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Under the banner of democracy: left parties in a new age of oligarchy

While the defence of democratic sovereignty is a central defensive battleground, there lies an offensive task as well - in expanding democracy.

Andreas Møller Mulvad Rune Møller Stahl
27 October 2014

Today, many observers claim that there is no future for the mass party on the left wing. We believe they are wrong. If one looks to Greece, Spain, or even Denmark, a new type of Left Party is taking shape, and might play a central role in the future political landscape of a Europe, where tensions between capitalism and democracy are growing stronger by the day.

But in order to navigate the terrain of an incipiently authoritarian neoliberalism, the emerging parties need to rearticulate the connection between socialism and democracy, through an active reengagement with the  egalitarian-republican roots of the socialist movement. Below, we propose that the emergent Left parties could benefit from historical root-seeking, as they seek to turn their overcoming of two defeated strategies for socialism – Social Democratism and Leninism - into a concrete political program for the 21st century: Against the disillusioned voices of many of our generation we argue that the new mass party of the left should embrace the idea of parliamentary democracy, instead of abandoning it.

  1. 1.       The Collapse of Social Democracy and the Challenges of the Left

The political landscape in Europe is changing rapidly. In an era of austerity we witness a heightened level of conflicts between the interests of financialized capital on one hand, and the demands of popular majorities on the other. At the same time, a wave of a disillusionment with traditional parliamentary politics has swept Europe.  Somewhat ironically given the roots of the current ailments in financial deregulation and fiscal austerity, the main victims of this disillusionment have not been right wing or liberal parties, but instead the traditional social-democratic parties of the center-left.

The heightened level of conflict, and the growing radicality of the demands of the EU and international markets, have led to the collapse of the viability of the mediatory position once held by Europe’s social democratic parties. Today the choice of European parties is to either swear allegiance to a program of austerity, or to break decisively with the consensus, and face conflicts with both the EU institutions and international financial markets. Hollande’s Socialist Party in France is only the most recent glaring example of the loyalty to the neoliberal status quo that the social democrats have chosen.

While European social democracy is collapsing or moving right, there are more hopeful signs further to the left. ‘Podemos’ in Spain, Red-Green Alliance in Denmark, and Syriza in Greece are all recent examples of parties of the ‘left-of-Social Democratism’ that have managed to channel the social struggles against austerity into an emergent political force, which has begun to cut into traditional Social Democrat constituencies.

Yet, the rise of a new type of mass Left Parties in Europe is still nothing more than a reversible trend. It is critical to the consolidation of a revitalized political left in Europe that these parties find a coherent and historically specific way to articulate the position left opened for them through the collapse of the two major 20th century referents: As Social Democratism has sold out on its socialism, and Leninism has long since become discredited for its lacking ability to realize the ideal of democratic government from below, it is an urgent task to rearticulate a viable left-wing hegemonic project with mass appeal for the 21st century.

In this situation, the emergent left parties could find inspiration in re-reading history through the conceptual lens of a neglected political vocabulary, that of egalitarian republicanism, which in our view would allow them to articulate a project of revitalized popular democracy for the emerging neo-oligarchic era.

  1. 2.       A brief History of Democracy and Socialism

Today the original meaning of the concept of ‘democracy’ as rule of the unpropertied is often forgotten. In Ancient Greece, the term denoted not simply the institutional procedure of majority rule, but primarily the political dominance of the popular class. As Aristotle, himself no democrat, put it: “where the poor rule, that is a democracy” (III viii 1280a1–3). This meant that democracy also, by logical implication, was understood to include a commitment to anti-oligarchic, egalitarian policies, and redistribution of income and property. The class-based understanding of democracy as the political rule of the poor remained evident in the discourse of proponents of popular rule, such as popular republicans of the Italian city states or the Diggers of the English Civil War.

