Socialism itself must be viewed as part of a democratic movement which long antedates it, but to which socialism alone can give its full meaning.footnote1 The idea of democracy has been drastically narrowed in scope and substance in capitalist societies so as to reduce the threat it posed to established power and privilege: socialism on the contrary is committed to a great widening of its compass. The unenthusiastic prophet of democracy in the nineteenth century was Alexis de Tocqueville. In his introduction to Democracy in America, published in 1835, de Tocqueville said that democracy, which he equated with the ‘equality of condition’ he thought he had found in the United States, was also making its way in Europe. ‘A great democratic revolution,’ he wrote, ‘is taking place in our midst; everybody sees it, but by no means everybody judges it in the same way. Some think it a new thing and, supposing it an accident, hope that they can still check it; others think it irresistible, because it seems to them the most continuous, ancient, and permanent tendency known to history’;footnote2 and in a preface to the twelfth
Thus conceived, socialism is part of the struggle for the deepening and extension of democracy in all areas of life. Its advance is not inscribed in some preordained historical process, but is the result of a constant pressure from below for the enlargement of democratic rights; and this pressure is itself based on the fact that the vast majority located at the lower ends of the social pyramid needs these rights if those who compose it are to resist and limit the power to which they are subjected.
This, however, is not enough. Socialism seeks, not only the limitation of power, but its eventual abolition as the organizing principle of social life. This, incidentally, or not so incidentally, is ultimately what Marx was about. It is of course a notion which constitutes an immense wager on the capacity of the human race to achieve unforced cooperation, and may be dismissed as absurdly ‘utopian’. For socialists, it forms an essential part, in however long-term a perspective, of the promise of socialism.
There is a profound sense in which democracy, equality and socialization must be taken to be means to an end which ultimately defines socialism, namely the achievement of a greater degree of social harmony than can ever be achieved in societies based on domination and exploitation. Such harmony would be based on what might be called civic virtue, according to which men and women would freely accept the obligations of citizenship as well as claiming its rights; and they would find no great difficulty in the cultivation of a socialized individualism in which the expression of their individuality would be combined with a due regard for the constraints imposed upon it by life in society.
In the light of the meaning that is properly attached to socialism, it is obvious that the practice of Communist regimes was for the most part a denial rather than an affirmation of that meaning. They did bring the main means of economic activity (in most cases all of them) under public ownership; but they also demonstrated the point that this, without democracy, amounts to no more than authoritarian collectivism. Nor were these regimes egalitarian, for they created structures of power and privilege which made a mockery of any notion of equality of condition. Communist regimes have been described on the Left as being socialist, or degenerate workers’ states, or state capitalist, or bureaucratic collectivist, and so on. But it is at any rate clear that they constituted at best a terrible deformation of socialism, and at worst its total repudiation.
It is hardly necessary to insist, at this moment in history, that the realization of the core propositions of socialism, or even the advancement towards their realization, is certain to be an exceedingly arduous project, full of pitfalls and tensions; and much of the Left has now accepted an ‘epistemic conservatism’, previously cultivated by the Right, about the limits of what is possible by way of social renewal.
The appropriate response to this is not to deny the problems posed by socialist construction, but to see how they could be solved, or, in the first instance at least, how they could be attenuated, on the assumption, which lies at the root of socialism, that their resolution or attenuation is not only desirable but possible.