For Real Democracy

As we head towards another general election we are faced with the decision whether or not to cast a vote. Most people in Britain are fairly strongly attached to the idea that it is some sort of public duty to turn out and support one or another party even if they are not very enthusiastic about any of the programmes on offer. It is felt that in the past many people put a lot of effort and sacrifice into winning mass suffrage and that somehow it is disrespectful to them not to vote. Here in Nottingham in 1832 people were actually hung for burning down the mansion of the Duke of Newcastle, a prominent opponent of the Reform Bill that proposed a small extension of voting rights. The suffragettes are often mentioned and some of them endured harsh imprisonment and even death in their struggle to win the vote for women. These were brave, public spirited people and they deserve our respect.


Nonetheless, the question we should ask ourselves is: ‘Has universal suffrage actually brought about democracy?’ It is interesting to note that many people in Britain today do not actually know what the word “democracy” means. If asked, they tend to say things like “being able to express your opinions”, “doing what you like”, etc.. Very few people are aware that the literal meaning of the word is ‘rule by the people’. If people are asked whether they think that parliamentary democracy actually brings about rule by the people then most are sceptical. They have a healthy contempt for parliamentary politicians because it is known through long experience that the measures they enact are not usually in the interests of the great mass of the people. Yet most go on voting because they have a vague feeling that the civil liberties we do enjoy are somehow dependent on people voting in elections.

Voting is an interesting example of what the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser called interpollation or ‘hailing’. He pointed out that all of us – even those of us who are conscious opponents – are deeply conditioned into conforming to ways of behaving and thinking that are integral parts of capitalist society. For example, most people recognise and celebrate Christmas even though they are not convinced Christians. Millions of people place bets on horses in the Derby and the Grand National even though they have no real interest in horse racing. So it is with voting. Although most of us have serious doubts that it gives us any real power over our lives we go through with the ritual. Somehow it is easier to go along with the crowd than to stand out by abstaining.

Yet things have been slowly changing. The educational and cultural level of people in Britain has risen considerably during the last half century. People are much more questioning and critical than were our forebears. Often we do not unquestioningly accept what politicians and the media tell us. Part of this general trend is a growing reluctance to participate in elections. The turnout in 1997 was the lowest since 1935. Furthermore, many of those who voted Labour did so not out of any positive enthusiasm for that party but out of a deep loathing for the Tories. In fact, Labour’s “landslide victory” was brought about by less votes than the Tories had cast for them in 1992. If Labour win again at the next election then it certainly will not be because of any positive enthusiasm for Tony and his friends but because the electorate find the likes of Hague and Widdicombe even more repulsive. We have had getting on for a century’s experience of mass parliamentary democracy and have learnt through the harsh school of experience that it does not give power to the people.

The performance of the current Labour government provides ample evidence. They have done nothing to repeal the vicious anti-trade union legislation brought in by their Tory predecessors. Far from reversing the Tories’ measures to undermine comprehensive education they have pressed ahead with measures to dismantle the whole system. They abolished student grants and introduced fees for higher education. Their “stakeholder” pension legislation is designed to further undermine achieving a secure and comfortable standard of living for older people. Their persistence with the disastrous privatisation of the railways has brought the whole system into chaos. They refuse to reverse the Tories’ abolition of higher tax rates on the rich even though income equalities in Britain are now at an all time high, etc., etc..


What is very clear is that whichever party forms the government they serve the interests of the capitalist ruling class. One strength of the British bourgeoisie is that most people are only vaguely aware and not very clear about just who are their masters. A lot of people still think that the Queen and the aristocracy rule Britain! In fact it is the owners of the chief means of production who exercise real power in Britain today. This monopoly capitalist class consists of the owners and controllers of large-scale capital and these people are to be found on the boards of directors of the major companies, such as the ones quoted in the FTSE 100 Index. They are in a position to make the decisions that have a major impact on the lives of the rest of us. They are assisted in their exercise of power by various functionaries such as the commanders of the armed forces and police, top civil servants, judges, etc.. There are probably no more than a hundred thousand, at most, members of the ruling class out of a population of sixty million. There have been studies, such as those by John Scott and Ralph Miliband, that provide detailed descriptions and analyses of this ruling class.

