By Ian Birchall
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What would socialist democracy look like?

This article is over 14 years, 8 months old
Most politicians and journalists talk as though the only possible sort of democracy is parliament, so all we can do is patch up a decrepit system. The history of the socialist movement shows that there is a different tradition of democracy.
Issue 2153
Popular protest during the 1956 Hungarian revolution
Popular protest during the 1956 Hungarian revolution

Most politicians and journalists talk as though the only possible sort of democracy is parliament, so all we can do is patch up a decrepit system. The history of the socialist movement shows that there is a different tradition of democracy.

Parliaments were originally assemblies of property owners. Gradually, under pressure, they let the rest of us in.

Working class democracy was forged in struggle – it was based on the experience of oppressed people asserting their right to control a society that had failed them.

In France in 1870 the regime collapsed after a disastrous war fought on a fraudulent pretext. Previous governments had been based on corruption and abuse of power.

Sound familiar? The working people of Paris declared an independent state in the Spring of 1871–the Paris Commune.

They wanted the new government to be as different as possible from what they had suffered under. So they proclaimed two fundamental principles.

Firstly, all elected representatives were to get skilled workers’ wages. They faced the same problems of feeding, clothing and housing themselves and their children as those they represented.

I recently heard a Tory MP on Question Time justifying his well-paid second job on the grounds that MPs should have experience of business. I wondered how many MPs have experience of poverty and how they would govern differently if they did?

Secondly, all representatives could be recalled if the voters demanded it. No more getting elected with a display of radical rhetoric and then spending years doing what the whips tell you to.

Those principles were revived in Russia in 1905. A group of printers went on strike and set up a strike committee. As the strike spread more committees were set up, with a body to coordinate them. The Russian workers had given the world a new word – soviet – which simply means a council.

They established another basic principle. For us the basic unit of democracy is not the geographical constituency but the workplace.

I know very little about those who live a couple of miles away at the “nice” end of my parliamentary constituency. In the workplace I see people’s behaviour day by day, and I know who I can trust to represent me.

Of course all democracy cannot be based on the workplace. There has to be representation for young people, casual workers, the unemployed, carers and pensioners.

But a structure of workers’ councils would begin with where people worked, not where they happened to live. Soviets grew up again in Russia in 1917.

Briefly they provided a new model of democracy, one which responded rapidly to the demands and experiences of working people.

An example is given by the US journalist John Reed, who visited Russia during the Revolution: “During the first week of December 1917, there were parades and demonstrations in favour of the Constituent Assembly – that is to say, against the Soviet power. One of these parades was fired on by some irresponsible Red Guards, and several people killed.

“The reaction to this stupid violence was immediate. Within twelve hours the complexion of the Petrograd Soviet changed. More than a dozen Bolshevik deputies were withdrawn, and replaced by Mensheviks.

“And it was three weeks before public sentiment subsided – before the Mensheviks were one by one retired and the Bolsheviks sent back.”

The democracy of the soviets died with the invasion of Russia by foreign armies and the rise of Stalin.

But again and again, when corrupt regimes collapse, workers’ democracy has reasserted itself. In Spain in 1936, for example, George Orwell reported from Barcelona that “it was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle”.


In Hungary in 1956 workers set up councils in opposition to a repressive regime that called itself “socialist”.

In Portugal in 1974 a dictatorship was overthrown and within six months 4,000 workers’ commissions were formed. In Iran in 1979 the Shah fled and shoras (committees) were set up to defend workers’ interests.

When MPs bleat about “transparency” we should remember the example of Polish strikers at Gdansk in 1980, who elected delegates to negotiate with the state – but then listened to the negotiations on the shipyard tannoy system. No exemption from freedom of information for them.

These examples of genuine workers’ democracy were short-lived because their enemies – Winston Churchill, General Franco, Nikita Khrushchev to name just three – were ruthless in crushing them.

But the memory has survived and, as parliamentary rule crumbles, more people will be inspired by the vision of what real democracy could look like.

Ian Birchall is author of A Rebel’s Guide to Lenin, available from Bookmarks, phone 020 7637 1848, »

For an account of how the soviet system worked in Russia just after the Revolution, see John Reed’s article at »

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