Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain (1991) Socialist Education Series - The SPGB's Position on Democracy


There has always been discussion about the usefulness to a socialist party of the kind of parliamentary system that exists in this and many other countries: the limitations of the system; and the conditions governing its creation and continuance. It is accepted that in Britain that system was set up by the capitalist class in their own interest; including their need to drag the working class into the political arena" (COMMUNIST MANIFESTO).

The point Marx and Engels were making in the MANIFESTO was that, because the capitalist class had to get the help of the workers in order to win power for themselves against the landed aristocracy, the capitalists were compelled to drag the workers into the political arena. "Initiative" was used in its ordinary meaning of "first step"; act of setting a process in motion.


After explaining why the capitalists need a new "social and political constitution", Marx and Engels showed that the capitalists could not hope to win unless they got the help of the working class.

The bourgeoisie finds itself involved in a constant battle. At first with the aristocracy; later on, with those portions of the bourgeoisie itself whose interests have become antagonistic to the progress of industry; at all times with the bourgeoisie of foreign countries. In all these battles it sees itself compelled to appeal to the proletariat, to ask for its help, and thus to drag it into the political arena. The bourgeoisie itself, therefore, supplies the proletariat with its own elements of political and general education; in other words, it furnishes the proletariat with weapons for fighting the bourgeoisie.

In saying that the capitalists had to drag the workers into the political arena Marx and Engels were not saying that this was the end of the process, but only the beginning as far as the workers were concerned.

"We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle for democracy".


"The COMMUNIST MANIFESTO had already proclaimed the struggle for the general franchise, for democracy, as one of the first and foremost tasks of the militant proletariat"

The chief initiative came from the capitalist class. Already in the 1780's the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition were both preparing bills for the introduction of universal adult male suffrage. It was the French Revolution in 1789 and consequent widespread fear among the capitalists of similar revolutionary movements in this country that postponed electoral reform for decades.

Experience in several countries has shown that the "parliamentary system" is liable to be curtailed or even withdrawn when there is extensive disorder, including that created by minority attempts at armed revolt.

While the majority of workers are not socialist there is no way in which we can prevent them from supporting anti-democratic parties as happened in the nineteen-thirties.


In France the workers were brought into the political arena in the revolution of 1789. In the U.K. the process had been set in motion before 1789.

It was the regular practice of Whigs and Tories to stir up demonstrations and riots to obstruct government policies or to upseat a government.

One of the new moneyed men of capitalism who did this was John Wilkes, in his campaign to decrease the control of George III over Parliament.

J.H. Plumb (ENGLAND IN THE 18TH CENTURY) gives two examples:-

"At the time of Walpole, the Corporation of the City of London had purposefully, and deliberately, inflamed the lower classes against the authority of the government; at the time of Wilkes there had been no hesitation in using the economic grievances of the journeymen for political ends".

This process of dragging the workers into the political arena was just not popularising the idea of votes for workers, though Fox, Wilkes and the "Radicals" all did this in the 18th century.

The initiative had come from the capitalists and it was only later that workers began to take up the struggle for themselves.

Plumb shows how the latter development began when the French Revolution scared off many of the capitalist politicians.

"From 1789 there is a deepening division in the ranks of English radicalism, a left-wing composed largely of working men with middle-class leaders; a right-wing of young Whigs devoted to the cause of Parliamentary Reform and the person of Fox".

Also: under the influence of the writings of Thomas Paine:-

"Popular societies of which the most famous was the London Corresponding Society were founded to propagate this policy and served as a school in which rapidly-awakening working class was educated in their revolutionary views". (Raymond Postgate, POCKET HISTORY OF THE BRITISH WORKING CLASS).

All these societies demanded universal male suffrage.

When Marx and Engels wrote the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO they had already seen how the capitalists had to rely very heavily on working class support to secure the Reform Act 1832 which gave the capitalists a dominating position in Parliament; and, though less heavily, in the campaign, by the Liberals Cobden and Bright, to secure the abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846.

They had also seen the unsuccessful struggle of the chartists to obtain the franchise, a predominantly working class movement though it included among its prominent leaders Thomas Attwood, the banker, whose interest was to get working class support for the abolition or reform of the gold standard.

