Is democracy inherent in socialism?

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 



Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time writer living in New York. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine.