5 January 2010

Democracy or Freedom?

Democracy or Freedom?

A review of “The State and Local Government”, by Peter Latham, Manifesto Press 2010

To pre-order this book, please e-mail Dr Peter Latham, drpalatham@lcolg.fsnet.co.uk

Dominic Tweedie, Johannesburg, South Africa, 5 January 2010

What is democracy for? Is it good? Why? Are freedom and democracy the same thing, or do these two contradict one another?

These are some of the prior questions that need to be answered before studying local or municipal government in detail. The thirteen chapters of Peter Latham’s “The State and Local Government” begin with four on the necessary theoretical underpinnings to precede his examination of Local Government. The last three, and particularly the very last chapter, attempt to synthesise the theoretical background with the valuable, detailed, empirical and historical material that makes up the middle part of the book.

Now, which is boss: Democracy or Freedom? Christopher Caudwell had no doubt. In his essay “Liberty, A study in bourgeois illusion”, 1938, Caudwell wrote that “This good, liberty, contains all good.”  He wrote: “I am a Communist because I believe in freedom.” 

But in a great deal of political literature, including some communist literature, it is not freedom but democracy that is taken as the be-all and end-all of politics.

Lenin was bold enough to sort this matter out in Chapter 4 of  “The State and Revolution”, a book he commenced writing on the eve of the Bolshevik-led Revolution of October, 1917, and which was interrupted by that enormous event. The book, as planned, was never completed.

Lenin was unequivocal:

“…it is constantly forgotten that the abolition of the state means also the abolition of democracy; that the withering away of the state means the withering away of democracy. …Democracy is a state which recognizes the subordination of the minority to the majority, i.e., an organization for the systematic use of force by one class against another, by one section of the population against another. We set ourselves the ultimate aim of abolishing the state, i.e., all organized and systematic violence, all use of violence against people in general.”

Democracy is a system of coercion of the minority by the majority, and therefore it is not freedom. Freedom will arrive with the withering away of the state. Thus spoke Lenin, who proceeded to argue that therefore, the withering away of the state should commence at once, and that nothing should be done to preserve or restore the state. It should be smashed.

At that historical moment (the weeks in 1917 on the eve of the seizure of state power by the combined force of workers and peasants) Lenin was extending himself to the limits of his intellectual powers as a professional revolutionary. The withering away of the state, sometimes regarded as a marginal curiosity, loomed in Lenin’s mind as the most important factor.

“All power to the Soviets” means all power to democracy. Lenin saw that this, his own slogan, was not enough. Lenin saw that the revolution, with democracy as its immediate necessary but not sufficient condition, would have to transcend democracy. He saw that the coercive power of the majority that was about to execute the Russian Revolution, would itself have to be revolutionised.

The next five to six years that passed until Lenin’s death in 1924 became both a struggle for democracy, and also a double struggle against democracy. After Lenin’s death, both democracy and freedom were checked and dominated by a static force, the proletarian state.

Lenin, almost single-handedly, and battling his own self-contradictory impulses, was aiming beyond democracy. All the other major figures, including Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Bukharin and Radek, and not only Stalin, were proceeding towards the solidification of the proletarian state power.

Contrary to myths popularised by their class enemies, democracy and freedom were not altogether eliminated from the Soviet Union. If that had been the case, very little would have been possible under the socialism that they had. But because of the restriction of democracy, and also because of their failure to transcend democracy, the Soviet Union eventually fell.

Disruption by a rigid element

What happened to the Soviet Union was the disruption of a stable chaotic system by the introduction of a rigid element. This terminology will be more fully explained below. Suffice it to say that any return to democracy, as well as the necessary transcendence of democracy, will have to involve an understanding of self-balancing non-state social systems, so that disruptive remedial interventions are never again imposed.

An attempt to understand this is also an attempt to make a better, more fully-developed and adequate revolutionary template even than Lenin’s in “The State and Revolution”. The late Cyril Smith argued that Lenin and particularly Trotsky lacked the philosophical theory to cope with the demands of the revolution. Lenin was the best prepared in this regard, and Trotsky was one of the worst prepared, according to Smith. Stalin, writing his own job-description as the General Secretary of the CPSU, did what came naturally not only to him, but also to those around him.

