The WSM and Social Democracy
The simplest definition of democracy is that it is decision-making by the whole people involving procedures such as free and open debate, full disclosure of information, one person-one vote, and the accountability of public officials and elected representatives.
Such a decision-making system can be regarded as desirable because one key aspect of the nature of human beings is their ability to reflect and weigh up options before deciding what to do. In other words, a system in which the people as a whole freely decide what to do is the only decision-making system worthy of humans as self-determining (“free”) agents. The idea of democracy is also bound up with that of equality, if only in the sense that it is a decision-making procedure in which every human deemed capable of making a reasoned decision has a vote of equal weight. Ensuring each person an equal as possible say in the decision-making process requires a high degree of social equality and not mere equal political rights.
‘Democracy’ under capitalism is different from the generally accepted meaning of the word as a situation where ordinary people make the decisions that shape their lives, frequently summarised as being the ‘rule of the people.’
But democracy is not simply about ‘who’ makes decisions or ‘how’ the decisions are to be made. It is an expression of the social relations in society. If democracy means that all have equal opportunity to be heard, then this not only implies political equality but also economic equality. It further presupposes that people have individual freedom.
Genuine democracy is therefore one where people are free and equal, actively participating, without leaders, in cooperative discussion to reach a common agreement on all matters relating to their collective as well as individual requirements. We are told we are ‘free’ but in reality, our only freedom is to sell our labour power to someone who is ‘free’ to buy it – or not, as the case may be. If we choose not to exercise this freedom then we are ‘free’ to go without or even starve. It is quickly apparent that in capitalism freedom is an illusion because freedom cannot exist when the conditions for the exercise of free choice do not exist.
Democracy is not an end in itself, but a means to an end and for us in the World Socialist Movement that end is socialism. Democratic organisation and methods are not just one among many possible means to establish a democratic society, they are the only such means.
Democracy, in essence, is simple and easily understood. Democracy reveals all the evidence and enables informed discussion and requires inclusion for all in decisions. Democracy’s responsibility is to every member of the world community. The election of a majority of socialist delegates will not be an instruction to them from the whole population to go on running capitalism.
It will be an instruction, first, to take control of the coercive forces of the state so that they cannot be used against the people.
Secondly, it will be an instruction to enact legislation transferring the ownership and control of all companies producing, distributing and administering society’s goods and services into the hands of the whole of society.
Once this is done, the job of socialist delegates to parliaments and other democratic assemblies will be complete. Their tasks will be at an end and they will return to ordinary life.
Socialist delegates will not be observing parliament’s meaningless pomp and pageantry rituals. When there is a majority of socialist delegates there will be no Queen’s Speech in Parliament, no Oval Room White House announcement, none of the other shams that pass for democracy today. Just the historic declaration and proclamation that capitalism has ended that, henceforth, real participatory democracy in the administration of social affairs, at local, regional and world levels, will take place.
As the old regime is abolished, the new, really democratic, society, discussed and planned for so long beforehand, will come into operation. Everyone will know what to expect and what is expected of them.
Opponents will still be allowed to state their objections and try to get support for whatever ideas they have. What they will not be permitted to do is disrupt industrial processes or social procedures.
The organisation of the day-to-day running of socialist society will have been discussed and planned at great length by everybody before the actual take-over of power takes place.
Although people in different areas of the world may choose different patterns of democracy to implement their wishes, they will all be keen to maintain control over the production and distribution of products and services that affect everyone’s life. If democracy is to mean something of an importance an alternative system must be devised, involving the general public in all decisions which impact upon them, their communities and districts, one which embraces the notion that all are entitled to be active participants in the local and global community.
A socialist society will be one in which all people will be free to engage fully in the process of designing and implementing policy. What has been decided by the democratic majority can only be altered by the majority decision. The essence of democracy is popular participation, not competing parties. In socialism, elections will not be about deciding which particular party is to come to ‘power’ and form a government. Politics in socialism will not be about power and its imposition, so it won’t really be politics at all in its present-day sense of the ‘art and practice of government’ or ‘the conduct of state affairs’.
Being a class-free society of social equals, men and women will not require a coercive state machine nor a government to control it.
The conduct of public affairs in socialism will be about people running their lives in a non-adversarial context of cooperation to further the common good. Socialist democracy will be a participatory democracy rather than competition between rival bands of professional politicians that pass for democracy today.
Whether decisions about constructing a new neighbourhood medical clinic or the need to improve fish stocks in the North Sea everyone everywhere will be able to voice their opinion and cast their vote.
