abilities on the labour market to any capitalist willing to hire them. Wage-labour is socially enslaved to the capitalist class as a whole.

Marx also makes the point that the working class is dragged into the political arena by the capitalist class. The Capitalists are not a single group with the same interest, but numerous groups with often conflicting interests. Although they all live on the backs of the workers, they dispute among themselves as to which should have the main burden of taxation for the costs of running their system. In the early days of capitalism when the sharpest division was between landed and industrial interests, the Tory party represented the former and the Whigs (Liberals) the latter. Both posed as champion of the workers to enlist the aid of the workers for their own advantage. This was the background to the passing of the early factory legislation and franchise reform. Instead of seeing their own interests as distinct from those of the capitalists, workers sought to play one against the other for the amelioration of immediate grievances. This led to dissatisfaction with existing parties and as the trade-union movement grew, to the formation of the Labour party. The workers then as now blamed their hardships on leaders and parties rather than the system. The fraud of reformism has become the status quo. The institutional forms taken by the national affairs of the capitalist class, which includes the health, education and welfare of the working class, are put over to the workers as freedom and democracy.

For the dubious privilege of having his children’s heads stuffed with nationalism and religion, while being trained for a life of wage-slavery, and the benefits bestowed by the Welfare/Warfare state to relieve the worst extremes of poverty, the worker is expected to rejoice that he is remembered at election times and invited to vote for the continuation of things as they are.

Just as capitalist politicians debated the dangers of teaching workers to read and had no choice but to do so, they also debated the wisdom of universal suffrage. The provision of facilities for lobbying opinion to decide how property interests and profitability can best be served is not the same thing as freedom. There is no provision made for expressing socialist views; these fall outside the province of profit promotion, and have to make their own way. The capitalist conception of freedom can never amount to more than the freedom of the capitalist class to trade, legislate and arm against their rivals. For them, the first freedom must always be the freedom to exploit wage labour. Even the contesting of elections is tightly circumscribed by money, resources and access to the media.

Those who take the propaganda of the system at its face value tell us at our meetings, that in Britain at least we have “free speech and freedom of the press”. But where a minority owns the means of living and also owns and controls the press, obviously the press is not free. Useful though Hyde Park is, it is a drop in the ocean compared to the world day- and-night output of television, radio and press. Free access to the channels of radio and television does not exist. If “free” speech consists of standing on a platform by the roadside, shouting above the traffic, while the system’s propaganda invades every worker’s living-room, clearly the word “freedom” has a double standard.

Unfettered Discussion
The press, radio and television are not even free for the capitalists as individuals. There are programme controllers, D Notices, censorship, “editing”, regulations laid down in broadcasting charters, the Official Secrets Acts and other “democratic” devices. The national interests of the capitalists as a class need secrecy, and the slanting of information. This is the antithesis of democracy Democracy involves the free availability of all information and unfettered discussion— but this implies no class with privileged interests to maintain.

In the Preface to The Critique of Political Economy, Marx enunciated the principle of the materialist conception of history: that the legal and political superstructure can only be explained by the social relations that men enter into in production and the level of development of the productive forces at a given time. The legal machinery and political power of capitalism are built upon the ownership of the means of production and distribution by the capitalist class. The prevailing ideology and morality reflect the interests of private property. The non-owning class are fed false information and miseducated to produce attitudes in conformity with the dominance of private property and profits. Attitudes towards money, wages, leadership, housing, inflation, trade and war, are manipulated by the schools, press, radio and t.v. on the basis of the prior assumptions of the capitalist interest. The skilful use of spurious information and a pretence of a debate excludes views which reject those prior assumptions.

There is no freedom to put the case for Socialism on level pegging with the parties of capitalism. They have the mass media at their constant disposal, the Socialist Party of Great Britain does not. If Marx’s view of society is correct Socialist ideas do not spread among the workers because they are given permission to do so, by rights or concepts of freedom. It is the contradictions inherent in capitalist society which promote the growth of class-consciousness. Ideas can neither be legislated into nor out of existence. There is a conflict between the material forces of production and the existing social relations of production and the existing social relations of production. This is the essential prerequisite, the soil from which consciousness grows. It is a paradox for workers to accept the prerogative of capitalist politicians to grant them “rights”. The other side of the coin is acceptance of their prerogative to curtail them.

Just as with other reforms in welfare or education, there is the assumption that what is good for capitalism, is good for the workers; in times of crises when reforms are cut back this too is sold as good for everyone. In time of war or emergency, the “rights” and “freedoms” for which workers are told to sacrifice themselves, become all but non-existent. Since the end of the second World War, the frequent recurrence of wars and emergencies have provided the grounds for repeated tightening of the reins. There has been a vast expansion of surveillance and “security” operations throughout the world and a tremendous extension of the screening of individuals, publications and organizations, despite the “inalienable” rights guaranteed by the American Constitution, and such documents as the United Nations Charter.

What sustains their continued acceptance of capitalism, is the fact that workers everywhere, are side tracked into struggling for a host of other issues. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Frederick Engels makes a brilliant summary of the situation: “The possessing class rules directly through universal suffrage. For as long as the oppressed class, in this case the proletariat, is not ripe for its economic emancipation, just so long will its majority regard the existing order of society as the only one possible, and form the tail, the extreme left wing of the capitalist class. But the more the proletariat matures towards its self emancipation, the more does it constitute itself as a separate class and elect its own representatives in place of the capitalists. Universal suffrage is the gauge of the maturity of the working class”. (Pages 210, 211, Kerr Edition.)

No minority could hold back the tidal wave of a majority wanting Socialism. It is the task of socialists to expand Socialism and nothing else. Socialism will be democratic because, the interest of everybody in a classless world will be harmonious. At the end of our Declaration of Principles, we urge workers to join us to end “the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom". For socialists, the attainment of freedom means the abolition of classes and democracy is inseparable from Socialism.
Harry Baldwin

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