Wrote Smith (in Chapter 2, “How the Marxists buried Marx”, Marx at the Millennium, 1998):

“…when Stalin erected his massive historical road-block to communism, he exploited to the full every weakness contained in the outlook of Lenin’s party. Unless we investigate these defects as thoroughly as we can, it will prove impossible to find our way through. …Lenin and Trotsky, as well as other leaders of the International, struggled to find a theoretical framework within which to tackle the terrible economic and social issues facing the Soviet state. …‘Marxism’, as they understood it, already formed a barrier, walling them off from Marx himself.”

Lenin and Ron Press: Beyond democracy

Ron Press, engineer, communist, and unsung hero of the South African liberation struggle, passed away on 5 November 2009. While looking for material on the late Cde Ron, I came across an essay of his on the Internet. Like Cyril Smith, Ron Press had identified a gap in the theory of the Russian revolutionists. In “New tools for Marxists”, 1994, Press wrote:

“Unfortunately as with all previous summations of human experience, the sum was codified and turned into a rigid dogma. …One reason was that the sciences which were and are the powerhouse of rational thinking, had not yet developed the tools to deal with the problems of uncertainty, complexity and chaos.”

“I submit that we are still on the same treadmill and it is no longer good enough. We need to grasp the new developments in the study of complexity, chaos theory, and non-linear mathematics. We must not set up more and bigger committees. Central government structures must be subservient to and act at the behest of the organizations of the people and no longer try to know it all and control.

“It is time to stand back and with the latest tools developed by humankind to take a new look at forms of organisation.”

“Dictatorships take it upon themselves to organise society for the good of the dictatorship. They impose stasis. “Socialism” under the guidance of the CPSU imposed stasis for the good of the people. In the beginnings of building socialism in the Soviet Union the Party acted as the exchange system between the nodes (for example the Soviets the trade unions etc.). It however became not an instrument for exchanges but for bureaucratic control. Without free exchange the system relapsed into stasis.”

“The greater the bandwidth and the greater the speed of communication between nodes of society the greater the possibilities of necessary changes being accommodated and stasis being avoided.”

“…stasis means the inevitable sudden crossover into chaos and collapse.”

“…if there is a lesson to be drawn from the study of complexity it is that a complex system, given a very “simple” goal (in our case the well being of humankind) develops its own best methods of operation and organisation. Solutions emerge from the system itself. Imposition of solutions by committees …are incapable of any but makeshift temporary periods of stability followed by periods of violent chaos.”

“In the Soviet Union the …system was destroyed by restricting the bandwidth of communication, and making one node all powerful.”

Smith and Press are both reaching towards systems that stabilise themselves without authority or, in other words, systems that remain stable without the benefit of anything resembling a “state”.

Actually-existing stateless systems

It has always been difficult for revolutionaries to conceive of the “withering away of the state” as anything more tangible than “News from Nowhere”, or as other than a vanishing point which, while defining our perspective, is fixed at infinity and will therefore never be reached.

But in fact, as one would have to expect if one accepts Ron Press’s mathematics, there are many systems which have always operated without a “state”.

The most obvious of these is literally right under your nose: Language.

Language can be modified by any of its countless users without permission. Language is stable, and so stable that it practically defines humanity. Yet it has no authority guiding it. It is stable, but not static or chaotic. It has been with us since the dawn of humanity. It is robust.

Coming up to date, the Internet is another stateless system. Billions of nodes communicate freely. Bandwidth increases. As it does so, the system becomes more, not less stable.

Is this a “market” theory? Are we speaking of the notorious “hidden hand” by another name? No. The problem with the bourgeois market is precisely that it is not free. It never was a free market and could not possibly have been. It got progressively less free, until now it is an open sham riddled with blatant, hypocritical monopoly.

