Democracy, discipline and resistance

Democracy, discipline and resistance

The political moment in which we operate has posed a stark challenge to the revolutionary movement a challenge we have just not been up to. At the hands of capital and the strange non-death [1] of the neo-liberalism many of the gains successfully defended since the post-war period are in the process of being lost. In Britain we have a government that is despised by most workers but with no tangible alternative to build, rally around or support we have seen only sporadic resistance at best and political quietude at worst. To embark on a journey of refoundation our starting point must not be historical ruminations and approaches but the state of the class struggle, the gains we have made, the way capital has recuperated our desires and our defeats. All of this presents us with a new terrain for us to understand and dissect if we are to mobilise effectively. Adapting and understanding this moment will take salvaging what we can from the 20th century whilst building new tools and organisations that break the cycle of defeat.

The challenge for the entire left is to move beyond the sect, move beyond historical play acting and towards a refoundation of a communist politics that is relevant and democratic. By sect I mean those re-animated corpses of a long dead left who fail to recognise that organisation is not to serve the interests of this or that tendency or leader but to prosecute class struggle. A sect on today’s left is invariably undemocratic (regardless of formal rules) invariably marginalised and invariably operates a peculiar elitism where leaderships obscure issues and politics to their members and dispenses political wisdom to an unlistening and patronised working class. As we seek the refoundation of communism in the class struggle we are under no obligation to drag behind us the corpse of the sect. [2]

This series of articles seek to re-assert and contextualise why democracy is so crucial to our project and how it is tied up to the desires and aspirations of billions. They will look at how capital seeks to maintain control through legitimation, discipline and repression and also how we do resist and how we may overcome capitalism.  We will start with a brief discussion on the left and democracy followed by the role of debt in the neo-liberal offensive and how that shapes our everyday lives. Later articles will focus on gender oppression, workplace democracy, the state and the role of the party. This is no attempt to have the final word or put the Marxist view on these topics but an attempt at a contribution to the debate on where we are, where we are going and what we need to do.

Democracy, class struggle and the enlightened few

Democracy is a political act, a movement of those without power asserting their power. It is a manifestation of desires, it is chaos and creative and opens the only true space where those outside the state learn to organise, think, uncover their own interests and direct a struggle for power. Jacques Ranciere wrote that “[d]emocracy, then, far from being the form of life of individuals dedicated to their private happiness, is the process of struggle against this privatization, the process of enlarging the public sphere. Enlarging the public sphere does not mean, as what is known as liberal discourse claims, demanding the growing encroachment of the state on society. It means struggling against the distribution of public and private that secures the double domination of the oligarchy in the state and in society.”[3]

Our struggle then is to encroach on those areas of life our class is denied access to and fight to expand democratic control in every sphere of life. Such an approach rules out any return to elitist notions of social change where we simply prepare on the margins as an enlightened minority with a leadership in waiting or building illusions in a return to social democratic state paternalism. One positive of our political crisis is that we have a vibrant history of our mistakes and if, as Poulantzas suggests, these represent “signposts which, drawing on the lessons of the past, point out the traps to anyone wishing to avoid certain well known destinations.”[4]

One such destination is attempts to limit information and ideas that those below are exposed to. Let’s be clear that in a world where workers have access or potential access to a myriad of commodities, ideas and cultures the left looks out of step when it seeks homogeneity and discards revolutionary dynamism. Our offer to workers entering struggle has to go beyond discipline and democratic centralism it has to be the opportunity to flourish and explore new ideas, challenge sterile conceptions, to be heretical and engage the widest numbers in those debates. We live in a small world where access to ideas and knowledge has never been easier for millions, let us wither and die if we can’t recognise this profound change. Writing in 1843 Marx wrote that for “our part, we must expose the old world to the full light of day and shape the new one in a positive way. The longer the time that events allow to thinking humanity for taking stock of its position, and to suffering mankind for mobilising its forces, the more perfect on entering the world will be the product that the present time bears in its womb.”[5]

In 1842 Marx wrote complaining of Prussian censors that “[t]here is no confidence in the intelligence and goodwill of the general public even in the simplest matter.” And that the abolition of censorship would be a gain “in real freedom, or in freedom of ideas, in consciousness.”[6] How this criticism could now be turned against sections of the decaying left who run scared and play censor at trifling discussions on social media or a breach with bureaucratic discipline by having a different opinion and admitting it in public. Instead of getting on with the main tasks at hand so much energy is spent on the internal policing of left organisations. When we look at the wreckage of revolutionary left in Britain, can anyone really say that the Stalinised view of democratic centralism, the myths of a party of a new type and the idiocy of bureaucratically enforced discipline has got us anywhere near where we need to be?

