Is democracy inherent in socialism?

WeThePeople2

I was once told that the term "democratic socialism" is redundant. Socialism, it was said, is in its very nature democratic. Where there is socialism, there is democracy. With one comes the other. Democracy is inherent in socialism.

Actually, that is how it should be, but looking back on the experience of the Soviet Union, it is apparent that Soviet socialism had a democratic deficit, that democracy wasn't inherent in its socialism.

Soviet working people were not the authors of their own lives and the architects of their society in any deep sense. Despite the existence of local councils, trade unions and other organizations, political power wasn't really diffused to the various layers of society. Instead it was concentrated in the hands of the ruling Communist Party, and in too many instances employed arbitrarily. The party's near-monopoly of power foreclosed popular participation in and outside of the institutional structures of Soviet society.

In other words, the state and society had a democratic shell, but lacked a democratic substance.

This reality stained the image and attractive power of socialism in the non-socialist world. Citing the many accomplishments of socialism in the last century - and there were many - doesn't change the fact that deep democracy, that is, democratic structures and processes of popular participation and control, didn't exist in any full-blooded way.

What did exist were formal structures of representation and governance that gave people a faint but not decisive voice in policymaking. Over time this, along with socialism's poor economic performance relative to the capitalist countries, undermined working people's confidence in the efficacy of socialism and the authority of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. To ascribe the collapse of Soviet socialism to Mikhail Gorbachev and his team, as some do, is to miss the forest for the trees.

Socialists in general and communists in particular in the United States have to learn from this experience. Of the many lessons that can be drawn, I want to only mention a few here.

One lesson is that the people's organizations (or civil society as some call it) have to have an independent life of their own. Such organizations shouldn't be arms of the state or a ruling party.

Another is that the structures of democratic power and governance have to have decision-making capacity, including the opportunity to deliberate over competing alternatives.

A third lesson is the necessity to uphold the rule of law, expand constitutional rights, and preserve existing democratic freedoms and civil liberties.

The late historian E.P. Thompson wrote,

"I am told that, just beyond the horizon, new forms of working class power are about to arise which, being founded upon egalitarian productive relations, will require no inhibition and can dispense with the negative restrictions of bourgeois legalism. A historian is unqualified to pronounce on such utopian projections. All that he knows is that he can bring in support of them no evidence whatsoever. His advice might be: watch this new power for a century or two before you cut down your hedges." ("Whigs and Hunters," 1975)

Thompson is strongly suggesting, albeit with a little humor, that the history of socialist experience over the past century shows that socialism cannot "dispense" with accepted notions of freedom of expression and other civil liberties. Indeed, they are essential "for a century or two" to the building of an enduring and vibrant socialist society.

A fourth lesson is that it is necessary to complete the unfinished democratic tasks left over from existing capitalism, especially the elimination of racial and gender inequality. It is hard to conceive of a democratic society and state in which more than half the population has a less than equal status and voice.

Five, socialism has to allow for a multi-party system and the alternation of parties in power if the people so decide. Every political party or broader political formation should stand periodically before the people in fair and free elections.

Six, a public media, independent of private corporate interests and state control as well, is indispensable in a socialist society, which especially needs an informed citizenry.

Finally, the builders of socialism have to understand that the ownership of the means of production and structures of working class power are only facilitating mechanisms of socialist development. They create only the possibility of a socialist society. Socialism becomes socialism only to the degree that working people exchange alienation and powerlessness for engagement, empowerment, a sense of real ownership, and full democratic participation in every aspect of society - the state, economy, social organizations, media and culture.

Otherwise, socialism's structural foundations become shells that appear socialist, but hide un-socialist, undemocratic structures and practices, as occurred in the Soviet Union. In that case, social relations and structures became alien, distant and bureaucratic, and eventually lost their legitimacy in the people's eyes. If that occurs, the soul and substance of socialism wither away and its liberating promise goes unrealized.

So, is democracy inherent in socialism? Yes, but only if the opportunity to leave the restrictive, badly flawed shell of capitalist democracy and move to the higher ground of full-blooded socialist democracy is seized by tens of millions of ordinary people and their political representatives.

Image: Chuck Coker CC 2.0 

 

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  • I am thrilled to finally see the Communist Party admitting to the flaws of Soviet Socialism and Marxist-Leninism. The Communist party needs to abandon the elements of Leninism if it wants to succeed in building socialism in America.

