Democratic Rights Movement and the Working Class
Paper Presented in the Third Arvind Memorial Seminar
• Prasen Singh
We would like to briefly put forward some points as to what should be the general stand of the working class in a backward capitalist countries like India in the current era of imperialism with respect to the fight for democracy or the democratic rights even while preparing for a fresh struggle towards the goal of socialism.
In the era of the national liberation struggles, the working class was participating in the general political mass movements against the colonial rule alongside its fight against the foreign capitalists as well as the native capitalists in the factories. The labourers in the villages were waging a democratic fight for freedom from bonded and forced labour and they naturally formed a common front with the peasants against the feudal landlords.
The colonial rule ended in 1947 and a constitution of bourgeois democratic republic came into being in 1950. But the project of bourgeois democracy was not only incomplete but skewed as well. Not only did the feudal remnants linger for a long time, capitalism to a large extent maintained the old medieval values and institutions with some minor adjustments. The skeleton of the constitution was erected from a colonial act of 1935 and even the structure of law and order, police force and bureaucracy was essentially the same as earlier. The national movement was a people’s movement but not a people’s revolution because even though its bourgeois leadership had managed to acquire power by creating the pressure of mass movements, it hampered the mass initiative on all occasions and betrayed the mass aspirations at each decisive point. Consequently, the national movement, though it became the cause of the transfer of power in the form of a partial, gradual and passive political revolution, the lack of democratic values and institutions in the social life and the democratic consciousness in the people remained a grave problem. The project of bourgeois democracy was incomplete and distorted in the sense that it had neither made a decisive rupture from the imperialist world nor did it bring about the capitalist land relations in a revolutionary manner. It was incomplete and distorted also in the sense that there was a lack of democratic consciousness in the society as well and the nature of bureaucracy, police, general laws and labour laws was democratic only nominally and formally. Although the bourgeoisie of America and Europe which carried out bourgeois democratic revolutions had also made the democratic ideals of the bourgeois philosophers of enlightenment era narrow and formal by distorting them in the interest of capital, but the Indian rulers did the same thing in hundred times more brazen and fraudulent manner. Some democratic institutions and aspirations have surely emerged as a natural culmination of the gradual development of capitalism in the last six decades, but its opposite move has been the sustained repression of the democratic rights and aspirations by the ruling classes and their senior global partners. The expansion of industry has led to the emergence of democratic institutions and aspirations, but the all round grip of the unproductive and parasitic financial system has strengthened the foundation of totalitarianism and tyrannical despotism. The second move has been more dominant in the last two decades of neo-liberalism. It is in this context that we are pondering over the fight for the democratic rights of the working class or over the role of the working class in the fight for the democratic rights.
It is true that seen from the viewpoint of the production-relations, the capitalist production-relation has established its hegemony in the Indian society today and particularly in the last twenty years the contradiction between labour and capital has increasingly sharpened. On the economic plane, all the clashes of the working class are with the capitalist plunder and the capitalist rule, though it does not fight for uprooting the capitalist rule but for its immediate interest and to protect itself from the all-round onslaught of capital. Looking from the viewpoint of political superstructure we find that the working class needs to fight for its democratic rights on daily basis and at every step.
This fight for the democratic rights has become extremely important today for the working class also because in the era of reversal and scattering of the labour movement, it has lost even the rights which it won after the prolonged struggles. In the era of the neo-liberal policies, 93 percent of workers belong to contractual, daily wage, casual and piece-rate category. The traditional unions have stopped fighting for the interest of such workers and owing to their dispersal, the bargaining capacity of the informal workers has gone down considerably. There is a need, in the new circumstances, to devise ways and means to organise this working population afresh and new forms of struggles are needed to proceed further.
Undoubtedly the workers will have to fight against the rule of capital and capitalist economic relations, but if they fail to fight for their democratic rights, they would not be able to wage political and economic struggle against capitalism as well. In the Russian communist movement, during 1894-1902, the “economists” had taken a stand that after the establishment of capitalism in Russia, the working class need not engage in the political struggle – i.e. the struggle for democracy. When the first World War was going on, some “economists” and “semi-anarchists” had maintained that in the stage of monopoly capitalism, there was no need to struggle for democracy (It was this viewpoint which was adopted by Pyatakov and Bukharin when they were opposing the right of self determination of the nations). Lenin had given a reply to such people and some general formulations of this reply are of great importance even for us in today’s conditions.
