Democracy: fact and fetish

Issue: 136

Donny Gluckstein

Democracy is one of the most popular yet disputed ideas around. Invoked by the US to justify invasions, it is also the stated aim of the Arab revolutions. Israel claims democratic elections give it the right to murder Palestinians, while they themselves struggle for the democratic right of self-determination. Even on the left democracy is sometimes controversial. Many in the Occupy movement consider majority decision-making and representative structures to be flawed and oppressive. They therefore fall back on consensus reached within relatively small groupings. Still others simply opt out, deeply disillusioned by the contrast between the rhetoric and actual operation of the current political system.

This article will argue that democracy is not only possible but essential if ordinary people are to collectively control their destiny. Today economic crisis exposes the web of interconnections linking humanity across the globe. That urgently poses the issue of how key decisions are reached, and what they should be. To stand aside from this is to leave unchallenged the 1 percent who dominate the 99 percent. Yet the difficulties remain. Parliamentary democracy is rightly contrasted with the fraudulent procedures of dictatorships such as Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. But does it follow that where “fair” elections occur poverty and inequality exist because most people want it?

One common explanation for the failure of democracy under capitalism is subversion due to infrequent elections, lack of mechanisms for accountability, the appointment of civil servants, judges, army generals and so on. Ralph Miliband sees one source of the problem arising from:

the personnel of the state system, that is to say the fact that the people who are located in the commanding heights of the state, in the executive, administrative, judicial, repressive and legislative branches, have tended to belong to the same class or classes which have dominated the other strategic heights of the society, notably the economic and the cultural ones.1

This has merit, but replacing the personnel or altering recruitment procedures would not solve the fundamental problem. Indeed, as Lenin argued, “The more highly democracy is developed, the more the bourgeois parliaments are subjected by the stock exchange and bankers”.2

Bourgeois democracy does not fail the majority because of some flaw in the constitution. If capitalists control the means of production, then whatever electoral façade is in place, the majority’s interests are nullified. Through such control capitalists dominate information channels, and the means of persuasion, education and coercion. Fear of unemployment, blackmail by the money markets, divide and rule (racism, sexism and so on) and a host of other devices are used to influence majority choices, limiting the scope of dissent and leaving the real levers of power in other hands, especially the coercive powers of the state.

Rosa Luxemburg explained the situation well over a century ago:

What parliamentarism expresses here is still capitalist society, that is to say, a society in which capitalist interests are dominant-and it is these that parliamentarism expresses. The institutions which are democratic in their form become, therefore, tools of the interests of the ruling class in their content…parliamentarism [is] a specific means employed by the bourgeois class state.3

Democracy cannot get round, jump over or ignore the social reality in which it is embedded.

Therefore the conundrum of democracy can only be resolved if it is seen as a specific form of social organisation rather than an unchanging, abstract principle. The degree to which its formal arrangements equate to genuine democratic content depends on three elements: how representation and decision-making are structured, power and the social context. This article identifies three fundamentally different types in history-ancient, bourgeois and proletarian, each expressing a different class interest.

“Perfect democracy” in context

Democracy was invented in ancient Greece and combines the word for “people” (demos) with “rule” or “power” (kratei). Between 508 and 322 BC the entire male citizenry of Athens directly controlled state business. The result was, as one historian puts it, a “phenomenon of democracy that was ‘true’-in the sense of being a relatively stable and long-lasting system of government ‘by the people’ that operated without an overt or cryptic ruling elite”.4 This refutes the idea that only a small minority of superior people with intelligence and experience (or more likely cash and “breeding”) can ever rule, and the majority should leave governing to their “betters”.

Athens’s breakthrough was the product of deep-rooted development. Greece’s mountainous and island geography, plus lack of major rivers such as the Nile, hindered the emergence of large-scale centralised states. Its numerous hereditary kings were weak and by the 590s BC oligarchies and tyrants (whose ascendancy did not depend on lineage) were displacing them. Athens had only the small Attica region as hinterland and it was here that a revolution, in 508-7 BC, inaugurated collective control.5

All male citizens of Attica were entitled to attend an assembly that met 40 days per year, had a quorum of 6,000, and took every key decision. Paid to appear, one quarter regularly managed to do so. A council of 500, selected by lot annually, drafted the agenda. The chair for the day was also selected by lot. Any citizen could speak or move motions, and a simple majority in a show of hands decided. Courts had no judges, but a 200 to 300 strong jury, selected by lot and paid.6 It did not stop there:

There were not only two elected commanders of the cavalry and the elected commanders of the tribal squadrons. There was an elective board of ten who enrolled the troopers…all the higher military officers [such as the ten generals] were elected…an elective sub-committee of ten [ordered the triremes (warships)]. The naval architects were elected by the people. The superintendents of the dockyards, who saw to the maintenance of the ships and their tackle, were probably one of the usual boards of ten chosen by lot… The festivals were directed by magistrates or boards chosen by lot, partly by elective boards… More surprisingly finance, both imperial and domestic, was…run entirely by boards chosen by lot, supervised by the council, until, in the latter half of the 4th century, an elective treasurer of the military fund and elected managers of the theoric fund [to finance festivals] were created.7

Citizens used these popular checks to prevent the rich exploiting them or dominating the state. They shunned deference and generated a mass self-confidence which, contrary to the belief that collective power produces uniformity, promoted the flowering of the individual. The result was a cultural explosion in philosophy, political theory, drama, sculpture, architecture, the writing of history, and many other areas. This differentiated Athens from the rest of Greece and underpins much of our culture today.

Though this elaborate system was a spectacular success for its participants, it did not escape the class circumstances. Firstly, the “people” was precisely defined. Citizens were a minority of the overall population and kept it that way. Only the 20,000-30,000 boys who could claim both fathers and mothers of citizen descent themselves could aspire to that honour when they became adults.8 All others-women, foreigners and slaves-were permanently excluded.

Most citizens were small property owners who could not afford expensive commodities like slaves and lived “by the work of their hands, as peasant farmers, craftsmen, shopkeepers”.9 Oligarchs and aristocrats found the very strength of democracy led to “the relative unavailability of Athenian free producers for exploitation [and] was itself a critical factor leading to the growth of slavery. In a sense, the free time of the poor was won at the expense of slave labour for the rich”.10 Therefore:

we find a more intense development of slavery at Athens than at most other places in the Greek world: if the humbler citizens could not be fully exploited…then it was necessary to rely to an exceptional degree on exploiting the labour of slaves. This explains “the advance, hand in hand, of freedom and slavery”.11

So poor citizens did not vote out slavery; they believed in private property, even if that included human beings. The scale of slavery is shown by Attica’s demography:12

431 BC 323 BC
Total population of Attica 310,000 260,000
Citizens (including their families) 172,000 112,000
Foreigners (including their families) 28,500 42,000
Slaves (they were forbidden families) 110,000 106,000

A seaborne imperialism was another feature inextricably linked to Athenian democracy. Its power depended on the trireme, a galley with three banks of oarsmen drawn from the poorer citizenry,13 who outnumbered the wealthy men constituting the heavy infantry. A 5th century author known as the Old Oligarch explained the poor had an:

advantage over the men of birth and wealth, seeing that it is the people who row the vessels, and put round the city her girdle of power. For the steersman, the boatswain, the commanders of 50, the lookout-man at the prow, the shipwright-these are the people who engird the city with power rather than her heavy infantry and men of birth and quality.14

Peasants are usually geographically dispersed and, as petty producers, in competition with each other. Even when a majority they have difficulty in uniting to impose their will. However, combined together in the navy Athenian peasants possessed a cohesion and coercive strength that secured the long-term democratic gains of the revolution.

