Politics Under Socialism

Against the Current, No. 34, September/October 1991

David Edelstein

RECENT WRITINGS in Against the Current have emphasized the need for a coherent vision of a workable socialist future. Given the increasing interest on the Left in theoretical and hypothetical models for a socialist economy, this piece can hopefully contribute to the beginning of a similar discussion concerning what an overall socialist political structure would look like in a large, modern society.(1)

In this discussion, I will take for granted that self-management at the workplace and community levels is the indispensable basis for a system that can meaningfully be called socialism; there is no socialism without such self-management But self-management in itself defines neither the economic nor the political basis for overall societal coordination and governance.

I will also attempt to show that some of the Leninist-derived and councilist-socialist prescriptions regarding governance and politics under socialism are incompatible with a viable and communicable image of a socialist society—something sorely needed at present While my suggested alternatives will state or imply general principles for an overall socialist political structure, most of them can be concretized and advocated now as transitional demands toward socialism. But before laying them out, it is first necessary to deal with a common bias against what has been called, with a negative connotation, “utopianism.”

Critique of Anti-“Utopianism”

Many U.S. revolutionary socialists were raised on certain limiting shibboleths concerning the future socialist society—one being that history itself would throw up the appropriate forms for socialist governance. Attempts to suggest an overall political structure for socialism were, at best, listened to tolerantly, and then dismissed; such discussions could not add to the (positively regarded) experience of the Russian revolution, and could not be taken seriously until after further revolutions, which would provide their own lessons.

Lenin’s succinct statement ‘to this effect, made before the Russian Revolution, has often been cited: “There is no trace of Utopianism in Marx, in the sense of inventing or imagining a new society. No, he studies, as a process of natural history, the birth of the new society from the old, the forms of transition from the latter to the former.”(2) But history has not yet given us a positive example of overall democratic socialist governance. The superstructure built upon the local soviets of the Russian Revolution had barely come into existence before emergency measures, and then degeneration, undermined its possibilities.(3)

But when history does provide us with a positive example, I think its lesson will be largely a product of self-conscious reflection and then trial and error. Constitutions do not arise as spontaneously as workers’ councils. The crude anti-utopian view, common on the Left, implies that neither informed common sense nor the social sciences have much to offer. Nor is there any room for creative inspiration. It is impossible to meet the constructive needs of the socialist movement today while adhering to such ideas.

At least until recently, the content of decision-making under a socialist state had been viewed by most socialists as an administrative problem concerning the economy—a view incompatible with the nature of the country’s and the world’s current and future problems. Further, characterizing problems under socialism as administrative would tend to depoliticize not only the issues but the public, thereby facilitating the growth of a managerial oligarchy.

The content of politics under socialism will involve difficult questions concerning social relations, which are not, primarily, administrative. For example, how massive andrapid an effort to remove the material and social effects of racism and sexism? How much to develop depressed areas within the United States? How much to aid developing nations? Should the ecological crisis be regarded as severe enough to require a declining standard of living? What portion of the national income should be assigned to current consumption? The various claims upon the national income are bound to be large and incompatible—there will be only so much to spread around.

More generally, differences in values and interests—as well as over the formulation of major problems and the means to resolve them—will continue to be sources of controversy under socialism, requiring a political structure suitable for resolving such questions.

A Soviet Structure?

The preferred political structure for a socialist state among most Leninist-derived, syndicalist, and council-1st tendencies has traditionally been a soviet-type pyramidal structure, in which indirect elections are used to fill ever higher and smaller levels. The mythology surrounding the “example” of the Russian Revolution helps account for this trend.

The most appealing and romantic picture of a workers’ state with indirect elections incorporates workers’ councils. Rosa Luxemburg’s call for such a state in 1918 Germany—during a revolutionary upsurge—embodied such features.(4)

But the direct representation of workers’ councils (or enterprises) in a central council is totally impracticable in a large country. For example, the 1922 All-Russian Congress of Soviets consisted of 2,215 delegates, elected on the constitutional basis of one delegate for every 25,000 urban voters, and one per 125,000 people (not voters) from grouped “village” soviets, each of which could represent over 10,000 residents.(5) This Congress then elected not more than 200 of its members to the next higher body, the Central Executive Committee, which in turn elected the Council of People’s Commissars. Few enterprises would have had as many as 25,000 workers at the same location. At best, place-of-work councils could directly send delegates only to their local soviet, itself a large assembly of delegates.(6)

