The metaphysics of democracy

8 03 2011

The principles of democracy – the sovereignty of the people, universal and equal suffrage, personal liberties – appear, as presented to him, in a halo of moral duty. They are turned from their historical meaning and presented as unalterable and sacred things-in-themselves. This metaphysical fall from grace is not accidental. It is instructive that the late Plekhanov, a merciless enemy of Kantism at the best period of his activity, attempted at the end of his life, when the wave of patriotism had washed over him, to clutch at the straw of the categorical imperative.

That real democracy with which the German people is now making practical acquaintance Kautsky confronts with a kind of ideal democracy, as he would confront a common phenomenon with the thing-in-itself. Kautsky indicates with certitude not one country in which democracy is really capable of guaranteeing a painless transition to Socialism. But he does know, and firmly, that such democracy ought to exist. The present German National Assembly, that organ of helplessness, reactionary malice, and degraded solicitations, is confronted by Kautsky with a different, real, true National Assembly, which possesses all virtues – excepting the small virtue of reality.

The doctrine of formal democracy is not scientific Socialism, but the theory of so-called natural law. The essence of the latter consists in the recognition of eternal and unchanging standards of law, which among different peoples and at different periods find a different, more or less limited and distorted expression. The natural law of the latest history – i.e., as it emerged from the Middle Ages – included first of all a protest against class privileges, the abuse of despotic legislation, and the other “artificial” products of feudal positive law. The theoreticians of the, as yet, weak Third Estate expressed its class interests in a few ideal standards, which later on developed into the teaching of democracy, acquiring at the same time an individualist character. The individual is absolute; all persons have the right of expressing their thoughts in speech and print; every man must enjoy equal electoral rights. As a battle cry against feudalism, the demand for democracy had a progressive character. As time went on, however, the metaphysics of natural law (the theory of formal democracy) began to show its reactionary side – the establishment of an ideal standard to control the real demands of the laboring masses and the revolutionary parties.

If we look back to the historical sequence of world concepts, the theory of natural law will prove to be a paraphrase of Christian spiritualism freed from its crude mysticism. The Gospels proclaimed to the slave that he had just the same soul as the slave-owner, and in this way established the equality of all men before the heavenly tribunal. In reality, the slave remained a slave, and obedience became for him a religious duty. In the teaching of Christianity, the slave found an expression for his own ignorant protest against his degraded condition. Side by side with the protest was also the consolation. Christianity told him:– ”You have an immortal soul, although you resemble a pack-horse.” Here sounded the note of indignation. But the same Christianity said:– ”Although you are like a pack-horse, yet your immortal soul has in store for it an eternal reward.” Here is the voice of consolation. These two notes were found in historical Christianity in different proportions at different periods and amongst different classes. But as a whole, Christianity, like all other religions, became a method of deadening the consciousness of the oppressed masses.

Natural law, which developed into the theory of democracy, said to the worker: “all men are equal before the law, independently of their origin, their property, and their position; every man has an equal right in determining the fate of the people.” This ideal criterion revolutionized the consciousness of the masses in so far as it was a condemnation of absolutism, aristocratic privileges, and the property qualification. But the longer it went on, the more if sent the consciousness to sleep, legalizing poverty, slavery and degradation: for how could one revolt against slavery when every man has an equal right in determining the fate of the nation?

Rothschild, who has coined the blood and tears of the world into the gold napoleons of his income, has one vote at the parliamentary elections. The ignorant tiller of the soil who cannot sign his name, sleeps all his life without taking his clothes off, and wanders through society like an underground mole, plays his part, however, as a trustee of the nation’s sovereignty, and is equal to Rothschild in the courts and at the elections. In the real conditions of life, in the economic process, in social relations, in their way of life, people became more and more unequal; dazzling luxury was accumulated at one pole, poverty and hopelessness at the other. But in the sphere of the legal edifice of the State, these glaring contradictions disappeared, and there penetrated thither only unsubstantial legal shadows. The landlord, the laborer, the capitalist, the proletarian, the minister, the bootblack – all are equal as “citizens” and as “legislators.” The mystic equality of Christianity has taken one step down from the heavens in the shape of the “natural,” “legal” equality of democracy. But it has not yet reached earth, where lie the economic foundations of society. For the ignorant day-laborer, who all his life remains a beast of burden in the service of the bourgeoisie, the ideal right to influence the fate of the nations by means of the parliamentary elections remained little more real than the palace which he was promised in the kingdom of heaven.

