Thursday, 12 April 2012

Should We Defend Representative Democracy?

I was just watching Peter Kellner giving the 2012 David Butler Lecture on the BBC Parliament Channel. (See: here) In it he sets out the case for Representative Democracy as against Direct Democracy, which he defines narrowly here in terms of decision making by Referenda. Representative Democracy he contends is under threat from the latter, which is an insidious means by which democracy itself has been undermined by authoritarian forces.

Marxists are clear when it comes to a question of defending representative i.e. Bourgeois Democracy, against a return to feudal absolutism, or its supplanting by fascism or Bonapartism. We are not proponents of Bourgeois Democracy, we are advocates of direct workers democracy of the type we practice in our Trades Unions, Co-operatives, and Workers Parties (though in all these we are not content with the the current standards of democracy actually achieved). However, we recognise that alongside bourgeois democracy go a number of bourgeois freedoms, such as the right to assembly, to free speech etc. Of course, all these rights and freedoms are ones which the bourgeoisie itself sought, for its own ends, in its class struggle against the landed aristocracy, and which it requires for its own rule. They are extended to the working class only under sufferance, which is why male workers did not obtain the right to vote, even in Britain until the latter part of the 19th Century, and women workers not until after WWI. Whenever the bourgeoisie feels that the enjoyment of these rights, by the workers, seriously threatens its own rule, or even its ability to make profits, it acts to withdraw them or restrict them. That may simply be restrictions on the right to strike, to organise through to the use of fascists or a military coup to remove those rights and freedoms completely.

Nevertheless, in so far as workers are able to enjoy these rights and freedoms, they are vital tools for facilitating the workers own activities, and the building up of their own resources. Consequently, we are not advocates of bourgeois democracy but of workers democracy, but we are prepared to support a political struggle for or to defend bourgeois democracy and freedoms as a means of furthering the interests of the working class. But, it is precisely because we are not advocates of bourgeois democracy, but of workers democracy which determines the basis upon which that struggle is conducted. The best illustration of that is given by Trotsky in his Action Programme For France. In it, he sets out that we struggle for, or to defend, these bourgeois freedoms not with the tools of bourgeois democracy, but of direct workers democracy, and proletarian class struggle. Our task after all is not to promote bourgeois democracy, but to illustrate its inadequacy, its sham nature, and the superiority of workers democracy. So, for example, Trotsky proposes defending bourgeois democracy against the fascists in France by such means as:

1) The abolition of all business secrets

2) “Factory committees, peasant committees, committees of small functionaries, of employees could very easily, with the help of honest technicians, engineers, accountants loyal to the working people, do away with the “business secrets” of the exploiters. It is by this method that we must establish public control over banks, industry and commerce.”

3) “...the workers under arms must retain all political rights and should be represented by soldier committees elected in special assemblies. Thus they will remain closely linked to the great mass of toilers and will unite their forces with the people organized and armed against reaction and fascism.”

4) “All the police executors of the capitalist will, of the bourgeois state, and its cliques of corrupt politicians must be disbanded. Execution of police duties by the workers’ militia. Abolition of class courts, election of all judges, extension of the jury for all crimes and misdemeanors; the people will render justice themselves.”

5) “The task is to replace the capitalist state, which functions for the profit of the big exploiters, by the workers’ and peasants’ proletarian state. The task is to establish in this country the rule of the working people. To all we declare that it is not a matter of secondary ‘modification,’ but rather that the domination of the small minority of the bourgeois class must be replaced by the leadership and power of the immense majority of the laboring people.”

6) “To reinforce the struggle of both the workers and peasants, the workers’ committees should establish close collaboration with the peasant committees. Constituted as organs of popular defense against fascism, these workers’ alliance committees and these peasant committees must become, during the course of the struggle, organisms directly elected by the masses, organs of power of the workers and peasants. On this basis the proletarian power will be erected in opposition to the capitalist power, and the Workers’ and Peasants’ Commune will triumph.”

“We are thus firm partisans of a Workers’ and Peasants’ State, which will take the power from the exploiters. To win the majority of our working-class allies to this program is our primary aim.

Meanwhile, as long as the majority of the working class continues on the basis of bourgeois democracy, we are ready to defend it with all our forces against violent attacks from the Bonapartist and fascist bourgeoisie.”

In other words, although the situation was one in which it was the forces of reaction which were on the attack, Trotsky refuses, correctly, to deal with this by assuming a purely defensive strategy. He utilises the old football maxim “the best form of defence is attack”. This is the opposite of the position adopted by the Stalinists and Reformists, who respond by looking to alien class forces, and by subordinating the workers struggle to the bourgeoisie, through the Popular Front.  He recognises that the reaction is itself a sign of the maturing of contradictions in society, the need of the bourgeoisie to respond with such measures, and, therefore, the potential for this situation to turn into its opposite, a revolutionary situation, in which the working-class can go on to the offensive. That, of course, is why Trotsky can include in his demands, the demands for nationalisation of the banks etc., which under other conditions would be unnacceptable. Of course, it is not the Capitalist State, who he looks to, to undertake such nationalisations he says,

“Nationalization by the workers means the destruction of the great private monopolies, support of small enterprises, redistribution of products for the benefit of the great mass of producers.” and,

“The great institutions of the state (post office, customs, education, etc.), which exploit several million toilers, function for the benefit of capitalism. The recent scandals have shown the corruption that reigns among the higher functionaries.

