A Contribution to the Critique of Political Autonomy (2008)



It’s very difficult to force into obedience whoever has no wish to command.

J.-J. Rousseau

     No critique beyond this point

      Any critique of democracy arouses suspicion, and even more so if this critique is made by those who wish for a world without capital and wage-labour, without classes, without a State.

    Public opinion dislikes but understands those who despise democracy from a reactionary or elitist point of view. Someone who denies the common man’s or woman’s ability to organize and run his or her own life will logically oppose democracy. But someone who firmly believes in this ability, and yet regards democracy as unfit for human emancipation, is doomed to the dustbins of theory. At best, he is looked down upon as an idiot; at the worst, he gets the reputation of a warped mind destined to end up in the poor company of the arch-enemies of democracy: the fascists.  

     Indeed, if “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”, it seems obvious that in order to emancipate themselves, the exploited must do away with power structures that enslave them, i.e. create their own organs of debating and decision-making. Exercising one’s collective freedom, isn’t that what democracy is all about… ? That assumption has the merit of simplicity: to change the world and live the best possible human life, what better way than to base this life on institutions that will provide the greatest number of people with the greatest freedom of speech and decision-taking ?  Besides, whenever they fight, the dominated masses generally declare their will to establish the authentic democracy that’s been lacking so far.

     For all these reasons, the critique of democracy is a lost or forgotten battle.

     The heart of the matter                                       

     Democracy claims to be the most difficult objective to achieve, and the most vital, the ideal desired by all human beings: the theory and practice of collective freedom. Democracy is equated with organizing social life by common decisions which take into account everybody’s needs and desires as much as possible.

     But that ideal also claims that to be more than just an ideal, this process of common decision-making should happen in conditions of equality between us all. Mere political equality gives each citizen rights but ineffective powers: real democracy implies socio-economic equality, with no more rich and poor, no more master and servant, no more boss and employee. So a total reorganization and sharing of riches which is fair will enable each of us to have a fair share in decision-making on big issues as well as on minor ones. We’ll have a democracy that’s not just formal, but real.

     This is where we encounter a logical flaw.

     Sharing is a basic and elementary necessary human attitude, but no-one seriously expects it to solve the social question. At best, it can alleviate it. No moralist or prophet has ever convinced the rich and the mighty to divide their wealth and power fairly between all human beings. We’re entitled to ask where this social (and not just political) “fairness” is going to come from ? Democracy can’t achieve it on its own. This so-called “real” democracy lacks reality.

     Democracy is a contradiction: it pretends to give and guarantee something essential which inevitably evades it.

     Still, while most people go on at length about the failings of democracy, very few are willing to discuss its nature, because it appears as the best framework for human emancipation, and the only way to get it. Any resistance to exploitation, and any endeavour to create a world without exploitation, has to face the hard fact of the exploiters’ control over the exploited. The endless struggle against factory despotism, against boss rule on the shop floor and outside the factory, and also the struggle for  rank and file control over a strike, go beyond the mere refusal to depend upon a boss, a local politician, or even a union or party leader. That negative has a positive dimension. It’s the first step to direct and non-competitive relations, which entail new ways of meeting, discussing and making decisions. No social movement, big or small, can evade the issue: Who rules ? Otherwise, without procedures and structures different from top-down ones, the “lower classes” will eternally be treated as inferior. Be they called a commune, a committee, a collective, a soviet, a council, or a simple general meeting, every participant in these bodies achieves his individual freedom as well as his collective existence. Liberty and fraternity are experienced  through acts.

     Now, do these forms create the movement or just structure it ?

     It’s no use dismissing our question on the grounds that they do both…

     …because the nature of democracy is to treat debate and decision, not as what it is, a component of social life (and therefore of all positive change), but as the prime condition of social life (and therefore of all positive change). That’s what we’ll be discussing

     On the way, we’ll also have to show how the blinding light of democracy is even more attractively deceptive because the word itself is confused and confusing. 

     But first, a little historical meandering, to see how our critique differs from others.

    Traditionalist or reactionary critique

     In spite of their differences, the opponents of the French Revolution like Burke, late monarchists like Ch. Maurras, or the German thinkers of the Conservative Revolution in the 20th century, shared a common distaste for Human Rights. All these opponents dismiss the notion of the universality of the human species. “In my life, I’ve seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.; as for Man, I must confess I’ve never met him (..)” (J. de Maistre, 1796) They prefer the supposedly real abstraction of the soil, the nation, the people, the Volk, etc. to the more obviously abstract abstraction of the modern voting citizen. To them, human beings can only be “brothers” and “sisters” if they belong to a certain group or origin. That group can even be (German) labour in E. Junger’s The Worker (1932), but it’s still limited. Communism, on the contrary, is the possibility of the universal.

     Our critique addresses the State, democratic or dictatorial. Reactionary critique addresses the democratic State. Fascism has a deep hatred of democracy and, if it comes to power, it does away with political competition, but what it hates about the democratic system is parliamentary procedures, not the State institutions which fascists seduce, conquer, occupy and fortify, thereby taking to their extreme potentials which exist in all parliamentary regimes.

     Communism opposes democracy because communism is anti-State. Fascism only opposes democracy, because fascism is pro-State. We object to democracy as a form of the State, whereas reactionaries object to it as a political form they consider too feeble to defend the State. Mussolini and Hitler destroyed parliamentarianism in order to create an overriding central executive and administrative power. Communists have had to deal with parliamentarianism as one of the forms (and not a feeble one) of government and repression. Reaction denounces free will and bourgeois individualism to replace them with (old or new) forms of oppressive authority, whereas the communist perspective aims to realize the individual’s aspirations for a freedom that is both personal and lived out with others.

   Nietzsche’s critique

     In the eyes of Nietzsche, a society of masters ruling over slaves has been succeeded by the society of the average man, the man of the masses, where only slaves are to be found. The author of Zarathustra  stood for a new aristocracy, no longer based on birth, nor on money, nor (as the Nazi interpretation would have it) on power, even less on race, but on the free spirit who is not afraid of solitude. It’s because he would like every one of us to rise above himself and above the “herd” that Nietzsche is hostile both to socialism (he sees any collectivism as another type of gregariousness), and to anarchism (an “autonomous herd”, as he calls it in Beyond Good & Evil).

     As far as we are concerned here, the flaw in Nietzsche’s vision does not lie in his elitism, which is undeniable (in that respect, the Third Reich did not distort his writings too much). More basically, a solution which is neither historical nor political, but mythical and poetic, can only have meaning and value as an artist’s morals. Nietzschean politics can’t be recuperated because they do not exist. He was not dealing with the social question. His ethics are only to be lived out by the individual, at the risk of losing his mind, as happened to the philosopher himself.

    Individualist critique

     The democratic system is often blamed for crushing the individual under the collective. The poet and dandy Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) wrote: “Nothing is more ridiculous than looking for truth in numbers (..) the ballot box is only the way to create a police force.” And in the 20th century, Karl Kraus: “Democracy is the right for everyone to be the slave of all.”

     Whatever element of truth this point of view may contain, the partisans of democracy have their answer ready. They do not deny the pressure of democracy over the individual. They say the democratic system gives us a larger scope for freedom than we would get if each individuality was either locked within itself or in disorganized contact with others.

     Some individualists are more social than others: they suggest an association of freely consenting individuals. This is precisely one of the variants of the democratic contract, perhaps one of the most progressive.

    Ignoring democracy

     Before 1848, large sectors of socialism did not expect anything from democracy, because they stood outside politics. In spite of their quarrels, these schools of thought agreed on the generalization of associations, as a remedy to the “dissociation” (P. Leroux) brought about by the triumph of industry and money. All that was needed was to combine passions (Fourier), creative minds and productive abilities (Saint-Simon), or mutual bonds (Proudhon). Unlike the neo-babouvists who had inherited Babeuf’s experience and advocated the seizure of political power by organized mass violence, all the above-mentioned thinkers believed in the supremacy of morals: a new world would be born less out of necessity than by an ethical impetus. Some even hoped that socialism could be founded (funded, actually) by generous enlightened bourgeois, on a small scale at first, and then develop as the rest of society would follow its example, political power having little or nothing to do with it: therefore there was no need for revolution.

     This is neither a critique of politics nor of democracy.

     The communist perspective is anti-political, not a-political.

     Revolutionary Syndicalist critique : circumventing democracy

     Though it may seem to have only a historical interest, this critique is still active today, in a different way from 1910 of course. The idea of absorbing politics into the economy, i.e. of having a directly social democracy, is surfacing again in the current utopia of a seizure of local power so generalized that it would take away the substance of central political power (the State), and thus relieve us from the necessity of destroying the State. In Changing the World Without Taking Power (2002), J. Holloway argues that radical transformation is now so embedded in our daily lives that we’re gradually transforming the fabric of society, without the need for a potentially dictatorial break. Evolution instead of revolution. The “slow revolutions” notion, recently theorized by A. Bartra, partly inspired by the situation in Mexico and taken up by some radicals, amounts to no revolution.    

     In the mid-19th century, too, instead of addressing democracy, some hoped to get round it.

     Proudhon believed that labour gives the toiling masses a political capacity : let’s find a new way of producing goods, let’s make the bourgeois unnecessary, the rest will follow, and the workshop will replace government. Democracy was neither accepted nor fought against, but directly achieved by work, without any mediation.

     About fifty years later, revolutionary syndicalism had a loathing for parliamentary democracy. The vehicle for change was to come from labour organized in industrial (as opposed to trade) unions, which would unite the whole class, skilled and unskilled. Proudhon had been the ideologist of craftsmen and small industry. Anarcho-syndicalism suited the age of trusts and huge factories, but the principle was similar: a fusion between industry and government. After acting as an egalitarian body fighting the bosses and police, the union would later manage the economy during and after the revolution. Some syndicalists, like De Leon in the US, wanted parallel political and industrial action, but for them politics was clearly outside and against parliament.

