Roi Ferreiro reviews Against Democracy, and subjects its attack on “democracy as a ‘thing in itself’” (“a fantasy of Bordiguist idealism”) and “liberty, equality and fraternity”—an attack that he depicts as abstract, ahistorical, reductionist, and reactionary “sophistry”—to a withering critique, asserting that such all-or-nothing verbal radicalism (“demagogy”) encourages “political indifferentism and passivity”, and he asks the rhetorical question, “is it possible for the ‘affirmation of the collective existence of men’ to be realized in any other than a ‘democratic’ way, and more concretely, in any other form besides that of ‘proletarian, direct and revolutionary democracy’?”.
Democracy Mystified – A Critical Review of the Book, Against Democracy by Miriam Qarmat (ICG) – Roi Ferreiro
When I first became aware of the publication of the book, Against Democracy,1 attributed to Miriam Qarmat, I noted that its theme coincided with the two most important points that distinguished the discussions that Ricardo Fuego and I had engaged in with the Internationalist Communist Group. These points are, first, the question of the historical formation of democracy and its function in the revolutionary struggle for communism, and second, the question of the function of the categories of commodity society in the constitution of capitalism. Both of these topics are even more clearly interrelated in Against Democracy than they were in those discussions, since the ICG posits a relation of superstructure and structure (respectively) between them—to express it in classic Marxist terms. This motivated me to undertake an in-depth critique of the old texts of the ICG that are reprinted in this book, and to attempt to penetrate even more deeply than I had previously—and to do so in a more concrete manner—in order to try to clarify the above-mentioned issues. This undertaking is by no means without theoretical importance and, at the same time, the international publication of this book, in a general context of confusion and disorganization of the revolutionary left, is a political factor that must be taken into consideration, especially due to the apparent radicality (although of a merely negative variety) with which the ICG’s positions are presented and also because of the apparent simplicity of its arguments, which is a result of its theoretical reductionism.
As a result, the first purpose of this article is, quite unabashedly, to dismantle and explain the theoretical implications of the theses of Qarmat and the ICG, as well as their lack of correspondence with practical experience and the very foundations of Marxian thought (which they so insistently claim as one of their sources, just as they play with their libertarian whims, which in my view do not go beyond declarations of good intentions and instead constitute mystifying idealizations). The second purpose of this article—which is also the purpose of the article appended hereto as an appendix—is to attempt to contribute a more profound and non-reductionist view of the issues dealt with in Against Democracy, including an investigation of some practical questions that the ICG itself did not clarify (in neither the book itself nor in our discussions), with regard to just what its so-called “organic centralism” actually consists of (a topic that had to be addressed separately).
Finally, I only want to say that these articles, with regard to both their tone and their collective focus, must be understood as an extension of that previous discussion with the ICG, which was not continued solely due to the ICG’s lack of interest in engaging in an in-depth confrontation and analysis. I must nonetheless make it clear that the collective focus of these articles does not involve the ICAC [the International Circle of Anti-Bolshevik Communists—American Translator’s note], but only Ricardo, who shares their general theses and has followed their elaboration although the initiative and authorship has been mostly my responsibility. I would also like to take advantage of this opportunity to point out that the documents relating to my discussion with the ICG to which I refer above can be found on the website of the ICAC; it is recommended that the second one should be read in order to be able to more effectively follow the course of argument of this text.
May 12, 2007
A Critical Review of the Book, Against Democracy, by Miriam Qarmat (ICG)
The book, Against Democracy, recently published in Spanish, is presented as the synthesis of a series of theoretical elaborations carried out over several decades and, even though it is signed by a single author, its contents are texts that were published by and attributed to the Internationalist Communist Group, an organization based in Belgium. We have to make this clear right from the start, for, although the authorship is claimed for Miriam Qarmat, it is finally said that, although it is a work written by an individual, it nonetheless represents something like the “universal spirit” of communism, as expressed through the instrumentality of its “fractions”.
We do not hide behind this kind of intellectual pretext, which is so characteristic of the Leninist mentality. We do not think that our interpretation of past history—much less our reflections on contemporary and future praxis—necessarily represents the truth, as if our conceptions could be abstracted from individual or group experience, which is always limited in its historical scope and quantitative basis, or that we could also abstract ourselves from the way of thought and the manner in which our own subjectivity as a conscious totality of needs and capacities has been configured. Our social perspectives therefore represent what we ourselves are now, and as a result, in the best case, we can at most only confidently assert concerning these perspectives that they represent, as adequately as possible, the interests of a part of the proletariat. To instead assert that they effectively represent general interests, and even the general historical interests of the working class—even if we were to insinuate that such a representation is approximate, subject to further development—would be to assert something that can never be practically verified, concerning which there can be no solid certainty beyond a few general points. It would therefore be to fall into a completely unscientific attitude, an attitude that, in itself, inspires doubts concerning the historical and social analyses set forth in Against Democracy, without for the moment even considering their effective coherence. There is no absolute certainty and to believe in such a thing, even on one pretext or another, is to approach social theory from a religious perspective.
Solid revolutionary certainty does not arise from either the intelligence of individuals, or from the historical time that is addressed with theory; nor does it even arise from the direct experience of an advanced minority. It can only originate from the verifiable general reiteration of practical experience. And even then it is always a matter of a historically relative experience, because social conditions are always changing and so is the consciousness with which that experience is interpreted. This scientific attitude implies that we should trust only in verifiable practical certainties and that we should maintain an experimental attitude, of critical openness, with regard to the changing world. This is the opposite of the sectarian attitude, which presupposes that we should put our trust above all in the veracity of the sect’s own theoretical interpretations and maintain a defensive and rigid attitude towards everything that challenges these conceptions. But no trace of this creative scientific attitude that we advocate will be found in Against Democracy.
I. Capitalism and Democracy
The first defect presented by the book, which is the most important one and the source of all the others, is its historical analysis of democracy as a product of capitalism. As Cornelius Castoriadis has already correctly pointed out, the currently dominant identification of capitalism with democracy is an error: modern democracy did not arise from the ruling bourgeoisie, but from the urban proto-bourgeoisie under feudalism, in its struggle against the latter.2 By ignoring this, Qarmat’s book presents a critique of democracy as a “thing in itself” and also ignores the historical variations in the types of bourgeois political regimes.
This defect of historical analysis, however, is by no means accidental. It is explained by the fact that the identification that is made between democracy and commodity-producing society—or, as the book says in the beginning, speaking of classical Greece, a society based on trade—functions as an a priori premise for all subsequent analyses and not as a true analytical axis—which the book itself should therefore investigate at the historical level and prove theoretically. From this defect, with a little critical acumen, one may deduce all the limitations of the analysis of Qarmat and the ICG.
Capitalism is not, basically, a simple form of production and exchange of commodities: it is the production of surplus value and, even more specifically, the production of capital (or the production of surplus value on an always expanding scale). As indispensable as it is, the commodity is a form that preceded capitalism and that is not intrinsically connected with wage labor, but to individual private property in the means of labor. In the capitalist mode of production, the commodity form is subsumed in capital and functions as a mere vehicle of its self-valorization. And this, if we follow the same angle of formal analysis that informs Qarmat’s book, must lead to an essentially different consideration of democracy under capitalism and as a means for the autonomous activity of the proletariat.
Democracy, as a corollary of the commodity, implies above all the reproduction at the political level of the economic dualism between use value and exchange value. The division between the political individual (the citizen) and the economic individual (the owner of commodities) is the expression, on a general level, of this use value-exchange value duality, and of the relations established on this basis (buyers-sellers, rich-poor as a function of the money they possess, etc.). Only in capitalism do we have the specific circumstance that exchange value becomes autonomous vis-à-vis use value and exercises economic domination over it in social activity as a whole. For this same reason, it is only in capitalism that political society (the state) becomes autonomous vis-à-vis civil society, whereas in feudal society and in previous class societies—in which the commodity form originally emerged and developed—political power was still strictly fused with economic power. The division between buyers and sellers does not itself entail—that is, on a pre-capitalist basis, if one wants to view it from the historical perspective—an atomization of society. This atomization originated from the suppression of the pre-existing or contemporary forms of community that the advent of the commodity had not destroyed, and in opposition to which the bourgeoisie recognized only the modern nation-state as a community. In fact, feudalism did not collapse by virtue of the pressure of commodity circulation, but due to the fact that the latter represented the interests and growing power of the capital relation; the feudal obstacles to free trade only became an unbearable hindrance when they were confronted by the capitalist mode of production or, in other words, the complete generalization of the circulation of commodities as a form of exchange was only possible because it operated as a vehicle of the capitalist relation. Then, all the existing forms of community—such as the guilds, colonial monopolies, or the estates system itself—even though they were pre-feudal, were gradually destroyed until today’s individualist society was established. This explains, on a historical basis, how democracy and the ideals of “liberty, equality and fraternity” could not have had the same meaning before the rule of the bourgeoisie that they were to have after the latter was established.
“Above all, the French Revolution was the first historical, coherent and large-scale manifestation of a new type of democracy. The Great Revolution was not, as many republican historians believed, the cradle of parliamentary democracy: because it was simultaneously a bourgeois revolution and the embryo of a proletarian revolution, it bore within itself the seed of a new form of revolutionary power, whose features would be further elaborated in the course of the revolutions at the end of the 19th century and the 20th century. One cannot help but notice the relationship between the Commune of 1793 and that of 1871, and between the latter and the soviets of 1905 and 1917.” (Daniel Guérin, La revolución desjacobinizada, 1956.)
