I had seen her photographed, standing with friends in Gezi Park. I knew that she subscribed to the programme of the Taksim Solidarity Platform (“We do not accept the construction of Taksim Military Barracks, and we will not allow anyone to loot our parks and our living spaces…”). Once, a long time ago, we had stood together on picket lines outside drab, Victorian council offices in east London. So I felt entitled to ask; what, now are you marching for?
Her one word answer was unsurprising but still instructive: “democracy”.
This very week an NGO in Cairo reported that during May the country had seen 1,300 protests, or an average of two an hour, 42 a day, and 325 a week. Ask in Tahrir Square, and I don’t doubt the same question would deliver nine times out of ten exactly the same reply. We say the word democracy so many times, it threatens to become meaningless, and yet the desire it expresses is so basic and still dramatically unfulfilled.
The last three decades have seen the most dramatic increase in the rates of exploitation in every country, with all of us working harder and longer and for less. Common spaces such as Gezi Park have been enclosed, typically not for governments but for the benefit of private companies. In these circumstance the old collective fear of the inevitable rise of the machines (in which an army of robots stood for million of men and women standing besides lathes), gives rise to new, digital fantasies. The number of business in Britain has grown from 3 million at the start of the millennium to 4.5 million now.
The average daily turnover in shares at the London Stock Exchange was already £1 billion in 2000, today it is a staggering £5 billion. While we sleep, armies of intangible interests are bought into being, wage virtual wars on behalf of their corporate creators, are destroyed and constantly re-made
The running down of the old, inefficient bureaucratic welfare systems, has brought all of us into much more direct, even intimate, relationships with the market . “The bourgeoisie”, Marx and Engels wrote, “wherever it has got the upper hand … has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’.” Those words describe the world of today so much better than even than the societies of 30 or 25 years ago.
Even while neo-liberalism refuses us any meaningful decisions at all in our lives, at the same time it prospers on a false narrative of choice. In the bad old days, there were just four television stations, now there are 400. (So many programmes to choose from, but why won’t any channel commission a Solomon Hughes, or a Brendan Montague, to give the politicians and their paymasters hell?).
In the same way that a supermarket customer can choose between two dozen different brands of detergent (all of which are produced by subsidiaries of Proctor and Gamble); so the people planning a new GP surgery can contract under PFI terms with Carillion or Balfour or Kier or any one of around 40 major construction companies. But what they are not allowed to do is to build without multinational involvement, and without signing up to complex financial arrangements under which the companies (as a group) will profit to the tune of ten or more times their actual spend.
The anger of the voters becomes the theme of elections. In almost every country, the primary motivation of the electorate is to punish the incumbent party. This mood of anti-politics reproduces itself in the small just as much as the big: in council elections, in union elections, at meetings in bitter interactions between former friends.
Socialists should be uniquely well-placed to relate to this general desire for a greater say. At the very core of our politics is the idea that we want to complete the democratic project left incomplete under capitalism. We want workers’ control of their workplaces, tenants’ control of their homes, women’s control of their bodies…
This was why Tony Cliff published his pamphlet about Rosa Luxemburg, all those years ago, to agree with her criticisms of the Bolsheviks, and to side with her in championing the class over a minority purporting to act in its name: “The heart of Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlet on the Russian Revolution, as of all she wrote and said, was a belief in the workers, the conviction that they, and they alone, are capable of overcoming the crisis facing humanity. She fervently believed that workers’ democracy is inseparable from proletarian revolution and socialism…” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1959/rosalux/7-bolpower.htm).
By quoting Cliff, I do not mean to separate his ideas from the general mood of the best of the post-1956 left. CLR James’ writing on direct democracy (http://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/works/1956/06/every-cook.htm), the ideas of a Dunayveskaya, or a Castoriadis, were all cut from the same cloth.
For a reader with a sense of the left’s history, it is a salutory experience to go from those writers, brimful with enthusiasm for the mission of winning direct democracy, to the present-day left, cautious as it is so often in its support of revolutionaries who might upset a regional balance of power, and near-mute in articulating a democratic assault on capitalism.
The left is, it seems, more defensive than the right in the face of the new anti-politics. Precisely because we say that we are better, people have higher expectations of us. People are watching us. And every time a socialist behaves in a way which is intended to make other people feel powerless, their pettiness and spite turns someone, somewhere off politics for ever. We know the risks; obsessed by them, we fear to say anything at all.
The long, withdrawing roar of 1917 also leaves an immense legacy of harm. You may recall the fatal quip which did for Gordon Brown: “from Stalin to Mr Bean in just a few weeks”. The first half of the joke was just as effective as its end. Nobody wants to be ordered around anymore; the method of the command just doesn’t work.
Meanwhile those of us still in the party would be wise to admit that there is also a close connection between what one friend described to me recently as “your leadership’s lack of any capacity for mere human empathy” during our recent crisis, and the way in which the most interesting of this year’s new left alliances (i.e. ACU, LU) have some of the character of survivor’s groups. Our mistakes were so awful that anyone trying to rebuild the left is going to have to say, “we are not at all like them. We have a different culture of openness and free discussion”. If they fail to make that clear, and if they fail to keep strictly to their promise, they simply will not survive.
“I am off to resist, I will be back”
There could be resources to reorient the left, if we chose to use them. Brian Roper’s Marxist History of Democracy finds a recurring tension between two kinds of democratic practice: the class struggle democracy of ancient Athens, and the top-down passive Republicanism of ancient Rome; 1649 versus 1688; October 1917 as against February. History, in this model, is but a series of approximations, some better worked out than others, towards a future of active participation.
Paul Foot’s last book The Vote describes the “undermining” of the allure of universal suffrage, and in particular of social democracy, which he portrays as the principal carrier of the original vision of the Chartists. He is right, but more is at stake even than that. The whole idea of revolutionary socialism is that in a different society people might control every aspect of their lives, even those economic relationships which capitalism removes from democratic scrutiny. If we can’t win the battle for the meaning of people’s scepticism about the parliamentary road, then we will simply go further along the Weimar path towards a proliferation of competing right-popular parties, each more radical than the last, and each with a greater base than our own.
The most energetic traditions in five years’ time will be those which can relearn habits of humility and co-operation and fruitful internal and external debate; those which can instil in their members a cumulative sense of their increasing involvement, their own essential powerfulness.
We won’t retake society unless we begin with our own groups. It’s no good having Tahrir square without toppling Mubarak. The dictator, it seems, is not located anywhere else but in our own hearts. In the caution of an opposition that dares not come out openly and confront the leadership. In a leadership which will do nothing to acknowledge or confront the draining away of people, time, ambition. Mubarak is our seemingly-shared willingness to delay making the changes which must come.
We have to break the habit that new ideas are initiated by a centre, and the majority of the organisation (if it has any role at all) is at best a sounding board for others’ ideas, or a mechanism for their transmission to that great, unloved general public. That top-down model is the opposite of what socialism was ever supposed to be about.
Democracy begins with the way in which we speak to ourselves; in that moment of self-realisation that no-one is better than you, and you are not better than anyone else. Democracy begins with teaching others to address each other and you with respect. Democracy begins with regime change.