The traditional image of huge crowds with their hands up in council meetings, or queues of people lining up to put a piece of paper in a box in a referendum, is now becoming obsolete. There are now more modern and more accurate mechanisms to determine choice. If people feel obliged to vote on every matter of policy they would have little time to do anything else. On the other hand, leaving the decision-making process to a system of elected executive groups or councils would go against the spirit of a fully participatory democracy.
If socialism is going to maintain the practice of inclusive decision making (which does not put big decisions in the hands of small groups) but without generating a crisis of choice, then a solution is required. Technology cannot resolve issues of responsibility, but can help to reduce the potential complexities of decision-making into manageable levels. In the future the technology to debate, to dispute, to choose, complain and vote will be available at the touch of mobile phone screen.
The World Socialist Movement proposes different scales of social cooperation such as local, regional and world scales. There is not a question of a hierarchy with power coming into being. What the WSM suggest is both an integrated and flexible system of democratic organisation which could be adapted for action to solve any proh1em in any of these scales. This simply takes into account that some problems and the action to solve them arise from local issues and this also extends to the regional and world spheres.
How would democracy be fulfilled in socialism? This requires the abolition of the state and its replacement by a system of democratic administration. This can only work from a basis of common ownership and production solely for use. Common ownership means that all people throughout the world will stand in equal relationship with each other. This will be an association of all men and women making the decisions and cooperating to produce goods and organise communities in their mutual interests. The democratic organisation of all people as citizens of the world would need to operate through different scales of social cooperation. Locally, in town or country, we would be involved with neighbourhood or rural district. Even now, there are many thousands of men and women who work voluntarily in town neighbourhoods for the benefit of their communities. But these efforts would be greatly enhanced by the freedoms of a society run entirely through voluntary cooperation. Such local organisation would be in the context of regional cooperation which could operate by adapting the structures of present national governments. Whilst some departments such as those for administering tax and state finances, which are essential to the state would be abolished, others like agriculture and the environment could have an important job to do, especially in the early days of socialism. Such structures—adapted to the needs of socialist society—could be part of regional councils and would assist in the work of implementing the decisions of regional populations. During the early days of socialism, it is likely that the organisation of world cooperation would need to take place through a world council. Because the things we need now are produced and distributed through a world structure of production, and because its present capitalist nature has brought about immense problems, action to solve them would be required on a world scale, For example, it would be a priority to set up an ecologically benign world energy system as soon as possible. Such world projects could be coordinated through appropriate departments of a world congress.
The latest in new technology gives the opportunity for the population to keep themselves better informed and to take a more active role in decisions than at any time since the small city-states of ancient Greece. We have at our disposal today the very means, in the form of modern telecommunications, that could enable us to resuscitate the ancient model of Athenian democracy on a truly global level. What we conspicuously lack is the will and the imagination to look beyond. The managerial system which now dictates how production units such as factories or services should be run would be replaced. Small units could be run by regular meetings of all the workers. In the cases of large organisations, these could be run by elected committees accountable to the people working in them. In this way, the democratic practice would apply not just to the important policy decisions that would steer the main direction of development, it would extend to the day-to-day activities of the workplace.
Democratic control will involve the whole community in making decisions about the use of the means of production. Instead of government over people, there would be various levels of democratic administration, from the local up to regional and world levels, with responsibility being delegated if necessary to groups and individuals. But this does not rule out local democracy. In fact, a democratic system of decision-making would require that the basic unit of social organisation would be the local community. However, the nature of some of the problems we face and the many goods and services presently produced, such as raw materials, energy sources, agricultural products, world transport and communications, need production and distribution to be organised at a world level. Corresponding to this, of course, there would be a need for a democratic world administration, controlled by delegates from the regional and local levels of organisation throughout the world.
Our aim is not just common ownership; it is democracy. Democracy is not an optional extra or simply a means to an end. It is part of our end. That is one reason why we say there will be no socialist society until a majority desire it. As long as most people are content to be told what to do by elected representatives there will be no democracy in the sense defined. Not that an electoral system is completely worthless. The World Socialist Movement asserts that to secure the political power of the working people, the only sure way to do this was through the ballot box and with its rejection of campaigning for reforms.
Socialism and democracy are more than complementary – indivisible. A society where the means of production were formally the common property of society but where only a minority took part in deciding how they should be used would be one in which “common property” was merely a fiction since in practice the means of production would be the sectional possession of the decision-making minority.
In the end, the only guarantee in socialist society against the emergence of a new ruling class that would negate the common ownership of the means of production is people using the democratic institutions—the actual democratic participation of all the people in the running of society. This is why it is absolutely essential that those who establish socialism—the majority working class who will constitute also the major part of the people of socialist society—must be fully aware of its implications, being prepared and organised to participate not only in its establishment but also in its subsequent running.