March 2013        

Democracy and the crisis

Part 2

■ Part 1 was published in the February issue

As Marxists, we must always keep in mind that human beings have lived in class societies for many centuries, and that all political ideas and practices arise from and take place within class society. Class societies are contested places where class struggle is carried out everywhere, all the time. Just as it is a mistake to think that the institutions of bourgeois democracy are neutral instruments that can be wielded for socialism as much as for capitalism, it is also a mistake to believe that socialists can simply bypass the bourgeois state on the road to socialism and communism.
      The state and the institutions of bourgeois democracy are sites of class struggle, and the bourgeoisie do not enjoy complete control of them, or the outcome they produce: the advances made by social democracy in the twentieth century are evidence of this.
      The theoretical understanding of Marx and Lenin is that the working class must seize control of bourgeois society, including the state and its institutions, on the road to socialism. In the process of building communism and eliminating classes, the bourgeois state will be dissolved as social control—control by the people—over all aspects of society and economy is established and extended. In this they recognise that the bourgeois state is a means of mediating the class struggle in a situation where class antagonism persists.
      Once class antagonism is eliminated, the bourgeois state and bourgeois democracy will have no more meaning or material base. And this is where the relevance of real democracy, the people themselves making all the decisions that determine how society is organised, is to be found.
      The idea that the people themselves should make the decisions that govern society, and not through representatives, is a very radical one. As Marxists, we understand that this must apply to the economy as much as to the political sphere: if the economy and the organisation of production are the base on which society is organised, any democracy that is confined to the political sphere cannot give the people control over society or their lives. It is this fact that bourgeois democracy will not and cannot accept: for them, the economy and production must be free from social control; individualism and private property must prevail over collective action and social ownership.
      Democracy—understood as social control over economy and society, the people making all the decisions that govern their lives—is a pretty good approximation to communism as envisaged by Marx. Democracy is also a pretty good demand to advance on all fronts at this moment of crisis in capitalism and imperialism.
      In Ireland and the West, democracy is universally accepted as a good that is above question: not to be a “democrat” is to be a supporter of tyranny, or worse. The capitalist establishment, which is today chafing against the constraints of bourgeois democracy (witness the imposition of unelected governments in Europe), still feels obliged to verbally and publicly support and defend democracy. And the mass of people understand democracy as a bulwark against tyranny and a crucial pillar of their own freedom, and wish to see more of it in their lives.
      Throughout the range of social, economic and political issues raised by this crisis, it is possible to advance democracy as the way forward—but this must be a demand for real democracy, or an advance towards it, not for the implementation of bourgeois democracy. We know that the practice of bourgeois democracy does not provide even the limited form of social input into decision-making that it promises, and it is not enough to demand its full implementation. That way lies reform and a better, fairer capitalism: to paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg, a gentler form of barbarism.
      So, when the social democrats and others speak of constitutional reform and improving our democracy, we should say Yes, but we want democratic practices that allow the citizens themselves to make decisions about how society is organised and run. When they talk about participative democracy, we should say Yes, but what use is it if they and others are making the decisions and we are still excluded?
      When the government and the economists talk about regaining sovereignty from the EU and IMF we should say Yes, but who will exercise that sovereignty in Ireland? The people must have more control over economic decisions. Similarly, when they talk about regulating the financial sector we should say Yes, but we want finance under social control, not a government that is little more than a committee for capitalism. When there is discussion of the economy, the budget, and growth, we should ask, Who will make the decisions about economic policy, and in whose interest?
      One of the shortcomings in our approach to the question of the EU has been limiting our platform to the demand for the restoration of bourgeois-democratic powers to Ireland. The people are not convinced by this: they can see that the exercise of any increased sovereignty by the Dáil parties will not bring about substantial change in the circumstances of their lives. As Gilmore and Kenny constantly repeat, they would implement the same policies even if there was no agreement with the EU and IMF. So we should say Yes, restore sovereignty to Ireland, but we want social control over the exercise of that sovereignty: the people must be sovereign, in the sense that they make the decisions themselves.
      On the debt, not only should we demand repudiation of the debt—something that the bourgeois democrats will never do unless their entire economic and political structures are falling down—but we must demand social control over future budgetary policy. The people should have more power to decide how national income is distributed and spent and in pursuit of what social goods.
      The demand for democracy and the critique of bourgeois democracy are not the only components of a strategy for socialism. However, at a time when the political and ideological level of the people, and the left, is low it can be a powerful tool for challenging the ideological stranglehold of capitalism and developing the consciousness of the people.
      After all, everyone is already in favour of “democracy”: our task is to build on this by exposing the limits and traps of bourgeois democracy and demanding real social control over our lives and the decisions that govern them.

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