Corey Bernardi’s defection from the Liberal Party illustrates an important part of the Marxist criticism of the bourgeois state.
The 1871Paris Commune afforded Marx and Engels their first opportunity to compare a working class state power with that of the bourgeoisie.
They observed how the bourgeois state had developed from an instrument of society in its struggle against feudal absolutism into a “state power making itself independent in relation to society” (Engels, Introduction to Marx’s The Civil War in France).
That process included an electoral system that privileged successful candidates over those who voted for them via a guaranteed fixed term of office, and an upper caste of highly paid officials (senior “public servants”) who were characterised by service to self: to “place-hunting and careerism” (Engels).
The state was indeed “nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another” (Engels) from which Marx drew the conclusion that shattered social-democratic, reformist and revisionist illusions: “But the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state-machinery and wield it for their own purpose. The political instrument of their enslavement cannot serve as the political instrument of their emancipation” (Marx, The Civil War in France).
The Commune introduced the right of recall
It was the practical measures of the Commune that contained the essence of the theories developed out of it by Marx, and restated 20 years later by Engels in his Introduction.
“From the very outset,” wrote Engels, “the Commune was compelled to recognize that the working class, once come to power, could not go on managing with the old state machine; that in order not to lose again its only just conquered supremacy, this working class must, on the one hand, do away with all the old repressive machinery previously used against itself, and, on the other, safeguard itself against its own deputies and officials, by declaring them all, without exception, subject to recall at any moment.”
This leads us directly back to Senator Bernardi. He is not subject to recall, despite having six months ago, accepted second spot on the South Australian Liberal Senate team, and having been elected as a Liberal Senator for a period of six years. Bernardi is protected in his defection from the Government because the Parliament in which he sits is “independent in relation to society”, subject only to the periodic charade of an election in which candidates chosen by their party, and not by electors, seek the endorsement of the electorate.
(When we say, quoting Marx and Engels, that the bourgeois state is “independent in relation to society”, we refer to that formal separation of the elected representative from supervision, and if necessary, recall by those who voted for them. We do not mean that the political institution of the state is any way above the influence and power of the class which has created and controls it - the bourgeoisie.)
Marx applauded the most significant of the practical measures of the Commune as representing “the reabsorption of the State power by society as its own living forces instead of as forces controlling and subduing it” (The Civil War in France) and recognised that one of the means by which this had come about was by “replacing the haughteous masters of the people into always removable servants…continuously under public supervision”.
Enter the power of the Soviets…
In October 1917, the Russian workers, peasants and soldiers ended Tsarism and “did away with the old repressive machinery previously used against itself”. The Soviet revolution was the second time that workers were afforded the opportunity to make a completely new state apparatus. That apparatus grew out of democratically elected councils of workers and soldiers, the soviets, operating under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party. Supervision of both the Soviets and the Party by the working class, a supervision into which the peasants were progressively drawn, was mandatory in the proletarian state.
Sir Walter Citrine, General Secretary of the British Trade Union Congress from 1926-1946, and no friend of the Soviet Union or the British Communist Party, visited the Soviet Union in 1925 and again in 1935, the year in which he was knighted. He described the supervision of Communist functionaries within a factory he visited:
“The Commission is sent to the factory. The members of the Party are called up before them in front of the workers, both Party and non-Party. He is required to tell his life’s history, especially what he has done and is doing for the Revolution. Anyone can question him regarding both private and public matters, and after he has been turned inside out, the Commission then makes its decision” (Citrine, I Search for Truth in Russia, 1936).
The new Soviet Constitution of 1936 further consolidated these supervisory functions of the working class.
“In the preparation for the elections under the new Constitution,” wrote British author J.R. Campbell in his 1939 book, Soviet Policy and its Critics, “there were wide discussions in the Communist Party and all of the mass organisations in the country, and a re-election of all the leading officials…”
“Great reporting meetings and delegates of all categories reported on their work. The reports were submitted to a prolonged and in some cases ruthless criticism, and on that basis the election of officials by secret ballot took place. One-third of the new officials have been elected for the first time. Many officials, both locally and nationally, who had got into a rut and were failing to attend to the requirements of the members were removed. In these assemblies the Communist Party members had no special privileges. The workers judged them – as they judged other officials – on the basis of their work.”
The Soviet system of supervision of elected officials and deputies by those they represented through mass meetings to evaluate their contribution to the implementation of policies based on the needs of the workers has no equal in the contemporary Australian political system. There is no equivalent in our parliamentary system of that organic, structured and systematised supervision of the elected by the people that was characteristic of the Soviet system prior to its betrayal by the Khrushchev gang after Stalin’s death.