    Posted by Sidney, 06/30/2012 12:22am (2 years ago)

  • @ Joel W UM You do realize that Qaddafi isn't who the media/US government is right? The US government has long held a grudge against Qaddafi Qaddafi still has millions of supporters. The citizens have held a million person march for Qaddafi great leadership. If the USA president had the same ratio of people march for him in support it would be close to 20million people supporting him. Qaddafi's government has brought the country tons of democracy and he made the oil fields public owned. Each citizen made 3k/month off the oil fields being made publicly owned. The US government dosen't like this so they went and rallied up a 100k people who are capitalists to violently protest the oil fields. Qaddafi's government isn't socialist but it's anti-capitalist. Qaddafi's government is also the richest government in Africa which it had started out as the worlds poorest before Qaddafi came into power. Qaddafi also made efforts to liberate the women in his country. Ask just about any women Libyan and they'll tell you that without him they'd still be like the middle eastern women. Please study up before you make such blind comments about a leader. Qaddafi government is really free. It's just the western media that makes you think it's not. Unlike other nations the protests started out violent instead of peaceful. The US government would have had the military intervene too if that had happen here in the USA.

    Posted by AH, 07/11/2011 2:23pm (3 years ago)

  • Think about what it is to be a revolutionary state, building a good society without capitalism, under seige by the imperialist countries. I think that working people understand the need for near military control, because if you can't defend what you're building then you might as well give up.

    Posted by Joe Sompolinsky, 04/02/2011 12:14am (3 years ago)

  • Sam makes excellent points here. Consider how public ownership of important sections of the economies in Iraq under Saddam and Libya under Gadhafi or Serbia under Milosevic did not lead to more democracy.

    Posted by Joel W., 03/31/2011 1:26pm (3 years ago)

  • "Socialism can become socialism only to the degree that working people, the working class in a nation, exchange corporate private ownership for a new, collective ownership of the economic power of that society, allowing working people to be able to exercise democratic control over the economic, and, thus, social and political, power in that society!"

    I do not think that Sam's formulation concerning democracy/socialism can be accepted on face value without an additional formulation, concerning the removal of economic power from the corporate/capitalist class & the taking of that control by the working class & its allies. Without the economic control, democracy, by the very nature of the corporate structure controlling society, must always come up short. ONLY when the two are combined does real democratic control become possible.

    While I feel that Sam does make some good points, his piece comes up short in terms of the class question, which must be the center of what Communists work for.

    It reminds me of a struggle that occurred in the steel mine that I wkd at in Lorain, Ohio. The co. was pushing "labor-mngt. teams" & "cooperation" as we moved closer to contract talks, even setting up "teams" and "team leaders" without union input/control. The "team leaders" were arbitrarally given offices, cushy jobs, & the "teams" began putting out its own newspaper.

    When contract talks opened, the co. issued a horrible proposal, which contained huge takeaways, but also a substantial pay raise. The takeaways were in many areas, including pensions, safety/health, health care, grievance settlement, transfer rights & seniority, etc, but weren't readily apparent to the casual reader, it took the USW negotiating committee to understand the nature of the co. proposal.

    When the union comm. rejected the co. offer, mngt activated their "teams," publishing bulletins demands the right to vote on the co. proposal. Workers were frightened with co. threats to lock out workers. There was a huge battle within the union, and the rank & file comm had to be reorg'd.

    When the co. teams took the next step, circulating a decertification petition, that, combined with the principled ideological work being done by the best sector of the union and the rank & file comm, helped the mass of workers to see the true role of the "teams," and their corporate bosses. The co. offer was soundly rejected. The union took a strike vote, which was nearly unanamous, and the co. settled.

    The point oof that long story is that on the facec of it, the co. teams were "democratic." However, the ownership of the mill allowed them to excercise a control of the situation that was clearly UNdemocratic, at least from the worker's point of view. Ultimately, ONLY because we had a strong union and active rank & file, led by principled left, Marxist workers,were we able to establish some level of REAL democracy there.

    Without the resolution of the class conflict, with the working class & allies in control, we do not have the OPPORTUNITY to begin to establish real democracy!

    Posted by bruce bostick, 03/31/2011 1:05pm (3 years ago)

  • Sorry for the double comment. The revised (newest) comment is the result of a good nights sleep.

    Posted by Bill Appelhans, 03/28/2011 5:55pm (3 years ago)

  • "A specter is haunting Europe-the specter of Communism."

    Out of those words and decades of ensuing writings we take our name: the Communist Party.

    Our Constitution states our goal is socialism, a society that puts people and nature before profit. It does not mention a communist society. Marx and Engels do.

    In his work "State and Revolution" Lenin discusses what Marx termed a communist society. A society that had "sprung" from the "womb" of capitalism, a society that, Marx argued, would go through two phases, a lower and higher. The lower, a communist society just emerged from capitalism but still bearing the "birthmarks", and the higher, a communist society that has developed on its own foundations.

