What is Socialist Democracy?

Democracy is one of those that is mis-used, over-used and ill-abused words that have been hi-jacked by governments and politicians to deliberately misrepresent their actions and to deceive the voters.

The word “democracy” originates from the Greek and means ‘power of the people’. In the “largest democracy in the world”, India, how do the majority of the population on a pittance consider they are being represented? Electorates worldwide haven’t had the true experience of involvement, of having had their voices heard, at any significant level to have resulted in a culture of expectation of inclusion in the various processes of so-called democracy. Decisions have long been made for people not by people, electorates distanced from their representatives, decisions made with no consultation process and “leaders” believing they have been selected to take the reins and make all decisions on behalf of the voters.

The capitalist system may have nominally democratic institutions, but it relies upon working class compliance, passivity and lack of involvement in the process to carry out its worst and most illiberal functioning. There is the old nationalist lie that we are one country, one people, working together for a common interest. This ideology allows politicians to present us as if we have one common interest. Nationalism allows the politicians to limit democratic choice on the grounds that there is only one national interest. The “national interest” is in fact that the interest of the capitalist class of a country, not of its population. The government is implementing policies for which no one voted or would vote for. No one voted to cut care services for the old and the disabled. No one voted to close hospital departments or to delay repairing schools or to shut libraries and sports facilities or to reduce rubbish collection. People getting what they didn’t vote for also shows that capitalism is incompatible with democracy as an expression of “the people’s will”. This is not because there are no procedures in place for people to decide what they want, but because the way the capitalist economy works prevents some of these decisions from being implemented.

Capitalism is not geared to doing what people want and no amount of making the decision-making process more formally democratic can alter this. It is the continual boast of modern politicians that we live in a democratic state. When they say “we” they mean, of course, the ruling class. But the so-called democracy conferred on the working class is not a semblance even of the real thing.

When and where, if ever, was a population last asked how they would define democracy? We, the people, in countries large and small, are told that we have democracy. We are told this by leaders who say we should trust them, but who keep information from us, who deliberately lie to us, who can have us stopped and searched in the interest of national security, who have CCTV watching us night and day, who hack into mobile phones and e-mails, who access more and more of our personal information, bank details etc., who can block our social media, who have computerised records to use as they choose, who can rein us in whenever we show any sign of dissent. And they call this democracy.

The years of battering and enforced passivity have come to mean that for most of the working class the idea of them being in charge of affairs is inconceivable. The most damaging thing to the cause of true democracy is the repeated assurances that what we have nowadays is democracy and has created in many people’s minds that democracy is not all that great. Our masters, of course, wouldn’t want it any other way. “Democracy” as the kind of representative system we have today where, every once in a while, we give the politicians a blank cheque to do what they want, or can get away with is a charade. The party system will be eventually exposed as a fraud, consciously practised by the ruling class in their own interest and future generations will marvel that a working class, sunk in poverty and anarchy, could forget, even for a moment, their own wretchedness, while they voted this way or that on questions that concerned their masters alone.

“It’s a truism, but one that needs to be constantly stressed, that capitalism and democracy are ultimately quite incompatible, explained Noam Chomsky.

A system so stacked in favour of a few over many can’t be seen as just. How has this crumbling edifice called democracy managed to stand for so long? 

“Nothing’s perfect,” people say. No, but how long do you wait before you pull a rotten tooth?

Chomsky comments elsewhere that “Propaganda is as necessary to bourgeois democracy as repression is to the totalitarian state.” 

The purpose of both is to keep control.

Many people imagine that a state run along 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” is the democratic philosophy. Many people would argue that the country they reside in is a democracy and that we all benefit from living in a democratic society.

By this, they would probably mean the regular holding of elections to parliament and local councils, the freedom to organise political parties, a press which is not beholden to the government, and the rule of law. If people object to the policies of the government or a particular political party, they can vote them out of office. If they oppose a specific action by a local council, they can set up a protest group and hold demonstrations, without the fear of being carted off to prison just for voicing their views. We are told that we live in a “democracy” in which we are free to choose what kind of society we live in. But the most important of all political decisions – what the community produces – is never subjected to any kind of democratic process. Instead, the city brokers merely decide which commodities will deliver the greatest or most reliable profits. In other words, these decisions are made by a tiny elite minority in the interests of an even smaller minority. In capitalist society the only ‘choice’ voters have is who will decide how taxes are distributed to create and maintain the state infrastructure – armies, police, road, rail, law, health and social security system and the education system. Even this choice is only “granted” to the people once every four or five years between two political parties with no important differences in ideology. And this is political democracy?

