What is democracy?

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What is democracy?


Paris Commune barricade, April 1871. Source: Wikicommons.
Paris Commune barricade, April 1871. Source: Wikicommons.

“Bourgeois democracy, although a great historical advance in comparison with medievalism, always remains, and under capitalism is bound to remain, restricted, truncated, false and hypocritical, a paradise for the rich and a snare and deception for the exploited, for the poor.”

Lenin, “The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky”

The word democracy is a critical centerpiece of American rhetoric. Adding to the many tried, familiar platitudes filling U.S. political discourse, former President Obama said about the 2018 midterm elections:, “you need to vote because our democracy depends on it.” George W. Bush, during his presidency, spoke euphemistically of spreading democracy to the Middle East. In WWI Woodrow Wilson spoke about the need to “make the world safe for democracy.”

Taken literally, democracy is “rule by the people.” But who are “the people” who do this ruling? What kind of ruling is it? It is not just anyone in a given society who counts as the people. This is brought into stark relief when we consider the ostensible inventors of democracy, the Athenians. Athens was a slave society — there were more slaves than there were citizens in this city-state. In fact, at its highest, the voting population of Athens amounted to a couple tens of thousands, while the population of slaves was likely over 100 thousand. Aside from slaves, women were excluded from voting, along with people who were not native Athenians. The lesson we ought to take from this is that “the people” who rule a democratic society are not necessarily all of the people. Historically, democracy has by and large meant rule by a privileged subset of people. The United States, from its founding until today, is no exception.

American democracy as bourgeois democracy

During the 17th century, Britain established one of the first bourgeois democracies, in parliamentary form, and the United States followed suit in the 18th century with its own form of bourgeois democracy. U.S. democracy had stringent requirements for suffrage. At the time of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, one had to be a white property-owning man to vote. A critical section of this demographic at the time were slave-owning aristocrats, though over time the U.S. capitalist class would cleave into competing groups — northerly industrial capitalists and southerly slave-owning holdouts. In any case, this selective franchise left 94 percent of the American population without a say, a revealing fact about what the founders of the United States intended when they founded a government “of, by, and for the people” — certainly not the inclusive, egalitarian democracy one hears of in grade school lessons.

As a result of struggle, the right to vote has been extended over time. In the first half of the 19th century, suffrage was gradually extended to white men who did not own property. In the latter half, circumstances erupted in which the state was forced to recognize, on a federal level, the right of black men to vote. Namely, the self-emancipation of the enslaved Black Americans during the American Civil War and during Reconstruction. This right was fragile and in essence merely formal until the gains made by the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and remains tenuous and uncertain today. Women’s suffrage was achieved in 1920 after decades of struggle.

To this day American colonies like Puerto Rico and Guam have no elected representatives in the US government. And while indigenous American nations have a degree of sovereignty, they remain oppressed and dominated by the United States as well, without consolation in the form of elected representation in the government. Still, suffrage has been extended far beyond the American bourgeoisie. How, then, do we reconcile this with the idea that American democracy is bourgeois, that it is a form of capitalist domination over the working and oppressed?

No representation for workers and oppressed people

To begin with, we should consider the composition of the elected bodies of government. Despite the gains just mentioned, by and large, elected representatives in the United States are either members of the bourgeoisie, or the wealthier segments of the petit bourgeoisie. Two-thirds of Senators and nearly half of all members of Congress are millionaires. To boot, Congress is for the most part men (80%), and for the most part white (81%). By way of comparison, around 11% of American households consist of millionaires, half of Americans are women, and 62% are white. If representatives aren’t rich before they get in office, they are certainly rich afterwards, when they begin lucrative careers as lobbyists or consultants.

One cause of the disparity is wealth, which acts as the great gatekeeper to elected office. In the past, property requirements assured that only six percent, a selective capitalist clique, would be represented in the legislature, and one could clearly expect that clique to elect from among themselves. Today, any candidate who runs against a member of the bourgeoisie, if not in possession of a great deal of capital, must make their case to one who is in possession of a great deal of capital. And this cannot be done without making an appeal to represent capitalist interests once in office.

For the oppressed nations in the United States, such as the nation of Black Americans, this is a significant hurdle in the way of real representation. In total, Black families in the US have one-tenth the wealth of white families in the United States. A quarter of Black families have zero or negative net worth. Similar statistics are to be found for Chicanx families. It is clear to see that informal economic requirements for office ensure far-reaching limits on the impoverished oppressed nations of the US.

Moreover, the interests of the American bourgeoisie are in direct conflict with both the capitalists and the workers of the oppressed and occupied nations on American soil. For example, real self-determination for these nations would require substantial reparations, which the bourgeoisie would never allow to happen and in the end will require expropriation of the capitalist private property. So we already see pressing political issues taken off the table simply by virtue of the political structure in place in the US today.