Given the lower-class connotations of the concept, it is unsurprising that the first generations of liberals were anti-democratic in the classical sense of the term.Rule of law’ and the protection of private property, not democracy, was the ultimate aim of nineteenth century liberals. Not even the most left-leaning ones, such as John Stuart Mill, embraced the idea of universal, equal suffrage, and they feared the prospects of the rule of the poor, because of the  implicit threats to property and social order such a system would entail. 

On the other hand, the movement of the emerging industrial working class was from the very onset the primary social force for the realization of political democracy. Thus, the eventual broadening of the franchise beyond the class of the wealthy and educated, was mainly the result of decade-long pressure from popular movements from below.

Throughout their careers Marx and Engels supported the workers’ struggle to realize political democracy under an institutional form  that would allow the working class to become the dominant political agent in society.

Marx’ famous “Third Address” on the Paris Commune (1871) is often misinterpreted as his ultimate rejection of the “bourgeois” institution of representation. But in fact the text reveals his commitment to a deepening and broadening, not a dismantling of the parliamentary democracy of the French Republic. We encourage the readers to consult the text for themselves, but would like to provide just one example: Marx writes:

“The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class”.

Here, then, Marx celebrates a political system of representation (with improved mechanisms of recall) and voting (with universal suffrage) which quite obviously ensures political rights of participation also to those who are not members of the working class: The remark that most of the councillors are “working men” suggests that it is not the case for all of them, and thus by implication that being “working class” is not a prerequisite for political influence within the new kind of democracy that the Communards sought to establish.

Despite the unequivocal identity between socialism and democracy in the programs of nineteenth century workers’ parties, everything changed after the First World War and the Russian Revolution. 

Half a century after the Paris Commune, the historical tie between socialism and parliamentary democracy was beginning to weaken. In the new Soviet Union, the Bolsheviks started to propagate, through the Third International, the Leninist view that ‘parliamentary democracy’ was a capitalist invention, a treachery to the proletariat.

Around the same time, in the Anglophone world, the idea emerged that capitalism and democracy were not only compatible, but that a market economic regime of private property  was indeed the only socioeconomic system, that could sustain parliamentary democracy in the longer run. A new concept of ‘liberal democracy’ - which would in the nineteenth century have been an oxymoron – emerged, ostensibly depicting the only systemic alternative to the kind of collectivised totalitarianism that was appearing in the Soviet Union.

After the defeat of fascism in 1945, this new ideology of democratized liberalism spread across the Western Europe, through the influence of the US, as the capitalist elites had to make concessions to the working class and at the same time ensure an institutional compromise which would protect the capitalist economic system against the allure of Soviet-style Communism.

This ‘Spirit of 45’ class compromise was institutionalized through granting new social welfare rights to the working classes, while also guaranteeing a form of political democracy that ensured full universal suffrage and thus a significant political influence for the mass parties of the working class. But on the other hand, the new institutional compromise also put blinds on the possibilities of socializing private property through parliamentary decree, in the way that this had been possible in interwar Republican constitutions such as that of the German Weimar Republic and the Second Spanish Republic. The result, then, was a compromise which allowed social democrats to build welfare states, but hampered them in achieving their original goal – of using parliamentary majorities to gradually socialize the means of production.

A process of historical amnesia in relation to the compromise character and recent origins of this new kind of political system quickly set in in the Cold War Era, as majority rule through parliament became rebranded as ‘liberal democracy’. This process was ironically supported by both Communists and Social Democrats. The Communist parties, in support of the dictatorial “Peoples’ Democracies” of the Eastern Bloc, denounced the relevance of multi-party democratic systems with free elections. On the other hand social democrats, whilst retaining a pro-parliamentary position, tended to embrace as something self-evident the notion of a natural bond between parliamentary rule and a market economy based on private property.

