Friday, 26 August 2011

Marxists And Bourgeois Democracy - Part 3

In Part 2, I argued that the Marxist position is determined by the principle that we should always “stick with the workers”. That is we do not adopt a sectarian attitude to the working-class, setting ourselves apart from it simply on the basis that it is imbued with reactionary ideas. The sects have fallen prey to such a danger, because they have created for themselves an idealised image of the working-class, which is maintained as a result of their isolation from it.
They are able to delude themselves that the workers share their ideas or many of them, because their largely petit-bourgeois background and lifestyle separates them from the real working-class. They live in a bubble in which they simply exchange ideas with likeminded people, or at best with only that tiny minority of the class that is itself engaged in some form of political or Trade Union activity.

The consequence of that, and the similarity of approach that can be made with the attitude on an international level could be seen with the Lyndsey Oil Refinery dispute. There construction workers protested at a potential loss of jobs due to work being contracted out to an Italian company.
The nature of the dispute was such that it facilitated the raising of reactionary, nationalistic demands that already hold some sway amongst the working-class. So demands such as “British Jobs For British Workers” appeared on placards. The BNP were quick to try to jump on to such a bandwagon.

Some groups such as the AWL, but also including the SWP, reacted in a thoroughly sectarian way, opposing the strike on the basis that it was being fought under these reactionary ideas. Indeed, the AWL even made an abortive attempt to organise a picket of the UNITE offices where the strikers were to attend a meeting! This is, in reality, merely an extension of the kind of moral politics, of the AWL, at an international level, to that of the day to day class struggle at home. It dates back to the origins of the Third Camp, and its moral outrage at the nature of the deformed Workers' State in the USSR.
It did not meet their pristine requirements for what a Workers State should look like, so they abandoned it, and threw in their lot with “Democratic Imperialism”. It is the same moral politics that leads them to support Democratic Imperialism and its allies against Iran, Libya, Iraq, Serbia and so on today. But, similarly, abandoning the LOR workers meant not just effectively siding with their employers, but its necessary consequecne would have been to push the workers into the hands of the BNP.

Fortunately, other socialists, primarily the Socialist Party, who had militants working at the site, were able to provide support for the strike, whilst opposing the reactionary demands. It meant that the BNP were prevented from taking advantage of the dispute, and it also meant that the reactionary demands were dropped, and the strike directed in a more positive direction.

But, let us take this analogy further. The BNP have established their own Trade Union – Solidarity. We can assume that not all members of this union are in fact members of the BNP. Suppose it were to be involved in a strike, what would the attitude of Marxists be. As a strike, an action by workers aimed directly at their bosses, we would be on the side of the workers, despite the reactionary nature of the union. We would be so, because our task would be to try to win those workers away from the influence of the BNP. Were we to oppose the strike, it would be to play into the hands of the BNP who would say to other workers, look these socialists are in league with the bosses they claim to be their enemy! Moreover, if the employer were to try to break the union, and to claim their reason for doing so was because it was run by fascists, we would give such claims no support whatsoever. It would be clear that the real reason for their action was to break the union the better to oppress the workers.
In the US, there is a history of unions being taken over by the Mob. They use their organisation and strong arm methods to buy off and intimidate union officials. But, does the fact that such unions are not in the workers interests mean that they are in the bosses interest? No. The reason the Mob seek such control is usually in order to extort money from employers, or to force them into agreeing contracts with front organisations of the Mob. They can use their control of the union to threaten employers that if they do not do as they demand, they will unleash a strike on them, and the methods used by the Mob to ensure the success of a strike are usually far more ruthless than those that would be used by workers. But, would we support an employer, or the Capitalist State intervening in such a union? No, because the only reason they would do so, would be to replace control of the union by the Mob, with either control by compliant union bureaucrats, or else to smash the union completely. The answer to Mob intimidation, is more organised more effective rank and file action by the workers themselves to ensure control of their union. We do not seek to put forward Bourgeois democracy, or the elements of it as the solution to workers problems, we advocate more extensive, more effective workers democracy.

If we go back to the beginning of the 19th century and the Chartist Movement consider a different scenario. The working class did not have the vote, but Trade Unions had been formed, and the Co-operative Movement had come into existence encouraged by people like Robert Owen.
Suppose that instead of fighting for the Charter i.e. to achieve universal suffrage and the right to representation in the bosses Parliament, which at the time the bosses would have fought a Civil War to prevent, the workers had recognised that their real strength lay in their collective action rather than in the individual action of casting a ballot. Suppose that in addition to relying on their industrial muscle in Trade Union struggles to win higher wages, they had adopted some of Owen’s ideas, and those put forward by Marx and the First International on forming Co-operatives.

Suppose that they had extended these principles into forming their own committees within the workers districts demanding improvements to their environment, demanding or providing for themselves through co-operative efforts decent housing, that they had established their own neighbourhood patrols to cut down on the rampant crime in the workers areas etc., in short that they had established their own system of workers democracy alongside the bourgeois democracy of the bosses.
Such a development would not have meant that the workers needed to mount an immediate challenge to the rule of Capital. There would be no reason the bosses should be threatened by workers policing their own districts (particularly at a time when no police force existed), there is no reason that the spread of other forms of co-operation such as co-operative enterprises should cause them to see socialist revolution on the horizon either, particularly those finance capitalists making money from lending to the workers. Because such a situation did not directly threaten the overall rule of Capital, this would not be a situation of dual power, merely the development of alternative forms of administration and control within the workers districts etc.