Later in 1845 Marx and Engels aimed their fire at the Young Hegelians and their understanding of social change where the masses were reduced to mere instruments of great men. As Hal Draper explains, The Holy Family was “the first direct polemic against the pervasive conception that it is the prerogative of some band of superior intellectuals to think for the masses, whose duty in turn is to repay this service by acting as their instruments, flock, or raw material.”[7]   We exist in a movement where such a view of the masses is widely held, whether through dumbing down, hiding the truth or leadership’s waiting to ride a spontaneous wave of discontent and then lead the masses by their stomachs.

The reason we must defend an open approach that does not fear challenges, stifles heretics and recognises that new ideas are a possibility for improvement is because only through the saturation of struggle by the ideas of communism, the debates within revolutionary milieu and that interaction of exposing and testing ideas in struggle can we create a movement that raises the political and cultural level of all to move beyond the limited struggles we see today. Our approach must never be the limiting of truths or politics because they may be too advanced [8] and recognise the most basic point that “workers are not children.”[9]

If we are serious about democracy then what better place to start than our own organisations, so corrupted with bureaucratic centralist illusions and dominated by small castes of unchanging leaders. The revolutionary left can be alienating, conformist and incapable of moving with the times. Put in their proper context these are historical deformations deepened by our isolation. If we are going to rebuild we will need to work hard to face outwards, build in the movements and develop a political practice where ideas and perspectives are scrutinised with all colours of opinion expressed in our press. As Lenin put it in 1903, “we need a vast orchestra; and we must acquire experience in order correctly to distribute the parts, in order to know to whom to assign the sentimental violin, to whom the gruff double-bass, to whom the conductor’s baton.”[10]

So where do we go if we dump the baggage of the sects, dump labourism and break with the corpses of Stalinism? Work within the official parts of the worker movement will remain important but the conscious impotence of the trade unions in the face of austerity underline that we can put no stock or hopes in the union bureaucracy, if ever we could, to take forward even the most minimal defensive struggle. Such a situation demands that we begin to think about the formation of alliances that break out of the public sector redoubts of the left and if the last 30 years has taught us anything then it is time for the left to cut a different path recognising the considerable changes that have taken place within capitalism. Communists have a duty to begin re-building, however small at the start, groups and contacts at workplaces, in communities and in the movements and address their demands and debates in a way that moves the discussion on from trade union and narrow concerns but towards linking them with an understanding of capitalism and the historical necessity of communism.

Often the left talks about testing programmes in struggle though few have the forces to do so, yet it remains an important aspect of communist politics. No collection of communists can stop the stultification of their ideas if they are removed from the working class movement, whether it is through retreats into academia, imaginary ideological struggles among the dying left or through the conscious adoption of other politics to address the working class. Such approaches are antithetical to Marxism and in the very short Theses on Feuerbach [11] Marx is quite clear that involvement in contemporary struggles is essential as the “educator” who must themselves be “educated”. In short, our theory is best developed when it is used as a guide to practice in actuality.

Capital, debt and discipline

Capital as a social relationship is one in which control and discipline is imposed on labour as the capitalists control the means of production where survival is predicated on submitting and working for capital. Thus at the very basic level the struggle between capital and labour is the struggle over work, who commands it and to what ends. For Marx this struggle was a democratic struggle where the fight for democracy was not merely to reform or build new democratic political forms, but a struggle for something deeper, for a democracy with a social content, or what he termed “true democracy”[12].

Capital has attempted to move from buying off, promising an ever increasing standard of living, towards mass unemployment, debtisation, the proletarianisation of professional layers and the breaking of the collective politics of the working class for an individualist and consumer driven society. Unlike the worker’s movement capital is able to act and organise long-term strategies to decisively use a crisis to shift power and resources in capital’s favour[13]. One of the biggest moves throughout the neo-liberal project is from relatively high wages to massively increased personal debt is just one aspect of a multi-faceted assault that has restructured everyday experiences. Silvia Federici explains that high wages and increased access led to ever greater demands and “[t]he lesson capital drew from these struggles is that investment in the reproduction of the working class does not pay, in terms of greater work discipline and higher rates of exploitations; for some degree of financial security gives workers more space-time to organise themselves and build better means of resistance to exploitation.”[14]

So for a time it appeared that at least a relative majority in the core capitalist states were getting wealthier but as that wealth was based on the opening up of credit the whole process helped to disguise severe attacks on living standards. What we have been witnessing since the collapse of 2008 is a partial demystification of debt and the role it plays. Whilst most people recognise the Sisyphean aspect of debt there is at present no real way out of the cycle as real wages decline and the post-crash social crisis goes on. The response to the explosion in micro credit in Britain, for example, has been moral indignation in the liberal papers but it remains an integral part of millions of people survival mechanisms. Not only does it act as a costly safety net for millions but a disciplining mechanism for capital.