World socialists have no illusions about the democratic credentials of the politicians of the Left, the Right or the Centre. What the capitalist class, and the political parties that serve that class, call democracy is a contrived form of consensus in which the political parties conspire to ensure that the maximum number of people accept a system of law which guarantees a minority class in society the legal right to own and control the means of life of the great majority. To achieve and maintain that system of Law and the Order that ensures the right of that minority to exploit and impoverish the majority – capitalism must have political control of the state machine. A vital part of the process that maintains the illusion of democratic choice is the power to confine political knowledge – and, thus, political options – to those parties whose policies are firmly rooted in an acceptance of capitalism.

For 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, and 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. 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, and the owners become dictators. Real democracy – a social democracy – involves far more. The problem is that under a capitalist system there is a built-in lack of democracy, which cannot be overturned or compensated for by holding elections or permitting protest groups.

It is true that capitalism needs a minimum of democracy since it’s the least bad form of government for the system. The alternatives of dictatorship or rule by experts carry the danger that those who control the state might develop sticky fingers and help themselves to too large a share of profits. Better, for the capitalists, to have alternating governments dependent on their ability to retain some degree of popular support. This means that democracy under capitalism is reduced to people voting for competing groups of professional politicians, to giving the thumbs-up or the thumbs-down to the governing or opposition party. Political analysts call this the “elite theory of democracy” since under it all that the people get to choose is which elite should exercise government power.

This contrasts with the original theory of democracy which envisages popular participation in the running of affairs and which political analysts call “participatory democracy”. This is the sort of democracy socialists favour but we know it’s never going to exist under capitalism. The most we will get under capitalism is the right to vote, under more-or-less fair conditions, for who shall control political power—a minimalist form of democracy but not to be dismissed for that since it at least provides a mechanism whereby a socialist majority could vote in socialist delegates instead of capitalist politicians. The vote they were compelled to give, though they made a virtue out of necessity and said they gave it because they loved the principles of democracy. But no matter how they got them, the workers have far more votes than their masters. With the knowledge of their slave-position and the courage to organise, these votes can be used as the means to their emancipation. The capitalist class cannot abjure what they have established. The vote was given to secure their own domination; if they discard it they lose control and have no sanction to govern. By constitutional methods the workers can win their freedom; they have no need to go outside the constitution until they finally destroy it. So the party system together with the franchise – established because they promised stability – pave the way for working-class victory.

For the World Socialist Movement, the rule of government can never be democratic. Though it may include some incidental functions arising from the needs of people the main work of the state is the running of class-divided society; a system of economic exploitation.

In the main , governments work for a privileged section of society. They make the laws which protect the property rights of a minority who own and control natural resources and industry. These are the means of life on which we all depend but most of us have no say in how they are used. Behind Parliament or Congress, governments operate in secret. They are part of the division of the world into rival capitalist states. With the back-up of their armed forces they pursue national capitalist interests. Though the politicians who run it may be elected, the state is the opposite of democracy. Multinational corporations with massive economic power make the decisions on what should be produced for the markets for sale at a profit. Through corporate authority they decide how goods should be produced and the conditions in which work is done. In fact, though, there is a sense in which the government does not run the system at all – rather, the capitalist system runs the government, by limiting the actions that can be taken.

The capitalists and their governments can propose what they like, but it is the capitalist economy that disposes. Raising of interest rates, increased unemployment, devaluation – these may not be what governments want to do, but may well be what they are forced to do because capitalism leaves them no choice. Again, this is the opposite of democracy. This does not mean that socialists equate dictatorship and bourgeois democracy. Within the latter, we are free to organise politically and to develop our support to the extent where we can eventually overcome the embargoes and impediments that capitalism’s restricted democratic forms impose on us, whereas in the former any socialist work is necessarily clandestine and can invoke severe penalties. What we can equate is the hypocrisy of bourgeois politicians, who rightly condemn those capitalist dictatorships where political freedom is denied and yet are willing participants and vociferous defenders of a form of capitalism wherein financial impediments exist that make a mockery of real democracy.

The socialist sympathises with aspirations to political democracy. The World Socialist Movement applauds those workers around the world who fight  at massive risk to themselves for basic civil liberties and trade union rights, for the freedom to hold meetings and participate in free elections. The fight for a measure of democracy world-wide is an essential part of the struggle for world socialism. After all, if workers are not able to fight for something as basic as the vote, they are unlikely to be able to work for the transformation of society from one based on production for profit to one based on production for human needs. It is true that the vote, together with other hard-won rights such as the rights of assembly, political organisation and free expression, is most important. But can the act of electing a government result in a democratic society? Genuine, participatory democracy is part of the solution but is not the solution on its own.

