Bourgeois Democracy and Workers Democracy

6 Jan: Capitol Building in Washington, DC surrounded and invaded by Trumpists demanding Trump be installed in power against the popular vote and electoral college.

The statement by the Latin American comrades dissociating them from our position of defence of the outcome of the November US elections from Trump’s Beer Hall putsch misunderstands the relationship between bourgeois democracy and workers democracy, misunderstands key elements of US social reality, and confuses the struggle against imperialist wars abroad with the defence of the workers movement and democratic rights at home.

“The British comrades are in favour of a military bloc with the Democrats and invoke the institutions of the imperialist state machinery against Trumpism, making a false analogy between Spain in 1936 and the United States in 2021, since in both situations it would be present a fascist attack on a bourgeois parliamentary regime in an imperialist country. However, this is a false analogy because it minimizes the fact that in Spain, in opposition to Franco’s fascist imperialist side, there was a popular front, the main component of which is a mass party of the working class, its trade unions and its trade union centres. Therefore, what threatened the Franco regime was proletarian democracy and not just a bourgeois parliament. Defending proletarian democracy against a fascist coup has nothing to do with defending imperialist “democracy” against a fascist coup.”

The problem with this distinction is that trade unions, organs of workers democracy, also exist in the United States, and generally give political support to the Democratic Party, the party that won the election and which Trump’s movement was aimed at overthrowing and barring from taking power. Also, such working-class political trends that have even a modicum of social weight, at this point support the Democratic Party, either by being inside it, or by supporting it in various ways from the outside.

This extends from the supporters of the social-democratic would-be presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, to the AFL-CIO in its more left-wing manifestations, to organised social-democratic groups like the Democratic Socialists of America. It also extends from groups representing oppressed layers, particularly US blacks, to newer movements such as Black Lives Matter and older groups such as the NAACP and the numerous other trends that grew out of the Civil Rights movement. All these movements of the oppressed gravitate around the Democratic Party which has de-facto become, not merely a bourgeois party in the ‘pure’ sense, but in effect the party of the popular front in the American context.

Except that this popular front manifests itself in the form of a party, a phenomenon that is not unknown in some semi-colonial countries – both the Indian Congress Party and the African National Congress are examples of parties that function(ed) as popular fronts in practice. Working class trends function within these parties, and stand in elections for them, as with the South African Communist Party and the former Congress Socialist Party in India. This is rarer in imperialist countries; in most of them there is some nominally independent working-class party component of popular fronts. The United States, which is uniquely backward among even imperialist countries in terms of the political development of its working-class movement, is an exception in this regard. The role of social democrats like Sanders and the DSA is similar, mutatis mutandis, to the class collaborationist role of the SACP within the ANC.

The comrades’ counterposition of the imperialist Spanish Popular Front to the imperialist Democratic Party, the latter being supposedly fundamentally worse because of the absence of independent working-class mass parties in the latter, appears at odds with the Trotskyist movement’s attitude to popular fronts. We do not consider popular fronts to be embodiments of workers democracy.

Elements of workers democracy (trade unions, working class political parties, organisations of oppressed groups, etc) exist in societies characterised by bourgeois democracy despite such political blocs with the bourgeoisie, not by virtue of such blocs. The programme of fascism, however, is to do away with those elements of working-class democracy in bourgeois society, irrespective of whether working-class organisations are involved, or not involved, in a class collaborationist government such as a popular front. The main distinguishing feature of popular fronts is not that they embody working-class democracy, but that they involve a limitation of the class independence of the working-class organisations involved in them, a class compromise and a partial negation of their freedom of independent action and hence independence before the bourgeoisie.

We defend bourgeois-democratic, parliamentary regimes against overthrow by fascists not because those regimes in the governmental sense embody elements of workers democracy (they don’t!) but because in the wider society, the existence of a parliamentary regime is incompatible with the complete suppression of organs of working class democracy, and because even in the most repressive bourgeois parliamentary regime, the existence of elections means that the masses possess some elements of democratic rights, without which a parliamentary regime which has some popular legitimacy could not exist.

The question of democratic rights is crucially important for the masses, particularly in countries like the United States where whole oppressed layers, particularly the black population, have often been disenfranchised. When the comrades write that “Defending proletarian democracy against a fascist coup has nothing to do with defending imperialist ‘democracy’ against a fascist coup” they are dismissing crucially important democratic questions. For instance, the right of black people to vote in elections in the United States comes under the heading of “imperialist ‘democracy’” not workers democracy. The right to vote in a state, federal, or presidential election involves no activity in workers organisations at all. But it is a crucial democratic right nevertheless.