     Revolutionary syndicalism has been reproached for its elitism. It’s true it emphasized the role of active minorities that would spur the less advanced into action. But most revolutionary syndicalists aimed at an active class-conscious mass elite, utterly different from what they saw as the passive mass of sheep-like social-democrat voters. Georges Sorel (1847-1922) thought that the labour union, unlike parliament and party life, bred “a fair and real organized equality”, as all members were wage-labourers showing solidarity towards each other. The “new political principle of the proletariat” is “government by vocational groups” self-organized in the work place. “Resistance bodies will finally enlarge their scope and range so much that they will absorb nearly all politics” in a successful “struggle to suck bourgeois political organization dry of all life”.

     Sorel had a point : “ Marx believed that the democratic regime has the advantage that as workers are no longer attracted to fighting the monarchy or the aristocracy, the notion of class becomes easier to grasp. Experience teaches us the opposite; democracy is quite good at preventing the advance of socialism, by diverting workers’ minds toward trade-unionism under government protection.” (1908)

     Sorel, however, scored only a negative point against Marx, because experience was also teaching the opposite of what he was expecting: the union failed as well as the party, and union self-organization was often sucked dry of all life by bourgeois democracy.

     “You can’t destroy a society by using the organs which are there to preserve it (..) any class which wants to liberate itself must create its own organ”, H. Lagardelle wrote in 1908, without realizing that his critique could be applied as much to the unions (including a supposed revolutionary syndicalist French CGT on a fast road to bureaucratization and class collaboration) as to the parties of the Second International. Revolutionary syndicalism discarded the voter and preferred the producer: it forgot that bourgeois society creates and lives off both. Communism will go beyond both.   


     Understanding universal suffrage as the act by which that the workers swap their potential violence for a voting paper, is part of the essentials of social critique.  Attacking elections has been a constant theme for the anarchists, and was not uncommon among socialists before 1914. All left-wing factions and parties in the Second International agreed that any parliament remains under the control of the ruling class, and election day is always a setback for radicalism. After 1917, this remained a fundamental tenet of all varieties of communists. Even those who advocated tactical use of elections regarded the soviets, and not the Parliament, as the political basis and organ of a future revolution. 

     That being said, and it must be said, rejecting parliament does not sum up nor define our perspective, no more than despising the rich or hating money. Old bourgeois institutions have been attacked even by people like Mussolini, who succeeded, up to a point.

    Bolshevik critique :   soviets versus parliament

     In 1920, as a polemic against Kautsky’s Terrorism & Communism published a year before, Trotsky wrote a book with the same title. Kautsky opposed democracy and mass freedom to civil war and systematic use of violence. Trotsky on the other hand distinguishes between democracy as universal suffrage, and democracy as the mass of the people : to understand what is meant by “people”, one has to go into a class analysis.

     Before parliamentarianism as we’ve known it since the end of the 19th century, Trotsky explains, history provides us with examples of early conservative democracy: the agrarian democracy of the farmers in the New England town meeting and the Swiss self-government of the urban lower middle classes and of the rich peasantry (praised by Rousseau in The Social Contract, 1762). Then, as capital and labour became “the polar classes of society”, bourgeois democracy developed as “the weapon of defence” against class antagonisms. Trotsky reminds the reader what civilized Western democracy has led to : a world war.

     As for Russia, Trotsky justifies terror and coercion methods on the grounds that they are the only methods available if the proletariat is to defend itself against a far more terrorist and bloodthirsty counter-revolution. “When the civil war is over (..) by means of a systematically-applied labour service, and a centralized organization of distribution, the whole population of the country will be drawn into the general system of economic arrangement and self-government.”

     Knowing that Trotsky was at the same time advocating forced militarization of labour, in plain English hard labour for dozens of millions, one can only read those lines as ruler talk justifying his own power over the common people. Now we know that soviet democracy under Bolshevik rule was a sham, but that is not the point here. As far as we are concerned in this essay, Trotsky only targets democracy because of what it has become under capitalism: an “imperialist democracy”. So, “(..) we repudiate democracy in the name of the concentrated power of the proletariat”.  He is interested in the forms taken by democracy (and claims Bolshevism will later achieve a superior form), not in the nature of democracy. It’s the democraticprinciple we will have to address.

      Anarchist critique : dispersing power

     Leninism is haunted by a desire to seize power, anarchism by an obsessive fear of power. As a reply to authority and dictatorship, anarchism stands for the collective versus leadership, horizontal v. vertical, commune v. government, decentralization v. centralization, self-management v. top management, local community v. mass electorate. It stands for a plurality of true democracies instead of a false one, until the State is eventually destroyed by universalized democracy. Lots of small-scale production and living units will be dynamic enough to get together without any of them losing their autonomy. Like the polis of Ancient times, the modern metropolis falls prey to oligarchic tendencies: myriads of federated co-ops, collectives and districts will be able to run themselves, and thus remain democratic. If power is split between millions of elements, it becomes harmless.

     However we won’t solve the problem of power by spreading little bits of it everywhere.

    Bordiga’s critique: dictatorship versus democracy

     Amedeo Bordiga is one of the very few who took democracy seriously: he didn’t look at its methods, but at its principle. However, he likened proletarian democracy so much to bourgeois democracy that he ended up missing the principle itself.

     His starting point is that democracy consists in individuals regarding themselves as equals, each forming his own opinion according to his free will, then comparing it with the opinion of others, before taking a decision (usually after a vote and according to majority rule: this is important, yet not essential to the definition). Parliament stifles the proletarians by forcing them into a political partnership with the bourgeois. Nothing original in that last statement, but the deduction that follows is not so common : Bordiga thinks worker democracy is also to be rejected, because it decomposes  the proletarian fighting spirit into individual decisions. Democracy means a reunion of equal rights and wills, which is impossible in bourgeois parliamentarianism, and pointless in proletarian class activity: revolution does not depend on combining a mass of individual decisions, nor on majority or proportional procedures, but on the ability of the organized proletariat to act as a centralizing body and a collective mind. (Bordiga calls this body and mind “a party”, but his party is very different from the Leninist one, since it is not based on socialist intellectuals introducing socialism into the working class from outside. To make things more complicated, Bordiga never openly criticized Lenin’s conception of the party.)

     “(..) the principle of democracy has no intrinsic value. It is not a “principle”, but rather a simple mechanism of organization (..) revolution is not a problem of forms of organization. On the contrary, revolution is a problem of content, a problem of the movement and action of revolutionary forces in an unending process (..)” (The democratic principle, January 1922)

     Several decades later, Bordiga wrote : “The ‘content of socialism’ (..) won’t be proletarian autonomy, control and management of production, but the disappearance of the proletarian class, of the wage system, of exchange – even in its last surviving form as the exchange of money for labour-power; and finally, the individual enterprise will disappear as well. There will be (..) nobody to demand autonomy from.” (The Fundamentals of Revolutionary Communism, 1957)

     Indeed communist revolution is the creation of non-profit, non-mercantile, co-operative and fraternal social relations, which implies destroying the State apparatus and doing away with the division between firms, with money as the universal mediator (and master), and with work as a separate activity. That is the content.

     What Bordiga fails to see, is that this content won’t come out of any kind of form. Some forms are incompatible with the content. We can’t reason as if the end was the only thing that mattered: the end is made out of means. Certain means get us closer to the end we want, while others make it more and more remote and finally destroy its possibility. The content of communism (which Bordiga was right to emphasize) can only be born out of the self-organized action of “the vast majority” of the proletariat (Communist Manifesto). The communist movement is not democratic: neither is it dictatorial, if the dictator is one part of the proletariat oppressing the rest. Soon enough that part loses whatever proletarian character it had and turns into a privileged group telling people what to do. This is what happened in Russia, as some like Otto Rühle understood as early as 1920-21.  

     Bordiga lacks a critique of politics. He perceives revolution as a succession of phases: first it would replace bourgeois power, then it would create new social relations. This is why he has no trouble believing that the Bolsheviks could have ruled Russia for years and, even without being able to transform the country in a communist way, still have promoted world revolution. Yet power is not something revolutionaries can hold on to with no revolution happening in their country or anywhere else. Like many others, Bordiga equates power with an instrument. When Jan Appel was staying in Moscow as a KAPD delegate in the Summer 1920, he was shown factories with well-oiled machines that could not be operated for lack of spare parts: when  revolution breaks out in Europe, the Russian workers would tell him, you’ll send us spares and we’ll be able to operate these machines again. After October 1917, the Bolsheviks must have thought of themselves as something similar: a machinery preparing for world revolution. Unfortunately, power (and even more so State power) is not a tool waiting to be properly handled. It’s a social structure that does not remain on stand-by for long. It has a function: it connects, it makes people do things, it imposes, it organizes what exists. If what exists is wage-labour and commodity exchange, even in the original and makeshift existence it had in Russia in 1920, power will manage that kind of labour and that kind of exchange. Lenin died a head of State. On the contrary, a revolutionary structure is only defined by its acts, and if it does not act it soon withers.

     Like Trotsky, Bordiga theorizes the necessity to do violence to particular proletarians in the name of the future interests of the proletarians in general: as late as 1960, he would still justify the Bolshevik repression of the Kronstadt rising in February-March, 1921. He never understood that at the time he was writing The Democratic Principle, the Russian experience that he extensively used to back up his thesis was eliminating whatever revolution was left in Russia. Bordiga was attacking democratic formalism on behalf of a revolution that already had less substance than form.

     Dictatorship is the opposite of democracy. The opposite of democracy is not a critique of democracy.    

     Council communism : from anti-bureaucratism to non-violence    

     The “German” Communist Left agreed with the “Italian” Left on the rejection of bourgeois democracy. In the early 1930s, neither A. Pannekoek, nor P. Mattick, nor the remnants of the KAPD and of the Unionen in Germany believed that the rise of Nazism could be stopped if the SPD and KPD (and with them all other democrats) joined forces against Hitler instead of fighting each other. The disagreement between Bordiga and Pannekoek focused on worker democracy.

     It’s significant that some revolutionaries would come to call themselves “council communists”. In 1920, the opposition between workers’ councils and the party (meaning a Leninist party), was only one aspect of what the German Left stood for, a major aspect no doubt, but not one that would sum it up.   Decades later, defining oneself by emphasizing the council as such, meant prioritizing a mode of organization.

