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Challenging Democracy by Rethinking Freedom

This article aims to provide a theoretical discussion on the concept of democracy and freedom, rather than advise readers whether to participating in the existent so call it democracy by vote or not. It highlights the need to reconsider and recognize the true meaning of one’s concepts. In addition, the article explores the structure of the Iranian communist movement in the 1980s, with a focus on the influence of Mansour Hekmat on the movement’s way of thinking. While there have been political setbacks for Hekmat’s heirs like Marx, his method of dealing has maintained its importance.

Mansour Hekmat, the Iranian Marxist thinker, took on the task of developing a fresh approach to Marxism in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. He was a prominent thinker and revolutionary who played a key role in the Worker-communist movement. He was a vocal opponent of the Shah regime, and after the 1979 Revolution, he founded the movement of Revolutionary Marxism. In 1983, he co-founded the Communist Party of Iran, which was staunchly opposed to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Like many late 20th-century Marxists, Hekmat rejected the socialisms of the Soviet Union, China and the east European bloc. He also rejected the engagements of Marxists in guerrilla warfare, as well as those who articulated social democratic or Trotskyist solutions. He saw all of them as lacking humanism, and that essential Marxist concept of radicalism. He later split from the party in 1991 and founded the Worker-communist Party of Iran (WPI), which he led until his untimely death in 2002.

A Marxist Critique on Democracy

In his conception of socialist and Marxist, democracy was not seen as a fundamental concept for Hekmat. Instead, as a Marxist, emphasized the notion of freedom, which was considered to be of paramount importance. Hekmat argues that democracy, is a particular class interpretation of a broader concept of freedom that is historically determined. He suggest that a Marxist approach to democracy, must be both objective and historical. While a liberal or democrat may offer a subjective interpretation of what constitutes genuine democracy, a Marxist must elaborate on the historical and practical significance of democracy and its social function.

The reality of democracy as it confronts people in contemporary society is a product of the rise of capitalism. Democracy represents the bourgeois conception of freedom. This does not imply that there is only one version of democracy or that it has historically been pursued or formulated solely by the bourgeoisie. But, how are this people and why Hekmat refers to them?

The German bourgeoisie consisted of professionals, business owners, and other individuals who enjoyed economic and social status above the working classes. They were highly educated, sophisticated, and often politically influential. They were also cultural patrons who supported the arts and sciences, which helped to shape the intellectual and cultural life of Germany.

During the 19th century, the bourgeoisie played a critical role in the political and social transformation of Germany and many back then countries. They were the driving force behind German unification and helped to establish the democratic institutions of the German Empire. However, they also faced opposition from other social groups, including the aristocracy and the working classes, who saw the bourgeoisie as self-interested and lacking in compassion for the less fortunate.

So, how they see democracy and a democratic system, have a different concept. However, this does not reflect the non-bourgeois character of the concept. Rather, it underscores the extent to which bourgeois ideology and terminology have dominated the struggle for freedom and liberation. By substituting the struggle for freedom with that of democracy, bourgeois society has predetermined the limits of the subjugated classes’ search for freedom and the eventual shape of their victory. Even after achieving victory, the subjugated classes are merely given parliament and “pluralism” instead of genuine freedom.

The notion of democracy has become one of the most elusive and contested concepts in the realm of political discourse, owing to the existence of various class-based iterations of the same. Its use has been appropriated by different movements and politicians to serve their own interests, leading to a multiplicity of meanings that do not necessarily converge. The same term can be employed to signify antithetical political circumstances, ranging from anti-communist and Cold War interpretations to humanistic and egalitarian ones.

Notwithstanding these diverse interpretations, the fundamental essence of democracy and democratism, in all its forms, can still be discerned, distinct from other political pursuits such as socialism and the socialist quest for liberty. Yet, the bare-bones concept of democracy, devoid of any qualifying adjectives, does little to illuminate the complex landscape of social trends and movements.