To return to the economic aspect, however, once the above point is made clear the incoherence of the position of Qarmat and the ICG also becomes clear, insofar as it refers to the understanding of the origins of trade and the original social meaning of the commodity form. In their works, Marx and Engels always understood trade as a factor favoring the dissolution of primitive human communities; at the same time, however, they also understood this dissolving function as a consequence derived from the limitations of those forms of community (which would also apply to subsequent forms of community). The value form, which is the general basis of the commodity, is understood as the result of the absence of conscious regulation by society of general economic development, the historical conditions for which did not yet exist—that is, the conditions for communism as a phenomenon that is no longer only local, as was the case in primitive communism. This explains how the development of the production of commodities could always coexist with various forms of community that were adapted to the level of economic development and to the relations of production prevailing in any particular epoch. Even in capitalism, the generalization of the commodity is not what renders the national community unreal as a community of social interests, but it is instead the capitalist determinations, that is, class exploitation—which is what wage labor means as a social relation (which, expressed in value terms, consists in the specific fact that what the capitalist buys with the wage is not the actual labor of the producers who engage in that labor, but the reproduction of their labor power). Expressed in more general terms, only in capitalism is economic life abstracted from all humanity, including of course the forms of community, and society presented as a mass of atoms that blindly interact with each other.
Thus, to continue our summary, the conflict between trade and community is not derived from the opposition between exchange value and use value in itself, but from general economic scarcity and from the social inequality that spreads on this basis. That is, social antagonisms are always rooted in economic exploitation and oppression at the level of the material organization of production, not on that of the forms of distribution, which are only vehicles of the prevailing productive relations. Even in the form of the division between concrete labor and abstract labor, between wage and surplus value, the duality of the commodity form only operates in the process of labor as part of the process of distribution, it is not the essential characteristic that defines the relations of production (which are defined by the fact that alienation of labor and expropriation of surplus value exist, that is, by exploitation itself). If exchange serves as a dissolving nexus of the communitarian forms based on use value and cooperation, this is not because exchange value in and of itself, its very existence, abolishes such forms, but because exchange value does not operate in a subordinate way to use value, because in this case exchange is no longer a simple mediation for the satisfaction of social needs, but operates as the vehicle for the private accumulation of surplus labor. This leads to a circumstance where private property develops and becomes capable of absorbing or destroying the forms of production and distribution based on use value, which necessarily takes place by way of a class struggle and not only through the expansion of trade or the accumulation of money. It is, therefore, we repeat, the development of social inequality, and not the existence of trade, that causes communities to be divided. In fact, if we look very closely, the fundamental proof of what we are saying is the commodity form itself, which is the unity of use value and exchange value, and which in itself empirically and practically demonstrates that the mere extension of exchange is not opposed to the community (understood here in a specific sense: as a form of collective social relation created for the satisfaction of needs and therefore based on use value).
As a result, we can say that value stands opposed to individuals as owners of commodities, as buyers and sellers, but that the constitution or dissolution of their community is not determined by this opposition, but by the relations in the process of production and by the consequent forms of appropriation—of production in general, but above all of the part that exceeds immediate needs. In addition, all opposition between buyers and sellers is transitory and merely formal, except when it implies the contractual relations of the exploitation of labor—whether directly or indirectly. Value is a form of distribution that is opposed to the community regulation of economic activity, but in itself is nothing but an abstract measure of social labor time. Qarmat’s analysis therefore participates in the fetishism of the exchange value that is a peculiarity of the capitalist economy, in which this value is presented as the determining factor of social relations—and trade as the determinant factor of production. This explains the book’s implicit confusions between the commodity-form and the capital-form: capital is practically considered as the development of the commodity-form, which is in itself a fetishistic abstraction arising from the autonomized functioning of the capitalist economy as a totality. Capital, in the modern sense, as mode of production, is not created basically thanks to the accumulation of money and the ability of individuals to appropriate it, and by means of money, to appropriate the collective means of production, transformed into commodities and put into circulation; it is created basically thanks to the accumulation of surplus labor at the expense of the living labor that is the source of all wealth.3
To put it another way, Qarmat seeks to overcome the fetishism of the commodity form by understanding that the commodity operates as a vehicle of capital, but then succumbs to the fetishism immanent to capital itself, because she is not capable of understanding that the relations between capital as a material process of production, and capital as a valorization process, are presented in an inverted form in the circulation of capital. Thus, according to Qarmat’s reasoning, it is not the alienation of labor that determines that the latter should assume the form of wage labor (on the basis of a particular level of development of the technical productive forces); it is rather the wage form—the one in which labor is sold as a commodity—which imposes alienated labor on individuals. By framing the matter in this way, Qarmat and the ICG forget that the existence of wage labor presupposes a particular level of development of the social productive forces, one that permits a dynamic of expanding accumulation—which is what characterizes the capitalist mode of production. And this amounts to saying that a particular historical accumulation of surplus labor is necessary (materialized in the productive capacity of technology, science and labor) for wage labor to be transformed into the general form of social labor. That is, that the heart of the question, and what must constitute the basis for an analysis of the socio-historical foundation of political regimes, is the modality of social labor rather than the modality of distribution, and the productive relations rather than the relations of distribution (within and outside of the productive sphere). Democracy as a “thing in itself” is therefore a product of the imagination, in this case a fantasy of Bordiguist idealism, and the same is true of its subsequent allegedly invariable essence, which according to Qarmat only developed quantitatively and parallel to the expansion of the commodity form. Our conclusion is totally the opposite: that the democracy based on alienated labor and the democracy based on non-alienated labor are two radically different things, even if within the latter two social contradictions still persist—the contradiction between political power itself and individual freedom, and the contradiction between labor itself and the full and universal development of the abilities of individuals.
Furthermore, returning to the analogy between generalized commodity production, generalized exchange and the atomization of society, it must be pointed out that, even if we accept this premise as a starting point, we must acknowledge the fact that, for this atomized society, a society of private owners and one in which each individual is not socially recognized except as an owner (an owner of at least his labor power, that is, of his own capacities), the specifically corresponding form is representative or delegatory democracy. This concession, however, to a minimally serious historical analysis, means that we have to establish differentiations and nuances that would appear to be superfluous to Qarmat and the ICG.
If capitalism is not, however, as the bourgeois economists imagine it in their representations that are abstracted from reality, a society of the free exchange of commodities, then the political form that corresponds to it is not democracy properly speaking, either. From the Marxist point of view, capital is the alienation and subsumption of living labor in the accumulation of dead labor and, for that very reason, capitalist society is politically based on the reproduction of this structural alienation and subsumption. For capitalism, like the commodity, democracy is its most adequate vehicle, but only with regard to its form, rather than to its content. (And this “most adequate” vehicle implies also that it can be flexible for the purpose of guaranteeing the development of capital against any resistance.) This is why, while for capital we live in a real democracy, this same democracy is for the majority—for the proletarians—a falsehood, since its content is not effectively democratic. Bourgeois democracy is simply the rule of capital over the proletariat under a democratic form, under the appearance of freedom.
The apparent intrinsic connection between democracy and capitalism derives, first of all, from the historical fact that it was the extension of the capital relation, by way of the expropriation of the small independent producers and the peasantry, that destroyed the foundations of the estates system and affirmed the juridical equivalence of man and citizen. That is why democracy did not become the general political form of society until the epoch of the rise of the bourgeoisie. Secondly, this appearance is derived from the identification between man and citizen, or between common individual and political subject, in the equality of rights. But these appearances dissolve in the face of two other antagonistic facts. First, the fact that the consolidation of the bourgeoisie as new ruling class presupposed, at the same time and in a parallel process, the attempt to empty democracy of its content for the dispossessed working class masses (or even to destroy democracy itself, as in Napoleonic France). And second, the fact that equality of rights, although formally the case, only affected those rights that interested the bourgeoisie and hence those “social” rights as we know them today only arose thanks to the proletarian struggle.
In conclusion, it is necessary to make it clear that the fundamental character of the political regime was defined by the fundamental relations of production (the relation of capital in this case) and not by the forms that were assumed by its vehicles (the commodity and money, in this case), which implies the clear possibility that the rule of capital would come into conflict with democracy—although not because the latter is not, in its bourgeois, representative and flexible form, the most adequate form for the rule of capital, but due to the unfavorable course of the class struggle and the economic difficulties of faced by capital in its attempt to maintain its rule.
II. The Proletariat and Democracy.
What we said above allows us to understand why, when the proletariat had emerged on the historical stage as an autonomous class, it had always done so as the party of the most radical democracy. We have a recent example of this in the struggles of the last few years in various Latin American countries, especially Argentina.
Qarmat and the ICG go on and on about the falsehood of bourgeois democracy and the contradiction between democracy and the true human community. This allows them to undertake an “essentialist”, non-historical critique of democracy. Social praxis, however, does not recognize any ideal absolutes. The proletariat is not normally disposed to just watch its current democratic rights, even if they are largely unreal, be even more gutted of all content (a content that has always been the result of struggle rather than philanthropic concessions), much less totally destroyed. Nor does its movement assume as its point of departure an ideal community, since it arises precisely from a mass of atomized individuals that, by way of a complex and long process of self-organization and self-development, has yet to constitute its own form of community. Social atomization will not be completely overcome, nor on a generalized scale—together with its antagonistic consequences in the construction of social interests and in the differentiation of the consciousness of the various individuals and groups that comprise the working class—until the very root of that atomization is abolished: private property, alienated labor.
