Democratic demands in the 19th century

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Dear comrade,

With this letter, we want to continue our discussion on the national question, in particular the question of Quebec. The first thing we want to say is that we absolutely agree with you when you say:

"...we have to be clear that opposition to the Quebec independence movement has nothing to do with the defence of the Canadian imperialist state and that it completely rejects Canadian nationalism. The federal Canadian camp deserves no more support than the Quebec independence camp."

And also:

" internationalist position has to resolutely and without compromise oppose the two bourgeois camps and the two nationalisms (Canadian/English and Quebecois)."

Indeed, internationalism today means that you cannot give support to any national state. We have to be precise about the fact that we're talking about today because this wasn't always the case. In the 19th century, it was possible for internationalists to support not only certain struggles for national independence (classically, the struggle for Polish independence for example), but also certain nation states. Thus, during the different wars that took place in Europe in the mid-19th century, Marx and Engels often took the side of one or other camp when they considered that the victory of this nation or the defeat of another would serve to advance the bourgeoisie against feudal reaction (symbolised by Czarism). Similarly, in December 1864, in the name of the General Council of the International Workingmen's Association, Marx sent the US president Abraham Lincoln a message of congratulations on his re-election and of support for his opposition to the efforts of the southern states to secede (in this case, Marx and Engels vigorously opposed a demand for national independence!).

And here we come to the heart of the question of "democratic demands" that you raise:

"... in the 60s and 70s one of the main demands of the Quebec workers was the right to work in French...In my view it is indispensable to support this kind of democratic demand. We can't say to the workers ‘wait for the dawn of socialism to sort that out', even if capitalism is by its nature incapable of putting an end to national oppression". And again: "...I don't think that these kinds of demand, while not being revolutionary, can undermine the unity of the proletariat."

In order to be able to deal correctly with the specific case of "linguistic" demands (in particular the Canadian authorities' ostracism of French speakers), we have to go back to the general question of "democratic demands".

The formula is itself significant:

demand: this is something expressed (including by violent means) to an authority which is called on to grant it, whether willingly or under duress. It presupposes that the power of decision does not belong to those who express it, even if they can obviously "force the hand" of those who do hold this power through a favourable balance of forces (for example: a wage increase or the withdrawal of anti-working class measures obtained through a massive mobilisation of the workers that obliges the bosses to step back - which doesn't mean that they have been deprived of their decision-making power in the enterprise);

democracy: etymologically, "power of the people". It was Athens which invented "democracy" (which was very limited since slaves, foreigners and women were excluded) but it is the bourgeoisie which has "enthroned" it, so to speak.

The rise of the bourgeoisie was accompanied by the development of the different attributes of "democracy". This was obviously no accident but corresponded to the necessity for the bourgeois class to abolish the political, economic and social privileges of the nobility. For the latter, and in particular for its supreme representative, the King, power was essentially divine in origin. In the final analysis it was accountable only to the Almighty, even if, in France, for example, between 1302 and 1789 there were 21 meetings of the Estates General, representing the nobility, the clergy, and the "Third Estate", to give advice on financial matters or the mode of government. It was indeed during the last meeting of the Estates General that, under the pressure of peasant and urban revolts and the financial bankruptcy of the monarchy, the Third Estate launched the French revolution (notably by abolishing the privileges of the nobility and the clergy and limiting the power of the King). Following the example set by the English bourgeoisie a century and half earlier, the French bourgeoisie went on to establish its political power, which was hardly very "democratic" (especially of you think about the autocratic power of Napoleon the First, even though he was the heir of the revolution of 1789).

Universal suffrage

While it considered that the nobility should no longer be allowed to run things, the bourgeoisie only saw democracy in its own terms. Its slogan was "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" and it declared that "men are born free and remain free and equal in their rights". However, although universal suffrage was written into the Constitution of 1793, this only became effective on 2nd March 1848, in the heat of the February revolution. And it was some time later that universal suffrage was established in other "advanced" countries: Germany 1871; Holland 1896; Austria 1906; Sweden 1909; Italy 1912; Belgium 1919...just after the very "democratic" England in 1918. In fact, in the majority of European countries, in the 19th century, universal suffrage was not the basis of bourgeois democracy: since the right to vote was determined by a certain level of taxation (in some cases, a high level of taxation gave one a right to multiple votes), the workers and other poor people, in other words the great majority of the population, were excluded from the electoral process. This is why universal suffrage was one of the main demands of the workers' movement during this period. This was notably the case in Britain where the world's first mass working class movement, Chartism, was formed around the question of universal suffrage. If the bourgeoisie opposed this demand for so long, it was obviously because it feared that the workers would use the vote to challenge its power within the state. This fear was particularly strong among the more archaic fractions of the bourgeoisie, especially those who were closest to the aristocracy (which, in a number of countries, had abandoned its economic privileges, such as exemption from taxes, but had conserved a strong position within the state, above all in the military and the diplomatic corps). This is why this period witnessed alliances between the working class and certain sectors of the bourgeoisie. This was for example the case in Paris in February 1848 when the revolution was supported by the workers, the artisans, the "liberal" bourgeoisie (for example the poet Lamartine) and even "legitimist" monarchists who saw King Louis-Philippe as a usurper. Having said this, the class antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat came rapidly to the surface with the "June Days" when, following the workers' uprising against the closure of the National Workshops, 1,500 of them were massacred and 15,000 deported to Algeria. In fact, it was at this point that some of the more dynamic sectors of the bourgeoisie understood that they could make use of universal suffrage against the archaic sectors that were standing in the way of economic progress. Furthermore, during the ensuing period, the French bourgeoisie became quite accustomed to a political system which combined a form of autocracy (Napoleon III) with universal suffrage, thanks in particular to the weight of a reactionary peasantry. It was in fact an assembly elected by universal suffrage dominated by deputies from the countryside (the "rurals") which decided on the repression of the Paris Commune of 1871 and gave full power to Thiers to direct the slaughter of 30,000 workers during the "bloody week" at the end of May.        

