Democracy is one of those words like freedom or justice that is constantly misused and prone to expedient adaptation. Many people would argue that Britain is a democracy and that we all benefit from living in a democratic society. By this they mean the regular elections to parliament and local councils, the freedom to organise political parties, a press which is not beholden to the government, and the rule of law. If people object to the policies of the government or a particular MP, they can vote them out of office. If they oppose a specific action by a local council, they can set up a protest group and hold demonstrations, without the fear of being carted off to prison just for voicing their views. In this, comparisons would be drawn with dictatorships, where elections may be non-existent or a sham, where independent parties and trade unions are outlawed, where the press just follow the government line, and arbitrary arrest and even torture are commonplace. Do the trappings of democracy really guarantee a truly democratic way of life? Do they ensure "rule by the people"? Socialists argue that the answer to these questions is a resounding "no!", that real democracy - a social democracy, as it might be called - involves far more. Under a capitalist system there is a built-in lack of democracy, which cannot be overturned or compensated for by holding elections or permitting protest groups. Our objections are far more basic than any potential constitutional changes to the electoral system. There are at least three reasons, then, why capitalist democracy does not mean that workers are in charge of their own lives. They are too poor to be able to do what they want to do, being limited by the size of their wage packets. They are at the beck and call of their employers in particular and of the capitalist class in general. And they are at the mercy of an economic system that goes its own sweet way without being subject to the control of those who suffer under it.
In those countries that have elections, people are asked to select a new government through what is said to be a democratic process. It is true that the vote, together with other hard-won rights such as the rights of assembly, political organisation and free expression, are most important. But can the act of electing a government result in a democratic society? To govern is to direct, control and to rule with authority. Operating as the state this is what governments do. But to say that democracy is merely the act of electing a government to rule over us cannot be right because democracy should include all people in deciding how we live and what we do as a community. Democracy means the absence of privilege, making our decisions from a position of equality. Democracy means that we should live in a completely open society with unrestricted access to the information relevant to social issues. It means that we should have the powers to act on our decisions, because without such powers decisions are useless.
If you ask people “what is a political party?” they are likely to reply along the lines of “a group of people who want to get elected”. If you then ask them why they think these people want to get elected, the reply, if they’re feeling charitable, will be “to do things for the country” or “to help other people”. If they’re not feeling charitable, they’ll say “to help themselves” or that “they’re just out for what they can get”. You may have also noticed that whoever gets elected, nothing really changes. This is because politicians usually have no intention of changing anything. The capitalist system may have nominally democratic institutions, but it relies upon working class compliance, passivity and lack of involvement in the process to carry out its worst and most illiberal functionings. It has been borne out by hard painful experience that for the most starry-eyed of us politicians are not only unable to make good on promises but have actually carried through unwelcomed policies. Why should we believe that another party would be any more successful? The working class persist in choosing between different versions of the same weary, discredited palliatives for capitalism’s problems. This is masochism. While the workers accept the poisonous nonsense that "capital should have a fair profit," while they swallow the lies and humbug of the labour leaders that the interests of the master class are the interests of the "community," or ''society," they will be easily led to vote their masters into possession of the power to rule society. As socialists, we do not regard political democracy in itself as sufficient to emancipate humanity. But we do recognise that it provides by far the best conditions for the development of the socialist movement. it is the heartbeat of every activity of socialists.
The first moves towards control of parliament by means of elected representation emerged in England in the 17th century, as parliament attempted to expand its authority at the expense of the king. The electorate was limited to the small minority, who regarded it as imperative that they capture exclusive political power to pass laws that would safeguard their land and property interests from the "propertyless masses". Their purpose was to exclude ordinary people who might voice views dangerous to the propertied class or pass laws detrimental to their interests. The control exerted over parliament became a reflection of the property relations in society; a role that parliament has successfully fulfilled, largely unchallenged, to the present day. The capitalist class in to-day's world cannot supply the brains to carry on the business of government. They have to co-opt professional politicians from the class beneath them. That they are forced to requisition fresh blood from outside their class to fight against the working class. Industrial questions and disputes occupy an increasing amount of Parliamentary time. Working-class problems as they affect the capitalist, become more insistent and call for more attention from their representatives on the executive body. How to deal with the growing “unrest” is fast becoming the chief problem before Parliament. There is no pretence of giving the workers the vote because it is their right, or because it will benefit them. It is given merely because it means an improved form of government. Stability is the object to be attained. the capitalist class have been compelled to confer the franchise, and must continually extend it. The master class were compelled to give, although they made a virtue out of necessity and said they gave it because they loved the principles of democracy. But no matter how they got them, the workers have far more votes than their masters. With the knowledge of their slave-position and the courage to organise, these votes can be used as the means to their emancipation. The capitalist class cannot repudiate what they have established. The vote was given to secure their own domination; if they discard it they lose legitmacy and have no sanction to govern. Whilst parliamentary government still operates to protect property, the concessions and the elbow room that have been won in capitalist democracy are important and of value to working people. The realisation that genuine democracy cannot exist in capitalist society does not alter the fact that the elbow room already secured by struggle can be turned against our masters. The right to vote, for instance, can become a powerful instrument to end our servitude and to achieve genuine democracy and freedom. Working people with an understanding of socialism can utilise their vote to signify that the overwhelming majority demand change and to bring about social revolution. For while democracy cannot exist outside of socialism, socialism cannot be achieved without the overwhelming majority of working people demanding it.