The democratic dictatorship of the Soviet state
But, may it not be objected (indeed, it certainly will be objected) was not Stalin’s Russia a personal dictatorship with near-unanimous (hint: fraudulent) votes for single, Party-approved candidates?
This is the year of the centenary of the Soviet revolution, and it behoves all Communists to be able to answer criticisms such as this.
Let’s look at the account of an American who was in the Soviet Union for three months prior to the 1936 elections.
“To start with it must be remembered that while the final elections took place on only one day, December 12th, the election campaign, as such, occupied two or three months of intense discussion and activity. Why was this necessary if most of the candidates were unopposed? Because the very process of selection of the candidates was a most important aspect of the election.
“In the United States candidates are proposed by political parties. The average citizen has darn little to say about who these candidates shall be. This is all left to the ward heelers and the city, State and national bosses of the major political parties.
“Not so in the Soviet Union. According to the Soviet Constitution the right to nominate candidates resides in every pubic organisation, in every society of toilers. Trade unions, co-operatives, youth organisations, cultural and sports clubs and all other organisations of the people not only have the right but actually did nominate their candidates for the Supreme Council.
“Let us see how this worked in practice. In One election district a number of local organisations of that type nominated their own candidates. This took place many weeks before the final elections. Hence, as a result of such nominations by a number of organisations in this district, a handful of candidates were left in the running. Immediately widespread discussion developed around these proposed individuals. One organisations would send spokesmen to others to convince them to support their nominee. As the whole discussion was based on finding the person best suited for the post, some candidates were withdrawn, others declined, until finally, just before election, one candidate was left in the field, the unanimous choice of all the organisations of the people in that election district.
“Thus, if only one candidate was on the final ballot in this election district it was not because n others were nominated and discussed, but because prior to election day it had already become clear that this one person was the logical candidate and would emerge the victor” (Gil Green, The Truth About Soviet Russia).
The great virtue of our bourgeois parliamentary system, namely that we can engage in a process once every three years (or six in the case of Senators) of choosing from a field of candidates one to misrepresent our interests with, generally speaking, no prior involvement in their selection and no subsequent opportunity for thorough, systematised and on-going supervision is revealed rather as a vice in comparison with the genuine democracy for working people of a proletarian state.
Soviet democracy and Stalin
Stalin himself had to go through such a process of selection, albeit one in which his outstanding contributions at the head of the Soviet state and his enormous popularity, quite naturally predetermined an outcome in his favour. How well Stalin presented to electors of the Moscow electoral district his views on the differences between the bourgeois and proletarian democratic processes, and the inalienable right of voters to supervision and recall of those they elected:
“Never in the history of the world have there been such really free and really democratic elections—never! History knows no other example like it. (Applause.) The point is not that our elections will be universal, equal, secret and direct, although that fact in itself is of great importance. The point is that our universal elections will be carried out as the freest elections and the most democratic of any country in the world.
“Universal elections exist and are held in some capitalist countries, too, so-called democratic countries. But in what atmosphere are elections held there? In an atmosphere of class conflicts, in an atmosphere of class enmity, in an atmosphere of pressure brought to bear on the electors by the capitalists, landlords, bankers and other capitalist sharks. Such elections, even if they are universal, equal, secret and direct, cannot be called altogether free and altogether democratic elections.
“Here, in our country, on the contrary, elections are held in an entirely different atmosphere. Here there are no capitalists and no landlords and, consequently, no pressure is exerted by propertied classes on non-propertied classes. Here elections are held in an atmosphere of collaboration between the workers, the peasants and the intelligentsia, in an atmosphere of mutual confidence between them, in an atmosphere, I would say, of mutual friendship; because there are no capitalists in our country, no landlords, no exploitation and nobody, in fact, to bring pressure to bear on people in order to distort their will.
“That is why our elections are the only really free and really democratic elections in the whole world. (Loud applause.)
“Such free and really democratic elections could arise only on the basis of the triumph of the socialist system, only on the basis of the fact that in our country socialism is not merely being built, but has already become part of life, of the daily life of the people. Some ten years ago the question might still be debated whether socialism could be built in our country or not. Today this is no longer a debatable question. Today it is a matter of facts, a matter of real life, a matter of habits that permeate the whole life of the people. Our mills and factories are being run without capitalists. The work is directed by men and women of the people. That is what we call socialism in practice. In our fields the tillers of the land work without landlords and without kulaks. The work is directed by men and women of the people. That is what we call socialism in daily life, that is what we call a free, socialist life.
“It is on this basis that our new, really free and really democratic elections have arisen, elections which have no precedent in the history of mankind.
“How then, after this, can one refrain from congratulating you on the occasion of the day of national celebration, the day of the elections to the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union! (Loud, general cheers.)
