The events in North Africa challenge pro-revolutionaries, and Rose’s article in this issue of IP summarizes the events perfectly, which focuses our thinking around the concept of “democracy”. This movement, indeed, raises a fundamental question: that of the perspective offered by the capitalist class in the context of an international crisis.
In Paris, in Athens, in London, in Portugal, in Spain, in the Maghreb, in China, the demonstrators are confronting the same problem: that of the possibility of surviving in this obsolete society. It is about questioning, an important component in the development of awareness of the necessity to go beyond the social order of the capitalist class. These struggles raise the question of freedom, of a fundamental claim of social justice.
The occupation of the public space in various European cities has put forward the need for freedom, the quest for better living conditions, the denunciation of exploitation, of the domination of the capitalist class; in short, it is about the desire to live in a completely different way.
1. The significance of these movements
They are about basic demands of the working class, the point of departure for even more fundamental demands. The struggle for freedom, the struggle for freedom of speech, the struggle to be able to think freely, the struggle for recognition, was always a demand of workers.
The struggles for freedom of expression, for free association, for social justice, have constituted important components for workers to affirm themselves against the endemic power of the bourgeoisie and to denounce the regime of terror that it has imposed to protect capitalist exploitation. From time immemorial, humankind has expressed its opposition to the dominant power. From time immemorial, humans have questioned the logic of the exploitation to which they have been subjected.
From natural man, to the slave, to the serf, to the human being subjected to the machine, and now man in the epoch of cybernetics, humankind has posed the question of history based on the quest for a different social order: slave revolts, the revolts of the Roman plebs, of the medieval craftsmen, the worker under capitalism, of the “indignant” young people, all express the desire, probably unconscious, to assert themselves as subjects, to smash reification, to find another way of living and of existing. They are now basically questioning the very bases of the existence of the capitalist State today. They are demanding the right to live differently, the right to speak, the right to organize life differently.
2. The reactions of the capitalist class
But what is paradoxical today, is that all these struggles are presented to us as democratic demands. But to combine these struggles into a simple democratic demand to obtain a new political system seems to me reductive.
In fact the bourgeoisie constantly tries to ideologically recoup these demands under the cover of “democracy;” free to repress them in the name of this same “democracy”.
It is thus not astonishing to watch the media coverage that transforms these movements into simple democratic demands. It is indeed to muddle the meaning of the events. But it is astonishing that comrades claiming Marxism still take part in this Siren song .(1)
3. Why speak about democracy?
From time immemorial, society, dominated initially formally, then really, by the exchange relation, tried to reduce the resistance of workers, either by using the power of repression, or by articulating an ideological discourse supporting the adherence of the workers to the legitimization of the State that was adapted to the needs of the development of the exchange relation. The development of the exchange relation requires a mode of governance, a management, an adherence to that system. That governance requires a state historically charged with protecting property, commodity relations, through its police force. It needs also an army that ensures its own expansion. Management pertains to the administration of social life by granting a legal status to the individual based on the needs of the governing authorities. Adherence to that order can be assured through education, and the ideological discourse of adherence to the system.
But that ideological discourse does not just appear; it results from the evolution of the economy, and from the form that the State takes. As for repression, it is utilized when social discourse can no longer hide the contradictions that arise.
4. What is this democracy?
But finally, what is this democracy? In fact, it is difficult to provide a definition; the concept itself is so fuzzy.
Initially, the term democracy comes to us from the Greek. It meant the power to take part in the public life of the City. But this idea did not include in any way the concept of governance, and even less equality. It is obvious that the Greek City, which permitted slavery, was not egalitarian.
In the same way, the “Democracy” of the Greek City was only for its citizens, and excluded slaves, women, non-property owners, barbarians, etc.
This concept was rediscovered and started to gain ground in the 18th and 19th centuries and was used against the autocratic monarchy and the despotisms based on monarchy and the Catholic Church. Democracy is thus a bourgeois conception, a discourse that situates the nation-state in society, imposing a particular status on the individual. The term democracy means the right to be represented. In any case, it does not refer to actual governance. Obviously there is confusion here. The democratic discourse claims that parliamentary representation can shape decisions about the actual governance of the exchange or market relation. The very term democracy here expresses the domination of the ideology and of bourgeois terminology over the struggle for freedom and the liberation of humanity historically waged by the dominated classes. It is precisely an illusion that the legal and formal extension of representation within the bourgeois society is the same as personal freedom and to the possibility for the individual “to truly intervene in public affairs. The bourgeoisie thus substituted the notion of democracy for the concept of freedom (and the struggle for freedom, the struggle for social justice) that had put in question bourgeois governance.
