This short essay is a study of the role of referendums in history. Referendums are part of politics. Referendums are part of history. Referendums and plebiscites do not, by themselves, tend to change or shift politics, society, or history — but they are politically important. It is important that Socialists know about the history and the politics of referendums — in order to engage with the politics of referendums when they occur today, as part of the struggle for Socialism. Referendums, themselves, have often been part of modern politics and modern society — especially since the French Revolution and since the rise of Capitalism. Most Socialists are aware of some of the great referendums of modern politics and of modern history. With the rise of universal suffrage, referendums have become a key part of the politics of Capitalist democracy. Indeed, referendums have become part of how modern Capitalist democracy operates — or seeks to operate. Most referendums and plebiscites in Capitalist society mean nothing — they change very little about politics and only serve to reinforce the problems of bourgeois society and bourgeois democracy. Referendums do not change much about the nature of politics in Capitalist societies — either in the past or today. Instead, referendums tend to reinforce the existing politics of Capitalism. It is only when we achieve Socialism, a more democratic form of human society, that referendums will actually be a useful way of developing democracy. Until we achieve Socialism, referendums, even democratic referendums, will always be limited by the politics of Capitalism.
History is full of examples of useless referendums or ignored referendums. The French referendum of 21-22 November 1852, as the standard political example, was a rigged referendum by the French state — to ensure Louis Bonaparte was elected as Napoleon III. The referendum of 1852 was only held in France to confirm the coup d’état of December 1851 — the infamous 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that Marx analysed in his essay on the 1851 coup in France after the Revolution of 1848. Marx’s essay, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ (1852), still remains the best analysis of the French Revolution of 1848 and the coup of 1851.1 Marx went on to show how the regime of Napoleon III, which emerged from the coup of 1851, often used referendums, throughout his reign, to maintain power rather than to extend democracy to the French people.2 In the case of 19th century France, after 1851-1852, referendums were not democratic and only served the interests of Napoleon III. Similar referendums have occurred in history and in our own times. Indeed, referendums have mostly been used to reinforce existing politics, within class societies, rather than to change or revolutionise politics. This means that referendums will always be limited in terms of their ability to actually change society, or to revolutionise society. The 20th century is also full of examples of useless referendums or ignored referendums — such as the Italian referendum of 1946 and the Soviet referendum of 1991. The Italian republican referendum of 1946 was held largely after most Italians, after the fall of Fascism in 1943-1945, had already broadly settled on an Italian Republic by 1945 and by 1946. The Italian referendum of 1946 was held largely after Italian politics had already rejected the old Italian monarchy. It was the revolutionary struggle, in Italy, against Fascism, during the Second World War, during the Italian Civil War of 1943-1945, which really brought down the Italian monarchy — not the limited referendum of 1946. The infamous 1991 referendum in the Soviet Union, the popular vote in 1991 to maintain the Soviet Union, was disregarded after political events developed elsewhere in the Soviet Union — the August coup, and the failure of the Union Treaty of 1991. The Soviet people voted in 1991, overwhelmingly, to keep the Soviet Union, but that vote was ignored and disregarded in the end — leading to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991. The 1991 referendum in the Soviet Union also shows that even democratic referendums can be ignored by other forms of politics. The majority of referendums in politics have either been pointless — or ignored. Despite the problems of referendums, it is important for the Left, and for Socialists, to engage with them — just as the Left must engage with all politics as they develop within political society. Referendums need to be engaged with politically, despite their limits and their problems — as ignoring referendums leaves them and their results in the hands of the Right. The Left needs to fight in all politics — and this includes fighting for a Left politics in referendums.
Referendums are limited politics. Referendums give the appearance of democracy, yet history shows that most of the time they achieve little for democracy. This means that we must always be careful about the idea that referendums, by themselves, are the basis for real democracy in modern society. Referendums are only useful to democracy in a society which also has other forms of democracy — such as workers’ councils, workers’ assemblies, popular assemblies, national assemblies, international assemblies, and Socialist democracy. Referendums are only useful, for democracy, when united with other forms of democracy. This is why Socialism is vital for democracy. This is why democracy is the basis of Socialism. Referendums are also examples of unaccountable votes — votes which are often used to reinforce undemocratic politics, as occurred in the 19th century and in the 20th century, in France, Italy, and Germany. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany both used referendums to dismantle democracy and to establish their Far-Right dictatorships. Hitler, infamously, used referendums to abolish democracy in Germany — and as part of his conquest of Austria in 1938. The democratic power and democratic nature of referendums cannot always be assumed. Gramsci, in the 1920s, also showed how referendums can be used by populists and by the Right to undermine working-class struggle.3 Compared to even parliamentary democracy, or the council democracy of Socialist societies, at various points in history and politics, referendums often fail to be exactly democratic. Most democratic states have a democratic vision of referendums — from Europe to America, from Africa to Asia. We can see this in the recent politics which have developed in Britain since the June 2016 referendum on the European Union. In the end, however, referendums, plebiscites, and bourgeois democracy, are not good enough examples of democracy. Only a Socialist society, with Socialist democracy, can make referendums, plebiscites, and democracy, actually democratic. Only the working class can win the battle for democracy.4 Until Socialism is achieved most referendums and votes are meaningless to actual democracy — as meaningless as the vote of 1852 which made Louis Bonaparte into Napoleon III. Only Socialism can make society and referendums actually democratic. Until then we shall only be left with the problems of referendums and their choices — left with only the problems of referendums in history. This does not mean that referendums are wrong — but rather that real, democratic, referendums can only exist under Socialism. The struggle for meaningful democracy is part of the struggle for Socialism.
1. K. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, (1852)
2. K. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, (1852)
3. A. Gramsci, Referendum, (1921)
4. K. Marx and F. Engels, The Communist Manifesto, (1848)
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This post was written by R.G. Williams