Levi explains the differences between the limited bourgeois concept of democracy and the genuine communist goal of gaining full democracy.


Communist democracy?

People have become increasingly fed-up with the political structure of society. The people want an end to the constant attack on them, most notably austerity measures. A demand which the state, in times of political and economic crises, is not willing to or unable to grant. For many democracy means voting every few years without actually changing anything. This is why we have to analyse the ways in which bourgeois democracy functions and propose a radical alternative.

Political structures are necessarily dependent on the economic structure of society. In an economic structure that leads to class-division, political life will always be structured in order to serve the dominant class in that society. It is for this reason that a communist society will have a radically different form of decision-making from bourgeois society.

Bourgeois Democracy

In capitalism, social-life is split up into the economic and the political life. In the political-life there exists some, albeit very limited, space for participation in the decision–making process. The economic-life is ruled by, what Moshe Machover describes as, “a combination of the micro-tyranny of private ownership and the macro-anarchy of the market”1. The means of production are ruled in an autarchic fashion by their owner, i.e. the capitalist. However the capitalist has these solely to make profit of them, which he does by exchanging the products on the market. Market-exchange is a very anarchic process, to which the capitalist has to respond otherwise he wouldn’t be able to sell his products. It would be absurd to claim the existence of democracy in an economic system, or bourgeois society as a whole, that is ruled by the combination of the magical hand of the market with the iron fist of the capitalist. Yet a majority of people still believe in bourgeois democracy or even see it as the only form of democracy possible.

It is easy to see where this comes from. Don’t we have elections? Can’t we vote for the representatives to defend our interests? While this is true, it is hard to say your vote is worth much, if anything. In a democracy there is supposed to be rule by the people. But how can people decide if there is no transparency? Bourgeois society leaves behind a massive paper-trail. Trade-agreements, military-decisions, health-care everything is to be calculated and rationalised. A lot of this information would hurt individual state interests if it ever became public, be it for economic or political reasons. In 2011 up to 92 million documents were classified by U.S. officials2. This information can only be secured by ways of repression. Business secrets, intellectual property and libel laws are all means of securing the constant flow of information. But there still exists a threat to the secrecy. Five million people have security-clearance, meaning that they have access to a part or even all of the classified documents3. It is clear that with such a high number of people cleared, there exists a real danger of information being leaked to the press. At the time of writing this article, Bradley Manning faces 90 years in jail4 for leaking a, relativelu, small amount of documents containing tevidence murder of journalists, war-crimes and reports from Afghanistan among many other things. Edward Snowden, who leaked the information about the activities the NSA, is the victim of a massive witch-hunt by both the media and the United States, who uses means of pure intimidation on Snowden and any government that is willing to give Snowden asylum. The message towards other possible leakers, the five million people with security-clearance, is obvious; shut your mouth or we will shut you down. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the opening of the books is essential for any meaningful democracy to exist.

We could of course look to the media. After all, it is the task of journalists to investigate any kind of wrong-doings by politicians. To point out all the flaws of the media and the ultimate bankruptcy of journalism would be a massive undertaking and therefore beyond the scope of this article. An important question, however, is where the media, the main source of information for the majority of the population, get their funding from. Producing shows, broadcasting a network, writing stories etc. is not a free undertaking, as anything in our society it costs money, a lot of it. The media can, in most countries, be split into two categories; the “public” media and the commercial or corporate media. The “public” media is funded by the state. It will do anything to secure these funds. It is common for political parties to threaten the funding of the media (think for example of Mitt Romney in the previous elections in the States). During election time time this would mean that in order to secure their funding they either have to promote the opposition parties, given that those parties would keep funding them, or have a more appealing message to the parties threatening to take them off the air. The corporate media is funded by, as the name indicates, private corporations. In their reporting they have to represent corporate-interests for the simple reason that they would lose their advertisers if they didn’t. This is a more open and transparent process in the U.S. but exists in any country where the media lives on corporate funds.

Let’s say that despite the restriction and bias of the information we receive, we can still elect people who could make decisions in our interests. To understand the fallacy of this argument we have to look at what politicians are and how decisions are made. Political parties rely on donations. There has been an enormous growth of corporate funding of parties in recent years5. A massive amount of important politicians go to work for big businesses when they end their political career. Like Strauss-Kahn, who admits his political career is over6. But everyone knows he still has massive influence in politics. There is no question whether or not he will use that influence to secure the economic position of the business he works for. The parliamentary system is full of careerists who see politics as a step towards a good job in a big corporation, something which the lobbyists gladly make use of.

Decisions are made by the whole parliament, but the proposals are not. The proposals are made by the government. But they do not make the proposals themselves. Behind every government-department sits a massive bureaucracy who advise the government and draft the proposals. These bureaucrats are experts in their field, however this also means that they usually have an interest in the decision being made. So the proposals are usually arranged in a fashion which is of interest to the bureaucrat. In theory, the parliamentary system sounds quite nice, but in practice you can only choose which representative of the bourgeoisie can misrepresent and rule over you in parliament.