In the previous section we explained the contradictions between bourgeois democracy and the interests of the working class. Now we shall consider the contradiction between the social emancipation of the workers and democracy in general, or democracy “in itself”.
Since the times of the original IWA, the First International, revolutionaries posited acracy as the political form of the classless society, that is, a political regime in which the government of some individuals over others and therefore all the particular forms by which such a governmental power could be organized, would disappear and society would no longer need any form of imposition external to the individuals themselves for its self-regulation. Not even the form of an assembly-based democracy, since once the conflicts between different individual interests had been overcome thanks to the general development and the suppression of inequalities, it would be the individuals themselves who would freely assume responsibility for the collective decisions—based on majority rule or consensus—and these decisions would be limited to administrative issues in which technical and practical rather than ideological or political-theoretical criteria would be the determining factors. Everyday life in such a society would no longer be regulated by a political power, but by the responsible day-to-day interaction of the individuals themselves, once both the political restrictions on individual freedom as well as the causes of social and psychological alienation had been abolished.
But most revolutionaries have also shared the view that, in order to carry out the social revolution, violence against private property and the resistance of the capitalist class will be necessary—regardless of whether or not this violence is called a “transitional state form”. We have therefore always spoken of this transitional regime, created as the expression of the revolutionary process and the lever by which it will be brought about, as “the expropriation of the expropriators”, and as “workers democracy”. The position of Qarmat and the ICG with regard to this issue is completely different:
“Here the classical idealist and reformist position is implicitly subjected to critique, a position that wants to have present-day society without its inherent evils, capitalism without poverty, freedom of exchange without exploitation, democracy without state terrorism … and which thus elaborates its concepts, intellectually purifying what is found rotting in the filth of the real world. Proudhonism, Stalinism, Trotskyism … regardless of the name (socialists, libertarians, anarchists, communists…), that is, what we define as the historic party of social democracy, constructs its categories and programs on the basis of this methodology.
“The demand for ‘direct’, ‘proletarian’ or ‘real’ democracy, is the expression of this tendency, which ignores the objective, historical reality of democracy—its historical determination as an essential element of the reproduction of commodity society—and constructs these categories on the foundations of the ‘good intentions’ of these world reformers. The illusion of direct democracy, without mediations, historically corresponds to the illusion of preserving commodity society and abolishing its indispensable mediation, money, without understanding that the latter is an indispensable part of the former. If commodity society persists, all the dualities and mediations that it engenders will persist and all the adjectives that might be appended to the word democracy (‘proletarian’, ‘direct’, ‘real’) will serve no other purpose than to deceive and waste the revolutionary energy of the proletarians. To the contrary, the practical, revolutionary negation of commodity society renders democracy not only unnecessary but also absurd. With the abolition of the separations upon which it is based, and the consequent affirmation of the collective existence of men, democracy is condemned along with money to the garbage can of history.” (From Qarmat’s commentaries, “The Democratic Mystification”.)
To begin with, this commentary refers to a quotation from Marx’s early writings, which is why Qarmat prefaces the above statement with the word, “implicitly”. This method, which consists in substituting deductions from quotations for concrete analysis, is not “social democratic” because it is simply “sectarian”. The sophistry of Qarmat and the ICG consists in connecting “democracy” and “state terrorism”, omitting the fact that this democracy is connected to that form of class rule because, precisely, it is also—as in this kind of terrorism—a “state democracy”, based on the separation between civil society and political power. In other words, because it is a “bourgeois” democracy, a democracy constituted on the basis of the capitalist mode of production. And by failing to mention this basis, Qarmat and the ICG also make a clear break with a basic thesis of historical materialism: the thesis that political forms are not independent of the economic base, but comprise the autonomized expression of the latter, and that they therefore do not possess in and of themselves the necessary power to maintain that base. In order for the political forms to function as vehicles of capitalist rule it is not enough for their characteristics to be appropriate for this rule; there must also be the resource of economic power and the political motivation of particular social agents, who represent the interests of capital (which is not directly connected with the empirically given social condition of these agents).
Direct democracy is revolutionary because it abolishes the separation between civil society and political power: it is the form of the reappropriation of political power by the masses. Qarmat and the ICG do not see this, and that is why their theses come dangerously close to new forms of leadership politics and authoritarianism of the Bolshevik variety. In addition, by associating the counterrevolutionary character of democracy “in itself” with the persistence of the economic categories of commodity and money, one may then easily come to the conclusion that, as long as these categories still need to be abolished—since it is this factor, according to them, and not the suppression of alienated labor, that is the essential basis of the next social revolution—dispensing with democracy is justified. The question that we ask ourselves is: is it possible for the “affirmation of the collective existence of men” to be realized in any other than a “democratic” way, and more concretely, in any other form besides that of “proletarian, direct and revolutionary democracy”? The practical revolutionary value of Qarmat’s book as well as that of the political theses of the ICG depends on the answer to this question.
III. The Sophistical-Critical Method of Qarmat and the ICG.
Qarmat and the Internationalist Communist Group appeal to the fact that the emphasis on democracy entails a relapse into organizational fetishism, which views the revolution as an organizational problem. But we say that, first of all, this is not necessarily true, and secondly, the solution offered by Qarmat and the ICG is even worse if it were to be implemented, because it reduces the revolution to a problem of “affirmations” and “practical” “negations”, which means judging social practice on the basis of its results and not on that of its internal, immanent content. If the important thing is to negate commodity society and to affirm the real human community, for Qarmat and the ICG the only thing that counts is that this should be brought about. Their perspective is focused on the progress towards the proposed goal, to the “what” rather than to the “how”; the critical evaluation of this progress is assumed to be bound up with political-ideological criteria, that is, to the criteria of those who seek to direct social development. For this reason, their position reduces everything to a “programmatic” problem (or a problem of “leadership”, which is almost the same thing). The question of how to act in concrete practice in order to obtain the sought-after results is “implicitly” (sic) a secondary problem, one involving mere political effectiveness. We thus pass from organizational fetishism to programmatic fetishism: that is, we relapse into the “leadership fetishism” that was so adamantly insisted upon by Bolshevik ideology.
In their attempt to avoid concretely defining their organizational proposals, Qarmat and the ICG limit themselves to proclaiming ideal abstractions, as in the following footnote appended to their text:
“Whereas all the organizations of capitalism require a thousand rules and structures and bureaucracies in order to be able to function—since they are the expressions of the antagonistic interests of each separate element of which they are composed—in the revolutionary unity each element organically expresses the interests of the totality. For precisely this reason, revolutionary centralism cannot be democratic—the conciliation and unity of opposites—but organic—each part expresses the interests of the totality.”
In theory, we can agree. But is this possible? Or more precisely, is this “organic centralism” a description of a concrete organizational modality or is it an ideal abstraction?
It is, of course, to be desired that, “in the revolutionary unity each element organically expresses the interests of the totality”. We know perfectly well, however, that this is only possible in a partial way, since our point of departure is atomization, alienation and ignorance in general. Thus, the “conciliation and unity of opposites” will continue to be necessary. Furthermore, however, it is just plain stupid to seek to apply such a concept of “organic centralism”, which might be applicable to an “ideal” revolutionary group (“ideal” in accordance with the old vanguardist ideal, which attributes to the vanguard the leadership role in the social movement), to the revolutionary movement in general by people who say they are representatives of the “historical party” of communism. For the struggle within the class movement for revolutionary positions has always been necessary and there is no reason to suppose that this will cease to be the case in the future.
As a result, formal structures and a certain amount of bureaucracy will be inevitable over the long term. This is not, however, a problem of “quantity”, as may be inferred from what Qarmat says, but is above all a problem of “quality”: the formal structures must make individual freedom the precondition for collective freedom, and by extension the freedom of minorities must be the precondition for the freedom of the majorities, and the delegatory forms of political and administrative power must be based on the direct self-organization of the base rather than on electoral mechanisms and sporadic forms of control exercised from the base. To want to abolish all these defects all at once, however, is a fantasy that conflicts with all practical experience; what we have to do is to constantly strive to discover the best ways, and devote all our efforts, to minimizing these defects by maximizing the quantity and quality of the participation of individuals in the class organizations and movement.
Although, from the perspective presented above, the opposition of “direct democracy” and “organic centralism” is inconsistent, from another perspective it is indeed consistent … or is it? …. Because Qarmat and the ICG seem to oppose their “organic centralism” precisely to the “democratic centralism” formulated by Lenin, which was inherited from the general social democratic conception (Kautsky). And it is here that the root of their inconsistency is to be found: “organic centralism” is a sectarian invention elaborated on the basis of the critique of Leninist centralism rather than a concept elaborated on the basis of the direct experience of the proletarian struggle. It preserves from the Leninist conception the unilateral emphasis on centralization, scorning decentralization and its creative expression in horizontal self-organization. Furthermore, however, this concept presupposes the shifting of the central problem of how to implement horizontal self-organization (which implicitly also includes the problem of “for what purpose”) to how the direction that should be followed shall be defined (that is, to the effectiveness of the centralization of action and to the formation of a single leadership). And it also implies that, if each part expresses the interests of the totality, that part to which the directive and coordinating functions have been entrusted, which are required for the adequate development of the delegatory structures, must express the interests of the totality even more faithfully. In this manner, even though the concept of “organic centralism” seems to favor a centralism created from below, at the same time it justifies centralization from above. Thus, the anti-bureaucratism of Qarmat leads, paradoxically, to the danger of generalizing a sectarian centralism, in which a minority that is the self-proclaimed representative of the general interests is considered to have the right to lead everyone else.