 As socialists, we do not regard political democracy in itself as sufficient to emancipate humanity. But we do recognise that it provides by far the best conditions for the development of the socialist movement. That is why we wish well to all those struggling for political democracy throughout the world. The concessions and the elbow room that have been won in capitalist democracy are important and of value to working people. Rights to organise politically, express dissension and combine in trade unions, for example, are valuable not only as a defence against capitalism but from a socialist viewpoint are a platform from which socialist understanding can spread, while the right to vote the means by which socialism will be possibly achieved.

Rosa Luxemburg wrote that democracy is indispensable to the working-class “because it creates the political forms which will serve the proletariat as fulcrums in its task of transforming bourgeois society.” 

But democracy in itself cannot solve a single problem of the working class. Democracy for the working class can only be consolidated and extended to the extent that the working class adopts a socialist standpoint. To renounce socialism so that democracy may be defended means ultimately the renunciation of both socialism and democracy.

At the same time, we must recognise that genuine democracy is more than these freedoms and the right to vote. While “one person one vote” is an essential ingredient of a democratic society, democracy implies much more than the simple right to choose between representatives of political parties every five years. The Chartist movement, in the 19th century, saw that gaining the right to vote was meaningless unless it could be used to effect “change”.

 But today exercising our democratic right to vote for a conventional political party does not effect change. It amounts to little more than making a selection between rival representatives of power and class interest. 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 light of this spirit, he has faith in the capacity of the whole people to control the social system as a democracy. The realisation that genuine democracy cannot exist in capitalist society does not alter the fact that the freedoms already secured by struggle can be turned against our masters. The right to vote, for instance, can become a powerful instrument to end our servitude and to achieve genuine democracy and freedom. Working people with an understanding of socialism can utilise their vote to signify that the overwhelming majority demand change and to bring about social revolution.

At first sight, this suggestion of literally everyone taking part in social decisions may seem as unrealistic. Surely, it is said, these matters have to be left to the experts, and surely modern populations are far too large for active participation by everyone? Political theorists and political philosophers. They think the point is so obvious that they state them far more often than actually arguing for them. Yet they are not obvious. In view of the demonstrated failure of legions of experts and government advisers to solve any of the major problems of civilisation, the less said about expertise the better. How can millions of people all have a say in running society?

Marx’s and the WSM’s theory of socialist revolution is grounded on the fundamental principle that “the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself”. Marx held to this view throughout his entire forty years of socialist political activity, and it distinguished his theory of social change from that of both those who appealed to the princes, governments and industrialists to change the world for the benefit of the working class (such as Robert Owen or Saint Simon) and of those who relied on the determined action of some enlightened minority of professional revolutionaries to liberate the working class (such as Blanqui and Weitling). Marx’s conception of what a fully democratic system would be like seems to have been influenced by events in France. Here’s how he described the Paris Commune of 1871 which he held up as an example of how the working class should exercise political power once they had won control of it:
“The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time..In a rough sketch of national organization, which the Commune had no time to develop, it states clearly that the Commune was to be the political form of even the smallest country hamlet, and that in the rural districts the standing army was to be replaced by a national militia, with an extremely short term of service. The rural communities of every district were to administer their common affairs by an assembly of delegates in the central town, and these district assemblies were again to send deputies to the National Delegation in Paris, each delegate to be at any time revocable and bound by the mandat imperatif (formal instructions) of his constituents.”

The democratic organisation of all people as citizens of the world would need to operate through different scales of social co-operation. Locally, in town or country, we would be involved with our parish or neighbourhood. Even now, there are many thousands of men and women throughout the country who work voluntarily on parish and district councils and 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 co-operation. Such local organisation would be in the context of regional co-operation which could operate by adapting the structures of present national governments. Whilst some departments such as Inland Revenue and the Treasury, essential to the capitalist state, would be abolished, others like Agriculture and the Environment could be adapted to the needs of socialist society and could be part of regional councils and would assist in the work of implementing the decisions of regional populations. With the abolition of the market system, communities in socialism will not only be able to make free and democratic decisions about what needs to be done they will also be free to use their resources to achieve those aims. Communities will be free to decide democratically how best to use those resources. 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, 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.

These days far-reaching developments in technology are happening. Even the feeblest imagination should be able to grasp the implication for democracy. This potential boon to humankind has itself called forth instruments which could, in a different framework, be of untold benefit. Such information and communications technology give 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. Information must flow freely, so all can have an opportunity of reaching a decision, of judging the performance of delegates and appointees, of deciding to challenge the actions of one body in a higher authority; and in real democracy, the higher authorities are those bodies which contain more members of the community concerned. Everyday life must be the signalling system that lets people know what their fellows want, the way of co-ordinating votes and decisions. A society of common ownership would have no need of constricting decision-making. Democracy would be an everyday process. When we own all the wealth in common we will have structures to ensure that we retain control of all decision-making levels where we feel we have the need to involve ourselves and intervene. The more people can exercise a say in those actions, the more democratic the process becomes. Our aim of a democratic society is a practical possibility.