The empire’s trade and tribute paid for the “marble magnificence” of the Parthenon in 447 BC, and underwrote state pay for jury service and the Assembly.15 Russell Meiggs suggests that 60 percent of Athens’s “GNP” came from tribute.16 Citizens gained land in conquered territories using brutal methods to displace and enslave the locals.17 Significantly, while there were no political parties as such in the Athenian Assembly, the rich tended to vote against war (as they were subject to a war tax), while the poor did the opposite.18

It would be unhistorical to demand of the ancient Athenians an abhorrence of slavery or imperialism. However, it might be expected that poorer citizens would counter their economic inequality vis-à-vis the wealthy. In fact, democracy gave the poorer citizenry a stake in a system based on inequality and exploitation. As Josiah Ober puts it, “Citizens remained unequal in private life. Despite the fears of elite critics of democracy, the Athenian demos never consistently employed its collective power to equalise access to desirable private goods”.19 AHM Jones reinforces this point: “No suggestion was ever put forward for the redistribution of the land or for the cancellation of debts… Nor did ‘the liberation of the slaves with revolutionary intent’…ever occur at Athens”.20 Poor peasant farmers did not wish to challenge property itself; they ensured the rich deployed their greater resources to exploit slaves instead.

Bourgeois democracy in the mother of parliaments

For capitalism, as in ancient Greece, democracy is not an abstract concept floating above class relations. Modern parliamentary democracy emerged when the bourgeoisie struggled to achieve dominance over feudalism. As a numerically small group this class had to appeal for support to wider forces and so it spoke in universal terms. In 1776, when Britain’s American colonies sought freedom from Britain, the Declaration of Independence stated, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

In 1789 the French bourgeoisie reached out to the vast majority of the French population, the Third Estate, with these words: “What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been hitherto in the political order? Nothing.” Two hundred years later India, “the world’s biggest democracy”, declared independence using virtually identical terms: “the Sovereign people of India having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign Democratic Republic”.

If in 1776 or 1789 there was a gap between democratic rhetoric and institutional arrangements on the ground, did the granting of the vote to all men and women later on mean real democracy had been achieved? This ignores the continuing influence exercised by capitalist control of the means of production. Thus it was Count Otto von Bismarck, an arch-reactionary, who introduced universal male suffrage to Germany in 1871. The US has elections of district attorneys, state referenda and so on, but is the most successful capitalist state and is among the most unequal societies in the world.

Nevertheless the advent of universal suffrage did have an impact. While an evolving bourgeois democracy neither touched the basis of capitalist rule nor gave popular control over the state, its universal language and appeal unleashed a process whereby the ordinary people fought for democracy as they understood it. John Molyneux shows that, “broadly speaking, the right to vote was won by working people as a by-product of the revolutionary wave that swept Europe at the end of the First World War”.21 More recently the Arab revolutions have battled for democratic elections in the teeth of vicious opposition.

Why, if universal suffrage does not threaten its control of the state and society, has capitalism sometimes been so resistant to it? And why has it been so popular if ordinary people gain so little? The rising bourgeoisie had to use language that was universal and therefore inevitably ambiguous. A classic example was seen in the French Revolution with its motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”.

In gaining parliamentary democracy capitalists won freedom to exploit at will, but others could interpret it as freedom from exploitation. The slogan of equality could mean capitalists were no longer inferior to feudal landowners; but it seemed to hold out the promise of a more equal distribution of wealth for all. Democracy could be seen merely as periodic elections, or signify the right to interfere with capitalist accumulation. Unlike in slave or serf societies, capitalists can gain from a generalised belief that workers are free because sophisticated modern technology relies on motivating workers rather than on labour extracted by brute compulsion, but a sense of having freedom and some rights also provides a space for trade unions.

So even at the time of the bourgeois revolutions the ambiguities of the democratic idea created openings for the expression of a different class interest, for the majority of the population. The diverse elements in the story of bourgeois democracy are expressed well in the world’s oldest example-the “mother of parliaments” at Westminster. Its history shows a class context throughout. In 1264 a baronial revolt gave England the parliamentary system in order to “tie the hands of arbitrary power by imposing on the sovereign a council [composed of] the greatest ecclesiastical and lay figures”.22 Parliament consisted of the House of Lords plus “the elected representatives of the lesser nobility of the shires”-the Commons.23 Representatives of cities and boroughs joined a year later.24 Thus far Westminster represented an advisory committee of the feudal ruling class with the nascent bourgeoisie tacked on. Central power remained with the state headed by a king.

The English Revolution took parliament much further. Capitalist relations had matured within the cocoon of feudalism, and by 1640 the bourgeoisie wanted more influence over state decisions. That year military failure in Scotland forced Charles I to summon a parliament. But the Commons, drawn from an electorate comprising one in five of the male population,25 resented royal interference, the privileged access of the aristocracy to the spoils of exploitation, taxation and religious policies, and a host of other impositions. The dispute at the summit of society created an opening for a mass democratic movement whose centre of gravity lay with the “middling sort of people”-those between the landlord class above and wage earners below.26

In December 1641 the monarch tried to arrest leading parliamentarians. Brian Manning writes, “It was a decisive moment in history and the decision lay, not with the king, not with the parliament, not with the nobility and gentry, not with armed soldiers…but with the mass of ordinary people in London…there was now what amounted to a general strike”.27 The king’s intention to crush parliament was thwarted by the City of London, but the outcome was double-edged: “The City was now the parliament’s-or rather, the parliament was now the City’s”.28

The relationship between the bourgeoisie and those it had to lean on to successfully combat royal opposition was a tense one. When hundreds of poor people presented a petition to parliament in January 1641 that body dared not reject the document openly, declaring that although “there were some things in the petition extraordinary [but] the House of Commons thinks it not good to waken a sleepy lion; for it would pull on the mischief sooner”.29

So the English Revolution became more than a dispute between the king and the institution of parliament. Indeed, the latter was merely one organisational focus of struggle. There were others. When civil war erupted the bourgeoisie needed its own military force. Here too success depended on people recruited from outside its ranks. The New Model Army’s commander was Oliver Cromwell who, though a wealthy landowner himself, chose “not such as were soldiers or men of estates, but such as were common men, poor and of mean parentage”.30 In 1645 this army won decisive battles, securing a fundamental transformation in state structure, never to be reversed in its essentials.

