Elections and Democracy: The future of humanity will not be decided through the ballot box

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According to a substantial number of politicians and media outlets, one of the most positive outcomes of the recent British election was the fact that Labour’s surprising revival was largely based on a kind of upsurge of young people, breaking with habits of apathy or cynicism towards “politics” and seeing the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn as offering a real alternative, hope for a more equal and fairer society.

As revolutionaries, we beg to differ. The engagement of discontented youth with bourgeois electoral politics is founded on the recuperation of real discontent, on diverting it towards false solutions that lie inside the horizon of capitalist society. The discontent is the positive element, its diversion is the negative. We have seen a similar process in Spain and Greece, where massive movements of a new generation of proletarians, organised in street assemblies, were deflected onto the electoral terrain by new left-wing parties like Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, who promise to combine the social struggle on the street with the struggle for power in parliament, when the two paths head in different and opposed directions. Neither is this a new trick played by the left wing of capital. In the German revolution of 1918 the workers and soldiers organised in councils were cajoled by the Social Democratic Party into subordinating the councils to the new “democratic” parliamentary regime – a profound error which could only mean the death of the councils.    

But surely we should vote for the lesser evil?

The left and the extreme left are differentiated from the right and the extreme right particularly by their language, which seems to be much more humane. Solidarity, welcoming and sharing are among the values that are attributed to them. This image is all the more tenacious since it is anchored in the memories of the glorious past of these parties. In France, for example, the figure of Jean Jaures, murdered for his opposition to the 1914-18 war, still draws a great deal of sympathy today. So, despite the experience of the left in power which everywhere has been responsible for imposing austerity and reduction in workers’ living standards, workers in their millions (in work, unemployed, pensioners, students and precarious workers) regularly go to vote, without much enthusiasm, without believing their programmes, simply to prevent something worse, the arrogant, and often sexist and racist, right, and hateful extreme right. This is what lies behind the idea of tactical voting to “keep the Tories out”. It also lies behind the way austerity measures by the Blair government were consistently described as “Tory policies” when they were patently the policies and actions of the Labour Party in office. Similarly, in France the wish for “anyone but Sarkozy” gave socialist Francois Hollande his victory in 2007, just as many former supporters of the left voted for Macron to keep out Le Pen . However, this illusion of preventing something worse cannot stand up to historical facts. To take a few examples: not only did the Labour home secretary in the Blair government, Jack Straw, play the immigration card, talking of “bogus” asylum seekers among other insults, but the supposedly dangerous radical Jeremy Corbyn said he wants immigration “... based on the needs of our society[1], meaning based on the needs of British national capital. Obama may not have campaigned on deporting illegal immigrants the way Trump did, but he still became known as “deporter-in-chief” because of the millions expelled under his presidency. Although portrayed as a lesser evil, Obama has never claimed to be a socialist. Bernie Sanders has, and he voted against the immigration reform bill in 2007, supporting the AFL-CIO unions in claiming this was to prevent American workers having their wages undercut. Not a million miles from Trump’s reasoning.  The French politician who stated “I think there are too many arrivals, immigration that should not be there... We teach them to speak French and then another group arrives and we have to start over again. This never stops... So, there comes a time when it has to stop” was not Le Pen but Hollande![2] And always actions follow the words: deportations, frontiers reinforced (Corbyn wants 500 more immigration officers), no matter how tragic it is for the refugees, including unaccompanied children as in the Jungle at Calais. All these parties and politicians have supported the very imperialist policies that cause the wars and instability – in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere – that only increase the number of refugees risking their lives to reach relative safety.[3]

Voting to defend democracy?

From the extreme right to the extreme left, for a century, different governments all over the world have many times demonstrated the inhumanity of their policies. Yet there is still an idea fixed in the body and mind of each ‘citizen’ that to vote is to defend democracy and keep it alive. Your vote is your voice. If you don’t vote, what right do you have to complain about what the government does? This message is omnipresent. But what is the reality of the power of this little bit of ballot paper?

