Out of the Past

Socialism is the extension of democracy to the social and economic life of the nation — James Connolly

Propagandists of capital like to treat us to long winded, empty headed pieces on the nature of democracy. A favourite of theirs in recent times is how the movement around Jeremy Corbyn “threatens parliamentary democracy”. When engaging in this argument it’s important to realise that the concept of democracy under capitalism has always been contested. Many Liberal theorists in the west like to present it as being an unbroken line from the Athenian democracy to todays democracy under capitalism. The reality is somewhat different. The theorists of the enlightenment drew a great deal of inspiration from the Athenian model it is true. What many of them agreed on especially was that this democracy should be almost as restrictive as the Athenian model. The bourgeois revolutions which began in England under Cromwell reflected this. The Putney debates between Cromwell and Ireton on one side and the New Model Army Levellers on the other were focussed on whether the franchise should be extended beyond “men of property”, a debate and subsequent battle the Levellers lost. The American revolution drew a large amount of support from bourgeois politicians and thinkers in England precisely because it was much more controlled by the propertied classes and proceeded to construct a republic with a very narrow franchise consisting entirely of white property owning men. The furious clash between Tom Paine and Edmund Burke in their respective books “The Rights of Man” and “Reflections on the Revolution in France” show the division starkly. Burke’s objections to the French revolution focussed on the role of what he termed as “the mob” i.e. the mass mobilisation of the nascent working class and poor of France against the old regime. Burke knew very well that the old regime was finished but believed that any transition should take place via a transition of power through a deal between the rising bourgeois and the old king. What he objected to was those without property finding political expression through the Jacobins. Paine, despite siding with the moderate Girondins, defended the revolution but went further in advocating universal suffrage. A view which was to lead Paine to exile and a poverty stricken final few years in the United States. The view of Burke came to be the view of the bourgeois across Europe in the early to mid 19th century. Though they opposed the feudal regimes in nations such as Prussia, the Italian states and Spain they were at best uneasy in calling upon the working class and peasantry to support them against the feudal order. This is what makes reading the works of Marx and Engels from the period of the 1848 revolutions as they observed in real time the betrayal of the German bourgeois as they drew back from confrontation with the feudal regime. The bourgeois of Europe eventually came to terms with the aristocracy and church in order to secure “order” against the power of the rising working class and Socialist movement. The working class movement in Britain began raising the demand for the vote repeatedly from the late 18th century.

This week sees the anniversary of the Peterloo massacre an event much misremembered in popular history. As Paul Mason describes in his work “live working or die fighting” the movement which led up to the ill fated rally at St Peters Field was a mass working class movement with the idea of mass enfranchisement attached to a series of industrial demands. The turning loose of the yeomanry on the demonstration was therefore not simply a case of a hot headed troopers getting out of control but a calculated attempt to kill the movement stone dead before it could take hold more widely. The British bourgeois slowly made more concessions as the century progressed. The chartist movement was defeated but faced with an increasingly well organised trade union movement the Tories and Liberals started to make concessions in extending the franchise. It is important to understand that this did not take place in a vacuum. The bourgeois were faced with a choice, either continue to refuse any concession and risk a bigger blow up of class struggle or make some concession and try to win the newly enfranchised working class over with a combination of social reforms and appeals to patriotism, imperial sentiments, monarchism and religion. These attempts were very successful for a while and there remained many working class areas which voted Conservative well into the twentieth century.

The idea of obtaining social progress via parliament was one that was thus embedded within the Labour Party from the start and indeed was the dominant thinking of the left and right in the party at the time. Where they differed though was how they saw industrial and political struggles outside of parliamentary channels. The right were always deeply suspicious of industrial struggles whereas the more radical end of the Labour left (James Maxton etc) saw them as playing at least a supporting role in creating the political space for the working class. This division repeats itself across the generation. Nye Bevan grew up in the tradition of radical industrial struggles and participated in many of them. Tony Benn moved significantly to the left under the influence of the mass struggles of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. In Benn’s work “Arguments for Socialism” he outlined his view of workers councils having a significant role in the management of industry. These ideas were widespread inside the Labour party until the 1990’s and their re-emergence under Corbyn should not be a surprise to anyone who knows Labour Party history. The fear on the right of the Labour Party reflects the anger in the ruling class that the victory of Corbyn brings this tradition back to life again. Corbyn and McDonnell both come from the tradition of Benn but now enjoy levels of support that even he did not attain during at the peak of Bennism. The idea that the Labour Party might go from being capitalisms reliable second eleven to a genuine, mass based, democratic movement which routinely engages in struggles designed to pressure the ruling class far outside of the “acceptable” parliamentary channels strikes real fear in the hearts of the ruling class. Once the working class gains the confidence to engage in mass political and industrial struggle the possibility of moving beyond capitalism entirely may take hold. The ruling class and their Labour right echo chamber see this clearly and so will do anything to ensure Corbyns defeat. We on the left must work to ensure they do not succeed and that this chance to create a mass Socialist movement is seized.