Democracy: Interpretations and Realities
Interview with «International»
Question: Everywhere now, at the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc, there is talk of the victory of democracy. It is said that for the first time in history, democracy has come to prevail in over 170 countries. The downfall one after the other of military dictatorships in Latin American countries in the last few years, the emergence of new governments as a result of general elections in some Eastern European countries, or more recently, in Africa, are considered as confirmations of this view. How do you interpret these facts? Is what is taking place really the end of military dictatorships and despotic, totalitarian governments?
Mansoor Hekmat: As it happens, the discussion about the triumph of democracy seems to have abated somewhat. I gave my assessment some two or three years ago when the discussion was at its peak. Even then ‹the era of the downfall of dictatorships› was an illusory formulation on the lips of liberal politicians and dissatisfied intellectuals in the Eastern Bloc and backward countries. It was an indication of the high hopes of these people for a reward on the occasion of the victory of the West over the East. It very quickly turned out that it would not be the case. You may remember the Iranian Republicans for example, who got all dressed up to go to Tehran and celebrate the dawn of this era in the retinue of ‹President Rafsanjani›. They are now counting their casualties.
At any rate, with that formula, this particular social type and, in their wake, a segment of the deprived populations in the West, East, and the so-called South lined up behind the new right-wing alternatives and the prospect of the West and USA’s New World Order. These illusions have now been drastically cut down to size. It turned out that the end of the Cold War was not synonymous with the expansion of freedoms and rights or with social peace and harmony. On the contrary, the world is now speaking of the terrible events of the last three years, and of political and social insecurity on a global scale.
It is of course true that certain military governments, mainly in Latin America, have been replaced by civilian ones. This in itself, however, does not say much about the strengthening or weakening of despotism and totalitarianism. Military regimes have not been the only, or even the most common, form of political despotism. In many cases the substitution of military governments with civilian ones has not brought about a noticeable change in the conduct of the government, or even in its texture. As far as totalitarianism, i.e. government control over all political and cultural interaction, is concerned, this aspect has in fact been strengthened in some regimes with the emergence of Islamic governments and the increase of the official power of the church in various countries.
The substitution of former military governments with civilian ones in some poorer countries – carried out mainly according to the plans and schedules approved by the military regimes themselves – has come about as a result of economic factors as well as the dwindling social utility of military regimes in these countries rather than an onset of an advocacy of freedom. The age-old, fundamental problem of these countries is economic development. The use that the bourgeoisie of these countries had for military regimes was to eradicate political discord within the ruling class itself, and that of establishing oppression and violently suppressing the working class, as well as thus securing the political and social grounds for the increase in the profitability of capital and the rate of economic growth. The strategies of economic development, however, have now, on the whole, reached a deadlock in these countries. Attention has turned to the market mechanism and, therefore, to the freedom of action of private capital. A military government would cause general dissatisfaction and political instability, without, for the time being, solving any of the problems of the bourgeoisie of these countries.
At any rate, democracy, in the sense that is said to have triumphed today, is not the antithesis of injustice and despotism. All it means is that there now exists a national assembly of representatives of sort on the basis of general – and not necessarily free- elections. This is certainly preferable to the open rule of the army and the police, for even the lip service paid by the bourgeoisie to a politically and intellectually free society provide possibilities for the working class, the deprived strata, and freedom seekers. But this does not go so far as to call for jubilation. The essential features of bourgeois governments in Asian, African, and South American countries, i.e. the prohibition or serious limitation of activity of socialist and working-class organisations, the limitation of the freedom of speech, political activity, organisation and protest, the existence of a formidable and suppressive military and police apparatus operating above the law, a judiciary servile to the government, the lack of ensured social and political rights for the individual, the prevalence of torture, the existence of capital punishment, and, to sum up, the helplessness and disenfranchisement of the citizen in regard to the power of the state, have remained intact. One can name and consider each and every country from Oceania and South East Asia to North Africa and South America.
I am certainly prepared to accept that democracy has triumphed and now reigns in one-hundred-and-seventy countries, that is to say, in all the countries in which there are those who receive their salaries out of the public funds as members of parliament. This list would also, of course, include Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, in which almost half of the population have no right to vote because of the crime of singing lullabies in Russian to their babies, as well as Egypt, Jordan, Iran, South Korea, recently Kuwait, Kenya, and so on. One cannot become more Catholic than the Pope. If from the point of view of the democrats the situation that prevails in the world is called democracy, fair enough; but it just shows that for the people, the issue has not been over this democracy but, rather, over freedom and equality. The figures for political suppressions, executions, tortures, limitations and prohibitions imposed on various sectors of the population, not to mention poverty, homelessness, mass displacement, and death caused by hunger or malnutrition merely within these last few years of the triumph of democracy, do not pass a favourable judgement on the world under the reign of democracy.
Question: There are several interpretations and impressions of democracy. What is yours?
Mansoor Hekmat: I hope you do not expect me to come up with a definition of ‹real› or ‹genuine› democracy! In my system of thought as a socialist and Marxist, democracy does not constitute a key concept. We speak of freedom, rather. And that is a pivotal concept for us. But democracy, as I have said before, is a particular class interpretation, a specific, historically determined understanding of the broader concept of freedom. Democracy is a category through which a certain section of human society has, at a certain point in history, envisaged the broader concept of freedom. My interpretation of democracy can therefore only be an objective and historical one. A liberal or a democrat, for whom democracy constitutes an ideal, might give an ‹internal› or subjective interpretation and say what she or he believes real democracy is or is not. But a Marxist, in my opinion, should elaborate the historical and practical significance of democracy and its social function.
Democracy, not as a term in this or that old treatise, but as a reality confronting people in contemporary society, is a product of the rise of capitalism. Democracy is the bourgeois view of freedom. I do not mean at all that there is only one version of democracy, or that historically it is only the bourgeoisie that has pursued or formulated democracy. As it happens, particularly for the last two generations, democracy has been sought after by the subjugated classes and layers, and been variously defined and interpreted by the intellectuals and movements of these classes and layers. This does not reflect the non-bourgeois character of this concept. Quite the contrary; it bears out the domination of bourgeois ideology and terminology over the struggle for freedom and liberation as a whole. Bourgeois society has succeeded in substituting the concept of freedom and the struggle for it by that of democracy. By so doing it has managed to pre-determine the extent of the onset of subjugated classes in their search for freedom, as well as the eventual shape of their victory. You fight for freedom and, upon ‹victory›, are given parliament and ‹pluralism›.
The existence of various versions of democracy, including various class versions, has turned it into one of the most ambiguous and indeterminate concepts in political terminology. Various movements and politicians have referred to it, and continue to do so, with different, and, at times, contradictory purposes and interests. They certainly do not refer to the same thing. Various political circumstances have been branded as democratic by various trends. There have been offered anti-communist and Cold War interpretations down to humanistic and egalitarian ones. Behind all these interpretations one can recognise and define the common objective essence of democracy and democratism, in all their forms, as distinct from, for example, socialism and the socialist pursuit of freedom. In the political arena, however, democracy as such, democracy sans phrase, does not tell us much and provides no tool to distinguish between various social trends and movements. That is why the term acquires a clearer meaning only after adjectives have been added to it; so you have liberal democracy, populist democracy, parliamentary or representative democracy, direct democracy, Western democracy and so on. These terms are politically understandable and definable, and their differences, and often their contradictions, can be explained. The movements and forces behind each one can also be defined and in many cases distinguished from one another.
Question: We shall come back to these distinctions, and it is not a bad idea, in particular, to talk about Western, parliamentary, and liberal democracy. But let us first turn to the common and objective essence which you said lies behind all these interpretations of democracy. How would you define this?
Mansoor Hekmat: I can point to a few characteristic factors. A more detailed discussion would not, of course, be possible here.
Democracy in the sense of the people’s government was an interpretation that gained ground in the 18th and 19th centuries against autocratic monarchy and despotisms based on monarchy and the church. Against the existing governments which ideologically gained their legitimacy and power from sources beyond the people and society, the burgeoning bourgeoisie, masses of people, and social reformers demanded governments of the people. The demand in itself, as the struggles of the two following centuries up to the present have clearly proved, is quite ambiguous. It is unclear, first, what form the practical participation of the people in political power and in the government should take, and, secondly, who are included in the category ‹the people›. Up until our generation many sections of the society, and in some cases even the majority of human beings, such as women, blacks, immigrants, etc., have not been included in ‹the people› in this or that democracy. It has not been long since wage earners have been defined as the people as far as the democratic process is concerned. Both these spheres, i.e. the structure of the government and the practical relation of the people to governmental power, and the extent of the inclusion of various layers of the population in democracy, have been serious areas of political struggle, and the outcome of these struggles have to a large extent changed the practical outlook of democracy in European and American societies themselves.
There is, however, an objective reality in the concept of democracy, and that is the rejection of a rule in which the source of power lies beyond the society or is inexplicable. Not only are the force of the sword, aristocratic blood, vaticination or sainthood, etc., declared illegitimate as sources of power, but irretrievable power in general, even if elective in its origin, is considered non-democratic. In other words, democratic thought and democratic regimes, in whatever form, declare state power as emanating from the people, answerable to the people, and, in one form or another, changeable by the people. How real or empty this claim may be according to this or that school or in this or that country, is a different matter. In any interpretation of democracy some form of reference to popular vote in determining the government is demanded.
Second, and more important, is the fact that democracy and democratism are in themselves blind to the social structure and economic relations. In other words, the existing economic situation, the role of the state, the position of the people in production and property relations, the division of the people into various classes and strata, the existing political and administrative institutions, are all taken for granted in democracy and democratism. The effort to abolish ownership as a condition for participating in elections, for example, is a democratic move, while ownership in and by itself, and the relation of various sections of the population to ownership, is not questioned. It is possible, from a democratic point of view, to demand the participation of women in the U.S. army in the Gulf war and leave the role and the place of this army and that operation untouched or to lodge a protest against the CIA for not having enough Native American representatives in its leadership ranks. Dividing the people into Shiite, Sunni, and Christian, and then asking, for example, for a government in the Lebanon in which all these ‹strata› have a share, revolting as it is, is a democratic position. Or, the quest for industrial democracy takes for granted, and eternalises in its system, the division of the people into workers and bosses in return for the power it demands for the trade unions.
Obviously, therefore, blindness to economic relations and stratification of the people in society does not mean that democracy limits itself to the political sphere, or that the demand for democracy is a merely political matter. On the contrary; it means that the entire economic basis of the existing society, i.e. bourgeois property and capitalist production, in its entire social and class dimensions, is taken over by this thought and these movements and turned into the social basis of democracy. Democracy is a political regime, or demanding a political regime, on the premise of the socio-economic existence of capitalism. Both in theory and in its historic reality democracy is tantamount to demanding a ‹democratic capitalism›.
To sum up, the common and objective content of democracy and the aspiration toward democracy is that at every juncture, presupposing the existence of capitalist social relations and the intellectual domination of the bourgeois class, and based on this, it demands the extension of the formal or legal base of the political power to a larger part of the existing stratifications and divisions in present society. From a practical point of view, democracy is a formula by means of which the layer wishing to protest its legal or de facto exclusion from the decision making process describes its movement. This, and no more, as I see it, is the common and general characteristic of democracy.