In the practical interests of the development of the working class, the Socialist Party took its stand at a certain period on the path of parliamentarism. But this did not mean in the slightest that it accepted in principle the metaphysical theory of democracy, based on extra-historical, super-class rights. The proletarian doctrines examined democracy as the instrument of bourgeois society entirely adapted to the problems and requirements of the ruling classes; but as bourgeois society lived by the labor of the proletariat and could not deny it the legalization of a certain part of its class struggle without destroying itself, this gave the Socialist Party the possibility of utilizing, at a certain period, and within certain limits, the mechanism of democracy, without taking an oath to do so as an unshakable principle.

The root problem of the party, at all periods of its struggle, was to create the conditions for real, economic, living equality for mankind as members of a united human commonwealth. It was just for this reason that the theoreticians of the proletariat had to expose the metaphysics of democracy as a philosophic mask for political mystification.

The democratic party at the period of its revolutionary enthusiasm, when exposing the enslaving and stupefying lie of church dogma, preached to the masses:– ”You are lulled to sleep by promises of eternal bliss at the end of your life, while here you have no rights and you are bound with the chains of tyranny.” The Socialist Party, a few decades later, said to the same masses with no less right:– ”You are lulled to sleep with the fiction of civic equality and political rights, but you are deprived of the possibility of realizing those rights. Conditional and shadowy legal equality has been transformed into the convicts’ chain with which each of you is fastened to the chariot of capitalism.”

In the name of its fundamental task, the Socialist Party mobilized the masses on the parliamentary ground as well as on others; but nowhere and at no time did any party bind itself to bring the masses to Socialism only through the gates of democracy. In adapting ourselves to the parliamentary regime, we stopped at a theoretical exposure of democracy, because we were still too weak to overcome it in practice. But the path of Socialist ideas which is visible through all deviations, and even betrayals, foreshadows no other outcome but this: to throw democracy aside and replace it by the mechanism of the proletariat, at the moment when the latter is strong enough to carry out such a task.

We shall bring one piece of evidence, albeit a sufficiently striking one. “Parliamentarism,” wrote Paul Lafargue in the Russian review, Sozialdemokrat, in 1888, “is a system of government in which the people acquires the illusion that it is controlling the forces of the country itself, when, in reality, the actual power is concentrated in the hands of the bourgeoisie – and not even of the whole bourgeoisie, but only of certain sections of that class. In the first period of its supremacy the bourgeoisie does not understand, or, more correctly, does not feel, the necessity for making the people believe in the illusion of self-government. Hence it was that all the parliamentary countries of Europe began with a limited franchise. Everywhere the right of influencing the policy of the country by means of the election of deputies belonged at first only to more or less large property holders, and was only gradually extended to less substantial citizens, until finally in some countries it became from a privilege the universal right of all and sundry.

“In bourgeois society, the more considerable becomes the amount of social wealth, the smaller becomes the number of individuals by whom it is appropriated. The same takes place with power: in proportion as the mass of citizens who possess political rights increases, and the number of elected ruler’s increases, the actual power is concentrated and becomes the monopoly of a smaller and smaller group of individuals.” Such is the secret of the majority.

For the Marxist, Lafargue, parliamentarism remains as long as the supremacy of the bourgeoisie remains. “On the day,” writes Lafargue, “when the proletariat of Europe and America seizes the State, it will have to organize a revolutionary government, and govern society as a dictatorship, until the bourgeoisie has disappeared as a class.”

Kautsky in his time knew this Marxist estimate of parliamentarism, and more than once repeated it himself, although with no such Gallic sharpness and lucidity. The theoretical apostasy of Kautsky lies just in this point: having recognized the principle of democracy as absolute and eternal, he has stepped back from materialist dialectics to natural law. That which was exposed by Marxism as the passing mechanism of the bourgeoisie, and was subjected only to temporary utilization with the object of preparing the proletarian revolution, has been newly sanctified by Kautsky as the supreme principle standing above classes, and unconditionally subordinating to itself the methods of the proletarian struggle. The counterrevolutionary degeneration of parliamentarism finds its most perfect expression in the deification of democracy by the decaying theoreticians of the Second International.

Leon Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism


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21 responses

21 03 2011
Ron Pavellas

I guess I’m getting tired of this slicing and dicing. Everything is what it is and all our descriptions of it are each his/her own. We tend not to want to agree with each other, perhaps for the pleasure hearing/reading our own voices/words. None of this matters. But thanks for the conversation.