The Paris Commune as proletarian democracy

For thousands of years, human societies have been dominated by some ruling class. Most of the democracies that exist today are bourgeois democracies, but history has given us glimpses of what the future holds — democracy administered by and for the working class. The first example of such a society was the Paris Commune, which came into being after the first ever seizure of power by the working class in Paris in 1871.

In the chaos of the Franco-Prussian War, as soldiers of the French army departed Paris, the Parisian working class and the Paris National Guard seized political power. Violent clashes with the National Guard had caused the government to retreat from Paris in hopes of maintaining stability. The Parisian National Guard was distinct in key ways as compared to the French army, the former having a radical left-wing outlook and closely aligned with the Parisian working class, and the latter loyal to the bourgeois government of France. Marx described this state in quite harsh terms:

Under its sway, bourgeois society… attained a development unexpected even by itself. Its industry and commerce expanded to colossal dimensions; financial swindling celebrated cosmopolitan orgies; the misery of the masses was set off by a shameless display of gorgeous, meretricious and debased luxury. The state power, apparently soaring high above society and the very hotbed of all its corruptions. Its own rottenness… were laid bare by the bayonet of Prussia….

The Paris Commune, Marx wrote, was “the direct antithesis” of this monstrosity.

The French army, expelled from Paris, was replaced by the armed working class itself. The new Commune was administered primarily by working people themselves, elected by the entire populace through universal suffrage. Governing officials were paid an average worker’s wage and could be recalled at any time. All of this stands in stark contrast to bourgeois democracy: the sky-high wages of elected officials in bourgeois democracy, the class composition of bourgeois governments, the unaccountability of elected officials who could carry on as they please without the threat of recall. “The vested interests and the representation allowances of the high dignitaries of state disappeared along with the high dignitaries themselves,” Marx wrote.

The councilors, the elected body of the Commune, did not distinguish legislation from executive matters. For this method of carrying out state affairs, there was no massive bureaucratic apparatus, appointed rather than elected, accountable only to other bureaucrats rather than the citizens themselves. There was no distinct judicial branch enjoying appointment for life, answerable to no one but themselves. The Commune was administered by a single working group who could be dismissed if they were not serving the people, answering only to the broad working masses, rather than than the ousted bourgeoisie.

The Paris Commune only lasted for a few months before it was drowned in blood by the French army. But it was a first glimpse at what would be possible, once the working class had the strength, the organization and consciousness, required to seize power. Significantly, the workers knew that they could not simply occupy existing government posts and carry out the functions of the bourgeois government. Rather, they replaced the existing government in Paris with something genuinely new.

Proletarian democracy in the Soviet Union

There were two hard-won democratic institutions in early 20th century pre-revolutionary Russia. The Russian Duma was instituted in the midst of the revolution of 1905. From its founding until its end in 1917, it remained for the most part ineffectual and dominated by conservative and reactionary elements, save for a handful of workers’ representatives. On the other hand, the workers’ councils, or Soviets, were genuine instruments of proletarian political power, and the second instance after the Paris Commune of proletarian democracy. These councils first came into being during the 1905 revolution, but were dissolved when that revolution was defeated. The Soviet system of democracy was revived as the Russian Revolution unfolded throughout 1917, and with the advent of the October Revolution became the legitimate governing bodies of the newly-established Soviet Russian Republic.

Following the fall of the Tsar, Russia was ruled by the Provisional Government, which did not recognize the Soviets. The Bolsheviks rallied around the slogan, “All power to the Soviets!” despite forming a minority in them. Even though the Provisional Government was formally the legitimate authority in Russia, the Soviets were growing in support and the Provisional government was impotent and generally unpopular. The situation came to be known as “dual power:” the bourgeoisie and proletariat had their own governing bodies in competition. By the end of 1917, power rested firmly in proletarian Soviet hands.

The Soviets were composed of and represented the will of the workers, the peasants, and the soldiers. The right to vote was extended to all Russians above the age of 18 who were employed in productive labor and belonged to a labor union, with some exceptions. The Soviets represented a radical political advance for Russia and the world. The Soviet system continues to represent a form of democracy superior to the vast majority of purportedly democratic systems in existence today.

The American communist John Reed wrote that “No political body more sensitive and responsive to the popular will was ever invented,” citing an instance where members of the Soviet were immediately recalled. After reckless pro-Soviets opened fire on a march in Petrograd against Soviet power, a dozen Bolshevik members of the Petrograd Soviet were replaced by Mensheviks. This process took 12 hours from the time of the incident. Within less than a month, public opinion had begun to shift in favor of the Bolsheviks, and they were voted back in to their positions.

Contemporary proletarian democracy in Cuba

The Cuban Revolution brought Cuba from a state of profound political and economic inequality to one of great political and economic equality. 20th century Cuban politics before the 1959 Revolution were marked by alternating periods of bourgeois democracy and military dictatorship. Throughout the latter part of this period, however, the military leader Fulgencio Batista called the shots from behind the scenes, despite the occasional outward appearance of a bourgeois democracy. American capitalists enjoyed Cuba as a tourist destination as well as a business opportunity, while most Cuban people lived in slums, many illiterate and lacking basic life necessities.

