Starting with this issue of Atash/Fire journal, in the column “The Reality of Communism,” we will discuss democracy in a series of articles that draws on the work of Bob Avakian, and especially Avakian’s Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That? (1986). The point is this: without breaking with political illusions and big lies, we can never make revolution and build a fundamentally different society for the majority of the [world’s] population, in the service of the emancipation of humanity. One of these illusions is the illusion of democracy.
It is equally important to break with bourgeois democracy as an ideal and the alternative to the theocratic fascist regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran [IRI], as it is to break the chains of the IRI’s intellectual enslavement to religion. In fact, in order to solve all our social problems and sufferings, including overthrowing the IRI, we must ask through what mode of production1 is this regime committing its crimes? In other words, “‘Through which mode of production will any social problem be addressed?’ ... ‘is the most fundamental thing ... because, in a fundamental sense, anything you’re doing in society is shaped and ultimately limited by whatever the economic system is (which, again, is another way of saying ‘the mode of production’).” (Bob Avakian. The New Communism, “Part 1—Through Which Mode of Production?” pgs 48-57).
Today, when the issue of an alternative to the IRI has been raised seriously among a wide range [of people], all organizations, parties and programs from the left to the right are presenting “democracy” as an alternative. Although he avoids discussing the republic or the monarchy, [pro-U.S.] Reza Pahlavi talks about democracy with certainty. The [pro-U.S. fascists] MEK ( People’s Mujahideen-e-Khalq) speaks of a democratic republic. Even sections of the IRI, such as Mehdi Nasiri, have proposed secular democracy as an alternative after the “transition from the Islamic Republic” or [its] “collapse.”2 But none of them utters even one word about what relationship this “democracy” has to the socio-economic relations of capitalism. Everyone refers to it as an “ideal,” with no roots in the economic underpinnings of society. Meanwhile, the reactionary and opportunistic attacks on “Western democracy” by [Supreme Leader] Khamenei and other Islamic fundamentalists are used as an argument in defense of bourgeois democracy, and as proof of its “legitimacy.” The common thread of raising the banner of “democracy” can be seen even among the left and feminist groupings and parties that call themselves communists, and in statements such as the Charter of Twenty Organizations3. This emphasizes the importance and necessity of clarifying the content of democracy.
What Is Democracy?
First of all, democracy is a form of government. Democracy is a type of state power, and no government is at all neutral. At its core, every state has a class, and democracy is not free of class nature. In BAsics 1:22, Bob Avakian wrote, “In a world marked by deep class divisions and social inequality, to talk about ‘democracy’—without talking about the class nature of that democracy or which class it serves—is meaningless, and worse. So long as society is divided into classes, there can be no ‘democracy for all’: one class or another will rule, and it will uphold and promote that kind of democracy which serves its interests and goals. The question is: which class will rule and whether its rule and its system of democracy will serve the continuation, or the eventual abolition, of class divisions and the corresponding relations of exploitation, and oppression and inequality.”
From the time of Aristotle and Plato down to the present day, theorists of democracy have sought to define universal and eternal principles for democracy, i.e., for the state and class structure that are historically conditioned and determined. By “historically conditioned and defined,” democracy is a social institution that arose in a specific historical context, in response to the needs of the exploitative classes. It does not exist outside of time and place, outside of a class-social framework and it cannot be invented as some eternal and classless principle, and any attempt to do so can only result in perpetuating class society and writing off the fundamental question of whether humanity can go beyond class society, the state and democracy.