The role of parliament in these events was complex. As soon as the immediate threat from Charles I receded, the majority of MPs (the “Presbyterians”), fearful of the revolutionary elements now at large, sought a peaceful compromise with him so as to reconsolidate state power without which:

the necessitous people of the whole kingdom will presently rise in mighty numbers and whosoever they pretend for at first, within a while they will set up for themselves, to the utter ruin of all the nobility and gentry of the kingdom.31

Cromwell rejected such backsliding in the parliamentary ranks as premature. He imposed a “self-denying ordinance” on the MPs excluding them from the decisive matter of military affairs: “During this time of this war no member of either House shall have or execute any [military] office or command”.32 His forces now represented the bourgeois interest more effectively than did parliament, showing there was no necessary correspondence between a representative form (such as parliament) and this class’s rule. Indeed the New Model Army purged Westminster no less than six times in a decade to ensure the victory over the king would not be squandered.

Not everyone shared such disregard for democratic forms. Many of the “middling sort” believed in the potential of parliamentary representation. They called themselves Levellers and demanded an extension of the franchise. At the Putney Debates of 1647 Colonel Thomas Rainsborough summed up Leveller beliefs in this way:

that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under this government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he had not had a voice to put himself under…33

Paul Foot comments, “In two glorious sentences, Rainsborough summed up the argument for universal suffrage”.34 The idea of a democracy that really worked in the interest of the majority had been expressed.35

By 1649 the Levellers were crushed by Cromwell. For him the purpose of the revolution was to enhance the position of rising capitalism, not to empower ordinary people. He arrested the leaders and told the Council of State, “You have no other way to deal with these men but to break them or they will break you…and make void all that work that you have done… [These are] a despicable, contemptible generation of men”.36 With radicalism curbed and the institution of monarchy safely tamed, the capitalist class could re-establish order and authority using that traditional figurehead. The royal title was therefore offered to Cromwell (who preferred to be called Lord Protector), and after his death to Charles II in 1660. That same year the House of Lords, abolished in 1649, was re-established.

If the social transformation brought about by the English Revolution could not be effaced, the memory was. Modern bourgeois historians play up the role of parliament and affirm that “what happened between 1640 and 1660 is very much in the mainstream of English history; indeed it is crucial to the development of the constitution”.37 The continuity of parliament from Magna Carta to today is a fiction, but one that casts a long shadow. When universal suffrage eventually arrived in Britain, it brought MPs into a House of Commons festooned with the trappings of ancient ritual.

The post-revolution story of universal suffrage was not consistently one of mass struggle triumphing over privilege. Landmark expansions of the vote occurred in 1832, 1867, 1884 and 1918. The 1832 “Great” Reform Act granted the franchise to the new middle class of the industrial revolution. It came after an enormous wave of marches and riots which induced Macaulay, a far-sighted member of the ruling class and MP, to exclaim, “I support this plan because I am sure that it is our best security against a revolution”.38 So even 1832 was both a concession and the “best security against a revolution”.

Chartism followed in the 1840s. This enormous movement attracted millions of supporters and promoted universal male suffrage as a means to radical redistribution of wealth: “What concerns us is that we ourselves be represented in the legislative body and that we employ our own power to emancipate ourselves from the middle [ie bourgeois] class… Become your own governors in the workshop as well as out of it”.39 Alas, Chartist proposals were rejected by parliament time after time. Mass semi-revolutionary pressure did not produce an extension of the franchise.

That came in 1867. There was a riot in favour of the Reform Act, but the movement was far less radical than in Chartist times. Its leaders wanted the franchise so as to “put an end to animosities…amongst the different classes…and weld all classes together by unity of interest into one harmonious whole”.40 The Third Reform Act of 1884 was passed without even the campaigns of 1867, let alone the 1840s, yet it enfranchised the largest number yet-two out of three men (from one in three).

The advent of votes for women in 1918 fits neither the pattern of mass agitation nor unforced concession. As Foot suggests, Suffragette campaigning in the period up to 1914 made a contribution: “The victory of 1918 would not have been achieved without the long years of struggle that preceded it. The militant activities of the suffragettes loosened the ideological hold of men over women”.41

However, the Suffragettes stopped their campaign at the outbreak of the First World War to concentrate on patriotic flag-waving (such as the “white feather” campaign against young men who delayed enlisting). Emmeline Pankhurst even went to Russia to dissuade the population there from the Bolshevik demand for peace. The Reform Act received its second reading in May 1917. This was a time when the outcome of the First World War was far from certain. Lloyd George’s government realised survival depended on maintaining civilian morale on the home front, thus avoiding the revolution that eventually made Germany sue for peace. Female suffrage was one of a host of promises, such as “Homes fit for heroes”, designed to sustain the war and ward off revolution.

In other words, suffrage was sometimes the result of class struggle, sometimes not. Rather than being a sign of workers gaining traction within the state, it was an expense paid for continued domination. Westminster therefore acquired a carefully constructed, if fictitious, image. The Levellers are forgotten, along with the Chartists. Instead our parliamentary system, with a constitutional monarch, House of Lords, feudal rites, pomp and circumstance, exudes social superiority, but gives out the message that it is possible in a class society to successfully combine democracy and deference.

Partly this is due to the compromises described above. Even more important, at the very moment the voting habit reached British workers, this country was the world’s greatest imperial power. As Trotsky explains:

Britain was the first country to take the road of capitalist development and won, thanks to that fact, the hegemony of the world market in the 19th century. The British bourgeoisie became, again thanks to this fact, the richest, strongest, and most enlightened of the bourgeoisies.

Consequently, the British labour movement carried “a heavy conservative tail stretching back into the Middle Ages”.42 All this has given a peculiarly restrained character to voting behaviour.

Its political development therefore took a different route to elsewhere. While fully-fledged socialist parties had been operating across the continent since the mid-19th century, the British Labour Party was only finally established in 1900. At its birth it was so politically timid that it could only be admitted into the Socialist (Second) International by creating a special category of (non-socialist) membership. It was not that the British working class was less powerful, but since the defeat of Chartism mass working class radicalism tended to concentrate on trade unionism, out of which the Labour Party itself emerged. This was a reversal of the order seen on the continent where socialist parties set up the unions.

I have written elsewhere that: “The electoral balance between Tories and Labour is rooted, in the final analysis, in the class struggle”.43 The “final analysis” needs emphasising. The correlation of working class struggle and parliamentary elections exists, but is very weak. Sometimes parliamentary progress is in inverse relationship to class struggle. Labour’s precursor, the Independent Labour Party, was formed in 1893 as a conscious move towards substituting parliamentary tactics for strike action. Labour benefited electorally from the defeat of the 1926 General Strike. The incredible industrial struggles that brought down Edward Heath’s Tory government in 1974 saw its total share of the vote fall 6 percent compared to the previous election. The point is that there is no fixed pattern, because there is no organic connection between the real life of the working class and elections.