The aim of capital has been to undermine a sense of security by workers and debt is a crucial aspect of their strategy. We have moved to a “debtfare state” where, as Susanne Soederberg explains, neo-liberalism has “enhanced the social power of money by legally and morally permitting credit card issuers (banks) to generate enormous amounts of income from uncapped interest rates and by continually extending plastic money to those who fall within Marx’s category of the surplus population” have subjected “workers to the disciplinary requirements of the market.”[15]   This engenders a constant state of fear which in turn produces discipline, as Marx commented all the way back in 1844 [16]  “…the creditor possesses, besides moral guarantees, also the guarantee of legal compulsion and still other more or less real guarantees for his man.” We have saw how this impacts concretely on struggle in Britain through the easier access to credit, the mass selloff of council housings and the mass proliferation of mortgages have all encouraged behaviour that is antithetical to disruptive action such as strikes.

Yet, it isn’t going all capital’s way, the rising demands of a mass consumer culture can’t be sustained on current wage levels even if personal debt acts as a cushion for a few years we arrive at a this moment where governments across the world look illegitimate to masses as capital and its political edifice are incapable or unwilling to fulfil demands for a decent life. From Occupy Wall Street, Tahrir Square and Tuzla we see a common desire, a desire for something else, an undefined something else at present but it drives heterogeneous, confused and separated struggles. Many slogans are thrown up and whilst there is much confusion underlying these struggles is an attempt by the masses to assert their will against the institutions of the state, republican or tyrannical, the workplace, nationalised or private, and in doing so opening the democratic space.


1. Colin Crouch, The Strange Non-Death of Neo-Liberalism (UK: Polity Press, 2011)

2. In 1847 the Report by the Central Authority of the Communist League wrote to explain why they would no longer accept the “true socialists” within their ranks by proclaiming “…we will drag no corpse along behind us.”

3. Jacques Ranciere, “Democracy, Republic, Representation”, Constellations 13 no. 3 (2006): 299.

4. Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism
(London, UK: Verso, 2000), 257

5. Karl Marx, “Letters from the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher: Marx to Ruge” Marxist Internet Archive, (accessed December 21, 2013).

6. Karl Marx, “Comments on the Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction” Marxist Internet Archive, (accessed December 21, 2013).

7. Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977), 226.

8. At the recent (1/3/2014) conference of the International Socialist Network a motion was passed declaring that revolutionaries should not go to the masses with the most “advanced” programme, presumably we should be going with politics we know to be wrong, backwards and ineffective? Such an approach is the product of an elitist conception of revolutionary organisation and politics.

7. Leon Trotsky, “Tell the truth about Stalin’s hounding of revolutionists in the Soviet Union” Marxist Internet Archive, (accessed March 13, 2014).

8. Vladimir Lenin, “Letter to Iskra” Marxist Internet Archive, (accessed February 10, 2014).

9. Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” Marxist Internet Archive, (accessed November 26, 2013).

8. Karl Marx, “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” Marxist Internet Archive, (accessed November 26, 2013).

11. See Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971): “The crisis creates situations which are dangerous in the short run, since the various strata of the population are not all capable of orienting themselves equally swiftly, or of reorganizing with the same rhythm. The traditional ruling class, which has numerous trained cadres, changes men and programmes and, with greater speed than is achieved by the subordinate classes, reabsorbs the control that was slipping from its grasp. Perhaps it may make sacrifices, and expose itself to an uncertain future by demagogic promises; but it retains power, reinforces it for the time being, and uses it to crush its adversary…” 210/211

12. Silvia Federici, From Commoning to Debt: Micro-credit, Student-debt and Disinvestment in Reproduction
(London, UK: From the Impasse, 2013), 3

13. Susanne Soederberg, “The US debtfare state and the credit card industry: Forging spaces of dispossession”, University of Ottawa, (accessed April 28, 2014)

14. Karl Marx, “Comments on James Mill, Éléments D’économie Politique” Marxist Internet Archive, (accessed April 14, 2014).

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