Is Democracy Enough?

Against the Current, No. 29, November/December 1990

Milton Fisk

THERE ARE NOW many aspects of socialism in need of rethinking. But a high priority has to be assigned to the matters of democracy and human rights. Bureaucratic society (“actually existing socialism”) has been notorious for its abuses of democracy and human rights, and there is a tendency to attribute these abuses to deficiencies; in socialist theory itself.(1)

Given a chance, peoples in the East moved rapidly in a democratic direction. In Prague they carried forward the human rights work of Charter 77 by demanding an end to communist rule and a democratic beginning. In Moscow the democratic movement, with its roots in the samizdat period, marched against Article 6 of the Soviet constitution that protected the one-party system. In East Germany (DDR), Neues Forum and other opposition groups set up both local Round Tables and a national Round Table, which functioned as a quasi-legislative body while the Communist government was collapsing.

In the West, the democratic forms desired in the East are well entrenched. The multi-party system is taken for granted; the legal systems are designed to protect individual rights against the state; and democratic bodies, from school boards and town councils right on up to national assemblies, guarantee to the citizen who votes representation in all areas.

People are demanding democracy and human rights, but there has been no sustained tradition of democracy or human rights within actually existing socialism. The confrontational picture of society adopted by many socialists is sometimes blamed for this failure. In this picture, the oppressed and exploited must use many means against their unyielding antagonists. Nothing keeps democracy and rights from being set aside for allegedly better means.(2)

So it is suggested that if socialism is to be democratic and if it is to respect human rights, it has to downplay confrontation. This reorientation would make a large difference in the near-term struggle for socialism. Everyone’s wishes would be treated with equal respect, thereby keeping conflicts from standing in the way of democratic participation. Instead of remaining exclusive, socialism would then become an inclusive movement The traditional focus on class conflict (in this view) not only excluded exploiting classes but also oppressed groups other than classes.(3)

I shall argue for an emphasis on democracy and human rights in socialism, but against the view that conflict, and in particular class conflict, has to be abandoned in our conceptions of democracy and human rights. To be clear it will help to start with an elaboration of the nature of socialist democracy. This will provide the goal that can guide us in regard to democratic practices by socialists, prior to socialism itself.

The expression “socialist democracy” indicates, through the term “democracy,” a type of political organization and, through the term “socialist,” that this political organization is limited by a socialist economic organization. In this formal respect, “socialist democracy” is parallel to “bourgeois democracy.” From the perspective of the tradition—with which I identify—that emphasizes the goal of improving the society by liberation from any form of domination, socialist democracy is to be preferred over bourgeois democracy.

The reason is not just that socialist is preferred to bourgeois economic organization. It is rather that democracy within the socialist economic context represents a greater liberation for the society than does democracy within the bourgeois economic context.(4)

Still, even the economic context has a political dimension. Capitalism has an autocratic organization of production, while socialism has a democratic organization of work, distribution, and investment. Thus socialist economic organization is part of the overall political democracy within socialist democracy. Despite this intertwining of the economic and the political, there are two reasons for emphasizing both socialism and democracy in the phrase “socialist democracy.”

The first is that the liberatory goal of many socialists extends beyond the democratic organization of the economy. That goal is incompatible with oppression of any form and not merely with economic exploitation. In other words, it is incompatible with any system for limiting the aspirations of one group in favor of another group. Democracy, when it involves full discussion based on respect for the views of all participants, serves to curb this limitation of aspirations. So we can’t eliminate the reference to democracy and speak exclusively about socialism.

