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What is real democracy?

This article is over 16 years, 5 months old
John Molyneux analyses the origins of the limited democracy we have today, and looks forward to a radically different society in which we all have power
Issue 2081

Democracy is one of the most abused words in the dictionary. Almost every reactionary or crooked politician you can think of – George Bush, Dick Cheney, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Silvio Berlusconi – has sworn by it.

Blatantly undemocratic regimes and parties call themselves democracies – Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak’s party is called the National Democratic Party; the Stalinist one-party states of Eastern Europe were called People’s Democracies. To cap it all, Nick Griffin, leader of the fascist BNP, said in Oxford last month, “Free speech and democracy are our absolute core values.”

At the same time, however, demo­cracy is invoked by people who cannot be dismissed as crooks and opportunists. Nelson Mandela proclaimed his willingness to die for democracy just before being jailed by apartheid South Africa. Similarly Martin Luther King lost his life in the US Deep South during a campaign that was first and foremost for democratic rights.

Karl Marx also was a committed democrat, before and after he became a communist, and so too were the Russian revolutionaries Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky – though you wouldn’t believe it from the way mainstream commentators discuss them.

Even more importantly, millions of ordinary people have fought and died for democracy. The tradition stretches from the Levellers in the English Civil War, through the sans culottes of the French Revolution, the Chartists, the Suffragettes, the anti-fascist fighters of the Spanish Civil War, the resistance fighters of occupied Europe in the Second World War to the Egyptian Kefaya activists, the Burmese monks and the Pakistani lawyers of today.


Yet it is also true that millions of people who live under what is generally thought to be democracy, in the US or Britain for example, are bitterly disillusioned with it. Swap the word “politics” for “democracy” and they will rush to express their contempt, saying that it doesn’t matter who gets in, “they” are all the same.

It is as if people deprived of democracy will lay down their lives for it, but once they have got it they rapidly become indifferent to it.

To solve this apparent conundrum it is necessary to view “democracy” historically – to understand that it was both a political ideal and a political system that developed in specific historical circumstances and which was always defined as much by what it was against as by what it was for.

The word “democracy” itself – literally meaning “people’s rule” – originated in ancient Greece, but modern democracy comes not from there but from the struggle against feudalism in Europe.

Before the emergence of capitalism, roughly between the 15th and 18th centuries, the prevailing order in Europe was the feudal system. This rested on a basic division in society between aristocrats (large hereditary landowners) and peasants (poor farmers).

These societies, which ranged from tiny principalities to huge ramshackle empires, were ruled by a variety of monarchs who frequently claimed that they ruled by divine right.

There was no democracy of any kind, and the mass of people had no political rights at all. Similar undemocratic systems existed in most of the rest of the world, in China and India, for example.

Gradually, however, a new class of people began to develop within the feudal order. These were mainly artisans in the towns who became traders, merchants, small manufacturers and entrepreneurs – often they were called “burghers” (townsmen), hence the later term “bourgeoisie” adopted by Marx. They were the forerunners of today’s huge capitalists and giant corporations.

Under feudalism the aristocracy denied these bourgeois political power, even though many of them became rich – some even richer than many lords.

Increasingly the bourgeoisie came to resent the arbitrary hereditary power of the aristocracy, which they believed to be holding back not only their own advancement but also society as a whole. Eventually the bourgeoisie was able to cast aside the aristocracy and assume its “rightful” place at the head of society.

Lower orders

This involved a series of uprisings, revolutions and wars such as the Dutch Revolt of 1556, the English Revolution or Civil War of 1642, the American War of Independence from 1775 and the French Revolution of 1789.

But merchants and manufacturers, or even lawyers and philosophers, cannot fight wars and revolutions by themselves.

To win power they had to mobilise “the people”, the lower orders of artisans and urban poor – forerunners of the modern working class – and peasants. In other cases the lower orders mobilised themselves and the bourgeoisie had to manoeuvre to place itself at their head. To do this they needed a political philosophy and programme that offered something to the masses.