Democracy is not in itself a political regime or situation or a unique and definable constitutional law. It is, rather, a constant movement by the excluded layers to obtain rights similar to the rest in relation to political power. The nature of democracy and democratism, therefore, depends on the social layers in question, the kind of society, and political conjunction from which it originates. The private bourgeoisie, in conflict with the state administrative and industrial bureaucracy in the Eastern bloc, demands, through its mouthpieces in both the East and West, the chance for participating in political power. It calls its movement democratism, both in the West and in the East itself. Black South Africans too demand equal rights in elections, and they also want democracy. The social horizons and ideals of these two movements are, indeed, far apart.
Question: You say that democracy is a formula for the layer that wants to open up the closed doors of power to it. In other words, it is the extension of the legal basis of power and the participation of increasingly broader sections in power. This is precisely what legitimises democracy and makes it attractive in public opinion: individual freedom and the possibility for the individual to intervene in social affairs. What is wrong with that?
Mansoor Hekmat: What I said, that is, the widening of the legal and formal base of power is by no means the same as the ‹participation of increasingly broader sections in power› or ‹personal freedom and the possibility for the individual to intervene in social affairs›. That which has given democracy not only legitimacy, but turned it into a sacred word in the political terminology of the people and the present day society is precisely that it is imagined that the legal and formal extension of the permission to participate in power is identical with personal freedom and the possibility for the individual to really intervene in public affairs. These are not one and the same thing. In regards to ‹what’s wrong› with democracy according to your definition at the end of your question, which in fact is a portrayal of liberal democracy, I will speak later.
The main point in my argument was that democracy without qualifying attributes is not much more than a political formulation and demand within the limits of capitalism for the participation of various social layers in the legal process of the formation of state and political power. Democracy in this sense still does not indicate a specific political system or statute for society. It is not the equivalent of demanding, or granting, more freedom to the individual or to ‹the people›. All countries in the world, with a few exceptions, irrespective of the extent of civil freedoms in them, call themselves democratic, by virtue of being able to point at a formal process in which ‹the people› participate in determining the government. According to liberal democracy, many of these countries, including the pro-Western governments in Latin America and South East Asia, are not, and have never been, democratic. According to populist democracy, liberal democracy itself is not democratic. But these only reflect the liberal, Cold War, populist, anarchist, social democratic, technocratic, etc., interpretations of democracy, and not the ‹unreal-ness› of democracy in this or that country.
Finally, my emphasis was that we, as socialists, before entering into a discussion over this or that prefix or suffix, are seriously distanced from the common essence of all these interpretations, that is, we are seriously distanced from accepting the existing economic basis, and from reducing the question of political liberation to that of the participation of the individual or ‹layers› in the legal process of the formation of the state. Democracy, in all its various forms and descriptions, has so far been the mechanism to legitimise the class rule of the bourgeoisie, which is by nature above the people.
Let us remember, first, that the victory of democracy over autocratic governments in Europe did by no means give the power, even in its formal sense, to the ‹individual›. For many decades, the citizen with the right to vote in European democracies was the white, ‹free›, male owner of land or capital. The voting right of workers, women, etc., is not an organic component of the definition of democracy, and has not been born along with it. It is, rather, the outcome of the struggle for justice of various classes and layers in the existing democratic societies – struggles waged under the intellectual and political banner of other movements, such as the socialist movement, the women’s rights movement, the anti-racial or anti-ethnic discrimination movement, etc., and, more often than not, waged by undemocratic or illegal methods.
Secondly, the term democracy in its strict sense, just like independence or self-determination, is not necessarily synonymous with the expansion of equality and social justice or with more personal freedom even. Democracy, independence and so on are political and administrative frameworks capable of holding different fillings. It is not clear beforehand if the independence of Bangladesh or Lithuania or Tajikistan or Basque will necessarily mean the development of rights, social welfare, or equality in those countries. It is not clear beforehand whether, should the Croats, Serbs or Bosnians ‹themselves› rule in these territories, the average man or woman would have a better or worse life within the geographical area formerly called Yugoslavia. As a matter of fact, in many instances in contemporary history, including our own era, people have lost even their previous meagre rights in the name of independence, self-determination, and ‹our own government›.
This also applies to democracy in its strict sense, i.e. democracy without prefixes and suffixes. In a majority of Islam-stricken countries today, any majority-elected parliament and any popular referendum would most probably ratify a legal second class – if not worse – position for women. Public opinion and representative parliaments of England and the USA, and, in fact, all of democratic Europe, voted for waging war and slaughtering people in the Gulf. Over ninety percent of the Iranian population voted, in a public referendum, to install the Islamic Republic in Iran, and the same thing would have happened in Algeria if it had not been stopped there and then. The free parliaments of Europe, or any popular referendum in these countries would today simply vote for the violation of the basic right of world citizens to travel and settle down where they wish. Such decisions are violations of humanism, love for freedom, egalitarianism and human dignity, but not a violation of democracy and the democratic process. Democracy is a legal framework for the decision making process; it is not a model or a measure for the content of the decisions made.
Democracy in and by itself means the government of the people, and, as I said, the idea took shape against the religious, aristocratic, monarchic, and machete-wielding governments. It is not the concern of democracy itself what interpretation of individual freedom, social justice, equality of human beings and human rights prevails in a society in which democracy reigns. These are, rather, subjects for the contention of the intellectual and political traditions of various social classes in society. A large portion of the demands, which are today identified with democracy, such as the rule of law, observation of human rights, individual and collective civil liberties, etc. have per se nothing to do with democracy. They are the outcome of social trends and certain intellectual and political traditions, such as liberalism or socialism.
Question: Do you mean to say that democracy itself has no independent concepts regarding individual and civil rights and liberties or the government of the people?
Mansoor Hekmat: The point is that we have no description of democracy independent of the movement and school, which speak of it. The golden principles of democracy are not written down anywhere, independent of political schools. On paper, the interpretation of the liberal school of democracy has been the prevalent one. I say on paper, because in reality, in the larger part of the 20th century until quite recently, two other interpretations of democracy have in practice influenced the lives of the majority of people globally. One has been the Cold War interpretation (‹Western democracy›), which, despite its close relation, should not be mistaken with the liberal interpretation, and the other is the populist one (‹people’s democracy›), that is, the version which has constituted the concept of democracy for the large masses of the people in the dominated, backward countries. These schools differ distinctly in their perception of political power, civil rights, and individual freedoms. In the larger part of the post war period, while Western democracy and populist democracy duelled with each other in the farthest corners of the globe over the practical implications of these terms for the people, liberal democracy in cultural establishments and charitable and human rights organisations, was busy recording the excesses of both sides in its notebooks.
What is common between all of them and, as I said, forms the independent law and the objective content of democracy, is that it is based on capitalist relations and the establishment of a legal mechanism for the participation of the people – of whatever definition – in the process of determining and changing the government. Democracy has been defined as the government of the majority, not the establishment of specific standards or values or rights. Introducing such specific standards into the concept of democracy has been the task of various political schools and movements such as liberalism, socialism, conservatism, anarchism, etc.
No doubt democracy, as a system in which the intervention of the individual and social sectors is considered permissible, opens up more opportunities, compared with non-democratic forms of government, for various social sections to leave their imprint on society and to attempt to bring about the desired social changes. But this in itself does not determine the character of a society. The outcome of the democratic process is not necessarily more personal or collective freedom, equality and social justice, observation of human rights, etc. Social justice and political freedoms are not the products of the democratic process as such. They are, rather, the product of social movements and forces demanding freedom and justice, which, in the course of history, have managed, both from inside and outside a democratic process, to upset the balance of social forces in favour of themselves and their ideals, and to turn some aspects of these ideals into laws and norms. In many cases, as we witnessed in the ’80s with the growth of Thatcherism, and as we witness today with the growth of racist and fascist forces within the European parliamentary politics, the democratic process itself, or at least certain forms of it, can be the receptacle for the growth and even coming to power of obscurantist, anti-human, and despotic forces.
The rosy picture given of democracy by capitalism in its official ideology and political propaganda, in which the individual freedom of choice and action as well as some basic rights of human beings are ensured, is based on a liberal (and to some extent social democracy) interpretation of democracy. For many, this abstract and theoretical picture of democracy, combined with the life characteristics of the middle classes in the US and Western European countries, and with a higher degree of cultural tolerance and lack of prejudices, which for various reasons prevail in these countries, make a dream picture of democracy. When an Iranian, Russian, or Egyptian intellectual asks for democracy, it is this image s/he is after. But this is only the picture on the box. Of course, even if the contents corresponded to the picture, we, as workers and Marxists, could see its basic faults. We are critical of liberalism and the liberal version of freedom. Liberal democracy is a distortion of the idea of human liberation. It is a formula for the atomisation of human beings in relation to capital in the political sphere, and for legitimisation of the dictatorship of the capitalist class as something above and beyond the people. This is an essential aspect of our argument about democracy, which should be carried systematically into the society.
This liberal picture of democracy has little bearing upon reality not only in the export copies of it, but also in advanced Western countries themselves. Actual democracy, democracy as it exists, is even emptier and more hypocritical than its liberal version. In many instances, as in the use of the term during the Cold War against the rival bourgeois camp, or in the propaganda campaign against socialists and Marxism in Western countries, democracy is overtly used to mean the sanctity of private property and free market. One of the pillars of Thatcherism, for instance, is portraying working class institutions as factors limiting democracy and individual freedom (to accept any job and any working condition). The existence of torture in the police apparatus of Western countries has been repeatedly reported. The existence of unofficial circles above the power of the state and the parliament in dictating national policy, secret trials and rubber-stamp courts, secret and armed institutions and organs to control the people, a media and journalism which have carried the art of intimidation, provocation, and stupefying to perfection with the revolution in technique and form, right wing bludgeon-bearers supported by the government and linked with the police whose task is to see that the Left and the deprived layers in society remain unobtrusive, and tens of other organs and methods, have turned individual and human rights and choices into a joke in Western societies themselves. The average citizen of these societies, whose conditions are still better than that of the people in other parts of the world, is pathetically disenfranchised, intimidated, and impotent in influencing his/her own fate.
If we want to discuss democratic concepts and issues in the areas of individual rights, civil rights, etc., we should either discuss various schools and their specific interpretations of democracy; and this would essentially lead to a discussion about liberal democracy and the parliamentary system. Or, we should judge democracy in its concrete practical record in contemporary history. In both cases, a Marxist will find him/herself in the position of a critic of democracy, both as a concept and as a reality.
Question: Theoretically, as well as in the idealized picture that capitalist spokespersons give of the political relations in this system, liberal democracy and the parliamentary system occupy a key position. What characteristics does liberal democracy have in this abstract picture and formal description?