15 03 2011
Ron Pavellas

I am enjoying this conversation and will back to it after I have a night’s sleep and get some other things done. Best wishes,
Ron

15 03 2011
Turmarion

[Y]ou are certain that in, presumably, all instances ‘modern medicine’ will work for all ‘tribesmen’ in the Amazon Basin. What is the source of your certainty?

No medicine works in all instances for any people, tribe, or ethnic group–to argue this way is fatuous.

When the Europeans came to the New World, the smallpox and other diseases they carried decimated the population. This despite at least 20,000 years of separation between the two peoples, the massively different worldviews, subtle physiological differences, etc. The viruses didn’t care. Also, I’m not aware of massive, wide-spread failures of antibiotics, surgery, etc. when these are applied to tribal peoples in South America, Africa, etc. In fact, modern medicine has eliminated smallpox, and part of this was because dedicated doctors went out among tribal peoples to vaccinate them against said disease. Seemed to work fine. The converse is that many botanical remedies derived from Amazonian (and other) tropical flora are being researched even as we speak. If they would work only for Amazonians, that’s be a huge waste of time and money, right?

As to the link, it is one thing to say that we can never fully be objective and that there’s no objective viewpoint outside the cosmos from which we can view it, and quite another to say that there is no such objective reality or that we can’t approximate it to better or worse degrees, or that reality is somehow “created” by us or by the responses of “sentient beings everywhere”. Even if one adopts your definition of “reality” (which I don’t), then given the vast number of sentients in the cosmos, with the corollary that the perception of any one is a vanishingly small proportion of the whole, and that the sum must not change very much over humanly observable time, it would seem that the whole menage would approximate an objective reality, anyway.

Finally, though, it comes once more back to simple logic. You seem to have some strong beliefs regarding politics, ideology, and intellectuals, as stated above. But if reality is more or less plastic, relative, and subjective (or inter-subjective), then how are your beliefs and commitments any more valid than those, say, of Hitler? Who’s to say that the end doesn’t justify the means, or that some people aren’t more important than others, or that massacring people in the name of an abstraction might not in fact be a good idea? I don’t think any of that, but if one makes reality into some kind of sum of perceptions, one no longer has any position from which to criticize such things.

Also, I repeat as I said before: the most zealous opponents of objective, external reality behave, in actual practice, exactly as if such a reality does, in fact, exist. They assume that fire will burn them, that poison will kill them, that there is use in getting an engineer to design earthquake-resistant housing, that doctors can make them better, that if they trip they’ll fall down, and that when they’re doing their budgeting that the numbers will always add up the same way–in short, they assume that 2 + 2 is, in fact, 4, regardless of anyone’s opinion on the matter. Well, if you live as if the world is more or less real and objective, then it doesn’t matter what you say you believe. If such a belief doesn’t make a difference in how you live, then I point out the old maxim that a difference that makes no difference is no difference.

You may in this context find this oldie but goodie interesting.

15 03 2011
Ron Pavellas

Hmm, you are certain that in, presumably, all instances ‘modern medicine’ will work for all ‘tribesmen’ in the Amazon Basin. What is the source of your certainty? a ‘Faith’ in ‘Science’? Here is my definition of reality: http://wordsafew.com/2010/02/24/get-real-what-is-%E2%80%98reality%E2%80%99-really/

15 03 2011
Turmarion

I agree that point 1. is contradictory in the manner you describe.

I’m glad that you grant that.

It doesn’t invalidate my other points, as you agree with them for the most part, as you say.

I said I basically agreed with 4 and 5, not 1-3.

We could use different terms for “gravity”, but the fact remains that it behaves uniformly the same, always, everywhere, for us, for Amazonian jungle dwellers, for everyone. No one ever trips and falls up!

Anyway, I think conventions of communication aren’t the real issue here.

2. Reality is what you, yourself, right now, experience and perceive.

This is the main point where I’d take issue with you. By this criterion, what an insane, drugged, or hallucinating person experiences is just as “real” as the normal “consensus” reality. One might hold this position, I guess, but it is contradictory and not susceptible of demonstration. Most importantly, in the real world in which we live, no one acts in accordance with such a position. If a deranged person screams that winged monkeys are coming to get me and points at harmless pigeons, I’d be foolish to agree with him. Even the people who most vehemently deny a consensus or external and objective reality behave as if there is indeed one every moment of their lives.