     Those who are now known as “council communists” were some of the earliest critics of the failure of Bolshevism, and remain among the best. But as time passed, council communists have tended to treat bureaucracy as the main obstacle on the road to revolution, and worker democracy as the main instrument to avoid bureaucratic evolution. In theory as in practice, these groups have been wary of anything that might act as a constraint upon the working class. Council communism has led them to council democracy, as if communism could be best achieved by democracy. Not bourgeois democracy, needless to say, but worker democracy, yet in that respect both bourgeois and worker forms proclaim the same purpose:  to prevent or limit encroachments on personal freedom.

     We won’t reply (as Bordiga would) that individual freedom is an illusion and is irrelevant to communism. We only say that in any case such freedom can’t be guaranteed by the democratic principle.

     What this quest for non-pressure boils down to is the desire to avoid conflicts which result in the rise of leaders. As it happens, the “protection” provided by democracy only works in the absence of any serious crisis among the persons concerned, be they proletarians or bourgeois. As soon as debate is not enough to result in a decision willingly accepted by the group as a whole, the group can’t carry on as a mere confrontation of free wills (unless it’s only a friendly debating society). Either the group thinks that maintaining the community matters more than the disagreement. Or it splits. Or it forces a decision onto the participants. In all cases, the democratic principle has been suspended.

     Supposing a radical group turned free will into an absolute, such a group would do nothing but pass on data and information : it would defend no theory, except the theory of exchange, the theory of the necessity of autonomy. No theory, except the theory that no theory must be imposed on the working class. Such a non-theory would of course be inaccessible to criticism, which would help the group develop its own informal bureaucracy.

     Bordiga’s theory of the party denies the problem. Councilism evades it by waiting for such an (impossible) overwhelming proletarian majority that all conflict will be resolved without any verbal or physical violence. The “party or autonomy” alternative was born out of our past failures. A future revolutionary movement will have to go beyond this alternative.

    The critique of “formal” democracy

     Traditional Marxist analysis has the merit of stressing that democracy gives possibilities that only become realities for those able to use them: in a class society, the members of the ruling class will always be in a much better position to do so. Everyone is (nearly) free to publish a paper, but the ads necessary to finance a daily or a magazine won’t fund an anti-capitalist press. The ballot paper of Henry Ford is counted as one vote like the ballot paper of one of his workers, but Mr Ford will hold more sway on public affairs than any of his workers, or even of thousands of them.

     Like some previous critiques, this one points to an essential feature of democracy, but its shortcoming is to treat democratic forms as if they lacked reality, whereas they are real, with a reality of their own.

     It is often said that the liberties allowed by a democratic regime are only cosmetic: that is true, but only part of the truth. Everybody knows that freedom of speech favours the business lawyer more than his cleaning lady. In an unequal society, knowledge, culture, politics and access to the public scene are also unequal. Yet, today as yesterday, by using and enlarging possibilities left to them, the workers, the common people have been able to better their lot, and thus they’ve given some content to liberties that aren’t just empty shells. True, this betterment was caused more by direct, often violent, action than by democracy properly speaking: nevertheless, legal unions, litigation bodies, as well as local authorities, members of parliament or even governments favourable to labour have helped channel these demands, moderating them and pushing them forward at the same time. Democracy and reformism have led a couple’s life for nearly 150 years now, although they’ve often been strange bedfellows.

     Explaining that a worker’s ballot paper only formally has the same weight as his boss’s, only proves that so-called political equality does not make up for social inequality. Yet reformists have never denied this. They say: “Since Mr Ford’s ballot paper weighs a million times more than one of his workers’, let’s get together the votes of millions of workers and we’ll be stronger than the Ford family. We’ll turn into reality the appearance of power that the bourgeois have granted us.” Against the might of capital, labour has the strength of numbers: speaking in public, having papers independent of the bosses’ press, organizing in the workplace, meeting and demonstrating in the street, are after all easier in democracy, as the exploited and oppressed have experienced. In general, the mass of the population have more ways to improve their conditions of work and life with Adenauer than Hitler, with De Gaulle than Pétain, with Allende than Pinochet, with Felipe Gonzales than Franco, etc.

     If parliament was only a sham, and freedom of speech only a deception, there wouldn’t be any more parliaments, parties or political campaigns, and they wouldn’t still rally voters, and even stir passions. (Unless we think this is due to continuous crafty bourgeois conditioning: but surely over a century of democratic regime should have acted as an eye opener...)  Democracy is not a show - not just a show.   

     So Churchill was right ?...

     This brief survey seems to leave us with only one option, summed up by W. Churchill in the House of Commons on November 11, 1947: “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all other forms, that have been tried from time to time.”      

     It’s significant that the best known definition of democracy should be based on a paradox, even a play on words. In fact, everybody makes fun of Churchill’s phrase, and yet everybody accepts it, with one reservation: everybody thinks he has the solution to really get the best out of this lesser evil. 

     (It’s also significant that the famous British statesman should have added cynicism to pragmatism in another phrase: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” This second sentence is less often quoted: the scorn it displays for the actors – extras would be more appropriate – of democracy might discredit the first definition.)

     Let’s go back to the word itself.

    Westminster is not on the Acropolis

     If we put back in its place, i.e. in history, this reality commonly called democracy, we realize how poorly the word is adapted to what it has labelled for a couple of centuries.

     Modern times have given an utterly new usage to a notion born in Ancient Greece. Nowadays, the man in the street, the academic or the political activist, everyone uses the word democracy for 5th century B.C. Athens and 21st A.D. century Italy or Sweden. The people who would never dare talk about a prehistoric “economy” or “work” among New Guinea tribesmen see no anachronism in applying the same term to a system where citizenship meant an ability (theoretical but also partly effective) to govern and be governed, and to a system nowadays where, for 99% of the citizens, citizenship comes down to the right to be represented.

     This gap was more readily admitted in the early days. James Madison, one of the founding fathers of the US Constitution, differentiated between democracy, where “the people meet and exercise their government in person”, and republic (a term of Roman and not Greek origin), where “they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents”. With the passing of time and the rise of the modern bureaucratic State (which Madison opposed), democracy has become a mere synonym for power vested in the people but not exercised by them.

     Common wisdom bemoans the limits of a Greek democracy closed to women, slaves and foreigners, and rejoices over the opening of modern democracy to larger and larger sections of the population. The ideal of radical democrats is a demos that would welcome all human beings living on a given territory. They forget that the Ancient Athenian fortunate enough to enjoy citizenship was not a citizen because he was a human being, but because he happened to be a co-owner of the polis : he was a landowner, small or big. The democratic system emerged as a way to manage as smoothly as possible the contradictions within a community of male family heads, inexorably divided by an increasingly unequal distribution of fortune.

     It’s only because it was limited to a group that shared something vital (a superior social position, albeit undermined by money differences) that Greek democracy could afford to be participatory (which did not save it from periodic crises). In Europe or the US today, nothing can be compared to the demos of Pericles’ time. When it’s applied to societies ruled by the capital-labour relationship, the word “democracy” tells us more about what these societies think of themselves than about their reality.

   A question of words ?

     If we wish to stick to the word communism and object todemocracy, it’s not for tradition’s sake, but for historical motives. In spite of its imperfections, communism expresses the endeavour of the exploited and of the human species to liberate itself. The word and the notion were meaningful (that is, debatable and debated) in 1850 or 1900. The revolution that failed in Russia, and Stalinism later, loaded the term with a totally different meaning. As the S.I. once explained (#10, 1966), captive words become like prisoners put to hard labour: they too are forced to work for the benefit of those who’ve captured them. Communism is not oppressive or bureaucratic by nature.

     On the contrary, democracy has been a distorted word ever since its return in the mouth of bourgeois revolutionaries from the 18th century onwards, and of most (but not all) socialists in the 19th and 20th centuries. The distortion does not consist in an outright lie like the Maoist descriptions of life in China, but in a mental displacement of reality: as it identifies modern parliaments to Ancient agoras, and the 21st century citizen to a 5th century B.C. Athenian citizen, and as it suggests the modern one has a lot more power, it compresses history and confuses us.

     Exploitation and / or domination ?

     Do inequality, poverty and misery exist because a few privileged people make decisions for us all ? Or have these happy few got a near monopoly over decisions because they already are rich and therefore powerful ? The question is sterile.  

     Mountains of books and articles have been and are still written to refute the alleged Marxist claim that “the economy” explains almost everything. Yet who made such a claim ?  

     “According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining factor is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted.” (Engels, letter to J. Bloch, September 21, 1890)

     It all depends on what is meant by ultimately and production : in any case, it’s only under the rule of capitalism that production ceased to be imbedded in social life and developed into a relatively autonomous sphere. The “economy” surely does not explain power. Profit-making strictly speaking does not account for (local or world) wars. Politics does not copy-and-paste the economy. In bourgeois democracy, wealth does not entail automatic access to government, and in real life top businessmen rarely become heads of State. A similar socio-economic “infrastructure” can coexist with very different and opposed political forms. Capitalist Germany was successively run by a monarchist caste, by bourgeois, by the leaders of a nationalist-racist one-party State, then after 1945 by bourgeois in the West and by bureaucrats in the East, then again by bourgeois when the country was reunified. History provides us with many examples of non-coincidence between economic might and political authority, and of a modern State occasionally ruling against the bourgeois, forcing the general interest of the system upon reluctant industrialists or businessmen. Faced with a large strike in the Ruhr, Bismark himself compelled the bosses to grant a wage rise. Although usually in Europe money facilitates power, in Africa and in the East, power is often the quick way to fortune, with family or clans misappropriating public funds or siphoning off foreign trade. Also, it’s not uncommon for political rulers to dispossess some industrial magnates, as we’ve seen in Russia over the last decade.

     Yet, in the vast majority of cases, political leaders and masters of the land, of trade and of manufacturing go hand in hand or come down to the same thing. Having a command over men usually means putting them to work. These two forms of control can clash with one another, but not for long: one consolidates the other. Power does not create itself. Political rule and possession of the means of production rarely coincide, but in modern society there’s neither exploitation without domination, nor domination without exploitation: the same groups have direct or indirect control over wealth and power.