Mansoor Hekmat: Liberal democracy is a synthesised and grafted concept (and in a certain sense a model) that turns on two hinges: democracy as the government of the people, or the government of the majority on the one hand, and liberalism as a series of specific beliefs and doctrines concerning the political and legal relations of the individual and society, on the other hand. Many people’s general and initial understanding is that democracy as a political regime and liberalism as a series of political and civil values and criteria belong to and are inseparable from each other, that the former indicates the form and the latter the content of the political system, that they are directly derived from each other, and so on. In reality, however, between these two components of democracy there is a constant tension, and, in the final analysis, a serious divergence, which, has been in practice the source of significant political conflicts and contradictions in bourgeois society, and on the political scene of Western European countries.
The meaning of democracy is the primacy of the people’s or the majority’s decision. For the moment we shall not concern ourselves with whether this proposition is true or false in the real world. Any decision taken by the majority of the people in the course of a democratic process, such as through their representatives in the parliament, is, from the point of view of democracy, legitimate. Liberalism, however, holds some a priori political and civil values, which it declares to be the inalienable natural or civil rights of all humanity. In other words, from the standpoint of liberalism, the freedom of action of democracy, and that of the people’s rule, should be controlled or limited. According to this school of thought, a democratic decision that revokes or violates the natural rights postulated by liberalism lacks legitimacy and credibility. It is not the function of liberalism to form the content of the democratic government but to act as its controlling and limiting condition. The content of liberalism is the definition of the rights of the individual and their protection against the ruler, the government, or, in a sense, the ‹society›. Liberalism welcomes parliamentary, or, at any rate, elective government, because it assumes that, as John Stuart Mill believed, the government ‹of the people› does not encroach on people’s civil rights. Liberalism holds these rights to be principal and the form of government secondary. This liberal assumption, however, both in theory and in reality, is not entirely reliable, and the dual character of the system leads to internal eclecticism and contradictions within the theory of liberal democracy itself which cause significant political conflicts in the course the movement of liberal democracies.
It should be noted that apart from Britain which lacks a constitution or a charter of individual and civil rights, other parliamentary systems are generally dependent on a constitution drawn up in the earlier stages of the formation of the system in each country, the modifying of which, unlike other laws, is not possible according to the decision of the relative majority in the parliament. The very existence of a constitution is, in the final analysis, a limitation on the democratic process. It means that the present day vote of the representatives of a country of several scores of millions of people is subordinate to the ratifications of a parliament over a century ago, with ten percent of the present population, with drastically more limited voting rights. The majority of the people of the present generation are submitting to the ratifications of a much smaller number of people of four generations ago. From the point of view of democracy, this is a limitation and a barrier while according to liberalism, which has implanted in the constitutions of the parliamentary systems its dictates and ideals in the context of the heated social and political struggles of previous centuries, this is an achievement, safeguarding the perpetuation of civil and individual freedoms in parliamentary democracies. This tension exists within liberal democracy both as a concept and as a social system.
Question: Then which of these two, liberalism or the idea of majority rule, is supposed to be the main source of, and the safeguard for freedom and parliamentary democracy?
Mansoor Hekmat: Both and neither. From the viewpoint of the theory of bourgeois government in modern capitalism both, and according to the political behaviour of the bourgeois class and its government, neither. Theoretically both poles are crucial. A ‹benevolent dictatorship›, however bound in observing civil and individual rights, cannot be considered free, since it violates the primary right of the individual to intervene in the government and the principle of the rule of the people. It is the primary claim of democratic thought about political freedom that in a democratic regime, power is put in the hands of the people. On the other hand, there is no guarantee that in the democratic process the majority of the people will not take decisions that are contrary to the natural and basic rights of human beings, according to the liberal definition. ‹The despotism of the majority› is a concept against which the advocates of the liberal school such as Mill have warned. Theoretically, therefore, both of these components are essential for liberal democracy, and, as I said, official ideology presents them in combination with each other, as the intellectual basis for today’s capitalist political system in Europe and the U.S. The fact that this is an eclecticism has so far presented no problems in the official bourgeois propaganda about the foundations and the advantages of the ruling political system in the West.
Practically, however, according to the bourgeoisie, neither of these is supposed to be the source and the safeguard for the people’s freedom. What it is supposed to do is to legitimise the class rule of the bourgeoisie, i.e. the dictatorship of a minority in the name of the people and in the name of freedom. If the people take the freedom-loving claims of either of those two components seriously, then the bourgeoisie would authoritatively remind them of their actual meaning. Here the bi-polarism of liberal democracy reveals its practical utility. Wherever the risk exists that the people, or a radical generation, for example, should turn the very same jerry-built bourgeois parliament into a barricade from which to gain certain rights, the bourgeoisie reminds them of the limitations of the authority of the parliament and the sanctity of the a priori dictates which, in the name of individual and civil rights, protect the class privileges of the bourgeoisie. And wherever the prevalence of a right-wing atmosphere over the society has made it possible for parliaments to be filled with the most reactionary factions of the bourgeoisie, they have totally discredited civil rights, and, in the name of the ‹people’s wishes› and ‹the government of the people› violated the most commonly accepted elementary rights of millions of people. The significance and the usefulness of democracy and liberalism in the practical functioning of bourgeois government is not their freedom-seeking content, but, on the contrary, in the alienation of these concepts from real freedom and the relative, class character of both their interpretations of the idea of freedom.
Question: What are the premises of liberalism and the ‹natural› rights it advocates? How does liberalism safeguard bourgeois privileges in defining these rights?
Mansoor Hekmat: Part of the premises of classical liberalism are those that are at present regarded as self-evident human rights and civil liberties, such as freedom of thought and expression, freedom of assembly and association, and a list of other individual freedoms. Let me remind you that I am here talking about classical liberalism as a school, not of Liberals or Liberal parties that might have no commitment to any of these.
Liberalism and the principles and demands associated with it were paramount in the struggle of the burgeoning bourgeoisie against feudal fetters and the standards of autocratic monarchy. The establishment of these rights, even in a flaccid and formal sense, as natural rights in society, was a real breakthrough compared to the situation that prevailed.
But the issue does not rest here. Nor do these rights constitute the essence of liberalism. The freedoms proposed in the liberal school in the sphere of politics and state are reflections of, and derivations from, the principles advocated by this school in regards to economics and classes in society. Liberalism was introduced as the ideology of capitalism and the market against the feudal economic system. The bourgeois sanctity of private property and the freedom of the individual as the human embodiment of private property and an economic atom in the economic interactions in the market form the basis of liberalism. The endorsement of individual and civil freedoms in the political theory of liberalism is a reflection of the support inherent in this school for the economic and political freedom of action of the bourgeois individual in the real world of the market.
Obviously this distinct class base, which openly defends the political economy of capitalism, not only limits and conditions the extent of the subscription of liberalism to political rights and freedoms, but also lends a specific meaning and interpretation to what is said of political freedoms. Bourgeois private property is the most sacred, unchangeable, and unequivocal law of liberalism. The most sacred and ‹natural› right, according to liberalism, is the right to property. If we consider that the ownership thus sanctified is, on the one hand, based on the critique and rejection of another kind of ownership, i.e. the aristocratic, feudal property, and, on the other hand, based on the existence of a large unpropertied class in the modern society desired by liberalism, it becomes clear that what this school deals with is, in fact, the justification and sanctification of the bourgeois position of power, and the drawing of a political superstructure suitable to capitalism. It becomes clear how the ‹civil society› advocated by liberalism is hardly much more than the legal reflection of the market, and how the ‹natural› rights put forth by it are the bourgeois rights of the individual, and, in the final analysis, the privileges of the individual bourgeois.
Liberalism in its original and English version is based on that which has been called (in an interpretation I view as mechanist) ‹negative freedom›, i.e. freedom from external obstacles and restraints, including rules and regulations, which can hinder the individual’s free movement. Liberalism sets as its point of departure the safeguarding of the individual’s choice and freedom of action against the encroachments of rulers, state, and the ‹society›. In this way, individual freedoms and civil rights assume a new, and quite interesting, significance. Individualism and individual freedom are interpreted, in relation to the bourgeois class, as the absence of laws and institutions, which prevent the free movement of capital and the individual capitalist in economic interactions. On the other hand, in relation to the working class, i.e. where there exists no such thing as ownership and individual’s control over his/her means of production, primacy of the individual is translated into the necessity for isolation and atomisation of the individual worker vis-à-vis capital. As far as capital is concerned, classical liberalism is for privatisation and against the state’s intervention in the economy. As far as the workers are concerned, however, it is against their collectively asserting themselves and opposes the subordination of the individual worker to the policy of a trade union or working-class organisation. While you and I might think that having a union might contribute to the fulfilment of part of the ‹natural› civil rights of the workers, classical liberalism would consider this a violation of the freedom of the individual worker in deciding the form of selling and using his/her labour power. This patently reactionary aspect of liberalism, and this right-wing interpretation of individual freedom, which, in the name of respecting individual choice, effort and initiative, propagates the total responsibility of the individual for his/her share and fate in this world, and his/her being left at the mercy of individual endeavour, reaches its apex in libertarianism, which turned into the dominant trend in the ’80s with Thatcherism and the blossoming of the Monetarist economic school.
The more civilized, human Liberals, so to speak, in Europe and the US, who form the Centre in the politics of these countries, are those who, partly under the pressure of socialism and social democracy – both the main political traditions of the Continent as opposed to Britain – do not drive the concept of ‹negative freedom› to its ultimate, extreme conclusion. In these other schools, freedom is related not only to the absence of external obstacles and limiting regulations, but to the existence of material and spiritual possibilities for making personal choices. We are all permitted to do many things in this world – things, which we never find the material possibilities or sufficient knowledge and information to do. This aspect of freedom, or the term ‹positive freedom›, i.e. enjoying the possibilities of making free choices, is not part of the tenets of the liberal intellectual system but the heritage of society-oriented and socialist traditions. The rise of social democracy and the Welfare state to some extent strengthened this aspect in the political culture of advanced Western societies for a period. This was to be the basis for ‹capitalism with human face›. It is, possibly, this aspect that for many of the intellectuals and educated people in backward societies made the political systems of Western Europe, and likewise democracy that in and by itself has no direct relation to this ‹human face›, attractive. Libertarianism, lead by the Thatcherist trend, and in the context of the economic problems of Welfare capitalism in the ’80s, shook the foundations of this system precisely by appealing to the ‹government of the people› and relying on the popular vote.
Question: So can’t we say that positive freedom, which seems to allow for such things as equal possibilities for individuals, responsibility of the society, and awareness, provides a better starting point in defining freedom?
