This spring, inaugural Assemblies for Democracy in London, Manchester and Glasgow will identify the major issues with our clearly inadequate democracy and then start work thinking on how we could solve them.
The Spring Assemblies are part of the unfolding conversation about what Al Gore once described as our “hollowed-out democracy”. Can we fix it with a few palliative, reformist measures? Or, dare we suggest, has representative democracy had its day? Do we, as Owen Jones thinks, need a “democratic revolution”? If Jones and others like Russell Brand are right about democracy’s failings, how are we going to achieve deep-going change? Read more
I think pushing forward a debate about democracy onto the Left and wider society is one of the key missing links in the radical movement that we need to put back in place if that movement is to move forward with a clear alternative social vision to capitalism.
For me, democracy is more about process than structure; I am fundamentally opposed to revolutionary socialism because it takes the form without the soul of democracy and thereby indulges itself in a disingenuous imagining of non-existent mandates based on split votes – in so doing, it apes bourgeois parliamentarianism’s claim to political legitimacy, when in fact the elites running the western nation states only started re-badging their chosen political form as ‘democracy’ in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in response to the threat arising from having to concede of the extension of voting rights beyond ‘people of property’. ‘Democracy’, in its bourgeois form, arose in response to the rise of socialism.
The Left has hardly moved the idea of democracy forward over the past 100 years, when the Council Republics which sprang up in Central and Eastern Europe, drawing from Chartism and ‘Utopian Socialism’, with their ideas of communitarianism, co-operation and self-management; ideas largely ignored by social democratic histories. These socialists also often preached and practised the liberation of women and a radical gender politics that would often not be matched by the left until the late twentieth century.
These Council Republics sprang from the self-organisation of the working class and advocated a more radical and more direct democracy which often went hand in hand with demands for greater control over MPs, championing plebiscites and referenda as well as suggestions for the rotation principle in leadership to prevent the emergence of a permanent leadership. In 1921, some of these socialists came together in the International Workers’ Union of Socialist Parties, also known as ‘Vienna Union’.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s a string of independent socialists of this type defied the stark dichotomies between communist dogmatism and social democratic reformism, both of which merely aped the bourgeois concept of democracy, with its emphasis of form, not content.
The key question for these ‘third position’ socialists was not about political power but about social power. Democratic processes needed to be adopted in all power relationships – in the family, the workplace, in neighbourhood groups and even in the army. Ideas about industrial democracy, workers’ control, socialisation and workers’ self-management were particularly prominent among left-wing socialists who refused to commit themselves either to the reformism of social democracy or the undemocratic antics of the communists.
The crisis of democracy is best and more accurately seen as a crisis of bourgeois parliamentarianism; I am glad the Greens recognise this, which is why I put forward a motion to the last LU conference support their Peoples Democratic Convention. It got a derisory vote, based mostly on grim tales of the Greens’ support for cuts in Brighton.
If such a debate about democracy can be dealt with so cursorily within Left Unity, I can only conclude that there is an enormous amount of work for Assemblies for Democracy to do within the Left.
I could tear my hair out at times when witnessing the Left’s continuing inability and unwillingness to exploit the crisis in bourgeois parliamentarianism; at times it seems that all that separates us from capitalism is a different economic vision; Marx’s more holistic concept of human emancipation involves so much more than this.
All power to what you are trying to do!
There can be no prioritizing of process over structure. It is the structure that determines the quality of the process. Get that right and one of the key factors that influences process will be right.