Parliament or Democracy?

'A Light on the Hill'


Meanwhile, the real problem remained. The crucial issue for the 'rich and privileged' was how to concede a semblance of democracy while keeping the mass of people as far removed from the levers of power as was practically possible. In this way the business of making money could be got on with, while the demands for a meaningful democracy were diverted into a cul de sac.

Parliament, as stated above, was the method of choice. It had nominal powers and concerned itself with the mundane. The real issues in society - the accumulation of wealth by a few, the massive exploitation of labour, the draconian rule of the boss in the workplace - hardly graced its doorstep. Therein lay its beauty. But therein also lay its weakness. The gap between the institutions of power - the State and Government - and the huge numbers of people living in poverty was massive in the last half of the 19th century and early 20th. The prestige of parliament was low. As an institution it was viewed with suspicion, and as a plaything for the rich. How, it was asked, could such an institution bring about fundamental reform? Or, for that matter, a major redistribution of wealth?

Throughout the period this was an important limitation - in most countries. In order to channel the broader demands for democracy and political rights in a safer direction, it was necessary in the first place to build up the perception that 'Parliament' was democracy in action.

Similarly, while suffrage was gradually conceded, it was done so in a reluctant and strategic way. Extensions of voting rights were met with expressions of 'grave concern for the future of society'. In turn, the 'stupid classes', women or black people - anyone whose turn it was - were chastised with: Were they capable of understanding political issues? Could they be objective? Would it mean the end of society as it was then known?

These questions were debated intensely during the era of reform (1850-1950) that culminated in the establishment of the main modern parliamentary democracies. But, from the very beginning, as a general process reform proceeded furthest and with greatest speed in the countries of the so-called 'New World'. These states - the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia - extended the popular franchise quickly, in part because of their special circumstances. Being countries that were built up on the theft of land (from their indigenous peoples) they commanded greater loyalty from their (usually) white citizenry than was possible in Europe itself. A loyalty that was, in effect, a further safeguard to the economic interests of the 'rich and privileged'.

The general process of extending suffrage to 'the masses' was perceived to be dangerous, and so it was. For this very reason it could not have proceeded successfully without substantial participation from below. This participation was provided by the emerging 'parliamentary socialist' movement which, from early days, had a view of social change and reform not radically different from that which was tolerable to the 'rich and privileged'.

There were two important and essential components to this. Firstly, as was mentioned above, the 'parliamentary socialists' saw the State and its role as all important. Leaving aside the objections of the anarchists and some marxists, they viewed 'the State' with a degree of respect that bordered on awe. In many respects the parliamentary socialists were more attached to the idea of 'the State' than the very capitalists who had relied upon it, time and time again, as a means of repression. They saw control of 'the State' and its chain of command as all important and a desirable goal in its own right.

Secondly, however, there was the question of the 'multitude' and what role they should have in any future society. Were they to be participants, citizens who were active in bringing about change or were they to be simply people who were called upon to vote every few years - with little other input? Which was it to be: active and participatory or passive and in the background? Here the views of the 'rich and privileged' and the parliamentary socialists also coincided.

At one level there was disdain. Beatrice Webb, a member of the Fabians and a founder member of the British Labour Party, 'was horrified at the immorality and mental dullness of the lower orders. At the turn of the century she noted, "To us, public affairs seem gloomy; the middle classes are materialistic, and the working classes stupid, and in large sections sottish, with no interest except in racing odds." 38

At another level however there was doubt about the political capacity of the working-class. The Fabians in general were influential in the founding of the British Labour Party, but they could not imagine workers originating political ideas of their own. 'The utmost function that can be allotted to a mass meeting [of workers] in a democracy is the ratification or rejection of a policy already prepared for it.' 39 A view that was also held by Eduard Bernstein 40 , a key figure in the GSPD, and also, interestingly, by the Russian revolutionary, Lenin, who had noted that workers were only capable of 'trade union consciousness'.41

Nevertheless, the growth of the 'parliamentary socialist' movement in the latter part of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th was meteoric. Across Europe, in South America and in Australia socialist parties were formed with the expressed aim of taking power.

