Democratic demands in the 20th century

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The support the workers' movement gave to democratic demands was based essentially on a historic situation in which capitalism was still progressive. In this context, certain sectors of the bourgeoisie could still act in a "revolutionary" or "progressive" manner. But the situation changed radically at the beginning of the 20th century, above all with the First World War. From then on, all sectors of the bourgeoisie became reactionary because capitalism had completed its fundamental historic task of subjecting the whole planet to its economic laws and developing the productive forces of society on an unprecedented scale (starting with the most important productive force, the working class). The system was no longer a condition for human progress but an obstacle to it. As the Communist International put it in 1919, we had entered "the epoch of wars and revolutions". And if we look again at the main democratic demands mentioned above, we can see how they have ceased to be a terrain for the struggle of the proletariat.

Universal suffrage

Universal suffrage (which had not in fact been accorded in all the developed countries, as we saw above) became one of the principal means used by the bourgeoisie to preserve its domination. We can take two examples from the countries where the revolution went furthest: Russia and Germany.

In Russia, after the seizure of power by the soviets in October 1917, elections to a Constituent Assembly were organised on the basis of universal suffrage (the Bolsheviks had raised this demand before October in order to unmask the Provisional Government and the bourgeois parties who were against the election of a Constituent Assembly). These elections gave a majority to those parties, in particular the Socialist Revolutionaries, who had participated in the Provisional Government and served as a final rampart of bourgeois order. This Constituent Assembly raised great hopes in the ranks of the Russian and international bourgeoisie who saw it as a means to deprive the working class of its victory and return themselves to power. This is why at the first meeting of the Assembly, the Soviet power dissolved it.

A year later, in Germany, the war had, as in Russia, given birth to the revolution. At the beginning of November, workers' and soldiers' councils were formed throughout the country, but (as at the beginning of the Russian revolution) they were dominated by the majority social democrats, the same people who had participated in the imperialist war. These councils handed power over to a "Council of Peoples' Commissars" run by the SPD but also the "Independents" of the USPD who served as a left cover for the real bosses. All of a sudden, the SPD called for the election of a constituent assembly for 15 February 1919:

"He who wants bread, must want peace. He who wants peace, must want the Constituent, the freely elected representation of the whole German people. He who acts against the Constituent or who procrastinates about it, is depriving you of peace, freedom and bread, is robbing you of the first fruits of the victory of the revolution...such a person is a counter-revolutionary" (thus the Spartacists were "counter-revolutionaries". The Stalinists didn't invent anything new when a few years later they used the same term against those who had remained loyal to the revolution).

"Socialisation will take place and must take place... through the will of the labouring people who, fundamentally, want to abolish this economy animated by the search for profit by particular elements. But this will be a thousand times easier to impose if it is the Constituent which decrees it rather than being ordered by the dictatorship of some revolutionary committee."[1]

This was obviously a way of disarming the working class and leading it onto a terrain which was not its own, of emptying the workers' councils of any reason for existing (since they are presented as no more than a provisional institution until the next Constituent Assembly) and of preventing the councils from heading in a similar direction to that taken by the soviets in Russia, where the revolutionaries had gradually won a majority within them. At the same time as making grand "democratic" declarations to send the workers off to sleep, the socialists were getting together with the army HQ to plan the "cleaning out of the Bolsheviks", i.e. the bloody repression of insurgent workers and the liquidation of the revolutionaries. This is what they did in mid-January, following a provocation which pushed the workers of Berlin into a premature insurrection. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht (accused of being counter-revolutionaries because they were opposed in advance to the Constituent Assembly), were murdered, along with hundreds of workers, on 15th January. On 19th January the anticipated elections to the Constituent Assembly were held. This was the triumph of universal suffrage...against the working class. 

Freedom of the press

With regard to freedom of the press, in most European countries it was gradually won by the working class newspapers by the end of the 19th century. In Germany for example, the anti-Socialist laws which hindered the social democratic press (it had to be published in Switzerland) were lifted in 1890. However, although the workers' movement could express itself with almost complete freedom by the eve of the First World War, these gains were abolished overnight as soon as the war broke out. The only position that could be freely expressed in the papers was the one supporting national unity and the war effort. In the countries which participated in the war, revolutionaries had to publish and distribute their press illegally and clandestinely, as in Czarist Russia. This was true to such a point that Russia, after the February 1917 revolution, suddenly became "the freest country in the world". This sudden abolition of press freedom for the workers' movement, this overnight cancelling out of the gains of decades of struggle, undertaken not by the most archaic sectors of the ruling class but by the most "advanced" bourgeoisies, was one of the signs that a new period had begun, one in which there could no longer be the slightest common interest between the proletariat and any sector of the bourgeoisie. What was revealed by this assault on the workers' organisations' freedom of expression was not the great strength of the bourgeoisie but a great weakness, a weakness springing from the fact that the bourgeoisie's rule over society no longer corresponded to humanity's historic needs but was now the open and definitive antithesis of these needs.