These laws are part of the rule of law. The law is defended by the police and the judicial system. The police holds, with the exception of the United States, a monopoly on violence. People have no influence on the police force and there is very little control over police abuse of power or wrongdoing in general. Yes, if you are wrongly accused you can defend your case in court. But to see why court doesn’t work we have to look at the way court works. To succeed in court one needs a lawyer. In most countries there exists a system where the poorest can get a pro-bono lawyer. The richest can afford a lawyer themselves. This sounds good, if it weren’t for the fact that usually the average income is too high for a pro-bono lawyer. But it is far below being able to afford a lawyer. While it is no guarantee, it is obvious that the judicial system works in favour of the minority just because they have the means to afford a better defense.

Here we see the frightening nature of bourgeois democratic system. It is a system that is build up in ways that can only favour the bourgeoisie. Simply because they have the means to do so. Their rule over the economic life, and thus their profits from it, enables them to rule over political life as well. We all have freedom of speech, but they have the money to spread their opinion more widely. We all have freedom of assembly, but they have the means to organize more people. We all can defend ourselves in court, but they can afford the best defense. Even the most democratic system runs in favour of the dominant class, in a class society.

Communist Democracy

Communists are for the abolition of class-society. From this it follows that communism must have a form of democracy that does not exclude anyone from the decision-making process. With the abolition of rule by private property and class comes the need for a new form of democratic decision making.

Of course, we cannot propose a blueprint of democratic mechanisms. Without a doubt, we can say that these mechanisms will adapt to the social-context in which they are made, and the matters to be decided upon themselves. This, however, does not mean that we have to abstain from proposing alternatives. With the failed “experiments” of the twentieth-century still in their mind, people will always be wary of the sincerity of communists when they talk about democracy. We will never be able to change this view of communism if we keep clinging on to vague formulas of democracy.

If we have to give a simple definition of democracy in communism it would be that communism means the expansion of democratic decision making to all spheres of social life, most notably the economic sphere of life. This expansion means that the amount of decisions to be made, will greatly increase. This is exactly why we have to look into forms of democratic decision-making that are impossible under capitalism but are possible in a communist society.

An often heard answer is direct democracy. This means that everybody votes on every proposal. This sounds very nice, until you think about the amount of decisions that need to be made. Millions. From the construction of a road to the distribution of food. While on a local level a form of direct democracy could work, on a regional or international level it would be impossible and only lead to nothing getting done, since everyone is making decisions for everything. We need representatives, whether that is just as an executive-body or a decision-making body.

A problem with representatives is the abuse of power. Even in a society without money people will have disagreements, and so will representatives. There are a few ways by which we can try to get rid of such abuse. Firstly, having short-terms is of the utmost importance. Having a frequent rotation of office would not only help to tackle abuse of power, it would also keep politics lively. Second, the right to recall. A recall could stop abuse early on, however it could also make it impossible to govern at all, because of too many recalls. It is clear that these solutions have to be applied differently according to the way decision-making is organized.

The best known form of organization is the council or soviet-system. Councils will, without a doubt, play a massive role in revolutionary times and will be most definitely be created in great popular activity. The council has direct participatory democracy and therefore is a system often preferred by leftists. Another advantage of the council is that with recallability of representatives the gap could easily be filled by someone in the council. However, here we also see its disadvantage. The council requires participation. A lot of it. It requires permanent political mobilisation and activity, when that doesn’t exist it loses its value as democratic institution. Another problem lays in extending the reach of the councils. For this the local councils would have to elect representatives, or delegates, for a regional council and the regional council would have to elect the representatives for the “national”-council and they for the continental and they for the international-council. With this system of tiers there can form a contradiction between the grassroot council and the higher councils. Not only that, the highest tier loses any accountability to the lower tiers. The council that were formed in times of popular enthusiasm and self-organisation of the working-class turn into its opposite: an indirect un-democratic system of tiers. The council-model can work as a local form of organization or the organization of the workplace but not with too many higher tiers or it will lose its value.

But with the workplace organized around a soviet-model arises the problem of the residential areas. A reorganization of workplaces would require similar democratic reorganization of residential areas interdependent on the workplace councils. This is needed because workplace decisions affect the community and vice versa. Genuine democracy, social self-governance, relies on co-operative determination by the workplace and the community. But this also goes to a wider level. To distribute the products made on the workplace a regional, continental and international government must exist to a certain degree. How can we find a method of international government that is not like a form of state but is also effective in distributing resources and making decision?

