Parliament or Democracy?

The Role of the State


Maintaining their privilege and wealth while generally conceding a semblance of democracy was the principal aim of the 'rich and privileged' during the second half of the 19th century. But patience with this was thin on the ground, especially amongst the 'multitude' who were, as always, 'truculent and overly concerned with who got what'. This impatience broke out in full force in France, once again, with the famous events of the Paris Commune (1871), which, even by today's standard, remain a benchmark in the achievement of democratic practice.

The Commune, though short-lived, broke with the past in a number of obvious and direct ways that met with the popular mood of revolution. 'Those elected to represent the people were to act as delegates, not as parliamentary members ... Those elected were subject to recall by the people, and it was the duty of those elected to report back and remain in constant contact with the sources of popular sovereignty.' 30 This was like nothing else that existed in the world at that time. 'The police was at once stripped of its political attributes ... So were the officials of all other branches of the Administration. From the members of the Commune down, the public service had to be done at workman's wages.'31

This was a system of administration that led the Commune to institute or attempt to institute reforms of a very radical nature - worker co-operatives were formed, plans were drawn up for workers' control of industry, special attention was paid to the provision of basic education for all, to improve the position of women and to provide crèche facilities for workers (near their place of work).32 For the time it was an enormous achievement.

But if the Commune highlighted anything - generally speaking as an example of democracy it was vilified by the 'rich and privileged' - it was that the real threat in society to the continuance of privilege no longer emanated from the 'general masses' but rather from that more specific quantity, the working-class. How to deal with this entity was further complicated by the still small but growing influence of anarchist and socialist ideas in its ranks. An influence that was clearly evident in the events of the Commune.

Repression, the immediate solution to the Commune (approximately 25,000 Parisians were slaughtered 33), would not do in the longer term, especially given, even in this period, the evident capacity of workers to articulate and defend their own interests. Indeed, this was perceived to be the real danger of the emerging working-class - its independence and autonomy which set it apart from all other producing classes in society heretofore, most notably the peasantry.

For the 'rich and privileged' then, containing this new found independence of workers and, if possible, dispersing it would be crucial aims in the general struggle against democracy. Unless this was done a society more technologically based than ever before would, in time, become dangerously vulnerable to its most important of constituents - its workers. Even in the late 19th century, the direction of economic development was pointing to this worst of scenarios, where, irrespective of the interests of the rich, workers might be powerful enough to implement democracy anyway.

What was confirming a still small but growing number of workers in such dangerous 'delusions' was the very process of industrial struggle itself which became an important feature as the 19th century continued on into the 20th. In confronting the owners of industry, workers had, right from the beginning, very little to rely upon. Against the brute force and superior material resources of the wealthy, workers had only organisation and solidarity to hold them together - this they used to full effect.

By forming themselves into unions and syndicates (organisations that were built systematically throughout this period) workers were able to use their industrial power to full effect. But there was, most importantly, an added bonus. Unions and syndicates were in their own right 'schools of democracy' and political learning. Not only did workers became politicised by getting involved, but also by being part of a union, workers were given valuable lessons in democratic administration. As if this was not bad enough, it was through such involvement that workers were - when successful - confirmed in that most dangerous of ideas: that by their own efforts and organisation they could alleviate their exploitation. An idea which, if left unchecked, could be the basis for far more substantial undertakings.

Industrial struggle then was a crucial means by which a revolutionary consciousness was developing among the working-class. The practical political experience being gained there was also influencing the wider struggle for democratic reform. In a similar way, the wider struggle for democracy was also influencing the demands in the workplace. A feature that was clearly evident in the 'proposal' put forward by coal workers in the Rhondda Valley of Wales in 1912:

'Our only concern is to see to it, that those who create the value receive it ... Today the shareholders own and rule the coal fields. They own and rule them mainly through paid officials. The men of the mines are surely as competent to elect these, as shareholders who may never have seen a colliery. To have a vote in determining who shall be your fireman, manager, inspector, etc. is to have a vote in determining the conditions which rule your working life. On that vote will depend in a large measure your safety of life and limb, of your freedom from repression by petty bosses, and would give you an intelligent interest in and control over your conditions of work.'34

Such ideas were indeed dangerous. The notion that democracy should be a part of work and the workplace as much as it should be a part of any other aspect of life directly challenged the rule of the boss. Particularly so when married to notions of industrial strength and union solidarity which were developing at this time. In this context it was crucial for the 'rich and privileged' to divert the political aspirations of workers away from the industrial arena and towards some more benign institution. Parliament was custom built for this job.

Alone on the left, anarchists signalled the danger which the lure of the Parliament would in time become. One the one hand there was the crucial question: what could Parliament actually achieve or change given that it had only 'nominal powers'? What would be the point in gaining control of it, if this control could effect little real change?

Though these questions were very important, they were accompanied by a more general debate about the nature of democracy and the role of the State. The real division of the day was between two views. Between that which saw 'the State' as a beneficial agent in society and that (held by anarchists and some marxists) which saw it, on the contrary, as an impediment to social and economic progress of any substantial kind.

The burgeoning social reform movement of the era, which in time would be dominated by the various Labour and Socialist parties of the world, was the principal advocate of the idea that 'the State' could be used to benefit workers and the disenfranchised generally. Lassalle, the founding father of the German Social Democratic Party (GSDP), held that social improvement of any substantial kind could only come about from State intervention. This was the 'great prize' to be had if workers and their representatives played the game of Parliament. Towards this end, Lassalle urged the German workers 'to look [neither] to the left nor to the right and to be deaf to everything except universal franchise and the secret ballot'.35

Lassalle was no exception in holding this view. In Britain, the Fabians, a formative force in the Labour Party, had a similar outlook, believing that 'the State was fundamentally neutral ... It could be used to hinder progress or ... to further the evolution of humanity towards its collectivist goals. The problem was merely which class was in control of its function...'36 As they saw it, 'the state machine of army, police and law courts 'will continue to be used against the people by [the rich] classes until it is used by the people against the [the rich] classes...' 37

The anarchist view, however, was quite different, and, as time would tell, more realistic. As the anarchists pointed out, 'the State', in essence, was a chain of command. Democratic practices animated none of its many segments and sections. The Parliament, moreover, was but a minor part of any Government. And the Government was but a minor part of a much wider body that also included the army, the police and judiciary. All of which were authoritarian in terms of structure and ethos. How could such bodies be used to benefit society at large?

The argument put by Lassalle and others was that if a more 'enlightened' or 'compassionate' leadership took the helm, more beneficial ends could be achieved. But the anarchist view rejected this. Not because they doubted either the 'compassion' or 'enlightenment' of Lassalle, though it was questionable, but because, as they argued, authoritarian institutions could not be used to bring about democratic objectives (i.e. policies that would lead to wealth distribution, the key issue, could not be brought about by a minority, no matter how well intentioned. Rather the active and democratic involvement of all of society was required to achieve such an end.)

For anarchists then, the views and beliefs of reformers were not decisive. What would determine the outcome was the political structures used to bring about change. For the anarchists 'the State' was not neutral. It was authoritarian and undemocratic as befitted its purpose. Lassalle, as the anarchists saw it, would not change the direction of Government or 'the State' if he was elected. Rather it would change him. He would become authoritarian and self-serving as befitted the institution he was being empowered to run.

Time would tell who was right.


On to

Chapter 4. 'A Light on the Hill'


From the pamphlet Parliament or Democracy?

Parliament or Democracy

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