Moreover, no matter what we believe about the subjectivity of reality, we all go to specialists–doctors, lawyers, engineers, plumbers, auto mechanics–all the time. But this, ipso facto, undermines the whole idea of subjectivity and the rejection of consensus reality. To go to a doctor, e.g., implies first that there is so much similarity between “your” reality and the doctor’s that she can meaningfully diagnose and treat you; and two, that the doctor has a better understanding of that consensus reality (the part regarding medicine) than you do, and can put that understanding to use for your health. This, too, implies objectivity and a reality that is there whether we perceive it or even believe it or not.

Btw, the aforementioned doctor could go to the Amazon basin and successfully treat a tribesman of illness. The tribesman and the doctor might have vastly differing worldviews, but nevertheless modern medicine works for them perfectly fine; just as, on the other hand, some traditional ethnobotanic remedies have been found to work for us as well as for tribal people. If the stronger interpretation of your view–that is, that we live in our own non-overlapping realities and that some such realities overlap so little that there is little if anything intercompatible between people in such cultures–were true, this wouldn’t be possible.

15 03 2011
Ron Pavellas

I agree that point 1. is contradictory in the manner you describe. What else have we got? It doesn’t invalidate my other points, as you agree with them for the most part, as you say. We share a common reality, at least we overlap a significant amount or degree. There is a thing many of us agree to call gravity. We could call it coffee and it would still be the same force or thing. It doesn’t need humans to sense it or describe it. The conventions we use to conveniently communicate are like agreements. We agree to suspend our disbelief in the reality of these abstractions so we can get along in life and with each other. They work, so far, at least in our shared (or overlapping) culture. They won’t work for the Amazonian jungle dwellers, nor will theirs work for us. Is an electron a particle or a wave or a wavicle? It, if it exists, doesn’t need us to describe it. Will Schrödinger’s cat survive the next test? Are there white holes at the other end of Black Holes where other universes are being created? Why not? Let’s just say so together and it will be the truth, at least for us.

15 03 2011
Turmarion

If this double-posts by accident, I apologize in advance. Put too many links in by accident, I guess, since it’s being held for moderation.

4. Revolutionaries are full of hubris, or are tools of those with hubris, or hybris. The gods will punish them, eventually.
5. People who style themselves as “intellectual” are usually delusional.

I’d agree for the most part with these two statements.

1. All words are lies; they are abstractions of reality.”

Here I’d agree with Chris: “A better example of self-refutation you will never find.” If taken literally, this is another version of the paradox of Epimenides the Cretan, who said “All Cretans are liars,” better known in the form of the old logical saw, “This statement is false.”

Words are of course arbitrary–the same object could be called “libro”, “biblíon”, “sefer”, “kitab”, “kniga”, or “book”, depending one’s language. There’s no necessary connection between a particular sequence of phonemes and an object; nor is there a Platonic form of the word for “book” or anything else floating about. On the other hand, this fact is not quite the same as the assertion that words are “lies” or nothing but abstractions. That’s essentially heading into nominalism, which I don’t think is a tenable place to be. Contrary to what you seem to imply, abstraction isn’t in and of itself a bad thing.

Of course, if words are “lies” and (as seems to be implied) abstractions are useless, blogging seems then to be a strange way to pass one’s time! Doesn’t that make all five of your points “lies” and “abstractions of reality”?

3. It’s nice when words between people seem to indicate a shared reality, but it is ultimately an illusion.

This would seem to make all human communication, society, culture, etc. a farce. Granted, it’s truly amazing how differently each of us thinks and how hard it is to get outside our own skulls and communicate; but it’s even more amazing how well people do this and how well human communication functions, given the hurdles. If you want to argue that we each live in our own little worlds with no shared reality, and that human interaction is just an illusion, a farce, then you’re entitled to that view, and it’s doubtful that I could convince you otherwise (not that I’m particularly interested in so doing); but even those who take such views give them the lie by their actions, since as social creatures we all go about communicating and living in the very shared reality that we deny exists. Put it another way–do you think gravity is an illusion?

15 03 2011
Chris

‘Now it seems that Plato strayed from the truth because, having observed that all knowledge takes place through some kind of similitude, he thought that the form of the thing known must of necessity be in the knower in the same manner as in the thing known itself.’ (ST I, 84, 1)

15 03 2011
Ron Pavellas

So, words are NOT abstractions of reality? Words are real in themselves? The word ‘book’ is as real as the book you hold?