In this respect, the bourgeois world is as “Stalinist” as the old Soviet Union was. Actually, Stalinism is not a phenomenon that can be defined in relation to one “prime evil” person. The urge to make “one node all powerful” is a bourgeois urge. It is the urge towards monopoly.

Language and the Internet are not market systems; nor are they evolutionary systems of selfish genes or of selfish “memes”. They are not democracies. There is no majority rule. They are free-willing systems in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Communist Manifesto, 1848). They are commonplace and normal. They are the “commons”. They are actually-existing communism. They are the primitive communism that never went away. They are the living example of how the “Subject of History” can be, and already is to this extent, materialised.

Another example of a stateless system is the Critical Pedagogy of Paulo Freire; and there are many more. A taxonomy of stateless systems is a possibility, and would be a boon to those who must wrestle with the state.

The dry-stone wall

“Remedial” work on a dry stone wall is a good illustration of the disruption of a stable chaotic system by the introduction of a rigid element.

A dry-stone wall is a compression structure built of free stones stacked in such a way that any settlement will tighten, and not loosen the wall. Such walls, made of materials found in situ, can last for hundreds of years, given a small amount intelligent maintenance. But the wrong sort of maintenance can destroy the wall.

The loose capping stones at the top of the wall are crucial. They lock the structure together at its apex, but because they are free, they are apt to be dislodged from time to time.

Ill-advised people quite frequently cement the capping stones, hoping to save themselves the trouble of replacing the ones that occasionally fall. This prevents the capping stones from settling their weight upon the wall as it slowly subsides. This in turn allows the next layer of stones to become loose and fall, causing a hole to develop which will grow over time until the wall is completely breached.

Rule 6.4

The pivotal rule of the SACP’s constitution is Rule 6.4. It states:

“Members active in fraternal organisations or in any sector of the mass movement have a duty to set an example of loyalty, hard work and zeal in the performance of their duties and shall be bound by the discipline and decisions of such organisations and movement. They shall not create or participate in SACP caucuses within such organisations and movements designed to influence either elections or policies. The advocacy of SACP policy on any question relating to the internal affairs of any such organisations or movements shall be by open public statements or at joint meetings between representatives of the SACP and such organisations or movements.”

This rule means, for example, that in any South African trade union congress, or in the deliberations of the ANC, for another example, different SACP members can often be found lobbying on opposite sides of a question, or lobbying for different, rival candidates for office. Communication between nodes is free; bandwidth is opened to the maximum.

As a direct consequence of this, the SACP’s relationship with the ANC is stable, and yet it develops. Another consequence is that the SACP continues to grow. It is now 96,000 strong.

In the now-defunct Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) there was no such rule. Party advisory committees would lay down a “line” on resolutions, and back particular candidates, and woe betide any Party member who defied the Party whip. There were always some. Expulsions and bitterness followed. The introduction of a rigid element disrupted what could have been a stable chaotic system. The Party remained small, and it was distrusted by others in the mass movements, as a conspiratorial sect. The CPGB collapsed.

The way to “sustainable growth” in politics is clearly the way of the SACP’s Rule 6.4. The tighter control exercised by the CPGB led to stasis and then to chaotic collapse.

Reform or Revolution?

Bourg (French), burg (Afrikaans and German), and borough (English and Scottish) are all words, or parts of words, indicating towns. These are typically the towns that grew up under the rule of rural feudalism in Northern Europe from after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West (around 450 AD), until the beginnings of bourgeois state power (around 1500 AD), and later still, from the end of the 18th century, the dominance of capitalism proper. These towns are the historic cradles of the bourgeoisie, who get their name thereby (i.e. bourgeoisie = town people).

Hence municipal government is the continuation of very old forms of government created by the bourgeoisie, for the bourgeoisie, in the interests of the bourgeoisie, and this is reflected in Peter Latham’s book.

When the bourgeoisie rose up, combined together, and over-ran the feudal power, it created a state power at national level that was somewhat of a reflection of the bourgeois experience at city level, but which also grew to compete with the local democracy, until, now that the bourgeoisie has grown to the monopoly scale at national and even international level, municipalities are more and more obliged to serve national and international monopoly corporations.

