Review: Anarchists, elections and democracy


A spectre (to paraphrase Karl Marx) was haunting the ruling class of most European countries in the aftermath of the French revolution in 1798. That spectre was democracy. The "problem with democracy" was that if it was conceded then the ordinary poor people, being much more numerous than their rulers, would surely swamp them.

The interests of the rich would no longer be so perfectly "represented" as they were by kings and noblemen, in fact the interests of this tiny minority of parasites would be engulfed.

This pamphlet outlines the two "solutions" proposed to this problem. One was to ignore it and continue as before. This view was proposed by the likes of Thomas Babington Macualay who claimed "the higher and middling orders are the natural representatives of the human race".

Others like John Stuart Mill had a subtler idea. Mill agreed wholeheartedly with the idea that the rich and powerful should lead what he described as "the stupid classes". He favoured the parliamentary model. These bodies already existed, usually appointed by kings, and made up of noblemen, land owners and a few doctors and lawyers. Parliaments had the advantage of appearing to represent the views of society in some way while as Mills himself put it "the power of the traditional elite remained secure if not unchallenged".

Mill realised that to concede universal suffrage where everyone had the vote would be disastrous. There would have to be a long period where people would get used to being governed and develop a "tradition of governance".

Basically they would have to accept the idea of leader and led & rulers and ruled, and learn to vote for parties which would not really represent their interests before they could be trusted with a vote.

The trick was to use a qualified vote. This meant only a small minority voted the others being ruled "disqualified" on grounds of property, sex, race or religion. The vote was gradually conceded over the next 100 years. This was mainly as parliamentary socialism proved itself compliant and uninterested in seriously challenging the ruling class, and as a consensus around the interests of the rulers being those of society emerged through the mass media.

Of course it wasn't quite as simple as the vote being conceded gradually and in a planned way. Mass struggles often forced their (the ruling classes) hand. Many of these, of course, have been trivialised or written out of history (see, for example, 'The Cause of Ireland' by Liz Curtis (1994) for the heroic struggles of the Irish Women's Franchise League at the turn of the century.)

The important point is that votes for all was only conceded when the bosses believed it no longer posed any major threat to them. History has proved them right. The new edition of 'Parliament or Democracy' takes a detailed look at the record of some modern parliamentary socialist governments, including England, Peru, Australia, France and Brazil. Not only did things not improve, they often got worse with socialists astonishing their right wing rivals with the viciousness of their cutbacks and their eagerness to obey bodies like the International Monetary Fund.

No matter who was in power the gaps between richest and poorest have continued to accelerate, and giving workers the vote has not led to the triumph of their interests. This pamphlet contrasts this with the anarchist idea of direct democracy. Here ordinary people initiate and develop ideas and structures rather than just giving the nod to what they are presented with. It is based on delegation with delegates being mandated by mass meetings, and if they don't carry out their mandates they can be replaced. Anarchist democracy also brings democracy into the workplace, replacing the absolute dictatorship of management (as it is throughout the world today) with workplace and community councils. It goes on to show how this was achieved by millions in the republican zone of Spain from 1936-37.

This is a lively, well written pamphlet, dry theory is made accessible and the pages turn like a good novel. If you still think that workers can achieve change through voting Labour, Democratic Left, Sinn Féin or Socialist Party every five years, read this and think again.

Des Mc Carron.

You can order this pamphlet off us either for yourself or to sell

Parliament or Democracy
by Kevin Doyle.
£2.00 inc. postage from WSM, P.O. Box 1528, Dublin 8

This article is from Workers Solidarity No 53 published in January 1998