     The exploiter needs to be able to put pressure on the person he exploits: he only exploits what he has supremacy over. Domination is a precondition and a necessary form of exploitation. Let’s not try and decide which one logically or chronologically comes first. Exploitation is never just “economic” (I have someone work for me, in my place and for my benefit), but also “political” (instead of someone making decisions about his life, I take the decisions myself, for instance I decide when to hire and fire him). Society is not divided, as Castoriadis thought in the 1960s, between order-givers and order-takers. Or rather, this division exists, but these “orders” have to do with what structures today’s world: the capital-wage labour relation (which does not mean it determines everything). There is no need to oppose exploitationtodomination. Human societies in general, and capitalism in particular, can only be understood by the link between exploitation and domination. Firms are not just profit makers: they are also power structures, but they remain in business as long as they create and accumulate value, otherwise they go bankrupt.

    Politics as the cornerstone of democracy

     If politics means taking into account society as a whole (including the reality of power), and not just as an addition of local or technical issues, then “The human being is in the most literal sense a political animal” (Marx, Grundrisse, 1857), any social change is political, any social critique is political, and  revolution has to do with politics.

     Politics, however, is something else than this concern for the global, the general, the total, because it turns this totality into a new specialization, into an activity removed from direct social interests. That special dimension cannot ignore socio-economic hierarchies and oppositions. But it deals with them by shifting them to a level where the roots of these conflicts will never be changed, only their consequences.

     Ancient Greece’s real contribution to history was not the principle of democracy as a set of rules and institutions by which citizens make collective decisions. The innovation went deeper. It invented what democracy is based upon: a special time and place reserved for confrontation, and distinct from the rest of social life. In that specific sphere, a person is taken away from his private interests, from fortune and status differences, from his social superiority or inferiority, and placed on an equal footing with all the other citizens. Equality of rights alongside social inequality: that is the definition of politics. Society is fully aware of its inability to abolish group or class antagonism, so it transfers the antagonism onto a parallel level that’s supposed to be neutral, where conflicts are acknowledged and cushioned in the best possible interest of the continuation of the system as a whole. It’s this separation that Marx’s early writings were dealing with. Direct or worker or people’s democracy maintains the separation while it claims to go beyond it by involving everyone in the democratic process, as if popular empowerment could solve the problem of power. Unfortunately, a separate sphere remains separate, even if everybody is in it.

          Any human group thinks of and reacts to the whole of its situation. But class societies, in a thousand ways and through trial and error, have divorced debating, managing and decision-making from the rest. Logically, these societies regard this dissociation as the “natural” and universally desirable best possible way of solving human conflicts.

     Class divisions, in certain conditions, have created politics: doing away with class divisions will entail going beyond politics.

    Democracy is not to be denounced and smashed, but superseded. Like other essential critiques, the critique of democracy will only become effective by the communizing of society.

     As long as people content themselves with a “fair” redistribution of wealth, they inevitably also go for a “fair” redistribution of power. Only an altogether different world will no longer be obsessed with power, with taking it, sharing it, or scattering it. Political dilemmas will only be solved when we stop treating power as the prime issue.

     Manufacturing consent… and dissent

     When writers like N. Chomsky expose the conditioning of public opinion by the State, media and lobbies, they fail to ask themselves what is being conditioned. 

     Opinion is seen as a collective motley and fickle spirit that sometimes determines events and sometimes is tossed about by them, as if these events were within its reach one day, and out of reach the next. For instance, German opinion is reported to have been indifferent or hostile to Hitler in 1923, then to have listened to him after 1929, before moving away from him for good after the fall of the Third Reich. It’s as though these successive points of view had been adopted regardless of what German individuals, groups, classes, unions, parties, etc., were doing each time.

     Another example is the day there was a turnaround in French opinion in 1968: the huge rightwing demonstration  (supposedly one million people) on the Champs Elysées in Paris, May 30, is described as the death knell for the rebellion in the streets and in the factories. Yet this shows what public opinion really is. In April, most future rebels had no idea they would soon be marching in the street or stopping work. A few days later, urged on by the early street fighting and the initiative of a minority of workers, millions of people discovered what they wanted to do and could do. A couple of weeks later, the ebb of the strike wave (and for many, the satisfaction of seeing their demands at least partly met) wore out the revolt and enabled conservative forces to get a grip on themselves. Thus, from beginning to end, the shock of the largest general strike in history determined the flow of events, and successively made people aware of possible changes, enabled law and order supporters to resurface, and created despair among the rebels but also numerous rebounds over the next ten years.

     Men’s “social being determines their consciousness”. Admittedly, it works both ways, but certainly a lot more this way than the other. After 1945, in France as elsewhere, the workers at the Billancourt Renault plant near Paris had been fed with Stalinist slander depicting (real or imaginary) Trotskysts as fascists and agents provocateurs in the pay of the boss and the police. The CP-led union, the CGT, had unrelentingly and usually successfully prevented work stoppages: “The strike is the weapon of big business…” In spring 1947, the Billancourt workers went on a two-week strike, partly managed by the rank and file, and elected a well known Trotskyst, Pierre Bois, on the strike committee. Yet they’d been “conditioned” by years of propaganda, and the tiny revolutionary minority could only answer back by poorly distributed leaflets, with the risk of being beaten up or sacked, as the CGT held sway over the running of the plant. If in such negative circumstances, a substantial number of workers dared lay down tools and designate a Trotskyst to represent them, it’s not because they would have had access at last to Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed or other critical analyses of the bureaucracy. More simply, the pressure of their conditions of work and life, and their own resistance to exploitation led them to disobey union orders, to fight alongside persons like Pierre Bois, and treat as comrades those they distrusted before. In some ways, there was more militancy on the premises in 1947 than in 1968: in 47, a few strikers debated about manufacturing firearms, and the union van was turned over by rebellious workers.

     By the same logic, when the strike was over, with the CP being expelled from government and the beginning of the Cold War, the CGT took on a tougher anti-bourgeois line. One reason (or pretext) for the government getting rid of its CP ministers was the Stalinists’ getting on the bandwagon and siding with the strikers. The worker bureaucracy recovered its influence over the mass of the workforce. Not entirely, though: the Trotskysts tried to take advantage of the strike to launch a small union (called Syndicat Démocratique Renault), which struggled along for a couple of years before dying away. If very few workers had confidence in it, it’s not because Stalinist slander had apparently retrieved the efficiency it had lost in the spring of 1947. The reason is more down to earth: the CGT was more in tune with the needs of the proletarians, supported some of their demands and structured their struggles. The CGT defended and represented them better than a union which was a small minority in Renault and had hardly any support in the rest of the country.

     From propagandist to educationist

     Opinion is a set of (individual or group) ideas about the world. Representative democracy wishes each of us to form his ideas on his own, and only afterwards to compare them to other people’s ideas. Direct democracy prefers a collective making of ideas. But both think the only way to achieve free thought is to be correctly educated or even better, self-taught, this self being here again preferably collective.

     Because of the rise and fall of totalitarianism in the 20th century, the word and the reality of propaganda are now commonly looked down upon. In 1939, S. Chakotin published The Rape of the Masses (translated into English in 1940; new edition by Haskell House, 1982): a disciple of Pavlov, he argued that totalitarian (especially Nazi) methods of mind control were based on the use of emotional urges to create conditioned reflexes. Chakotin was theorizing his own practice: he’d been in charge of anti-fascist propaganda for the German SPD in the early 1930s. He said he appealed to reason, not to the senses as the Nazis did, but that did not prevent him from devising crowd-conditioning techniques for mass meetings. He also designed the “Three Arrows” inside a circle symbol for the Iron Front set up in 1931 as an umbrella organization that aimed to bring together socialists, liberals and (at the beginning) Catholic democrats, but not the KPD, as a bulwark against Hitler. The Three Arrows were later taken up by social-democrats outside Germany, in France for example. What was certainly one of the earliest political logos has been given various interpretations, but it surely hoped to convey an impression of superior power : the show of strength of democratically-organized masses in military attire was meant to have more appeal to the German people than the sheer display of brute force in Nazi rallies. History, however, is not a war of symbols. Chakotin’s failure to beat the Nazis at their own game is a sign that Hitler’s success was only marginally caused by crowd manipulation techniques. Germany turned to Hitler when the Weimar republic proved incapable of offering any other (radical, reformist or conservative) solution to its crisis.  

     Ed. Bernays, perhaps the first professional advertiser on public relations, had already described in Propaganda (1928) how an “invisible government” ruled democratic society. He claimed to be able to act on the collective subconscious with a combination of Freudism and crowd psychology, and invented advertising techniques that he sold to big business as well as politicians. In 1954, he was instrumental in destabilizing the (democratic) government of Guatemala that the US finally toppled. In those days, it was still a novelty to “sell” a candidate to the White House like a soft drink, and by similar methods. Unpalatable Bernays was ahead of his time, and heralded ours, when no party dares engage in propaganda: it communicates. Commercials don’t sell goods, they sell lifestyles. Parties don’t promote programs, they promote meaning and imagery.

     Unlike the crude agit-prop of yesteryear, today’s most advanced political advertising does not claim to change our views : it presents itself as a helping hand that will allow us to form our own opinions. Advertising now calls itself information, needless to say interactive information. Everything is supposed to be “bottom-up”. Modern management has become the ideal model of all relations. The “progressive” boss gives the staff a large margin of self-organization in their work… as long as they reach the objective set by the company. The teacher aims at bringing out his student’s autonomy. The psychologist (counsellor, sorry...) repeats to his patient : Be Yourself ! The contradiction remains the same in every field of activity and ends up in more control over staff (particularly thanks to computerization), more bureaucratic guidelines in schools, and more counselling.

      How could it be otherwise ? The critique of “education first” (or self-education first) was expressed as early as 1845:

     “The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society between two parts, one of which is superior to society.” (Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, III) 

     Nobody believes much of what commercial or political advertising says, yet it works. No-one watching a Peugeot TV commercial regards the new SW 407 as the best estate car ever made, and no voter expects the presidential candidate to keep all his promises, but people buy cars, take part in elections, and that’s what matters. The content of the message is far less important than popular participation in and acceptance of the whole system.     