Lenin had written: “ Democracy is converted to a mirage by capitalism in general and imperialism in particular, though capitalism also inculcates democratic aspirations, creates democratic institutions and sharpens the contradiction between imperialism which defies democracy and the people aspiring for democracy. The rule of capitalism and imperialism can be overthrown not by extremely “ideal” democratic changes but only by an economic revolution. But a working class which is not educated in the struggle for democracy cannot be expected to accomplish an economic revolution…”
Further clarifying his point he writes: “The Marxist solution to the problem of democracy is that a working class which wages its class struggle must use all the democratic institutions and aspirations against the bourgeoisie in order to overthrow the latter’s rule and ensure its victory. Such a use is not an easy thing to do. To the “economists” and Tolstoyists etc. it appears as an unacceptable concession to the “bourgeois” and opportunistic thoughts in the same manner the advocacy of national self-determination in the “era of finance capital” is considered by P. Keyevsky as unacceptable concession to the bourgeois class. Marxism teaches us that “to fight against opportunism” by giving up the use of the democratic institutions created and distorted by bourgeois class is akin to completely surrendering to opportunism!” ( Lenin: ‘ reply to P. Keyevsky ( U. Pyatakov). ‘Against dogmatism and sectarianism in the labour movement’ collection, Moscow ,1986, Hindi Ed., page 81-82)
In a post-colonial agrarian and backward capitalist society like India where the project of capitalist democracy has remained incomplete and distorted from the beginning, it becomes all the more important for the Indian working class to fight for its democratic rights, to pressurise the bourgeois class to fulfill its promises of democracy, constitutional declarations and legal provisions and to struggle for expanding the shrinking (and continuously shrinking) space of bourgeois democracy. It is of utmost importance because even in the past, the economist and trade-unionist leadership either kept the workers busy in only the economic struggles or even if they raised some democratic demands they were of such nature (like the working hours, overtime, leave etc.) that there was nothing in common between them and the demands of other classes of people. It is important also because mere use of the bourgeois democratic institutions and ‘space’ has been rejected outrightly and being termed as rightwing by the semi-anarchist proletarian revolutionary streams. It is important also because in the era of liberlisation and privatisation, even the remaining bourgeois democratic space has been rapidly shrinking. The rights, which were won by the workers through struggle and for which there are several laws on paper till this day, have been rendered meaningless in practice.
When the working class demands eight hours working day, weekly holiday, minimum wages sufficient for fulfilling the basic needs of family ( such as nutritious food, comfortable housing, clothing, education and health), safety at workplace and the adequate compensation in case of accident, these demands are not those of ending the wage system or the exploitation of labour. These demands are within the scope of the bourgeois democracy – these are such demands which are promised by the bourgeois democracy. These are the demands of the civil liberties and democratic right of the working class. When the worker raises the demand of implementing the labour laws and their expansion and the democratisation of the labour departments and labour courts, even these are the struggles within the confines of bourgeois democracy during which the worker gets organised and learns to fight against state power on its demands.
When the working class goes a step further and demands the declaration of the right to work as fundamental right, when it raises the demand of compulsory provision by the state of the basic amenities like nutritious food for the entire population, comfortable housing, health care and uniform education, even these demands are well within the scope of bourgeois democracy. These demands are not those of ending the capitalist exploitation and inequality. Even the bourgeois democracy admits in principle that the responsibility of fulfilling the basic needs of the citizens rests with the government. These demands are bourgeois democratic demands of advance level in the sense that as soon as the working class raises these demands, the disgusted small peasants, general middle class population and even other sections of the populace come forward to stand beside it. A ground is thus prepared for a widespread mass movement and a broad strategic joint forum. Even though these demands pertain to the democratic rights but the struggle which is waged on these demands is of higher plane because even the advance bourgeois democracy cannot fulfill them (at best it can give some partial concessions). Hence, when a widespread movement on these demands advances, the people see the limits of capitalist democracy on their own. The collective initiative and collective creativeness of the people gets unleashed during such mass movements; newer forms of democratic institutions are born and even the social values and beliefs get democratised in radical manner.
Looking at the hell like darkness which prevails at the foothills below the summits of prosperity in Indian life, it is clear that the forms of movements such as people’s satyagrah and civil disobedience movement on the issues such as food security, housing, health care, education and universal right for livelihood can be re-popularised among the masses. The manner in which the neo-liberal policies are making the lives of ordinary people difficult and the ever yawning gap between rich and poor which dazzles our eyes, is clearly paving a new ground for social explosion. The time is ripe for giving the democratic rights movement the form of a widespread mass movement and the working class needs to be given the leading role in organizing this fight for democracy afresh.
Once the working class gets educated in the struggle of the democratic rights till this point, it would be ready on its own to fight for the more advance democratic demands such as calling a new constituent assembly, establishing an inexpensive, transparent and accountable system of people’s representation, transforming the colonial legal, police and bureaucratic system and bringing every level of bureaucracy under scope of public supervision and it would also take other class of people along with it. At that point, it would be prepared to form a militant front against the religious fundamentalists and by freeing itself from the influence of jingoistic propaganda it would even extend vocal support to the right to self determination of the nationalities.
It is not a schematic thinking but a practical plan of action which is the need of the hour for the working class as well as of the democratic rights movement. Reiterating the Lenin’s thought it can be said that a working class which is not educated in the fight for democracy cannot accomplish the task of transforming the capitalist production relations and the political system in a revolutionary manner. In other words, in order to make the democratic rights movement as a widespread mass movement, there is a need to make the demands of the democratic rights of the working class of the cities and villages as an issue and it is important for the working class to arouse, mobilise and organise itself for waging a struggle on these demands.
(Translated from Hindi: Anand Singh)