Thus, two decades of universal suffrage in France were proof that the ruling class could definitely accommodate itself to this method of organising its institutions.

In the whole period that followed, Marx and Engels often warned against "parliamentary cretinism", and, drawing the lessons from the Commune, they underlined the necessity to destroy the bourgeois state. Nevertheless, along with the whole workers' movement with the exception of the anarchists, they continued to see universal suffrage as one of the main demands of the proletarian struggle.

And indeed, despite the dangers contained within it, support for this "democratic demand" was totally justified:

  • it allowed the workers' parties, by presenting their own candidates, to distinguish themselves clearly from bourgeois parties on the terrain of the bourgeois institutions;
  • it enabled them to use election campaigns as vehicles for propaganda for socialist ideas;
  • it opened up the possibility of acting inside parliament (through speeches, proposed laws) as a tribune for this same propaganda;
  • it allowed the workers' parties to give support to progressive bourgeois parties against the reactionary ones, in order to facilitate the political conditions for the development of modern capitalism.

Freedom of press and of association

In connection with the demand for universal suffrage, the foundation stone of bourgeois democracy, the working class also fought for other rights such as freedom of the press and freedom of association. These were demands that the working class put forward at the same time as the progressive sectors of the bourgeoisie. For example, one of the first political texts by Marx dealt with the censorship exerted by the Prussian monarchy. As the editor both of the Rheinische Zeitung, (1842-43) which was still inspired by radical bourgeois ideas, and of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (1848-49) which was influenced by communism, Marx constantly denounced the official censorship. This in a sense epitomises the fact that at this time there was a convergence around democratic demands between the workers' movement and the bourgeoisie, which was still a revolutionary class trying to get rid of the vestiges of the feudal order.

As regards freedom of association, there was a similar convergence between the interests of the proletariat and those of the progressive bourgeoisie. Furthermore, freedom of association, like the freedom of the press, was one of the fundamental preconditions for the functioning of bourgeois democracy founded on universal suffrage, since political parties are an essential element in this mechanism. This said, what applied to freedom of association on the political level did not at all apply at the level of the workers organising themselves for the defence of their economic interests. Even the most revolutionary of bourgeoisies, the one which led the French revolution of 1789, was ferociously opposed to this right despite all its grand principles of "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity". Thus, in a law promulgated on 14th June, workers' combinations were forbidden as "an affront to freedom and the Declaration of the Rights of Man", and it was not until the 1848 revolution that this law was amended (with many reservations, since the new formulation still denounced "attempts to restrict the free exercise of industry and the freedom to work"). In the end, it was not until 1884 that trade unions could be formed freely. As for that Motherland of Liberty, Britain, trade unions were not legally recognised there until June 1871 (and it has to be said that the union leaders, especially those who sat on the General Council of the IWA, had been opposed to the Paris Commune).

National demands

The national demands which took on a good deal of importance around the mid-19th century (they were at the heart of the 1848 revolutions across Europe) were an integral part of these "democratic demands", especially where there was a convergence between the old empires (Russian and Austrian) and the domination of the aristocracy. One of the basic reasons for the workers' movement supporting certain of these demands is that they weakened these empires and thus the feudal reaction, while opening the door to the formation of viable nation states. During this period, supporting the demand for national independence was a key issue for the working class. One of the best illustrations of this was the fact that the IWA was formed in 1864 by English and French workers at an assembly held in support of Polish independence. But the support given by the workers' movement didn't apply to all national demands. Marx and Engels condemned the national demands of the small Slav people (Serbs, Croats, Slovenians, Czechs, Moravians, Slovaks) because they were not in a position to set up a viable nation state and were an obstacle to modern capitalism, being caught up in the games of the Russian empire and holding back the development of the German bourgeoisie.[1]

[1]. See the 1849 article by Engels' "Democratic Pan-slavism"