The advent of the Revolution changed this state of affairs entirely. Volunteers from the cities into the countryside to teach basic literacy. In a single year nearly 1 million people were able to read and write. Today in Cuba, nearly every person is literate, while tens of millions of their American contemporaries are not. What could this say even for the potential of democracy in each country? In which country does the state take interest in its people being prepared to carry out affairs of government? What this stark difference in literacy suggests is that the participation of the average citizen is superfluous in bourgeois democracy, while proletarian democracy is inherently participatory.

The years after the revolution were tumultuous, as the new Cuban state fended off counterrevolutionary efforts from without — primarily from the United States — as well as those from remaining elements of the Batista regime. To this end, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution were founded as local organizations stemming the people directly to defend themselves against reactionary remnants. Today these committees have developed into a form of local self-government. They have moved from self-policing in the style of the Paris Commune’s “armed working class” to planning for many social and community affairs, such as administering vaccines, holding forums to discuss pending municipal and national legislation, and even to make proposals on that legislation. Notably, many of the suggestions originating in the CDR make their way into laws: 10 percent of the economic guidelines governing Cuba’s limited private sector came from the masses themselves in the course of consultation with the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution.

In the mid-1970s the Cuban state founded the National Assembly for People’s Power, which legislates over foreign and domestic politics, along with economic policy. The National Assembly plays a strong role in helping plan production and regulating industries. Bourgeois democracy leaves these affairs for the most part to the anarchy of the marketplace. Today, in stark contrast to the United States Congress, women hold approximately half of all seats in the Assembly, while over ⅓ of Assembly seats are held by Afro-Cubans. Three of the six vice-presidents of the Assembly are women, and three are Black.

Elections, held every five years, could not look any less like those in the United States. There are no election campaigns like in the U.S.. Rather, beginning at the municipal level, public meetings are held to discuss and debate the merits of potential candidates nominated by the local governments (members of whom are also elected). There is no massive private propaganda apparatus to paint any candidate in colors of its choosing, no sensationalist media to draw huge profits from an election turned into a spectacle.

The Cuban people are deeply involved in open discussion about how their society moves forward. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in two nationwide Cuban political campaigns: the development of the 2012 labor reform, and the new Cuban Constitution of 2018. Each case illustrates the intimate and dynamic relationship between Cuban citizenry and Cuban governance.

The civic process that culminated with the 2012 labor reform began years earlier. In the mid-2000s, millions of Cubans began attending public meetings to discuss the state of the Cuban economy and the realities of life and work in Cuba. It was on the basis of these grassroots assemblies that the Cuban state drew up their reforms, which were then subject to feedback and criticism from the masses of students, workers, and all broad segments of Cuban society. The state published the completed reforms side-by-side with its earlier draft, demonstrating how the will of the people had informed its revisions (of a document that, itself, was the product of civic engagement on the broadest scale).

A similar process saw the Cuban Constitution of 2018 drawn up. The National Assembly approved a draft constitution mid-year, and copies were printed and distributed throughout the country over the following months for study. Tens of thousands of citizens facilitated community discussion, in order to solicit feedback and criticism of the new document. For months, meetings were held and the popular will taken into account in producing a new draft of the constitution. How often do the masses of American workers and oppressed people enjoy mass mobilizations to so directly determine such important political changes?

A people’s democracy can be ours

What separates bourgeois and proletarian democracy at root is the purpose of the state in each. The purpose of bourgeois democracy is to protect the right to private property, or the the rights of the capitalist to control and allocate resources and purchase labor power in order to acquire profits and reinvest them in the production process. While it may grant concessions here and there, the bourgeois state will never forego this right no matter the cost. The workers have no say in how the capitalist allocates private property, and worker participation in government can only be allowed insofar as it does not infringe on the capitalist’s right to private property. Proletarian democracy does not exist to protect the capitalist’s right to private property. Its purpose is to represent the interest of the workers themselves. The provision of basic needs for all is a fundamental aim of any worker’s state.

Workers and oppressed people in a proletarian democracy participate in their government — they do not just vote every four years to let representatives of the private sector to make all decisions in conjunction with business. They hold real political power and they use that power for their own good. Citizens in these societies plan together with the aim that nobody will go without the life necessities produced by their society. In contrast, bourgeois democracy means state power in the hands of the few who hoard and withhold economic power from the many. It means decisions are made with regard to maximizing profit for those who have unimaginable wealth. Justice does not come first in capitalist society. Human well-being does not come first in capitalist society. Bourgeois democracy is a form of government that perpetuates every evil we see all around us that is the product of capitalism. There is no need for this to last forever, and in fact this cannot be tolerated forever. The way forward is to replace the existing form of government with one constituted by working and oppressed people, for their own benefit, rather than for the benefit of the few.

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