ED BOBER asks whether democracy can ever be compatible with capitalism and examines how a real workers’ democracy would operate
Across the world, revolutions are breaking out against the ravages of neo-liberalism. In the past, demonstrators have demanded a change of government; today’s demonstrations are seeking ways of changing the whole system!
Some spark sets off a movement: extradition legislation in Hong Kong, a fare increase in Chile, tax increases for the poorest in France, the refusal of the president to resign in Algeria, harsh new taxes in Lebanon, government corruption in Iraq. Within hours, hundreds of thousands are on the streets: party buildings are torched, general strikes break out. Politicians make concessions hoping everything will “return to normal”. But the floodgates are open.
These movements do not seek simply a change of political leader; they are straining for ways to get rid of the entire ruling establishment: all the traditional parties, the army officers, the police, the courts and the business leaders who are connected with them. The masses on the streets sense that to leave any of this state apparatus intact would make them vulnerable to a bloody reckoning once the movement abates.
One thing all these movements have in common is a thirst on the part of millions of people to have more direct control over the institutions of government. In some cases, such as Egypt, Algeria and Sudan, there are straightforward demands for the overthrow of dictators. In all cases the movement searches for a more accountable democracy: more control by the people.
People want more than they currently get from the ballot box. In France the gilets jaunes have called for the right of citizens to initiate referenda as a means of policy making; Extinction Rebellion want decisions to be made by “citizens’ assemblies”; in Britain many people are pushing for proportional representation; in Chile the revolution is demanding a constituent assembly. These proposals reflect a search for more involvement in policy making. They are attempts to wrest political decision making from the hands of professional parliamentarians and to create a democracy that better represents the interests of the majority.
Many of these movements are still emerging from decades of oppression where there was little opportunity for widespread political debate. Their ideas and demands are developing every day as they face confrontations with vicious police and deceitful authorities. Some of the big questions in these revolutions are still unanswered.
Who Wields Power Under Capitalism
Without economic democracy, can a revolution really bring about fundamental change?
When democratically elected governments challenge the interests of the banks and the billionaires, there are no prizes for guessing who wins. In Greece in 2015, following years of strikes and street protests against austerity, eventually a government was elected whose programme was explicitly to defy the austerity economic being inflicted upon Greece by the European Union. The SYRIZA government’s anti-austerity stand was widely supported by a highly politicised population and endorsed by a referendum at the most crucial juncture. Yet it was eventually crushed by the pressure of the Central European Bank and the IMF. The government capitulated despite the preparedness of the Greek masses to stand up in defiance of the world’s bankers.
This shows very clearly that big multinational companies and banks have far more power than governments. It puts into context the pathetic attempts of right-wing Brexit politicians such as Farage and Johnson to “regain sovereignty” for Britain. Every proposal they put forward is vetoed by financial interests far more powerful than the British government. The main winners from a Johnson Brexit will be big American companies, especially those eagerly waiting to gobble up what is left of the National Health Service.
In 2008 and 2009, the US state department under Barack Obama’s presidency blocked attempts to raise the minimum wage in Haiti, a move which guaranteed cheap labour for American companies operating there. How can there be democracy or national sovereignty when big countries are able to veto the wishes of the people in smaller countries? It is hardly surprising there is a rise in nationalism.
Democracy is intimately connected with and constrained by economic power. Big companies do not just avoid paying taxes; they have enough economic power to tell governments what to do. In effect, parliamentary democracy is limited to making decisions which are acceptable to big multinational companies.
While mass movements are straining to find ways of extending democracy, many conservative rulers are decrying democracy and expressing their frustrations as to its “limitations”. Spain, Belgium, Israel and the UK have all seen government floundering because of a lack of any overall parliamentary majority. Even in the USA, the Congress and the Senate are in conflict with each other. Israel has held three elections in one year because of its inability to form a government. Some forces on the right seek ways of doing away with parliament and crushing democratic rights as they did in Germany in the 1930s after the instability of the Weimar Republic.
In Britain, within days of Jeremy Corbyn being elected leader of the Labour Party on a programme for improving the lives of working-class people, senior army officers were threatening mutiny should he ever form a government. There could be no clearer illustration of the limits of capitalist democracy. The ruling class respect it – so long as their candidates win. They desperately try to control public opinion through official media channels. They are prepared to use the courts and constitutional manoeuvres to curb any government threatening their system. But if all this fails, they will resort to more drastic and dictatorial measures, as they did in Chile in 1973.
Since the working-class movement first began fighting for democracy in the early 19th century, it was a means to an end. The fight of the Tolpuddle Martyrs was for trade union rights and aimed to raise living standards. From its most elemental inception, the working-class movement has presented challenges to capitalism.