    “The more information and discussion there are, the better…”  

     Democrats, moderate or radical, all think that the inadequacies of democracy come from the fact that there is never enough of it: not enough good schooling, not enough quality papers, not enough serious talks on TV… and our information resources are never wide and varied enough.

     Democracy is indeed based on (individual and/or collective) free will, but this freedom must be properly fuelled by the largest amount of information and discussion possible.

     This vision is to be expected from party organizers, teachers, media people, publishers and all those who make a living out of communication. But it is surprising that so many revolutionaries should also regard getting and exchanging ideas as the prime mover of history.

     In Orwell’s 1984, Winston is watched by a telescreen forcibly installed in his living-room and which he is forbidden to switch off. In the early 21st century, television is no longer the main popular screen it was in 1960 or 1990. On the Internet, at home or on portable cell phones, people have direct access to forums where thousands of discussions take place between a government minister, an ecologist, a businesswoman, a gay activist, an unemployed person, an anti-globalizer, or sometimes an anarchist. At the click of a mouse, I can get loads of data and differing views on what’s going on today in Peking or La Paz. A few more clicks, and I challenge these data and views in the company of an Internaut from Sydney or Montreal, and have my own views on these events circulated worldwide in a matter of minutes. This instant and universal availability also applies to the past. Unless I have a special fondness for the canals in Amsterdam, I no longer have to visit the International Institute of Social History to know about the Ruhr Red Army in 1920. Not everything is available on-line, but there’s more on the Internet now than in any single public library… or of course at any newsagent’s. Most of all, it’s not just there to be read, but exchanged and debated.

     Since everything is turned into figures these days, it’s likely someone will invent a system that monitors and quantifies all verbal exchange (including conversations on the web, on phones, etc.) taking place at one particular moment on this planet. Even taking into account the growth in population, the figure is likely to be higher than in 1970.

     Modern man is a paradox. He keeps repeating he is increasingly being dispossessed (and he puts the blame on entities he calls the economy, finance or globalization) and yet, when his workday is over, he feels he is repossessing his existence by reading about dispossession in the paper, or (better and more interactive) by chatting about it in cyberspace.

     The less power we have over our lives, the more we talk about it. The contemporary citizen is dissatisfied with heavy and remote traditional democratic mechanisms. At the same time, he is given a continuous instant democracy made of opinion polls, web-talk, participatory radio and TV, and TV reality shows. He’s not just asked his political preferences every four or five years: every day is now election day. The arch-liberal L. von Mises wrote in 1922 that “the economy is a democracy where each penny acts as a ballot paper. It’s a consumers’ democracy.” Today, it’s not just every purchase that reflects our freedom of choice: the most humble daily gesture is tantamount to taking sides. Mixing Latin and Greek, we could say we now live in a home-centred domocracy which gives us the liberty to change things from our own home : I help solve environmental world problems by buying energy saving light bulbs for my living-room.

     Internet, the highest stage of democracy    

     People used to make fun of Speakers’ Corner at Hyde Park in London as a symbol of typically British socially harmless free speech. Today’s generalized self-managed speech is universally and immediately circulated. Society is getting tougher, with millions of cameras in the streets, ever more precise surveillance and monitoring, biometric control, automatic identification tools, and private and public police as a fast growing sector, and yet the same society is opening the floodgates to freewheeling speech. In the workplace, in the classroom, in a couple, in a family, between professions, between performers and spectators, between cultures, religions, media, among neighbours, everywhere, everything ought to be discussed and all information to be shared, so that power should constantly flow and never crystallize, so no-one can monopolize it. The 1999 Kosovo war was the first with mass Internaut involvement. Everyone of us becomes a self-appointed reporter :Don’t hate the media: Be the media !

     Needless to say, we’re not nostalgic. The book is not better in itself than the web, nor the paper sold in the street more enlightening than cyber rumour. “The daily press and the telegraph, which in a moment spreads inventions over the whole earth, fabricates more myths (and the bourgeois cattle believe and enlarge upon them) in one day more than could have formerly been done in a century.” (Marx to Kugelmann, July 27, 1871) Contemporary media like the Internet or the mobile phone only intensify an evolution that started in the mid-19th century and accelerated in the 20th, but they bring about a major change. The modern citizen always complains that politics is run by them, by leaders elected by a people they don’t really represent, and he dreams of a democracy that would be run by us. Thanks to the Internet, the dream comes true, up to a point: democracy is given back to us. Everyone is given and gives the right to speak, every reader becomes an author, a critic and a publisher. In the supermarket too, everyone buys what his money allows him to choose but it would be extremely difficult never to use a supermarket.  

     Contemporary democracy likes to think of itself not as a set of institutions, but as a network of networks. In fact, these networks only exist because there exist institutions, and the strongest institution of all is the might of the State, which acts as the caretaker and safeguard of all other institutions.

     To impose on us what to think, democracy tells us what to think about. When J. Habermas extolled the virtues of the “public sphere” in 1962, he also bemoaned its undermining by commercial mass media. He might well be more optimistic today, when universal debate seems to revive the “openness” he favours : a citizen is now a person with access to the press, to the media and to the Internet. Yet this new citizenship amounts to the liberty to voice our views on world affairs, i.e. on what is currently being said on world affairs by the press, the media and on the Internet. The public sphere passes off as a reality that can put a check on State power, but when has it really determined the course of major events ? Giving one’s opinion is relevant insomuch as opinions are decisive, but they’re not decisive, not much. The liberal conservative Tocqueville was more to the point :

     “(..) it is an axiom of political science in the United States that the only way to neutralize the impact of newspapers is to multiply them” (Democracy in America,1835)

     Most of all, democracy triumphs by telling uswhere to think. The 1900 paper reader could choose to buy a socialist or a rightwing daily, but he had hardly any influence on the structure and evolution of the press. The organization of the Internet is equally beyond the reach of a website browser or writer : for a start, he was never asked about the birth of the web itself.

     True, unlike a radio station or a magazine the content of which is influenced by its owners and editors, and (even more) by the advertisers who finance it, on the Internet, content is decided upon by the Internaut : he is free to create his own site, write more or less what he fancies, visit the sites he likes and get in touch with any e-mailer he chooses. If freedom means the absence of leaders, the Internet can be deemed free. But how does this planetary web exist ? Only because it is paid for by an infinity of buyers and sellers (that’s for competition) dominated by a few giant corporations (that’s for monopolies). Wikipedia needs Google Inc. and other search engines. The Internet is the vehicle of a democracy fuelled by big business. Easy immediate access to web information and interchange is only possible because of a cross-border market where such strong corporate and national vested interests are at stake that the average Internaut is left with as much or as little power as when he is shopping in a supermarket. Never before have the circulation of money and the circulation of ideas been so closely linked, the former being the condition of the latter.  

     Saying the Internet was created by (and would not exist without) millions of Internauts, is as relevant as saying that millions of drivers are responsible for the development of the car industry. Granted, there’s a difference: motorists do not manufacture the cars they drive, whereas Internauts are the flesh and blood of the Internet. But that only enables them to voice and hear opinions. Making a principle of maximum information and discussion, is inevitably prioritizing the framework where information circulates and discussion takes place. Of course, everyone wishes the channels of communication to be as much “bottom-up” as possible, but how can they be if the whole life of us communicators is “top-down” organized ? Society is not the addition of millions of publicly shared experiences or views. 

     “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”: this is as much true as in 1845. The difference is that billions of ideas are now being circulated and (nearly) universally available.  But who has the power ? The political system is still tuned to general and presidential elections, and the rest is an accessory to the rhyme. In 1900 or 1950, politics was talked about but not decided on in village hall debates. Neither are decisions made today on the Internet. The spectacle-induced passivity analysed by the S.I. has taken the form of a constant show of activity. We’re free, virtually free.

     How about taking direct democracy at its word ?

     According to its supporters, here is what direct democracy is aiming at :

     [1] The respect of a majority.

     [2] The expression of minorities, which are granted a large latitude of action.

     [3] The possibility of free speech, in order to avoid constraint and violence: “Let’s talk first.”

     [4] The primacy of a collective will, not the will of an individual or of a handful of persons.

     [5] The respect of decisions taken in common.

     Let’s take them one by one.


     [1] Majority rule. A lot of social movements have been launched by a minority, often a very small one. In the 1930s, at the time of large strikes by unskilled labour in the US, two sit-downs involving about 10.000 people were started in Akron by half a dozen workers. In 1936, at Goodyear, while the union was negotiating with the boss about wages, 98 unskilled workers laid down tools, followed by 7.000 others, which forced the management to yield after 36 hours. One might object that in all such cases, a minority only initiates actions soon taken up by a majority. True, but this very fact shows how irrelevant the majority criterion is.

     The participants in a picket line put their interests (and the interest of labour as a whole) above the interests of the non-strikers: they do not respect the right to work of those who want to work. Democrats might argue that the strike is supported by a great majority of the workforce : that would be forgetting that democracy is also the protector of minorities. By the way, what is a majority ? 51% ? 60% ? 95% ? We are faced with the inadequacy of the self principle. “Let the workers themselves decide…” Who’ll decide when a minority ceases to be a minority and starts becoming a majority, and when a majority gets big enough to be considered as the common will ?

  [2] Minority rights.Any deep movement, whether for simple demands or more, will pull along in its wake a number of waverers and ask them to do what they did not previously feel like doing. When piqueteros go round the neighbourhood and ask for 50 people to come and reinforce their road block, the picket members are not acting as a boss summoning his personnel, or an army officer calling his soldiers to order : they expect other proletarians to fulfil their obligation to the piqueteros as well as to themselves

     There are differences between the bulk of the rank and file and its most active elements: for these elements to turn into a new ruling elite in the plant and possibly in society, it takes more than them initiating unrest on the shop floor. Bureaucratization is nearly always the result of reformism, not the other way round, and it can rise out of activist minorities as well as of consenting majorities. The existence of a majority and a minority is not a valid enough indicator to help us to assess a situation and to deal with it. The majority/minority duality functions in combination as well as in opposition. Nobody ever thinks about this out of context. If you agree with a decision, you “naturally” tend to believe it comes from a sufficient number of people. Those who disagree are inclined to believe the opposite: to them, this majority is not enough of a majority, they’d like another, a bigger one…


     [3] Free speech.It’s pointless to wonder if speech takes place before, after or during the act of rebellion. In 1936, in the General Motors plant at Toledo, all the work force gathered for a general meeting but, as a participant said, “it was like everyone had made up his mind before a single word was uttered”, and a sit-down strike started. Those workers were not brainless robots. Exchanging wordsthen was unnecessary because it had taken place before, in hundreds of informal discussions and small meetings. The action that was born out of them spoke for itself.