Nowhere was the growth more impressive than in Germany. The GSPD 'increased its vote from 125,000 in 1871 to 1.4 million in 1890 (20 per cent of the total vote) and to 4.2 million in 1912 (35 per cent of the total vote). Similar dramatic increases in the socialist vote occurred elsewhere ... Social Democrats obtained 37 percent of the vote in Finland in 1907, 40 per cent in Austria in 1919, 30 per cent in Belgium in 1925 and 46 per cent in Denmark by 1935.' 42 In 1910 the first elected socialist government in the world came to power in Australia.

These results were indeed dramatic, an indication no doubt of the desire in this period for real and substantial change, or wealth distribution. It seemed as if great things were in the offing, a view enthusiastically voiced by Frederick Engels in 1895. Engels, co-author with Marx of the 'Communist Manifesto', could only marvel at the growth of the German SPD. He seemed to believe that all things would fall before the emerging giant of 'parliamentary socialism' :

Its growth proceeds as spontaneously , as steadily, as irrepressibly, and at times as tranquilly as a natural process. All Government intervention has proved powerless against it ...If it continues in this fashion, by the end of the century we shall ...grow into the decisive power in the land, before which all powers will have to bow, whether they like it or not.'43

Such a message was also carried faithfully to the working-class electorate by the thousands of party activists who joined the various socialist parties during this era, often to the neglect of the trade union movement they left behind. Keir Hardie, a formative figure in the Labour Party in Britain, was an early hero in this mould. Hardie himself, in the personal sense, was no stranger to oppression. Born illegitimate to a farm servant from Lanarkshire in Scotland, he criss-crossed England, Scotland and Wales building support for the parliamentary road to change. He was, in every respect, an eloquent speaker with, it seemed, a radical vision. He described the type of socialism he was fighting for as follows:

'...the ugliness and squalor which now meets you at every turn in some of the most beautiful valleys in the world would disappear, the rivers would run pure and clear as they did of yore ... and in the winter the log would glow on the fire the while that the youths and the maidens made glad the heart with mirth and song, and there would be beauty and joy everywhere.'44

In his eyes the important thing was to participate in the electoral process. Parliament was a good institution, with real power and the potential to satisfy the democratic wishes of the people. The problem, as he saw it, was that rich people kept getting elected to its hallowed halls. If this could be changed, if people from a working-class background, who knew what it was like to be poor were elected, then things could be changed. As went the ditty, popularised among Australian workers at the beginning of the 20th century to win support for the Australian Labour Party (ALP)45:

'Then keep your heads I say my boys; your comrades in the town.
Will help you get to win the vote and put your tyrant down.
The ballot is the thing, my boys, the ballot is the thing...'

The ballot, in other words, became everything. 'Until the First World War, Social Democratic Parties worked mainly to obtain democratic reforms such as the extension of the suffrage, first to males, then to women, as well as seeking the secret ballot, equal constituencies and "one man, one vote".'46 Particularly in the northern European countries this prioritising affected the whole social struggle. Labour and socialist parties not only set the agenda but also they tended to foist this agenda, with greater and lesser degrees of success, on the wider trade union movement.

Thus the real threat posed by industrial based struggles was at first moderated, then later dispersed. In many countries workers played a militant part in winning an extension of the franchise. In Belgium, Austria and Finland among others, general strikes ushered in more extensive voting rights. But, at the end of the day, the workers' role was secondary. Once representation in Parliament was achieved the job of building socialism fell into the 'capable' hands of the parliamentary socialists. A convenient outcome as it turned out.

For the 'parliamentary socialists' the great prize had always been to win control of the State. Through enlightened leadership, they argued, the State could be used for the benefit of society at large. What happened in reality?