The second reason for emphasizing both democracy and socialism is that democracy, as it exists in capitalism, ignores the desire of the exploited for control in the economic domain. They are relatively powerless in regard to decisions about their work about distribution, and about investment To emphasize that a democratic organization of the economy is central to the kind of democracy we are speaking about, we draw attention to the fact that it is the kind of democracy possible only within the context of a socialist economy. We draw attention to this by calling it a socialist democracy. So we can’t eliminate the reference to socialism and speak exclusively about democracy.(5)

On this last point it will be objected that in the liberal tradition there are conceptions of democracy and human rights that should satisfy all the aspirations of socialists. Thus there is no need to pursue socialist democracy but only democracy in this liberal sense. In this vein, the Canadian historian of political theory, C.B. Macpherson, spoke of a retrieval of liberal values within the socialist movement.(6) Whereas Macpherson was fully aware of the need for socialism in order retrieve liberal values, today the rethinking of socialism has often become a thinking away of socialism in the interest of a liberal retrieval.(7) This thinking is characteristic of what I shall call the democracy-is-enough school, to be found in both West and East.

There is certainly an important truth to the retrieval idea, but what this truth is gets obscured by its most staunch supporters. They tend to ignore the contextual character of liberal ideas, positing them instead as timeless norms with no trace of their origins.(8) But it is possible to adopt a view of the retrieval of liberal ideas that recognizes both change and continuity without positing an identity.

From liberalism to socialism there will be a change in democracy and human rights, and hence not an identity. But there will be sufficient resemblances to establish a continuity. In short by interpreting retrieval as compatible with a change in political morality, we don’t sever the connections political morality has with the different class and other group realities whose conflicts it serves to adjust.

The difficulty for those who posit an identity between liberal ideals and socialist ones is that they must avoid any attempt to say what the content of these ideals actually is. They will tell you that liberal ideals have in fact been formulated in terms of the restrictions imposed by the private market economy, but they will add that these restrictions are accidental to those values. Once these accidental restrictions are separated from the ideals, we will behold the unrestricted values that have timeless relevance. They must though, for reasons clear in the following example, draw back from telling us what content these values have.

Take the liberal ideal of freedom of expression. This freedom established the independence of, among other things, the media from the state through tying it to private ownership. The content of the idea of freedom of expression includes, then, its compatibility with private ownership of the media. The fact that there are protests over manipulation of the news for market reasons is a reflection of dissatisfaction with this liberal conception of the free press.

We cannot say that behind this dissatisfaction is an ideal of the free press that is the true liberal ideal, one freed of links with all forms of press control. What indeed is such a true freedom of the press? A stab at this might be that it is reporting objectively everything important But so long at least as there are social divisions, there is going to be disagreement over what’s important and skepticism about the other guy’s objectivity. The absence of all press control proves to be an ideal with which we associate no content.

Without a timeless ideal here, all we can say is that the protests come from people who don’t think that advertising and profits should be allowed to bias reporting on strikes, the Intifada, and the S&L bailout They want a change of the norm of acceptable press control, not a timeless norm.

Isn’t socialist democracy going to institute true freedom of the press, enabling us to find the ideal that was obscured by the liberal link to the private market? In a socialist democracy, freedom of the media gets linked to the democracy of councils, which will run the media without the biases of capitalist boards of directors. Since the system of councils as a whole has a governing function, the liberal separation of the press from the state is less relevant.

Freedom of expression in a socialist democracy will not, though, be unlimited since it comes about in the context of councils. First, they will filter the news by reflecting the underlying nature of the society in which the news is disseminated. Second, resources, which will not make unlimited expression possible, will be allocated along socialist lines.

The continuity that allows us to speak of a retrieval here comes from the fact that in both the liberal and the socialist period the media will not be interfered with by something—the state in the former case and owners in the later But the change is decisive: In the liberal ideal freedom is conferred by the capitalist’s independence of the state, whereas in the socialist ideal freedom of the media will come from the democratic will of councils.

The view that is widespread in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe today that not just freedom of expression but freedoms generally are dependent on the development of civil society, which is taken to mean a system of private ownership independent of the state, is a reversion to the liberal ideal of freedom.(9)

Something may seem to have been left out; it is the individual as the basis for timeless ideals. The way we think of ideals changes as the social context changes, but on the view that emphasizes individuals, the core of the ideals is constant since it rests on a constant human nature. Socialist theory (in this view) misled generations of militants by concentrating instead on social context What needs to be retrieved from liberalism is, on the individual view, the unchanging rights of the individual. The focus of many socialists on the social seems to denigrate individuals.