Now if that were the case, and the majority of the working class recognised the advantages for controlling its own life and destiny through such means, would Marxists have argued for an extension of bourgeois democracy to give workers the vote? I would suggest that to do so would have been stupid. It would be to demobilise that very workers democracy we seek to develop as the basis of the new society. It would be to suggest to workers that they could have some shared interests with their class enemy that could be debated, discussed and worked out within the context of a bourgeois Parliament, and that such means were better than their own workers democracy. It would be like those revolutionaries who call the workers out in a period of intense class conflict for a General Strike, only to limit its demands to that of a change of Government!
The only reason we would have for arguing that it was necessary for Workers and their Party to contest bourgeois elections would be because the bourgeoisie, and their State, openly declared war on the Workers property, in the way Marx said they would, in his Inaugural Address to the First International. It would be necessary, to the extent that the workers did not respond to such a declaration of War, by themselves responding with open warfare, fought not in the Chambers of Parliament, but in the factories, on the street, and supported from the workers communities.

My reason for opposing raising the idea of bourgeois democracy in Iraq, several years ago, in debating the issue with the AWL, and the same applies today in respect of Libya, where similarly no history of bourgeois democratic illusions within the working class exist, is for precisely the same reason. The first task is to develop the workers democracy, to encourage workers to see workers democracy, not bourgeois democracy, as the solution to their problems.
If, despite our best efforts in that direction, the workers still become imbued with bourgeois democratic illusions – and the main reason for that would be because reformist workers leaders, the agents of the bourgeoisie within the Labour Movement, as Trotsky described them, had sown those illusions, rather than developing the workers democracy as an independent force – then, of course Marxists would have to relate to that in line with the argument set out by Trotsky above, and by Lenin in Left-Wing Communism, where he argues that the Communists would use the elections to expose the class nature of the bourgeois democracy, would use its platform to argue for Communism, and for Soviet democracy etc.

In fact, it is in this area of established bourgeois democracy that I disagree with Lenin. In his argument with Kautsky, set out in “The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky”, Lenin argues that no meaningful advances can be achieved through bourgeois Parliaments. The reason for this argument is effectively two-fold.
Firstly, Lenin believes that workers cannot achieve full class-consciousness within capitalism. The ruling ideas will continue to be the ideas of the ruling class. Only a minority of the working class will achieve class-consciousness, and of those only a minority will be sufficiently class conscious to join its vanguard i.e. to become Bolsheviks. That is basically the position Lenin had developed when he wrote “What is to be Done?” It is the basis of his vision of the revolutionary party that, because the workers will continue to be dominated by bourgeois ideas, the socialist revolution must be carried through by a determined and well organised minority dragging a large section of the working class behind it, with a much larger section remaining passive. On that basis socialism can never be achieved through Parliament, or any really meaningful advance made, for the simple reason that there can never be a sufficiently large number of truly class-conscious workers to ensure the electoral victory of a truly revolutionary party. Workers Parties can be elected to government, but these workers parties can only achieve such victories by putting forward a programme that is short of a socialist transformation of society, it has to be a reformist programme seeking not to replace capitalism, but merely to ameliorate its worst effects for the workers. If it seeks to go beyond such a programme not enough workers will vote for it. The second leg of the argument is that even were such a government to try to implement policies which seriously challenged the rule of Capital, then Capital would simply undermine this government by one means or another including the use of force.

I think that Lenin is wrong in the first part of his argument, because I think he underestimates the potential for the working class achieving a sufficient level of class consciousness, to enable it to proceed to socialism, without the need to resort to a vanguard party, to carry through a political revolution, to seize state power, as the precondition for bringing about the social revolution i.e. the transformation of economic and social relations. Lenin’s ideas were influenced by the fact that he drew conclusions from the condition of the working class in backward Russia, rather than the experiences of the working class in more advanced capitalist countries. To the extent that he did take into account the experiences of workers in the advanced countries, he saw the extent to which they had been influenced by bourgeois democracy, and their Labour Movements led into reformism, as further vindication of his thesis.
He was also influenced by the idea of the working class as a slave class, and one, therefore, denied access to education and culture, the very things necessary, and which had enabled the bourgeoisie to develop its own ideology as a class, and which had allowed it to become class conscious in fighting for that ideology.

I think that in respect of large parts of Western Europe, and of the US Lenin was wrong in 1903 let alone 1918. I am absolutely sure that his perspective is wrong for today. It is, however, necessary to be careful in this not simply to accept the other side of the coin, the basic ideas of reformism. Looking back on the last 50 years in particular, it is clear that considerable reforms have been implemented through bourgeois Parliaments, reforms which have benefited the working class. To simply argue that these reforms have been implemented because in some way they were clever ruses by the bourgeoisie, that they in some way were things the bourgeoisie wanted, that they enabled them to extract more surplus value or whatever, is in my opinion facile.
As I have argued in many posts, the Welfare State, which is essentially an application of the principles of Fordism at a state level, is a construct of the bourgeoisie, and in particular the Big Bourgeoisie. It is a reflection of that Social-Democratic consensus, forged by Big Capital towards the end of the 19th Century, and identified by Engels. But, that is not to say that these issues did not form, and continue to form an arena of class struggle. Many of these reforms were introduced in the face of opposition from the bourgeoisie, or sections of it, or its political representatives, particularly reforms introduced by the 1945 Labour Government such as the Welfare State, and we only have to look at the current attacks on the Welfare State and the NHS to recognise that. And even the mildly reforming Government of Harold Wilson in the 1960’s was too much for some sections of the bourgeoisie, which were seriously plotting, with sections of the state, for a military coup to overthrow him.
The second part of Lenin’s argument that the bourgeoisie will not allow a bourgeois Parliament with a workers majority to simply legislate away its power remains completely valid. The experience of the Allende Government is clearly proof of that.

Back To Part 2

Forward To Part 4

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