From Democracy to Socialism: Then and Now

Paul Raekstad

Abstract


In recent years, we’ve seen more and more calls for ‘democracy’ – not only among familiar reformist and liberal groups, but from far more radical ones as well. Radical calls for democracy are seen in movements and organizations from the Arab Spring, Occupy, and the Movement of the Squares to the efforts at constructing Democratic Confederalism in Rojava. This poses a number of important questions. What does and can democracy mean today? Is it inherently tied up with states and statehood, whether liberal and capitalist or not? How, if at all, can it be used to critique capitalism and guide its replacement? This essay seeks to contribute to thinking about democracy from a socialist perspective, in significant part through a reading of Marx’s development into a socialist thinker through the period during which he is a radical democrat – albeit one opposed to both capitalism and the modern state. Marx’s commitment to democratization remains at the core of his commitment to socialism (communism), which is based on subjecting all aspects of our social life to the collective self-governance or self-rule of its participants. As we will see, this vision is universalistic, admits of no divisions between sex, race, ethnicity, religion, etc., and presupposes full freedoms of speech, press, association, and conviction. It also replaces both capitalism and the state, and overcomes alienation to realise human freedom and thereby greatly enhance human development and flourishing.

We can reconstruct and use this concept of democracy without privileging an earlier Marx to a later Marx in any significant sense. Taking this concept of democracy up again does not commit us to rejecting any of the views of the later Marx – his commitment to socialism, his views on social revolution, his economics, and so on. However, it does mean that we need to be careful not to read this concept of ‘democracy’ back into later Marxist thought, which may use the term differently. We must also be careful to distinguish it from the later Marxist critiques of ‘democracy’ in a very different sense. As we know, democracy has gradually come to be associated with modern representative states, in particular as a result of the popularity of social democratic and populist politicians who described themselves as ‘democrats’. It is because of this that many in the later Marxist tradition critique notions of ‘democracy’ or ‘bourgeois democracy’, which refer essentially to representative state structures with expanded (not necessarily universal) suffrage. According to the radical Marxian concept of democracy defended here, these are arguably not instances of democracy at all.

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