Socialists recognise parliament as an institution geared to the needs of capitalism, and therefore inappropriate as the vehicle for a fundamental transformation, but yet to regard its connected electoral practices as coinciding, to some extent, with the principles governing that transformation, and to that extent adding the possibility of a peaceful transition. There need be no straight-forward, exclusive and exhaustive choice between constitutionalism and violent seizure of power. Certain elements within existing institutions may be valued, and action taken in conformity with them, while others may not. It does limit violence to the role of counter-violence in the event of resistance when a clear majority for revolutionary change is apparent, rather than seeing the use of violence as itself a primary means of change. Rights to organise politically, express dissension and combine in trade unions, for example, are valuable not only as a defence against capitalism, but from a socialist viewpoint are a platform from which socialist understanding can spread, while the right to vote the means by which socialism will be achieved. At the same time we must recognise that genuine democracy is more than these freedoms and the right to vote. Whilst ‘one person one vote’ is an essential ingredient of democratic society, democracy implies much more than the simple right to choose between representative of political parties every five years. The Chartist movement, in the 19th century, saw that gaining the right to vote was meaningless unless it could be used to effect change. But today exercising our democratic right to vote for a conventional political party does not effect change. Ordinary working people are to be targeted with propaganda and public relations exercises to induce acceptance of things that are contrary to our interests. The effectiveness of this propaganda is illustrated by the widening gap between people’s preferences and government policy which often result in the quiet acceptance of, say, unpopular cuts in social spending or policies clearly incompatible with their interests. It is hardly surprising that working people become increasingly disillusioned with "democracy" and politics and register their frustration by declining participation in elections. We start to believe that if our vote is so ineffective in changing things there can be little point in casting it. We become exactly what our master class wants us to be, obedient and silent.
Electorates worldwide haven't had the true experience of having had their voices heard, at any significant level in the various processes of so-called democracy. Rather than an expectation of involvement there is apathy, cynicism or a complaining mantra heard far and wide that governments don't listen to the people or that they put on a performance of listening pre-elections and then make wide ranging excuses for their negligence in following up on promises or manifesto declarations. Many so-called democracies tend to breed apathy for a variety of reasons. Decisions have long been made for people not by people, electorates distanced from their representatives, decisions made with no consultation process and 'leaders' believing they have been selected to take the reins and make all decisions on behalf of the voters. It's taken for granted that once elected the 'member' decides on behalf of the electors. There is scant reference to the masses in times of major decisions – where to cut public spending, whether to involve a population in invasion or war, how to deal with the effects of harsh economic downturn. Even mass demonstrations against unpopular decisions can leave the elected unmoved and intransigent. As a result there has long been a culture of complaint, a collective feeling of impotence with no expectation of being heard, even if seemingly listened to. We are not under any illusion about the nature of democracy inside capitalism. We confront the myth that capitalism and democracy are interdependent. We challenge the notion that revolution cannot at the same time be democratic and planned, cannot be participative and structured. Where it is available to workers we take the viewpoint that capitalist democracy can and should be used. But not in order to chase the ever diminishing returns of reforming capitalism. Instead we see democracy as a (indeed arguably the only) critically-important instrument available to class-conscious workers for making a genuine and democratic revolution. And in the process of making a revolution the really interesting work can start of course: that of reinventing a democracy fit for society on a human scale. A democracy that is free from the patronage, the power games and the profit motive that currently, from Moscow to Rangoon, Nairobi to Washington, abuses it.
Crucial to the question of democracy is not just the ability to make decisions about what to do but also the powers of action to carry out those decisions. For many years, in many nations, capitalist politicians seeking office have promised to solve the housing problem together with the problems if poverty, unemployment, pollution, crime, the health service and many more. They have failed because in fact they seek to run a system driven by profit, which imposes severe economic limitations on what can he done and which as a result cannot be rationally controlled. This makes a mockery of the idea of democracy. Democracy is what the working-class needs, and this can be best achieved, not by compromise, but by struggling for socialism. Socialists to-day content ourselves with the means of struggle and victory which have served others and of which we will serve ourselves in our turn. If anything is particularly idiotic it is the divergence that has been made between the means, divided into legal and illegal, into pacific and violent, in order to admit the one and exclude the other. There is not, and there never will be, other than a single category of means, determined by circumstances: those which conduct to end pursued. And these means are always revolutionary when there is a question of a revolution to be accomplished.