     If we equate democracy with exchange, these encounters can be called democratic, but it was not the democratic principle that made the exchange possible.

     On the other hand, in many conflicts, urging the participants to get together and speak can result in the movement becoming more aware of itself and stronger, or losing its momentum when it was just starting to gather speed. An expression which ceases to be action and experience dissolves into free-wheeling talk. In the same way, looking for “more information” can be an excellent way of forgetting the essential information: the common determination to fight on.

     Unlike God’s Word that was turned into flesh, human words express ideas, partake of events, strengthen (or sometimes weaken) our behaviour, but they do not create. 

     A strike or a riot is forced to take action and to choose between options. But it does not relate to them like a philosopher or scientist testing a set of hypotheses and then, by mere reasoning and with no outside interference, opting for the best. In a social movement, speech helps sort out what has been maturing in the participants’ mind, in relation to their past and present.

     Social critique usually rejects the secret ballot paper in favour of open public voting that does not break up the continuity of the voters’ action. The election moment separates each voter from the others and from the rest of his life (the polling booth is called an isolator in French). One of Thatcher’s main anti-strike measures was to make it illegal to go on strike without a secret ballot procedure. Nevertheless, history provides us with many examples of people – and workers – being manipulated by a public show of hands, a game at which Stalinists had become experts.

     The point we are making is that historical evolution is not the result of a majority rule based on a confrontation of opinions and on the maximum availability and sharing of information. We are NOT saying that information and discussion are pointless. No act is sufficient in itself, nor is its meaning so obvious that it would require no expression at all. In the General Motors 1936 example mentioned above, verbal exchange did occur, but before the decision to strike, and it contributed to the decision. In such a case, respecting democracy would have meant forcing a discussion upon the workforce: this may have revealed the determination of the workers, or it may have deflected it. Debate is never good or bad in itself.    

    [4 Common will. Democracy always presents itself as a protection, as the means to secure non-violence among its participants, because democrats are supposed to treat one another as equals.

     Acting on behalf of others does not necessarily turn anyone into a leader. Bureaucrats do not build up their authority by positioning themselves above the mass, but rather by sheltering behind the mass. A bureaucrat claims to have no personal ambition and to serve the interests of the rank and file. While we’re certainly not looking for charismatic figures, there’s no need to be afraid of individual initiatives either.

     Insisting on community as a principle leaves us stuck with the intractable majority versus minority dilemma already discussed. Among those who share a common perspective, someone often becomes aware of an opportunity before the others: trying to convince the others that this opportunity must be seized won’t be a purely intellectual exercise. Arguments are going to be thrown about and it’s likely there will be a conflict of wills at some point. Ideas won’t meet on neutral ground until one is recognized as the best because of its inner logical superiority. Truth belongs to no-one. It rushes and shoves. “Truth is as immodest as light (..) It possesses me” (Marx, 1843). Consistency-reaching is not a peaceful process. An essential idea shatters my certainties and does not come to me without some violence. If democracy means choosing between options with the sole guidance of individual free will and no outside interference, then truth is undemocratic.

     Making it a principle of having any action decided upon by the whole group, and then any change of action also debated and re-decided upon by a new group meeting (or some general consultation), usually means no action. Those groups who say they operate on such a total self-management basis only self-manage their own speech.

   [5] Everybody’s all for respecting common decisionsunless or until the decision is deemed wrong.

     In France, 1968, the Peugeot plant at Sochaux (at the time, probably the biggest concentration of skilled workers in that country) went on a sit-down strike on May 20. When a great majority of the labour force voted to return to work on June 10, a minority re-occupied the premises, and was violently expelled by the police in the early hours of the 11th. At that moment, thousands of non-strikers were arriving by bus for the morning shift: instead of resuming work as they had intended to, they immediately joined the ex-occupiers and fought the police with them for the whole day. Two workers got killed. Rumours later said that some rioters had used guns, and that cops had been killed but the police would not admit it. True or (probably) false, these rumours show how tough the fighting was. The local working class experienced the event as an outright confrontation with bosses and State. The return to work only took place on June 20, and labour got a better deal than had been granted nationally.

     In other words, after voting to go back, a large proportion of the labour force not only decided not to go back, but rallied what had been until then a minority of isolated extremists. The first occupation had involved between 100 and 1.000 persons, out of a workforce of over 35.000, with 3.000 union members. True, the general meetings could be called non-democratic: they took place under the combined pressure of the CGT and the media. But the very fact of contradicting one’s vote, and what’s more, without having had a proper meeting, shows that, unlike what the democratic principle maintains, the debating and voting time and place is not decisive.

     What happened was not simply a reflex of instinctive worker solidarity. At the Billancourt Renault plant, in 1972, the murder of a Maoist worker by a security guard hardly caused any reaction among his work mates, who were indifferent to what they saw as useless leftist troublemaking. In 1968, the Peugeot workers felt they had something in common with a radical minority that was not alien to them. Besides, a few years before, wildcat strikes had broken out at Sochaux, often initiated by young workers. Also, during the first 1968 occupation, a hundred radicals had set up a short-lived “forum” that served as a medium for open discussions on a variety of controversial issues. The June 11 eruption did not come out of the blue : it had been prepared by past  informal debates and unofficial meetings, which (better than democratic procedures) paved the way for an apparently spontaneous outburst. “Faceless resistance” is not just canteen or coffee machine conversations: it serves as a springboard for open conflict.

     Assessing these five criteria shows first that a lot of positive events have happened without or against them, secondly that they have often failed to prevent what they were supposed to prevent. None of the criteria of direct democracy really works.

     Democracy’s (double) secret

     Actually, a defender of direct democracy won’t ask for these norms to be fully implemented. He might even agree with most of the points we’ve been making, but he’ll say democratic standards are not to be taken as absolutes:  it’s the guideline behind them that matters, the motive, the impetus:  “But if ye be led by the Spirit, ye are not under the law.” (Saint Paul, Galatians, 5 : 18)

     That’s the whole point : this tricky interplay between the letter and the spirit, the law and the Spirit. There was no contradiction for Paul of Tarsis. There is one for democracy, because democracy isindeed the quest for formal criteria: it claims to give us rules of conduct that provide the best possible freedom. So this sudden non-formality goes against how democracy defines itself. Democracy is not the ad hoc running of social life. On the contrary it’s communism that relies on the ability of fraternal (non competitive, non profit-seeking, etc.) social relationships to create the organization best fitted to them. Democracy is the exact opposite: it sets procedures and institutions as a prerequisite and a condition of the rest. It says society is based on its political organization (top down or bottom up). And then, when experience proves democratic standards don’t work, democracy says we can do without them… or even that we must do without them. Democracy is there to solve conflicts, yet when they’re too serious, it can’t solve them any more. What’s the use of a principle that can only be applied when social life runs smoothly and we don’t really need the principle ?

     Democracy has a twofold secret. First, it only functions as long as society remains democratic. Secondly, nobody really minds this tautology.

     The letter versus spirit is indeed a contradiction for democracy, but democratic rulers - left or right - can manage it. They know perfectly well that democracy has to be and will be suspended in times of crisis. Suspended partly, when strikers or demonstrators go too far, when Britain fought the IRA, or in the current “war on terror”. Or suspended totally, as when the Algerian army cancelled the 1991 elections after the first round had been won by the Islamists, and took over power, with full support from Western countries. The bourgeois have no qualms provisionally turning into dictators… in the long-term interest of democracy: “no democracy for the anti-democrats”. Democrats don’t mind acting “without bloodshed if possible, but also with bloodshed if necessary”, as Churchill wrote on December 5, 1944, to the British general in charge of suppressing popular rebellion in Athens, with the help of former pro-Nazi Greek police forces. Being a lesser evil, democracy sometimes ceases to be democratic to avoid a worse evil. 

     For radicals who believe in direct democracy, however, this contradiction is a trap: they won’t get a full and permanent reality out of a system that can’t provide it. 

      Prioritizing direct democracy does not produce direct democracy. The positive content democracy (if we wish to keep the word) may have can’t be the result of democracy.      

     Contradiction in communist theory…

     Even a cursory reading of Marx is enough to realize he was at the same time a staunch supporter and an enemy of democracy. As his texts can be found in paperback or on the Internet, a few very short quotes will suffice here.

     Marx argues that democracy is the culmination of politics, and that a political emancipation is partial, selfish, bourgeois emancipation, the emancipation of the bourgeois. If, as he writes, “the democratic State [is] the real State”, assuming we want a world without a State, we’ve got to invent a life with neither State nor democracy. However, when Marx presents democracy as “the resolved mystery of all constitutions”, whereby “The constitution appears as what it is, the free product of men” (Critique of Hegel’s philosophy of Right, 1843), he is opposing real democracy to the existence of the State, and therefore supporting democracy.

     Besides, Marx was only indirectly addressing democracy through a critique of bureaucracy, and targeting politics through the critique of the State, particularly through its theorization by Hegel: “All forms of State have democracy for their truth, and for that reason are false to the extent that they are not democratic.” (Id.

