Friday, 4 November 2016

Bourgeois Democracy

Marxists use the term bourgeois democracy to distinguish it from workers democracy. Wherever, the term “democracy” on its own is used, usually by reformists, Marxists have seen this as a failure to recognise, or else an attempt to disguise, the class nature of the state within which such democracy operates. But, in fact, precisely because of this varying nature of the state, there are several forms of democracy. Ancient Greece and Rome were both democratic republics, and yet both were slave-owning states. The same is true of the slave-owning states of the United States. Democracy in Britain extends back 1,000 years to the creation of the parliament, and yet this democracy, under feudalism, was clearly not a bourgeois democracy, because only the feudal aristocracy were allowed to participate in it.

The term bourgeois democracy then, just as the term workers' democracy, slave-owning democracy, or feudal democracy reflects the class nature of the particular form of democracy being considered. As such it reflects the class nature of the state and of the polity within which this democracy exists. In other words, it reflects the class nature of the ruling ideas that dominate all of the institutions of society.

This latter point is also important for understanding the nature of bourgeois democracy. It is not a matter simply of the existence of an elected parliament, but also of a series of rights and freedoms, of a range of institutions within civil society. But, its also thereby clear that just as a slave-owning democracy does not give slaves a right to vote, so a bourgeois democracy does not necessarily give wage slaves a right to vote. Indeed, it was not until the end of the 19th century, in Britain that the majority of male wage slaves obtained the right to vote. At the start of the 19th century, less than 2% of the population had the right to vote.

And, in part, this is because there is a conflict between the democratic rights, and the freedoms, and that one important freedom, for the bourgeoisie, the freedom to use their property so as to exploit labour. Libertarians/anarcho-capitalists often refer to a comment they claim was made by Benjamin Franklin to illustrate this point. The comment runs that democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding on what to have for dinner, whereas liberty is a heavily armed sheep contesting the issue. In fact, there is no record of Franklin ever having made such a comment. However, it does illustrate the point also elaborated by classical Liberals such as Hayek, and Lord Acton that democracy and liberty are not necessarily compatible. Hayek in “The Road To Serfdom” talks about liberty being maintained by a benevolent dictator and undermined by some democracies. Mises, was worried by the democracy in Austria that gave a voice to the hoi polloi, which is why he supported the Austrian clerical-fascists who opened the door for Hitler.

Slave-owning democracy is intended to meet the needs of slave-owners not slaves; feudal democracy to meet the needs of the landed aristocracy not the serfs; bourgeois democracy is intended to meet the needs of the bourgeoisie not the landed aristocracy nor the proletariat. The bourgeois freedoms upon which bourgeois democracy rests are not freedoms that were intended for all of society to enjoy, but freedoms required by the bourgeoisie themselves, primarily, and initially in their own struggle against the landed aristocracy. Oliver Cromwell used the New Model Army to crush those radical elements, such as the Levellers, who sought to extend those rights to the rest of society, for example.

Lenin says,

“A democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism, and, therefore, once capital has gained possession of this very best shell... it establishes its power so securely, so firmly, that no change of persons, institutions or parties in the bourgeois-democratic republic can shake it.” 

The fact that workers are gradually incorporated into such a bourgeois-democratic republic reflects the fact both that the bourgeoisie feel confident that the working-class can be so incorporated, and that the industrial bourgeoisie recognises that it cannot secure power for itself without the support of the industrial proletariat standing behind it, against the old feudal aristocracy, and those elements historically associated with it from within the financial oligarchy.

As Engels put it,

“The Reform Bill of 1831 had been the victory of the whole capitalist class over the landed aristocracy. The repeal of the Corn Laws was the victory of the manufacturing capitalist not only over the landed aristocracy, but over those sections of capitalists, too, whose interests were more or less bound up with the landed interest-bankers, stockjobbers, fundholders, etc....

Chartism was dying out. The revival of commercial prosperity, natural after the revulsion of 1847 had spent itself, was put down altogether to the credit of Free Trade. Both these circumstances had turned the English working class, politically, into the tail of the ‘great Liberal Party’, the party led by the manufacturers. This advantage, once gained, had to be perpetuated. And the manufacturing capitalists, from the Chartist opposition, not to Free Trade, but to the transformation of Free Trade into the one vital national question, had learnt, and were learning more and more, that the middle class can never obtain full social and political power over the nation except by the help of the working class.”

It is this, which is the basis of the transition of bourgeois democracy from being a bourgeois liberal democracy, to being a bourgeois social democracy. This transition reflects a change in the dominant forms of property – private capitalist property to socialised capitalist property – and the dominant ideas that develop upon them, and which thereby pervade society.

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