The comrades have not thought this through. The idea that Marxists should not defend imperialist ‘democracy’ against a fascist coup, that imperialist democracy in general is not worthy of such defence, implies that the democratic right to vote under imperialist bourgeois democracy of the black population is not worth defending against such fascist coups.

The circumstances of Trump’s election in 2016, the way he tried to justify his administration governing despite the loss of the popular vote then, and his attempt to stay in power despite the loss of the popular vote and the electoral college in 2020, bears out that Trump and his white supremacist, fascist movement is a threat to the democratic rights of the black population above all.

Trump lost the 2016 popular vote to Hillary Clinton by three million votes. Only the distribution of votes via the electoral college, particularly in ‘swing-states’ where the rustbelt figured heavily, allowed him to claim the presidency. Confronted with his loss of the popular vote after 2016, Trump outrageously claimed that this was due to millions of illegal immigrants illegally voting, and others who should allegedly not be allowed to vote. It was never explicitly stated, for obvious reasons, but it was always obvious he was talking about black voters. Both by implication and by the involvement of the Republican Party in voter suppression that was always aimed at depriving black and minority voters of the ability to vote.

 It was always going to be difficult for him to repeat the semi-fluke of 2016; and his claim that Biden’s victory was the result of ‘illegal votes’ is both completely fraudulent, and blatantly racist. The victory of the Democrats in the January Senate seat runoffs in Georgia emphasises that overwhelmingly; it was black voters and some white anti-racist supporters who came out to defeat Trump. Trump was caught red-handed, on tape, in an hour-long telephone conversation with an election official in Georgia, himself a Republican, trying to threaten and induce him to invent another 17,800 votes to allow Trump to take Georgia’s Electoral College votes fraudulently. The official refused.

That tape is proof of attempted election fraud and played an important role in the loss of the Senate seats. Trump’s attempted fraud is the only significant electoral fraud in the 2020 election. And its purpose was massive. His attempt, through his rag-bag white supremacist army, to prevent Congress from certifying Biden’s election victory constituted nothing less than a violent attempt to disenfranchise many millions of mainly black people, to install a white supremacist dictatorship in the US.

Such is the blatant nature of the Republican attempt to disenfranchise black people, fuelled by the fear that soon there will not be a white majority in the US, that it has provoked the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) into initiating an unprecedented lawsuit against the Republicans under the Ku Klux Klan Act, alleging that the GOP Is involved in a nationwide campaign to deprive black people of the franchise. Which is obviously true, and a supportable legal initiative, notwithstanding the liberal-bourgeois nature of the NAACP.

Trump’s attempt to stay in power, with his false allegations of electoral fraud and overruling the popular vote, implies the large scale, if not wholesale, disenfranchisement of black people, and the rolling back of the gains of the 1950s-60s civil rights movement at the very least. This would require a dictatorship that would crush these democratic rights. Such a regime from the very start, to survive in power, must crush all independent working class and black organisations, and hence crush those elements of working-class democracy that exist under imperialist bourgeois democracy. It is not possible to crush bourgeois democracy without crushing all elements of working-class democracy, and Trump understands this very well. This is what motivates his otherwise absurd, red-baiting of the Biden-led Democratic Party, his allegations that it is ‘far left’ and ‘Marxist’ etc, which is so bizarre given Biden’s record as a right-winger in the Democratic Party under Clinton and Obama. This Trump verbiage is redolent of Nazi denunciation of social democracy in the 1930s.

Leon Trotsky

The comrades have misunderstood the article by Trotsky, The Lesson of Spain, from 1936, that they cite in support of their position. This was not a polemic against taking sides with a parliamentary regime against a fascist coup, but rather a polemic against social chauvinism in an approaching inter-imperialist war, that is, a war between imperialist powers. Trotsky was talking about a potential war between imperialist France and Nazi Germany, both imperialist powers, and polemicising against those who advocated support for French imperialism in such a war, and the illusion that French imperialism could wage an ‘anti-fascist’ war against Germany.