15 03 2011
Chris

“My position:
1. All words are lies; they are abstractions of reality.”

A better example of self-refutation you will never find.

15 03 2011
Ron Pavellas

“the grand ideological projects of yesteryear — socialism, democracy, liberty, feminism, Christendom(!), etc. — should be set aside, in favor of … what? Every freedom we enjoy today in our bourgeois liberal democratic societies was once the pipe dream of some disreputable, flag-waving ideologue. These days, even Tories are Jacobins. Even the Pope is a liberal democratic egalitarian. We are all Robespierre!”

I see.
1.The end justifies the means
2. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.
3. You will allow, or at least condone, your family to be abused and massacred in the name of an abstraction, in your hope of a better future for other people, somewhere.
4. Other people, somewhere and sometime, are more important than people right now.

My position:
1. All words are lies; they are abstractions of reality.
2. Reality is what you, yourself, right now, experience and perceive.
3. It’s nice when words between people seem to indicate a shared reality, but it is ultimately an illusion.
4. Revolutionaries are full of hubris, or are tools of those with hubris, or hybris. The gods will punish them, eventually.
5. People who style themselves as “intellectual” are usually delusional. See here: http://pavellas.com/2009/02/11/what-is-an-intellectual-really/

15 03 2011
Facundo Quiroga

I’m sorry but I’m very interested in Ron Pavellas’ confused antipolitics. The idea that “individual people are more important than ideas” suggests that the grand ideological projects of yesteryear — socialism, democracy, liberty, feminism, Christendom(!), etc. — should be set aside, in favor of … what? Every freedom we enjoy today in our bourgeois liberal democratic societies was once the pipe dream of some disreputable, flag-waving ideologue. These days, even Tories are Jacobins. Even the Pope is a liberal democratic egalitarian. We are all Robespierre!

13 03 2011
Arturo Vasquez

13 03 2011
Ron Pavellas

“The people united will never be defeated,” sounds great. Who will lead, and to where and what? More of the same. Look to the immediate aftermath of revolution in France and Cuba, for instance. More killing and horror, then new oppressive leaders. “Humbug” to all this “power to the people” rhetoric. Be a useful idiot all you want. Phooey on Lenin, Trotsky and all the other red flag wavers. “The people” are considered and treated like children by the self-styled intellectuals who have all the “correct” ideas and plans. .

13 03 2011
Arturo Vasquez

12 03 2011
Ron Pavellas

Finally, something closer to Earth.

12 03 2011
synLeszkax

This article is nothing new. Even in Communist times, in the Eastern bloc, speeches like this were viewed with suspicion as a rebellion against the Party, and laughed down by the Workers as idealism. Try talking to someone raised in Communism, the thing which that most angers them is using the word ideal, idealism. The belief that there are no ideals is essential in the mentality of communism.
Pier Paolo Passolini, otherwise a communist, says that the problem which the Marxists did not perceive was that the proletariat, the poor have their own culture. Marxists do not seek to affirm the identity of the poor, their customs, religion, life style, but they wanted them to become cynical liberal-bourgeoise. The problem that Marxism created is that the poor do not want to accept themselves but they want to become cynical bourgeoise. The poor in communism did not have any privileges, as they have in the Church, all that communism taught them is cynicism and sloth.
Oh yes, the Communism which meant to destroy poverty, had laws which allowed abortion only for poor women!

11 03 2011
Facundo Quiroga

E., you give anti-imperialism a bad name. Notice how this uprising against Gaddafi’s regime developed just as Tripoli was incorporating itself into the schema of the U.S./NATO dominated world system, establishing diplomatic relations with Washington, etc. There’s nothing left-wing about Gaddafi, a costumed almirante de opereta if there ever was one.

Also Trostky is wrong about Kautsky — a better man and a better Marxist than Lev Bronstein.

9 03 2011
E

So what with all the Trot stuff? I am barely a believer in this stuff myself. You know who this is. I haven’t turned reformist, just upset with the left lately, especially with their fawing over the North African uprisings that feel like CIA Color Revolutions. Has not the left learned much from the destruction of Yugoslavia? The ruling class has learned how to play the desperate masses for imperialist games. The left can be bought and used as brutal instruments of the ruling classes too, the KLA for instance. Take care and US Hands off Libya!!!

8 03 2011
Owen White

Beautiful passage. Thanks.

8 03 2011
Ron Pavellas

Too many words. Individual people are more important than ideas. Shut up and make some bread or do something else useful.

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