This is a problem for socialists who rightly pay heed to the argument of Lenin’s “LeftWing” _Communism: An Infantile Disorder, that socialists consider standing in parliamentary elections. He proposed this as a means of exposing the permanent gap between what is granted under bourgeois democracy and what the working class wants from it. However, that is not an easy thing to do in Britain, given the historical background described above.

Take the example of the British Communist Party (CPGB). It started as a revolutionary organisation, and despite succumbing to Stalinism remained an effective focus for militants. The CPGB was clearly the radical alternative to Labour and had what pundits call “high brand recognition”. The period up to 1935 saw enormous struggles like Red Friday (1925) and the General Strike. Then came the collapse of the second Labour government, defection of the Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald to the Tories, and the rout of Labour in 1931. Yet the CPGB vote never rose beyond 0.3 percent of votes cast. The 1945 peak, at 0.4 percent, was less due to its own efforts than the triumph of the Red Army over Hitler in the Second World War. In January 1951 the CPGB published The British Road to Socialism setting a course “for decisive action to win a parliamentary majority”. Despite this fixation it never broke through the 0.2 percent barrier. The table below presents a depressing picture of a half century of electoral effort by a key party of the British far left.

Election Votes % of all votes MPs elected
1922 33,637 0.2 1
1923 39,448 0.2 0
1924 55,346 0.3 1
1929 50,634 0.2 0
1931 74,824 0.3 0
1935 27,117 0.1 0
1945 102,780 0.4 2
1950 91,765 0.3 0
1951 21,640 0.1 0
1955 33,144 0.1 0
1959 30,896 0.1 0
1964 46,442 0.2 0
1966 62,092 0.2 0
1970 37,970 0.1 0
1974a 32,743 0.1 0
1974b 17,426 0.1 0
1979 16,858 0.1 0

Compare this to continental Communist parties. In the pre-1914 Tsarist Duma the Bolsheviks won 50 to 80 percent of the working class vote (which polled separately to other social groups). Before destruction by Nazism the German CP scored 17 percent of the total vote. In 1945, given the outstanding role played by continental CPs in the resistance movements and the Red Army victory over Hitler, the French CP gained 26 percent, the Belgian and Danish 13 percent and the Norwegian 12 percent. In the 1970s the Italian CP reached 34 percent, the Portuguese 14 percent and the Spanish 11 percent.

To judge the CPGB by voting performance would be a serious mistake, however. It played a decisive role in Britain’s most important class struggles. In the run-up to Red Friday the CPGB-influenced Minority Movement organisation was instrumental in the election of left union leaders. During the General Strike the CPGB was at the heart of forming Councils of Action. In the 1930s its militants were central to the revival of industrial struggle through the London bus strike of 1937 and the unionisation of car plants. In the 1960s and 1970s the party led national shop stewards’ organisations that shook Harold Wilson’s Labour governments and toppled Heath.

Stalinism aside, the mismatch between the CPGB’s industrial and electoral influence was not due to lack of talent or membership motivation. Nor could it simply be ascribed to the first past the post system with its gladiatorial contest between the big parties. Shop stewards’ elections are also based on first past the post. Communists were elected here because their co-workers could see at first hand that they championed working class interests and had practical views about the way forward.

This is not an argument for ignoring elections. Lenin’s critique of ultra-leftism for abstaining on principle was absolutely correct. Though parliamentarism is a dead-end it does not mean that:

“millions” and “legions” of proletarians are not still in favour of parliamentarism in general… We must not regard what is obsolete for us as being obsolete for the class, as being obsolete for the masses… You must not sink to the level of the masses, to the level of the backward strata of the class. That is incontestable. You must tell them the bitter truth. You must call their bourgeois democratic and parliamentary prejudices-prejudices. But at the same time you must soberly follow the actual state of class consciousness.44

The socialist approach must be related to the “actual state of class consciousness” and this is influenced by the specific historical background, for good and ill.

If the strength of belief in parliamentary elections means they cannot be ignored by socialists, by the same token, unfortunately, many judge the seriousness of a political platform in the light of the election results obtained. An army that indulges in battles that it is bound to lose badly is not necessarily going to inspire bystanders to join it. So a concrete “sober” judgement has to be made on each occasion, weighing up the real forces behind a socialist electoral campaign and the likely results.

Proletarian democracy

Many ancient Greek cities with a similar social structure to Athens had no democracy, just as today some capitalist states do without parliaments. Class rule by a minority neither requires nor excludes “free and fair” elections, because fundamental power derives from control of the means of production regardless of what representative structures are in place. Fritz Thyssen, who bankrolled Hitler, wrote:

An industrialist is always inclined to consider politics a kind of second string to his bow… In a well ordered country, where the administration is sound, where taxes are reasonable, and the police well organised, he can afford to abstain from politics and devote himself entirely to business.45

Exploiters of slaves, serfs or workers remain exploiters, whether they take an equal share in running government or allow a committee, king or dictator to take the initiative on their behalf.46

In this regard capitalism has the greatest room for manoeuvre, because accumulation is disguised. Workers are separated from the means of production and seemingly “volunteer” to labour, without the state having to act coercively, as is the case with slaves or serfs. Capitalism does not require state intervention except, of course, when workers fight back, or a crisis demands exceptional measures. Loose control via bourgeois democracy is possible, but fascism, military dictatorship, imperialist domination and so on are equally suitable.

It is different for the working class where liberation depends on the majority class exercising power collectively. Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto explains why:

All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interests of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.47

The “immense majority” require an appropriate collective organisational form to exert authority over both the state and the means of production. Here genuine democracy (in the original Greek sense of the word) is an absolute necessity. The exercise of class power at one remove, which is possible for the capitalists due to their control of the means of production, is not an option. How is the striving for this very different type of democracy expressed?

The labour movement has generated various models of organisation, ranging from trade unions to reformist and revolutionary parties, through which workers have attempted to collectively shape their fate. (There are organisational forms such as single-issue campaigns, but these are too dispersed, too varied or too short-lived to develop a consistent pattern of internal structure for analysis here.)

Democracy and the trade unions

Trade unions primarily relate to working life. They are independent of the bosses, unlike parliament, which is essentially an appendage of the capitalist state. Their existence reflects a certain balance. If capitalists were fully dominant then trade unions would not exist. Conversely, if workers clearly understood their common interest and united as a class, then sectional unions fighting for partial gains would not continue. Finally, if workers ran society, then there would be no bosses to negotiate with over pay and conditions. But because there is a balance, a layer of officials arises. It fears the absolute dominance of the bosses (which would eliminate unions entirely) but also the independent action of workers (as that would render its mediating role irrelevant). It functions as an obstacle to full expression of workers’ democracy.