Fast forward again to 2014, and we are witnessing signs of an impending divorce of capitalism and democracy. After more than three decades of neoliberal countermovement to unsettle the Post-War compromise, the always uneasy marriage between private property and popular rule appears increasingly fragile. In Europe, this development entails the hollowing out of much of the real decision making from the political sphere, though privatisation, independent central banks, and the need for national states to appease the powerful actors of the global financial markets of  deregulated capitalism. The actions of the Troika have illustrated the apparent elite belief that in times of exception, popular governments cannot be trusted, and can legitimately be dissolved in favour of technocratic governments headed by bankers such as Monti and Papademos. Thus, the tension between capitalism and democracy – so long a recognized feature of political thought – is remerging as one of the central issues of our day. This provides an opportunity for the emergent left parties to rearticulate the historical connection between the projects of democracy and socialism.

  1. 3.       Learning from the past?

So, where does this historical reinterpretation leave us? We would like to propose three suggestions for how the egalitarian-republican legacy might beneficially inspire the emerging left parties when it comes to the formulation of a program and strategy for the 21st  century. By ‘beneficial’ we mean that there seems to us to be an obvious potential for popular mobilization in each of the three suggestions.

Suggestion 1: Defend existing democratic institutions against elite attacks

The existing parliamentary democratic institutions will be crucial battleground in the coming years.

These institutions are increasingly becoming corrupted and impotent against the power and resources of the global oligarchy. But this development is also being fought all over Europe, by popular movements from below. From Spain to Portugal and Greece, there is widespread discontent with the overruling of popular self-rule, in the interest of financial capital.

But it would be a grave mistake to go along with Leninism and anarchism in denying the relevance of the constitutional and democratic victories actually instituted in today national states, in favour of an exclusive focus on power from below. While parliamentary power without a popular base in movements easily becomes corrupted, movements without parliamentary allies stand little chance against the organised power of the global financial oligarchy in the struggle over state power.

Here the new parties of the European left provides a hope at least, as key players in such a process. Now that the marriage between capitalism and democracy appears to be breaking up, there is an obvious window of opportunity to reclaim the left’s role as champions of democracy, and leaders of the anti-oligarchic bloc.  

Suggestion 2: Make the global oligarchic elite the main opponent

The main adversary of any form of popular politics is the influence of the emerging global oligarchy. Whereas the political  conflicts of the 20th century was most often between national industrial bourgeoisies and national working classes, today capital is breaking its territorial bounds. Consequently, capital power is increasingly under the control of a global oligarchic elite, who is successfully able to challenge the monopoly of states to define policy, and thus dismantle the power of popular democracy.

The goal therefore should be to appeal to a wide anti-oligarchic bloc, in defence of popular sovereignty. In the formulation of such a program, it is possible to draw intellectually from the egalitarian-republican tradition, since this conflict between the oligarchic elite and the democratic aspirations of the majority stretches back to Ancient Athens.

Accordingly, pragmatism about whom to include in the bloc is pertinent. The industrial working class remains a key social base, but the new parties should appeal also to the squeezed middle classes and growing number of ‘precarious’ at the fringes of the labour market. This program could, inspired by e.g. Syriza, highlight the right of the Peoples to political-economic autonomy.

Suggestion 3: Push for a constitutional deepening of democracy

While the defence of currently existing democratic institutions is a central defensive battleground, there lies offensive task ahead as well, in expanding the scope of democracy.  After all, ‘parliamentary democracy’ is not a given form, but has shifting class-selectivities depending on its institutional specification.

Two complimentary strategies for deepening democracy through constitutional reform can be proposed:

The first strategy is concerned with curbing elite control over the political process, and with enhancing popular participation.  This could be done e.g. through a ban on private donations to political parties, term limits on political posts, and by enhancing the possibility for recalls of representatives. Furthermore, popular participation could be enhanced through the increased use of plebiscites, and through thorough reforms to decentralise political power.

The second strategy is concerned with expanding the scope of democracy into the realm of the economy. Instead of letting democracy stop at the factory door, the new left parties should push, not only for the socialisation of key parts of the key parts of the economy, but also for workplace democracy as a constitutional right,  thereby improving the possibilities for democratic decision-making on key economic issues.

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This article is one of a series entitled After the party? produced as a collaboration between the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life, Birkbeck, and OurKingdom, openDemocracy.

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