Of course, after the First World War, freedom of the press was re-established for the former workers' organisations in the advanced countries.  But this freedom of the press was no longer the result of struggles of the working class coinciding with the interests of the most dynamic sectors of the bourgeoisie, as had been the case during the course of the 19th century. On the contrary, it corresponded to the fact that the bourgeoisie had managed to gain the upper hand over the proletariat during the revolutionary wave of 1917-23. And one of the major elements in the victory of the bourgeoisie had been its ability to take over the old organisations of the workers' movement, the Socialist parties and the trade unions. These organisations obviously continued to present themselves as defenders of the working class and used an "anti-capitalist" language which obliged the ruling class to organise the freedom of the press in order to create the appearance of a "democratic debate". We should also remember that in the wake of the Russian revolution, the bourgeoisie set up a cordon sanitaire around it in the name of democracy, accusing it of killing freedom. However, it soon became clear that this love for democratic freedoms could easily be set aside even by the bourgeoisie's most modern factions and not just by its most archaic ones. This is what happened with the rise of fascism in the early 1920s in Italy and at the beginning of the 1930s in Germany. Contrary to the view of the Communist International, which was criticised by the Italian communist left, fascism in no way represented a kind of "feudal  reaction" (even if it was supported by certain aristocrats who were all for law and order).  On the contrary, it was a political orientation supported by the most modern sectors of the bourgeoisie, who saw it as a means for advancing the country's imperialist interests.  This can be seen very clearly in the case of Germany where Hitler, even before he came to power, received massive support from the dominant and most modern sectors of industry, particular the steel industry (Krupp, Thyssen) and the chemical industry (BASF).

Freedom of association

Concerning the question of "freedom of association", it is obviously connected to the question of freedom of the press and universal suffrage. In most of the advanced countries, the workers' organisations could meet where they liked. But again we have to point out that this "freedom" was the other side of the coin to the integration of the former workers' parties into the state apparatus.[2] Furthermore, after the First World War, now that these parties had shown how effective they could be in dealing with the working class, the bourgeoisie showed them much more confidence and put them in power in several European countries during the 1930s, as part of the policy of the "Popular Fronts".  It turned not only to the Socialist parties but also to the "Communist" parties who had in their turn betrayed the proletariat. The latter indeed played the role of spearheads of the counter-revolution, especially in Spain where they distinguished themselves in the murder of the most militant workers. And in a number of other European countries they served as the recruiting sergeants for the Second World War and the main protagonists for the "Resistance", particularly in France and Italy. We should also note that the defence of internationalist and revolutionary ideas had become particularly difficult during this period. Thus Trotsky was denied political asylum in most countries of the world (which had become a "planet without visa" as he put it in his autobiography) and was along with his comrades subjected to permanent police surveillance and persecution. The difficulties facing revolutionaries were even greater at the end of the Second World War, when those who had remained loyal to internationalist principles were denounced - above all by the Stalinists - as "collaborators", persecuted and in some cases (such as Italy) murdered.

Again in relation to freedom of association, we should make a special mention of the trade unions. After the First World

War they also benefited from a good deal of solicitude on the part of the bourgeoisie. During the 1930s, they took part in the sabotage of struggles and above all in channelling workers' discontent towards support for the bourgeois parties who were leading the way in the preparations for imperialist war (support for Roosevelt in the USA, in Europe support for the Popular Fronts that were preparing to provide cannon-fodder in the name of anti-fascism). We should also note that it was not only the democratic sectors of the bourgeoisie that drew strength from the unions. Fascism also appealed to them once it had understood the need to keep control over the working class at the "rank and file" level. Obviously, in the fascist regimes, as in the Stalinist regimes, the unions' role as state organs and auxiliaries to the police was much clearer than in the democratic regimes. But even in the latter, in the aftermath of the Second World War, the unions overtly presented themselves as defenders of the national economy and played the role of police in the factories in order to incite the workers to make sacrifices in the name of reconstruction.