    Since then the lower phase has become known as socialism.

    It appears to me the discussion here does not view socialism as a phase/transition and therefore the discussion of the relationship between democracy and socialism risks distortion.

    For example, Lenin states that democracy is "of enormous importance to the working class in its struggle against the capitalists for its emancipation" but "it is only one of the stages on the road from feudalism to capitalism, and from capitalism to communism." ie-democracy has historical presence in all societies.

    Later he writes of the accumulation of "more" democracy reaching the stage where "quantity turns into quality: such a degree of democracy implies overstepping the boundaries of bourgeois society and beginning its socialist reorganization." (the context being a qualitative change of society - the abolition of private property having taken place)

    Lenin also defines democracy as being a form of the state (do we not like this?- B.A.) but moves on stating, the "more complete the democracy, the nearer the moment when it becomes unnecessary." (or that? - B.A.)

    Here Lenin winds down and ends the chapter with, "Then the door will be thrown wide open for the transition from the first phase of communist society to its higher phase, and with it to the complete withering away of the state."

    So, is democracy inherent in socialism? Well, yes. But so what?

    Is democracy inherent in capitalism? Well, yes again. But, again, so what?

    Ditto feudalism.

    Democracy is a measurable societal condition. In context of the class struggle democracy is measured by the levels/degrees of freedom and justice the majority, the working class, wins.

    A better formulation of the question, I believe, would be "Why is socialism better for democracy?"

    Best to all

    Posted by Bill Appelhans, 03/28/2011 5:39pm (3 years ago)

  • in my study of political history, one pattern i have noticed is that once a radical organization has taken power from an exsisting reactionary system, said organization, in order to carry out their political plans, often must become reactionary themselves.

    Posted by ralf groh, 03/28/2011 3:53pm (3 years ago)

  • #Five: Yes, we see what a wonderful job the two party system is doing in the USA today. With one party well to the right of center and the other pushing the boundaries of Authoritarian Corporatocracy yet further to the northeast of the political compass. Democratically elected fascists. I suspect that the real reason for this is their ability to exclude any other real choices from participating. Very democratic!

    Admittedly, "democracy" involves a regular change in leadership for it to maintain any semblance of integrity. But I would like to hear how "democracy" can ensure that those with fascist tendencies will not rise to the "top" again only to exclude opponents and lead us off the cliff into a social class system... yet again.

    I can't imagine anything getting any better without very undemocratic measures to prevent non-socialist parties from coming to power. If a party has any higher priority than the well being of society and humanity, they should be excluded from elections. If one gets elected and changes their priorities away from the whole, they should be immediately recalled. They should not be allowed to rule until the next election cycle. Too much damage can be done to society in a little time if this is allowed.

    Posted by Bruce, 03/28/2011 2:26pm (3 years ago)

  • "A specter is haunting Europe-the specter of Communism."

    Out of these words and decades of ensuing writings we take our name: the Communist Party.

    Our Constitution states our goal is socialism, a society that puts people and nature before profit. It does not mention a communist society.

    In his work "State and Revolution" Lenin discusses what Marx termed a communist society. A society that had "sprung" from the "womb" of capitalism, a society that, Marx argued, would go through two phases, a lower and higher. The lower, a communist society just emerged from capitalism but still bearing the "birthmarks", and the higher, a communist society that has developed on its own foundations.

    The lower phase has become known, states Lenin, as socialism.

    It appears to me the discussion here does not view socialism as a phase/transition and therefore distorts the discussion of the relationship between democracy and socialism.

    For example, Lenin states that democracy is "of enormous importance to the working class in its struggle against the capitalists for its emancipation" but "it is only one of the stages on the road from feudalism to capitalism, and from capitalism to communism." ie-democracy has historical presence.

    Later he writes of the accumulation of "more" democracy reaching the stage where "quantity turns into quality: such a degree of democracy implies overstepping the boundaries of bourgeois society and beginning its socialist reorganization." (the context being a qualitative change of society - the abolition of private property)

    Lenin also defines democracy as being a form of the state (do we not like this - B.A.) but moves on stating, the "more complete the democracy, the nearer the moment when it becomes unnecessary." (and that - B.A.)

    Here Lenin winds down and ends the chapter with, "Then the door will be thrown wide open for the transition from the first phase of communist society to its higher phase, and with it to the complete withering away of the state."

    So, is democracy inherent in socialism?

    Depends on what your definition of is, is?

    But I now wonder what the discussion around the question "What is socialism?" would look like?

    Best to all

    Posted by Bill Appelhans, 03/27/2011 10:39pm (3 years ago)

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