The biggest myth – that which keeps people voting for political parties to run capitalism – is that it is indeed possible to "run" capitalism. Governments of the world govern by the myth of control. With no steering wheel, no brakes and no happy end in sight, capitalism is never short of prospective aspiring "drivers" who will do and say anything for a chance to sit up front with the big hat on. They persuade us that they can control market forces, but only until the next crisis, whereupon they blame market forces or foreigners, or both. Evidence for the chaotic nature of capitalism is not scarce. Our mission is simple. No mention whatsoever of local issues or foreign policies. No promises of "I'll do this and I'll do that for my constituents", no flattery, no sweet talk. If you vote for us you won't get a wage rise or a tax cut. If you vote for us now, it's not because we've conned you into it with charming lies. We proceed with our educational propaganda until the working class have understood the fundamental facts of their position—the facts that because they do not own the means by which they live they are commodities on the market, never bought unless the buyers (the owners of the means of life) can see a profit to themselves in the transaction, always sold when the opportunity offers because in that only can the necessaries of life be obtained. We have to emphasise the fact that no appreciable change is possible in the working-class condition while they remain commodities, and that the only method by which the alteration can be wrought is by the working class taking the means of life out of the hands of those who at present hold them, and whose private ownership is the cause of the trouble.
For socialists the rule of government can never be democratic. Governments implement policies for which no one voted, or would vote for. No one voted to cut care services for the old and the disabled. No one voted to close hospital departments. People getting what they didn’t vote for also shows that capitalism is incompatible with democracy as an expression of “the people’s will”. This is not because there are no procedures in place for people to decide what they want, but because the way the capitalist economy works prevents some of these decisions being implemented. Governments work for a privileged section of society. They make the laws which protect the property rights of a minority who own and control natural resources, industry, manufacture and transport. These are the means of life on which we all depend but most of us have no say in how they are used. Behind Parliament governments operate in secret. They are part of the division of the world into rival capitalist states. With the back-up of their armed forces they pursue national capitalist interests. Though the politicians who run it may be elected, the state is the opposite of democracy. Production is owned and controlled by companies, some of them multinational corporations with massive economic power making the decisions on what should be produced for the markets for sale at a profit. Through corporate authority they decide how goods should be produced and the conditions in which work is done. Again, this is the opposite of democracy.
Our position is that politicians, whatever their intentions, are actually retarding the development of the only organisation of the working class that can enter into effective conflict with the forces of capitalism. By association with capitalist representatives in both political and economic affairs they induce the idea (which capitalism does everything possible to foster) that the hostility does not exist. But until that fact is clearly understood there can be no material improvement in the workers' condition. It is unfortunate, of course, that the workers do not understand. It makes the task of those who are concerned with the overthrow of capitalism, and the emancipation of the working class from wage-slavery, very difficult. The results of their work seem so very slow a-coming. And some of them tire and drop out of the movement, and others curse the stupidity of the working class, while others again weary of the work, endeavour to secure some immediate consolation by pandering to the ignorance they once may have thought to dispel, and so simply increase the difficulties in the way. The point of the battle should be to put an end to the dirty job of running capitalism.
What are the obstacles to this necessary class exercising the power of government? The first obstacle is working-class ignorance, which is used to vote capitalists and their agents into political supremacy. The second obstacle is the force which is used by the capitalists in control of Parliament to keep the workers in subjection. Socialists have no illusions about the democratic credentials of the politicians of the Left, the Right or the Centre. What the capitalist class, and the political parties that serve that class, call democracy is a contrived form of consensus in which the political parties conspire to ensure that the maximum number of people accept a system of law which guarantees a minority class in society the legal right to own and control the means of life of the great majority. To achieve and maintain that system of Law – and the Order that ensures the right of that minority to exploit and impoverish the majority – capitalism must have political control of the state machine. A vital part of the process that maintains the illusion of democratic choice is the power to confine political knowledge – and, thus, political options – to those parties whose policies are firmly rooted in an acceptance of capitalism.
If there were a working class committed to socialism the correct method of achieving political power would be to fight the general election on a revolutionary programme, without any reforms to attract support from non-socialists. In fact, the first stage in a socialist revolution is for the vast majority of the working class to use their votes as class weapons. This would represent the transfer of political power to the working class. We adopt this position not because we are mesmerised by legality and not because we overlook the cynical and two-faced double-dealing which the capitalists will no doubt resort to. We say, however, that a majority of socialist delegates voted into the national assembly or parliament would use political power to coordinate the measures needed to overthrow the capitalist system. Any minority which was inclined to waver would have second thoughts about taking on such a socialist majority which was in a position to wield the state power.
The fight for a measure of democracy world-wide is an essential part of the struggle for world socialism. After all, if workers are not able to fight for something as basic as the vote, they are unlikely to be able to work for the transformation of society from one based on production for profit to one based on production for human need.