The "right" to participate in elections, which workers had fought for in the 19th century, became in the course of the 20th century an "electoral duty" orchestrated by vast media campaigns by the bourgeoisie (in some case, like Belgium, the vote has even become compulsory). In the same way, the "right" to belong to a union that workers once fought for became the obligation to join a union (in those sectors which practised the "closed-shop" system), or to go through the union to raise demands or go on strike.

National demands

One of the great strengths of the bourgeoisie in the 20th century, as shown during the First World War, was its ability to take the "democratic rights", which the working class had fought for so bitterly in the previous century, often at the cost of its own blood, and turn them against the class.

And this applies particularly to the "democratic demand" for national self-determination or the rights of oppressed national minorities. We saw earlier that this demand in itself was not at all proletarian, but could rightly be supported in specific cases by the working class and its vanguard. In contrast to what happened to the trade unions, "national" demands didn't acquire a bourgeois character when capitalism entered its phase of decadence, since they had been bourgeois from the start. But because the bourgeoisie had ceased to be a revolutionary or even a progressive class, these demands became totally reactionary and counter-revolutionary, a real poison for the proletariat.

There are plenty of examples. Thus, one of the main themes invoked by the European bourgeoisie to justify imperialist war in 1914 was the defence of oppressed nationalities. And since the war was fought between empires which inevitably oppressed various peoples, there was no lack of arguments: Alsace and Lorraine, against the wishes of its population, under the heel of the German Empire; southern Slavs dominated by the Austrian Empire; peoples of the Balkans oppressed by the Ottoman empire; Finland and the Baltic countries (without counting the dozens of nationalities in the Caucasus and central Asia) trapped in the "prison-house of nations" (as the Czarist Empire was called), etc. To this list of peoples oppressed by the main protagonists of the world war, we can obviously add the multitude of colonial populations in Africa, Asia and Oceania.

Similarly, we have already seen in our previous letter how the independence of Poland was to be a decisive weapon against the world revolution at the end of the First World War. We can add that the slogan "the right of peoples to self-determination" had no better defender at this time than the American president Woodrow Wilson. If the bourgeoisie that was about to take the leading role in the world showed such concern for oppressed peoples, it obviously wasn't out of "humanism" (whatever Wilson's personal feelings may have been) but because it had its own interests in mind. And that's not hard to understand: the majority of the world was still under the domination of the European powers who had won the war (or who had kept out of it, like Holland, Spain and Portugal), and the decolonisation of these areas would leave them open to a take-over by American imperialism (through less costly means than direct colonial administration), which was singularly lacking in colonies of its own.

One last word on this subject: although in the 19th century national emancipation had been associated with democratic demands against the feudal empires, the European nations who won their "independence" at the end of the First World War were for the most part led by fascist-type dictatorships. This was notably the case in Poland (with the Pilsudski regime) but also in the three Baltic countries and Hungary.

The Second World War, and the process which led up to it, also saw the extensive use of national demands. For example, it was in the name of the rights of the German minority in the Sudetenland that the Nazi regime took over part of Czechoslovakia in 1938 (the Munich accords). Similarly, it was in the name of Croatian independence that the Nazi armies invaded Yugoslavia in 1941, an operation supported by Hungary which came to the rescue of the "national rights" of the Hungarian minority of Voivodina.

In fact, what has happened all over the world since the First World War has totally confirmed the analysis originated by Rosa Luxemburg at the end of the 19th century: the demand for national independence has ceased to have the progressive role that it could once play in certain cases. Not only has it become a demand that is particularly harmful to the working class, but it is easily integrated into the imperialist designs of the different states and has served as a flag for the most reactionary and xenophobic bourgeois cliques.

[1]. SPD leaflet - see our series of articles on the German revolution in International Review n° 82.

[2]. In one of your messages you write that "the Canadian-English workers' movement has already raised the banner of Canadian unity during the general strike of 1972 in Quebec. The National Democratic Party and the Canadian Congress of Labour denounced this strike as ‘separatist' and ‘undermining Canadian unity'". In fact it's not the "Canadian-English workers' movement" which adopted this attitude but bourgeois parties with a workerist language and trade unions in the service of capital.