Mansoor Hekmat: As I said before, I do not believe that this distinction per se, as a basic definition, carries much weight in understanding the concept of freedom. In the final analysis, as well as in the political functioning of society so far, the liberal English tradition and the European social democratic tradition have shown that they are both equally capable of distorting the real concept of freedom of human beings. They are equally capable of organising a more fundamental class subjugation, as well as an obvious general political disenfranchisement, in the name of creating a free political regime. Both positive and negative freedoms are defined within the framework of a bourgeois concept of human being and human freedom. They are both defined within the context of a society already divided into classes. Where society’s political economy has already been divided into the ruling and the subjugated classes, the absence of political and legal obstacles to the enforcement of individual free will can only mean the unbridled freedom of the ruling class in attacking the working class. It can only mean the total atomisation and helplessness of the individual members of the subjugated class in the face of social and economic circumstances, the alteration of which appears to lie beyond their will. The negative freedom of liberalism, therefore, whatever role it has played against the autocratic monarchies of the previous centuries, is now, by any serious standard of the advocacy of freedom in today’s world, an impaired and invalid concept.
‹Positive freedom›, on the other hand, calls for a social institution as an authority to elucidate the material and spiritual needs of human beings if they are to enjoy the possibility of making free choices in the realm of political and civil rights. How much literacy and what kind of education are required for a person to make a really free decision in an election? How much, and what kind of, information is needed so that one can freely determine one’s position on a certain state policy, from declaration of war to monetary policy? What should be the physical dimensions of the dwelling within which one is capable of exercising one’s ‹natural› right of having an inviolable personal territory? How large a part of an individual’s day should be assigned to work without the natural right of the individual to fulfilling his or her emotional and spiritual needs being disturbed? Positive freedom and bourgeois socialism have traditionally involved the state as the responsible body for providing such minimums and, therefore, as the authority responsible for determining the standards. But do not forget that the society is already a class society and the state is a bourgeois state. Everything is therefore summed up in the fact that bourgeois limitations on the people’s rights and freedoms are now enforced not by the blind laws of the market, but by the institution of the state. Under the guise of protecting the individual from the disenfranchisements caused by the spontaneous functioning of capitalism and the market, the official moulding of the people’s way of life and thought and choice, is here left to the political and cultural institutions of bourgeois society.
Let us also remember how, particularly with the electronic and information revolution of the last few decades, the mass media and official journalism have taken over the main role of deluding and coercing the people – a job previously performed by the church and the army – in more modern, ‹sanitised› ways. In the name of access to information in order to make free and correct choices, which is a condition for positive freedom, they have practically turned misinformation into an indispensable component of people’s everyday lives. The larger your television screen, the more fabricated and absurd your choice and political will.
The practical product of these schools with regard to the issue of freedom is no less frightening than the pure liberal model. In countries in which bourgeois socialism of various forms has had the upper hand, in the former Soviet Union or North European countries, for example, the individual is more secure and reassured, but to the same extent more dependent on the state and more influenced by it in his/her life. Here, the legal rights of the bourgeois state in interfering in the economic, political, and cultural parameters of people’s lives are more far reaching. The state builds a patronizing relationship with the working masses, which, to a large extent, allows it to modify their movement in the class struggle. The individual in these societies is more faceless and more moulded. S/ he is extremely defenceless and resigned towards the ‹truths› passed on to him/her from above, the way of life decided on his/her behalf, and the political and economic scenarios presented to him/her.
As long as we have class society, as long as the state and the dominant ideology is bourgeois, and as long as that ideology is the instrument of the mastery of the bourgeois class, whatever definition of freedom bourgeois schools present, it will inevitably be part of the mechanism and the apparatus for limiting the freedom of the working masses in society. It is not possible to have a ruling class as well as real political freedom. Class society cannot be a free society.
No doubt in parliamentary systems the individual faces political choices or has the option of intervening in the political life of society in one form or another. Also, there is no doubt that the individual is free to choose within the limits of the options presented to him/her. The problem is that in class society the very political options presented to individuals, the very channels opened to them for political participation, are fake and invalid. First we are defined as Serbs, Croats, Arabs, Kurds, Muslims, Christians, white, black, man, woman, employed, unemployed, etc., or first the self-consciousness and the identity of each of us are defined as one of a multitude of a certain people, race, religion, country or a certain social group, then we, i.e. these pathetically helpless creatures of the ruling ideology, are presented with the ‹free› choice of whether we, as a group of prejudiced, provoked, and intimidated people, prefer to be the blood enemy of the neighbouring nation or race, or just their economic rivals. First the political scene is set, under the heavy climate created by the mass media, or the opinion-shaping apparatus of the ruling class, as a parliamentary race between the Right and Left bourgeois parties, then we are asked, without too much insistence, of course, to vote for one of them every once in a while. The existence of the referendum for the independence of Lithuania, the referendum on the Maastricht Treaty, the Algerian elections, etc. are, of course, signs of the existence of democracy and individual choice. But the essence of choices presented to the people, are choices of subjugation.
In my view, the necessary condition for freedom is revolution against class subjugation and class exploitation. The unequal society, a society that reproduces inequality as one of its inherent characteristics, cannot be the receptacle for human choice and freedom. Liberal democracy and the parliamentary system, irrespective of the concept of freedom on which it theoretically relies, is a political regime designed to organise the existing society and the discrimination fundamental to it.
Question: You touched upon the concept of Western democracy and there are differences between it and liberal democracy that should be recognised. Will you explain this further?
Mansoor Hekmat: Unlike liberal democracy, liberalism, parliamentarism, etc., ‹Western democracy› does not have a philosophical and theoretical basis. It is the outcome of a specific political conflict in contemporary history, i.e. the rivalry between the East and West blocs and the Cold War between them. ‹Western democracy› primarily refers, not to a system, but to a political bloc. The term was used by the Western ideological apparatus and, above all, Western politicians in competition against the East and the political and economic system prevailing in it. I should hasten to add that in the last few years, with Western identity and European identity fever running high, and particularly with the downfall of the East, the content of Western democracy has become somewhat clearer. Before, when a country belonged to the camp of Western democracy, called the Free World, it neither necessarily meant that the country was European or American, nor that it had a parliament or a legal government. Belonging to the Western camp per se seemed sufficient reason, with a certain degree of oversight, to grant the title to a country. Western democracy was not a particular political practice, but a declaration of adherence to a series of fundamental political, cultural, and, most important of all, economic values symbolised and supported mainly by the US and Western Europe. The concept hinged, therefore, basically on the sanctity of private property, and on belonging to the Western camp up to the level of membership in one of the military pacts linked to the US. Obviously the political models of the US and Western Europe were parliamentary and influenced by liberalism. But one could not say the same thing of Israel, the monarchic Iran, the Philippines, Japan, Chile, Greece, Turkey, and so on, i.e. of the honorary or substitute members of the community of Western democracy, with the same degree of certainty. To sum up, rather than a concept in the realm of right or political theory, the concept of Western democracy was a tool in the political and ideological conflict between the two blocs.
But, as I said, it is nowadays taking on a more theoretical content. Nevertheless, even today, more than describing political forms and structures and norms, it is associated with a certain variety of ‹civilization›, standard of living, and ‹culture›. Western democracy indicates a particular life style rather than simply or necessarily a political regime. It seems that today Western political analysts mainly use the idea of Western democracy in relation to advanced industrial capitalisms with a high level of consumption – countries in which backward ethnic, national, and religious traditions have been subordinated to the competitive, individualist culture of industrial capitalism, and particularly where bourgeois ideology has turned into such a material force that it can control intense political and cultural turbulences. India, for example, with this its people’s appearance and the ethnic and religious fights that consume it from tip to toe, may not pass for a specimen of Western democracy, no matter how proper its parliament or un-tampered its elections. But Japan, irrespective of whether its politicians are sidekick gangsters or on the corporations› pay rolls, is regarded as an oasis of Western democracy in the east side of the globe. Likewise, maybe, Taiwan and South Korea.
I think Western democracy is an interesting concept in that it shows what the ‹higher ups› want and make of democracy. This is far more serious and real than the myth of democracy fed to the people by liberal intellectuals both in the world of politics and in the academia.
Question: What is the crux of the Marxist critique of liberal and parliamentary democracy as a framework for practical enactment of political freedom in society?
Mansoor Hekmat: On what I think freedom is, I shall say, positively, a few words later on. Concerning the model of liberal democracy, the first point to have in mind is that despite the fact that liberalism (and the concept of parliamentary democracy) tries, just like all other forms of bourgeois ideology and social theory, to hide its class base and content, and to appear as universal, ‹human› principles and truths, its class character and its significance in organising bourgeois rule is easily observable. As I said, liberalism is an ideology derived from, and protective of, bourgeois property. Liberalism is the translation of the market mechanism and its requirements into the language of law and political theory. Liberal democracy, with its parliament, elections, etc., is a system, a political superstructure, for a society whose fundamental characteristics, in terms of how different sections of society are related to the political power, have already been determined at a deeper level. The ruling ideology does not determine the nature of political power; rather, it stems from it and justifies it. Liberal democracy, therefore, is exactly the opposite of what it is claimed to be, that is, a framework for the participation of the mass of people in the affairs of the state and in the political power. It is a justification and a cover for the exercise of power by a single class, a minority, over the society. It is not a safeguard for the fundamental rights of the people, individually or collectively, against the encroachments and the autocracy of the possessors of power. It is, rather, a set of rules and regulations designed to legitimately deny and take away those rights. Democracy is a concept about legitimising the state and not about the way it is established or the way its political character is determined. A democratic government is a government that obtains its legitimacy and legality from the people’s vote. But, voting and parliament do not determine and maintain the existence of government, its power, the interests it pursues, and the class that holds it. These take place, rather, outside the democratic process, in the context of the broader class struggle, and by means of a different set of tools.
Liberal democracy is a formula to justify the already established rule of the bourgeoisie, and to conceal its class character. It is this very rule that is contrary to freedom and violates it. Liberal democracy or any other political school which constitutes the intellectual and administrative framework of this rule is similarly foreign to freedom.
Parliament, constitutional law, liberal traditions and laws, etc., even in the most developed of Western democracies, do not constitute the foundation of political power and the principal receptacle within which it is materialized. Bourgeois rule is essentially based upon the exercise of violence, or the threat to exercise violence, against the people. Bourgeois rule hinges on suppression, intimidation, and brainwashing. The armed forces of suppression, both the army and the police, as well as the covert institutions of suppression, the courts, the prisons, and the entire system of trial and punishment, are the real channels of exercising and safeguarding the power. The most important decisions are taken in arrays of various circles and associations of the ruling class, and through informal bourgeois institutions and establishments. The position of Member of Parliament is not in and by itself a permit to be even advised of the interactions of these circles, let alone to participate in them. In many cases the parliament is not the main instrument even for shoving the ratified decisions down the people’s throats. This is basically the job of the media and the propaganda apparatus of the ruling class.
As far as the basic rights of the people are concerned, their survival is directly related to the peace of mind and the economic tolerance of the bourgeoisie. There is no democracy in the world in which the concepts of ’emergency situation›, martial law, and suspension of civil rights, etc., have not been anticipated in its laws or legal tradition. No one should doubt, even for a moment, that should the left faction of the Labour Party itself come to power in a usual election, say in Britain, the countdown for the intervention of the secret police and the army for the violent and extra-legal overthrow of the government in question would not begin from the very moment the elections end. The use of all these kings and the queens pickled up at great cost in the palaces of Western democracies is so that in a rainy day they can be brought to the forefront as the ultimate symbols of the country, the homeland, and the army against the ‹misuses› of democracy by the Left. What I mean to say is that the usefulness of liberal democracy, even as a formal legal framework for bourgeois rule or as a safeguard for civil rights is limited to ordinary, non-critical periods. In a period of crisis, when class conflicts are intensified, and the socialist victory of the working class, even as a potential threat, becomes actual for the ruling class, the liberal democratic jig will be up within a day.