Workers’ committees have been a major feature of all serious revolutions since the Paris Commune of 1871. Rather than elect parliamentary professionals, the workers elected representatives who
- were paid the same wage as ordinary workers;
- were responsible not only for deciding policy but also for carrying it out: there was no distinction between legislative and executive power;
- were subject to recall at any time.
The army and police were abolished. Factories were taken over and run by the workers themselves. Schools (which in those days were only for the children of the rich) were opened up to everybody. All rent for housing was abolished. The debts of ordinary working people were annulled. This was not just “a bit more democracy”; it was a qualitative change in the whole system of government and economy. The working class, i.e. the majority, began to run society in their own interests.
During the revolutions in Russia in 1905 and 1917, committees of workers in the factories formed the foundation for an entirely new system of government, far more responsive to the needs of the mass of the population than any parliament. Between February and October 1917, during a series of political crises, while liberal politicians were trying to cling to the old state apparatus and re-start the war, these committees took on more and more authority. Based originally in each factory, they began to link up across districts and the larger towns. Soldiers in the trenches also organised themselves into committees following the lead of the workers in the factories. As the old regime lost all credibility, these workers’ committees began to co-ordinate across the whole nation, eventually sending representatives to an all-Russian congress. They became an alternative pole of power. They followed the democratic principles of the Paris Commune.
This was an entirely new and revolutionary form of government, far better than any parliament in reflecting the rapidly changing consciousness of the masses. There were two other principles to safeguard against bureaucracy and corruption:
- there should be a rotation of administrative duties so that everyone in society develops the experience of government;
- there should be no standing army; if there have to be guns and truncheons to protect society, then these must be controlled democratically through the workers’ organisations, representing not the rich but the people as a whole.
By October, the Bolsheviks had consolidated enough support within these committees to enable them to form a government which consolidated the ending of the war and distributed land to the peasants. Unsurprisingly, the Russian revolution inspired revolutionary uprisings amongst exploited peoples the world over.
There was a worldwide wave of general strikes. Once workers have withdrawn their labour, new questions are immediately posed. In the Seattle General Strike of 1919, for example, the organised workers quickly understood that the population would need essential supplies; so the strike committee set about organising the production and distribution of certain goods, such as milk. The vehicles delivering these products that had been authorised by the strike committee were marked with signs to show that this was part of the strike movement. Thus, the strike committee took the first steps to the running and planning of society.
The workers of Limerick also took over their own city during a general strike against the imposition of martial law by the British army in 1919. The initial aims of this movement were modest: to protest against martial law. But within days, because this was a general strike revolutionary questions were posed. How would the population of the city be fed? The city was run through workers’ committees which printed their own money, controlled prices, began to organize food distribution and printed newspapers. The majority of small businesses and shops within the city complied with the authority of the workers’ committees. The British occupying forces were forced to back down in the face of the huge popularity of this movement and the immediate prospect that it might spread. These events have become known as the Limerick Soviet, because of the similarity with the Soviet Union at the time.
In fact the word soviet originally meant council before it became tainted with connotations of Stalinist dictatorship, which began to develop in the mid-1920s with the isolation of the Russian revolution in a feudal country. Workers’ democracy presupposes an advanced economy where the working week can be cut, so that the mass of the workers have the time, leisure and energy to absorb culture and develop literacy, thereby making it possible to participate fully in the running of society. Such conditions pertain now, in the 21st century, in nearly every country of the globe – a source of tremendous hope for today’s revolutions.
Every worker knows that there is an ongoing struggle for workplace democracy, for health and safety, against bullying and abusive managers, for trade union rights. Workers understand that their own intelligence could greatly enhance efficiency and assist with the development of policies which could save the environment.
The history of attempts to initiate workers’ control and management has mostly been ignored or repressed by capitalist commentators. It contains ample evidence that workers are in a far better position to improve production than capitalist company boards.
In Catalonia in 1936-37, under all the pressures and ravages of civil war across the whole of Spain, workers took over all significant sectors of industry and agriculture and ran them through democratically elected committees. This included railways, buses, shipping, gas, and electricity generating stations, textile mills, mines, car and engineering factories, food-processing plants, breweries, newspapers, department stores as well as hotels, bars and restaurants. Working conditions improved and became safer. Productivity increased, allowing wages to be raised. Agricultural production increased by as much as 50% due to the introduction of more modern techniques. The tram network was run by tram workers themselves, with a resulting increase in services. Over several months the number of weekly passengers increased by a million.
In the early 1970s, four shipyards on the River Clyde in Scotland were occupied by the workers in a fight against redundancies. For over a year they were run under the control of mass meetings, with day-to-day management in the hands of a democratically elected committee.