Unlike some of the crude, despotic regimes found in less developed countries their exercise of power is usually subtle and not very visible. Nonetheless, the British bourgeoisie does not permit any developments that pose a serious threat to their interests. Immediately a Labour government was elected in 1964 there was a massive transfer of funds abroad by British financial institutions. In his memoirs the then prime minister, Harold Wilson, recalls that the Governor of the Bank of England (a state official) was asking for all-round cuts in state expenditure and changes in economic policy. Wilson protested to the Governor that it seemed as if powerful interests in the City were acting so as to pressurise the government into accepting these policy changes. The Governor confirmed that this was indeed the case and Wilson’s government had to climb down. The Thatcher governments of the nineteen eighties did an excellent job for the bourgeoisie during a period of economic crisis by helping to manage a major restructuring of the British economy and breaking the power of the trade union movement. After eleven years as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher seemed to be all-powerful and secure in her position. Yet there was one important matter on which she was seriously out of step with the bourgeoisie: Europe. The British ruling class had long since decided that their best interests would be served by Britain’s full economic and political membership of the European Community. Thatcher was becoming increasingly obstructive about Britain’s further integration into Europe and so the view emerging from the City boardrooms was that she must go and go she did. Almost effortlessly a largely informal network of pressures was activated so as to make her position untenable.

The invention of “New Labour” is another example of the will of the bourgeoisie prevailing. After their defeat in the 1992 General Election it had become clear to the Labour leaders that they would not be acceptable as a government unless they brought about some major policy changes. In particular they faced an unremittingly hostile press that portrayed them in very negative terms. The Labour leadership under Tony Blair were professional politicians who had spent many years on the opposition benches and whose political careers were clearly going nowhere. Partly in order to gain government office and partly to satisfy their personal ambitions they embarked on a process of making their policies more acceptable to the bourgeoisie. No doubt some of them duped themselves into believing that they were playing a cunning game in order to get a Labour government elected. In fact it wasn’t the tail that was wagging the dog but rather the other way around. Before long the Labourites were outdoing the Tories in accommodating themselves to the bourgeoisie. In particular they announced that they would relax the rules restricting cross-media ownership even more than the Tories had done. This dampened the hostility of the press towards Labour, especially in the case of Rupert Murdoch’s papers such as the Sun. Although the Tory Party had handled well the social unrest brought about by economic depression, by the mid-nineteen nineties they were losing their touch and sections of the bourgeoisie began to look towards Labour as the party best able to maintain their hegemony. As we know now, they were not to be disappointed and Labour, rather than the Tories, has become the party most clearly expressing the interests of the ruling class. Under William Hague’s leadership the Tory Party has lurched into a virulent anti-Europe stance and clearly is being rapidly abandoned by the bourgeoisie. A remarkable transformation has occurred: Labour is now the preferred party of the British ruling class.

A century or more of experience of the election of reformist, social democratic governments in Western European countries has amply demonstrated that this neither gives the mass of the people power nor poses any threat to the rule of the capitalist class. On the contrary, the mildly reformist programmes of such governments has helped perpetuate the rule of capital by taking off some of its sharpest edges and by holding out the false hope of bringing about more fundamental changes within the present capitalist system.


Most aspects of our lives are run along authoritarian rather than democratic lines. Most families are fairly authoritarian in their structure with parents, especially fathers, telling their children what to do and not standing for much dissent. This, though, is perhaps less so than in the past with more parents encouraging their children to become actively involved in decision-making processes with the family.