The parliamentary system is, at any rate, an indirect mechanism for the indirect participation of the people. Not the people, but individuals representing them are supposed to participate in government. In the parliamentary system, these representatives are not ‹bound representatives›, that is, they are not duty bound to reflect the wishes of their electorates on various issues. They cast their own votes and express their own views in parliaments, legislative assemblies, and so on. In other words, people elect them, not as their representatives and spokespersons, but as their substitutes in running the government. The election process means, therefore, the process of legitimising the government, and not that of the people’s participation in politics. This, as I said before, is the main issue in democracy, i.e. the establishment of a government, which originates from the people in a formal sense.
Elections secure this for the ruling class. Once every few years they get this stamp of approval and go about their own business. In this alternating census, the voters are present, not as certain people with certain views who are still alive in the period between the two elections and have therefore things to say, but as mere countable units. For the next four years when they can again cast their ‹insignificant› votes into the ballot box, nobody asks them anything or listens to what they have to say, nor do they have access to power or the capacity to do anything about the laws that the so-called representatives pass about their lives. They may, of course, protest in this interval, provided that their protest does not spoil the game and disrupt the ordinary state of affairs of the society or amount to serious inconveniences for the bourgeois politician and the bourgeois businessman. Otherwise they too, like the English miner, would fail to qualify for their civil rights.
Question: The parliamentary model has been variously criticised from the perspective of a consistent demand for democracy; criticisms such as the irrevocability of the MP’s by the voters, the monopoly of the bourgeoisie over the propaganda apparatus, the costliness of participating in the elections as a candidate – and at times even as a voter, the coming to power of governments with the votes of a small fraction of the population – either because of the low percentage of the participants in the elections, or because of the particular form of the allocation of parliamentary seats according to the votes of different political parties, and so on. What is the status of such criticisms of democracy in your argument?
Mansoor Hekmat: These are not fundamental criticisms. Some, such as the protest to systems of the British kind, in which parliamentary seats are not distributed as directly proportionate to the percentage of votes, do not even count as criticism. At any rate, bourgeois thinkers themselves discuss these shortcomings most eloquently, and argue among themselves for and against such issues by referring to the principles of democracy and liberalism. The main problem, on which the entire Marxist critique of this system turns, is the assumption that the issue of government and of political power are separate from the issues of political economy and class struggle, and that, instead, we are presented with an entirely legal or administrative explanation of the bourgeois government. The picture that it is supposedly the people who, whether in a more or less free and fair process, choose the government through their vote is a false one. The class owner of the government has already been determined on the basis of the division of economic power, based on the rule of capital over productive and social life of the society, as well as on the basis of the ideological balance and the self-consciousness of the people in society. Prior to elections and parliament, there already exist the organised armed forces of the bourgeoisie to forcibly protect such power and such government. Penal laws, written or unwritten, exist to protect the power of the bourgeoisie and the sanctity of the bourgeois image of society. And there already exist courts and prisons to secure the practical implementation of that protection. The elections determine which group of individuals, from which party, from which trend, and with which shade of programme and practical methods, will for a period undertake the executive priorities and administration of the system.
Criticisms of the kind you mentioned, which are at any rate put forward out of sympathy for the Left, conceal the main reasons for the failure of the radical Left in parliamentary systems, and condone its parliamentarian illusions especially in European countries. The reason why the radical Left seldom gets anywhere in the elections is not, as the democratic critics of parliamentary democracy would have us believe, that they lack resources to make propaganda, or that the elections are not democratic, or that the mathematical formula for the allocation of seats in relation to the number of votes functions in favour of the big parties, and so on. The reason is that the voter, and first and foremost the large masses of the working class, have a more realistic and less illusory picture of the place of elections and parliament in their lives. They know that the elections are not the means to fundamental changes in society, that the class owner of political power is not determined through elections, that the maximum expectation from the parliament is to help local reform, and that the elections are not over the life or death of capital or capitalism. They know that elections are about a minimal increase or decrease of their share of the possibilities of the existing society during the next electoral period. They are aware that the outcome of the elections of the parliament would only be a more or less faithful reflection of the balance of power, which already, outside the parliament and outside democracy, has been established among the classes.
The workers might be conscious enemies of capitalism, but in the general parliamentary elections they vote, not for the party which is for a revolution against capital, but for the Left faction of the bourgeoisie itself, that is, for the party which, as they see it, is indeed in a position to improve their conditions in relation to the already functioning capital. If fundamental changes are not on the agenda – as the very act of elections, parliamentarism, and the existence of a non-revolutionary situation make the people understand – then it is quite natural that the deprived masses, who have no alternative but to be satisfied with reform, should vote for reformist personalities and parties within the ruling class itself – personalities and parties that, as they see it, have the actual possibility to bring those reforms about. The problem of the Left is not that the allocation of the seats is not proportionate to the number of direct votes, or that the neighbourhood Trotskyist party does not have equal possibilities for propaganda to eventually secure one seat out of four hundred. The problem is that, under normal circumstances, the workers do not regard someone who wants to become a member of the parliament for four years from a revolutionary position against capital a good representative for pursuing their interests through this particular channel. People know and observe the rules of the parliamentary game, except in a period of revolutionary crises – that is when the parliament is no longer a legislative assembly in a stable society, but a platform for political manoeuvring and legislation. One of the most important of these rules is that the winner of the class game is known beforehand; otherwise the game itself will be over altogether.
Question: Don’t you, therefore, think that such reforms in the parliamentary system would bring it closer to the Marxist perception of freedom?
Mansoor Hekmat: The discussion of freedom, from a Marxist viewpoint, is carried out on an entirely different plane. The subject matter of democracy is ‹legitimate government›. Freedom, however, is not a concept related to the form of government, or the relation of the individual to the state. It is related, rather, to state per se and the existence or non-existence of the state. The pivotal issue in the discussion of freedom is class, class exploitation, and class suppression. This is the origin of state. The condition for the real freedom of human beings is the elimination of class division, termination of the exploitation of a part of society by another, the annihilation of the foundations of suppression and exclusion from freedom, and, as a result, the withering away of the state as the instrument for imposing class interests and maintaining class superiority. Not only does the parliamentary system fail to come one step closer to these concepts, it is itself one of the obstacles humanity has to surpass on the way to total and real freedom.
The concept of freedom in Marxism is not divisible into the domains of politics and economics or society and the intellect. Liberation is total liberation, internally and externally. The very process that eliminates the external obstacles for the exercise of the free will of human beings, will also eliminate his/her alienation and all the material interests and the topsy-turvy spirituality that drives the people to be morally resigned to inequality and subjugation, and accept the roles of the suppressor and the suppressed. Laws and the need for laws will disappear together. The same process that creates equality also brings about love of humankind and the deepest respect for each other’s happiness and freedom. It is not possible to have a wage-payer seeking profit, and a wage earner forced to work, and meanwhile be politically free. Neither to have superior and inferior classes and meanwhile be spared prejudice, ignorance, cruelty, and crime. Real freedom is only the product of the socialist transformation of society, and the ascent of human beings out of the era of their class brutality. Real freedom is a social and all-embracing, and not simply a legal and administrative, concept. Real freedom in this sense is not the subject of democracy, because democracy and liberalism, pre-supposing the bourgeois social and economic base, and pre-supposing the existence of capital and profit and wages, the market, and private property, concerns itself with the attributes of the political and administrative superstructure of society.
Question: Does not your criticism of democracy have any periodic character? What I mean to say is, has not historically democracy been a vehicle for spreading real freedom, and can it not still serve the same purpose in some societies? Is this criticism of a Marxist today of this thought and system a critique of its being outmoded, or of its permanent and fundamental contradiction with real freedom?
Mansoor Hekmat: Of both. I think in this respect our criticism of liberalism and democracy is of the same category as our criticism of the capitalist mode of production. When the producer is liberated from his/her bondage to the land and the control of the feudal lord, and turns into a ‹free worker›, who can sell his/her labour force freely, this is historically a progress. But no one will mistake the concept of a ‹free worker›, which in fact means a property-less person put in a position to have to sell his/her labour force, with the real freedom of people in the economic sphere. The emergence of democracy and the establishment of civil rights along liberal principles, the appearance of the idea of the individual and the citizen as the formal basis for obtaining legitimacy for the government, was a historical progress against authoritarian governments. This, however, in comparison with real freedom and the picture of it given simultaneously by the socialist movement, for all its illusiveness and vagueness, is a backward entity. The ideas of socialism and democracy have, in the history of capitalism, existed side by side. Two movements, side by side, in rivalry with each other, and, of course, in many cases, mixed with each other. In this sense, the socialist criticism of democracy and the socialist alternative are as old as democracy itself. The contextual socialist criticism of democracy, which in fact is a critique of the bourgeois attitude to, and definition of, freedom, the state, and the political superstructure in capitalism, is as relevant today as it was one hundred and fifty years ago.
To imagine that the establishment of democracy, with the interpretation I have given of it in this interview, can still in some of today’s societies be a vehicle for the expansion of freedom, is, I think, naive and non-critical, in that it sends the people, in their search for freedom, after a wild goose chase. Democracy today is not a series of dictums about the freedom of the press and ideas, or treating minorities well – even if there had been a time when it was so; it is not a model that can be arbitrarily put into practice wherever. It is, rather, a title for the political regime of today’s bourgeoisie. One cannot have democracy as an institution and a stable political superstructure and not have the government of the bourgeoisie. It is, therefore, the bourgeoisie and its interests that determine the practical meaning of democracy and the share of the citizens of freedom in every case and during every period. If somewhere the bourgeoisie is despotic and indifferent to individual and civil rights – the somewhere coming to mean, at the end of the 20th century, everywhere, then to expect from democracy to spread freedom is deluding oneself and the people. Democracy today no longer defines itself as an antithesis to feudalism, autocratic monarchy and religious government; it is simply the defence line of the bourgeoisie in the face of working class aspirations for freedom and similar expectations inspired by socialism in today’s world.
Question: Don’t you think, therefore, that the very word and meaning of democracy is useless to the working class and the movement of working class communism? Let me put it this way, why can one not have a proletarian and socialist interpretation of democracy as distinct from its bourgeois interpretation, just as it has existed in communist literature including the ideas of Lenin himself, as an old and accepted formulation among communists?