Democracy is a mystification for it presupposes humanity is unified, something which has never been the case, whether in the last 5,000 years of class society or before that when humanity was divided into tribes and clans. Throughout the history of class society social cohesion has been maintained by the power of the ruling class and its state machine, to the detriment of the powerless mass of the exploited and oppressed. In one of its first expressions, state power took the sophisticated form of democracy, as in ancient Greece, where the word originated. The Athenian city state was able to adopt this form of government thanks to the growth in wealth brought by a flow of slaves, linked to the pillage of its neighbours. The demos, that is to say the people, of Greek democracy was not the whole population, but only the citizens in the polis. The mass of slaves, the majority of society, as well as women and foreigners, had no rights of citizenship. Democracy in ancient Greece was an arm of the state for the benefit of the slave owners.

Bourgeois democracy is, in essence, no different. The bourgeois parliamentary regimes of the 19th Century openly excluded the working class from the right to vote through the rules of eligibility (it was necessary to own property to be able to vote). And when universal suffrage was granted to society as a whole, the bourgeoisie still had many means to exclude the working class from its political affairs: the many links which united the political parties to the bourgeoisie and to the state; the system of direct suffrage which atomises the classes into isolated and supposedly equal individuals; the control of the media, and so the electoral campaigns, through the state, etc. This is why no election organised by a democratic state has ever given a majority to parties of the exploited class. Quite the contrary! During the Paris Commune, for example, the National Assembly elected in 1871 was nicknamed “la Chambre introuvable” (the unobtainable Chamber), in reference to the Royalist Chamber of 1815, so the bourgeoisie couldn’t dream of a better result for its interests, even when Paris and part of France was caught up in a revolutionary tidal wave.

Democracy, in whichever historic period it has arisen, has always been a method of government ensuring the violent rule of the minority over the majority, and not the reverse as we are led to believe. It has never been, and never could be, a means of self-regulation and control by society as a whole. Democracy is the most sophisticated system of political organisation allowing one class to rule society:

  • It is the most effective and durable way to allow the resolution of differences within the ruling class and to attenuate their power struggles.
  • It gives the exploited masses the illusion that the exploiters and the state rule in the interests of the whole population.
  • It also gives the exploited the illusion that they can, at least theoretically, use the existing state as the means to realise their interests, without needing to overthrow it.
  • Lastly, concerning the future, faced with the threat of the revolutionary proletariat, democracy responds to the bourgeoisie’s need to propose an ideal and mythical future which does not need the overthrow of the established order. If “true” democracy has never existed at all, the bourgeoisie tell us, this is because Man – this abstract philosophical conception, outside of history – has not tried hard enough to put it into practice.

It is no accident that the great democracies are the oldest capitalist countries, where both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat have a long experience of struggles. The stronger the working class, the more its consciousness and its organisation have developed, the more the bourgeoisie needs its most effective political weapon. Hitler was able to come to power democratically and supported by all the large German industrialists, in the elections of 1933, precisely because the working class had already been crushed physically and ideologically by German Social Democracy during the revolutionary wave of 1918-1919. It was not the abandonment of the ballot boxes by the ‘citizens’ which led Nazism to power, but the bloody defeat of the working class, militarily and politically vanquished by the very democratic Social Democracy!

The bourgeoisie makes believe that the most important battle has always been “democracy against dictatorship”. So, the main justification for Allied imperialism during the Second World War against fascism was the struggle for democracy against dictatorship. Millions of human beings were massacred in the name of democracy. After 1945, democracy was the main theme mobilising for the Cold War against the Stalinist imperialist bloc by the bloc led by the United States. Whole countries have been ravaged in the name of the struggle against totalitarianism. After1989, the collapse of the USSR bloc marked the start of a whole series of colossal military adventures by the United States to maintain its world hegemony, under the banner of democracy and human rights, against the mad dictators (Gulf war, intervention in Yugoslavia) or against evil terrorists (war in Afghanistan). So, during the imperialist conflicts which have ravaged the planet for more than a century, the strength of the “liberal democracies” has always been to persuade the proletarians used as cannon fodder that they were fighting for democracy, and not defending the interests of a capitalist faction. And these same democracies have shamelessly, cynically used or even put in place this or that dictator when it corresponded to their strategic interests. There is no lack of examples: the USA in Latin America, France in the majority of its African ex-colonies, the UK in ex-colonies when needed. This eternal battle of democracy against dictatorship is an ideological myth. Capitalism as a whole, whatever its mask and political organisation, is a dictatorship, a system of a privileged exploiting minority crushing the majority of humanity.