The exertion of monopoly bourgeois over local bourgeois power is a theme that can be clearly discerned within Peter Latham’s narrative. The story is not merely a contest between the working class and the bourgeoisie conceived as a monolith, but is also one of changing power relations within the capitalist ruling class.

The proletariat gained electoral control of local authorities here and there throughout the 20th century in Britain but they were repeatedly oppressed by the bourgeoisie (e.g. in Poplar, Clay Cross and Doncaster) through central government power.

How could anyone ever think that the bourgeoisie was going to allow its own creation, its cradle, and its refuge, to be possessed by the working class and used against it? Class power does not change hands this way. To “win the battle of democracy” (Karl Marx’s and Frederick Engels’s phrase from the Communist Manifesto, 1848) is what must be done, but it cannot be done in literal, status-quo, bourgeois terms.

This problematic is to be unpacked in the SACP’s as yet unpublished (in its final form) approach to “building working-class hegemony on the terrain of the National Democratic Revolution”, debated at its Special National Congress in December, 2009.

One must answer Rosa Luxemburg’s question: “Reform or Revolution?” The history of democracy, including local democracy, cannot merely be accepted as a tragic series of “if onlys”, of missed opportunities, of setbacks, of picking up small gains and of defending minor powers won.

Reforms are good (just as democracy is good), but reforms are not enough (just as democracy is not enough). Only revolution can secure the interests of the working class in particular and of humanity in general. “Service delivery protests” are not revolutionary. They are cast within the logic of reformism, clientism and corporatism. The “service delivery protest” speaks back to monopoly capitalism in the language taught to it by monopoly capitalism.

The usefulness of this book to South Africans

I would strongly urge South Africans to read this book. I do not know of any better one. I would go so far as to say that the book is indispensible for South Africans.

The whole book shows that we as South Africans have re-entered the local council democracy stakes at an exhausted stage. This folly resembles what Frantz Fanon (in Pitfalls of National Consciousness, “The Wretched of the Earth”, 1963) said of the African bourgeoisie:

“In its beginnings, the national bourgeoisie of the colonial countries identifies itself with the decadence of the bourgeoisie of the West. We need not think that it is jumping ahead; it is in fact beginning at the end. It is already senile before it has come to know the petulance, the fearlessness or the will to succeed of youth.”

If not for this book of Peter Latham’s, one might not be able to see from our present standpoint that the South African post-CODESA, post 1994-election local authority set-up conforms with the most extreme monopoly-capitalist degeneration of municipal democracy. In local democracy, South Africa is beginning at the end of it.

What one can see in the British case and in other examples throughout this book, is the gradual development of the features of corporatist local government such as: executive mayors; outsourcing of services by tenders; Public-Private Partnerships; Private Finance of Infrastructure; Quango-isation of services to unaccountable NGOs; the neutralisation of representative democracy and the reduction of the number of representatives in relation to the population; the hierarchical professionalisation of councillors; and the co-option of unelected bourgeois elements into positions of authority.

Without this book (or another one like it, of which I do not know any) one would not be able to understand where these ideas came from, or who benefits from them. They are so out of keeping with the democratisation of South Africa after its national liberation from the un-democracy of apartheid, that one could otherwise think that they had dropped from space.

The book therefore provides an answer to the question: Why did South African local democracy jump from the apartheid frying-pan into the corporate-monopoly-capitalist fire?

In my opinion, having read this book, the answer to this question is that monopoly bourgeois power was able to prevail through conscious, concerted effort, using models of organisation taken ready-made from overseas, and especially from the UK, or from the USA via the UK.

At the same time, neither the liberation movement nor the revolutionary party had a cadre of individuals that were ready to counter this corporatist charge. It took them by surprise, sometimes in the guise of class-neutral “modernism”, and in the case of many, perhaps the majority, of ANC local-authority comrades, it seduced them so thoroughly that they became active missionaries for this anti-democratic type of local government.