Mansoor Hekmat: I am not fanatically opposed to using the word democracy. In many cases people use it as a substitute for the concept of freedom, the establishment of ordinary civil rights, or even the existence of social and political tolerance toward other views, customs and traditions. What I am saying here is that this concept, where it is used as a political ideal, particularly where the Left sings its praises, is a misleading and politically harmful concept for the struggle for real freedom. My argument is that democracy is not synonymous with freedom. Democracy is a form of government, and a series of political ideas and practices suited to the social existence of capital and the political disenfranchisement caused by it, which, particularly in our time, is devoid of all links to the expansion of the rights of the mass of the people. Democracy is a political code word, an emblem for a reactionary political and economic situation hinging on the sanctity of the market.
It is true that the word democracy in communist literature has so far had positive connotations, and served as a key word in political struggle and in the issue of tactics. But I think this should change, as the objective situation and the practical meaning of democracy, just as the subjective attitude of today’s society toward democracy have changed.
Let me also add that the approach of communist thinkers to democracy, from the earlier writings of Marx and Engels (1843-47) about the intellectual tendencies and the political changes of Europe, to Lenin’s approach in the context of the Russian revolution and in relation to the mass movements of the early 1920s, have undergone certain changes. These changes in themselves reflect a certain degree of theoretical precision on the one hand, and, more importantly, the concrete development of democracy and democratism in the objective world. In previous Marxist writings there is a more conspicuous distinction, compared to what I am saying today, between the principle of democracy as the government of the people or popular government, and liberalism and parliamentarism as the practical content of bourgeois democratism. While liberalism and bourgeois democracy are clearly related to private property, the market, and capital, democracy in the general sense is regarded as ‹republicanism›, an end to authoritarian monarchies, and the desire to turn the people into the actual source of power, and the creation of civil society based on law and directed toward the happiness of the citizens, and so on. At that time, democracy is the day’s word. In the minds of the public it is the equivalent to the awakening of the people to their rights and their wish to take their affairs into their own hands. It is at this point that Marx and Engels repeatedly speak of ‹communist democracy›, ‹we democrats›, ‹real democracy›, the distinction between worker’s democracy and that of the bourgeoisie and aristocrats, and of the happiness and welfare of humankind as the goal of democracy, and so on. I think this is as it should be, because the social battle to define the word democracy is in progress, and such formulations are themselves part of the effort of communist and socialist workers to put socialism on the practical agenda of a society which calls social progress, democracy as opposed to despotism. Later, of course, a much clearer distinction between the communists and socialists with democrats and democracy occurs in the works of Marx and Engels, and democracy turns into a word which comes up more in the context of discussions about bourgeois radicalism, and the movement of the petty bourgeoisie. At any rate, in the beginning, Marx and Engels argue to some extent even about socialism as the objective and practical content in the victory of democracy, or as the fulfilment of real democracy.
Lenin’s period is somewhat different. Democracy has actually been established in its bourgeois democratic interpretation, and assumes less of its previous general and formless meaning of ‹republicanism›. Lenin has even tried to explain the basis of the persistence of a certain degree of political tolerance and civil liberties in advanced capitalist countries on the basis of the existence of a global imperialist system and the international division of freedom and oppression. Lenin finds himself far more duty bound than the earlier communist leaders to argue with the actually existing democracy, with liberalism and its parliamentary and electoral system, and to give a more concrete picture of working class democracy based on the dictatorship of the proletariat and the councils. But to characterise the workers› state as working class ‹democracy› is more defensive on Lenin’s part, and is used in polemicizing with those who question political freedom in the workers› state from the point of view of liberal preconceptions and the parliamentary system. For Lenin, the concept of democracy itself is increasingly placed in the context of the political practice of the bourgeoisie. ‹Revolutionary democracy›, the phrase that Lenin likes to use about the radicalism of the non-proletarian poor, is used in his work around the October revolution and particularly after that, as a non-proletarian tendency and movement, distinct from working class socialism. Working class radicalism and desire for freedom are described as socialism, while non-working class radicalism is described as ‹revolutionary democracy›.
Two points are of interest in Lenin’s description of democracy. One is that democracy changes increasingly from a general ideal and a political synonym for the concept of freedom into a specific and even transient political situation, considered as a way-side station, and a diving board for the socialist revolution. It is emphasized that socialism means going beyond democracy and arriving at real freedom. The other point is that the democratic situation aimed at by the workers as a transient period is increasingly described within a non-liberal and council framework. Direct action by the workers and the lower layers from below, as well as the mass organs of this direct action become conspicuous. In other words, in Lenin’s approach democracy takes its legitimacy and genuineness from the social strata that form its basis at each period. The conditions considered democratic are those in which the obstacles for the enforcement of the will of the lower strata have been removed. The existence and survival of political and civil liberties (even bourgeois ones), which, in his view, are vital for the advancement of the working class, are themselves conditional upon the enforcement of the will of those classes which, unlike the bourgeoisie have an interest in these rights.
Associating democracy, first and foremost, not with a known series of civil rights and freedoms and elected legislative organs such as the parliament, but with the enforcement of the will of the masses from below and the direct local institutions through which this should take place, is understandable, considering the conditions of that time. On the one hand parliamentary democracy in Europe has turned into a norm and the links between liberalism and bourgeois parliamentarism are more obvious; on the other hand socialist uprisings with the goal of achieving political power are on the actual agenda of the working class. The scope of the movement has objectively gone beyond parliamentary reform.
In the course of the distortion of Marxism in the Soviet Union under Stalin and later in the Chinese experience and the rise of Maoism, the relation between the issue of democracy and civil rights and liberties on the one hand, and the exercise of power from below by the lower strata on the other, is entirely severed. Democracy, on the one hand, turns into the pseudonym of certain social strata who, irrespective of their politics and social and political goals, are considered ‹democrats› by virtue of their place in the economy, and, on the other hand, these strata themselves, both in their political description and in the real world are substituted by political forces and governments that are their class ‹representatives›. Quite simply, the democratic situation, which in these schools is called people’s democracy or mass democracy, is a situation in which the ‹people’s› parties hold the power. In these democracies which were the main form of government in various countries in the Soviet and Chinese blocs and their near and far satellites, it is the assumption of the populist nature of the government which is the justification for calling the regime democratic, and not the existence of individual, political, and civil liberties, nor that of the local institutions of mass decision making, and so on. This populist-governmental description was the basis of the perception of the Third World anti-imperialist Left of democracy. Let us remember that when in the beginning of the 1979 Iranian revolution we spoke of unconditional political freedoms such as the freedom of speech, of the press, and so on, even the most radical part of the Left in those days were shocked. They accused us of wishing to keep the Mizan weekly (Nehzat-e-Azadi’s paper) in circulation! According to their school, or at any rate in the pseudo-socialist interpretations that they had willingly or unwillingly inherited from Mao and Stalin, the people’s democracy meant the coming to power of the single front of populist parties. Issues such as the rights of the individual in this system, the fate of the people’s freedom of speech and freedom to strike, belonged, from their point of view, entirely to liberalism.
This governmental and populist view of democracy had its own social grounds. It was nothing more than the anti-imperial reformism of the petty bourgeoisie and intellectuals discontented with economic backwardness in these countries. Populist democratism was supposed to be the political regime directed toward economic and industrial growth, the end of dependence on the West, the achievement of economic ‹independence› and the rise of the political status of the country. For economic development and political independence were regarded as tendencies characteristic of the people and the populist layers, while individual freedom, cultural openness, the increase of the level and variety of consumption, were bourgeois tendencies and contrary to the interests of the people. Behind all these could be seen the effort of part of the bourgeoisie of the Third World and backward countries to bring forth the development and industrialization of the national economy through an ideological mobilization of the working masses of society to accept economic hardship and political limitations. Democracy, populist democracy, was the political and ideological tool of such a bourgeois government. I believe that with the appearance and then the bankruptcy of the idea of populist democracy, the period of the engagement of the workers and of socialism with democracy are officially over. For, in populist democracy, just as in liberal democracy, the idea of democracy is once more turned into the instrument for justifying the class government of the ruling bourgeoisie.
The fact that the new round of the popularity of democracy that we have witnessed over the last few years is openly taking place in the context of the sanctity of the market and the adulation of capitalism, bears witness to the fact that the time for the socialists to try to radicalise democracy, and to make it genuine and working class has come to an end. Democracy is a specific historical product at each and every period, and cannot be stretched as much as its interpreters would wish. We do not find ourselves either at the time of Marx when the workers opened their eyes to political and civil rights, or at the time of Lenin and the earliest working class revolutions for assuming power. This is a new era. Capitalism, its economics and its politics reek. One is free of course in one’s use of words. As I see it, however, democracy as a concept and entity offers no solutions to working class communism. It creates illusion rather than awareness; instead of defining the freedom camp in today’s world, it compromises it by allowing the inclusion of some of the worst enemies of humankind; rather than describing a social system worthy of the life of human beings, it vindicates the decadent and oppressive existing systems.
I think we should give this term up, and refuse to, even inadvertently, participate in this puppet show of the end of the 20th century. We are not democrats; we are freedom seekers. We are socialists. We are defenders of human beings and their rights and dignity, both individual and collective, against the existing class system. Our historic task is not to democratise the state, but to abolish the basis for its existence. We strongly defend the people’s individual and civil liberties against the encroachments of governments and parties, whether democratic or undemocratic, parliamentary or non-parliamentary. We believe that only the socialist revolution of the workers and those who mobilize round the banner of this revolution can create a free society in the true sense.
Question: One streak of revision among socialists after the downfall of the Eastern bloc, has been a criticism of what has been called the weakness of the ideals of democracy in communism and socialism up till now, and an effort to make up for this shortcoming by introducing democracy of a stronger tint into socialism. Various trends also argue that the absence of democracy in the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc has been the main factor in the defeat of these systems. What do you think about such democratic criticisms both of Marxism and of the course of the development and eventual downfall of the Soviet Union as a bloc with claims to socialism?
Mansoor Hekmat: These critics, I believe, are of two kinds. By democracy, one group means this very specific liberal bourgeois version. Their real argument is that not only the political theory of Marxism, but also its foundations should be revised, and both the market and democracy in its practical parliamentary and Western sense should be added to it and combined with it. The absurdity and bourgeois character of such an effort does not require too much explanation from the point of view of a communist who is essentially a critic of bourgeois economy and the political superstructure of bourgeois society, and has known and accepted Marxism in this capacity. We cannot stop someone who wants to build a third school by combining Marxism with the market and liberalism. But such a school would have nothing with liberation from capitalism or human freedom, and would therefore have no chance of being adopted by the movement of working class socialism.
The argument of those who believe that the idea of the individual and individual freedom in a more general sense has been weak in Marxism, however, should be answered more specifically. This is obviously not the place for a lengthy discussion. I shall suffice it to say that these criticisms are, whether one wants it or not, influenced by the practices of the official stream of communism in the Soviet Union, China, and their satellites, and holds Marxism itself wholly or partly accountable for these practices. Otherwise, I think, it should be quite simple to refer to Marxist ideals and analysis, to refer to the history of communism before the Soviet shift of rail, to show that, not only is Marxism in no need of reforms aimed at more freedom, but this stream of thought has always been attacked by bourgeois thinkers and politicians precisely because of its excessive and uncompromising drive for freedom. If the attitude of society toward the issue of freedom and the dignity of human beings has deepened over the last two hundred years, it is basically owing to Marxism and communism. Marxism has such a maximalist attitude toward human freedom, and draws the manifestations of human subjugation out of such subtleties that I think it would be laughable to, inspired by the experience of Western democracy, want to try to make it more open minded. It is difficult to see how anyone who considers people free simply by not being bound to the land and by being free to trade their property or labour in the market and by having the right to vote in parliamentary elections has anything to contribute to the viewpoint that even in the freest of democracies exposes the inferiority of the people to the overall power of capital. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that if we seriously want to withstand the current anti-socialist demagogies, the Marxist description of freedom is an area we should seriously engage in.