From the earliest days divisions occurred. The demands of electoralism were all important and, as early as 1890, Bernstein in Germany signalled the importance of this issue. Declaring that democracy was 'the high-school of compromise' he argued successfully in the German SDP for a policy of moderation and alliance with forces that did not share in the desire for fundamental wealth distribution. The eventual aim was still socialism, he argued, but for the present the immediate goals must take precedence:

"For me the achievement of the most immediate demands is the main thing, not only because they are of great propagandist value and serve to enlist the masses, but also because, in my opinion, this gradual process, this gradual socialisation, is the method strongly indicated for a progressive transition." 47

A viewpoint that culminated in Bernstein's now classic re-formulation of his priorities and those of the GSPD, when he stated: 'the movement means everything... what was usually called the final aim of socialism ... nothing'.48

On the other side of the world matters were not much different though they were a mite more successful. The ALP had been formed after a series of industrial defeats by Australian workers in the last decade of the 19th century. From this bitter legacy 'there emerged a determination to right the wrongs through committed parliamentary action.'49 The ALP achieved success early on, particularly at the regional state level. This 'early progress of Australian Labor in politics attracted the interests of the rest of the world...' 50 But, at home, doubts were already setting in. During its first periods in power, at a regional level, there was disappointment all around:

'Labor people commonly criticised their MPs for not being icy enough. They saw Parliament as a comfortable club which seduced Labor members with facilities way beyond the reach of the a typical toiler - higher wages, comfortable leather chairs, billiard tables, dining rooms, well-stocked library, free rail travel and invitations to lavish functions. Close contact with Labor's adversaries could be disarming too. After lashing union bashers on the hustings it was different matter altogether to confront them in relaxing surroundings and find they are not bad blokes to share a drink with or a game of cards with. Many Labor men "were obliged to adjust and often did so without being aware of the process".' 51

And indeed, in power, Labor were moderate. The ALP formed its first federal Australian government in 1910. The success 'was saluted as the culmination of twenty years of arduous work'.51 True to form the ALP 'enacted far more legislation than any previous national administration'. But the overall programme of legislation did not tackle wealth or its distribution. Far from it. A policy of State arbitration of wages and conditions already begun under the previous non-Labor Government was extended. As was a tax imposed on large ranchers who didn't improve land under their control. Finally, 'a popular measure ... the baby bonus, an allowance of five pounds payable at the birth of each white Australian child.' 52 (As perhaps might be expected from a party whose members regularly 'said grace before meals and toasted the monarchy'. 53 )

Worse was to come. The Labour Party in Britain came to power, unexpectedly, when it won 191 seats in the House of Commons in the general election of December 1923. Unlike its Australian counterpart it had, previous to this, adopted some definite policies on wealth redistribution. As Keith Laybourn notes in his book, The Rise of Labour, 'the party of hope and aspiration had come to office.' 54 It was to be a bitter lesson for the workers of Britain.

Philip Snowden, the first Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced a budget he claimed was a 'vindication against no class and no interest'. 55 In fact, at the time, it was said to have had 'devastating consequences for working-class living standards'.56 In any case, Snowden's first budget 'received the general approval of all sides of the House of Commons. It was praised by the Tories and Liberals just as much as the Labour politicians.' 57 though a number of years later ('looking back on his life') Snowden was able to justify his performance as follows:

'I have been active in political life for forty years, and my only object has been to improve the lot of the toiling millions. That is still my aim and my object, and, if I ask for some temporary suspension, some temporary sacrifices, it is because that is necessary to make future progress possible.'58

A disastrous result and a cause for dismay in Labour ranks? Far from it. On falling from power at the end of 1924, the first Labour Party prime-minister in British history, Ramsay McDonald, felt moved enough to write to the King about the Labour Party's performance, impressing on him as follows:

They [The Labour Party] have shown the country that they have the capacity to govern in an equal degree with the other Parties in the House ... and, considering their lack of experience, ... have acquitted themselves with credit in the House of Commons. [...] The Labour Government has also shown the country that patriotism is not the monopoly of any single class or party. .... They have in fact demonstrated that they, no less than any other party, recognise their duties and responsibilities, and have done much to dispel the fantastic and extravagant belief which at one time found expression that they were nothing but a band of irresponsible revolutionaries intent on wreckage and destruction.59

Almost immediately, once some degree of success came their way, the trend amongst the Labour and socialist parties of the world was away from the working-class. In Australia, 'Party militants... were disillusioned by Labor's orientation in office towards the whole community rather than the working-class exclusively ...' 60 . This reflected electoral concerns, principally the desire to appear moderate and accommodating to the wider electorate - even to those sections whose interests conflicted directly with the interests of workers.

This resulted in even more moderate policies as time progressed. A point that was noted by commentators: 'Although, during the inter-war period, social democrats had won office in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Norway and Sweden, "with the exception of the French armaments industry in 1936, not a single company was nationalised." '61 Instead of opting for policies of public ownership - previously advocated - the socialist and Labour parties 'attempted to mitigate the worst aspects of capitalism. They worked for social reforms in housing, education, wage rates, unemployment protection and pensions,' 62 expounding, in the end, 'a welfarism that was often little different from liberalism.' 63 A project that was eloquently captured by Ben Chiftly, Labor Prime Minister in Australia from 1945-49, when he said:

'We have a great objective - the light on the hill - which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand.' 64

On occasions when workers resisted, expecting - well they might - that Labor would be more sympathetic to their cause, the results were a brutal eye-opener. A case in point being the 1946 railway strike in Australia.

The ALP were in power just one year when this nation-wide dispute broke out. The Labor minister in charge, Hanlon, himself a former strike leader in the infamous Brisbane general strike of 1912, 'exceeded his own draconian response to the 1946 metalworkers strike ... he proclaimed a state of emergency under the Transport Act, authorised the arrest of strike leaders and the rank and file picketers, and portrayed the dispute ... as a civil war.' The strike continued, however. So, 'Hanlon rushed through parliament the Industrial Law Amendment Act which gave the police even wider powers than the state of emergency. They could now take action against anyone they considered might be prolonging the strike; they could arrest without warrant, prohibit picketing, enter union offices or meetings at any time, and use force when they considered it necessary. On St. Patrick's Day a small orderly demonstration ... was brutally attacked without warning by a large police contingent...' 65

Summing up his impressions after being arrested, one Australian Railways Union member said of the Labor Party, 'If ever there was a weak collection of salary chasing opportunist humbugs devoid of any semblance of working-class principles, it was members of the Labor Party.' 66 He concluded that no anti-Labor government 'could have been more vicious'.


The emergence of the parliamentary socialist movement, in the early part of the 20th century, played a key role in breaking large sections of the working-class away from their own independent efforts at bringing about change. As a result, a form of democracy that was both tokenistic and insubstantial became the order of the day. This was a major achievement for the 'rich and privileged'.

The particular result, however, was not so much that social peace prevailed but, rather, that other forms of democracy, more substantive in content and less acceptable to the interests of the 'rich and privileged', were smothered or, at the very least, curtailed. These forms - ideas of direct action and direct democracy, democracy in the workplace etc. - posed a real challenge to the social order in that they brought the disenfranchised into the struggle for an improved society as participants rather than as observers - a difference that mattered enormously in the long run.

There would be one significant exception to this overall trend. This was in Spain. Here the anarchist movement was strong enough from the earliest days to set a political course independent of 'parliamentary socialism'. At the core of the anarchist strategy was direct democracy and direct action. Eschewing the parliamentary road and all its trappings, anarchists advocated that instead the workers should reclaim democracy at their place of power - at work and on the street. This strategy was to be basis for the most important example of democratic practice in the 20th century - the workers' collectives built during the Spanish Revolution in 1936-37 (see Chap 9).


On to

Chapter 5. 'Manufacturing Consent'


From the pamphlet Parliament or Democracy?

Parliament or Democracy

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