An interesting model is demarchy.This refers to representatives being randomly selected, much like the jury system in the US. But it would have the same problems as the US jury system, a lot of Americans have a feeling of apathy towards the jury system, they would rather not get selected than they would. Because the people have no influence in the selecting of the representatives they would feel alienated from the decision-making process, because they can exercise no influence over the process. This could be solved by recallability but this could also lead to the problem of being unable to govern because of constant recalls. Though with recall you would have to to make decisions that get popular support. To organize this on an international level we must have collective responsibility. This means that from every region someone gets chosen and this group of representatives are responsible as a whole. Representatives could just have the ability to execute decisions, not make them. However I think they should have the ability to make decisions but should be recallable. How then do we choose representatives? I think the best way is to choose them from people who sign up to do this, so we don’t get the problem that people not interested in governing would be forced to do that. I think short terms are necessary, but not with recallability. Instead after this short period the representatives are judged and if they did their job poorly they will be excluded from the group that can be picked for a certain period, say five or ten years.

Before the failures of Stalinism the left was the biggest force striving towards the extension of democracy. Over time the successes of the left in those days have largely been reversed. Not only that but the power structure has evolved in something even more corrupt, and even more undemocratic than it was before. The left has been vilified as authoritarian-monsters. The left has largely kept quiet about the extreme lack of democracy while the power structure grew more and more corrupt. We must struggle for the extension of democracy as far as is possible in bourgeois society. But we must also recognize its limits and conclude that for real democracy we must go beyond capitalism. If we want to get rid of the failures of Stalinism associated with the left, we need to be at the forefront of the struggle for democracy and realize that “that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy”7.

  1. Paul Cockshott says:

    Representatives are necessary for some purposes, but it is an illusion to think that the Soviet system of councils is likely to lead to anything other than one party rule. The indirect system of election working on first past the post, raises the advantage that first past the post gives to the leading party to an exponential power ( in terms of maths ). Representatives are only representative of the population if they are drawn by random sample, the soviet system virtually guarantees that the higher levels of the councils will be dominated by and answerable to the leadership of the biggest party.
    Recallability exists in several US states and in practice is almost impossible to implement.

  2. T. Chevsky says:

    The early soviet system (1917-1918) was based on the experience of 1905. Already in 1905 did the head of the St-Petersburg soviet consist of the representatives of the revolutionary parties that dominated the soviets. Because they lacked well developed and independent trade unions, the workers elected their representatives from the shop floor who would meet the Tsar. These representatives formed a “soviet” to discuss their position on specific demands.

    Thanks to the support of some sections of the revolutionary parties at that time (notably the support from Trotsky) did the soviet become a “system” and did it take up genuine political tasks from the police, the city council, etc. There is nothing inherently political or representative about the soviet system. To make a point I would bend the stick by saying that the political and democratic character of the soviet is brought in from outside.

    • J. Levi says:

      The soviets growing out of the strike-movement, and as you describe it held characteristics of democratic accountability, could be transformed into political organisations. I thus disagree that the democratic character of the soviet comes from the outside. The political character of the soviet appeared when class-struggle moved from specific, economic, demands to the Tsar to a political struggle. Though a political is not something inherent in the soviet it does appear when the struggle takes a political character and since the soviet was formed in the struggle I would say it did not come from the outside.

      However, I think that is important to note that the soviets did not answer the question of authority that inevitably arises in times of revolutionary uprising. While it, indeed, became a system which took up political tasks like the city council and the police, this was only for a short time. Not long after the Bolsheviks took power, the soviet and militias became insufficient in executing the key function the state has; the suppression of class-enemies. The soviets did not function like a government and so they were not the solution to the authority-question, which Sovnarkom was the answer to. The militias were replaced by a classic army and with it came the classic state bureaucracy. The Bolsheviks, faced with the problem of civil-war, fell back on party-authority and subsequently started the creation of a bureaucratic regime along with the extreme militarisation of the party. Both would prove to be the seed for Stalinism.

      Soviets are not inherently political and didn’t have much of a political role, as an authority even before they became mere tools of the CP.
      Other forms of councils in the world ended up in similar ways, that is falling back on old bureaucratic state organisations or on the existing worker organisation, i.e. the party.

      Maybe I should’ve noted that I do not think romanticism towards councils (along with the extreme adherence towards mass-strikeism) is a sufficient answer to the question of authority and decision-making that appears in a revolution and will be a major part in its outcome. Since this article is about post-revolution decision-making I have not focused on state-organisation of the working class.
      Maybe an idea for future articles is the history of soviets, its role in the tradition of the leftist mass-strike tradition (and the problems with mass-strikeism in general) and what strategic attitude ‘centrists’ must take towards the question of authority.

      • T. Chevsky says:

        My comment wasn’t a critique of your article in any way. It just came up when I read Paul’s contribution.

        We should ask ourselves: when does the class struggle start to take a political character? If the soviets are not the driving force, what is? From the composition of the 1905 and 1917-18 soviets I would say the answer is formed by the political parties. The Spanish Revolution did not have a genuine soviet system because neither Communists nor social democrats set them up, while the anarchists focused on the development of the CNT-FAI.
        On top of that, many countries have never even witnessed the creation and development of soviets or soviet-like organs. Not only because the political parties envolved in the revolution did not support the establishment of soviets, but also because, in many cases, other forms of working class representations were set up instead. Those organisations, too, rarely functioned as political institutions of the working class.