I’ll start with three meanings of democracy as I see it.
1. Democracy in the sense of the formal framework of a constitutional democracy with the rights to freedom and equality, the right to life and personal liberty, to freedom of religion etc that it guarantees. In the Indian Constitution these are the fundamental rights incorporated in Part 3 of the Constitution, under Articles 14–30.
2. Democracy as a culture of resistance grounded in the constitutional rights given under my first meaning, including the Fifth Schedule protecting adivasi communities in the Scheduled Areas. India today is full of mass struggles and when labour movements are strong we can see what a culture of resistance means.
And 3, democracy as an aspiration for control. One can see the Communist Manifesto as a generalisation of democracy in this third sense (of the mass of workers aspiring to control their own lives, economically, politically and culturally) and as a culmination of democracy in both the previous senses. Thus for communists (in Marx’s sense) the mass element in democracy is crucial, it is what defines democracy in its most complete sense and historical form.
Now contrast this with cultures of resistance and/or struggles for control that are not grounded in democracy in sense 1/. They involve an authoritarian vision of democracy, both in the sense that they set out to overthrow the existing democracy which is seen simply as a mask for the rule of capital or in the sense that they disregard the rights guaranteed by the Constitution on the grounds that no armed struggle can be waged while respecting those rights. In contrast to all of the above, fascism targets democracy in all senses, seeking to overthrow democracy as such without pretensions of replacing it with any more complete form of democracy, as the Maoists claim to do with their notion of a ‘New Democracy’.
What fascism & Maoism share in common is the goal of overthrowing an existing parliamentary democracy, though they seek to do so in very different ways (the right being driven by what Arthur Rosenberg called their ‘hatred of democratic government’). 1 I’ll deal with both a bit later but first let me make another set of distinctions which you may find helpful.
In India we face the paradox of a constitutional democracy that is based on a repressive state apparatus. I call this a paradox because the exercise of repression violates numerous rights guaranteed under the Constitution, so that it generates a contradiction at the heart of the system. By repressive state apparatus I mean (to take the obvious examples) large-scale militarisation of the Indian state; the culture of encounter killings (that is, extra-judicial killings) that is specially rife in certain states like Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh; the shocking impunity that exists for politicians who instigate violence against minorities; and so on. All of these have become endemic features of our democracy.
But how do we understand this paradox?.. On the left the traditional answer has been that this is what ‘bourgeois democracy’ is, there is no contradiction or paradox here, it’s the nature of ‘bourgeois’ democracy to promise more than it can offer. This is an essentialist argument in the sense that it constructs a model of a system and seeks to explain reality by the essential nature of that model. Frankly, I think it’s time to break with this orthodoxy because, to my mind, the expression ‘bourgeois democracy’ is really quite meaningless. I suggest it would be helpful (as we did with the different meanings of democracy) to draw a line between three things that are, especially on the left, often conflated, namely, capitalism, democracy and the state apparatus. As a historian I know at least this much -- that capitalism and democracy are not functionally related, not even historically, but systems in conflict.
Capitalism seeks to limit democracy through its use of the state apparatus. For the democratic left the crucial element of democracy lies in the ability of the masses to shape their lives through the political system, and that in turns requires mass organisations like unions, workers’ councils, and popular committees of the kind we saw in the recent upsurge in Egypt especially. It is this ‘mass’ element in democracy that capital seeks to contain or subvert through its use of the state apparatus. Mass democracy presupposes a strong and well-organised labour movement, as well as a passion for freedom, that is, a culture where people are willing to fight for their rights, and it withers in conditions where capital is able, through the state, to decimate both of these.
With these distinctions, there is nothing particularly paradoxical about a constitutional democracy that survives by requiring some level of repression against its own people. It is not democracy that is at fault but the state apparatus (as an entity distinct from democracy) and the ability of powerful groups to use it to contain both cultures of resistance and aspirations for control, if not actually subvert the Constitution itself. In the case of India, the recent book by Anu and Kamal Chenoy shows brilliantly how the militarisation of the Indian state has been grounded in a drive to hold the union together by force rather than the power of democracy.
This is one sense in which we can speak of the subversion of constitutional democracy, which is often secured behind the mask of laws that legitimate repression. Read more:
Also see: Maoist Insurgency - End of the Road for Indian Stalinism?