By Yuri Prasad
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2230

Why parliamentary democracy always fails

This article is over 13 years, 6 months old
Democracy is one of the most abused words in the English language.
Issue 2230

Democracy is one of the most abused words in the English language.

MPs, many of who lied to get elected, are content to lecture student protesters on the need to respect parliament. Meanwhile, warmongering leaders defy the will of the people to send armies of occupation to countries they want to control.

Parliamentary democracy, which we are told is the highest form of popular representation, is based on the lie that every voter in society is equal—they are not.

It’s true that the boss of a big corporation casts only one vote just like the rest of us.

But they can sack thousands with a click of their mouse, or slash pay with a word—without being held accountable.

The bankers and moneymen cannot simply buy more votes.

But by threatening to pull their wealth out of countries they pressurise governments into public spending cuts that affect the lives of millions of people across the world.

Also in the ranks of these unelected men, and occasionally women who run society, are those who control the army, the police, the media and security services.

Each of them get only one vote, yet each is vastly more powerful than any “ordinary citizen”—and, in some cases, far more than any elected government.

The socialist objection to parliamentary democracy is not that we are in favour of totalitarian dictatorship, or that we think most people are too stupid to have a say.

Nor do we treat lightly the limited rights that working people have won through struggle.

It is that under capitalism, democracy is simply not democratic enough.

This was the basic point made by the revolutionary Karl Marx when he wrote about the Paris Commune of 1871.

Then the workers rose up to take control of their own affairs, and created new institutions to represent them.

Marx made three basic points about the Commune that he said could form the basis of a new, more radical democracy.

First, all working men were entitled to elect representatives to the Commune.


This was decades before men who didn’t own some property gained the right to vote in parliamentary elections in other countries.

Second, representatives were paid the same wages as those who elected them.

And, third, the Commune formed the executive as well as the legislative power.

Put simply, that meant it passed the laws but also carried them out.

This made it possible for the new power to turn its promises into political action, and challenge the vested interests of the factory owners and financiers.

The ruling class would not tolerate such a challenge. After just 90 days they moved to smash the radical democracy of the Commune with their armies and hired thugs.

Unfortunately, the revolutionary forces had failed to sufficiently organise their new strength to fight off the challenge.

For Marx, the crucial lesson was that the capitalist class would only allow democracy insofar as it did not stand in their way.

This tiny minority demands the right to control all the wealth—and to dictate what rights the rest of us have.

It follows that in order to bring about a truly democratic society, we must challenge the power and authority of this class.

Similar alternatives to parliament emerged time and again in the century that followed.

They appeared in Russia in 1905 and again in 1917, in Germany and Hungary in 1919, in Spain in 1936, in Hungary in 1956, in Portugal in 1974 and Iran in 1979.

It is no accident that each emerged at times of revolution.

Revolutions cannot simply be brought about through the bravery of small bands of revolutionaries.

They occur when the day-to-day struggles of working people clash with a capitalist class that is determined to assert its authority.

Every protest, strike and riot today contains the seed of a future revolution within it.

Socialists, who in each struggle raise the question of what a genuine democracy would look like, can prepare the ground for the seed to grow.

Read Karl Marx’s writing on the Paris Commune in his book The Civil War in France, available online at


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