Radical Democracy and Socialism

Alex Demirović


The advanced capitalist societies have arrived at an impasse: dramatic problems require social solutions. Democracy itself, which should serve to develop these, is in crisis. Given this disastrous state of affairs, we need to ask particularly what ideas democratic theory has contributed that might help us out of the impasse. I do not mean the kind of democratic theory that practices ‘business as usual’ in the belief that there is no alternative to representative democracy, and insists that the system is not in a crisis. Rather, I am referring to radical democratic theory. Some of its ideas are closely linked to social movements, inspire them, or seek to draw conclusions based on their experiences. In my understanding, the radicalization of democratic theory since the 1960s, which has been partly informed by a close dialogue with social movements, and partly by a distanced and critical one, essentially evolved in two steps. I will therefore distinguish between 'Radical Democracy I' and 'Radical Democracy II'. Before addressing these concepts, I will briefly reiterate the assumptions of conventional democratic theory.

The essay will also take up the relationship between socialism and radical democracy.  The socialist tradition expected that once capitalist property relations were overcome through revolution, the immediate consequences would be the demise of class antagonisms, a rational management of nature, and the end of racism, sexism, and of the division of labour. Correspondingly, there would no longer be any political conflict nor need for democratic coordination mediated by the state. From this, it was possible to further conclude that any residue of conflict was down to historical vestiges (e.g. the petty bourgeoisie, experts), confused and pathological individuals, or provoked by external forces. Both versions of radical democratic theory reject the notion of such a harmonic and transparent society. Both accuse the left, particularly the Marxist tradition, of reducing politics to a superstructural phenomenon of the economy and therefore lacking any political or democratic theory.

Radical democratic and socialist perspectives are not easily reconciled. Radical Democracy I is critical of socialism because it contains the notion that society as a whole creates itself through politics. Politics, according to this theory, is merely a subsystem of society; it would therefore be overburdened if it were to manage society as a whole. The positions of Radical Democracy II contain arguments for socialism, although they subordinate socialism to democracy. I want to reverse this perspective and make clear that democracy is an aspect of socialism.

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