Defending democratic rights under bourgeois ‘democracy’

May 29, 2008

U.S. democracy has been poisoned from the start. Schools and media alike preach reverence to “Democracy,” which allegedly makes the United States so great, powerful and the envy of the world. “Democracy is why the United States is so hated by its enemies,” so the story goes. George W. Bush, for example, said that the United States was attacked on September 11 “because they hate our freedom.”

It does not take much to reveal the truth behind the mythology of U.S. “democracy.”

Of course, democratic rights are indeed a worthy goal. From the basic right to vote, to the right to form a trade union, or a woman’s reproductive rights—democratic rights, written in terms of the rights of “all,” rich and poor, do provide some protection to the poor and working classes from the full burden of exploitation in our society. A good number of democratic rights have been fought for and won by the mass workers’ and people’s movements for precisely that reason.

But this in itself points to the poison at the root of the tree of U.S. “democracy.” The U.S. political system was not founded in order to create rule by the people, but rather to create a democracy of the ancient Greek and Roman type that gave the ruling classes the freedom to rule over their own affairs—and over the working masses in their countries. In fact, it was a “founding father,” John Adams, who wrote in his diary “that he was against universal suffrage because people would vote to take fortunes away from the rich and establish equality.”1

George Washington said it this way: “We have probably had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our confederation. Experience has taught us that men will not adopt and carry into execution measures the best calculated for their own good, without the intervention of a coercive power.”2

There are dozens such quotes from the first political leaders of the United States that are the antithesis of genuine democracy. Their intentions were clear. They wrote the Constitution to restrict the vote to white male property owners. They refused to recognize African American slaves as citizens at all, having them counted as three-fifths of a person for the sake of representation. They created an electoral college system aimed at checking the popular will, along with an upper house in the legislature—the Senate—which would be controlled by the landed gentry and rich merchants.

So while the founders created a republic ostensibly “of, for and by the people,” in reality they set up a government of, by and for the rich—a bourgeois democracy.

This is the reason that so many rights that have meaning to poor and oppressed sectors of society had to be fought for and won with blood. Civil rights, women’s rights and union rights have all been won against the efforts of the powerful to shut down the movements aimed at expanding democratic rights to those in society who had previously been excluded.

But those rights were won in struggle. After every victory, U.S. ruling-class spin-masters, who had earlier whipped up hysterias about “communist plots,” now declared that democracy was “stronger then ever.” One has only to compare FBI chief Robert Mueller’s 2005 speech praising Black History Month as “a time to celebrate our diversity” with that agency’s campaigns against Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X or the Black Panthers.

Is the battle for democracy won?

“Of course,” some will argue, “but those were the old days. The founders might have set up a flawed system, but their basic idea was sound. Now we live in a democracy, where everyone has the right to vote and where the basic will of the people governs.

“No doubt,” these people will concede, “there are still things like racism or sexism, and economic inequality. But the trend of history is toward more inclusion, by using our votes to make laws that continually chip away and eventually eliminate these things.”

This view that circulates in some liberal circles ignores the structure of the U.S. political system, which is designed to entrench the political power of the two big-business parties and the candidates favored by the economic elite. Restrictive ballot access laws make it all but impossible for progressive candidates to even appear on the ballots in many states.

The corporate-dominated media makes the airwaves the near-exclusive vehicle of the two major parties, which pay hundreds of millions of dollars for their Madison Avenue-crafted “free speech.” Any genuine critique of the system is off limits to the vast majority of the working class. Political opposition is intentionally marginalized or ignored.

“Universal” suffrage only became universal in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. But even with formal universal suffrage, voters are only able to elect candidates that have been pre-approved by the corporate and banking elite. Voters’ choice, even under universal suffrage, remains a mirage.

The danger of fascism

There is another idea that is often heard in discussion of democratic rights. It is in many ways the opposite of the liberal view that the “democratic system is working its way to perfection.”

This view has grown in the face of the U.S. government orientation that the expansion of democratic rights in the 1960s and 1970s should be rolled back or eviscerated all together. This alarming trend began in the very first years of after Ronald Reagan’s presidency began in 1981, continued through the Clinton years and has become pronounced during the Bush administration.

Limits on government spying on citizens have been stripped away. Prisoners have lost basic rights. Arabs, Muslims and immigrants have been rounded up and deported en masse. Torture, under the thinly veiled language of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” has been openly adopted by the government and upheld by the courts.

Combining the erosion of rights with the wholesale imprisonment of young Black and Latino men and the epidemic of police terror in poor and oppressed communities around the country, many people are wondering: Is the United States headed toward fascism? Is fascism already here?

