“Without democracy there can be no socialism and without a socialist society, there can be no real and complete democracy.” This simple idea is central to Marxism and inseparable from the work of revolutionary socialists. But it is by no means uncontroversial.
The most basic facet of a socialist society is that ownership and control of the means of production — workplaces, machines, tools and processes — will be taken out of the hands of a small group of people and be taken over by the whole of society. But if collective “ownership” is unaccountable and the control undemocratic, then by any measure it cannot be “progressive” when compared to capitalism.
In the different ways the majority of the Trotskyist movement pushed to one side or eliminated the need for democracy in their conception of the collective ownership of the means of production. In short, they accommodated to and embraced the Stalinist states which emerged in the course of the 20th century.
Yet Marx and Engels expended a huge amount of energy arguing against strains of “socialism” which subordinated the question of democracy to what were seen as “anti-capitalist” imperatives.
Marxism argues for complete democracy throughout the whole of society — economic, social and political — and at each and every point in history.
Marxists have a particular understanding of the democratic content of a future socialist society. But we are also not indifferent to the struggle to defend and extend democracy in the here-and-now.
Marxists advocated and championed great democratic upheavals of the 1800s — political revolutions in Europe, the Chartist movement of British workers. They supported universal suffrage, the right to trade union organisation within capitalism.
Marxists defend bourgeois democratic gains (such as the right to “trial by jury” or for a free press) against the dangers of those right being taken away. We hold no truck with “radical” critics who dismiss the hard-won gains as falling too short of the “communistic” ideal to be worth defending.
At the same time, we are irrevocably opposed to capitalism and work for its overthrow, which means overthrowing the democratic set up in bourgeois socity. How can this make sense? Only if your politics is concerned first and foremost with the the interests and future freedom of the working class.
The right wing of the labour movement — up to and including every single leader of the Labour Party — has furiously defended parliamentary democracy against extra-parliamentary political action (protests, strikes, etc.).
When in power, they have used the forces of the state — law, courts, police and armed forces — against such action.
During the miners’ strike 1984-5, the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock failed to defend the miners against all-out class war from the Tory Government. He was equally treacherous during the poll tax rebellion in the early 1990s.
In such situations “democracy” is more about what happens outside the confines of Westminster. Our class would benefit from champions within the parliamentary chamber, but our need to organise in whatever way makes sense, in whatever way ensures that we can win class battles, takes precedence. This is worth remembering given the battle lines being drawn by the present Tory government.
Marxists define “consistent democracy in socialist terms, and consistent socialism in democratic terms”. Any ideas posing as Marxism, socialism or in any way “radical” that fail the democratic measure damage our movement.
Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Volume 1, State and Bureaucracy
August H Nimtz Jr, Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough
John O’Mahony et al, Socialism and Democracy (Workers’ Liberty pamphlet)