Although today's democracy, that is, bourgeois democracy in the era of capitalism-imperialism’s worldwide dominance, is different from early models of democracy in Greece and Rome during the era of slavery, they have an important feature in common. Under slavery, democracy was also used by the state to impose a class dictatorship on the exploited classes. Just as democracy of that time guaranteed the right to exploit, today the right of the capitalist to exploit the [proletariat] is within bounds, as is capitalist competition for the world and the exploitation of the world's people, the right to enslave women as an integral part of the capitalist social system, and the right to exploit nature to the point of extinction. It works. Throughout history, with the growth of the productive forces4, the method of exploitation shifted away from direct exploitation of the producer (of a slave or peasant) [by an individual slaveowner or landowner to whom the laborer legally "belonged"]. Thus, in proportion to the shift in the economic infrastructure from slavery to feudalism and later to capitalism, the institution of the state at the heart of the political superstructure also changed.
Slavery-democracy and bourgeois-democracy, therefore, are types of class states which regulate the right to exploit the unprivileged class(es) that do not own the means of production.
What distinguishes bourgeois democracy from the democracy of antiquity is that bourgeois democracy arose out of bourgeois revolutions, especially the French Revolution, and in opposition to the power of the church, the monarchy, and the hereditary privilege in the era of feudalism. The values, laws, and political superstructure theorized and applied to the new capitalist era by these revolutions corresponded to the economic underpinnings of the new mode of production, which served the interests of the bourgeoisie. Individualism was applauded against feudal collectivism and equality against hereditary privilege. [Peasants, slaves and serfs] were removed from the land and from owning land, turning them into ”free” workers—where what they “own” is their generalized “ability to work” as opposed to the labor required to produce a particular thing. They became “free” to alienate their labor, exchange it in the marketplace, thereby handing it over to the owners of the means of production.
Thus, bourgeois democracy is not the distribution of “equal” rights. Rather, it is a social foundation, a complex organization of the practice of class dictatorship, to preserve the capitalist mode of production and its corresponding class and social relations, and culture.
Theorizing Bourgeois Democracy
In preparation for the birth and consolidation of capitalist society, many bourgeois theorists theorized about bourgeois democracy. Their theories of democracy were based on an “ideal” bourgeois society—in which atomized individuals act as separate units, according to a classless and immutable “human nature” within the confines and in accordance with commodity relations and production of commodities, making decisions for themselves and even for society on the basis of individual votes.
However, in a society where the labor power of [a person] is exchanged for commodities, there is unremitting competition for everyone to surpass the other, and in any society where such competition and commodity relations exist, there is necessarily a division of society into unequal classes. That is, the same social framework that unceasingly forces each individual to compete for advantage over one another, divides society into unequal classes.
Bourgeois democracy replaced the feudal divine-right laws that had been based on the “god-given” superiority and privileges of a small number of people in proportion to the majority of society, with social laws based on the formal equality of individuals before the law. This break with feudalism was revolutionary in its own time, but it perpetuated class society in a different form (the form of capitalism), and a formal equality before the law that guaranteed economic and social inequality [in reality]. Today, [bourgeois democracy] has become archaic and obsolete, an obstacle that must be overcome. It will never be able to transform society from what it is into something better. Humanity needs to get beyond the class system—for the oppressed and exploited majority of society, and for the emancipation of our species.
The Form and Content of Legal Equality
The form and content of equality before the law is entirely consistent with the capitalist mode of production. The basis for legal equality is not the equality of [the right to] work, but equality [in the marketplace] for the exchange of human labor power. The functioning of the capitalist mode of production always leaves out a large segment of the population. Therefore, the law of equality [to exchange] human labor power does not extend to equality of the stomach and equality to stay alive.
When the advent of widespread commodity production and exchange (i.e. the capitalist system) became dominant in societies, it became possible to have an equal exchange of unequal [types of] human labor power. The means of [accumulating] wealth were concentrated in the hands of a few. The majority were separated from the means of production and, in order to live, had to sell and give their labor to the owners of the means of production. Under capitalism, the value of human labor is no longer measured by the concrete activity used to produce a certain product. Instead, [labor] is measured by the required average amount of labor time required in a society (and today, in the world at large), for the production of any given product: i.e., the socially necessary labor time. Exchange is not just a trade in the market, but a methodology that permeates everything and even dominates the worldview of [people]. Thus, the bourgeois view of equality cannot be separated from its source—the social and class relations [of capitalism].
