The relationship between socialism and democracy has been a complex and a contested one. To large numbers of socialists it was axiomatic that their project, both the goal of socialism and the movement for it, must be democratic. They saw socialism as the heir to older, liberal and popular-democratic, traditions of struggle for political rights and liberties, and many of them indeed were themselves involved in, sometimes at the forefront of, movements for the defence and extension of such rights and liberties. At the same time, it has been common for socialists to be critical of the limitations of existing—‘liberal’ or ‘bourgeois’—democracies. A central theme here has been that democracies of this type are too narrow and too formal: excluding any really substantial or sustained popular influence in political decision-making, and vitiating such democratic liberties as they do provide by the great social inequalities and deprivations which they also everywhere super-intend. Set in this light, socialist aims have then been presented as an effort at deepening democracy, through the commitment to more participatory political and more egalitarian social forms.footnote1

Even so, this process of deepening has been thought of in different ways. It was thought of by some as being in basic continuity with the major institutions of existing democracy, as a consolidation and enlargement of these. Others have viewed it rather as discontinuous with them, as a sharp, punctual break in an institutional progression. Again, amongst socialists of different kinds, different views have been taken as to how far if at all limits upon a nascent socialist democracy might be temporarily permitted, to deal with the fierce onslaught which its adversaries were expected to mount against it. And different socialists have shown themselves respectively more and less sensible of the dangers of this line of thought—unwarranted compromise of principle or unavoidable political necessity as they conceived it to be.

Axiomatic as was socialism’s democratic inspiration to the generality of its supporters, so equally has it seemed obvious to many of its critics that socialism was the antithesis of democracy. They perceived in this quarter, in the sectarian certainties of some, in the ‘vanguards of the working class’, an arrogant claim to superior wisdom and the political ambition of would-be elites. In the socialist critique of prevailing democratic forms they found a too widespread and hasty dismissal of the values of liberalism. They deplored what they saw as delusions of final social harmony and transparency, behind which they feared a threat of technocratic and statist domination, whether of a bungling social-democratic or of a more malign totalitarian kind. Above all—far and away above all—these critics were able for over half a century to point to the Stalinist experience and its legacy: ‘actually existing socialism’ as it had come by the time of its ignominious debacle to be called. If anything cast a shadow upon the democratic credentials of the socialist idea, it was this: the millions of lives destroyed, the disregard for basic rights, the official ‘truth’ and the official lies, the travesty of every democratic notion.

In a short essay it is not possible to cover more than a fraction of the issues alluded to in this complex argumentative opposition. I here concentrate on a limited task. I reconsider some of the democratic resources and some of the democratic deficiencies of one important current within the wider stream of socialism: namely, classical Marxism. Anyone already convinced either that this tradition was without democratic resources or that it was without democratic deficiencies need read no further. What follows is an attempt precisely to discriminate on that score.

I start, therefore, from a rejection of some familiar current polarities. One of these generalizes from the fact that actually existing socialism has nowhere been democratic, to a dismissal of the whole project of a socialism that could be. But if actually existing socialism has nowhere been democratic, this is bad not only for socialism, it is bad also for democracy. For the thing can be turned round: democracy is every-where capitalist. It cohabits, that is, with forms of economic power and privilege and their opposites which are deplorable in their own right, and are corrosive of the rough equality of voice that the idea of democracy presupposes. Against every cynicism, the socialist hypothesis continues to be that a better, a more just social order, and therewith a more democratic political one, is possible. At any rate, it may be. Attention to the intellectual resources we dispose of is to the point for those attached to this hope. (People who regard the hypothesis as comprehensively refuted on the evidence of the last few decades are, strangely, more patient about the prospects of capitalism; which has been around a bit longer than a few decades, still generates here persistent want and there the most appalling suffering, and may now be, systemically, a threat to the bases of human survival.)