Socialist Worker

Can we win real power?

With disenchantment with parliamentary democracy at an all time high, Dave Hayes discusses what real democracy would look like – and how we can win it

Issue No. 2346

A mass meeting of Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Limited (VSEL) workers votes to continue a strike in 1988

A mass meeting of Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Limited (VSEL) workers votes to continue a strike in 1988 (Pic: Socialist Worker archive)


The majority of people in Britain are against the savage cuts being imposed on the working class.

Yet politicians from the three main parties, who claim to represent ordinary people, all argue that cuts are necessary.

This is not surprising. Elected representatives often ignore those who voted them in or doggedly pursue policies in the face of widespread opposition.

But politicians don’t behave this way simply because they are vile people.

They do so because of the kind of democracy that we have under capitalism.

A common understanding of democracy is one where people exercise power by choosing their representatives in free elections.

Politicians and pundits usually take this to mean parliamentary democracy.

Workers have rightly fought to extend the meaning of democracy time and time again across the world.

The defence and extension of our rights are an integral part of working class struggles.

But in parliamentary democracy the involvement of ordinary people is limited to a vote, at long intervals, for candidates who often sound very similar to each other.

Once elected, representatives can throw out policies they stood for at election time.

Even when a politician does attempt to stand up for those who elected them, they soon find that real power doesn’t lie with elected representatives—it lies with the bosses and the rich.

The democratically elected parliament doesn’t control the economy, for example. It remains in the hands of ­unelected bosses.

In areas that really matter—industry, finance, the civil service, the law, the police force, and the media, the rich and powerful are not held to account.

Corruption and cover up is endemic. This is a very narrow system of democracy. That’s why, although the battle to win the vote unleashed forces that threatened the ruling class, universal suffrage itself does not.

The revolutionary Frederick Engels described how the state is a vehicle that helps the most powerful and dominant class in society control everyone else.

Low turnouts in recent parliamentary by-elections ­highlight the strong sense of disenchantment many feel at the way the system ignores them.

History shows that we can win more than this limited democracy. Highpoints of working class struggle have given us a glimpse of what is possible.


The Paris Commune was one of the greatest and most inspiring episodes in the history of the working class. It also showed how the struggle for workers’ rights is bound together with the fight for real democracy.

Set up in 1871, it was made up of municipal councillors chosen by universal male suffrage. This was a massive advance for the time though women were still excluded. The councillors could be recalled and replaced at any time. Most were working people, or the acknowledged representatives of working people.

The police had been the instrument of government until the Commune was set up.

Then they were stripped of their political attributes and turned into an instrument of the Commune. They could also be recalled at any time.

The judicial functionaries lost their sham independence and were to be elected, responsible and recallable at all times.

All members of the Commune received workers’ wages and all privileges for state functionaries were abolished.

Engels was quite emphatic on the need to have representatives that ordinary people could have real control over.

He said, “The working class must safeguard itself against its own deputies and officials, by declaring them all, without exception, subject to recall at any moment”.

During the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 workers’ councils, or soviets, emerged.

These are another example of working class self-organisation. The revolutions brought democracy into all areas of life. Special pay and statuses of all representatives, from judges to militia officers, was removed.

All could be recalled instantly if they did not carry out the will of the majority who voted for them. The soviets were the direct voice of the workers themselves. This was the key to their success.

In the soviets ordinary people debated and argued about the way forward. Different opinions were aired. Decisions would be taken and the minority would respect the view of the majority.

The Russian revolutionaries led by Lenin and the Bolsheviks won a majority in the soviets in early October 1917.

By then, they made up

51 percent of delegates elected to the workers’ council, reflecting the changing mood within the class.

It was at this point that Lenin argued for an immediate insurrection, to seize power. Workers, sailors and soldiers, led by the Bolsheviks, set out to create a truly democratic state.

In the days that followed, the new worker’s republic adopted a number of statutes that laid the foundation of a new society.

Within a week the soviet government gave oppressed nations freedom and declared the “equality and sovereignty of the peoples of Russia”.


It pulled Russia out of the First World War and protected religious freedoms.

Women’s liberation was a priority. The government introduced state-supported

childcare and full abortion rights.

It gave women access to a wide range of trades and professions, and a large degree of economic equality with their male co-workers.

In short, the revolution gave women a status in some ways far in advance of capitalist societies today.

The Russian revolution also proved something else—that the mass of working class people will only believe that they have the ability and power to run society when they begin to change things through their own struggles.

Direct involvement, self?activity and democratic decision-making is at the heart of any new society organised by working people.

But the daily grind of work or surviving on benefits can discourage such struggle. It can stop workers from seeing their collective power.

In the absence of resistance, even the best militants can conclude that voting once every five years is the only way to win change, even if that change is quite limited.

Revolutionaries have to break the idea that ordinary people should look to others to act on their behalf. We insist that workers can only achieve real liberation by emancipating themselves.

Workers need to be directly involved in decision-making, arguing, debating, and persuading others about how best to challenge the boss class.

This vision of a new way of organising society is embryonic within working class life today, no matter how limited. An alternative form of democracy exists in embryo in every union.

Most workers’ representatives are subject to election and re-election annually. They are also subject to the democratic will of the majority.

If they break a majority decision they face the wrath of other workers. Direct involvement of workers is the heart of any mass meeting.

They are essential for ­overcoming the counter-arguments of the bosses, their friends in the media and some trade union bureaucrats.

Once a vote is taken, the majority of workers expect the minority to respect it. But that doesn’t mean debate ends.

Say a group of workers vote for strikes and a minority doesn’t support it. The majority will continue to try and persuade those hesitant about striking that collective action and unity is necessary.

But if some workers are intent on breaking the democratic will of the majority, then a picket line will be set up.

Picket lines, including mass pickets, are the physical embodiment of the majority enforcing its democratic will on the minority.

All forms of democracy under capitalism mitigate against real democracy because electors vote as atomised individuals.

Those they elect are ­elevated to an economic and social standing far above the average working class voter.

Parliamentary democracy doesn’t deliver for workers and that’s why many people often don’t seem very interested in it.

But when workers take to the stage of history, this can change quickly.

Real democracy, by reflecting the will of ordinary workers, would see representatives not only deciding on policies but also carrying them out.

And workers could immediately replace those who failed to represent them.

This is what real democracy looks like. And the idea is as relevant today as it was when put into practice by the Paris Commune over 140 years ago.

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Thu 28 Mar 2013, 13:04 GMT
Issue No. 2346
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