5. The utilization of the concept of the “people”
The conception of democracy broadens into “popular representation. What is affirmed by democracy is that state power must represent the people, be accountable to the people, and under one form or another, be able to be changed by the people. But what does the concept of the people mean? What must be understood by popular representation? Until recently many sectors of society (and sometimes even the majority of human beings: women, blacks, immigrants), were not included in the “people” within certain democracies.
6. Historical changes of the State and ideology
Trade, new technologies and the exchanges of all kinds burst the framework of the nation-state inherited from the twentieth century. These changes impact the way the state functions.
Unless one believes, contrary to a serous materialist analysis, that the state escapes such changes and would not be affected by economic transformations, which would make the state “invariant.” In IP 38,”Globalization of capital and new tendencies of the State” we described the changes of the democratic state: one passed from a monarchical state, to an imperial state, to a “Jacobin” democracy where a self-proclaimed committee spoke in the name of the people, to the property-owning democracy, where owner-citizens regulated public life, to develop the concept of patriotic democracy in the service of the nation, to arrive at an egalitarian democracy today, while allowing, many years afterwards, underprivileged layers of the society to be regarded as full citizens: e.g. women.
7. Progress and democracy
Democracy is associated with the concept of progress. It would constitute “progress” compared to the feudal, monarchical state. It was on that basis that it should be supported. The struggle against feudalism that the bourgeoisie waged over the course of centuries is seen as a struggle for societal progress.
Marx, it should be understood, positioned himself in a contradictory way. Before making a critique of democracy, he regarded the evolution of the exchange relation as essential to the development of the working class, seeing it as “progress”. Marx wrote that the goal is to “transform society into a community of the human beings, united for their highest aims, into a democratic State” (letter to Ruge, May 1843). When he presents democracy as “the solved riddle of all constitutions”, by which “the constitution appears as what it is, a free product of man” (“Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law,” 1843), he opposes to the existence of the State, a true democracy, and he affirms himself a partisan of democracy. That’s what can explain the letter of support addressed to the President of the US, Abraham Lincoln.
Criticisms of this concept of democracy were made in the midst of the French revolutions. So, the Enragé, Varlet, during the French revolution: “for any being who reasons, government and revolution are incompatible”; So, Jacques Roux: “A revolution carried out by the masses and a strong power (against the masses) are two incompatible things”; Or Babeuf: “Rulers make revolutions so as to continue ruling. We want to make one to finally ensure forever the happiness of the people by true democracy”; Or Buenarroti: “If there formed in the state a class exclusively committed to the principles of the social “arts,” laws and administration, it would soon discover the secret of creating distinctions and privileges;” and especially Proudhon: “By proclaiming the freedom of opinion, equality before the law, the sovereignty of the people, the subordination of power to the country, the Revolution made of society and of government two incompatible things …,” there is an absolute incompatibility of power and freedom. No authority, no government, even popular: “The Revolution is here (…) The government of the people will always be the repression of the people. If the Revolution allows some part of the Government to subsist, it will return everywhere.” (“The General Idea of Revolution in the 19th century”).
But, Marx could also make a critique of this concept of democracy. If “political emancipation constitutes great progress … it is the last form reached by human emancipation within the world such as it has existed up to now”. The rights of man, “are the participation in the political community, in the life of the State”, and civil rights are those “of egotistic man, of man separated from man and from the community.” “The political revolution resolves civil life into its component parts, without revolutionizing those components themselves …. Political emancipation is the reduction of man, on the one hand, to a member of civil society, to an egoistic and independent individual, and on the other hand to a citizen, a juridical person.”
On the contrary, “... only when man has recognized and organized his own powers as social powers and consequently no longer separates social power from himself in the shape of political power, only then will human emancipation have been accomplished. “ (“On the Jewish Question,” 1844) If “the democratic State (is) the true State”, and if it is necessary to get rid of the State, then we have to invent a mode of life that will require neither one nor the other; neither the state nor democracy.
For Bordiga, democracy is synonymous with free scrutiny by individuals considered equal and making decisions by majority rule. If the Parliament smothers the proletariat by tying it to the bourgeoisie, the worker’s democracy is just as much to be rejected, because the power of worker’s struggles is decomposed into a series of individual decisions. For Bordiga, democracy becomes equivalent to a union of equal wills and equal rights, which doesn’t exist in bourgeois parliamentarism, and has not been the case in the class action of the proletariat: revolution does not depend on majorities or on proportional mechanisms, but on the capacity of the organized proletariat to provide itself with a centralized force and a collective will.