The comparison is to the viciously anti-labor, racist Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler in Germany from 1933 to 1945 and the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini in Italy from 1922 to 1943. Both these regimes were noted for their extreme repression against unions and the left. The Nazi regime was also characterized by extreme racism and hatred of Jewish and Roma people (mislabeled “gypsies”) as well as lesbians and gays. This hatred culminated in organized genocide in death camps at Auschwitz, Treblinka and many others.

One characterization of the nature of fascism was the definition given by the 13th Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International in 1933: “The open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic, most imperialist elements of finance capital.” For many, especially those in the Black and Latino neighborhoods under the police jackboot, this would sound like a pretty accurate description of the Bush administration and the U.S. government in general.

In order to develop an effective defense of democratic rights, it is important to have a clearer understanding of the nature of the threat. Many of those who shout loudest about the Bush administration’s fascistic leanings point to a particular kind of solution: vote for the “lesser” reactionary, “lesser” chauvinistic, “lesser” imperialist elements of finance capital—the Democratic Party.

But fascism emerges at a particular phase of the class struggle with particular purposes. Fascist governments arose in Europe prior to World War II when capitalist rule was paralyzed by the advance of revolutionary workers’ movements. These movements were powerful—but ultimately unable to achieve socialist revolutions. To destroy these revolutionary movements, the capitalist elites provided material and political support to fascist organizations. These anti-labor shock troops ultimately became the government, directly supporting the needs and interests of the capitalist corporations and banks in their countries.

In Italy from 1919 to 1921, workers were taking over factories and peasants were seizing large landed estates. In Germany in the early 1930s, during the Great Depression, communists battled in the streets with anti-communist thugs as the German capitalist class began to feel the bite of the economic depression.

In addition though, fascism represents a particular response by the ruling class to the capitalist crisis and revolutionary threat. Instead of concessions to the masses (in the manner of Roosevelt’s New Deal, for example) or direct military repression (like Chiang Kai-shek’s crushing of the 1927 Chinese revolution), fascism involves the massive mobilization of middle class and petty-bourgeois sectors impoverished by the economic crisis as a whip against the working class and its organizations. Millions of these unemployed and dispossessed become the shock troops for big capital, drawing in at the same time some workers and soldiers.

This level of mobilization entails some risk on the part of the capitalist class, since the interests of these class strata are not the same as the interests of the banking and big business elite. In both Germany and Italy, the initial mass fascist movements had to be purged after taking power, with the new regimes more resembling military dictatorships.

A number of lessons have emerged in the world working-class struggle against fascism. The perspective of expecting the liberal capitalists to march at the head of a “popular front” against fascism has been shown time and again to be a strategy for defeat for the working class.

Correct strategies include building the greatest possible unity of action between workers’ organizations, independence of revolutionary organizations from bourgeois leadership, and the creation of armed self-defense groups able to match the anti-labor and racist violence of the fascists blow for blow.

Defending democratic rights

In periods of relative economic stability, like in the United States over the past several decades, the ruling class has no need for the extralegal methods of fascism. The combined rule of the big-business Democratic and Republican parties has been sufficient to keep the class struggle within the bounds of bourgeois norms of exploitation. In past periods of mass struggle, of course, the U.S. ruling class has been willing to resort to violent state repression, like the COINTELPRO assassinations against the Black and Latino liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

These repressive measures have easily existed alongside the same basic features of bourgeois democracy as have always existed in terms of elections and so on. While the PATRIOT Act and other laws have legalized intrusions into the lives of U.S. working people, these means have the character of a political weapon in the “War on Terror” just as McCarthyism was the political weapon of the Cold War, used to whip up hysteria to help justify imperialist policies the world over.

At the same time, embryonic fascist-type groups like the Minutemen are held in reserve. While they are certainly fascist in ideology and aspirations, and are heavily backed by the corporate elite, they do not yet speak as a cohesive force capable of directing society or challenging a resurgent workers’ movement. That does not diminish their threat. Revolutionaries seek to smash them at every step.

Most important in the fight for preserving and extending democratic rights in the United States is to build a mass movement that does not depend on the Democratic Party or the courts. These ruling-class institutions, apart from serving the class interests of the same big-business forces that are rolling back civil and democratic rights, have shown themselves to be spineless and wavering even in their designated role as a loyal opposition.

A genuinely independent people’s movement not only is the surest voice for the interests of all those who are excluded and oppressed in the United States—the vast majority. It also forms the basis on which a struggle for a society that replaces bourgeois rights with the rule of the working and oppressed people can develop. That, in turn, offers the hope of true democracy.


1. Quoted in Vince Copeland, Market Elections, (World View, New York, 2000), p. 5.
2. Gerald Fresia, Towards an American Revolution, (South End, Boston, 1988), p. 23.

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