Voting in the name of past struggles?

There could be one remaining reason, despite everything, to go and vote: universal suffrage was won with great and often bloody struggles of the working class in the 19th Century: with the Chartist movement in Britain, in Germany between 1848-49, in Belgium with the immense strikes of 1893, 1902 and 1913... In France, it was only after the Paris Commune was drowned in blood that workers definitively obtained universal suffrage. This demand is even found in the Communist Manifesto written in 1848 by Marx and Engels. But this poses a question: why does this same bourgeoisie which, in the previous century violently repressed workers who demanded universal suffrage, make such efforts today for the maximum number of them to vote? Why the publicity paid for by the state hammering out the message: “Vote, vote, vote!” on all the TV channels, in the press and in schoolbooks? Why in all these media are the “abstentionists” condemned as irresponsible citizens putting our democracy in danger? Why this flagrant difference between the 19th Century and the 20th and 21st Centuries?

To answer this question it is necessary to distinguish two epochs of capitalism: ascendance and decadence. In the 19th Century capitalism was at its height. Capitalist production developed by giant steps. In this period of prosperity the bourgeoisie achieved it political domination and eliminated the power of the old ruling class: the nobility. Universal suffrage and parliament were one of the most important means in the struggle of the radical fraction of the bourgeoisie against the nobility and against its own retrograde fractions. As such the democratic bourgeoisie and its liberal ideology represented a prodigious advance historically in relation to the religious obscurantism of feudal society. The struggle of the proletariat in this period was directly conditioned by this situation of capitalism. In the absence of capitalism’s historic crisis, the socialist revolution was not yet on the agenda. For the proletariat it was a question of strengthening its unity and its consciousness in fighting for lasting reforms, to try to permanently ameliorate its living conditions. The unions and the parliamentary parties allowed it to regroup independently of the bourgeois and democratic parties and to put pressure on the existing order, and even when needed to make tactical alliances with the radical fractions of the bourgeoisie; these were the means it gave itself to obtain reforms. Parliament was the place where the different fractions of the bourgeoisie united or confronted each other to govern society. The proletariat had to participate in this arena, to try to obtain laws and decisions that corresponded to the defence of its interests.

With the 20th Century capitalism entered a new phase, that of its historic decline. The division of the world between the great powers was completed. Each one of them could only appropriate new markets to the detriment of the others. As the Communist International said, the agony of capitalism opened “the epoch of wars and revolutions”. On the one hand the First World War broke out. On the other, in Russia (1905 and 1917), in Germany (1918-23), in Hungary (1919) and in Italy (1920), the proletariat shook the old world with an international revolutionary wave. To face up to these growing difficulties capital was constrained to constantly reinforce the power of its state. More and more the state tended to take control of the whole of social life, in the first place in the economic domain. This evolution in the role of the state was accompanied by a weakening in the role of the legislature in favour of the executive. More concretely, as the second congress of the Communist International said: “The focal point of political life has shifted fully and finally beyond the boundaries of parliament”. Today, in Britain as elsewhere, parliament has become more of a rubber stamp for legislation, almost all of which is proposed by the government. In France it is evident that the National Assembly no longer has any power: 80% of the laws it votes are presented by the government; once voted this law must be put into effect by the President of the Republic and, to take effect, must wait for the signing of the presidential decree. Besides, the President can bypass parliament to legislate by recourse to edict or even, in France, with the aid of Article 16 of the constitution which gives him full powers. In Britain the prime minister has taken on the powers of ‘Royal Prerogative’ in matters such as foreign affairs, defence and security. This insignificant role for parliament is expressed in a ridiculous participation by MPs in its sessions: most of the time there are very few who follow the debates, when in the 19th Century, it was the place for fierce and impassioned debates and sometimes brilliant discourse, like those of Jean Jaures in France or Karl Liebknecht in Germany.

At the same time as parliament’s effective political function diminished, it mystificatory function grew and the bourgeoisie was not mistaken when, in 1917 in Russia and in 1919 in Germany, it brandished the constituent assembly against the proletarian revolution and its workers’ councils. From then on, parliamentary democracy would be the best means to tame the proletariat.