To summarize, this is a bogus concept of organization that by no means clarifies any of the concrete problems of functioning that we must confront not only in the future revolution, but also in all the present-day class struggles in which processes of autonomous self-organization emerge.
IV. Bourgeois Legality and Political Indifferentism.
Insofar as they address the role of bourgeois legality in the class struggle, Qarmat and the ICG confuse the opposition to legalist fetishism with the opposition to the conquest or defense of democratic rights or laws within the capitalist regime:
“We consider that every reform of the state is an attempt to perfect the methods of capitalist rule.” (“The Myth of Democratic Rights and Liberties”.)
Once again, for these people the problem is the “thing in itself”. The above quotation itself, however, says even more. If every reform of the state is an attempt to perfect capitalist rule, the same could be said of all economic reforms like wage hikes, reduction of the working day and improvements in working conditions in general, insofar as they serve to stabilize the capital-labor relation and thus maintain or accelerate further capitalist development (which will increase the economic power of the capitalist and also the organic composition of his capital). We are not inventing any new arguments here, because this is just what Marx said to the anarchists in his article “Against Political Indifferentism”, written in 1873:
“If in the political struggle against the bourgeois state the workers succeed only in extracting concessions, then they are guilty of compromise; and this is contrary to eternal principles. All peaceful movements, such as those in which English and American workers have the bad habit of engaging, are therefore to be despised. Workers must not struggle to establish a legal limit to the working day, because this is to compromise with the masters, who can then only exploit them for ten or twelve hours, instead of fourteen or sixteen….
“It cannot be denied that if the apostles of political indifferentism were to express themselves with such clarity, the working class would make short shrift of them and would resent being insulted by these doctrinaire bourgeois and displaced gentlemen, who are so stupid or so naive as to attempt to deny to the working class any real means of struggle. For all arms with which to fight must be drawn from society as it is and the fatal conditions of this struggle have the misfortune of not being easily adapted to [their] idealistic fantasies…. However the working-class movement is today so powerful that these philanthropic sectarians dare not repeat for the economic struggle those great truths which they used incessantly to proclaim on the subject of the political struggle. They are simply too cowardly to apply them any longer to strikes, combinations, single-craft unions, laws on the labour of women and children, on the limitation of the working day etc., etc.”
Qarmat and the ICG act just like the people whom Marx is criticizing in these passages. They say that democratic rights and liberties only constitute an attempt to perfect capitalist rule, and that the working class derives no benefits from them. But this only means that their conception of the working class is an ahistorcial abstraction: they only recognize the working class insofar as it acts as a class and not in its immediate reality as atomized individuals who are embedded whether they like it or not in bourgeois society and who are subject to its economic and political laws. They might say that they do not want to achieve “reforms” but to impose social needs; but all of this is nothing but playing with words. The only practical difference resides in the value attributed to these concessions that the working class obtains with its struggles, and in the function that is attributed to these concessions with reference to future struggles. With regard to this point it is clear that the social-reformist organizations have always identified socialism with the extension of bourgeois democracy and with economic and cultural reforms within capitalism. While we can agree with Qarmat and the ICG that the value of these concessions is always secondary as opposed to all those factors that effectively contribute to the self-development of the proletariat (the development of its experience, organization and consciousness), we cannot, however, automatically say that these conquests cannot constitute a resource for future struggles.
With regard to this last point, and continuing to follow the critical perspective set forth by Marx for this kind of objection, it must be said that, if democratic rights are useless, then material and cultural improvements are useless, too. It would therefore make no difference, from the point of view of the development of the struggle, if the working day is 8 or 14 hours, or if the health of the workers is good or bad, or if they have an opportunity to avail themselves of general culture and the opportunity to develop their mental faculties. Or, as may be inferred from the reasoning of Qarmat, these things would only matter insofar as they undermined the fighting spirit of the class. Because this same point of view effectively leads to deprecating the relevance of legal forms: they are not the source of class power. And whereas one may effectively analyze the fact that all these legal mechanisms tend to integrate the workers struggle within the functional parameters of capitalism, the same could be said of all reforms. Labor reforms are often followed by the decline of the movement and subsequent periods in which conformism and adaptation to capitalism prevail; cultural development has always been characterized by alienating relations and the assimilation of the dominant forms of consciousness.
Besides the lack of consideration that this perspective presupposes with regard to the everyday situation of isolated individuals and collectivities—reflecting the underlying, brutal point of view that holds that “the collective is everything, the individual nothing”—more fundamentally, this perspective is based on how one understands the strengthening of the working class as an autonomous subject. Particularly on whether this strengthening is understood as a historical process that is based on particular conditions—and not only on correlations of forces. If the answer is yes, we also have to understand that all the results of past struggles in turn constitute the points of departure of current struggles, and that all legislation, as the reification of a temporary correlation of forces between classes or segments of classes, tends to reproduce that same correlation in the present. This means that, in the worst case, present-day struggles do not start from zero, but possess, in the inherited legislation, certain points of support, at least temporarily. In addition, it must not be forgotten that the general rights of labor have almost always been the result of equally general struggles, or of a generalization of major struggles concentrated in time; thus, it cannot be expected that the majority of particular struggles for reforms can normally dispense with, without significant harmful consequences, the support provided by the general rights that are protective against the despotism of the capitalists—even when the struggles are partially expressed in the form of “wildcat” struggles and transcend the limits of existing law.
In any event, the strengthening of the class as autonomous subject ordinarily results in the acquisition of reforms and rights, both because for the bourgeoisie this is a way of stopping and recuperating the movement, and because for the proletariat they deliver immediate benefits and constitute a way to consolidate positions in the capitalist framework. If they are subsequently transformed into mechanisms of integration, this is due to the pre-existing weakness of the working class as an autonomous subject, not to the fact that these concessions “in themselves” constitute a form of subjugation to capitalism. Instead, this subjugation always underlies the material and spiritual conditions that affect the dynamic of development of the class movement as a historical totality. Once again, then, the weakness of the analysis of Against Democracy resides in a deficient historical perspective.
If we want to situate ourselves in the empirical perspective, if the legal conquests are transformed into instruments of integration and—at least in their prevailing formulations—they hinder and repress the proletarian struggle, it is not because they are absolutely disastrous and therefore would have been better not to have existed. This is due to the fact that the working class itself is imprisoned within legalist fetishism and does not perceive the limitations of bourgeois legality, its character as an immanent instrument of reproduction of the rule of capital over labor, or else that it does not know how to overcome these limitations by way of the development of its autonomous action. This is why no minority can prevent, exclusively by means of its own forces and its own inflexible policy, the economic, political and cultural reforms obtained by the proletarian movement in its struggle from being transformed into elements of integration; it can only thereby plunge into self-isolation. This problem can only be resolved by the class as a whole, by way of its contradictory self-development, and if the course of its self-development leads to a temporary collapse into self-alienation, this is not something that is in our power to prevent: the most we can do is call attention to it, explain it and propose possible remedies.
V. The Autonomy of the Law and the Class Struggle.
The law is not a reality that is independent of real social relations, but their expression and codification. If we adhere to the historical-materialist principle that the law cannot surpass the level of the development of the productive forces—and as a result, nor can it surpass the level of the general characteristics of social relations—this means that its effectiveness is determined by the economic structure of society. At the same time, however, as is the case with all superstructures, the law and its institutions establish limits for the development of social activity, for the purpose of bridging the contradictions between general interests and particular interests. Thus, on the one hand, all bourgeois law—including labor legislation—constitutes an attempt to constrain the development of the class struggle within parameters that do not allow the practical questioning of capitalist property and its functioning, the private appropriation of surplus labor and its accumulation. This is a constant feature of all stable capitalist legislation. This kind of application of the law would be a prerogative of the state bureaucracy, and causes the juridical institutions to have degrees of operational autonomy that, under normal conditions, allow the law to perform this regulatory function with regard to social relations, especially capital-labor relations.
Just as the law places limits on the workers struggle, however, it also places limits on capitalist exploitation in its particular manifestations. Even when exploitation undergoes an intensification that violates the existing laws, this leads to a process of conflict that, depending on the class struggle, will be resolved with a either regressive or progressive legislation. The entire process of the development and implementation of the law depends on the class struggle and historical conditions. This process always takes place, however, within the hierarchical order that subordinates the particular to the general. For example, the right to strike is observed only when the strike in question does not threaten the development of accumulation in general within the boundaries of the state, or beyond those boundaries. That is, when the struggle develops on the terrain of the particular enterprise and does not enter into conflict with the general framework. This is the same reason why political or sympathy strikes are normally prohibited. Depending on the concrete content of the struggle, both with regard to the immediate occasion as well as its possible consequences, the effectiveness of the laws varies for the working class. In certain intermediate situations it might simply turn out that the law is rendered ineffective unless the struggle compels its practical recognition, and in such cases it is usually enforced or conceded in order to prevent an “unnecessary” radicalization of the class conflict that would disturb development on a wider scale. In other cases, it is the state itself that, recognizing a threat to the general interests of capital, tolerates illegal police actions or vigilantism, or itself resorts to illegal actions, in order to repress proletarian struggles. As a result, to conclude, the rights conquered by the working class formalize and tend to reproduce, as a starting point for current activity, a correlation of forces from the past; the law, however, also has a variable effectiveness, depending on the general historical conditions and on the effective and potential correlation of forces—determined by the extent of the struggle and the profundity of its objectives, as well as by the visible possibilities for their further development.