Hekmat argues that to grasp the full import of the term, it is necessary to add adjectives to it, such as liberal democracy, populist democracy, parliamentary or representative democracy, direct democracy, Western democracy, and so forth. These qualifications render the term more politically tangible and intelligible, enabling us to differentiate between the various social forces and movements that are mobilized behind each variant. In doing so, we are better able to comprehend the differences and even contradictions that exist between them.


The Invention of Democracy

The idea of democracy, as a government of the people, rose to prominence during the 18th and 19th centuries as a counter to autocratic monarchies and despotic regimes that based their power on sources beyond the society and its people. The emergence of the bourgeoisie, social reformers, and the masses led to demands for the government of the people, which was a direct challenge to the existing governments that claimed legitimacy from sources beyond the people.

However, the demand for democracy has always been ambiguous. The practical participation of the people in political power and the definition of ‘the people’ have been subject to serious political struggles. In many democracies, certain sections of society, including women, black people, and immigrants, have not been included as ‘the people’. Wage earners were only recently defined as ‘the people’ in some democracies. The structure of government and the practical relation of the people to governmental power have been areas of political struggle, and the outcome of these struggles has changed the practical outlook of democracy in European and American societies.

The rejection of rule by a source of power beyond society or inexplicable is a core element of democracy. This rejection includes the force of the sword, aristocratic blood, vaticination or sainthood, and other sources of power. Irretrievable power, even if elective in its origin, is considered non-democratic. Democratic thought and regimes declare state power to emanate from the people, be answerable to the people, and changeable by the people.

Democracy and democratism, however, are blind to the social structure and economic relations. 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, and the existing political and administrative institutions are all taken for granted in democracy and democratism. The demand for democracy is not limited to the political sphere but is also a demand for the extension of the formal or legal base of 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 excluded layers describe their movement to protest their legal or de facto exclusion from the decision-making process.

In conclusion, Hekmat argues that democracy is not a unique and definable constitutional law or political regime. It is 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 depends on the social layers in question, the kind of society, and political conjunction from which it originates. The social horizons and ideals of democratic movements can be vastly different, as demonstrated by the conflict between the private bourgeoisie and the state administrative and industrial bureaucracy in the Eastern bloc and the demand for equal rights in elections by black South Africans.

Market, Capital and Blindness of Democracy

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.

The main point Hekmat’s argument is 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 any country.

Finally, Hekmat emphasis is that socialists, before entering into a discussion over this or that prefix or suffix, should seriously distanced from the common essence of all these interpretations, that is, they 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.

The triumph of democracy over authoritarian regimes in Europe did not necessarily result in power being granted, even in formal terms, to the individual. Throughout many decades, the right to vote in European democracies was limited to white, ‘free’, male land or capital owners. The voting rights of women, workers, and other marginalized groups were not an inherent aspect of the definition of democracy and were not granted alongside it. Rather, the inclusion of these groups in the democratic process was the outcome of various struggles for justice by different classes and layers of society. These struggles were often carried out through the ideologies and political movements of socialism, women’s rights, anti-racism, and anti-discrimination. Even today, we are witnessing different forms of resistance and struggle.


Liberal Democracy and Freedom

Hekmat also argues that liberal democracy is a model that justifies the established rule of the bourgeoisie and conceals its class character. It is not a safeguard for the fundamental rights of the people but rather a set of rules and regulations designed to deny and take away those rights. The real channels of exercising and safeguarding power lie in the armed forces of suppression, the courts, prisons, and the entire system of trial and punishment. The parliamentary system is not a mechanism for the direct participation of the people but rather an indirect one where individuals representing them participate in government, not duty-bound to reflect the wishes of their electorates on various issues. Elections secure the stamp of approval for the ruling class, but people have no access to power or capacity to change laws between elections. In times of crisis, liberal democracy’s usefulness as a safeguard for civil rights is limited, and it becomes apparent that it is a formula that justifies the already established rule of the bourgeoisie.

For 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’. He argues that “Freedom, 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.

Hekmat believes that 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.

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