This is shown clearly by passage quoted:

“But here we are interrupted by the exclamation. ‘How can one dissolve the officers’ corps? Doesn’t this mean destroying the army and leaving the country disarmed in the face of Fascism? Hitler and Mussolini are only waiting for that!’ All these arguments are old and familiar. That’s how the Cadets, the S-Rs and the Russian Mensheviks reasoned in 1917, and that’s how the leaders of the Spanish People’s Front reasoned. The Spanish workers half-believed these ratiocinations until they were convinced by experience that the nearest Fascist enemy was to be found in the Spanish Fascist army. Not for nothing did our old friend Karl Liebknecht teach: ‘The main enemy is in our own country!’”

Yes, the main enemy at home for the Spanish working class in 1936 was the Spanish Fascist Army. The one that under the leadership of Franco was trying to overthrow the Republic. Which Trump’s forces were trying to do in the United States in 2021. Other than that, the main enemy of the French working class was the French ruling class and its army, and it was not possible to defend its democratic rights by defending French imperialism in an inter-imperialist war against Nazi Germany.

The slogan ‘the Main Enemy is at home’ is not much of a guide as to which side to take in an attempted fascist coup, and bourgeois elements out to resist such a coup, within an imperialist power such as the United States. Because both sides are “at home”, by definition. Thus, the comrades’ view that “we defend the defeatism of both wings of imperialism, like Lenin in the First World War, to transform the intra-imperialist war into class warfare” is at odds with the correct position on a variety of attempted and indeed successful right-wing/fascist coups taken by communist organisations in the past in both imperialist and semi-colonial countries throughout our movement’s history. There has never been a situation where a conflict between a parliamentary regime and an indigenous, putative fascist force in the same country trying to overthrow it, has been treated as the same as an inter-imperialist war. Such conflicts operate on a completely different plane, in theory and practice.

 The question as to which side is the main enemy can only be decided by the working class according to the need to defend its class organisations, be they strong or weak, and the democratic rights of the oppressed. Of course, it is true that in the 19th Century the Democratic Party was the party of the post-Civil War Slavocracy and the Republican Party was the party of the Northern bourgeoisie, the party of Abraham Lincoln. We have to deal with politics today however, not a century ago, and today this has been reversed: the Republicans are an overtly racist party, the vanguard of neoliberalism under Reagan and Bush that has been seeking for decades to disenfranchise as much of the non-white population of the US as possible, and which now has a sizeable fascist wing. The Democratic Party, also an outright bourgeois party, played second-fiddle in that regard, and now has a sizeable black and working class, partially class-conscious constituency, personified by Sanders, and therefore itself is currently playing the role of the popular front in US conditions.

This is not something we support; we do not advocate votes for the Democrats or even for Sanders or his followers if they stand as Democrats. But in an armed clash between this US popular front, and the fascist element of the Republicans, we stand with the former militarily in the same manner as with the popular front in Spain. The distinction between military and political support we are advocating was summed up by Trotsky in his rendition of An Aesop’s Fable as to why it was necessary to stand militarily with the social-imperialist German Social Democracy against Hitler’s hordes in the early 1930s.

“A cattle dealer once drove some bulls to the slaughterhouse. And the butcher came nigh with his sharp knife.

‘Let us close ranks and jack up this executioner on our horns,’ suggested one of the bulls.

‘If you please, in what way is the butcher any worse than the dealer who drove us hither with his cudgel?’ replied the bulls, who had received their political education in Manuilsky’s institute. [The Comintern.]

‘But we shall be able to attend to the dealer as well afterwards!’

“Nothing doing,” replied the bulls firm in their principles, to the counselor. ‘You are trying, from the left, to shield our enemies – you are a social-butcher yourself.’

And they refused to close ranks.”

Advocating defeatism on both sides, in the circumstances of a fascist coup in an imperialist country like the US, can only mean repeating the error Trotsky was attacking here: failing to see the immediate danger to the working class and the oppressed. It is the nature of imperialism to organise coups and worse in colonial and semi-colonial countries; it is the nature of bourgeois imperialist parties to attack workers, to undermine social gains, to undermine the democratic rights of the oppressed. But the victory, even if it were incomplete, of fascism in an imperialist country is a qualitative intensification and extension of that. Fascism in an imperialist country is the concentrated, purified essence of imperialism. A policy of defeatism on both sides in the conflict over the Capitol, of indifference as to whether Trump managed to seize power against the popularly elected President and Congress, would be similarly suicidal as the policy of the KPD in Germany that Trotsky was polemicising against above.

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