Like many colonial situations of earlier times, South Africa has become in many ways “more Catholic than the Pope”. Bourgeois things happen here that other bourgeoisies only dream about. South African local authority reforms go further than, but along the same monopoly-bourgeois lines as, those of the British models that they copy.

In South Africa:

The ratio of councillors to voters, at about one to three thousand, is worse than Britain’s. See the table at the bottom of this review for comparative figures given by Peter Latham in his book.

Councillors are paid, rendering them dependent and careerist, and on a competitive hierarchy of pay so that some are “more equal than others”.

Managerial “training” of councillors is designed to eliminate the political ones by “failing” them.

Quangos are being developed from ward level upwards in the form of Ward Committees, School Governing Bodies, and Community-Police Forums. These bodies are not mass democratic organisations. They are sponsored and patronised from above. What made us to think that the ANC and the SACP needed to be “helped” in this way to make local democracy work? The answer is that these are the prototypes of quango authority as seen in Britain.

The other part of that prototype is the world of NGOs, academic centres and faith-based charities that poses under the name of “Civil Society” or otherwise “Social Movements”. These structures are less than democratic and utterly fixed. These are a deliberate barrier over the road to “stable chaos” and the withering away of the state. They are parts of the state.

All the other characteristic, reactionary, post-modern features described by Peter Latham have also been parachuted into South Africa. These include executive mayors, outsourcing, privatisation, PPPs and PFIs.

Instead of this terrible reversion to anonymous authority, dancing to the tune of monopoly capital, it is time to remember the Paris Commune, Soviets, Organs of People’s Power, Bolivarian Circles, the UDF at its height, trade union locals, street committees, and all the examples of revolutionary self-government in history, including those of Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau, and the legacy of Amilcar Cabral and Thomas Sankara.

Lenin on the main features of the Paris Commune

Cyril Smith schematises Chapter 3 of Lenin’s “The State and Revolution”, the chapter that deals with the Paris Commune, thus:

1.      The standing army was to be suppressed and replaced by ‘the armed people’.
2.      The people’s representatives were to be elected by universal suffrage, subject to recall at any time and paid the wages of a workman. Judges were also to be elected.
3.      Instead of an executive, inaccessible to electors, ‘the Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time’.
4.      Local communes would take over many of the functions of the central government.

While Lenin himself quoted from Karl Marx’s book, “The Civil War in France”, as follows:

"The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at any time. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class.... The police, which until then had been the instrument of the Government, was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible, and at all times revocable, agent of the Commune. So were the officials of all other branches of the administration. From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workmen's wages. The privileges and the representation allowances of the high dignitaries of state disappeared along with the high dignitaries themselves.... Having once got rid of the standing army and the police, the instruments of physical force of the old government, the Commune proceeded at once to break the instrument of spiritual suppression, the power of the priests.... The judicial functionaries lost that sham independence... they were thenceforward to be elective, responsible, and revocable."

Dual Power is multiple power

The first soviets were founded in 1905 at Ivanovo and St Petersburg in Russia, as organs of local democracy.

The National Democratic Revolution (NDR) means first and foremost: democratisation. This is not ipso facto national (central) but it must also be local. Nor is it ipso facto confined to the national democracy whether of parliament or the municipal councils. By the way, parliamentary democracy in South Africa needs serious attention, too.

Since 1990, and in COSATU’s case since 1985, the ANC, SACP, and COSATU affiliates have extended active democracy to millions of people in all corners of the country. But there are still major deficiencies. Organisation of women, who as such are more than 50% of the population, hardly exists. The ANC Women’s League is only a junior ANC, for women, yet it is jealous, and will not allow other women’s structures to flourish. The ANC has no rule 6.4.

Organisation of old people hardly exists. The ANC has started a veteran’s league exclusively for those with 40 years’ continuous membership of the ANC. This will not help at all to organise the old people of the country to become free-willing historic subjects as they should be.

Local organisation of workers hardly exists. There is no mass working-class counterpart to the ANC Branch, Zone or Region.

Street (or block, or area) committees, open to all, declared for years past as policy by the ANC and by the SACP, do not exist.

