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What is Democracy? A Socialist View

What is democracy?

Many people, when faced with this question, conjure up pictures of the American eagle, and think that democracy is all that that amiable bird symbolises. They imagine that a State run on the lines of the American republic is a democratic State, that the institutions of such a State are democratic institutions, that the spirit of such a State is the democratic spirit, and that the philosophy of such a State – the “Rights of Man” (printed, of course, on the reverse side of a “green-back”) – is the democratic philosophy.

All of which ideas are wrong.

The common meaning of the term “democracy”, – a form of society in which supreme power is lodged in the hands of the people – is correct enough as far as it goes, and is sufficient in all that it implies. But it implies something very different from the American republic, and American institutions, and the “Rights of Man”.

For supreme power to be lodged in the hands of the people does not mean merely that they are to have the widest possible franchise and equal voting power. It implies that the people are to have complete control of all social institutions, the ordering of all social activities, the domination of the whole social life. Such a condition of affairs presupposes at the very outset the ownership by the people of all the means of life, all the social products, even all the social intelligence and skill and energy/

There can be no other foundation for democracy than this common ownership of all the means of life, for where these fall into private possession social distinctions at once spring up, the owners become dominators, and it becomes impossible for the people to control the social activities – because, forsooth, they have not control of the means and instruments through which the most important of those activities – those directed to the production of the social wealth – are applied.

Notwithstanding, then, the popular conviction to the contrary, existing republics no more enfold democracy than do monarchies. Nor are they nearer to it since they are no nearer to the property condition upon which democracy must be founded.

That was democracy which existed among all races prior to the advent of private property. There the people of the community really controlled the affairs of the community, deputing functions to certain officials, but jealously keeping power in their own hands. The “little brief authority” in which they dressed their elected persons was never allowed to pass beyond the popular control. Even in the case of the war-chiefs – the direction, perhaps, in which usurpation was most likely – it was in many cases usual to elect two, to act alternately, in order that the influence of one should form a counter-balance to the other.

If we cannot have democracy under the present social system, at least we may have men and women imbued with the democratic spirit. Indeed, every Socialist must be so imbued. In the light of this spirit he has faith in the capacity of the whole people to control the social system as a democracy, just as he has faith, primarily, in the capacity of the working class to institute the social system based upon the common ownership of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth.

It is obvious that the natural corollary of the claim that the working class must make these means and instruments the property of the whole people is the implication that the people, as such, and not as a few directing the many, will be able to organise for the efficient use of those instruments of labour. Therefore the class idea – the idea that the working class possess every qualification for the establishment of a democratic social system – and the democratic idea – the idea that the whole people are capable of democratically controlling the affairs of society – are intimately connected, are, as a matter of fact, inseparable.

Democracy has a philosophy of its own. This philosophy is grounded upon the exactly opposite conception to that upon which all individualist systems of thought, from the capitalist to the Anarchistic, rest. In the democratic conception the organic nature of society is the very corner-stone. Naturally this awards to the individual a subordinate place. He finds his true position as an organic atom, the product of the organic whole, and subordinate, therefore, to the social body. In the democratic philosophy it is realised how supremely important a factor in social development the mass of the people – the “rank and file” – are. There is no intellectual class. The highest intellect is a social product, the result of the food, shelter, and clothing produced by society, and of the accumulated experiences for which society has paid with pain. And further, the opportunity even for such intellects to perform their useful part depends entirely upon the general level of intelligence. Just as the female blossom on the gourd vine, open before there is a mate to round her career, must die unfruitful, so the intellect advanced beyond its day must prove sterile and useless to society.

The individual, then, is a social product; he owes not only his being, but his opportunities, to society. Instead of being the “great man”, to whom society owes everything, he is the creature of the social entity, without which he is nothing.

In the conclusions of such a philosophy the capabilities, the strength, and the energies of the individual are just as much the product of the social activities as are the means and instruments of production and distribution; also they are just as necessary to the social organism, and therefore just as properly fall under the social control.

The philosophy of the “Rights of Man” of the bourgeoisie – which mocked humanity so cynically at the Paris Commune, and does so every day, in fact, the wide world over – with the “Rights of Society”.

In the course of time democracy must also have an ethic of its own. What form this will take can at present only be roughly prognosticated. Just as, with all our knowledge of primitive democracy, we are unable to adequately conceive the outlook on life of the social units of those early days, so we cannot hope to understand the mental outlook of the democrats of the future.

As the Materialist Concept of History, however, teaches us that all ethics take their form from the method in which the people gain their livelihood, when the people gain their livelihood democratically, the ethic will be in keeping. Public opinion will then be, as public opinion always is, favourably disposed to the public welfare as it is conceived in the public mind. To-day this conception of the public welfare is distorted to the capitalist view of the meaning of the term; but the popular conception shapes the ethic of the day. The revolutionist requires a new ethic, and, cynical as he may pretend to be in this connection, he has got it. It is based on the needs of humanity as he understands them. When the Revolution has been accomplished, and warring interests have for ever been unified, when the individual interest, having been made one throughout the community, has by that achievement been absorbed by the community, when all the machinery of wealth production and distribution, and the human labour-power by which this wealth is produced and distributed, and the wealth so produced, is owned by society; when by the harmonising of social activities, and the clearing away of confusing social anomalies and contradictions, men and women come to realise through every fibre of their being that they owe everything to the commonwealth, that without society they are nothing, that they are but cells in the social organism, on which every act of theirs has a far-reaching effect for good or evil: then the ethic prescribed by public opinion will be such as will make for the clearly known good of society.

Then once again democracy will exist in the world, and men and women, nurtured into finer feeling by that standard of conduct which holds the common good to be the highest good, will unconsciously sink their individuality in the community, and strive always for that common good, as the highest morality of which the human mind is capable of conceiving.