The future of humanity will be decided through the class struggle

The bourgeoisie does not exercise power as a whole but by delegating it to a minority fraction of itself, regrouped in political parties. This is equally true in democracies (competition between several parties) as in totalitarian fascist or Stalinist (one party) states. This power held by a minority of political specialists does not only reflect the minority position of the bourgeoisie within society; it is also necessary to preserve the general interests of the national capital faced with the divergent and competing interests of the different fractions of this bourgeoisie. This mode of power by delegation is thus inherent in bourgeois society; it is reflected in each of its institutions and above all in universal suffrage. The latter is even the privileged means by which ‘the population’, in fact the bourgeoisie, ‘entrusts’ power to one or several political parties. For the revolutionary action of the proletariat it is the whole of the class that acts to take power, and not the delegation of a minority. This is the condition for the success of all proletarian movements. So universal suffrage cannot, in any shape or form, provide the framework for the revolutionary mobilisation of the proletariat against the existing order.

Far from encouraging the initiative and self-organisation of the masses, it tends on the contrary to maintain their illusions and their passivity. May 1968, the largest strike since the Second World War, was followed a month later by the greatest ever electoral victory for the right in France. The reason for this discrepancy resides in the fact that the election of a deputy exists in a totally different sphere from that of the class struggle. The latter is a collective action of solidarity, where the worker is alongside other workers, where the hesitations of one are swept up by the resolution of the others, where the interests in question are not particular, but those of a class. In contrast, the vote calls on a totally abstract notion, quite outside of the reality of a permanent relation of force between two social classes with diametrically opposed interests: the notion of the “citizen”, who finds himself alone in the voting booth faced with a choice for something outside his daily life. It is the ideal terrain for the bourgeoisie, where the worker’s militancy has no possibility to really show itself. It is no accident that the bourgeoisie makes such efforts to get us to vote. The electoral results are precisely the terrain where the combativity of the mass of workers cannot be expressed at all. On the contrary, in Britain the question of Brexit, or in France the proposition by certain candidates of a VI Republic and a new Constitution, encourage the individual-citizen to limit their reasoning to the narrow framework of national frontiers and the mortifying social relations of capitalist competition and exploitation.

The response to the contradictions of this system and to the growing suffering that it engenders can only come through the international dimension of the proletarian struggle and its global solidarity. In order to liberate society form the destructive consequences of capitalist production, communism must abolish classes and private property, which means the withering away of the state and of democracy: “... it is constantly forgotten that the abolition of the state means also the abolition of democracy; that the withering away of the state means the withering away of democracy.

At first sight this assertion seems exceedingly strange and incomprehensible; indeed, someone may even begin to fear that we are expecting the advent of an order of society in which the principle of the subordination of the minority to the majority will not be observed for democracy means the recognition of just this principle.

No, democracy is not identical with the subordination of the minority to the majority. Democracy is a state which recognises the subordination of the minority to the majority, ie, an organisation for the systematic use of violence by one class against the other, by one section of the population against another.

We set ourselves the ultimate aim of abolishing the state, ie, all organised and systematic violence, all use of violence against man in general. We do not expect the advent of an order of society in which the principle of the subordination of the minority to the majority will not be observed. But in striving for socialism we are convinced that it will develop into communism and, hence, that the need for violence against people in general, for the subordination of one man to another, and of one section of the population to another, will vanish altogether since people will become accustomed  to observing the elementary conditions of social life without violence and without subordination.” (Lenin, State and Revolution). Democracy will no longer have any meaning in a communist society which will replace the government of men and capitalist management with “the administration of things”, in a world which, contrary to capitalism, draws its strength from the diversity of needs and the real capacities of the associated individuals. 


Adapted from an article on our French web page, https://fr.internationalism.org/revolution-internationale/201703/9528/el...

[2] Said to journalists Davet and Lhomme, 23 July 2014

[3] See https://en.internationalism.org/icconline/201706/14333/hard-times-bring-increased-illusions-labour-party for examples of how the Labour Party under Corbyn’s leadership is no exception to this.


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Democratic Illusions