The Trumps, the Bolsonaros, the Putins and the Xi Jinpings offer us capitalist barbarism and only the self-activity of the whole working class – the basis of working class democracy – can save humanity.
Ancient Greek Democracy
"Any city, however small, is in fact divided into two, one the city of the poor, the other of the rich; these are at war with one another." (Plato, Greek philosopher, 427-347 B.C.)
The word ‘democracy’ comes from ancient Greek and Athenian democracy is often presented as the West’s great contribution to civilisation. But the society of the ancient Greeks depended on slaves to do most of the work, and they did not have the vote. Women were also excluded from voting in most of the Greek city states. Some civilisation, some democracy.
Despite the fact that it took over a hundred years for capitalism to grant ‘universal manhood suffrage’ (women always come later), it turns out that under parliamentary democracy the people who do the work are as excluded from key decision making as the slaves in ancient Athens.
Under capitalism we elect representatives as Members of Parliament (or equivalent). Even today, when party lines are increasingly blurred, most people vote according to local candidates’ party membership. Once elected, we’re unlikely to see ‘our MP’ for the next 4 or 5 years when they come round asking for our vote once again.
Whilst in Parliament what do they do? Usually they vote for their own party, or occasionally they will rebel and vote how they see fit. Unusually a Prime Minister might take into his head to ‘prorogue’ the whole parliament. MPs have no obligation to vote according to the wishes of those who voted for them. This is what representation means. You entrust the MP to act for you and you certainly have no power to change them until the next election. And of course there is absolutely no prospect of parliament broaching the kind of fundamental changes that would allow everyone to have a say: how to ensure that the community as a whole decides on what is produced. How to make sure everyone has the means to live. How to decide what is best for the community instead of calculating profit and loss. In short, the necessary steps to abolishing this iniquitous system called capitalism.
Workers’ Democracy: The Most Complete
By contrast, in the working class democracy that will emerge during the revolution to overthrow capitalism, every assembly elects delegates, not representatives. They are mandated to carry out the wishes of their collectivity. If they find that they cannot do this they return to the base community and either persuade them to change course, or are replaced by a different delegate. Each community will have a number of delegates in proportion to the number of people. In 1905 in Russia it was one delegate for every 500 workers. Local soviets/councils/bodies (call them what you want) then elect delegates to area soviets and from them to wider geographical areas like regions and so on until we reach the level of a global congress of soviets. Such a body can devise plans for issues which have to be treated globally (like environmental protection) whilst local soviets sort out local services and the allocation of resources.
One key difference is the absence of a class of professional politicians. We would not be just one-time voters but active participants in a whole host of grassroots organisations from housing cooperatives and workplace committees to sporting associations and arts councils.
This is not a dream. The Paris Commune of 1871 showed the possibilities of directly electing delegates. The soviets that sprang up in the 1905 Russian Revolution proved that it could work. In Russia in 1917 soviets spread once again and delegatory democracy actually existed for a few months (November 1917—March 1918). The working class throughout the world was inspired by news of how Russian workers ran everything from the ground up. Even train passengers would organise a committee to ensure that all passengers had their needs looked after on crowded trains!
It did not last: not because delegatory democracy did not work but because this first successful workers' revolution was isolated to one country. After 4 years of war the workers faced an economic crisis equal to the Black Death. In addition Soviet Russia was invaded by the armies of 14 countries. The working class in Russia could not hold on in isolation. Soviet power withered under the weight of this impossible situation. Capitalists like to call the one party regime which marked the counter-revolution “communism”. This deliberately discredits not only the word but the whole idea that one day workers will run their own affairs.
Our rulers don’t want people to know this. They are well aware that more and more people are discontented with their system. After 40 years of declining incomes and living standards alongside the highest concentration of wealth ever seen under capitalism this is no surprise. The capitalist system and its “democracy” are in deep crisis.
They are slowly tearing up their own rules on trade, diplomacy and finance. The debt mountain refuses to go away and inequality is rising so fast that some billionaires, fearful of revolution, are even asking to be taxed more. Others are playing the populist game. They pretend they are not part of “the élite”. They can thus pose as the “real alternative” to a self-serving class which has created wealth for the very few. But it is a pose. They are looking to save the capitalist order by fuelling nationalism and racism. They thus talk the language of war. When it is not a war on migrants, it is a tariff war, a currency war, or a war of sanctions. Behind them all there are already plenty of shooting wars going on around the planet. In short, the Trumps, the Bolsonaros, the Putins and the Xi Jinpings offer us capitalist barbarism and only the self-activity of the whole working class – the basis of working class democracy – can save humanity.
The above article is taken from the current edition (No. 48) of Aurora, bulletin of the Communist Workers’ Organisation.