The earliest success of the workers was on the industrial field. In spite of savage repression they had formed illegal unions to such an effect that in 1824 the government had no choice but to give them legal recognition.

Later on, as trade unions established themselves more widely and gave the workers experience and self-confidence, the unions formed their own associations campaigning for the vote. In the campaign leading up to the franchisement of town workers in 1867 the T.U franchise associations were in competition with the National Reform Union, set up by Liberal capitalists and led by Bright with the object of winning over the workers to support the Liberal party and Gladstone by promising them the vote. The result was an overwhelming Liberal victory at the 1868 general election.

There ought to be no doubt about the usefulness of these opportunities, as can be seen by comparing them with the situation that exists when they are severely curtailed, as happened in war-time.

In war-time, publication of the SOCIALIST STANDARD became subject to censorship, its despatch overseas was prohibited and it could not be sold to soldiers or in military areas (During World War One this was also held to apply to Conscientious Objector Labour Camps, and the Executive Committee instructed members to observe these restrictions). In World War One the Party had to suspend all outdoor meetings.

These and other restrictions made it much more difficult to carry on propaganda and the Party suffered accordingly.

These war-time restrictions were of course in addition to the limitations that always exist, i.e. financial, libel laws, and the Official Secret Acts and the general refusal of the Press, Radio and Television to give publicity to the Party case.

The Party has always recognised that while capitalists and their agents control the machinery of government including the armed forces they are able within very wide limits to impose their will on society and apply whatever restrictions they wish to apply.

It is sometimes argued that the authorities are themselves restricted in their freedom of action by the existence of laws passed by Parliament.

There is little in this because, whenever they so desire, the authorities, with the consent of Parliament, can easily amend or suspend Acts of Parliament and in certain circumstances the Courts can and do ignore the law.

Under Defence of the Realm Acts in World War One (and similar legislation in World War Two) the following drastic curtailments were made, quite legally.

(a) General Elections were suspended, and none took place between 1910 and 1918 and between 1935 and 1945.

(b) All the restrictions referred to in paragraph three were applied legally.

(c) All or most strikers were liable to prosecution

(d) Numerous new offences were created, including such vague offences as "spreading alarm and despondency".

(e) Particular examples of actions by various organisations held to be offences were: -circulating the Sermon on the Mount as a leaflet, and urging workers to engage in strikes.

Under the 1918 Representation of the People Act thousands of conscientious objectors, including Party members, were disenfranchised for five years.

It is just as easy for the authorities to declare a state of emergency in peace-time as in war-time, with power to impose similar restrictions, as during the General Strikes.

The reason the Party suspended all outdoor meetings in World War One was not only the near impossibility of escaping prosecution under the legal offence of "spreading alarm and despondency" but also the actions of the Courts in backing up illegal prosecutions. When mobs broke up legal meetings (often incited by newspapers) the police would ignore the action of the mob and charge the speakers with "breach of the peace" and the Courts upheld the police.

It should be noted that the trade unions, because of their backing, were in a somewhat different position.

While the socialist movement has little backing among the workers there is little to do but accept or seek to evade restrictions imposed by the authorities. As the numbers increase the situation will be correspondingly altered, either because (like the trade unions) we shall be better able to resist, and at some stage socialists will be elected to Parliament.

Our propaganda should always stress that Socialism and democracy are inseparable; that there is no way to Socialism except through the democratic action of a Socialist majority; and that it must proceed through democratically gaining control of the machinery of government, including the armed forces.

In countries where the "parliamentary system" does not yet exist, or where it is curtailed or suspended, socialists can only use whatever restricted opportunities there are to propagate Socialism and its inseparable link with democratic methods. They should do this independently and in no circumstances confuse the issue by associating with non-socialists.

This paper was originally published as a "STATEMENT ON DEMOCRACY" by Camden Branch on 15th December 1977 for the 1978 annual conference with a supplementary reply to its critics in July, 1978. A few changes in presentation have been made for publication in SOCIALIST STUDIES and on our web site).

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