The following article was written as an introduction to C.L.R. James' Every Cook can Govern. It has been slightly edited for publication with the author's permission. It contrasts the weakness of capitalist democracy, comparing it to the democracy of ancient Greece as well as a directly democratic society run by the working class.
Celebrations of the 2,500th anniversary of the creation of a democratic society in ancient Greece took place in 1991. Dignitaries from the various Western democracies attended ceremonies in Greece. The hypocrisy of these celebrations seems obvious in light of the fact that the modern parliamentary and congressional democracy is, in many ways, a violation of the principles of direct democracy that were established in ancient Athens.
What passes for democracy in the modern world is generally held in contempt by the citizens of those very countries which call themselves democracies. In this century, the leading democracies, first and foremost the United States, have been involved in two devastating world wars, the pillage of the peoples of Latin America, Africa and Asia, the support of brutal dictatorship whenever it suited their imperial interests, and so on. At the same time, they have been unable to provide all their citizens with the minimum levels of comfort and culture that a modern technological society is clearly able to produce.
The human race, and the world in which we live, is in a desperate situation. Poverty and unemployment, racism, sexism, bigotry are endemic in the modern world. Two centuries of industrialization have wreaked havoc on the environment. People starve, not because there is no food, but because food is distributed only when it can make a profit. Even the wealthiest nations are ridden with debt. Corruption is common in politics and business. Disease, random violence and homelessness are eating the heart out of every major city on Earth. Work, for most people, continues to be drudgery, with fewer and fewer opportunities for creative initiative.
In October 1956, in the totalitarian Communist dictatorship of Hungary, the people rose up and demonstrated the possibility of a revolutionary direct democracy in the modern world. A large and growing demonstration of students and intellectuals was under way in a major square in Budapest when it was joined by thousands of Hungarian workers. They proceeded to create workers' councils and, within 48 hours, took over control and direction of all the means of production, service and communication in Hungary. The old Communist government was overthrown. The Hungarian people were working their way toward a new kind of society which was neither Communist (as that was understood in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union) nor capitalist. There was nothing in Hungarian society that could withstand their attempt to create a new society.
The revolution was overthrown by the invasion of Soviet tanks. The West, led by the United States, took whatever propaganda advantage that it could from the Soviet oppression, but also took care that the Hungarian Revolution would not spread to other countries. Before 1956, Radio Free Europe and Voice of America had called for East Europeans to revolt. After 1956, that call was never heard again. (While the Soviet Union was crushing the Hungarian Revolution, England, France and Israel invaded Egypt in an attempt to steal the Suez Canal.)
The Hungarian Revolution was direct democracy in action in the modern, industrial world. Workers and others did not act through elected representatives, professional politicians. In the workers councils they acted directly and in concert to assume control of their own lives and their own society. All employees of an establishment met at their workplace as often as everyday to make decisions. Delegates were chosen to carry out decisions or to represent the council at city-wide or regional bodies. All delegates were subject to immediate recall.
In 1968, something very similar happened in France . The entire working class of the country occupied all of the factories in France and came within a hair's breadth of overthrowing the DeGaulle government. In the same year, the people of Czechoslovakia attempted to do the same and were crushed by another Soviet invasion. In 1980, after many years of struggle, direct democracy appeared in Poland in the form of Solidarity. (By the Solidarity of 1980 we do not mean Lech Walesa in 1990 trying to sell Polish factories to American capitalists.)
The world has recently seen the destruction of totalitarian dictatorships in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. We need to understand that the first blows to weaken the Soviet empire were struck by the workers of Eastern Europe and, to some extent, Western Europe. Decades of working class resistance, punctuated by revolutionary attempts to assert direct democracy, made Eastern Europe, and then the Soviet Union, ungovernable. The revolutions in these countries - the attempts to create new societies - have only just begun. China's Tiananmen square, the overthrow of military dictatorships in Africa and the crowds at the Russian legislature during the Moscow coup are well-known examples. Less well-known was the 1989 strike of Soviet coal miners. The strike committees became centres of activity for whole communities. Under the slogan "perestroika from below" these committees began to assume political functions.
Western politicians and journalists would have us believe that these battles and sacrifices were somehow intended to replace totalitarian dictatorship and state capitalism with "free enterprise" and what passes for democracy in our own countries. They have tried to convince us that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and that the greed, corruption, poverty and violence of our society are minor aberrations.
In the West, the differences between politicians are minor and cosmetic. Policies, platforms and promises are marketing tools to entice the electorate. The campaign speech has been reduced to the eight second sound bite. To be successful, politicians must lower their horizons to the next election. The goal of political parties is not to exercise power wisely but only to achieve power and maintain it.
The flaws in representative democracies are still well known to their peoples. The popular attitude towards politicians is anger and contempt.
In Canada clumsy and secretive attempts by the federal and provincial governments to amend the constitution have led to demands for a constituent assembly composed of non-politicians as well as referenda to ratify any changes. In the United States, where half the eligible propaganda refuse to even take part in the charade of the electoral system, disgust with incumbent has sparked proposals to limit the number of terms that federal and state legislators can serve.
While not the direct democracy of the Hungarian Revolution or ancient Greece, these developments show a growing desire to get away from government by professional politicians, which is what representative democracy is.
We do not want to suggest that the democracy of ancient Greece was perfect or that it can be easily be copied in the modern world. Greece was burdened by the dual crimes of slavery and the inferior status of women, as were all ancient societies in the Mediterranean basin and in Asia. What distinguished ancient Athens was that, in that society, human beings began to break out to produce new forms of self-government. That they could not solve all the evils of that time should not be surprising.
How useful is this example for the huge, industrial societies of today? One of the things which Greece had, to a significant extent, was a sense of community. In our world, that is substantially absent. How do we envision the possibility of a new, free, cooperative society while we are enmeshed in one that is driven by greed and bigotry? The answer does not lie in electing a new set of legislators, or a different political party to replace the discredited old ones. The answer lies in seeing in the Hungarian revolution of 1956, the French Revolt of 1968, the Polish Solidarity of 1980, the modern forms of the direct democracy of ancient Athens.
The answer lies in ending the separation of economics and politics. It involves people taking control of their workplaces, their neighborhoods, their communities - directly and without mediators. Without bureaucrats, capitalists and managers standing in the way, it should be possible to build a sense of community, of unity, of cooperation. This will obviously provide tremendous opposition. Hungarian, French and Polish workers confronted the economic, political and military might of their societies. Either we will find the strength and will to do the same or we will sink further into the decay that is now destroying us.
This article has been archived on libcom.org from the Red and Black Notes website.