Again British history is informative. The mid-19th century was the era of “Old Unionism” involving skilled workers in particular, narrow trades. This “labour aristocracy”, some 15 percent of the working class, opposed the employment of unskilled men and women to maximise the price of its own labour. Old Unionism developed the “Junta”-a strong grouping of elected union bureaucrats dedicated to compromise with employers and the avoidance of strikes. As a means of expressing the wish of the majority class to rule Old Unionism was ineffective.

In the 1880s mass strikes created “New Unions” based on class-wide recruitment. They were ambitious in democratic terms. As Will Thorne of the National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers wrote, by making “international working-class solidarity a reality [for] the underpaid and oppressed workers…we offered…something tangible, a definite, clearly-lighted road out of their misery”.48 However, an employers’ offensive ended the New Unionist upsurge. The weakness of the unskilled in the face of determined bosses now made them reliant on negotiations by union officials. By the turn of the 20th century, therefore, a caste of full-time bureaucrats dominated both New and Old Unionism and internal democracy was largely stymied.

In Britain the first conscious drive to break out of this and achieve workers’ democracy both within unions and in society generally came from the syndicalists, a group of militants who believed parliament could not be the agent of change. They saw democratic progress coming through workers’ own organisations-the unions. Although history has shown this hope to have been flawed, they achieved important insights into the way unions functioned, which are still relevant today.

Active during the Labour Unrest of 1910-14, syndicalists in South Wales published The Miners’ _Next Step which proclaimed “Industrial Democracy the objective” through reformed trade unions. This would not be achieved by applying the rules of bourgeois democratic formalism, because “no constitution, however admirable in its structure, can be of any avail, unless the whole is quickened and animated by that, which will give it the breath of life-a militant aggressive policy”.49

For syndicalists the way to workers’ democracy lay through class struggle:

The policy of conciliation gives the real power of the men into the hands of a few leaders. Somebody says: “What about conferences and ballots”? Conferences are only called, and ballots only taken when there is a difference of opinion between leaders… They, the leaders, become “gentlemen”, they become MPs, and have considerable social prestige because of this power… Now, every inroad the rank and file make on this privilege lessens the power and prestige of the leader. Can we wonder then that leaders are averse to change?… The leader then has an interest – a vested interest in stopping progress.50

“Militant aggressive” policies included “different methods and ways of striking”,51 and mass meetings (rather than passive ballots), because “the tendency of large meetings is always towards purity of tone and breadth of outlook. The reactionary cuts a poor figure under such circumstances”.52 As well as blowing away the cobwebs of parliamentarism, the pamphlet proposed democratic centralism by advocating “Decentralisation for Negotiating” and “Centralisation for Fighting”.53

During the First World War the proletarian democratic current was renewed through a movement of engineering shop stewards. Its lessons were crystallised in The Workers’ _Committee by J T Murphy. He provided an acute analysis of union bureaucracy:

Everyone is aware that usually a man gets into office on the strength of revolutionary speeches, which strangely contrast with those of a later date after a period in office… Now compare the outlook of the man in the workshop and the man as a full-time official. As a man in the workshop he feels every change; the workshop atmosphere is his atmosphere; the conditions under which he labours are primary; his trade union constitution is secondary, and sometimes even more remote. But let the same man get into office. He is removed out of the workshop; he meets a fresh class of people, and breathes a different atmosphere. Those things which were once primary are now secondary. He becomes buried in the constitution, and of necessity looks from a new point of view… Thus we obtain a contrast between those who reflect working class conditions and those who are remote from them.54

Murphy aimed “to invigorate the labour movement with the real democratic spirit” by creating a rank and file movement independent of the bureaucracy.55

As with The Miners’ _Next Step, Murphy had understood that the workers’ desire to shape their working lives was not hampered by badly worded constitutions so much as the energy put into struggle.56 Though formal procedures are far from irrelevant, they themselves reflect the balance between rank and file activity and the bureaucracy. The best provide a channel for pressure to come from below, though the pace of constitutional change usually lags behind developments outside.

Another barometer of union democracy is reflected by the bureaucracy itself. The division between “right” and “left” leaders is not so much “party political” as dependent on whether negotiation or struggle is seen as the union’s key function. Left wing and right wing leaders influence the way the organisation operates, but even this cannot be abstracted from concrete conditions. There is no constitutional formula that can prevent sellouts by left wing leaders if the working class itself feels weak or passive and unable to fight. Conversely a militant, active rank and file membership can pressure right wing officials into action, or lead independent union action, if the officials are obstructing the democratic demands of the base. The famous formula of the Clyde Workers’ Committee sums it up perfectly: “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them”.57

The battle over how strike action is decided illustrates the difference between bourgeois and proletarian democracy. Secret postal ballots allow the pressure of capitalist media and bourgeois individualism more scope than mass meetings, where collective will is to the fore. In the 1980s Thatcher claimed, “The government are anxious to promote trade union democracy” by imposing secret ballots.58 One Tory MP contrasted the sort of mass meeting envisaged by The Miners’ _Next Step to secret ballots: “Today, a man must be all but a hero to lead a vote, by show of hands…at the average mass meeting of his union.” The secret ballot, he said, is a “basic democratic right”.59 These alternative conceptions of democracy were put to a practical test in the miners’ strike of 1984-5. As Mike Simons puts it:

The call for a ballot was not a demand for genuinely democratic debate and decision-making. It was a weapon in a class war… In 1984 the miners’ opponents wanted the ballot because they believed it would break the union. In fact the 1984 strike spread to involve the great majority of the workforce through a thoroughly democratic method-miners from one pit or area going to another to explain face to face why solidarity and unity were essential.60

Whatever advances the collective challenge to the rule of the capitalist class is a step to real democracy; whatever encourages passivity hampers that struggle.

Since the defeat of the miners a raft of anti-union legislation has entrenched the secret ballot, and often the choice for union activists is between no consultation of the membership on a pressing issue, or such a ballot. In these circumstances bourgeois democracy is better than dictatorship, and a secret ballot is preferable to no vote. But it is a poor substitute.

Reformist parties

In the battle for proletarian democracy trade unions are important, but they have a key restriction. Sectional bodies focused on wages and conditions are limited in their capacity to transform society, and so secure collective power. It requires an organisation whose members are drawn from the majority, irrespective of employment status, and centred on wider political questions. That means a political party, and historically there have been three main types-reformist, Stalinist and revolutionary.

Whereas unions reflect the balance of class struggle, reformist parties mirror the ideological balance. If workers fully accepted bourgeois ideas, reformist parties would not exist. If they rejected them and made a revolution, the same would be true. Furthermore, to maximise votes reformist parties appeal to a large proportion of the working class, to those who hold ideas ranging from reactionary to left wing. In that sense the reformist party claims to represent the class as it exists under capitalism.61 This situation underpins the internal regime of reformist parties.