On 7 November 2007 SACP General Secetary Dr Blade Nzimande published, in Umsebenzi Online, an article called “Dual power - The living legacy of the Great October Revolution”. Here is part of that article:

“When Lenin and the Bolsheviks advanced the slogan of all power to the soviets in 1917 they saw in these spontaneously formed local councils of worker power the seeds of an alternative state. The bourgeois state, with its “façade of multi-party, parliamentary democracy” and a “liberal” constitution, was to be replaced by a different state, soviet power. The soviets of 1917, like the soviets that emerged in the 1905 Russian revolution, bore many resemblances to the spontaneous popular structures of the 19th century Paris Commune that Marx and Engels had studied and celebrated as harbingers of a different kind of proletarian state. They were characterised by various forms of direct and participatory democracy. Elected representatives and officials were revocable by popular assemblies and none was paid more than the average wage of a worker.

“Between February and October 1917 in Russia a dual power situation increasingly developed – with the bourgeois “liberal” (in practice, not so liberal) parties controlling the Parliament/Duma and the key organs of state, with an alternative centre of power developing in the soviets/councils of workers and soldiers – in working class neighbourhoods, in factories, and barracks. It was these alternative self-organised centres of power, influenced largely (but not entirely) by the Bolsheviks that were a critical locus of power in the October Revolution. 

“But although the state that emerged from the October revolution came to be described as “soviet”, it increasingly bore less and less resemblance to the spontaneous organs of localised working class power on which it supposedly rested. …The “soviet” state became increasingly bureaucratic, hierarchical, centralising, authoritarian, and staffed by a self-reproducing elite of apparatchiks.

“Marxists were not wrong to recognise in the organs of popular power that emerged spontaneously in the Paris Commune and in the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 a critical revolutionary reality and a key component of any future socialist state. But we tended to see these organs as the totality of socialist state power and as “alternatives” to, and abolishers of, the bourgeois state and “its” associated institutions – a separate standing army, courts, parliament, etc. In practice, in subsequent decades in the Soviet Union, bureaucratic state power displaced participatory and direct democracy.

“What is beginning to emerge in, for instance, the Venezuelan revolution, what has always been at least an important residual reality in the Cuban revolution, and what is latently present in our own South African reality is a new conception of dual power. This is “dual power” not as a transitional reality, but as a permanent feature of an anti-capitalist revolution. Here organs of popular power co-exist with, buttress, check and balance other apparatuses of progressive democratic power (an army and police force, the administrative apparatus, a parliament). Organs of popular power need to act as a constant counterweight against the dangers of bureaucratisation, elitism, corruption and corporate capture that constantly beset the state apparatus, including a socialist state apparatus. These tendencies need to be constantly abolished. But localised organs of popular power, practising more direct and participatory forms of democracy, also have limited capacities to run a modern socialist economy, or, in isolation, defend the country against imperialist destabilisation.

“The point is not that the one locus of progressive power should abolish the other, but that they should act to complement each other - as was seen, for instance, in the combination of armed forces, popular militias and mass mobilisation in the very rapid defeat of the 2005 imperialist-inspired attempted military coup against the democratically-elected Chavez government.

“Here in South Africa, we developed strong “soviet” traditions, organs of popular power, a legacy of self-governance, in the midst of our struggle – particularly in the 1980s. These traditions have not evaporated.”

Way forward

There is no “zero sum game” as between Democracy and Freedom. Democracy must be born and then must die for freedom, but this is not a paradox.  It is an organic development. South Africa must have more democracy, precisely so that it can be able to go beyond democracy.
Appendix 1: South Africa is worse than Britain

Local Government Scale and Representational Ratio
Source: Table 6.3 of Peter Latham’s The State and Local Government

Persons per
Britain & N. Ireland
South Africa

[a] includes City of London and Greater London Authority
Source (Europe and Britain): Wilson and Game, 2006, p. 263; House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee, 2009b, p. 190. South Africa: IEC and EISA web sites (own calculation)

Appendix 2:

Diagram from Ron Press’s “New Tools for Marxists” showing free exchange between nodes:

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