A gathering of 2,000 people makes more sense as a mass meeting than as the highest policy-making body for a nation. The logistics of running a democratic, participatory meeting would be an obstacle in the best of circumstances. Given a harassed or manipulative leadership, the decision-making process would be particularly subject to abuse. Certainly democratic rules could improve matters, but an administration—or simply a dominant tendency—has an enormous advantage in such a large assembly. As James Madison said, in arguing against having a legislature larger than needed to fulfill its basic purpose: “The countenance of the government maybecome more democratic, but the soul that animates it will be more oligarchic. The machine will be enlarged, but the fewer, and often the more secret, will be the springs by which its motions are directed.”(7)

A fair representation for minority political parties and tendencies in a national governing body is very unlikely with winner-take-all local elections followed by the indirect election of still higher representatives. It is even less likely when there is an entrenched administration. Moreover, with highly indirect elections to a national congress, the ability to remove top representatives through “immediate recall” becomes almost meaningless from the vantage point both of rank and filers without a foothold in the system and even of workers’ council members without seats in the local soviet The process itself would be cumbersome and lime-consuming, and one could not safely assume that the intermediate bodies would be as amenable to a recall as rank and filers. Finally, a system of highly indirect national elections, with the first step often within a small local unit, is incompatible with the proportional representation of political parties and tendencies in the top policy-making body.

It is important that a mass representational system fully reflect the heterogeneity of opinion in a complex society. With direct elections to the highest policy-making body, local bureaucracies can be largely bypassed, the electorate’s attention is more focused on common problems, and the opposition can concentrate on getting its message across through general agitation.(8) Frequent direct elections would better serve the purpose of allowing the replacement of representatives.

From a technical standpoint, indirect representation was once almost unavoidable in large countries with dispersed, overwhelmingly peasant populations. This was certainly true at the time of the Paris Commune (1871), and possibly true for Russia in 1917. But with advances in modern communications, indirect representation has become technically superfluous.

Parliamentary Cretinism?

The justified disparagement of bourgeois parliaments and of a purely parliamentary approach to social change has, at worst been carried over (especially by those influenced by anarchism and syndicalism) to a generalized distrust of higher levels of representative government.(9)

In contrast, Lenin was clear that “Without representative institutions we cannot imagine democracy, not even proletarian democracy,”(10) even as he referred to bourgeois parliaments as mere “talking shops,” citing Marx to reinforce his point “The [Paris] Commune [of 1871] was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.”(11)

Lenin also stated that “parliamentarians must themselves work must themselves execute their own laws,” and “parliamentarism as a special system, as a division of labor between the legislative and executive functions, as a privileged position for the deputies, no longer exists.”(12) Lenin’s image, perhaps unintentionally, intimated that parliamentarian would have executive and legislative—functions.

I take for granted that the top national policy-making body (parliament)(13) under socialism would keep the national executives—especially the cabinet—fully under its control, and that the cabinet would be a collective body. This alone would mark a sharp departure from bourgeois parliamentarism.

But Lenin notwithstanding, most members of a national parliament under socialism should be up to their ears in policy-making matters: remaining in contact with their constituents, doing or guiding background research in their selected legislative areas, reading reports, discussing and debating alternatives, formulating laws or directives, selecting the chief executives, and monitoring the executive branch. Lenin, undoubtedly having in mind a simpler and more administrative set of problems for a socialist society, used the Paris Commune model to make the leap from a municipal to a national government.

Lenin’s apparent opposition to a legislative/executive division of labor seems to have been reflected in the first Russian Soviet Constitution of 1918, which gave the Council of People’s Commissars—the highest level of government—legislative as well as executive power.(14) The result was to undermine the authority of all bodies below the Commissars. The constitution simply ratified the “self-aggrandizement of Sovnarkom [the Commissars], which had begun in the first days of the regime.”(15)

Proportional Representation

Minimizing the procrastinations and stalemates common to bourgeois democracies will take more than the elimination of the bureaucracy. What is needed is a political system which fosters social creativity, allowing novel or unconventional views to be heard and discussed. Such a political system would readily “nationalize” issues, simultaneously removing many of the structural obstacles to their representation. Through an institutionalized system of proportional representation (PR), it should be possible to get elected to the national parliament as a candidate of a small political organization or even as an independent.