The Soviet Union, of course, is a different issue. Clearly liberal democracy did not reign in the Soviet Union. This does not in any way mean that the Soviet citizen, even politically, necessarily had less rights than a Western citizen. In many cases, such as laws concerning the equality of men and women, the right of the citizens to education and health care, the right to intervene in the regulations and principles concerning living and working environments, it was the Eastern bloc that granted the individual more rights. What differed eventually were the mechanisms for disenfranchising the people in practice in each of these two poles. In the parliamentary system this is carried out more subtly and indirectly. At any rate, however, the downfall of the Eastern bloc was not due to the absence of liberal democracy.
The core of the problem, as we have argued before, was the economic deadlock of the Soviet model and its incapacity to keep up with the technological developments of the last two decades and to respond to the needs of an advanced industrial society. At the end of the ’50s the Soviet Union was just as illiberal as ever, had a high rate of growth, and, notwithstanding, showed no signs of disintegration. In today’s China despotism reigns, while its growth rate is coveted by the West. If there is anything to be said about the link between democracy and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, it is, as the old guard of the Communist Party believes today, that if the surrender to the market had taken place without showing the green light to liberal rights, i.e. if there had been Perestroika without Glasnost, then the disintegration would not have been so total and dramatic.
And, finally, objecting to the absence of socialist freedom in Soviet society has, I think, the drawback that it openly or implicitly confirms the existence of a socialist economy in the Soviet and the Eastern bloc. Socialist freedom can only emerge on the basis of a fundamental change in the economy and in productive relations. Such freedom did not exist in the Soviet Union because such a change never took place. To expect such a freedom from the Eastern bloc can only imply that the critic’s own image of socialist relations of production is not that different from the system that prevailed in this bloc. This has been the stand of mainstream Trotskyist trends and the major part of the New Left. I think it is entirely illusive and illusory. So it goes without saying that the absence of freedom in the working class and Marxist sense could certainly not have been the reason for the disintegration of the Eastern bloc.
I think one should try to understand the social and historical meaning of this trend, i.e. the wish and the obsession with democratising socialism at this time. The position of Marxism on freedom and the place of the issue of freedom in the communist movement over the last century and a half are too well known for anyone to suddenly think of testing or correcting it. What turn this into a fashionable preoccupation are the intellectual hegemony and the propaganda campaign of the Right about democracy. A part of the Left in retreat is carrying out the orders of the victors. It is rethinking and rewriting the history of socialism and the principles of socialist thought according to the triumphant trend. This is a political stooping; it is not awareness of newly discovered scientific knowledge. I think, therefore, that the entire problematic and the preoccupation are worthless. It is worthless but not unimportant, because it puts the socialist movement of the working class in a bind and drives it to the fringes. One should stand up to it, not by taking its scientific weight seriously, but by exposing its political truth.
Question: The requirements of the establishment of democracy in Iran were one of the important discussions among the Iranian left in the 1979 Iranian revolution. At that point, in writings such as The Myth of the National and Progressive Bourgeoisie and other texts which later served as the programmatic basis for the Communist Party of Iran, you and your organisation Union of Communist Militants questioned altogether the existence of objective grounds for the establishment of liberal democracy in Iran by referring to the characteristics of the political economy of such a country. What do you say today about the same question in the light of the important international developments of recent years and also the arguments that you have put forward about democracy in the present world?
Mansoor Hekmat: Our discussion about the 1979 revolution, including the writings you refer to, had a clear and understandable framework. The people had risen against monarchic despotism and demanded freedom, while the larger part of the left was, practically in chorus with the main bourgeois and petty bourgeois parties, spreading the illusion that apparently it was possible to create a non-oppressive, or, in the popular mind, democratic, regime without expropriating the bourgeoisie and uprooting capitalism in Iran. Now, one envisaged the democratic state as the state of mythical creatures such as the national bourgeoisie or the anti-imperialist petty bourgeoisie, while another regarded himself/herself or the working class as the executive agent for this democratic development. One probably had Europe and the West as the model, and the other the populist revolutions in the Third World. One was a liberal, the other statist and populist. Some of these organisations denied altogether the rule of capitalism in Iran, believing that the task of the revolution was to introduce capitalism, of course of a ‹good, indigenous and independent› variety, against colonial feudalism, which, they held, dominated the country and lay at the root of political despotism. What they had in common was, at any rate, that they regarded a non-oppressive capitalism in Iran not only a real possibility, but as the goal of the ongoing revolutionary struggle. All, in one way or another, separated despotism from the rule of capital in Iran, and placed its origin outside. While one considered the origin of despotism to be feudalism and colonialism, the other looked for this in imperialism and ‹dependency›, and, a third, in the lack of industrialisation and the inadequate growth of capitalism in Iran, or the underdevelopment of modern bourgeois culture. Against all these we argued that the political rightlessness of the people, or state terror and repression in Iran were neither accidental, nor a plot by a foreign power, nor the result of the backwardness of the people’s culture, or the shortage of home-grown factories and capitalists. The root of the oppression was the requirements of the capitalist regime as a whole in Iran. We argued that the existence of civil liberties associated with democracy, such as the freedom of expression, organisation, and strike, even at the same Western levels, was contradictory to the vital need of capital in Iran – as in a wide range of countries in the world – for cheap labour and silent workers. Oppression in Iran is neither the instrument of the feudals to stifle the bourgeoisie, nor that of the ‹dependent› bourgeois to lash out against the home-grown bourgeois. This is a regime set up by the bourgeoisie as a whole against the Iranian working class, through which it is busy accumulating capital. Irrespective of intentions, the colours on their flags and their economic model, whoever wants to run Iranian capitalism in today’s world, would, first and foremost, inevitably consolidate this oppression.
We said this at a time when the Islamists had not taken over in Iran, let alone having gone through a June 20th 1981. This was the time when the minimum expectation of the traditional radical Left from their ‹progressive and anti-imperialist› bourgeois and petty bourgeois that were coming to power was to bestow freedom and democracy. 15 long years and tens of thousands of victims separate us from those days. I think the truth of those arguments and warnings should be apparent to whoever is genuinely concerned about political freedom, even its liberal and democratic version. If the remainder of the radical Left is still, this time even more simple-mindedly, promising a democratic bourgeois Iran, it is because even democracy is not its real concern. Nationalism and the ideal of industrial development are the main elements in the description of the political identity of these people. For them democracy means a ‹tolerable state›, which, as many of them see it, can be attained by factions of the existing government, or sections of the bourgeois opposition.
I believe that political developments internationally, in the rise of Thatcherism in the ’80s and the historical and far more significant changes of the recent years, the downfall of the Eastern bloc and the end of the Cold War with its far-reaching consequences, have confirmed the validity of the fundamentals of our views about the direct link between democracy and the economic situation of the bourgeoisie in relation to the working class. Britain has been the cradle of liberalism and democracy. But when the bourgeoisie finds itself in an economic tight spot and turns Thatcherism into its official ideology, then the most elementary rights of workers and the civil rights of people are abolished.
In the course of the recent developments in the Eastern bloc it not only became clear that democracy is the code word for the market and competition and the multiplicity of capitals, it also emerged that the development of private capitalism and the accumulation of capital in countries with a weak technological base is not possible except by a drastic fall in workers› standard of living and their share of social production. The situation immediately led to an interpretation of democracy suited to it, an interpretation fed to the people daily by the media and the shameless journalism of the ’90s. Here democracy, even on its formal level, assumes a reverse meaning. Here ‹democrats› are those who are trusted by the Western governments, who are prepared to free the prices, lower people’s standard of living, declare emergencies in the face of people’s discontent, suspend civil rights, introduce autocracies and to forbid strikes and freedom of association. Democracy is a pseudonym for the right wing and dictatorial friends of the World Bank in these countries. It has become clear, at any rate, that the parliamentary system that the Western bourgeoisie had put on display in its shop window is not suited to the economic situation of the bourgeoisie of the Eastern countries and the need of this class to aggressively put down any serious resistance of the worker in these countries.
Question: Do you, therefore, rule out the establishment of liberal democracy in Iran, and the founding of a parliamentary republic with more or less the same degree of individual and civil freedom as can be found today in Western European countries? How far, in your view, is such a prospect, which is of particular interest to the liberal opposition and a wide range of the leftist organisations of the previous period, possible?
Mansoor Hekmat: The question is not the possibility or the impossibility of the ’emergence› of such a situation, but, rather, the possibility of its reproduction as a political superstructure in society. Liberal democracy in Iran is not more unthinkable and incredible than the regime of the Mullahs. The question here, as in the case of the Islamic regime, is to what extent such a political regime could become a reproducing superstructure for political interaction in the country. The Islamic regime has at one point emerged as a result of specific political conditions and in response to certain political necessities. But never, not even after the passage of one and a half decades, has it turned into the accepted and routine political structure in Iran. To stay in power, the Islamic Republic has to shed blood anew, to suppress, and to come up with new plans with the dawn of every new day. The parliament and a liberal constitution also might, under different historical circumstances, emerge as an event and a political accident. It is even feasible that the power of a certain generation of parliamentarians, the lack of alternative of the opposition, the military interference of the supporters of the ruling league of the time, and tens of other unforeseeable factors, might allow this parliament and liberal principles to last for a while. But the fact that should not be lost sight of is that this parliamentary system is not rooted, and will not be rebuilt, in the context of the political economy of society, and specifically in the ways in which the Iranian bourgeoisie makes itself manifest politically, and in the manner of the confrontation between the ruling class and the workers. As for the parliament, there must be people to try to hold it up arbitrarily and despite the wishes of the economically active body of the bourgeois class. Otherwise it will be replaced by something else from the right or the left.
The other problem, however, lies in the fact that the very emergence of a parliamentary and liberal system even as a historical accident depends on the existence of liberal parties and the tradition of liberal struggle, while these are non-existent in Iranian society. The liberal system would at any rate require a handful of liberals! Those among the Iranian opposition who are wrongly called by this epithet are really nationalist republicans, with hats rather than turbans – but not even, necessarily, secular and non-religious – who up till now have not shown the smallest interest in liberal edicts and principles, for whatever these edicts are worth. When these people speak of pluralism and the parliament, they actually have something like Turkey or South Korean in mind. The gist of my answer in reply to your question is, therefore, that democracy and the parliamentary system neither agrees with the economic requirements of capital and the Iranian bourgeoisie, nor is it, in any serious sense of the word, demanded by a group of people among this class. This means that the possibility for its emergence is small, and the chances of its survival as a lasting, reproducing reality in the political life of society are nil.