The same is not true of the education system. Schools, colleges and universities are generally organised in a rigid hierarchy with power concentrated at the top. Students are told by teachers what to do who, in turn, are told by heads of departments what to do followed by headteachers/principals and governors with the state having ultimate authority. Headteachers in schools are in a particularly powerful position. Young people spend at least eleven years of an early part of their lives becoming acclimatised to operating in an authoritarian environment. Although there are some elected school councils and the odd student representative on the governing bodies of colleges and universities, they at best have a consultative role and exercise no real power over their situation in these organisations. Thus it is hardly surprising if people emerge into adult life having had no significant experience of being part of a democratic environment and lack the skills necessary to engage in collective behaviour conducted along democratic lines. It has often been pointed out that the organisational structure of educational organisations mirrors that of workplaces in capitalist society. Our education prepares us to be subordinates and superiors, bosses and workers, in our working lives.

Other important socialising influences on us in childhood and throughout our lives are the mass media. Before infants even get anywhere near a playgroup or nursery school they have been exposed to hundreds or more hours of television viewing. This promotes a view of the world where authoritarian relationships are depicted as normal. This exposure continues throughout our lives. Soaps depict family and work situations where conflict is rife and people are frequently dissatisfied with their lot in life. Even so these social structures are represented as inevitable and unavoidable and not open to any real change. News bulletins certainly focus on various forms of strife in the modern world but people who advocate fundamental societal changes are usually depicted as well-meaning impractical dreamers or simply as downright evil.

It is hardly surprising after such a preparation if people enter their working lives thinking that hierarchical, authoritarian forms of organisation are normal and natural. You do what the boss tells you to do even if it is not in your interests or even that of the owners and controllers of the organisation. Trying to make constructive suggestions is very often seen as threatening by superiors and defined as “trouble-making”. You’re there to work, not to think. Some modern work organisations formally encourage employee participation in policy formation and decision-making – “empowerment” – but this is usually an ideological sham designed to deceive employees into believing that they have some power in their workplaces. What the bosses really require is that their employees compliantly endorse and accept the policies and decisions coming from the top.


Despite our lives being enveloped in authoritarian structures people do struggle against these social chains. Throughout human history people have struggled against oppression and exploitation. Sometimes this rebellion is in the form of open defiance as in the case of slave revolts and strikes by workers but more typically it takes place in the form of more covert, underground types of resistance.

Children often do rebel against heavy-handed parental authority. Sometimes this is but a wilful impulse to indulge some hedonistic and selfish desire but on other occasions it is a genuine rebellion against unreasonable treatment by an inconsiderate or even despotic parent. Parental abuse, both physical and mental, is not uncommon in contemporary capitalist societies and children resist it in both covert and overt ways such as running away from home. There are very considerable restrictions on children’s lives that prevent them doing many things of which they are quite capable, such as productive work, and they have very little control indeed over what they do. Truly, they are in a state of alienation.

Most children experience schooling as an imposition to a greater or lesser degree. This is clearly evident in the fact that truancy is a major problem for teachers and the state. Even at the tertiary stage on any given day a quarter of students in further education colleges are absent. Another form of dissent from schooling is children “misbehaving”. Discipline is a major issue in schools to the extent whereby security guards have been brought into some schools to try to maintain order. All of this only goes to show that far from being natural and normal the hierarchical, authoritarian structures imposed on children in schools are experienced negatively and are resisted.

Resistance to oppression and exploitation is a constant factor in most workplaces. Very often this occurs in informal and individualistic ways but it also takes on a formal expression in the setting up of trade unions. The trade unions were the first and principal form of mass democracy to appear in capitalist societies. Of pressing necessity, workers have found it necessary to organise themselves so as to conduct effective negotiations with employers. Given the circumstances of their creation, the trade unions were democratic in their organisational structures.

Even so, right from their early days, the antidemocratic tendencies of bourgeois society also have been present in the unions. Always there has been a tendency for the elected leaders to try to concentrate power in their own hands rather than that of the membership at large. This is not brought about by some inevitable and unavoidable flaw in human nature. Rather it is a case of the leadership becoming incorporated into the dominant structures, especially the state, of capitalist society. The contradictions of capitalism, between bourgeoisie and proletariat, between dictatorship and democracy, permeate all sections of society including those organisations such as trade unions and radical political parties specifically set up to resist and oppose it. Periodically, throughout their history, the rank and file trade unionists have found it necessary to establish new structures – such as the shop stewards movement – to defend their interests precisely because their own leaders were no longer doing so. At present trade unions are restricted from effectively representing their members by some of the most restrictive anti-trade union laws in the world. Yet practically all of the trade union leaders, especially those in full-time posts, do nothing more than pay lip service to opposing this legislation. Sooner or later there will be a fresh wave of rebellion from below to take up the issues and problems that the leaders want to avoid.