“Further, comrades, I would like to give you some advice, the advice of a candidate to his electors. If you take capitalist countries you will find that peculiar, I would say, rather strange relations exist there between deputies and voters. As long as the elections are in progress, the deputies flirt with the electors, fawn on them, swear fidelity and make heaps of promises of every kind. It would appear that the deputies are completely dependent on the electors. As soon as the elections are over, and the candidates have become deputies, relations undergo a radical change. Instead of the deputies being dependent on the electors, they become entirely independent. For four or five years, that is, until the next elections, the deputy feels quite free, independent of the people, of his electors. He may pass from one camp to another, he may turn from the right road to the wrong road, he may even become entangled in machinations of a not altogether desirable character, he may turn as many somersaults as he likes—he is independent.
“Can such relations be regarded as normal? By no means, comrades. This circumstance was taken into consideration by our Constitution and it made it a law that electors have the right to recall their deputies before the expiration of their term of office if they begin to play monkey tricks, if they turn off the road, or if they forget that they are dependent on the people, on the electors.
“This is a wonderful law, comrades. A deputy should know that he is the servant of the people, their emissary in the Supreme Soviet, and he must follow the line laid down in the mandate given him by the people. If he turns off the road, the electors. are entitled to demand new elections, and as to the deputy who turned off the road, they have the right to blackball him. (Laughter and applause.) This is a wonderful law. My advice, the advice of a candidate to his electors, is that they remember this electors' right, the right to recall deputies before the expiration of their term of office, that they keep an eye on their deputies, control them and, if they should take it into their heads to turn off the right road, get rid of them and demand new elections. The government is obliged to appoint new elections. My advice is to remember this law and to take advantage of it should need arise.”
The Soviet state was a dictatorship alright, a class dictatorship of workers and peasants over the capitalist-roaders, the pessimists and obstructionists, the traitors and saboteurs. The workers and peasants had guaranteed democratic rights as masters of this state. This was sustainable during the Lenin-Stalin era because it embodied the Marxist requirement that such a state enact “the reabsorption of the State power by society as its own living forces”.
Australians’ growing disillusion with parliamentary parties
Senator Corey Bernardi is the personification of that independence of bourgeois politicians from society of which Marx and Engels spoke. Elected one day to represent the Liberals for a six-year term, it took only six months for him to feel quite free, quite independent of his electors to “pass from one camp to another, …(to) become entangled in machinations of a not altogether desirable character, (and to) turn as many somersaults as he likes”.
Recent surveys of Australian voters reveal a growing disenchantment with parliament, parliamentary parties and politicians. Professor Mark Evans of the University of Canberra Institute for Governance and Public Analysis said a survey last June showed Australians' trust in government and politicians are now at their lowest levels since 1993. The joint survey with the Museum of Australian Democracy revealed only 37 per cent of Australians subscribe to a particular political party, the lowest level since 1967.
A second survey, the 2016 Scanlon Foundation survey, on the working of Australian democracy found low levels of trust in parliament and political parties.
An increased proportion of respondents agreed that "the system of government we have in Australia … needs major change", up from 23 per cent in 2014 to 31 per cent in 2016. A further 11 per cent would like to see the system replaced.
According to this survey, the lack of trust in the political system may in part reflect the failure to tackle socially progressive issues supported by a majority of electors. This is despite the fact that right-wing grouplets like Hanson’s and Bernardi’s seem to have benefitted electorally from the disenchantment.
And a January 2017 Ipsos survey painted a global picture of widespread resentment of the rich and powerful, distrust of traditional politics and pessimism about the future. The Australians it surveyed were reported to be “very much in tune with these sentiments”.
According to Ipsos research, “Over two-thirds (68 per cent) believe "the economy is rigged to the advantage of the rich and powerful" and 61 per cent believe "traditional parties and politicians don't care about people like me".
Parliament, as the political institution of the capitalist state, and the processes by which it functions, will never serve the real interests of the Australian working class and people.
Our choice is clear.
Either engaging fruitlessly in that inevitable cycle of hoping for a better deal under Labor than we know we are going to get from the Liberals, and then losing heart every time Labor wins office and backtracks on its promises to the point where it seems indistinguishable from the more open party of big business.
Or having own independent political agenda which, while proposing immediate demands for measures to make life easier and better, never loses sight of the ultimate goal of an independent and socialist Australia.
Either engaging in the shallow and empty exercise of choosing between candidates selected for us by the parties and giving them free rein to do as they please between electoral cycles.
Or smashing the old and creating a new working class state power with genuine selection of our own candidates subject to ongoing supervision and recall.
Away with the bourgeois parliament!
For independence, socialism and a working class state!