As a result, the limitations of the law are not manifested in a rigid and mechanical way in the class struggle, nor in a unilateral way that is favorable to this or that particular capital. And if the proletarian struggle is strong enough to destabilize the rule of capital then it might be able to seize new legal rights that would presuppose a restriction of the freedom of capital. In this sense, to say that the law never benefits the working class is to underestimate the power of the class in struggle and, at the same time, to falsify history. We must also make it clear that our perspective is not reformist, but revolutionary, and that these objectives must not be the motivation for the struggle, since this would imply the preservation of the illusion that capitalism can be “humanized” and that the exacerbation of class antagonism is not an inevitable reality. That is why these objectives can never themselves be assumed as a program of struggle; our program of struggle must always characterize all such partial or temporary objectives as steps toward the revolutionary transformation of society, emphasizing both their limitations as well as their necessity. Our analysis therefore does not involve us in any kind of collusion with reformist forces; to the contrary, it situates us in the ranks of the opposition against them, since we have to confront them not with vague radical proclamations, but in the concrete focus that is given to each struggle and to each question that is presented in its development, however limited it may be at first.
Even in an era like the present, in which the practices of the employers oriented towards the increase of exploitation exceed the limits of the law, and in which the legal conquests of the reformist era are being destroyed, the practical experience of the working class does not confirm the thesis that progress in the achievements of legal rights are useless. Like all bourgeois law, labor legislation presupposes the atomized individual or group, but serves on this basis to place limits on the blind and exploitative dynamic of capitalist accumulation. This means that, contrary to what Qarmat and the ICG claim, the rights and laws that are favorable for the working class within the capitalist framework must be defended, just as the material and cultural improvements that have been obtained must also be defended. This does not mean, however, that we have to do so in an uncritical way, that we have to abandon our program, that we should not perceive how attempts are always made to formulate the laws in such a way as to favor the capitalist class and restrict the further development of the level of struggle, or how all reforms in general are utilized as a means of social, political and ideological integration. Nor does it mean that we have to lend our support to parliamentary games or to negotiations and horse-trading that mystify the class struggle. But it is one thing not to engage in apologetics for bourgeois legality—because, despite everything, it is always a legal system that is devoted to guaranteeing the reproduction of the capitalist relation—and another thing to refuse to defend legislation that benefits the working class. It is one thing to advocate the need for wildcat strikes in order to avoid legal quagmires and trade union control, and another to claim that it does not matter whether or not there is a right to strike and a right to form trade unions—or, what is even worse, to maintain that it would be better if these things did not exist at all. It is one thing to supersede the existing order and another to merely reject it. It is one thing for proletarians to seek to abolish their own existence as a subject class, and another for them to deny their existence as a class in itself and to frame the struggle in the following terms: the “real human community”, or nothing.
According to the theses of Qarmat and the ICG, all the sacrifices that the working class has made to achieve and preserve its political and social rights have been a waste of time and are the product of social democratic deviation. All of this, however, is merely a verification of the way things are. One might say that today the utility or practical validity of these rights is minimal, because the power of capital and its developmental dynamic in its decline have rendered them increasingly less operative, and in this sense they have undergone a decline in their effectiveness. Yet one cannot deduce from this circumstance that this was also the case in past epochs, but only that the formal autonomy of the law is declining and that its importance is therefore decreasing. The proletarian struggle played a decisive role in the creation of the “social welfare state” and the “rigid” labor market, which the bourgeois offensive has been trying for several decades to liquidate in every country.
Given the fact that, as we said above, all legislation is the reification of a temporary correlation of forces between classes or segments of classes, it therefore represents the conditions of an already past situation. If the current capacity for action on the part of the proletarians is not equal to the demands of the time or the situation, legal rights will have a usefulness for its further development despite all their inherent limitations. On the other hand, if this capacity for action should become greater, such laws would be transformed into a mere impediment. Furthermore, as the power of capital also develops, it is possible that the laws would lose their usefulness because they have become obsolete in their formulations. They would thus lose their progressive potential and all that would remain of them would be their recuperative potential, which is immanent to their essentially capitalist form. This is what happened, for example, with the specific laws concerning the right to strike (which generally became a monopoly of the “representative trade unions”) and labor representation (which was transformed into an impotent and collaborationist appendage of capitalist management). And due to this same determinant cause, the trade unions and working class political parties had no other option than to become more deeply integrated into the system and to become agents of capital, once their own structure, based on the reproduction of alienation, inhibited them and prevented them from fulfilling any revolutionary role, and the fact that, given the multifarious development of the power of capital over society, without a revolutionary struggle it is impossible to generate the necessary force to substantially change living conditions even within the framework of capitalism.
The obsolescence of legislation due to variations in the structure of society, however, is not necessarily linked to the question of the degree of the formal autonomy of the law, determined by general conditions. This obsolescence that is based on the general transformations in the model of capitalist accumulation, and which therefore acquires a structural basis, as is currently taking place with the constant lengthening of the working day in defiance of the law, cannot be corrected by way of more strict legislation, because even if such legislation could be passed it would be unstable from the start and would only be applicable in the economic sectors or social regions where the working class is most highly concentrated and organized. On the other hand, those elements of obsolescence of the laws that do not have this structural basis, but are rather the results of arbitrary actions on the part of certain sectors of capital, can be confronted with the struggle for legal reforms, which would tend to compel individual capitalists to respect the average levels of exploitation. It must also be kept in mind that legal measures themselves are never sufficient; they must always be understood as a kind of supplementary recourse of the struggle and never as a substitute for it.
It is probably the experience of the obsolescence of the law and its gradual loss of formal autonomy (especially in the face of the power of the most highly internationalized capitals), together with the integrating effects of these developments, upon which Qarmat and the ICG base their arguments asserting that all formalization of the correlation of forces between the proletariat and capital “tend to reverse the correlation of forces that was unfavorable to the bourgeoisie” (in such a way as to ensure that these laws would always function to the detriment of the workers). To make this claim in an absolute sense, however, is false, because it assumes that the proletariat can do nothing to prevent this from happening. And, indeed, if the proletariat is not concerned with how the laws are formulated and does not fight for legal reforms that would be to its advantage, this would be inevitable. But this is not necessarily the case, and therefore, it is something that, like all social development, depends on the class struggle.
To summarize, the validity and the usefulness of the law for the proletarian struggle depend on the correlation of forces and historical conditions. By refusing to take these factors into account in their analysis and by proclaiming absolutely ahistorical conclusions, the fundamental theses of Qarmat and the ICG lack any practical validity and do not clarify the contradictory reality of democratic rights. To claim that “the proletariat never gains anything from democratic rights and they always constitute a weapon of the bourgeoisie” is a major error both in the theoretical as well as the practical sense. This position prevents the analysis of the practical questions that are often presented in struggles: why not use the rights at our disposal or the laws that might be in our favor? And the answer cannot be abstract, it requires an analysis of the concrete situation, of the demands of the effective development of the struggle, of the pros and cons of the resort to existing rights. Naturally, one can propose that we should be independent of capitalist legality and that, as was the case in the seventies (wildcat strikes, illegal demonstrations, etc.), we must in any event prosecute our struggle outside of the bounds of the law in order to affirm our antagonistic consciousness against capitalist society. But this presupposes a particular development and maturation of the capacity for class struggle, it is not something that can be “casually” proposed without taking into account the question of whether the people are prepared or not to endure the possible repressive consequences, whether of an economic, judicial or physical kind. Or else one can be in favor of the idea that the radicality of a struggle depends on its external violent and illegal forms, which is not true. There are no unrecuperable forms of struggle. The exacerbation of the forms of class antagonisms is one thing and the sharpening of their content is another.
All these distinctions and nuances, however, imply a historical analysis that Qarmat and the ICG seem to have never even thought of undertaking. Their argument that the law never “guarantees” anything is merely the assertion of a commonplace in every epoch (and appearances to the contrary are derived exclusively from the fact that an effective class force exists that could prevent the violation of the law):
“One would have to be a real sucker to believe that the legalization of the strike—which not we, but our enemy decided and history shows that the bourgeoisie never does anything just for the hell of it—offers any guarantee that the strike will be won, or to believe that the right to strike secures us against state repression.”
And before this they said:
“Freedom of the press and propaganda consists in also assuring on this same field the freedom of enterprise, so that only the economic power and the financial capacity of the different parties assure the control and rule over public opinion, which guarantees the free application of the majority principle.”
To say that the law “guarantees” the freedom of capital, while it “does not guarantee” that of the proletariat, implies a certain distorted view in our judgment. For, if we situate ourselves on the plane of the class struggle, considering it preeminent over the juridical plane and with regard to social relations as such and as they are currently constituted, this struggle is what creates and transforms both social relations as well as their juridical expressions. Consequently, the law by no means “guarantees” the freedom of capital, and the formulated opposition is only a false argument to buttress the thesis of absolute rejection of the existing law. Lacking the support of the practical analysis of the class struggle, a basis for their position is sought in abstract theoretical arguments. Basically, the only thing that can be said for certain is that the working class must not rely on bourgeois law in order to take action, which would be desirable, but by no means is the effective total reality in conditions of capitalist stability. Furthermore, people do not question things except when they have to do so, not because of future possibilities that now seem distant. For this reason, they will not question bourgeois legality and parliamentary democracy unless this becomes a practical necessity to carry out their actions—and then not only in specific cases, but consistently and generally—which presupposes a general intensification of the class struggle that would reject the stability of capitalist society—which is not the normal situation, but a symptom that the revolutionary crisis is approaching or is on the verge of breaking out.