That was the issue in the discussions being held within the Communist International. And the comrades excluded from the CI in 1927, who would form the Left Fraction, summarized the discussion some years later.
- Resolution of the Belgian Fraction of the Gauche Communiste Internationale -
“Capitalist accumulation was the motor force of historical progress as long as the development of the productive forces coincided with the interests of the bourgeoisie. The perspective evoked by Marx with the advent of absolute capitalism (having eliminated all the preceding modes of production) could not be considered as a historical certainty, but only as a tendency; economic and class contrasts developed to the extreme by the laws of bourgeois production -- having definitively repressed and replaced another tendency – were now directed towards the compression and the destruction of the productive forces, realized through economic nationalism, the war economy and, finally, inter-imperialist war. When objectively the historical succession to a type of society in decline is open, historical evolution is ordered by the antagonism between the fundamental classes: the problem of political power takes precedence over economic questions. Just as the condition for the bourgeois revolution was the political triumph of the bourgeoisie, which was the revolutionary motor in which capitalist society was born, so the condition for socialism is the dictatorship of the proletariat, today the only revolutionary class. The present historical stakes concentrates definitively and exclusively around the decisive struggle between the world bourgeoisie and the world proletariat and not in the opposition between capitalism and colonial or semi-colonial feudalism. The obstacle to the expansion of the productive forces is no longer as on the eve of the bourgeois revolutions, feudal relations of production, but the bourgeois relation.”
9. Our critique
Democracy develops the concept of equality, which indeed comes to grief within the apparatus of the state. To reflect on democracy does not mean that one is not in solidarity with ongoing struggles, but rather resituating the very framework in which these struggles erupt.
It’s not a question here of denouncing democracy, of mobilizing against democracy, but rather to grasp the problems raised by these struggles. In this sense, democracy should not be opposed as such, but rather transcended [dépassé] like the capitalist mode of production, the administration of which democracy permits. It is of course about a revolutionary dépassement] that only the class struggle can carry out.
Social justice and political freedom are not the products of the democratic process as such. They are the product of the forces and social movements that demand liberty and justice: in the course of history, those succeeded both within and outside of the democratic process, to change the balance of social forces. Those struggles, at their high point produced other forms of organization going beyond the separations imposed by bourgeois society in the name of the democracy.
But there is obviously a fundamental contradiction when democracy claims to defend the right to freedom and defense of the desires of each and of all. How can such a thing develop in a capitalist society where men defend divergent interests, and are ready to defend, weapons in hand, their respective interests? Democracy is a-classist. Does there exist a possibility of economic and social democracy? The response is no. Unless one does not take into account the wrangling over trifles within the enterprise committees jointly “elected” by workers and bosses in some social-democratic utopias.
Democracy speaks about “people”, in a globalizing and integrated sense. Democracy is not concerned with knowing which conception of individual liberty, social justice, equality of human beings and human rights prevail in a classless society. Democracy hides distinctions, while reinforcing them. It is in that respect that it opposes the movement towards a classless society, towards a communism. These distinctions define politics: conscious of its deep seated incapacity to extinguish antagonisms, society transposes them onto presumably neutral ground, in any case parallel grounds, where conflicts are dealt with and generally moderated in the interests of the perpetuation of the whole of the social system.
Our critique has nothing to do with a reactionary critique which of the democratic state, of democracy. Our critique is directed at the state. Reactionaries denounce free will and bourgeois individualism to substitute a new (or old) more oppressive authority. Communism is opposed to democracy because it is against the State. Fascism is only against democracy, because it is for the state.
Democracy substitutes the concept of people, for the notion of social classes. Against the existing governments whose ideological legitimacy and whose power came from sources external to the “people” and to society, the ascendant bourgeoisie, and social reformers, demanded “governments with a parliamentary base”. The demand in itself, as the struggles that unfolded during the two following centuries until now, is completely ambiguous. It abstracts from the true problem: the class struggle.
But, for me, it is clear, that any changes, any “improvements” obtained in the living conditions of the workers, is the result of violent social struggles against the democracy in place. The bourgeoisie can do nothing but recuperate for its own ends the workers’ battles, and that after the repression of the movements of struggle.
10. The crisis of the democracy
Why does the democratic parliament turn in a void? Today, politics has been replaced by administrative management.
The democrat attributes the crisis of the democracy not to what it is, but to the fact that there is not enough of it:
Decision-making centers are displaced. Clearly, the perspectives traced by RGF about being able to use the democratic structure of the state no longer reflects reality. Worse, to foresee the events in Tunisia or Egypt as the setting in motion a “new bourgeois revolution” appears anachronistic to me not only in the mouths of revolutionaries, but also in terms of the analysis of reality.