     One last quote, interesting because it was written decades after the early works, and by someone who was coming close to admitting the possibility of a peaceful transition to socialism: “One must never forget that the logical form of bourgeois domination is precisely the democratic republic (..) The democratic republic always remains the last form of bourgeois domination, the form in which it will die.” (Engels, letter to Bernstein, March 14, 1884)

     Intuitions leave much room for interpretation, and the context often blurs the message. To understand these conflicting views, we must bear in mind that, in the mid-19th century, a groundswell of social movements, from Ireland to Silesia, was pressing for radical democratic demands and social demands, both at the same time, combined and opposed, and this confrontation resulted in a critique of politics as a separate sphere. Let’s not idealize our past. The same thinkers and groups often mixed these demands and this critique. The purpose of The German Ideology was to prove that history cannot be explained by the conflicts of ideas or political platforms, but by the social relations via which human beings organize their lives and, above all, by the material conditions of their lives. Those pages are to be read in connection with The Jewish Question, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Contribution to the critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law, The King of Prussia & Social Reform, the Theses on Feuerbach and other similar texts which address the democratic bourgeois revolution, but also the Rights of Man, and reject a revolution that would only have “a political soul”. For example, Marx sees 1789 and especially the 1793-94 Terror in France as the culmination of political will that deludes itself into believing it can change the world from the top. There’s little doubt that Marx wished to apply his “materialist” method not only to history, religion, philosophy and the economy, but also to the question of power and to politics as a field of special knowledge, as a separate science and technique. Yet at the time he was describing the political sphere as another form of alienation, he was also urging the completion of the bourgeois democratic revolution, and a few years later he became the editor of a liberal progressive paper, theNeue Reinische Zeitung, subtitled “Organ of Democracy”.   

    The deeper the communist movement goes, the greater its contradictions are. Marx happens to be among the few thinkers who come closest to a synthesis and therefore inevitably combine its most opposed elements, the dimensions our movement is at most pain to reconcile. It’s no accident that Karl Marx should have given one of the best insights into communism (in particular, but not only, in his early works) and welcomed the advent of capitalism as a world system.

  …and contradiction in proletarian practice

      If Marx was perhaps the writer who went the furthest in extolling and rejecting democracy, it’s because he expressed in its most concentrated form the forced situation in which the proletariat used to live and still lives. Intellectual discrepancies mirror a practical dilemma which the proletarians have to solve to emancipate themselves.

     Like others in his time, like R. Luxemburg later, like the German Left after 1914-18, Marx reflected a contradiction:  self-awareness and “community culture” (Selbstverständigung and Versammlungskultur, as they were called in Germany around 1900), both in the workplace and in the workers’ district, confront bourgeois democracy with proletarian community. But using one’s condition as a major weapon is a double-edged sword for the proletarians. Guy Debord may not be the most acute critic of democracy, but he points to something essential in The Society of the Spectacle, theses 87 & 88. The bourgeoisie was able to use its socio-economic power as the main instrument of its political ascent. The proletarians can’t use their social role to emancipate themselves, because this role is given to them by capital. So their only radical weapon is their negative potential… closely linked to the positive part they play in the reproduction of capital. The bourgeois won by asserting themselves on the basis of what they already were socially speaking. The proletarians can only win by fighting against themselves, i.e. against what they are forced to do and be as producers (and as consumers…). There’s no way out of this contradiction. Or rather, the only way out is communist revolution.

     It was enough for the bourgeois to get together and find the means to run society: so creating suitable decision-making institutions was enough (though it took centuries). It was not only for the sake of culture and enlightenment that from the 18th century onward the ascending elites promoted networks of debating and scientific societies, clubs, public libraries and museums, and of course a growing press : the rising merchant and industrial classes were building up a new type of sociability that helped them challenge monarchs and aristocrats. The proletarians also need to get together : but for them, merely getting together is staying within capitalism.

      For what it is worth, democratic reunion is enough for the bourgeoisie. The proletariat needs something else.  Proletarian self-organization which fails to develop into a self-critique of wage-labour reinforces labour as the partner of the capital-labour couple: the forced coupling goes on and so does the management of the couple, hence the peaceful coexistence of opposites called democracy.

    The partial, confused, yet deep communist movement that developed in the first half of the 19th century initiated an equally confused yet persistent critique of democracy. Both movement and critique were soon pushed to the background by the rise of organized labour that tried to make the most of bourgeois democracy. Yet every time the movement re-emerged, it got back to basics, and revived some aspects of the critique of democracy.

     There’s no need to be an expert in Marxology to know that most of these fundamentals fell into oblivion: some texts got hardly any response, while others were put aside by Marx and Engels and published much later. The “real movement”, as Marx called it, seemed to have very little use for these writings. In the first half of the 20th century, new proletarian shock waves led to a reborn critique that (re)discovered these long-forgotten intuitions, but failed to be up to them. Indeed, Bolshevik practice after October 1917 could fall within Marx’s critique of the French revolution and of Jacobinism. As for the worldwide 1960-80 earthquake, it turned out to be a zenith of democracy as it over-emphasized anti-bureaucratism. The theoretical paths signposted over 150 years ago have yet to be followed.

     The democratic appeal

      Democracy is attractive because it gives more than the right to select leaders now and then. Its appeal is to provide everyone with the means to go beyond the restricting circles of family, neighbourhood and work, and to interrelate, to meet others, not just those who are close, but all those living on the same territory, and possibly over the borders too. The democratic dream promises a potential universality, the earthly realization of a brotherhood and sisterhood that religion offers in its own way. Marx was not the only one to emphasize the intimate connection between Christianity and the modern State: the former sees each man as the bearer of an individual soul that makes him equal to others in spirit (everyone can be saved); the latter sees each man as politically equal to others (every citizen has a right to vote and be elected).

     To fully appreciate the democratic appeal, we should bear in mind what existed before, when formal (i.e. political) equality was unheard of. Not just the ruling elite, but many thinkers and artists showed open contempt for the mass of peasants and workmen that were thought of as an inferior species. Most famous French writers treated the Paris Commune fighters as if they were outside or below human standards. Until the mid-20th century, hatred of the workers was widespread among the middle and upper classes, in Germany for instance. 1939-45 was the definitive taming of the rabble: with few exceptions, the toiling masses of the world behaved in a patriotic way, so the bourgeois stopped being scared of a populace that seemed to be respecting law and order at last. Now nearly everyone in a Western-type democracy accepts at least verbally the notion that one human being is worth another. Yet this equivalence is achieved by comparing quantified items. In democratic capitalism, each human person is my fellow being insomuch as his vote and mine are added and then computed. Modern citizenship is the bourgeois form of freedom.

         A system which is not its own cause… nor its own cure

     Democracy is not responsible for what is or what might be regarded as its positive aspects. Universal franchise never created itself. Civil rights rarely came out of elections or peaceful debates, but out of strikes, demonstrations, riots, usually violent, often with bloodshed. Later, once installed, democracy forgets about its origin and says “the source of power is not be found in the street”… where indeed it came from. Politics claims to be the basis of social life, but it results from causes that it merely structures. The advent of the Spanish republic in 1931 was caused by decades of strife, rioting and class war that the new regime proved incapable of controlling, and it took a civil war and a dictatorship to restore order. After Franco’s death, the cooling down of social conflicts made possible the transition to a parliamentary system that (unlike in the 1930s) could work as a pacifier and conciliator.

     Democrats contend that, contrary to dictatorship, democracy has the merit of being able to correct itself. This is true so long as merely the balance of power is upset. If the structure of political rule is in jeopardy, it’s a completely different matter. As democracy has not got its cause in itself, neither has it got the remedy: the solution has to come from outside electoral procedures and parliamentary institutions. The subtleties of political bargaining on Capitol Hill were unable to solve the crisis between North and South in the 1860s: it took no less than a bloody civil war, a forerunner of 20th century industrialized slaughter. It was not forums or ballot papers that toppled Mussolini in 1943, but a succession of uncontrollable strikes. It was not a return to the Weimar republic that put an end to Nazism, but a world war. It was only when the French army illegally took over civilian power in Algiers, May 1958, that in Paris politicians were forced to institute a more stable political system, and started realizing the colonial era was over.

     Democracy is a remarkable filter of violence. But because it is born out of violence, it only overcomes its tragedies by giving way to more violence. Biologists say that one of the definitions of a life form is its capacity for reproduction, organization and reorganization. How politically, socially (and intellectually) valid is a phenomenon that is unable to explain itself and to cure itself ? How consistent is it ? What sort of reality are supporters of democracy talking about ?  

    And yet it holds out

     After nearly two centuries of electoral and parliamentary experiences, including endeavours to make some revolutionary use of the universal franchise by radicals from Proudhon to Lenin, and in spite of a thousand betrayals and renunciations of its own principles, modern democracy still  soldiers on… and thrives.

     In a large part of the world, and in what is known as the developed or rich countries, democracy remains a reality, and a desirable one, because it fits in with the inner logic of the industrial, merchant and wage-labour civilization, therefore with capitalism. Not all capitalism is democratic, far from it, as is shown by Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany, and now by China. But the Third Reich and the USSR yielded to their democratic rivals, and pluto-bureaucratic China’s boom will only go on if it accepts substantial doses of freedom of speech. Capitalism is economic competition and there can be no efficient competition among capital (as well as an efficient labour market) without some competition in politics too. Democracy is the most adequate political capitalist form.

     Whether we like it or not, democracy is an excellent expression of life under capitalism. It helps maintain the degree of liberty and equality required by capitalist production and consumption and, up to a point, also required by the necessary forced relationship between labour and capital. While democracy is one of the obstacles that stand in the way of communist revolution, it does serve the interests of labour in its day-to-day inevitable “reformist” action.

     Every time a movement keeps moving forward and confronting boss and State power, every time it combines action and decision, it is not being democratic.

     When, however, and this is bound to be often the case, the content of the movement is compatible with “industrial dispute” arbitration and conciliation, then it is normal that form and procedure should come to the fore. In the eyes of nearly all participants, organizing the general meeting according to rules becomes more important than what the meeting decides. The meeting is seen as a cause of the strike, more exactly as the cause of its continuation: because it can put an end to the strike, it is now perceived as its detonator. Reality is turned upside down. Democracy is the supremacy of means over the end, and the dissolution of potentialities in forms. So when these workers ideologize their own behaviour as democratic, they are not “wrong”: they reason according to the actual limits of their behaviour. 

