Part 5 of the Marx Library series in the Morning Star newspaper
SOME form of parliamentary system is the norm in advanced capitalist nations. While some countries, like the US and France, have powerful presidents, a common feature is that elected assemblies are the principal seat of constitutional power.
It is conventional to present this system as the best that humanity can devise and one which all countries should eventually adopt.
Marxists on the other hand take a historical view of what Marx called “bourgeois democracy.” This emerged from earlier class struggles; and it is one of the sites of the current class struggle.
Parliaments of various sorts existed well before capitalism, but with the collapse of feudalism new classes began to agitate for representation.
In England after the revolution of the 17th century, a compromise between landowners and merchant capitalists meant that some feudal institutions, such as the monarchy and the House of Lords, were retained despite the supremacy of the Commons.
Not until the 1832 Reform Act were “rotten boroughs” — in which MPs were effectively nominees of the dominant landowners — finally abolished.
Only in 1867 was the principle established whereby each parliamentary constituency should represent roughly the same number of electors — a provision now being manipulated by the Tories to their own advantage in any future election.
Still for many years the Commons fell far short of representing the mass of the people. The Chartist movement fought for more radical reform, including working-class representation — not just for men but for women too.
It was defeated at the time — but over the next century most of the Chartist demands were won. Long and bitter struggles were needed to wring these concessions from a reluctant ruling class.
Not until 1919 did all men over 21 (and women over 30) get the vote. It was 1928 before women secured equality, and 1969 before the voting age was reduced to 18.
Despite being forced to make these concessions to popular demands, the British ruling class has found ways of subordinating democratic forms to the interests of capital and the capitalist state.
The first past the post voting system favours domination by two political parties to the exclusion of minority opinion. The perfect arrangement for perpetuating capitalist rule is to have two parties that agree on the fundamental features of the capitalist economy.
Genuine differences of opinion on particular issues mask a broad consensus that there is no alternative to capitalism despite its intrinsically exploitative and wasteful nature.
Last week’s election is the first for many years where that consensus has been seriously challenged.
The corporate domination of the media which stifles debate, together with the resources required to contest elections, make it difficult for progressive voices to be heard.
Reform of Britain’s parliaments and assemblies so that they are elected by single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies (as in the Republic of Ireland) would ensure proportional representation while retaining the link between elected representatives (who should be subject to recall through petition for a by-election) and local constituencies.
Political parties should rely primarily on voluntary donations from the people they claim to represent.
Any corporate political donations should be subject to a ballot of employees. This would make it much more difficult for the ruling class to manipulate public opinion through the ballot box.
Marxists defend bourgeois democracy against other systems such as fascist dictatorship, as in the Spanish civil war. But they also recognise its shortcomings. Parliamentary elections within a capitalist system represent a limited democracy without its substance.
Writing a century ago, just before the October Revolution, Lenin observed how the pressures of everyday life meant that many working people “cannot be bothered with politics” and this is unfortunately just as true now as it was a century ago.
Referring to Marx’s analysis of the Paris Commune, he wrote of the way that “the oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class shall represent and repress them in parliament.” Not a lot has changed since.
The Republicans and Democrats in the US are the classic example of this charade. Our Liberals and Conservatives in the time of Gladstone and Disraeli came close to the capitalist ideal, until their accord was shattered by the formation of the Labour Party.
The ruling class has spent a century trying to turn Labour into another party dedicated to protecting the interests of big business.
They almost succeeded when Ramsay MacDonald was leader and again under Tony Blair.
Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership represents a return to Labour’s class roots — and a perceived threat to the entrenched power of capital, which is why he is so feared and reviled but also why he has received such widespread support, particularly among young people.
Though the House of Commons is nominally sovereign, through patronage and practice the prime minister and the Cabinet limit the independence of individual members of Parliament, many of whom are in any case seduced from reality by the cosy atmosphere of the Westminster bubble.
The Cabinet itself has close links with senior civil servants, the military top brass, bankers and big business and the rest of the Establishment. And the permanent and supposedly impartial Civil Service ensures that despite the superficial appearance of democracy, the state continues to be the instrument of the ruling class.
The domination of the media by a few corporations and wealthy individuals ensures that issues are presented in a way that suits ruling class objectives and that the workings of Parliament are both sensationalised and trivialised.
This helps to convince people that politicians are all feathering their own nests and turns many away from voting altogether.
This is one reason Labour lost millions of votes after 1997, to the benefit of the Tories and the capitalist class.
Despite all these obstacles to democracy, Marxists believe that our parliamentary institutions, which were secured through struggle and sacrifice, can have an important role in the advance to socialism.
Engels declared that in England, where the working class “forms the immense majority of the people” they should “use the power already in their hands, the actual majority they possess in every large town in the kingdom, to send to Parliament men of their own order.”
Whether this could lead peacefully to socialism would depend on the response of the ruling class to policies which threatened their power.
Lenin again: “Democracy is of enormous importance to the working class in its struggle against the capitalists for its emancipation. But democracy is by no means a boundary not to be overstepped; it is only one of the stages on the road from feudalism to capitalism, and from capitalism to communism.”
We should never forget that when the “democratic process” has proved a challenge to ruling class power, that class (domestic or external) has always sought to undermine it in any way it can — including force.
That’s happening today from Ukraine to Venezuela. In Britain the Shrewsbury and Orgreave pickets have yet to receive justice.
The results of last week’s election represent an important first step in building a popular democratic alliance outside as well as inside Parliament and led by the labour movement, to fight for left-wing policies, including an alternative economic and political strategy that will inspire a popular determination to make inroads into the wealth and power of monopoly capital and minimise the opportunities for counter-revolution.