The small government employees are exploited by the corrupt and venal officials who utilize their office to permit the possessing class to crush the labourers still more.

We must make a clean sweep. With the collaboration of all the exploited, committees and unions of small government employees will make the necessary changes to establish real social services that function by and for the labouring masses.”

Of course, these are the last methods by which Kellner seeks to defend bourgeois democracy. His first line of argument is to set out his attack on Direct Democracy. This is done, not by examining the potential for i,t as set out in, for example, Classical Greek Democracy, or even the workers democracy as it exists within the Labour Movement, but by limiting it to the use of referenda. Here the old trick of guilt by association is adopted. All kinds of Dictators have utilised referenda, so, therefore, they must be bad. That is then extended. Kellner provides details of a poll his organisation, "Yougov”, had undertaken on a number of important issues. The results of this poll could only be a surprise to middle class liberals who need to get out into the real world more.

The poll showed that there was a majority of support for a number of reactionary measures, such as leaving the EU, stopping all net immigration, bringing back hanging, providing details of known paedophiles and so on. So, the argument goes, no self-respecting liberal progressive could possibly consider giving the working-class a meaningful vote over any of these things. Much better to only allow the workers a meaningless vote, and allow the professional, bourgeois politicians to continue in the same way ruling over the workers' heads, and in the interests of the bourgeoisie.

Part of the problem here, Kellner argues, is the very nature of referenda, which force the electors into making binary choices, all or nothing. So, for example, Kellner says, in relation to the Immigration question, the referendum could only ask whether voters wanted to stop all net immigration or not. But, for a professional psephologist that is a ridiculous claim for him to make! There is absolutely no reason why such a referendum could not ask a question such as - “Are you in favour of 1) no net immigration, 2) net immigration of 100k – 200k, 3) net immigration of 200k – 300k, 4) net immigration of 300k – 400k, 5) no limit.” Voters could then be asked to respond as with AV, by ranking their preferences.

Moreover, with the advance in ICT, his other objection, that of the time required to set up referenda to deal with new or changed conditions is rapidly disappearing.

Failing to deal with reactionary ideas feeds
support for the extreme Right
What Kellner's approach signifies is the arrogance of the political elite, as well as its basically bureaucratic and lazy attitude. The real answer, to the fact that a large proportion of the British people hold reactionary ideas, in relation to nationalism etc,. is not the bureaucratic response of ignoring the views of the majority, which can only ever feed support for the parties of the extreme right, as the people become ever more alienated from a political class that fails to reflect their concerns, but is to make the case, against those reactionary ideas, more effectively. After all, part of Kellners task here was to make the case as to why Representative rather than Direct Democracy should be supported. If a political campaign can be waged for that, it can be waged for the political ideas that Kellner or anyone else seeks to promote.

But, that is true in the organisations of the Labour Movement too. The answer to the actual lack of democracy within the Trades Unions, the Co-ops, and the Workers Parties, is not the ultra-left and sectarian response of seeking purity, through an infinite number of schisms, but to focus on the actual needs of the workers themselves, and by addressing them, build a mass workers movement from the base up, focussed not within the parliamentary channels of the Trade Union Branch committee, but on the workplace floor, not in the CLP, but in the LP Branch, linked closely and in practice with the TRA, or neighbourhood committee, as well as on a day to day basis with workers in their Co-operative enterprises, Housing Co-ops, estate Co-ops and so on. It will always be the case that only the activists devote their time to the parliamentary bodies of the Labour Movement, often to the detriment of their practical day to day work of dealing with workers problems. At least until Socialism has become a well established fact, the majority of workers will only participate in their organisations if they see an immediate need to do so, for example, during a strike, or because they have some financial imperative for doing so – for example, in running their own Co-op of some form or another. If we want to build a truly democratic movement, it has to be a mass movement, which can only be built from the ground up. If we want a truly democratic movement it has to be based on active mass participation, and that can only happen if workers have a direct imperative for engaging in such activity. Without that workers direct democracy will be as much of a sham as representative democracy is today. It would be to simply replace one political elite with another.

1 comment:

Jacob Richter said...

So-called "bourgeois democracy," or more precisely called rule-of-law constitutionalism (Macnair), doesn't allow much in the way of worker-class representation.

Lars Lih wrote that "We should not anachronistically see Kautsky defending parliamentary democracy as opposed to, say, soviet democracy. What Kautsky means by "parliamentarism" in the 1890s is essentially representative democracy. As such, it cannot really be opposed to soviet-style democracy, itself a form of representative democracy."

Moreover, everyone is making strawmen about Direct Democracy. Kellner points to the infamous Yes/No strawman, but you should read Cockshott's material on "Handivote":

1) Direct popular legislation can be made accurately and anonymously over any phone device
2) With more available voting options than Yes/No
3) With the possibility of having as the winning option that which beats every other voting option in a pairwise contest, thereby applying one form of the so-called “Condorcet method” in political science (originally designed for electing candidates).

On the other hand, "direct workers democracy" isn't really direct, but delegative. In extreme forms, delegation would allow recallability on the basis of politico-cultural opposition to delegates having facial piercings or inappropriately funky hair, the kind of personalized mob rule that participatory democracy, demarchy, etc. should avoid.

At the end of the day, I'm very much in favour of statistically representative workers' rule.