Whatever their intentions, reformist parties become fundamentally undemocratic because they accept parliamentarism. The focus is getting MPs elected, and it is they who dominate, whatever the party’s constitution. In turn, by accepting the “rules of the game” they end up running capitalism when in government. The transmission belt runs from the top down, not the other way round, and far from the reformist party serving the working class, the ordinary members end up suffering at its hands. Reformist parties do not capture the capitalist state; it is they that are captured.

The British Labour Party demonstrates this process well. Before 1918 Labour consisted of affiliated trade unions and socialist societies (like the Independent Labour Party). Its MPs were not accountable to party members, and indeed that category did not yet exist. It was mass wartime radicalism at home and fear of the 1917 Russian Revolution that led Labour to establish individual membership and adopt the socialist Clause Four (which, if enacted, would have meant some real democratic control over the means of production). The 1918 constitution set up local branches, a system of annual conferences, the National Executive Committee and the paraphernalia of internal democracy. So it was the external pressure of mass radicalism and revolution that brought about limited democratic advance.

For a long time the leadership consistently ignored conference decisions and members’ wishes, but at least the democratic pretence continued. However, union defeats in the 1980s, with a consequent loss of working class confidence, allowed Blair formally to abolish party democracy, at the same time as scrapping Clause Four.

Revolutionary democracy and revolutionary parties

Since trade unions and reformist parties operate within the framework of the system and inevitably sell out, some people, such as the Spanish indignados, reject all political parties and trade unions on principle as undemocratic.62 This label should not be applied to revolutionary parties because they aim to overthrow the capitalist system, so that the collective will of the masses really can rule.

The means to achieving this ultimate goal becomes visible when organs of mass popular democracy emerge during revolutions. There have been many instances, ranging from the Paris Commune to the Russian soviet and beyond.63 These were not invented by some political thinker, but emerged spontaneously, as a natural form of collective power, from mass struggle.

Whereas parliamentary systems use arbitrary geographical constituencies as the basis for voting, leaving the core power of the capitalists untouched, through the soviet or its equivalents workers exercise collective control of the means of production and the state by electing delegates from workplaces to form organs of state power. Since these workplaces operate continuously delegates can be subject to instant recall. All that is required is a shop meeting to change them. MPs are only accountable once in four or five years. Soviet delegates go from workplaces with the salary of those who elect them, so they experience the consequences of their decisions. MPs are insulated and their pay is unrelated to their constituents’.

Even here it is important not to mystify organisational form. Trotsky chaired the first soviet (in 1905 St Petersburg), yet he found “contemptible and sinister” anyone who:

abstracts only the bare form and converts it into a fetish. This is what has happened to the soviets… As if the soviets cannot be a weapon for deceiving the workers and peasants! What else were the Menshevik-Socialist Revolutionary Soviets of 1917? Nothing but a weapon for the support of the power of the bourgeoisie and the preparation of its dictatorship. What were the social democratic soviets in Germany and Austria in 1918-1919? Organs for saving the bourgeoisie and for deceiving the workers.64

So the immediate representative democracy of the soviet creates only the potential for proletarian rule. To go further it has to wish to do so, and that depends on the majority being won to revolution. In Russia this came from the persuasive efforts of the Bolsheviks, from a revolutionary party. When the Tsar was overthrown in February 1917 the Bolsheviks called for “All Power to the Soviet of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies”. Although only a minority of the soviet supported this at first, by the autumn the majority did so, and on 25 October, with an almost bloodless insurrection in the capital, now renamed Petrograd, the slogan became a reality.

The combination of a revolutionary party and the soviet led to the greatest leap forward in democracy ever achieved. By overthrowing the minority power of aristocrats and capitalists mass rule became effective, and made possible the Bolshevik policy “Peace, land and bread”. While the parliaments of Germany, Britain and France continued with the First World War, a detested, futile war, the Soviet government responded to the urgent demands of the soldiers, and ended hostilities the day after coming to power. Peasants comprised the vast majority of the Russian population, and their longing for land was answered that same day, when seizure of the aristocracy’s estates was legalised. In the towns workers were taking control of their factories. By early 1918, 500 had been nationalised and Lenin soon noted that they had taken over more enterprises “than we have had time to count”.65

The breakthrough fed major advances in the rights of women, ethnic minorities, gays and so on. It was possible because, through the interaction of a revolutionary party, the soviet form, and control over the means of production, popular representation, power and the social context were now mutually complementary.

Tragically that did not last. The soviets became an empty shell. Through a purged Bolshevik Party the Stalinist dictatorship ran the state and ruthlessly exploited the masses. What had gone wrong? A common view is this was the inevitable product of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party and its methods. The historian Robert Service, for example, asserts that Lenin “had an especially bossy personality”,66 so:

Bolshevism itself had a predisposition in favour of political, economic and social ultra-authoritarianism; and, even if not Stalin but Trotsky or Bukharin or even Kamenev had assumed the supreme party leadership after Lenin’s death, an ultra-authoritarian system of rule would have prevailed. Trotsky, Bukharin and Kamenev-like Lenin-advocated a milder variant of Bolshevism than Stalin’s. But it was still Bolshevism.67

So the utter destruction of democracy is explained in terms of bossiness and the “predisposition” of Bolshevism, even though Service grudgingly accepts that “the Bolsheviks were a party whose members in 1917, among themselves, acted relatively democratically”.68

However, if Service is correct, then the inner workings of the party led to dictatorship over society. That runs counter to the argument of this article: that the political system (including the inner functioning of parties) must be understood in relation to the social context, or as Marx put it, the superstructure must be interpreted in relation to the base.69 How did this operate in Russia?

Due to its collective character in production, both the Bolshevik Party and soviet democracy relied on a militant, but relatively small working class. The peasants, who comprised 80 percent of the population and were spread over the vast countryside, lacked a similar cohesion or collective interest and participated to a lesser extent in the councils of “workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ deputies”.

After the October Revolution there was a brutal civil war. Reds were pitted against Whites and foreign capitalist intervention. 180,000 workers died. Disruption to production meant the working class declined from 2.6 million to 1.2 million. The population of Petrograd, which had pioneered the revolution, fell from 2,400,000 to 720,000. A contemporary commentator wrote, “There is no example in the history of mankind of such a decrease in productive power suffered, not by a small community, but by a great hundred-million strong society”.70 The result was a quarter of the population, 35 million people, experienced acute hunger, and there were even cases of cannibalism.71 The Whites were beaten in the civil war, but the massive military effort had required a large bureaucracy. At the end of the war the number of state officials stood at 5,880,000-five times the number of industrial workers.72

In this situation collective rule would have evaporated whether Lenin was bossy or not. This is not to deny the importance of individuals, for as Marx said, “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please…but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”.73 Lenin, Trotsky and other leaders tried to stem the tide, but had little effect in the face of such odds, because the social context was utterly hostile to their efforts. The working class was completely outweighed by peasants and the state bureaucracy. In the 1920s the latter groups fought for supremacy under the leadership of Bukharin and Stalin respectively. Destruction of Bolshevik Party democracy ran in parallel with the decline of the working class. The internal regime eventually took a fixed Stalinist form that reflected the state capitalist system Stalin ran-a completely dictatorial regime both within the party and in the country generally.