The reality is that the forms of struggle are always limited by the integral development of the class as a conscious and coordinated force. That is why, in addition, the postulates we are criticizing here imply a pretense to leadership politics: to establish a series of directives to implement that, supposedly, would guarantee the progressive nature of the struggle. But just like the law, programs are nothing but superstructures with respect to real practical action, so that a rigid program will do nothing but obstruct and distort the development of an action and generate more confusions and obfuscations in addition to the usual ones. Fortunately, today’s working class, already having been burnt by so much leadership politics, once it escapes trade union and party control is not often exactly “receptive” to this kind of proposal. They prefer to commit their own mistakes rather than commit the mistakes of others, or to accept proposals that are not connected with their immediate practical necessities. Thus, these kinds of “programmatic” proposals will do nothing but stimulate the depoliticization of the people, because they are clearly removed from the real complexity of everyday life. Only those who channel their frustrations by way of an ideological radicalism and a destructive practice will find these proposals to their taste; for the rest, who want to see more clearly how they should act in concrete cases in which they find themselves or could find themselves, such perspectives are of no use.
All struggles will be uncertain and, as long as they take place on the basis of capitalist society, they will only be capable of particular degrees of de-alienation; but what is certain is that the programmatic theses of the ICG would lead us directly to failure on the terrain of legislative reform and would foment generalized political indifferentism and passivity. Such theses are appropriate for a situation of revolutionary emergency, but not in conditions of relative stability; and even in the former, they might lead to serious errors in the ascendant phase that intervenes between the situation of stability and the situation characterized by generalized struggle.4
To conclude, it is one thing to say that the working class must not depend on democratic rights and laws for its struggle, and that it must not allow itself to be domesticated by such rights and laws, and it is entirely another thing to underestimate their necessity and importance. It is the same thing that takes place with trade unions: it is one thing to question trade unionism from a revolutionary point of view and another to claim that it would be better if trade unions did not exist even if they were not replaced by other superior forms of proletarian action. If we oppose legal reforms in the political sphere we also have to oppose all legal agreements in the economic sphere as well, because they are essentially the same thing. Naturally, this can always be done in theory, but in practice such formulas can only be valid in a situation of revolutionary emergency or in extremely critical moments when it becomes possible to make unilateral impositions on capital. Everything else is idle chatter and demagogy. We can fight against all the legal and regulatory restraints that may be imposed on the future or present proletarian struggle, but we cannot place ourselves in an idealistic manner above the law, or assume any position at all without taking into account the totality of the historical conditions.
VI. Conclusions and Perspectives.
a) From the strategic point of view
Insofar as this book stresses that neither revolutionaries nor the revolution can be “purely democratic”, but that what is decisive is the practical social interest for which the political forms serve as vehicles, it is a progressive contribution. The book does not, however, make it clear whether the practical consequence of this position is that we should only defend those forms of democracy that have a progressive content for the working class—by opposing all other forms to the extent that it is necessary for the progress of the class—or whether, to the contrary, we must oppose and struggle against every form of democracy,5 if we consider that it is opposed to the communist program. And this ambiguity has extremely serious implications for political praxis.
On the other hand, Against Democracy will lead to greater confusion regarding the question of how to confront and resolve the concrete organizational problems that face the working class. The denigration of democracy “in itself” as political praxis only serves reaction, encouraging the working class—instead of developing and extending its democratic forms of action—its organic autonomy—to consider this problem as marginal and stress the immediate effectiveness of action above anything else. Its entire perspective also completely avoids addressing the problem of bureaucratization and the reproduction of hierarchies. In this respect it does not go beyond declarations of good intentions.
Likewise, instead of stimulating the working class to struggle against bourgeois political restrictions,6 the positions of Qarmat and the ICG lead to political passivity and indifferentism, forgetting that all the restrictions of democratic forms and legality in general—such as the resort to openly dictatorial, fascist or Bonapartist forms, or the usual bourgeois two-party systems or like the governments and parliaments that are firmly controlled by representatives who are the directly subordinated to big capital—are always detrimental, over the short- or medium-term, to the development of proletarian struggles, or directly serve as a springboard for a new surge of a general capitalist offensive.
Where do all the “anti-democratic” arguments of Qarmat ultimately lead? Directly to a return to the epoch of sects and conspiracies, which are the terrain on which the ICG has established itself and from which its sectarian ideology will not allow it to escape. And what is worse, it leads to a conception that, in the name of the great proclaimed goal and the terrible slavery of our time, once again justifies authoritarianism and leadership politics and foments their assumption as means for the final liberation. We do not suppose that this is their conscious intention, but we do not live on intentions nor do intentions alone determine history.
b) From the theoretical and historical point of view
Attempts to engage in revolution by “negating” and “affirming” realities are only the fantasies of sectarian groups. Groups which, instead of admitting their inability to “programmatically” resolve—and therefore, the inability of “their” programs to do so—the dynamic complexity of the class struggle and of social development (development that is always inaccessible to thought, except relatively thanks to constant approximation, investigation and theoretical reflection), strive to “negate” obstacles and “affirm” potentials once and for all. In this way, the result is a simplifying and rigid view of reality, constructed on the basis of unilateral abstractions, which does not allow one to understand how all the obstacles function in turn as resources and how all potentials require, for their further development, highly contradictory processes that cannot unfold within the narrow framework of a monolithic ideology, which only obscures them. Only on the basis of a perspective that seeks the understanding of the complexity of the real in its continuing dynamism and becoming, only thus can we find the keys to understand how to struggle for the revolutionary transformation of society and for our class interests in general.
It is entirely symptomatic of the current confused situation that a book like Against Democracy has been published by Anarres and distributed internationally, we assume because the publishers perceived that it has an emancipatory content. The actual meaning of the theses set forth in Against Democracy only consist in contributing an explanation—in many respects basically incorrect, or at least reductionist—of the frustrations generated among the international working class by the capitalist restructuring implemented since the 1970s and which has consisted in the systematic destruction of the old reformist conquests. Basically, these theses are an expression of and an appeal to that frustration with bourgeois democracy, but in the ideological form of a “revolutionary” critique of democracy “in itself”. But there are no revolutions against “things in themselves”; revolutions are social processes and such “things in themselves” are nothing but social processes or elements created by these processes. This is why the issue involves the concrete transformation of these social processes and of the social relations that constitute them, which implies analysis and experimentation, and therefore mistakes and errors, which is why this cannot be effected by way of “negations” and “affirmations”, which do nothing but mentally obstruct the road at every step and will constitute a distorted and refractory prism for new experiences or a renewed understanding of those experiences.
Reality is not changed by affirmations or abstract intentions, however much they are sincerely shaped into praxis or even if, in fact, they are realized. Because what is fundamental is not to elaborate a “leadership” for proletarian praxis or to accumulate experiences. The fundamental issue is the disalienation of individuals that will render them capable of leading themselves. Nor are realities changed by changing their names, as takes place with the negation of “workers democracy”: attempts to do so will only generate sterile confusions and divisions that could have instead been previously clarified, by way of a detailed discussion of general practical problems and of how to address them. Qarmat and ICG have yet to learn all these things. We, too, of course, have a limited view of things, like everyone else; what is important is that we should devote our efforts to acknowledging these limitations and to overcoming them. But if anything is obvious it is the fact that, both with regard to the discourse as well as the basic theses of Against Democracy, they are marked by simplifications and structural ideological unilateral assumptions, which in and of themselves invalidate their pretense to constitute a revolutionary program for the class.
As for the proclaimed goal of the book, which is to engage in
“the critique of the organic functioning of capital, of its basic structures, of democracy, of freedom, of democratic rights and liberties. As we shall see, this does not involve only denouncing the dominant myths about democratic rights and liberties, revealing the most widely-accepted lies about freedom and democracy more generally but, at different levels of analysis and abstraction, of explaining democracy as an essential structure of the functioning of generalized commodity society. And to complement this task, to reveal the fact that freedom, equality and fraternity, sanctified throughout the entire bourgeois superstructure (in legislation, in culture, in religions), far from being moral ideals that have arisen from the pure spirit for the perfection of man, are the historical, positive and idealized expression of quite real, putrefying relations of production, of worldwide commodity exchange, of wage slavery with the consequent and indispensable state terrorism.”
This goal is only partially achieved, precisely because, as we analyzed at the beginning of this essay, all these political theses are based on an erroneous conception of the nature of capitalism as a simple “generalized commodity society”. But if workers democracy is a fundamental step towards the suppression of capitalism, the “first step”, as is stated in The Communist Manifesto, this is because it presupposes a process of general disalienation of individuals as conscious economic and political subjects. It is not because this democracy is a response to a problem of organizational efficacy, or of delimiting degrees of freedom for individuals; what matters is not democracy as form, its functionality, but as content, as the social activity that it channels. The forms of working class democracy have always been the object of critical development at the level of theoretical currents and of the historical action of the masses, but not for the purpose of abolishing the “sovereignty of the masses”, but rather for that of its further development. From this point of view, the confusion of workers democracy with its particular functional formalizations throughout history, or with particular functional norms—which could be shared with any other form of democracy (there was certainly a current of direct democracy that sought to dispense with majority rule, for example)—is a postulate that was foreign to the entire revolutionary tradition until its invention by the Bordiguists in the 1920s.
