Socialist Worker

A tradition of true democracy

by John Charlton
Issue No. 1843

MANY YEARS ago when the benefits of parliamentary democracy were shared by very few of the world's population, the Russian revolutionary Lenin pointed to a fundamental problem. He argued that 'hidden beneath the polished exterior of modern democracy are deceit, violence, corruption, mendacity, hypocrisy and oppression of the poor'. Tony Blair's New Labour has managed to illustrate each one of them in six short years. One measure of the outcome is the declining number of people who vote in elections.

It is increasingly obvious that parliamentary power is a fig leaf covering the real power of national and global financial and business institutions. The slogan 'No war for oil' has focused attention on this truth. An alternative, popular democracy has to be one where economic power is subject to political power not the other way round.

Working class delegates to the Chartist National Convention of 1839 were among the first to argue for this. However it was the workers of Paris in 1871 who first created a democratic system based on this principle. Facing an army of occupation and a hostile French government the working people of the city built the Commune.

As Engels put it, 'In the first place, it filled all posts - administrative, judicial and educational - by election on the basis of universal suffrage of all concerned, subject to the right of recall at any time by those same electors. 'In the second place, all officials, high or low, were paid only the wages received by other workers.' Limited to Paris, the Commune was destroyed. But violence could not destroy the idea.

The soviets, or workers' councils, born in Russia in the early years of the last century were something similar to the Paris Commune. They were created in the revolution of 1905 to challenge the authority of the Tsarist system. They consisted of delegates from workplaces and communities.

In the revolution of 1917 the soviets became the workers' parliament. It was from their ranks that the country's administration was drawn - planning the provision of food, housing, education, transport and defence. Delegates were paid the average working wage and subject to recall.

The tragedy of the soviets was that they were created in the appalling circumstances of war and civil war, dislocation, isolation and hardship. They provided an example of a different way to arrange the affairs of a society based on equality, planning, and popular democratic control.

In Spain in 1936 workers sought similar solutions. Facing fascist invasion and a weak Republican government, workers across the country took control of the workshops, farms and local communities. Of Barcelona, George Orwell noted, 'Above all there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.'

In Hungary in 1956, in the face of a puppet government and Russian intervention, workers' councils sprung up over the country. The same impulses were felt in Portugal in 1974 and today in Argentina where local committees have been formed.

Different historical situations demand different solutions. Yet what is startling is the common thread which runs through them. Existing forms of government do not meet the needs of people. Masses of people throw off their passivity when they feel a real involvement in creating solutions to the problems of real life.


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Sat 22 Mar 2003, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1843
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