Russia’s amazing democratic achievements and their utter destruction offer startling proof of our argument. In 1917 Soviet Russia exhibited all the immediacy of rule seen in Athenian direct democracy but went even further by encompassing, if only momentarily, the majority of a vast society. The Leninist party was an essential component of the great democratic advance of 1917; so the question of how a revolutionary party functions is of huge significance for democracy.

Just as there is a connection between the internal structures of reformist parties and their external environment, so it is with revolutionary parties. While both operate under the constraints of capitalism, their relation to these constraints is quite different. In this context the question of leadership is key.

Reformist parties (like trade unions) recruit from the majority of the working class who, to varying degrees, accept the ideas of capitalism. One of these ideas is that the top brass are there to win concessions on behalf of the rank and file. This renders the members passive, leaving the leaders as the active factor. The latter are left free to mediate between capitalists and the rank and file, or are incorporated into capitalism through prestige and high salaries. This divorces them from the membership, encouraging personal or ideological corruption.

The Leninist party model is entirely different, and not based on bourgeois democracy but the relationship between ideas, revolutionary goals and its environment. Though aiming to convince the majority class to take control, a revolutionary party is very much a minority, attracting only the most politically advanced to its ranks. They, in turn, seek to act as a vanguard, to win over the reformist majority of the working class. For the minority to do this it must put forward radical arguments, and propose alternative forms of action-in other words to lead. Thus the revolutionary party must aspire to make every member a leader. In that sense the normal definition of leaders/followers breaks down, and it is more accurate to talk about a technical division of labour between a “party centre” and a party rank and file.

The centre may consist of those who have proved their abilities, can bring particular theoretical or practical experience to bear, have the time and opportunity to play a central role in the organisation, and so on. But, in essence, it is not distinct from the rank and file in the way that an MP or union general secretary is. Bourgeois democracy makes a fetish of elections and representation in order to disguise who really rules. The revolutionary party has no use for such a fetish. It does not exist for itself, for the momentary satisfaction individuals might gain from self-expression in a ballot, but for a specific purpose-the transformation of society. Its internal processes are there to assist that process and nothing more.

Revolutionary party members cannot passively wait for the centre to act on their behalf, nor is it in the interest of the centre for the members to be reduced to passivity. The relationship between both must be dynamic and interactive if a party of leaders is to exist. It does not follow that a revolutionary party is automatically immune from bureaucratic degeneration. Protection from that lies not so much in a constitution as in political action. The relationship between internal structure and external context applies here, as elsewhere.

In seeking to engage with those who are at present to its right, a revolutionary party exposes itself to a working class that is majority reformist. So the danger of accommodating to reformism does not disappear just because someone joins. For example, members may hold prominent positions in trade unions; that puts them under pressure from the bureaucracy. Other members might begin with a revolutionary attitude but succumb to bourgeois ideology over time. Revolutionaries must work alongside members of reformist organisations in joint campaigns and may be more influenced by them rather than vice versa.

In this situation the party cannot remain true to its ideal of winning real democracy unless it can prevent this drag to the right. So a primary democratic function of the internal structure is to uphold the revolutionary ideal against pressures on members to accommodate. For this to work all of the party must be accountable for their actions and their politics-both at the centre and in the rank and file. Accountability is absent in reformist parties, because members can hold backward bourgeois ideas, leaders can sell out-and nothing happens. Russia’s Mensheviks were originally in the same party as the Bolsheviks (the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party), but a split occurred precisely over the issue of accountability, which they regarded as unnecessary. When the Bolsheviks achieved their great democratic leap forward, the Mensheviks were in the camp of the Whites, battling through civil war to defeat these gains.

Countering the drag to the right produces an opposite danger-that the party becomes a sect. Till the moment of the revolution itself revolutionaries are constantly swimming against the stream, and so there is a temptation to renounce meaningful interaction with the working class and retreat into a more comfortable isolation. This leaves them preaching at the class from the sidelines rather than trying to lead. This has been the fate of many socialist parties in the past. The internal regime of a sect is sclerotic and tends to lack democratic debate, because all that is required (for both leadership and rank and file) is constant repetition of unchanging general beliefs and strategy. Revolution, which alone can bring real democracy, cannot be achieved if it becomes a sterile belief and is not constantly tested, developed and informed by the struggle for leadership in the working class. So just as the revolutionary party protects itself from the pressure to adapt to its capitalist environment, it must expose itself through intervention.

This requires an internal structure that reflects members’ experience in striving to lead within the working class and decides how to act. It is called “democratic centralism”. It does not prefigure a workers’ state or mass democracy, such as the soviet. Trotsky, whose commitment to proletarian democracy cost him his life at the hands of a Stalinist assassin, was insistent that democratic centralism was not a formal set of constitutional points. There was no:

formula on democratic centralism that “once and for all” would eliminate misunderstandings and false interpretations. A party is an active organism. It develops in the struggle with outside obstacles and inner contradictions… The regime of a party does not fall ready made from the sky but is formed gradually in struggle. A political line predominates over the regime. First of all, it is necessary to define strategic problems and tactical methods correctly in order to solve them. The organisational forms should correspond to the strategy and the tactic.74

Here is a classic expression of this article’s argument. The key to healthy internal relationships within a revolutionary party is the correct political orientation outside the party. Such intervention consists of two elements-the formulation of the strategy and its application. The balance was described by Lenin in these terms:

We must centralise the leadership of the movement. We must also…decentralise responsibility to the party on the part of its individual members, of every participant in its work, and of every circle belonging to or associated with the party. This decentralisation is an essential prerequisite of revolutionary centralisation and an essential corrective to it.75

Democratic centralism is not only a necessity from an internal party point of view. It is an essential counter both at this level, and at the level of the working class as a whole, to the undemocratic centralism of the ruling class.

Whatever democratic figleaf is in place, the capitalist minority of exploiters depend on intense centralism to prevail against the majority. The capitalist state is highly centralised, and most noticeably so in its weapons of coercion-the army and police. Here power is concentrated through a rigid, unelected and unaccountable hierarchy, from privates at the base to generals at the top. But this is mirrored equally in the staggering concentrations represented by giant corporations. For example, in 2007 Walmart, Exxon and Shell were each worth as much as the Greek economy, larger than Denmark, Argentina and South Africa, and so on.

The working class needs to centralise its efforts if it is to stand up against such accumulations of force. As a class this cannot be achieved on an individual basis. It requires the involvement of as many people as possible and so must also be democratic. In both an abstract and a practical sense, democracy and centralism are contradictory and complementary.