Some form of PR is an accepted fact of democratic life in most of western Europe, and has even been introduced into Bulgaria. Even among bourgeois democrades there is a contrast between the liveliness of the debates in countries with PR and the political blandness in the United States, with its winner-take-all, two-party system. As a general principle for representation, PR could gain a ready acceptance among people of color and women, who would be able to form their own slates. (Picture this agit/prop video scenario: African American Communist wins election to New York City’s City Council under a PR system.)

Along with PR, the accountability of public officials should be raised to the level of a general issue through the demand for an accountability board elected or selected by lot (as for jury duty) for each important executive post, local as well as national. Accountability to their memberships can also be demanded of the officials of unions and professional associations.

Board members could not be removed during their terms of office. Depending on the product or service, they might be drawn from specific sections of the population. They would be given time off from work and paid expenses to attend meetings and familiarize themselves with the issues. They would meet regularly with, receive reports from, and question and interrogate the top official to which each board would be assigned.

Such boards would be funded so that they could employ outside experts when needed. They would have access to the media so that their views (minority as well as majority) could contribute to the political process. At the same time, their decision-making powers would not extend beyond the right to demand the reconsideration of a decision.(16) Elected consumer utility boards have already been advocated by public interest groups in some states. (Agit/prop video scenario: a public accountability board grills the chief executive officer of Exxon.)

Workers’ representatives should also sit on the boards of enterprises and government agencies with at least half the seats—again a transitional demand. The election of supervisors would be another. These are primarily ways of concretizing self-management, which Lenin espoused just before the Russian Revolution but shelved—for Russia in that period—shortly afterward.

But workers should not be the only constituency represented on these boards, just as they would not be the only sector affected by the institutions which such boards would oversee. Representatives of the general public and affected groups should have a voice in policy-making and in public safety and welfare matters, though not in internal administration. (There could be dual boards, one for policy-making and the other for practical management/administration, as in West Germany.) Political parties and pressure groups could involve themselves in the elections.(17) (Agit/prop video scenario: a worker/public-dominated board of directors vetoes a proposed shutdown and move to Mexico of a General Motors plant.)

Participation beyond the limits of one’s normal mu-tine can stimulate an interest in public affairs, provide the knowledge for more informed decision-making, enhance self-confidence, and, with rotation, help create a broad stratum of politicized citizen-activists.

Free or low-cost access to electronic technology—for purposes of networking and information-gathering—would also encourage the politicization of the population. This would include not only free access to the mass media, but the opportunity for individuals to conduct discussions through telephone conference calls, computer “bulletin boards,” and on a one-to-one basis. Networking among economic enterprises could be fostered through incentives encouraging them to put their production data and plans on-line in standardized formats, thereby providing supplements to “the market,” “regulation,” and more organized planning.

Relation to Economic Organization

These proposals are general enough to be compatible with various degrees of decentralization and levels of consumption—as well as with various ways of coordinating the economy that would not require detailed comprehensive planning.(18) A national self-management council might exist in parallel with the national parliament, the latter retaining the ultimate power as arbiter and decision-maker.

Some multi-level economic associations—by industry and/or region—with technical/managerial functions would probably be needed. If a heavy involvement of hands-on managers and experts were needed, a pyramidal structure with some indirect representation could not be ruled out. Minimizing the growth of a coordinating technical/bureaucratic elite beyond the local level—and possibly divorced from the democratic process—poses a difficult challenge.

Working out a solution could involve limiting the number of functions actually required of these supra-local industrial/economic bodies; making their decisions only advisory or subject to being overruled by parliamentary bodies; and somehow reducing the complexity of the problems dealt with so that non-specialists could replace the elite. Finally, socialists should advocate democratic structures and processes in unions and occupational/professional associations. In a future ATC article, I will discuss the relationship of union and socialist democracy.

The dispersed logistics of the revolutionary situation in which workers’ and popular councils arise may require—and spontaneously produce—an indirect, pyramidal form of governance during the initial consolidation of popular power. But it cannot be claimed that history has provided us with this as the answer to creating institutionalized socialist democracy.

In earlier times, when there was a widespread belief in socialism’s imminence and desirability, there seemed to be less need to fill in its structures. Today there is little understanding of what is meant by socialism, and much skepticism about its feasibility and desirability. A program which incorporates and to some extent exemplifies basic principles can contribute greatly to its understanding and eventual acceptance, as well as offer a guide for future application.

