On-line discussion: What kind of democracy do we have, and need?

This meeting was chaired by Nick Wrack, on 18th September 2023. Watch the video here.

Ed Potts introduces a discussion looking at democracy.  What sort of democracy do we have under capitalism?  What sort of democracy do we need?  What should democracy mean in the workers’ movement?

Ed starts by reflecting on the limitations of bourgeois democracy within capitalism.  We have regular elections to parliament and local government, but this falls short of genuine self-rule of the common people.  There are hints of this shortfall in the growing rates of abstention, protest votes and votes for anti-democratic options.  The 18th & 19th century revolutions promoted principles of legal equality of all, freedom of expression, freedom of association and free elections by secret ballot, but workers don’t have the material means to exercise the rights that bourgeois constitutions grant formally to all citizens.  The state is not a neutral apparatus to implement whatever the people choose.  Democratic processes can only execute decisions involving resources that are within the people’s control. Most importantly, the wealth of society (and the means of production) are not subject to democratic control.  Nonetheless, the formal democracy that we have under capitalism creates a space in which we can argue and fight to remove the constraints on greater material democracy.  Even within the formal democracy that exists now, there is a constant tug-of-war, trying to reduce the scope of democratic oversight and control (eg taking schools out of control of local elected authorities).

Ed then explores how democracy within the workers’ movement points the way towards democratic planning of economic life to meet the needs of all in a communist society, and some of the challenges that will be faced then: the opportunities for mass participation, the need to make administration efficient, to balance between experts and specialists, to enable everyone to be involved, to take turns to participate in governance, as a civic duty.

There then follows a wide-ranging and lively discussion, with contributions from many participants:

*  Today’s society is really the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.  Many of the concessions of bourgeois democracy were a consequence of the Russian revolution.  The level of abstentions show how many people realise that the candidates on the ballot box are not going to solve their problems.  Local government is a stark example of how tightly the parameters and constraints are set on democratic decisions (eg budget, processes, rules).  Corruption is rife in bourgeois democracy – politicians can be bought, and politicians are more accountable to their donors/sponsors than they are to their electorate.  The legal system is another aspect of democracy, and there is a difference between the formal right to participate in the legal system, and the material power to exercise that right (eg loss of legal aid).

*  There is a point to communists standing in bourgeois elections to engage people with our ideas and build support, but we should be careful not to sow illusions in what can be achieved through those elections.

*  The need for us not only to fight for an extension of, and to defend, existing democracy, but also to recognise that real democracy requires equality of power, including in the economic sphere.  The far-right is on rise across the world, and democracy is being undermined.  Bourgeois democratic rights were wrung from the bourgeoisie through working class struggle, and we have to fight to protect and retain what we have won so far.

*  In the Paris Commune, the working class took steps to impose its authority, abolishing the police, replacing the standing army with an armed people, election and recall of all officials, by universal suffrage, and the rotation of officials, on wages of the average worker.  The Russian soviets also began to show what workers’ democracy would look like, and these were echoed in the UK General Strike, and in France in ’68.  The pandemic recently threw up new forms of democratic organisation, on the ground, and we should never be prescriptive about the shape of workers’ democracy in new situations.  How do we move from current bourgeois democracy to communist democracy?  Answer is in democracy in a mass workers’ party, and in the workers’ movement, moving into a situation of dual power.  This must involve freedom of expression, and right to recall representatives.

It’s a great discussion, well-informed and inclusive, and well worth spending the time to watch it!

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