There is a double confusion here. First, there is a confusion of an historical analysis of individual rights with a rejection of individual rights In analyzing rights historically one connects them with people’s visions of the good society and of the good citizen. Rights appear as protection for those who want to contribute to the realization of the good society and who want to act as good citizens.

Conceptions of individual rights will vary with conceptions of what the good society and the good citizen i& Of course, at any given time there will be disputes, some of which are based on class differences, over what the good society should be. These disputes are the basis for the conflict between a dominant conception of rights and a revolutionary one. Marx’s analysis of the Rights of Man of 1789 in France was an attempt;, by historical analysis, to show how those rights were rooted in a bourgeois conception of the good society and the good citizen.(10) His analysis cuts through the universalist language in which those rights are formulated to show their dependency on a conception of the good society peculiar to the bourgeois period.

Those who make such an analysis cannot be accused of rejecting rights altogether or even of rejecting the rights they have analyzed critically. They, too, will have a conception of the social good they will want to implement with rights.

One cannot implement the socialist conception of the good society without protection for individuals. There must, for example, be a right to equal respect for all in the councils that run the institutions of the socialist society. Liberalism recognizes no such right since there is not even a mechanism for all to have a voice in the running of most bourgeois institutions. Still, those who make such an analysis don’t have to reject the rights they have analyzed critically since they may need to retrieve just these rights to implement the conception of the good society they have. Of course, as the example of equal respect shows, the rights retrieved will be suitable variants, not carbon copies, of the ones they have analyzed critically.

The second confusion about whether socialist theory recognizes individual rights comes from thinking that individuals and groups can be separated. Individuals are given a nature of their own apart from groups, and groups are then seen as regimentation imposed on individuals from outside.(11)

This separation is a false one, however much it is the stock in trade of liberal thinking. Individuals are at least in part what they are through the groups to which they pertain. We cannot then be accused of ignoring the rights that spring from individuals when we say that the rights of individuals are those they have from a groups conception of the good society.

However, some conceptions of the good society, such as the Stalinist one, can be implemented without granting rights to individuals. This is certainly true. But that is not the conception that socialist democrats will have of the good society. Their conception is one in which, whatever else may be true of it, each individual is an object of respect and a subject of creative action.

To implement a society with these characteristics requires individual rights, and indeed requires a retrieval of many of the rights of liberalism. Socialist democrats don’t have to be responsible for conceptions of the good society they in fact reject. They are not conceptions of the good society that are likely to be debated in rethinking socialism today.

With these remarks about socialist democracy and human rights in mind we can take a look at the democracy-is-enough view as it applies to the struggle for social change today. According to it, socialist ideology should be dropped in the struggle for social change. After all, there are many groups interested in social change, and not all or even most of them are socialist The important thing is for these groups to coordinate their activity through a democratic process.(12)

Socialists (according to this argument) should drop all vestiges of their confrontational picture of society and prove their respect for what is agreed to in a democratic process where a mix of classes participates Those who would try to manipulate nonsocialist groups into support for socialist perspectives would isolate themselves from the new democratic coordination.

The argument here is that there is an obligation to follow the democratic will of those favoring social change. But why is there such an obligation? There are libertarians who work to end state welfare, there are women who worship an Earth goddess, and there unionists who see protectionism as the answer. Do I have to bind myself to a democratic will they have helped form? Working with these people on particular issues is one thing, but committing myself to stop functioning as a socialist would be quite another

One cannot be accused of vanguardism if one reserves the right to break off alliances with such groups. It is more important to maintain one’s critical perspective than to follow the democratic will of those united by nothing more than a desire for social change.

