Capitalist democracy and workers' democracy

By Allen Myers

It is meaningful to modify the word “democracy” with a word such as “capitalist” or “workers” because democracy always has a social content, specifically a class content. Democracy is a system of class rule, in which one class advances its own interests at the expense of another class. To put it in other words, “democracy” refers to the form of rule — voting on decisions and/or the officials who will carry them out. But, in addition to form, there is a content to any state. Be it ever so democratic in form, a state always has a dictatorial content: it defends the interests of a particular class and suppresses any other class that threatens the ruling class.

Viewed in terms of class content, the Australian state is the dictatorship of the capitalists. This means there is always a major contradiction within a capitalist democracy like Australia. The capitalists, in every country, are only a small minority of the population. So the content of the capitalist state is in conflict with the democratic form, which most people understand to mean rule by the majority.

Clearly, this contradiction between content and form can be superseded only if a state defends a class that is a majority of the population. Therefore, in developed countries, where the working class is a majority, the only class dictatorship that can be really democratic is the dictatorship of the working class — the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, as it was more commonly called when workers were called proletarians. (This is not to say that a dictatorship of the proletariat has to be undemocratic in a country where peasants or urban semi-employed outnumber the working class. These layers are also exploited by capital, and they can therefore be persuaded to support the rule of the workers, especially if it is sensitive to their particular needs.)

Real majority rule

A real democracy will make the majority, the working people, into the ruling class. This will be done through a mass movement that replaces the state institutions the capitalists control — government, army, police, judiciary — with a government, military and other state institutions that are based on the mass organisation of working people. However, as the fundamental source of the capitalists domination over society is their ownership and control of the economy, ending their domination also requires an economic revolution. Once the factories and other means of production are no longer the property of capitalist employers, working people will have the possibility of deciding both what is produced and how it is produced.

Because socialist revolutions have so far occurred only in industrially underdeveloped countries surrounded by powerful capitalist states, they have not had the freedom of action that will be available once revolutions have occurred in the major capitalist countries. Revolutionary working people’s governments now have to divert economic resources from social needs to maintain defence forces against the threat of imperialist attack. And they have to buy the imports they need and sell their exports on world markets controlled and manipulated by imperialist governments and corporations.

Real achievements

Despite these huge obstacles, there have been many indications of the human solidarity and creativity that can be unleashed when the major decisions are made by the working majority rather than by the capitalist minority. Because working people are the ruling class in Cuba, they have withstood a 50-year blockade by US imperialism, have created the world’s only ecologically sustainable economy (according to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature) and send tens of thousands of doctors around the world to provide free medical care for the poor. The Bolivarian socialist revolution in Venezuela is still in the process of transferring capitalist property to a working people’s government, but it is already demonstrating the same sort of creativity and solidarity that characterises Cuba.

People beginning to consider the ideas of socialism sometimes ask for blueprints about how a socialist government in a developed country like Australia would be organised. But while the relatively brief history of socialist revolutions has provided many positive and negative lessons, socialism is not a set of diagrams or rules to be followed. Socialism is about creating the world’s first real democracy by making the working class the ruling class, internationally. When that happens, the new ruling class will have no trouble figuring out how to rule.