All the politicians, from Hague and Blair to the Socialist Alliance, all the papers from the Sun to the Socialist Worker, are telling us once again that it’s time to exercise our ‘democratic rights’, to take an interest in the ‘debates and issues’ raised by a general election.
There was a time, back in the 19th century, when workers fought for the right to vote. The first real workers’ political party, the Chartists, focussed its struggle in Britain around this demand. It was opposed by the bourgeoisie, which feared that universal suffrage would result in the overthrow of capitalism.
But by the time that capitalism really was under threat - from the proletarian revolutions of 1917-20 - the ruling class had realised that parliament and elections were the best possible antidote to the revolutionary movement of the working class - with its direct democracy in the form of the workers’ own mass organisations: the soviets or workers’ councils. In Germany in 1919, the Labour party of the day justified its brutal suppression of the revolutionary workers with the argument that the parliamentary National Assembly was ‘democratic’ and the workers’ councils were ‘undemocratic’. At that same point, the ruling class in Britain finally granted ‘universal suffrage’, not only to women over 30, but to the 40% of men who did not yet have the vote. In other words, the working class as a whole got the vote when parliament had become a dagger pointed at the revolution’s heart, a cover for repression and counter-revolution.
‘Democracy’ can only be a sham in a society where one class holds the monopoly of wealth and weapons, where the media and the means of communication are in the hands of the ruling class and its state. As for the working class, it cannot express itself through capitalist elections, which atomise it in the polling booths and drown it in a sea of amorphous ‘citizens’. All the parties that workers are called on to vote for in parliamentary elections share the same basic agenda - defence of the national economy, sacrifices for the exploited, the continuation of capitalism. And parliament itself is no more than a talking shop, a show of discussion in a system where the real decisions are taken elsewhere. The true face of bourgeois democracy is seen less in parliamentary debates than in the massive police operation this May Day, which was designed as a warning to anyone who even thinks of calling the capitalist system into question.
The proletariat has no interest in being sucked into the false debates and non-existent alternatives offered by capitalist elections. It does have an interest in fighting the attacks on its living standards which any party whose job is to ‘manage’ capitalism is forced to impose, whether it talks about ‘socialism’, the ‘free market’ or some ‘third way’ between them. The exploited class, principal victim of these attacks, does have an interest in rediscovering its class identity and reaffirming its historical alternative: the revolutionary destruction of the capitalist state, ‘democratic’ or otherwise, and the radical reorganisation of social life. WR