It is easy to talk about democratic centralism in a revolutionary party, but harder to practise it. If that party spends all its time in democratic discussions to find the best approach, it ceases to deserve the name and becomes an irrelevant talking shop and sect. If a party spends all its time implementing decisions that have been taken, but never revises them to fit changing circumstances, it will be out of touch with the needs of the moment-again a sect. The correct balance must be struck, although this changes constantly.

Writing on the subject in 1937 Trotsky said:

Democracy and centralism do not at all find themselves in an invariable ratio to one another. Everything depends on the concrete circumstances, on the political situation in the country, on the strength of the party and its experience, on the general level of its members, on the authority the leadership has succeeded in winning. Before a conference, when the problem is one of formulating a political line for the next period, democracy triumphs over centralism.

When the problem is political action, centralism subordinates democracy to itself. Democracy again asserts its rights when the party feels the need to examine critically its own actions. The equilibrium between democracy and centralism establishes itself in the actual struggle; at moments it is violated and then again re-established.76

Democratic centralism in the revolutionary party is the opposite of what occurs under the most free and fair parliamentary system. Here the centralism of the rich and powerful and their state, armies, courts and legislatures work to protect the ruling class, all under the pretence of democracy.


It is common to talk about democracy without regard to the specific social context in which it is operating. Hopefully this article has shown that is a profound mistake, and that meaningful discussion must always differentiate between the different types. Because capitalists own the means of production it is inevitable that their version of democracy separates form from content; representation from rule; demos from kratei; leaders from led. Proletarian democracy unites all of these elements in a dialectical synthesis which alone can bring collective control to the majority and liberate humanity.77

The current capitalist crisis poses an unprecedented challenge to those who believe in democracy. In many places the pressure of the money markets and corporations is such that the falsity and superficiality of bourgeois democracy are exposed. At the same time there is a wave of resistance. It takes many forms; but in every case, whether it is a general strike, a popular revolution or a mass movement such as Occupy, the sinews of the popular will to collectively rule can be seen at work. The history of democracy from ancient Greece to present-day Greece shows the potential for genuine rule by the masses once and for all.


1: Miliband, 2004, p68.

2: Lenin, 1976, p22.

3: Howard, 1971, p84.

4: Ober, 1996, p5.

5: Davies, 2004, pp260-286.

6: Ober, 1996, p23.

7: Jones, 1969, pp99-101.

8: Davies, 2004, p18.

9: Jones, 1969, p17.

10: Wood, 1988, p61.

11: Ste Croix, 1983, p141.

12: Wood, 1988, p43.

13: Meiggs, 1972, p439.

14: Quoted in Claster, 1967, p44.

15: Quoted in Meiggs, 1972, p264.

16: Meiggs, 1972, p258.

17: Ma, Papazarkadas and Parker, 2009, p215.

18: Jones, 1969, p131.

19: Ober, 1996, p90.

20: Jones, 1969, pp91-92.

21: Molyneux, 2012.

22: Bémont, 1930, p231.

23: Bémont, 1930, p216.

24: Bémont, 1930, p227.

25: 212,200 out of 1,170,400-Morton, 1979, p212.

26: Manning, 1976, pp152-153.

27: Manning, 1976, p96.

28: Manning, 1976, p98.

29: Quoted in Manning, 1976, p109.

30: Quoted in Hill, 1972, p63.

31: John Hotham quoted in Manning, 1976, p216. The Hothams were originally the focal point of resistance to the king in Yorkshire, but when peace did not come they changed to the royalist side.

32: Quoted in Hill, 1972, p71.

33: Quoted in Foot, 2005, p28.

34: Foot, 2005, p28.

35: There is debate about whether the Levellers advocated full universal male suffrage, or a vote more restricted to the “middling sort”. Foot (in The Vote) and A L Morton (in Morton, 1979) affirm the former. Manning disagrees: “The Levellers did not attempt to question the assumptions of the patriarchal society in which they lived: voting was to be by household, in which the male head cast the vote for his servants and apprentices as well as for his wife and children”-Manning, 1976, p311. In one sense this is a non-issue. The “middling sort” genuinely believed their interests were universal, something which seemed plausible in the days before the lower classes and women were able to articulate their wishes clearly. There were, however, hints of other possibilities created by the bourgeois revolution and its openings. The Diggers, for example, went even further than the Levellers and advocated communal ownership of the land. During the French Revolution similar radical programmes were advanced by groups such as the enragés, and Babeuf’s Conspiracy of the Equals).

36: Quoted in Hill, 1972, p105.

37: Aylmer, 1963, p162.

38: Quoted in Foot, 2005, p72.

39: Bronterre O’Brien, quoted in Foot, 2005, p96.

40: Quoted in Foot, 2005, p137.

41: Foot, 2005, p236.

42: Trotsky, 1974, volume 1, pp21-22.

43: Cliff and Gluckstein, 1988, p382.

44: Lenin, 1993, pp67-68.

45: Thyssen, 1941, p62.

46: This explains the phenomenon of Bonapartism, such as discussed by Marx in his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Marx describes how, in certain situations of crisis, the bourgeoisie volunteers to relinquish direct rule of its own.

47: Marx and Engels, 1976, p495.

48: Kapp, 1976, p323.

49: The Miners’ Next Step, 1973, p30.

50: The Miners’ Next Step, 1973, p15.

51: The Miners’ Next Step, 1973, p30.

52: The Miners’ Next Step, 1973, p31.

53: The Miners’ Next Step, 1973, p30.

54: Murphy, 1972, pp13-14.

55: Murphy, 1972, p18.

56: Murphy, 1972, pp14-15.

57: Quoted in Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, p34.

58: Margaret Thatcher, Hansard, House of Commons debate, 11 February 1982.

59: John Browne (Tory MP for Winchester) in Hansard, House of Commons debate, 22 April 1980.

60: Simons, 2004, pp9-10.

61: See Cliff, Harman, Hallas and Trotsky, 1996.

62: See Molyneux, 2011, for a discussion of the anarchist critique of party organisation, and its weaknesses.

63: See Ness and Azzelini, 2011.

64: Trotsky, 1974, volume 3, p185.

65: Lenin, 1964, volume 26, p334.

66: Service, 1997, p94.

67: Service, 1997, p97.

68: Service, 1997, p97.

69: For a thorough discussion of the interrelationship see Harman, 1986.

70: Kritsman, 1971, p257.

71: Cliff, 1978, p90.

72: Cliff, 1978, p178.


74: My emphasis. From a US Internal Bulletin in December 1937, prior to the formation the SWP (US)

75: Cliff, 1975, p249.


77: This runs counter to the classic expression of “separation of powers” developed by Montesquieu before the French Revolution. In his Civil War in France Marx praised the merger of executive and legislature in the Paris Commune as a feature of proletarian democracy.


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