In a society founded on bourgeois relations of production, there is an irreconcilable conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. It is impossible for the superstructure (including laws and courts, police and military, bureaucracy and the whole state apparatus as well as ideas, values, ethics, etc.) not to support or strengthen the relations of production and the division of labor that characterize this society and inevitably is synonymous with it. [The superstructure] exists to support the exploitation and oppression of masses of people, and use widespread violence against them, in order to defend this system and the interests of its ruling class.
Democracy and Elections
Many [people] separate democracy from its class content and [think its essence is] literally majority rule. They try to prove that bourgeois democracy is the rule of the majority by pointing to how majority rule gets manifested in elections. However, every democratic process should be evaluated in relation to the dominant socioeconomic relations in society. An election is not an impartial arbitrator that mediates between classes and [political] parties representing different classes. Elections in bourgeois democracy are controlled by the bourgeoisie and under no circumstances are they a means of basic decision-making. In fact, the primary purpose of the elections is to give the imprint of “popular authority” to the system, the policies and actions of the ruling class, and to divert, restrict and control the political activities of the masses of the people. The electoral process itself tends to conceal the main class relations and class antagonisms in society, and to portray [elections] as expression of an institution that allows atomized individuals in society to engage in formal political participation to strengthen the status quo. This process not only reduces people to isolated individuals, but also reduces them to a passive political position and defines the essence of politics as atomized passivity: individuals can individually vote for one or the other option, while all options are formulated and presented by an active force above the atomized mass of “citizens.”
Democracy and Violence
Many have the illusion that democracy is a form of government beyond classes and therefore beyond violence. The political philosophy of capitalist democracy is [based on its state apparatus having a] a monopoly on violence. That is, it recognizes that violence is the [sole] right of the military forces of the state and its security apparatus. Bourgeois democracies were the first governments to use nuclear bombs to dominate the world. In a world ruled by these capitalist-imperialist democracies, hundreds of thousands of people die every day from hunger and related causes, and every day the number of child laborers and displaced migrants at the borders increases. Officially, the position of slave is imposed on women, half of the world's population. And all this is done under the deceptive banner of “equality” and “equal rights before the law.”
Here is how [the late] Zandiyad Amir Hassanpour described the history of “Western” democracy and its performance in the countries of the “East” (countries dominated by imperialism):
“Democracy theorists such as Michael Ignatieff (a journalist, university professor, and leader of the Liberal Party of Canada), have argued that in the fight against terrorism, democracy can be stopped, civil liberties can be suspended, and torture can be used. ... The U.S. [track] record in the 10 years since the invasion of Iraq [is that of] brutal torture of prisoners, arrests and abductions of dissidents, international traffic arrests, secret prisons abroad, civil liberties trampled on by law, all of which were justified [by these democracy theorists]. Even if one adds up every one of the West’s cornerstones of democracy that were created by fighting against their [own] citizens, killing [people in the] colonies, enslaving the people of Africa, and imposing two World Wars and dozens of other wars on the world’s people, the [track] record of the democracies of the East would not shine any brighter. ... Unlike in the United States, India’s democratic system, which was born in the process of campaigning, against occupation, genocide, genocidal slavery, and racial apartheid, and was founded with ideas and practices of nonviolence, independence, and decolonization at its heart. ... But sixty-three years after independence, slavery and feudal relations and flaws persist, and with it, newer forms of violence have turned the lives of the people of this subcontinent into hell: trafficking, men and women and children for the purpose of sexual exploitation, and the removal of organs, slave labor, forced labor and bonded labor, fetal killing (girls), infanticide (girls); violence against more than 40 million widows, the ‘world’s hungriest country’ with 230 million malnourished people, the highest percentage of children (48%) [suffering from malnutrition], and the deaths of two million children a year from starvation (6,000 per day).”5