The ideology and rhetoric of modern democracy was born out of these struggles – the rule of law, equal rights, freedom of speech and association, and representative and accountable government based on election not inheritance.

At first, however, it was an extremely restricted democracy. The bourgeoisie did not think, for example, that people of no property should have the vote in case they used it to abolish property.

Accountable government, yes, but accountable to them, not to the working masses. All men are born equal, yes, but this doesn’t include women, black slaves, “natives”, or factory workers.

The bourgeois were prepared to argue for their vision of a restricted democracy openly, as Oliver Cromwell’s supporters did in the English Revolution and the Tories did in the 1830s and 1840s.

But once the genie of democracy was out of the bottle it was not so easy to confine or control. As the working classes grew, especially as a result of the industrial revolution, so they seized on the idea of democracy and made it their own. The Chartists, the world’s first mass workers’ organisation, centred on the demand for “one man, one vote”.

Then towards the end of the 19th century, the British bourgeoisie, after making a number of concessions to the labour movement, made a remarkable discovery – that it is possible to grant workers the vote without them voting to get rid of the bourgeoisie. Indeed it was even possible to persuade some workers to vote for their capitalist bosses.

From this point onwards every political reactionary began proclaiming themselves true believers in democracy, something which continues to this day. At the same time they discreetly acknowledge that “occasionally” democracy has to be dispensed with.

What conclusions should we draw from this? That the whole idea of democracy was or is a mistake? Such a conclusion would be disastrous. The problem with today’s democracy, and with the dominant view of democracy in our society, is that it is far too limited.

The democracy we have been talking about, and which every mainstream politician and politics professor talks about, is political democracy. To make democracy truly relevant to the majority of working people what is needed is political democracy plus economic and social democracy.

The capitalist class can live with political democracy, with the election of parliaments and governments, because the decisive levers of power do not lie there. They exist first in the boardrooms of industry and the banks and second in the permanent institutions of the state, above all the armed forces.

The former it owns and controls directly, the latter is bound to it by a thousand economic, social and ideological ties and by these means it can turn parliament into a talking shop and bend governments to its will – as we have seen so often with Labour and other reformist governments in Britain and round the world.

This is why Marxists call this form of democracy bourgeois demo­cracy – democracy that is based on and enshrines the rule of the bourgeoisie.

Workers’ democracy

To move beyond bourgeois democracy to a system that is based on real power for the mass of people, it is necessary to extend it from the political sphere to the sphere of production and work, and then other areas of social life.

It means democracy in every factory, call centre, supermarket, school, university, hospital and post office. It means democracy in the armed forces, the police, the courts and the civil service. In short it means a workers’ democracy.

But none of that can be achieved without overturning capitalist property ownership, law and the state – in other words, a workers’ revolution that creates a new form of state that will enable the working class to run society is required.

And thanks to the experience of the Russian Revolution of 1917 – backed by other revolutionary experiences such as Germany in 1919, Hungary in 1956 and Iran in 1979 – we know that the core institution of such a state is the soviet or workers’ council. These are based on the election of recallable delegates from workplace meetings.

However, recognising the extremely restricted character of bourgeois democracy and understanding how this alienates and frustrates millions of working people does not mean it is not worth defending when it is under attack, or fighting for where it does not exist.

On the contrary, even a freedom of the press that allows the Sun to dominate the newspaper market also allows socialist papers to be published.

Even a parliament reduced to a talking shop can be a platform from which socialist ideas can be talked about.

Even an elected New Labour government is preferable to a dictatorship. Even the rule of law that defends the property of the rich offers some protection against the extremes of repression.

But it does mean that in the fight for democratic demands, whether here in Britain or in Egypt, Burma, or Pakistan, the working class should take the lead in the struggle and not be satisfied with just political, or bourgeois, democracy.

Instead it should continue and transform the “democratic” struggle into a social revolution that alone will make genuine democracy a reality for the immense majority of humanity.

John Molyneux is the author of numerous books and pamphlets, including What is the Real Marxist Tradition?, which is available in the theory section of the SWP’s website »


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