     When the fact of asking the rank and file for their opinion breaks their determination, it’s usually because this determination has already declined. In 1994, in one of its French plants, the energy and transport multinational Alstom terminated a strike by calling for a referendum:  the personnel voted to return to work. The unions retaliated by having a second referendum: it confirmed the first. “Company (or plant) democracy” was not killing the conflict, it was finishing it off. In fact, after an initial militant phase, the strike had lost its vigour. By submitting to an individual secret ballot, the workers confirmed they had ceased to think of themselves as a collective existing through its acts. A community that agrees to give only individual opinions no longer exists as a community.


    Communism as activity

     Equality is a vital tenet of democracy. Its starting point is the existence of individuals: it compares them from one criterion and wonders if each of them is either inferior or superior to the other according to the chosen criterion. Old-time democracy contented itself with “One man, one vote”. Modern democrats will ask for equal pay, equal rights in court, equal schooling, equal access to health service, equal job offers, equal opportunity to create one’s business, equal social promotion, some would say an equal share of existing wealth. As soon as we get into real social and daily life, the list becomes endless and, to be comprehensive, it has to be negative at some point : equality implies the right not to be discriminated against on account of one’s sex, colour, sexual preferences, nationality, religion, etc. The whole political spectrum could be defined by how much is included in the list. Right wing liberals might limit equality rights to electoral rights, while far left reformists extend equality to a guaranteed substantial income, a home, job protection, etc., in an endless debate between personal freedom and social fairness. The rejection of, and the search for social (and not just political) equality are two sides of the same coin. The obsession with equality is born out of a world laden with inequality, a world that dreams of reducing inequality by giving more to each individual, more rights… and more money.

    Equality protects individuals. We’d rather start by considering what these individuals really are, what they share or don’t share. What members of society have in common or not depends on what they are doing together. When they lose mastery over the material basis of their conditions of existence, they lose their mastery over the running of their personal and group life.

     Our problem is not to find how to make common decisions about what we do, but to do what can be decided upon in common, and to stop or avoid doing whatever cannot be decided upon in common. A factory run according to Taylor’s methods, a nuclear power station, a multinational or the BBC will never come under the management of its personnel. Only a bank that confines itself to micro-credit can remain under some degree of control by the people working there and by those who receive its micro-loans. When a co-op operates on a scale that enables it to rival large companies, its special “democratic” features begin to fade. A school can be self-managed (by staff and pupils) as long as it refrains from selecting, grading and streaming. That is fine, and it’s probably better to be a teenager in Summerhill than at Eton, but that won’t change the school system.

     Whoever does not situate the problem of power where it belongs is bound to leave it in the hands of those who possess power, or to try and share it with them (as social-democracy does), or to take power from them (as Lenin and his party did).

     The essence of political thought is to wonder how to organize people’s lives, instead of considering first what those to-be-organized people do.

     Communism is not a question of finding the government or self-government best suited to social reorganization. It is not a matter of institutions, but of activity.   


     Self is not enough

     It seems only old-fashioned conservatives and die-hard party builders could object to autonomy: who wants to be a dependent, especially if it is a dependence upon a boss ? Yet we may wonder why autonomy has become a buzzword lately. Most Trotskysts are not authoritarian any more. Any left-winger now is all for “autonomy”, like nearly every politician looking for working class vote talked of “socialism” in 1910. The popularity of this notion may be a sign of growing radicalism. It certainly also has a lot to do with contemporary daily life and the spaces of freedom it grants us: more open communication channels, new types of leisure, new ways of meeting, making friends and travelling, the “network society”, the Internet, etc. All these activities have one thing in common: everyone is at the same time constantly on his own and constantly relating to everyone and everything. Autonomy is subversive when it has to be achieved against a teacher or a union official : it isn’t when teachers and union officials start promoting it.

     The turning of autonomy into a political and commercial slogan, and its recuperation as a management device, are no proof that autonomy is negative. But it should incite us to stand back a little from what society presents to us as possible and desirable.

      About a century or even a few decades ago, the big factory was supposed to bring together the workers into a large unified self-disciplined class-conscious whole that would eventually make a revolution. Mass production would help produce mass proletarian action. The proletariat would destroy capitalism because it was deeply rooted in the economy.

     Nowadays, the so-called immaterial age, with dispersed and smaller factories, casual work, job insecurity, unemployment, combined with new “horizontal” means of communication and the decline in top-down authority, is supposed to result in a multitude of proletarians loosely tied to a faceless capital that downgrades and scatters them so much that they’re able to get together in a myriad of autonomous collectives: these neo-proles will destroy capitalism because they have been uprooted from the economy…

     What we have just summed up is not a caricature: it’s a short but fair account of a point of view that is common in radical circles.

     There can be no understanding of history unless we try to be aware of how the prevailing social forms of each period contribute to critiques that reproduce these forms and therefore are unable to challenge them. Capitalist organization of labour did not organize workers for revolution: capitalist disorganization won’t liberate them for revolution either, nor will any form of capitalist freedom.    

     No revolution without autonomy: quite ! Autonomy is necessary. But it’s not enough. It is not the principle on which everything can or must be based. Autonomy simply means giving oneself one’s own law (nomos). It’s based on the self (auto).

     Just what “self” are we talking about ? 

     Everybody wishes for collective decisions. So do we. And the best way to get them is for each of us to take part in the decision-making process. But once you and I are part of it, we still have to make the decision. Is this “self” strong enough ? Autonomists have their answer ready : the individual self may be weak, but the collective self is strong. Who’s being naïve here ? Adding individual wills only transforms them into something qualitatively different if and when they act differently. So we’re back to where we started. Aggregating selves widens the scope of the problem without solving it. The solution can only come, not from what autonomy is supposed to give us, but from what it is founded upon. Autonomy in itself is no more creative than any form of organization.

     Many radicals believe in the equation :

autonomy + anti-State violence = revolutionary movement

and see it vindicated for instance in the protracted Oaxaca insurrection. While this event is one of the strongest outbursts of proletarian activity in recent years, it demonstrates that autonomous violence is necessary and insufficient. A revolutionary movement is more than a liberated area or a hundred liberated areas. It develops by fighting public and private repression, as well as by starting to change the material basis of social relationships. No self-managed street fighting and grassroots district solidarity, however indispensable they are, inevitably contain the acts and the intentions that bring about such a change.

     What is to be done ?

     To put it bluntly, there’s no practical critique of democracy unless there’s a critique of capitalism. Accepting or trying to reform capitalism implies accepting or trying to reform its most adequate political form.

     There’s no point in sorting out bad (bourgeois) democracy and good (direct, worker, popular) democracy. But there’s no point either in declaring oneself an anti-democrat. Democracy is not the Number One enemy, the ultimate smokescreen that veils the proletarian eyes, the unveiling of which would at long last clear the path to revolution. There are no specific “anti-democratic” actions to be invented, no more than systematic campaigns against advertising billboards or TV - both closely linked to democracy, actually.  

     The participants in millions of acts of resistance or of attack, be they strikes, demonstrations, flying pickets, insurrections, are well aware that these practices have little to do with parliamentary games, and indeed that they’re the exact opposite of parliamentary games. The fact of knowing it does not stop them from calling such practices democratic, and from regarding these practices as the only true democracy, because the participants consider as identical democracy and collective freedom, democracy and self-organization. They say they are practising true democracy because they self-manage their struggle, do away with the separation between those represented and their representatives, and because the general meeting (unlike parliament) is an assembly of equals: so they often believe they are at last giving reality to what is a make-believe in the bourgeois world. Each of them regards democracy as the fact of treating as a fellow human being his workmate, the person marching beside him, building a barricade with him, or arguing with him in a public meeting.

      It would be pointless for us to go into a head-on confrontation with him to try and persuade him to stop using the word “democracy”. Democracy’s shortcoming is to treat an indispensable element of revolutionary change as the primary condition of change, or even as its essence. So, in future troubled times, our best contribution will be to push for the most radical possible changes, which include the destruction of the State machinery, and this “communization” process will eventually help people realize that democracy is an alienated form of freedom. If democracy means giving priority to form over content, only a transformation of the social content will put back form where it belongs. 

     It’s the nature of the change we’ve got to stress: creating a world without money, without commodity exchange, without labour being bought and sold, without firms as competing poles of value accumulation, without work as separate from the rest of our activities, without a State, without a specialized political sphere supposedly cut off from our social relationships… In other words, a revolution born out of a common refusal to submit, out of the hope of getting to a point of no return where people transform themselves and gain a sense of their own power as they transform reality. Only then will the democratic question wither.        

  Note for political correctness controllers :

Most of the time, this essay uses “he” and “man” as a means to say “he & she”, “man & woman”. This is not out of neglect of the other half of our species. This he does not mean male. We use it as a grammatical neuter which encompasses both masculine and feminine. We are well aware that no grammar is socially or sexually neutral. A better society will create better words. For the time being, the old fashioned neuter form has at least the advantage of not giving us the illusion of false equality in speech. The reader who has gone that far would not expect us to believe in democracy in language. 

For further reading :

A very good concise pamphlet is Communism Against Democracy, Treason Press, Canberra, Australia, 2005, composed of two texts by Wildcat (Britain) and Against Sleep And Nightmare (US).

See also J. Camatte, The Democratic Mystification, 1969 (on the For Communism site).

For a well-documented historical (by no means critical) study: J. Keane, The Life & Death of Democracy, 2009.  

Our French-reading friends…

…might be interested by Karl Nesic and Gilles Dauvé’sAu-delà de la démocratie, published by L’Harmattan in 2009. The present essay is not a summary of this book: it deals with a few topics (for example the survey of various critiques, the paragraphs on public opinion and the Internet) that are merely referred to in the book. On the other hand, Au-delà de la démocratie, which is much longer, has a more “historical” approach. It has sections on the evolution of democracy : 19th century bourgeois revolutions, post-1917 events in Russia and Germany, fascism and antifascism, up to the aftermath of the Eastern bloc and recent events. There is also a section on Oaxaca. In particular, two chapters are devoted to (1) how a revolutionary process would treat the issues of getting together and making decisions, and (2) how a communist society would handle conflicts.