11. An illustration of this crisis
The crisis is reflected by the situation of the countries that have achieved democracy recently. This change took place in the East, in certain countries of South America. The replacement of the old military governments by civil governments in certain poorer countries -- which are often generally ruled according to the plans and the programs approved by the military regimes themselves -- is the result of economic causes and the considerable weakening of the social utility of the military regimes in those states, rather than a great movement for freedom.
It is the same, for the old colonial countries. The historical and fundamental problem of those states is economic development. With de-colonization, the bourgeoisie of these countries had recourse to military regimes to suppress political dissensions within the ruling class itself, to reinforce oppression and to violently repress the working class, and to ensure the political and social conditions necessary to increase the profitability of capital and of rate of economic growth.
The situation in the Arab countries seems to go in the same direction. Indeed, the prohibition or the drastic limitations on the activities of revolutionary organizations and the working class; the limitation of freedom of expression, of political activity, of the right to organize and to demonstrate; the existence of a formidable apparatus of military and police repression functioning above the law, of a servile judicial system vis-à-vis the government; the lack of social and political rights guaranteed for individuals; the use of torture, the existence of capital punishment, and, to summarize, the impotence and dispossession of the citizens of their rights vis-à-vis the power of the state, have remained intact. We can verify this by analyzing the situation of each area of the world, from the Oceania to South-East Asia to North Africa and South America.
With the current economic evolution, the strategies of economic development are, as a whole, at a dead end in these countries. It is important to free up the market and, therefore, to increase the freedom of action for the private capital. A military government no longer appears capable of accomplishing that.
12. As a conclusion
And it is here that an element of society plays a part: the continuation of capitalist development implies the generalization of destructiveness at all levels of life. It is an inversion of the global trajectory of social life. The perspective of development becomes synonymous with the danger of death of the human species and thus has profound implications for living conditions as well as for the perspective that the capitalist mode of production represents from now on for humanity.
Indisputably, the world such as it defined itself after living through the two world wars, and if crisis, exploitation and capitalist barbarism in all its forms continue to mark the course of history, the terms are no longer defined in same way on the plane of class composition, of the economic and political organization of production and of social organization, in the way in which the law of the value has infiltrated the most private fields of activity and of the human thought. The term globalization summarizes the current profound transformations.
For me, the reality of a world that is dying under the weight of its economic, ecological, and military convulsions has taken the place of prosperity for all and demonstrates even more its coherence and its logic in the hunt for profit at all costs. In this direction, the ripening of the objective and subjective conditions can generate social upheavals. The events in North Africa are an illustration. They put forward fundamental demands for freedom, for self-respect, and in that, they are confronted with the reality of this society. This movement, which expresses itself in “indignation,” is an important expression of the dissatisfaction, the absence of any credibility on the part of bourgeois democratic solutions.
Democracy is there to contain them and divert its demands. Public freedom does not emerge from elections or peaceful debates, but from strikes, demonstrations, riots -- almost always violent, often bloody. Then, once installed, forgetful of its origins, democracy proclaims that “power is not in the street”… from whence it came. Politics wants to be primary, but results from causes that it tries to organize, while they arose born outside of it.
Materially, revolution imposes itself as the alternative to capitalism.
The rioters, who have disturbed the quiet of the Arab world, and of our right-thinking West, have shown us that.
(1) I allude to the group Robin Goodfellow which defends democracy, as a necessary stage in the affirmation of the proletariat. “We have already insisted, notably at the time of the revolutionary wave that began in Tunisia, that even in countries where the whole of the bourgeoisie was more or less directly, or, in power, the question of the deepening of democracy, of a permanent revolution in the perspective of a democracy that goes all the way remains an essential component of the revolutionary strategy of the communist party. Just a few months after the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, and while open struggle continues in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and while Tunisia and Egypt remain in turmoil, the events in Spain have confirmed our analysis.”
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Note 1) I allude to the group Robin Goodfellow (RGF) which defends democracy, as a necessary stage in the affirmation of the proletariat. “We have already insisted, notably at the time of the revolutionary wave that began in Tunisia, that even in countries where the whole of the bourgeoisie was more or less directly, or, in power, the question of the deepening of democracy, of a permanent revolution in the perspective of a democracy that goes all the way remains an essential component of the revolutionary strategy of the communist party. Just a few months after the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, and while open struggle continues in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and while Tunisia and Egypt remain in turmoil, the events in Spain have confirmed our analysis.”