The democracy-is-enough school represents an overreaction to the undemocratic vanguardism of numerous groups that professed socialism. The remedy is not, though, the pursuit of the least common denominator among all groups seeking social change.

The solution consists of two things. First is a recognition of the need for a struggle unified around an agreement to transform bourgeois into socialist democracy. Such a unified struggle contrasts with the piecemeal struggle of groups with disparate goals. R.R Tawney captured the need for a unified struggle with his quip that you can peel an onion layer by layer but you can’t skin a tiger claw by claw.

This struggle will, though, be a pluralist one to the extent that it includes those who, within this agreement, will emphasize different fronts. There will be a variety of class and other movements which can share the socialist democratic perspective.

Second, the remedy for vanguardism will include the recognition of the need for a democratic coordination of the groups unified around the socialist democratic perspective, and of the need for respect for the right of those outside this agreement, with whom affiances can be made on particular issues, to reject socialist democracy as a goal.

The democratic coordination based on socialist democracy does not mean a collapse of class, environmental, gender, minority organizations into one organization. A coordination is compatible with the autonomy of different groups, but allows them to enter into discussion on common issues. In view of their agreement on socialist democracy, they can be seen as bound by the results of these discussions.

We see then the limitations of the democracy-is enough view in regard both to the socialist democratic goal and in regard to the upcoming democratic struggle for socialism. As far as the goal is concerned, democracy, like other ideals, remains contentless without a specification of the context in which it is to be realized.

We can’t then say merely that we are democrats, and we don’t want to say that we are bourgeois democrats. Our goal is instead socialist democracy. It is the socialist economic context that fleshes out the kind of democracy we stand for As far as the near term is concerned, a struggle that lacks the unity provided by an agreement on the goal of socialist democracy is one that cannot do justice to the liberatory goals of the groups involved. Thus the call for democracy and respect for the democratic will within the struggle for liberation is not one that can be obeyed without—in addition to democracy—some unifying goal in that struggle.(13)


  1. Steven Lukes, Marxism and Morality (Oxford University Press, New York, 1985) Chapter 4, provides a forceful example of such a critique of socialist theory.
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  2. Marx’s statement, “Between equal rights force decides,” might lend itself to this interpretation (Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 10, Section 1).
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  3. Ernesto Ladau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (Verso,, London, 1985) Chapter 4, make an influential form of this criticism.
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  4. See Ralph Milliband, Divided Societies (Oxford University Press, New York, 1989) Chapter 3, where he discusses how the bourgeois democratic context conservatizes trade union and social democratic leaders.
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  5. Jim Cronin, Western Socialism After the Cold War, Socialist Review, #2, 1990, 20-30, makes a plea to eliminate calls for socialism by socialists.
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  6. C.B. Macpheraon, Democratic Theory: Essays in Retrieval (Oxford University Press, New York 1973) Part 1.
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  7. Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, Democracy and Capitalism (Basic Books, New York 1986) provide an example of this thinking away of socialism.
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  8. Frank Cunningham, Democratic Theory and Socialism (Cambridge University Press, New York 1987) Chapter 7, makes this mistake in an otherwise helpful retrievalist work.
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  9. Alexander Tsipko, in Nauka I zhizn, 11-12 1988,1-2,1989 (see The Current Digest of the Soviet Press, 41,10-13,1989), provides an elaborate plea for a renewal of civil society.
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  10. Marx, “On the Jewish Question” (1843).
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  11. Michael Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge University Press, New York, 1982) Chapter 4, started a critique of the liberal concept of the individual from Kant to Rawls based on a social concept of the individual.
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  12. Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers, On Democracy (Penguin, New York, 1963) Chapter 6, call for a democratic coordination without a basis in socialist unity but, ironically, make socialism a condition for its success.
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  13. Even those who say democracy-is-enough want it to be a democracy within the struggle for social change. They exclude those who reject social change from that democracy. So democracy is always structured by some goal, however minimal.
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November-December 1990, ATC 29

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