Authoritarianism, Democracy and the Transition to Socialism

James F. Petras

Abstract


The issue of democracy cannot be discussed independently of political and social context. Eighteenth century democratic revolutionaries, as well as 19th and 20th century anti-colonial revolutionaries, liberal democratic and contemporary socialist practitioners have at one time or another supported varying degrees of democracy or authoritarianism according to the political context. While some writers have espoused the notion of supporting democracy everywhere and at all times, in practice this has proven to be an untenable position, leaving the way open to a number of unsatisfactory solutions which include: (1) proclaiming the principle democracy and divorcing it from practice, (2) redefining democracy to include authoritarian practice, (3) invoking vague juridical formulas to cover immediate ad hoc expediencies and then revoking them when the situation becomes manageable, (4) specifying a set of contextual circumstances in which democratic freedoms can be suspended for a specific time frame for particular sets of transcendent political reasons. It is sheer demagoguery devoid of historical substance simply to wave the flag of democracy at every point and place in history--particularly in periods of large scale, long term changes from one social system to another. On the other hand, it is a perversion of democratic sensibility to make a virtue of historical necessities, to extend and institutionalise authoritarian practices beyond the particular context in which they were evoked and to claim that the new autocratic polity represents a higher form of political governance.

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