There are many other examples of people in the mass getting themselves organised in order to oppose the oppressions and exploitation to which they are subject. One has only to think of the women’s movement, gay and lesbian groups, environmental organisations, etc.. It is interesting to note that the changes in society that these groups have brought about are the result of extra-parliamentary activity largely outside of the mainstream political parties. The capitalist state has not succumbed to some of these demands as a result of people casting votes in elections but because of other pressures.


As communists have always asserted, there can be no real democracy – no rule by the people as a whole – all the while the means of production are owned and controlled by a small minority, the monopoly capitalist class. Their control of the economy and the state apparatus means that they can resist and obstruct any serious threat to their class interests. A century or more of experience has shown that attempts by social democratic parties to change capitalism from within its own political system of parliamentary “democracy” are doomed to failure. If by some fluke a left-leaning government is elected that seems to pose some serious threat to capitalist interests then it is simply overthrown by the military as happened in Spain in 1936 and in Chile in 1973. Such an eventuality is even more unlikely now than in the past because, as was pointed out above, the former social democratic parties have now in their new “centre-left” clothes become one of the main pillars of the capitalist system. It is quite clear that we can only achieve real control over our lives by getting rid of the capitalist system as a whole and this can be done only by means of revolution.

Talk of revolution is not at all fashionable these days. After all, we are told, attempts to overthrow capitalism and imperialism by revolutionary means and to establish socialism have been tried and failed, particularly in the cases of Russia and China. It is true that the first wave of socialism in the world, which began with the October Revolution in 1917, has been defeated. Capitalism is being restored in these countries and by elements who actually emerged from within the communist parties such as the late Deng Tsaio-ping in China and Mikhail Gorbachev in Russia. Given this major defeat for the working class and other oppressed people, it is easy for the bourgeoisie and their ideological apologists to portray attempts to build truly democratic, socialist societies as terrible disasters. In the mass media controlled by capitalist interests there is an unremitting barrage of propaganda claiming that socialism brought about the deaths of tens of millions of people. During the last ten years it has become acceptable for journalists and academics to peddle any sort of nonsense about Russia and China in the socialist period and to get away with it largely unchallenged.

In fact, the first wave of socialism in the world was an enormous advance for oppressed and exploited people. The revolutions in Russia, China and some other countries showed that for the first time in human history the most oppressed people in society could rise up and overthrow their oppressors. The revolutionary states set up with mass support and participation proved themselves capable of beating off and defeating attempts to destroy them from both imperialist forces without and reactionary elements within. It was the Soviet Union that in World War II was the major force that defeated German fascism, not the British and American imperialists who had hoped before the war that the Nazi regime would destroy the USSR. Socialist Russia and China were very economically backward countries yet in record time they succeeded in developing modern industrial economies that brought about great rises in living standards and enabled them to produce modern armaments to beat off ferocious attacks by the imperialists. Mass education was established and proper health care systems set up. The subordinate position of women was attacked and women made great advances in these societies. Many other achievements could be listed such as those on the cultural front.

The revolutions in Russia and China had positive results for people in other parts of the world as well. In the advanced capitalist societies such as Britain the ruling capitalist classes became more fearful of proletarian revolution and thus became more amenable to conceding some popular demands for reforms in working and housing conditions, health, education, etc.. The rising tide of revolt against imperialism in the colonies was greatly encouraged by the October Revolution and this meant that the imperialists were more willing to make concessions and strike a deal with leaders of independence movements. Post-colonial regimes in Africa and Asia were able to gain some advantages by exploiting the rivalry between the US-led imperialist bloc and the Soviet bloc. For thirty years or so after World War Two the imperialist powers were definitely on the defensive in the international arena. But all of this has changed in the last twenty years with capitalist restoration in China and the Soviet Union.