From the point of view of its general perspective, Against Democracy is a work of party propaganda and not a political study with a testable methodology. Throughout the entire work its theoretical premises are never subjected to more profound analysis, beginning with its critique of democracy “in itself”. The central thesis, which identifies democracy with commodity society, is only elaborated in the introduction and the remainder of the text is devoted to the critique of bourgeois democracy and of the formulations concerning workers democracy—always based on an imputed analogy between these two forms. In its authors’ zeal to negate the concept of democracy and individual freedom, the book fails to address the problem of the revolutionary forms of transition in a concrete manner. When it does adopt a practical perspective and even offers concrete examples, this is all done in a very unilateral way, in order to merely support preconceived postulates, seeking to establish in theory a contrast with dominant practices instead of explaining the underlying contradictions of social reality and identifying the point of connection with proletarian praxis.
By condemning the ideals of “liberty, equality and fraternity” as characteristic of bourgeois society, drawing an analogy with freedom and equality as they apply to commercial relations, Qarmat totally ignores the revolutionary historical meaning of these ideals, which was not exhausted by the French Revolution of 1789. Beyond its ideal formulation, which in that era was monopolized by radical bourgeois intellectuals, these three principles constituted the historical program for which the proletariat fought alongside the bourgeoisie for the overthrow of feudalism, and for which it also supported the extension of representative democratic forms and the development of social production and general education. This program, however, was never realized in capitalist society, where it only took the form of a partial and distorted reflection. Equality and freedom were only realized as rights derived from private property, merely juridical and, as a result, were generally almost completely vacated of any content for the working class. Fraternity was completely marginalized, and competition and the spirit of private profit came to prevail. Thus, it was this same program of the incipient proletariat that the revolutionary communist current later reclaimed and further elaborated, a process that found its leading political champion in Gracchus Babeuf.
Qarmat’s view can be explained by the fact that her analysis falls prey to the same theoretical method as historical idealism:
“If, in the conception of the historical process, the ideas of the ruling class are separated from that class itself; if they are transformed into something separate and independent; if we restrict ourselves to affirming that such and such ideas were dominant in a particular epoch, without at all taking into consideration the conditions of production or the conditions of the producers of these ideas; if, therefore, we set aside the individuals and the general situations that serve as a basis for ideas, we can affirm, for example, that in the epoch in which the aristocracy was dominant, the ideas of honor, loyalty, etc., prevailed, while the rule of the bourgeoisie represented the realm of the ideas of liberty, equality, etc. This is how the ruling class itself imagines things, as a general rule.” (Marx and Engels, The German Ideology.)
It is true that Qarmat apparently does not make an abstraction of the conditions and relations of production, but this is only in appearance. She does not investigate the historical formation of these ideas, her analysis is based on an abstract analogy between political ideals and commodity relations—which, we may note in passing, are not relations that are specific to capitalism, which we have already theoretically demonstrated; and in the same context she maintains that, politically, it would be meaningless to think that the slogan of “liberty, equality and fraternity” could really represent the program of the bourgeoisie and that their assumption was not an act of demagogy, mixed with some illusions, to win popular support. But what is even more important is the fact that Qarmat uses this analogy to justify her failure to discuss the historical class struggle that determined the whole process of the bourgeois revolution.
The struggle for communism is nothing but the real struggle for equality, liberty and fraternity, without which this struggle lacks any meaning. What the communist program is all about is the suppression of the mystified forms in which capitalism has framed these ideals and which, in this way, it has also modified their previous revolutionary meaning, reducing them to ideals of “citizenship”, adapted to peaceful coexistence with exploitation and capitalist rule and that reinforce the social atomization created by capitalism. Although it is possible that the concepts of “liberty, equality and fraternity” are too ambiguous to constitute the crucial ideas for our time, as they were in the 19th century and the early 20th century (and are in any event insufficient to define the communist project), we cannot deduce from this that they represent in their origin idealizations of capitalist society. In any case, these ideals, in their social meaning, were not born from the heads of enlightened intellectuals, but instead from secret societies and sectarian associations, with a notable influence not only from the group experience but also from Christian ideology. Only later were these social ideals appropriated by the bourgeois intellectuals, who restricted their practical significance. To say that these ideals are only a mystified view of commodity society, besides having little historical basis, thus abstracts from the degree to which they were interpreted differently depending on the class that advocated them and the particular concrete process of their historical formation.
Politically, such an interpretation signifies for the communist current the internalization of a defeat and renders their recuperation inevitable. To the contrary, today we have to reaffirm the relevance of these ideals. For they still represent the historical aspirations of the working class masses. And any political force that defends a program that stands opposed to the widest possible practical development of these principles, or which distorts their social meaning,7 will always have to be considered to be regressive and reactionary.
c) From the tactical point of view.
In conclusion, Against Democracy, with its all-encompassing focus, goes against the grain of history. By denouncing all contemporary democratic rights and liberties as absolute unreal and thus as simple mechanisms of capitalist rule, it once again leads to the idea that their existence is superfluous or a matter of indifference and that, in the interest of a greater future freedom, they can be renounced without any harmful effects. This same dialectic was employed in the past by both the Leninist parties as well as the extreme right to justify the support of the working class for despotic regimes and police states, which developed “vulgar” forms of totalitarianism (Stalinism, fascism, Bonapartism, etc.). Even today we have, in Venezuela, a recent example of this danger, although one that is apparently quite weak. Ultimately, we can also perceive it in the way that the political indifferentism of the majority of the western working class, provoked by both the bourgeoisie as well as by the cretinism and “betrayals” of the existing left (and by abstentionist pseudo-radicalism, which confuses anti-parliamentarism with electoral abstention and the revolutionary attitude with the rejection of the use of the right to vote), has contributed to the intensification of the capitalist offensive and caused the proletarian social positions to recede, allowing the formation of stronger and more aggressive capitalist governments. These regressions have also had negative consequences for class consciousness in general, up to the point that anti-parliamentarism has been universally identified with the abstentionist tactic, instead of implementing it with the struggle for the creation of autonomous forms of mass power and with extra-parliamentary forms of political mass action.
Faced with the impossibility of this kind of action, these “revolutionaries” have contented themselves with loudly denouncing democracy and voting, favoring the apoliticism and passivity that are now spreading among the working class masses, and hoping to “fish in troubled waters” on the basis of a pamphlet-based propaganda campaign. But this tactic has not helped, over the course of the last quarter century (since the 1980s), the revolutionary groups—or allegedly revolutionary groups—to experience any significant growth on any terrain or arena of struggle. Instead, by constituting a form of self-separation from the masses, this tactic has favored the material and spiritual exacerbation of the historical class defeat that goes back to the 1970s. Blinded by extremist ideologies and by a simplifying political worldview, these “revolutionaries” cannot even understand that the right to vote should be used in a defensive way to weaken the government as much as possible, utilizing it as an instrument of individual struggle in the absence of any mass political actions (which by no means implies making any concessions to the illusions that the existing political forces represent or could represent the working class, or that the program of developing proletarian organs of power should be renounced8 ). Or that it would be preferable to temporarily and externally support (without any effect on one’s own independence) forms of “left-wing” or “rank and file” trade unionism, rather than leaving the field wide open to the trade unions that are most completely integrated into the capital-state nexus and remaining in a condition of the most absolute disorganization during periods of regression, or in the powerlessness created by the dispersion of jobs and temporary work. To justify their inactivity, they propose an identification between state, democracy and legality; between apoliticism, anti-politicism and anti-statism; between the destructive and violent struggle, anti-capitalism and communism. The differences and mediations between these terms are denied by means of abstract theory and propaganda, instead of consciously confronting their practical difficulty and attempting to propose adequate modes of action for such a complex and contradictory context.
With all this we have reached our present situation, so that all we need to do now is to insist on the old errors based on the sectarian mentality. This mentality is characterized by preferring personal or group coherence to a contradictory social praxis, self-enclosure to conflict-laden openness. Its implicit assumption is that the superficial coherence of radical minorities (even if it consists in the coherence between the discourse and the lack of action) is more than important than the progressive expansion of the self-activity of the majority, and that only the application of its ideal programs has a progressive character. The reality, however, is that, as Mattick once said,9 revolutionary coherence thus understood is a privilege of individuals and sects. Where social praxis, or social development, begins, this type of ideological coherence ends, and only historical coherence can exist, which is a kind of coherence with the development of the social processes that are necessary for the effective historical conditions (objective and subjective), in order to advance towards the historical goal that we propose. These processes are, in the society in which we live, marked by material and spiritual alienation and poverty, as well as by the struggle against them, and if we do not accept this contradiction and its multiple manifestations, which are sometimes flagrant, and sometimes veiled, we situate ourselves in an a priori manner outside of the historical conditions of the development of the working class, so that it would not be strange to diverge towards a type of group that is practically foreign to the class movement. Because, although the retreat into tiny grouplets is a result of a relative historical regression, the fact that the existing groups exhibit a rigid and reductionist worldview, one that is refractory to the contradictory nature of life and devoted to smug, self-satisfied “radicalism”, cannot be explained by the trend towards the formation of small groups itself, but by sectarianism and by the absence of contact on the part of these individuals and groups with a reality that is too disappointing but which is usually the everyday reality.