There is also room for more discursive illustrations, like those which fired the popular imagination in the past The construction of an outline and an image for a socialist society is a creative act To play a role in history requires that we participate in working up and putting over such visions.(19)


  1. For helpful reviews of drafts I would like to thank Ron Ehienreich, Samuel Farber, David Finkel, Ruth Greenberg-Edelstein and Arthur Paris.
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  2. V.I. Lenin, State and Revolution New York International Publishers, 1932 p.42. Marx was more opposed to detailed blueprints than to general ideas. See Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol. 1 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977, especially pp.101-5) for Marx’s views on utopianism.
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  3. Extrapolating from the experiences of the Paris Commune and Russian Revolution in constructing models of a large, modern and stable democratic socialist structure could also be called “utopian.”
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  4. What Does the Spartacus League Want? in Dick Howard, Ed., Sdated Politkul Writings of Rosa Luxemburg. New York Monthly Review Press, 1971, p373. Since this proposal was made during a revolutionary situation—and seems justified in that light—it cannot be said that this represents Luxemburgs post-revolutionary model. Nevertheless, such proposals are still reflected in the thinking of much of the socialist Left See Luxemburg’spamphlet, The Russian Revolution (New York. Workers Age, 1940, pp.35-38) for her advocacy of general elections not necessarily within the soviet model.
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  5. S. See E H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923, Vol. 1. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1966, pp.136, 140, 144-5, 153-9, 405. The “village” soviets, and hence the peasantry, were under-represented in the congress. The equivalent to the executive council under the 1924 constitution of the U.S.S.R. had 371 delegates, plus another 131 in a second chamber, the Council of Nationalities. Real power for the soviets was quickly lost, escially beyond the local level. See C. Sirianni, Workers Control and Socialist Democracy: The Soviet Experience. London: Verso, 1982 especially chapters 4 and 6.
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  6. In a large city, many workplaces would be too small for direct representation in even the local soviet, thus makingrepresentation even more indirect In the United States in 1986, thirty-five percent of employees were in businesses with fewer than 100 workers. The New York Times, May 9, 1990, p. D-2.
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  7. James Madison, ftm Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, The Federalist Papers. New York Mentor Books, The New American Library of World Literature, 1961, pp.360-361.
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  8. The arguments here have also been made for large unions like the Auto Workers. See J.D. Edelstein, Referendum Voting Is More Democratic, labor Noses 1, Aug. 1989, p.11, and J.D. Edelstein and M. Warner, Comparative Union Demcaucy: Organization and Opposition in British and American Unions, New Brunswick. Transaction Books, 1979, pp.75-79.
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  9. Strong anti-parliamentary sentiment among Bolsheviks was reflected in the syndicalist views some of them espoused in 1918. Some objected to any form of regional (non-industrial) government See Carr, p.I37-9.
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  10. Lenin, p.41.
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  11. Lenin, p.40. But Marx immediatel’ added that “the officials of all branches of the administration were turned into the responsible and at all times revocable agent[s] of the Commune.” (Also quoted by Lenin, p.37.)
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  12. Lenin, p.41.
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  13. “Parliament” is preferred here to “congress” (although not necessarily in more popular writings) because it implies the election of the chief executives by the legislative body.
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  14. See Carr, p.154-5.
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  15. Carr, p.221. Lenin argued that combining legislative and executive functions was an antidote to bureaucracy, but others have argued that a genuinely deliberative parliamentary body is needed to organize bureaucratic accountability. See Sirianni, who also argues that the “fusion of powers served as a rationalization for the nearly complete preoccupation of soviet bodies with administration and propaganda” (p. 303).
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  16. The 1918 Russian Soviet Constitution had each People’s Commissar report to a collegium of five persons, who, in their capacity as lay assessors, had a right of appeal to the Commissars collectively or to the Central Executive Committee. Under the circumstances of centralized power, It proved of little practical significance (Carr, p.158).
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  17. See my “Consumer” Representation on Corporate Boards: The Structure of Representation.
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  18. Comprehensive planning starting from below—advocated by some councilists—would lead to information overload and conflicts of interest This, in turn, would result in higher levels being forced into decisions not approved by factory or enterprise councils. Comprehensive planning is also impractical. See J. Kosta, “Socialist Economic Systems and Participation in Decisions,” in Autogestion el Socialisme, Vol. 41-42, pp.201-225 (in English).
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  19. Paraphrased from J.H. Robinson, The Mind in the Making. New York Harper & Row, 1950, p.33.
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September-October 1991, ATC 34