The socialist regimes did not fail as a result of the military, economic and ideological assault from without waged by the imperialist powers. Given the difficult economic and social conditions in which they were established they withstood external pressures remarkably well, as was dramatically demonstrated by the Soviet Union during World War II and the newly-formed People’s Republic of China in the Korean War. No, it was as a result of their own internal contradictions that these societies have reverted to capitalism. It should be remembered, as Marx pointed out, that immediately after a popular revolution socialism – much less communism – does not magically spring into existence. Rather, what exists is a new state power based on a new class or alliance of classes while society at large is still unreconstructed, being capitalist in character or even containing large elements of earlier social formations such as feudalism. Only as a result of a long process of class struggle lasting generations can society be transformed in a direction towards communism. It is hardly surprising that the first attempts to move along the socialist road eventually came unstuck. Both Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung were aware, in their different ways, of the danger of capitalist restoration and spent their last years trying to defeat the emergent elements within the communist movement who wanted to defeat socialism. Unfortunately they did not succeed.

The task of far-sighted people today is not to wring our hands in despair at these defeats but to learn from the experience of socialist revolution so far so that when fresh revolutionary upsurges occur they can do so having learnt positive lessons from the past and thus be less likely to fall by the wayside. One thing is for sure. The material conditions which gave rise to the first wave of socialist revolution in the world still persist. About one fifth of the world’s population are in a state of absolute poverty of the most basic kind: they simply do not have enough food to stay alive on a continuing basis. Another third suffer from vitamin and mineral deficiencies in their diets which means that they are susceptible to various illnesses and likely to die relatively young. What is more, in recent decades the distribution of world income has been widening with the well-off getting much richer while the worst off have actually become significantly poorer in absolute terms. Even in the advanced imperialist countries such as America and Britain the lowest income groups have experienced a decline in real incomes while most members of the workforce are actually working longer hours than they did two decades ago. In addition there is widespread alienation – estrangement of people from each other – in contemporary capitalist societies as is evidenced by rising crime rates and breakdowns in personal relationships. The necessity for change is as strong as ever.

The real revolutionaries in Britain today are not the Trotskyites who – as they always have done – try to keep alive reformist illusions by urging participation in bourgeois parliamentary elections. Rather they are those people who encourage others to go further along the path many are already taking of consciously rejecting the sham of bourgeois elections. We should encourage this growing number of rejectionists to think through the consequences of the position they are taking up. If we cannot gain control over our lives by means of this fake democracy then how do we do it? Part of the process of putting socialism on the political agenda again is to remind and inform people of the extraordinary achievements of the first wave of socialism in the world and not unremittingly denigrate them as do the Trotskyites.

Another part of renewing the struggle for socialism is to rethink and revive the various struggles to resist capitalist oppression and exploitation. In Britain the trade union rights of employees to negotiate with employers on wages and working conditions and if necessary take industrial action have been rendered largely ineffective by the anti-trade union laws. Instead of lamely pleading with the Labour government to change these laws – as do the trade union leaders and Trots – we should encourage people to defy and break these laws. New methods of economic struggle need to be developed such as interfering with the elaborate IT systems that employers are increasingly dependent upon. The main point about renewing defensive, reformist struggles on the economic and other fronts – education, transport, housing, the environment, etc. – is not that these can fundamentally change capitalism. Rather the point is that if people discover that they can fight back and defend themselves it will help them realise that the system is not impregnable and this can lead on to thoughts about getting rid of and changing the whole rotten system.

If the opinion polls are to be believed – and they should always be treated with caution – then more people than ever before will consciously decide not to vote in the forthcoming general election. The task of revolutionaries is to encourage this trend and its eventual development into a conscious revolutionary movement and party.

Harry Powell

April 2001