From the tactical point of view, therefore, the perspective of Against Democracy does not presuppose a new view, either. Instead of the tactic of timeless discourse and folded arms (except to hand out pamphlets), what Against Democracy insinuates is merely to introduce a more radical and violent language and to support “proletarian affirmations” by way of unilaterally decided destructive or violent minority actions. It is only familiar with the class struggle in its vulgar form of “violent war”, as if every expression of social conflict were not, consciously or not, a moment of the continuing class struggle, whether openly waged or disguised in its conscious affirmation or in its violent content. Everything else always seems to be considered by Qarmat and the ICG as a concession to capitalism, as if the working class was in any position to choose or, more precisely, as if it were capable of “constituting itself as a class” (in terms of practical movement) thanks to an act of will. Thus, the “violent” discourse of Against Democracy does nothing but aggravate the disastrous consequences of the tactic we are criticizing, that is, of a praxis that reproduces and mystifies the separation of the advanced groups with respect to the general movement or tendency of the class. This tactic will favor the criminalization and repression of the groups, which would then reinforce capitalist ideological domination—which always seeks to identify communism with ideological and practical forms that are alien to the freedom of the proletarians. While the “pacifist” form of this tactic opted for ideological coherence as opposed to historical coherence, this second “violent” form is worse, since it is not satisfied with justifying this separation from historical reality and attempts to shape the historical situation in accordance with its own ideological coherence, identifying its sectarian praxis as “class affirmation”. It seeks to achieve by way of brute force what the proletariat has to conquer by way of its spiritual growth.
The key to avoiding sectarian deviations lies in learning to connect the active defense of revolutionary positions with activity within the framework of the contradictory complexity of the real dynamic of each moment and place. This has, of course, as opposed to sectarian tactics, the “disadvantage” that it cannot be pursued by means of complete recipes and programs, but constantly poses difficulties and challenges, and therefore requires simultaneous and constant intellectual openness and development. But these demands cannot be assumed due to the ideological self-sufficiency of the sects.
To sum up, the tactical positions advocated in this text will surely be the object of controversy. We do not claim any more than to contribute a general approach, always considering the prevalent tendencies in the class struggle in the period in which we find ourselves—which therefore does not imply the refusal to try to proceed further when this is possible, nor does it presuppose that it is applicable today and will also be applicable tomorrow and that historical development is a gradual and uniform process. But if we want to constitute a real opposition to the theses proposed in Against Democracy, we have to be capable of offering a more coherent practical perspective. It is necessary to “plunge into” these complex questions in order not to remain on the sectarian terrain, always characterized by abstract formulas that aspire to having an immediate impact.
The “anti-democratic” tactic of Qarmat and the ICG only consists in once again blocking the historical road with the same rock against which the working class has clashed for decades. Now, however, thanks to the “coherence” of its “analyses”, the rock is more polished and more dense—and why not, it is painted a brilliant red. But it shines like a flashlight: it can only illuminate those who spend too much time in the darkness of the cave, and will only be useful, if ever, in an attempt to find one’s way out of the cave. We hope that Against Democracy will at least serve this purpose. And that is expecting a lot.
April 10, 2007
- 1 Miriam Qarmat (Internationalist Communist Group), Contra la democracia, Colección Rupturas, n.d. (this Spanish translation, upon which this English translation of Ferreiro’s review is based, is available online—in January 2014—at: http://gci-icg.org/books/Contra_la_democracia_Miriam_Qarmat_enero_2006.pdf). The book contains the following texts:
“The Myth of Democratic Rights and Liberties”, first published in Spanish in the ICG’s journal, Comunismo, No. 1, June 1979, and later published in an English translation in the ICG’s English language journal, Communism, No. 1, November 1983, under the title, “Against the Myth of Democratic Rights and Liberties” (the latter translation may be found at: https://libcom.org/library/against-the-myth-of-democratic-rights-and-liberties-communism-8);
Jacques Camatte, “The Democratic Mystification”, first published in French in Invariance, Series I, No. 6, April-June 1969 (a “modified” English translation of this essay can be found online at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/camatte/demyst.htm). The Spanish translation of Camatte’s text as published in Against Democracy is interlarded with extensive commentaries by the Internationalist Communist Group; and
“On Freedom” (“De la libertad”), first published in French in the ICG’s journal, Communisme, no. 47, May 1998. The Spanish translation of this essay included in Against Democracy was first published in the ICG’s Spanish-language journal, Comunismo, no. 43, January 1999. This essay has not yet been published in English translation to the best of my knowledge. To give the reader some idea of its contents, its section headings are as follows:
1. Freedom or the lovely “invisible threads” of the capitalist social relation
2. The freedom of the proletariat: work or starve
3. The human community vs. the freedom of the private individual
4. Communism and the realization of the realm of freedom
“On Freedom” concludes with an “Appendix”, “Acerca del estado libre de la socialdemocracia” (an English translation of this text may be found at the website of the ICG under the title, “About the Free State Preached by Social-Democracy”, at: http://gci-icg.org/english/freepopstate.htm). [Note of the American Translator.]
- 2 “Everyone is familiar with the usual critique directed by Marxism against ‘bourgeois’ rights and liberties (a critique that, regardless of what anyone might say, goes back all the way to Marx himself): it deals with rights and liberties that are merely ‘formal’, and which were established more or less in the interest of capitalism. This critique is incorrect for many reasons. These rights and liberties were not born with capitalism, nor were they recognized by capitalism. They were initially demanded by the proto-bourgeoisie of the communes beginning in the 10th century, they were seized, conquered, and imposed by way of centuries of struggle by the people (in which not only the unprivileged sectors, but also the petit-bourgeoisie, played an important role).” (Cornelius Castoriadis, "Democracy as Procedure and Democracy as Regime" (1991), Constellations, Vol. 4:1 (April 1997), pp. 14-16.) [Translated from the Spanish Translation—American Translator’s Note.]
Where Castoriadis uses the term “formal”, we should understand this in the sense of “apparent”, because the concept of form in the original Marxist thought is linked to that of structure, clearly differentiating between the appearance or the immediate and external form and form as the totality of characteristics or constitutive relations of existence (the functional structure of the essence). The quotation marks in the above passage, however, are in the original text.
Kropotkin, in his famous work, Mutual Aid, also upheld this same position and explained how the forms of pre-capitalist democracy were far removed from the bureaucratic characteristics of modern representative democracy. This helps explain why the revolutionary democratic tradition was by no means alien to the proto-proletarian masses and that the tendency to emphasize direct democracy was already exhibited.
- 3 Thus, for example, there is the contradiction—for the positions of Qarmat and the ICG—that Bolshevik state capitalism allowed, with hardly any effective use of money, and without money itself exercising any autonomous power outside of that role granted it by the political power that controlled prices, the practical creation of capitalist structures of production without the need for any previous accumulation of money-capital. This is, naturally, a practice that is not specific to capitalism, but proves that the basis for the existence of capital is not the categories of the commodity; it is, to the contrary, capital which dominates and constitutes the basis for the existence of these categories, and which makes it possible for them to be temporarily or partially dispensed with (as in the various forms of economic activity directed or induced by the state). The only thing that capital cannot do without is the value form, because the latter in immanent to capital, it is also its own proper form, and, even so, capital does not exist only as commodity and money, but also as operational capital, as a mass of means of production and conditions of labor that operate as instruments of the creation of surplus-value—that is, as the material basis of the relations of exploitation. As a result, it is in the essential duality of capital as material relation of production and as relation of production of value that its capacity to socially establish itself without the mediation of exchange resides and, from a communist perspective, its ability to subsist even when the commodity forms of circulation and their autonomous movement have been abolished (even in the circulation of labor power and products of the productive sphere).
- 4 Periods in which the struggle for reforms tends to be rapidly surpassed by the social dynamic itself and to be transformed into a revolutionary struggle, when the self-exclusion of the movement on the basis of anti-legal positions could render it incapable of exercising any influence later.
- 5 See the analysis of this problem in the article, “Against Political Fetishism”, R. Ferreiro, 2006.
- 6 Although, as we have said before, insisting that: 1) all current rights and laws are, even the best ones, secondary conquests from a point of view of the action of the class as a totality—from which the power that has made them a reality proceeds—and that 2) they are therefore not by any means the source of proletarian power nor can they be taken as ends in themselves, as has been done by both the social democracy as well as its western Leninists derivatives.
- 7 These distortions are easy to identify, because they consist in the marginalization or arbitrary limitation of one of the terms in favor of another, such as took place with the suppression of freedom in “vulgar communism” (which sought to standardize society by way of the generalization of wage labor and which found a practical example in Bolshevism). Also, individualist anarchism opposes freedom to equality—the majority of proletarian anarchists have always quite correctly condemned this doctrine. It is also possible to defend mystifying types of fraternity, such as takes place in religious sects, where this functions as the justification for the lack of freedom and equality.
- 8 Concerning this point relating to the anti-parliamentary tactic in a context of general regression, see the document contributed for debate that is published simultaneously with this text, entitled, “La táctica revolucionaria en el contexto actual. Antiparlamentarismo, elecciones y autonomía proletaria”.
- 9 Paul Mattick, “Spontaneity and Organization”, 1949.