Democracy needs no boastful big leaders with egos to polish, no self-important experts and specialists linked to large corporations. Democracy needs no rallying cries of flag-waving nationalism. Democracy, in essence, is simple and easily understood. Democracy speaks the whole truth, reveals all the evidence, enables informed discussion and decisions and requires inclusion for all in dialogue. Crucial to the question of democracy is not just the ability to make decisions about what to do but also the powers of action to carry out those decisions. Politically for socialists, it is the heartbeat of every activity.

There is a view of some of our critics that envisages only a minority-led revolution, with an active minority leading a mass of merely discontented but not socialist-minded workers. Even if such a revolution were to succeed it would not, and could not, lead to socialism . They are not thinking, as we are, in terms of a majoritarian revolution, one involving the active and democratic participation of a majority of the population. Even if such a revolution were to succeed it would not, and could not, lead to socialism.

For the World Socialist Movement, democracy is not an optional extra or simply a means to an end. It is part of our end. Unless a majority of working people want socialism and organise themselves without leaders to get it then socialism is impossible. On the other hand, if they do want it, nothing can stop them from getting it, not even a hypothetical abolition of political democracy by a recalcitrant capitalist government. No government can continue to govern in the face of active opposition from those they govern. Faced with the hostility of a majority of workers (including, of course, workers in the civil administration and armed forces, as well as workers in productive and distributive occupations), the capitalist minority would be unable, in the long run, to enforce its commands and the workers would be able to dislocate production and transport. Even if a pro-capitalist minority somewhere were to try to prevent a change of political control via the ballot box, the socialist majority will still be able to impose its will by other means, such as street demonstrations and strikes. But we doubt that it will come to that.

Democracy is not just a set of rules or a parliament; it is a process, a process that must be fought for. The struggle for democracy is the struggle for socialism. It is the struggle for an idea, a belief that we can run our own lives, that we have a right to a say in how society is run, for a belief that the responsibility for democracy lies not upon the politicians or their bureaucrats, but upon ourselves. We want democracy to extend to all spheres of social life. For us, that’s what socialism is – the common ownership and democratic control of the means of life by the whole community. But genuine democracy will not be achieved by relying on economists or other supposed experts to design it.

William Morris wrote about democracy in a passage he explains the mechanism of democracy:
“Said I ‘So you settle these differences, great and small, by the will of the majority, I suppose?’
‘Certainly,’ said he; ‘How else could we settle them? You see in matters which are merely personal which do not affect the welfare of the community – how a man shall dress, what he shall eat and drink, what he shall write and read, and so forth – there can be no difference of opinion, and everybody does as he pleases. But when the matter is of interest to the whole community, and the doing or not doing something affects everybody, the majority must have their way . . . in a society of men who are free and equal – the apparent majority is the real majority, and the others, as I have hinted before, know too well to obstruct from mere pigheadedness; especially as they have had plenty of opportunity of putting forward their side of the question.’ ”

Socialism and democracy are complementary; more than complementary – indivisible. In the sense that a democratic society can only result from free, conscious choice, it is a by-product of freedom. But in both a social and a political context freedom can only exist as a by-product of democracy. Whichever way round it is will not matter, when it is thriving in that community yet to be established, where though it still rains, we still quarrel and new problems confront us every day – we have learned to accept that, just occasionally, we may be wrong but rejoice in the fact that tomorrow we retain the incontrovertible right to be wrong again. Democracy can not be left to mature on its own like a good wine but needs to breathe out of the bottle, kept fresh by continual practice. Socialism will involve people making decisions about their own lives and those of families, friends and neighbours. This will not just be the trappings of democracy but the real thing – people deciding about and running their own lives, within a system of equality and fellowship.

The World Socialist Movement does not intend to play into the hands of the global ruling class and their political mouth-pieces. We don’t intend to make it easy for them to treat world socialism as an “undemocratic” threat. Where it is available to workers we take the viewpoint that capitalist democracy can and should be used. But not in order to chase the ever-diminishing returns of reforming capitalism. Instead, we see democracy as a critically important instrument available to class-conscious workers for making a genuine social revolution. And in the process of making a revolution the really interesting work can start, of course: that of reinventing a democracy fit for society on a worldwide human scale. A democracy that is free from patronage, power games and the profit motive.