Return to bulletin menu

Socialist Education: Socialism and Democracy

The recent Seanad referendum provoked a heated debate about Irish democracy. As Socialist Democracy argued at the time, the debate was largely meant to distract attention from yet another austerity budget. A debate about democracy is largely irrelevant when it ignores the occupation of one part of the island by Britain and of the other part by the Troika. 

There are however deeper issues. How is it that democracy, meant to be rule of the people, turns out to be the rule of the capitalists? The occupy movement claimed that the capitalists were only 1% of the population. Why then do the supposed 99% not vote them out? 

Karl Marx and Frederich Engels argued that; 

“the first step in the labor revolution is to raise the proletariat to the position of a ruling class, the winning of democracy.” But they went on to say; “however it must not be forgotten that it is precisely the democratic republic which is the logical form of bourgeois rule” (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Chapter 2). 
Lenin followed Marx in pointing out that parliamentary democracy was organized to preserve capitalism:
"Democracy for an insignificant minority, democracy for the rich – that is the democracy of capitalist society …. we see everywhere … restriction after restriction upon democracy… in their sum total these restrictions exclude and squeeze out the poor from politics, from active participation in democracy” (Lenin, State and Revolution, Chapter 5). 
It's not hard to see today the mechanism of capitalist rule all around us: Government structures from which the poor are largely excluded. A "free" press owned by the capitalists, full of propaganda designed to divide workers and urging us to scapegoat refugees, people on benefit and so on. In addition state forces have operational independence and have reactionary leadership and structures dedicated to preserving the existing social order. 

The big dividing line in working class history is between revolution and reform. The reformists lay great stress on an electoral strategy. Enough votes will give a parliamentary majority. A socialist majority could vote in socialism and all the structures of bourgeois society would admit defeat. 

The revolutionaries lay greater stress on the self-organization of workers. A mass workers movement, with the most conscious workers organized in a revolutionary party, could institute a society far more democratic than any capitalist democracy. 

For the worker’s movement democracy is a method for arriving at the greatest possible self-determination. Rather than having more and more votes, many activities of individuals, groups and communities will just take place, only requiring negotiation or voting if it impinges on others.

So central to Marx's ideas is the idea of the withering away of the state. All the laws and the mechanisms of control and coercion are there only to enforce class rule. In the absence of class rule state structures should gradually fade. 

The role of Stalinism in converting worker’s democracy into servitude dealt a body blow to socialism that it has yet to recover from. 

Workers are not indifferent to bourgeois democracy. The limited rights that we hold are worthwhile for their own sake and also from a strategic point of view, in allowing the greatest freedom for the workers to organize and resist repression. 

This applies directly to the evolution of the Irish working class. The historic form of capitalist democracy is the nation state. The failure to establish a full Irish democracy has limited democratic rights in the island and had a devastating effect on working class organization. 

The tendency in socialist organizations to ignore the issue of partition and also to avoid the issue of imperialist dominion associated with the rule of the Troika shows how poorly a socialist approach to democracy is understood. It acts as a barrier between socialist groups and the working class, who retain a pervasive democratic and republican sentiment through which they interpret their on-going oppression. 

Socialists who ignore the democratic question cannot hope to bring about the resurgence of the Irish working class and move on to the re-conquest of Ireland.


Return to top of page