Question: Throughout this interview you have criticised and rejected democracy in light of the socialist version of freedom on the one hand, and in relation to the practical reality of democratic regimes and societies on the other. In relation to Iran you do not see much chance of the establishment of a democratic regime. Having said all this, is not a station between brute bourgeois despotism and socialist freedom feasible in Iran? Would the fulfilment of individual and civil rights itself turn into a task for the working class revolution? Is not the availability of these rights itself one of the preconditions of the victorious working class revolution?
Mansoor Hekmat: In reply to the first part of the question, not only are such stations feasible, they have certainly come up in the actual course of Iranian history, and would continue to do so. The issue is not whether the negation of brute bourgeois despotism in a country like Iran is possible or not, but rather how far can such a situation be a lasting and organic form of government for capitalism and bourgeois rule in the country. We have written extensively on this issue over the last 14 to 15 years. There is certainly a difference between a sort of de facto and imposed political freedom which is the outcome of a balance of power and a specific political clash, and would last for a certain period of time in a country, and a bourgeois-democratic political superstructure which would be well suited and agreeable to the normal functioning of capitalism in Iran. The former is real and inevitable; and the latter, an illusion or a conscious gimmick. This is not an academic issue and has direct bearing on the lives and livelihood of a large number of people. Such ‹democratic› junctures would come up in the life of the present generation of the Iranian working class. The working class that regards this respite and the obtained rights as an outcome of conflict and the periodic balance of political power in society and recognizes the temporary and transient character of the situation would understand the mechanism for maintaining what has been achieved, of expanding it and going beyond it, as well as the dynamism of the revolutionary or reactionary negation of this situation. It would see through the bourgeois political behaviour, the coup d’etats and plots and civil wars planned for it by the bourgeoisie. It would comprehend the value of any minute of the continuation of conditions of relative freedom from the point of view of becoming equipped for the more serious future political combats, and would stay on in the political arena. On the contrary, the working class that on such a day would imagine that it has now become democratic and Iran has joined the ranks of ‹civilized› capitalist countries, should prepare itself for a couple of years of impoverishment and extra working hours in celebration of democracy, and a considerable number of imprisonments and executions from the third year onwards.
As for the second and the third parts of your question, the fulfilment of the social and individual rights of human beings in the real and profound sense of the word, and making these rights inalienable, are certainly the task of the communist revolution of the workers. The twentieth century human being has experienced the end and the extent of the expansion of freedom under capitalism. This is all there is. No new miracle is going to take place. If more can be said, it is only that the process of regression in public attitude toward freedom and the legal tenets of bourgeois society has for some time been seriously in the making. But as I said, the negation of bourgeois despotism in practice, paralysing the suppressive capacity of bourgeois governments and parties for a certain period, and imposing conditions in which taking away the de facto freedom of the people would be difficult for the ruling class is not only possible, our very tactics hinge on it. The overthrow of the Islamic Republic, the arming of the mass of the workers, and guarding the political and civil rights of the people are not only possible, but vital. But putting in power a parliamentary system in Tehran, so that the bourgeoisie can thereafter play according to its rules, and have their say there, and thus get rid of their ideas on the violent takeover of power, the banning of working class parties and institutions, and the denial of obtained freedoms, is an illusion. The overthrow of despotism and the establishment of civil freedoms certainly is a political precondition for the momentum needed for the working class to deliver the final blow to the capitalist system, but all we have argued throughout these years has been that the working class should provide this precondition by its own power and in confrontation with a serious resistance by the bourgeoisie.
Question: Does the entire criticism levelled against the parliament and parliamentarianism lead you to the principle of a boycott of the parliament and parliamentary struggle? Should, from your point of view, the Worker-communist Party regard participation in any parliament and parliamentary election in Iran as already unviable? Is it possible to conceive of a situation in which the party would take part in elections and even in a parliamentary government?
Mansoor Hekmat: My argument about the attitude of a working class party toward the parliament and the parliamentary system is that this institution and this political regime cannot be the tool and the vehicle for the victory of socialism. Socialism will not triumph through the parliament. On the contrary, it would find the parliament, no matter how democratic, as a stronghold of bourgeois resistance, against itself. I do not, thereby, reach at a boycott of the parliament as a principle; I arrive at seeing it as secondary in the tactic of the socialist working class for taking power. I must say that at any rate my position toward the parliament, even in countries such as Britain or France, is closer to a boycott than the overall approach of the revolutionary Left or radical working class parties in these countries. In my view, the parliament for the worker is a sphere of conflict and a front for struggle, and not a gate to power.
In practical terms, participation in parliamentary elections and so on depends entirely upon time and place. I personally think that communism in Europe is too much directed toward the parliament and parliamentary struggle. In today’s US, I believe that a boycott of the legislative assemblies and presidential elections as a principle, from which exceptions can be made under very special circumstances, is a sounder tactic for worker-communism. In the larger part of backward countries, particularly in Iran and other Middle Eastern countries in which the parliament is decorative, or the entry of elected representatives of the people is openly and officially impossible, boycott is in order.
The worker-communist party should constantly expose the parliament and parliamentarism along the lines put forward in this discussion. But tactically, the electoral and parliamentary activity of the party is by no means off the agenda. It is up to the party to, in every single case, show the necessity of participating in the parliament according to the analysis of the political situation and the interests of the socialist movement of the working class. It is possible, of course, to already list out the principles for the preconditions which would permit the party to participate in the parliamentary process. Eventually, however, the answer should come out of the party’s specific analysis of the historical situation of each period.
Question: The issue which today, with the elimination of the bi-polar system of power in the world, is being discussed everywhere and has become conspicuous, particularly with the USA war in the Gulf and the interventionist activities and propaganda of the US and the Western governments, is whether the establishment of socialist power in a country such as Iran would not be confronted with immediate resort to arms by the capitalist powers. Has a working class revolution in such a country, therefore, any chances? Do not this factor and the conservative reservations initiating from it give an extra edge to the propaganda of the supporters of the parliamentary system, irrespective of how empty their promises of freedom may be?
Mansoor Hekmat: These reservations are serious, and I shall reply by referring to a few points. There should be no doubt that the establishment of any working class socialist regime anywhere in the world today would immediately spur the international bourgeoisie headed by the USA and the political-military coalition called the West to intervene with the purpose of reinstituting bourgeois rule. Can such an intervention actually take place, to begin with, and would it be able to crush our hypothetical socialist government, remains to be seen. As it happens, the experience of the military interventions of the last few years, from the Gulf war to Somalia and Bosnia, carried out in the name of the West and the USA, or, increasingly, in the name of the UN, has displayed the limits of the practical capacity of suppression of the armed campaign. Even though technologically their destructive power is immense, both economically and from the point of view of their social situation behind the lines, their involvement in widespread fights with mass revolutions and movements would not be easy. It is not, as I see it, too difficult to imagine that in the case of direct military involvement they may not eventually succeed in overthrowing a working class socialist government even in a medium sized – economically, geographically, and from the point of view of population – country.
This, I think, is a fact. But in itself it is neither an adequate answer to your question, nor can it provide much comfort to a generation in a revolutionized society who are supposed to be sacrificed, or to have their lives ruined, in the process of neutralising the military aggression of the world bourgeoisie toward their socialist revolution. Under the pages of the magazine of one of the Fedaii splinter group’s is printed: ‹The armed people unified in the councils are undefeatable›! Suppose that this is the case, and that this metaphysics is a physical law of the world. The process of proving this invincibility is certainly a painful process in which people, their lives, existence, and emotions, will be drowned in blood. The human aspect of the issue is just one dimension of the problem. The more long term, politico-historical aspect and the consequences of this process for that socialist revolution is no less terrifying than its human side. The very aggression changes the physical meaning of the socialist revolution for the mass of the people who are to be liberated through it. Socialism is a revolution for the happiness of humankind and an end to their deprivation; it is a revolution against the violence, which has formed the nature of society so far, a revolution for the freedom, joy, and creativity of the people. But the military aggression of the world bourgeoisie splashes blood on this event, couples it with deprivation, poverty, and isolation, with sacrifices and the endurance of more sorrow and pain and dispossession. Even the eventual victory of the revolution cannot, for many years, wipe the stain off the forming period of the new society. These pressures and deprivations have physical consequences for the revolution and its course. They exacerbate backward tendencies of which nationalism and ethnocentrism, religion and male chauvinism are only the grossest examples. They diminish respect for people’s dignity, and the value of life and comfort in people’s own eyes, reducing socialism to the sharing of poverty. The question, therefore, is not about our undefeatability. If they force us into such a war, then we are obliged to win. But the real solution is to deflate the risk. And this leads us to turn to one of the pivotal tenets of the working class revolution, namely, the international character of the working class and worker-socialism.
I believe the international character of the working class and the internationalist essence of worker-communism is the factor that turns socialism into an actual and attainable alternative in today’s world. In a country like Iran, working class revolution should be protected from international aggression and military and economic pressure by the power of the international working class, particularly that of the countries which lead bourgeois militarism on a global scale. This is a realistic possibility. I think workers in Iran would consider which of these is real and which one is utopian: that the parliament be established in Iran and freedom for working class strikes, organisations, and activities be legalized, the internal and foreign capitalists and the bourgeois army and armed political gangsters, from the Pan-Islamist Hezbollah trends to national Islamists, royalists, fascists, and run of the mill megalomaniacs should accept the new situation, surrender their weapons, use after shave, and come to the parliament, or, that workers should take over, and with help from the German, French, and American workers avoid engaging from a position of weakness in an unwanted war? In my view, today’s circumstances prove that working class internationalism is not only a principle, a belief, or a feeling for class community, but a real and cutting weapon in the class conflict. This weapon should be brandished and put to use. Our strategy for avoiding a tragedy that the international bourgeoisie would try to impose on the working class revolution in a country such as Iran is to try to create an international working class rank to protect such revolutions.
It is possible that USA and Western intimidation might drive the working masses of the world closer to the semi-democratic promises of the bourgeois opposition in these countries. ‹We are undefeatable›, no matter however revolutionary or sincere a belief, is no answer to this problem. The real answer is to actually organise working class internationalism on various levels.
My emphasis on internationalism does not in any way mean that the working class revolution, unless it breaks out on a global scale, is doomed. I do not visualize the emergence of socialism as a big, simultaneous, international bang. In the real course of history, it is far more probable that workers should take power in one place without being strong enough to do so in other parts of the world. Working class socialism would therefore be obliged to fulfil its programme, both politically and economically, in its entirety here or there, or in a combination of countries. What is vital, I think, is that the working class in other countries, particularly in those countries which stand in the forefront of bourgeois militarism on the global scene, should have the self awareness, and the international organisation to tie the hands of the bourgeoisie in its country from adopting a policy of military aggression and intervention. This is practical and attainable.
This was first published in Persian during February to July 1993 in International Nos. 4-7.
Translators: Bahram Soroush and Jamshid Haadian