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Their democracy vs ours

By: 
Faline Bobier

March 31, 2014

When we look at the so-called democratic societies we live in today, what does this democracy mean? For most of us it means that every four years or so we can go to the polls and vote for one or other set of venal politicians.
 
In the US voters have the choice of Tweedle Dum or Tweedle Dee, since both the Democratic and Republican parties represent the interests of big business and the rich.
 
Here in Canada we have a third option, which is to vote for the only political party with any links to workers and to workers’ organizations—trade unions. This is the New Democratic Party (NDP). Many activists will work to elect NDP members in their provincial or federal ridings. It’s definitely a step forward that we have such a party. But even though many people looking for social justice and increased democracy will vote for the NDP as the only option, there is a long history around the world of workers being betrayed by social democratic parties that they hoped would work in their interests, rather than in the interests of the wealthy minority for whom most governments govern.
 
Capitalism vs democracy
This gets to the very heart of what socialists mean by democracy. Social democractic governments are elected to parliament but not to power. The real power that governs our lives lies in the corporate boardrooms where decisions are made that daily consign workers to the scrap heap, particularly in periods of capitalist crisis, such as the one we are living through presently.
 
When Karl Marx argued that socalism could not be achieved by benevolent governments bringing democracy to the masses of ordinary people, he was making an argument about the nature of real democracy and the active role that the working class must play in creating this democracy.
 
Under capitalism, even in bourgeois democratic societies where there are regular elections, ordinary people have very little say in all the structures that govern their lives. Crucially if there is no democracy in the workplace, where all decisions are made about what to produce, how to produce it and for whom, there can be no real democracy in society.
 
Marx argued that in class society it is the tiny elite at the top of society, the 1% that own and control the means of production, who make the important decisions that affect whether workers can afford to feed their families, take holidays, help their children get an education. In other words, under capitalism we live in a world where the 1% make all the critical decisions about how the rest of us will live our lives.
 
For Marx, the path to socialism could only be achieved by turning this equation on its head. Workers, the vast majority in society, must take control in the workplace and thereby wrest control from those whose only bottom line is profit and how much they can squeeze, out of both the natural environment and human beings themselves. But the notion that ordinary people, by joining together, could overturn the actually existing dictatorship of the 1%, wasn’t an idea that sprang from Marx’s head fully realized.
 
From the Commune to workers councils
It was through his observation of the Paris Commune of 1871, when ordinary Parisians took control of their city and ousted their rulers, that Marx learned the potential of workers to fundamentally undermine capitalism. He wrote a brilliant pamphlet, The Civil War in France, where he described the process by which ordinary people created a democracy that, although short-lived, turned all the old hierarchies upside down:
 
“Paris, the central seat of the old governmental power, and, at the same time, the social stronghold of the French working class, had risen in arms against the attempt of Thiers and the Rurals to restore and perpetuate that old governmental power bequeathed to them by the empire. Paris could resist only because, in consequence of the siege, it had got rid of the army, and replaced it by a National Guard, the bulk of which consisted of working men…The first decree of the Commune, therefore, was the suppression of the standing army, and the substitution for it of the armed people.
The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.
Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible, and at all times revocable, agent of the Commune. So were the officials of all other branches of the administration. From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workman’s wage. The vested interests and the representation allowances of the high dignitaries of state disappeared along with the high dignitaries themselves. Public functions ceased to be the private property of the tools of the Central Government. Not only municipal administration, but the whole initiative hitherto exercised by the state was laid into the hands of the Commune.
Having once got rid of the standing army and the police – the physical force elements of the old government – the Commune was anxious to break the spiritual force of repression, the “parson-power", by the disestablishment and disendowment of all churches as proprietary bodies. The priests were sent back to the recesses of private life, there to feed upon the alms of the faithful in imitation of their predecessors, the apostles.
The whole of the educational institutions were opened to the people gratuitously, and at the same time cleared of all interference of church and state. Thus, not only was education made accessible to all, but science itself freed from the fetters which class prejudice and governmental force had imposed upon it.
The judicial functionaries were to be divested of that sham independence which had but served to mask their abject subserviency to all succeeding governments to which, in turn, they had taken, and broken, the oaths of allegiance. Like the rest of public servants, magistrates and judges were to be elective, responsible, and revocable.”
This self-government of the people by the people and for the people had little to do with the previous government of the wealthy in the interests of the wealthy, as Marx describes: "It is not the self-government of the towns by turtle-soup guzzling aldermen, jobbing vestries and ferocious workhouse guardians... It is not the political self-government of the country through an oligarchic club and the reading of the Times newspaper. It is the people acting for itself by itself."
 
The Commune lasted only a few short months but the lessons Marx drew from this embryonic experience of workers’ power are critical to an understanding of how workers can fight and win today.
 
Similarly Lenin learned and generalized the importance of soviets—workers and soldiers’ councils—which emerged in the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, which were the instruments created by workers themselves to organize society on a collective basis. In every subsequent revolutionary situation since then we can see a similar development of workers’ organization. Whether these organizations are called “cordones” in Chile 1973 or “shoras” in Iran 1979, they have the same function: they represent the beginnings of self-organization and the creation of real democracy, where economic decisions begin to be made by those who actually create the wealth in society.
 
Workers’ rights
Today, when workers’ rights are under attack in country after country, where we see the encroachment of “right to work” legislation in many states in the US and the threat of the same here in Canada by Tory politicians like Stephen Harper and Tim Hudak, the defense of workers’ organization under capitalism-that is, unions-is incredibly important.
 
These attacks are being waged ferociously by ruling classes around the world because the 1% understand that the biggest threat to their neoliberal agenda is the ability of the 99% to organize and fight back.
 
Unions are not revolutionary organizations. Their ultimate goal is to mediate between workers and capital, but not necessarily to overturn the system. However, these defensive institutions that workers have developed to wrench concessions from the bosses and to improve their living standards can be great learning grounds. Today we are seeing the re-emergence of workers’ struggles in country after country, with the imposition of brutal austerity measures meant to restore profitability to capitalism, at the expense of the vast majority.
 
When a group of unionized workers occupy their workplace to stop a closure or when unorganized fast food or Walmart workers strike for the right to decent wages and to unionize, they are taking the first step on the road to real democracy. We truly have a world to win!

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