In 1979, workers in Lucas Aerospace faced redundancy due to cuts in defence expenditure. The shop stewards’ committee organised research into alternative socially useful production to which their skills and technology could be transferred. Ignored by the capitalist media, they became a centre of invention, pioneering ideas such as the hybrid power engine, road-rail vehicles and improvements in medical equipment.
In 1987, workers at Caterpillar in Lanarkshire also occupied and successfully ran their factory when faced with closure. Despite problems with supply from the owners of other companies in the industry, they managed to build a huge earth mover. This was donated to Live Aid to help with the fight against famine.
Ten million workers organised into Solidarność in Poland in 1980 also began similar initiatives: methods of raising productivity evolved through the intelligence and planning of the workers themselves, pointing the way to shorter working hours.
So we see that, even under capitalism or bureaucratic rule, and especially when faced with unemployment, the working class has been able to offer a glimpse into its capacity to create better forms of democracy, rooted in the workplace.
Since the middle of the 19th century, movements of the working class have improvised alternative forms of government which facilitate far greater and more immediate democracy. Workers’ democracy puts all attempts to tinker with establishment constitutions into the shade, primarily because it addresses the question not just of politics but of economic power.
In France, during the mass revolutionary general strike of May 1968, workers’ committees took responsibility for organizing essential services and food distribution, even controlling prices in some towns such as Nantes. Students assisted and supported this initiative of the workers. Small- and medium-sized shop owners accepted the new authority. There were similar initiatives in Paris with the formation of neighbourhood committees based on organisations of striking workers and students. Health workers set up their own committees to improve their services.
In the Iranian revolution of 1979, the Shah’s regime became less and less able to govern. The workers set up committees arising out of their own organisations which drove the massive strike movement and popular protests against the Shah. They saw themselves as far more than trade unions. Oil workers, transport workers and others in hospitals, local authorities and schools all set up strike committees which were called “shora” – the Farsi word for council or soviet. They identified with the forms of organisation used by the revolutionary Russian workers in 1917. They agitated for a shorter working week of 40 hours and direct elections. This movement aspired to become the foundation for a new and more far-reaching form of democratic government.
When the working class creates its own forms of democracy, it facilitates discussion amongst those who have never previously found a voice. Decisions can be transformed immediately into direct action, so the class creates its own policies and learns fast.
In his book Towards Socialist Democracy (2007, Scottsville, South Africa: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, Martin Legassick describes a similar movement:
“In Argentina in 2000, after a massive collapse in living standards, from levels comparable with Italy in the early 1970s to those of Italy in the 1940s, unemployment rose to 40% of the population. Calorific intake of the population fell dramatically. As free market policies failed, the masses lost all illusions in bourgeois politicians. Movements of women and children protesting against starvation came out on to the streets, joining forces with the unemployed, blocking roads and occupying supermarkets. Very rapidly this became a movement of millions, a revolution. At first the workers demanded an end to corruption and inequality. Working class communities began to organise themselves into neighbourhood committees, which grouped to form assemblies and began to link up across towns. Where workers were faced with unemployment due to factory closures, they occupied, took over and managed their own companies rather than just letting them be closed. As the scope of the working-class movement grew, so did its consciousness. They fought for
- non-payment of foreign debt ;
- action against the banks;
- nationalisation of industry that had been privatised, under control of neighbourhood committees;
- formation of district and city security committees to deal with police provocation;
- support for ongoing struggles of railway, textile and telecommunications workers;
- criticism of union leaders for not backing these workers.”
During the civil war in Syria, in Rojava and Kobane, North West Syria, where the old state apparatus of Assad had collapsed, the local population formed embryonic new forms of state based on rudimentary “people’s power”: armed forces based on local people defending themselves from enslavement by ISIS. In some areas these new organisations were explicitly feminist, excluding any man who had been known in the community as an abuser.
The experience of revolutions over the last 150 years gives a glimpse of how the working class can establish a state based on its own popular forces and its organisations. Whenever they have arisen, such embryo states are far closer to the mass of the people, offering opportunities for participation to the majority of the population and based on a democracy far more thoroughgoing than any of the institutions of capitalism.
Even in its heyday – the long period of economic expansion of the 1950s and 1960s – capitalism could only offer very limited democracy, always subservient to the dictates of big business. Now, in its dying throes, it can offer at best the impotent circus of parliamentary argument and at worst brutal racism and military dictatorship, leading to failed states, war, global warming and the collapse of civilisation. It is time for the world’s untold billions of toilers to build upon the best democratic forms ever invented, to extend and supersede them in the coming revolutions of the 21st century.