From the Socialist Standard, September 2004.
Unfortunately, democracy is one of those carelessly uttered words (like freedom, peace, love, justice etc.) that is constantly misused and prone to expedient adaptation. HL Mencken, for instance, mischievously declared: “Adultery is democracy applied to marriage.” Politically, however, its misuse is contemptuously cynical and rarely funny, so it is especially important for socialists to be as precise as possible when explaining it. For us it is the heartbeat of every activity and has been so ever since the party was founded in 1904.
Perhaps the best conventional definition is to be found in Chambers: “A form of government in which supreme power is vested in the people collectively, and is administered by them or officers appointed by them.” Replace the word government with society, or better still community – a word without what the Austrian philosopher, Martin Buber described as “the attendant structural poverty of society” – and, give or take a semantic quibble or two, it moves some way towards a basic definition that even socialists would find acceptable.
William Morris wrote very well about democracy and every place visited in his book about a future society (News From Nowhere) is veritably imbued with the democratic spirit. Points of view are exchanged in a charming, tough, frequently highly opinionated manner. Yet every discussion, as it should, displaying a deep and mutual regard for the right to differ. Here is a passage in which he explains the mechanism of democracy most beautifully:
“Said I ‘So you settle these differences, great and small, by the will of the majority, I suppose?’
‘Certainly,’ said he; ‘How else could we settle them? You see in matters which are merely personal which do not affect the welfare of the community – how a man shall dress, what he shall eat and drink, what he shall write and read, and so forth – there can be no difference of opinion, and everybody does as he pleases. But when the matter is of interest to the whole community, and the doing or not doing something affects everybody, the majority must have their way . . . in a society of men who are free and equal – the apparent majority is the real majority, and the others, as I have hinted before, know too well to obstruct from mere pigheadedness; especially as they have had plenty of opportunity of putting forward their side of the question.’”
Morris was well aware that democracy could not be left to mature on its own like a good wine but needs to breathe out of the bottle, kept fresh by continual practice. This is something we endeavour to do in the Socialist Party but we cannot honestly claim that it is easy to get everything right. Since we assert that a stateless society is a viable proposition and recognise democracy as essential to its function, we are obliged to pursue it now to better understand its complexities and the difficulties that can arise. Unquestionably, even in the most enlightened community, because it would depend upon the co-operation of free (and potentially awkward) individuals, minorities would sometimes experience dissatisfaction and frustration. Giving rise to what most anarchists darkly refer to as “the tyranny of the majority”. To deny the possibility, indeed, probably the likelihood of this problem, would be absurdly complacent and Socialists do not do so.
In a letter to Commonweal (the journal of the Socialist League) on 5 May 1889, Morris wryly observed: “. . . experience shows us that wherever a dozen thoughtful men shall meet together there will be twelve different opinions on any subject, which is not a dry matter of fact . . . and often on that too . . .”; an observation the accuracy of which may be swiftly confirmed whenever Socialists repair to the pub.
Anarchists, of course, might contend that in democracy the majority actually constitutes authority and Morris concedes that, for all it is worth, it might be so defined. But when free, uncoerced human beings voluntarily enter into a process where inclusive, open and (if necessary) prolonged debate concludes with a majority decision – to describe it as authoritative is the logic of the absurd. To call it tyranny, a word redolent with connotations of oppression and cruelty, makes a mockery of language. Later, in the same letter, a dagger thrust is delivered: “For if freedom means the assertion of the advisability or possibility of an individual man doing what he pleases in all circumstances, this is an absolute negation of society . . .”
Morris readily acknowledges that a number of anarchists might well add a qualification: that in pursuing their own freedom they would feel obliged to consider the effect of their actions upon the freedom of others. Such an acknowledgement clearly recognises that it is not sufficient to regard democracy as a purely administrative, decision making, regulatory mechanism. Crucially, its very essence of principled and graceful conciliation needs to pervade the everyday interaction between members of any community aspiring to live co-operatively. One day, perhaps, it may no longer be considered necessary to use any. One day, perhaps, it may no longer be considered important to use any particular word to describe such eminently reasonable behaviour.
In another splendidly succinct passage in News From Nowhere, Morris explains that leaders have no role in a democratic society: “. . . a man no more needs an elaborate system of government, with its army, navy and police, to force him to give way to the will of his equals, that he wants a similar machinery to make him understand that his head and a stone wall cannot occupy the same space at the same moment.” Sadly, the idea that homo sapiens might co-exist harmoniously, without any kind of government or leaders – not to be confused with the essential administration of things – is dismissed by most people as impossible.
When Socialists speak of a community based upon co-operation, of free access, of democratic administration but the absence of government; a society where the fundamental needs of every human being could be met; often the listener will nod sagely and sigh: “Yes, that would be very nice but it’s impossible – it’s against human nature.” Yet such an exchange though seemingly fruitless is frequently redeemed when, oddly enough, the sage immediately excludes himself from this gloomy conclusion, protesting: “It’s not me, it’s the other people who would fail.”
A famous piece of graffiti states “Democracy is too good to share with just anybody.” It makes us smile but makes a sinister assumption which is all to prevalent – an elitist assumption – that most human beings are congenitally incapable of becoming free enough to co-exist without coercion. That only a select few will ever be able to develop their potential to the required level. This pernicious notion has been carefully nurtured by all those who control the system, whatever name they choose to call themselves. For capitalist ‘democracy’ depends on containing that potential.
In order to do so they rigorously maintain a callous, exploitative and hierarchical system based on domination and privilege. By means of increasing propaganda and economic control, the self-belief of most of the population is seriously undermined. Reluctant to assert themselves, the subservient majority seek security through conformity, mistakenly assuming that they lack the power to change things. An unhealthy situation largely accepted not only as ‘normal’ but also immutable and inducing a condition of political acquiescence; for which the ruling powers are extremely grateful.
Since the only possible basis for creating an enduring, truly democratic, community is through the conscious choice of strong, independent, politically aware individuals, it might seem to be, at best, a distant prospect; but it need not be. Thankfully, though, the shared capacity of human beings to develop their conscious potential may become dormant but it can never be eradicated. Our present predicament was perfectly expressed by Thoreau, who wrote: “millions are awake . . . but only one in a million is awake enough . . . We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake . . . by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep.”
Like all Socialists Morris was confident that this reawakening was within our grasp, once the last great illusion of our powerlessness had been overcome. In his lecture The Society of the Future, he said: “Therefore my ideal of the society of the future is first of all freedom . . ., the shaking off the slavish dependence, not on other men, but on artificial systems . . .” And later: “First you must be free, and next you must learn to take pleasure in all details of life; which, indeed, will be necessary for you, because, since others will be free you will have to do your own work.”
One of the most pernicious untruths ever perpetrated is that there is some kind of unbridgeable chasm between independence and co-operation. Socialists are right to emphasise the significant determining factors of our social and political environment but also to reject the discredited notion of absolute determinism. Democracy, far from being an impossible concept, is something – unconsciously – we frequently exercise. In the relationship we have with our families, friends and colleagues; in the common courtesies we regularly show to one another; in the underlying decency of the behaviour of most human beings. A concept far more practical and sensible than the lunatic world of market manipulation and state control that presently masquerades as reality.
Socialism and democracy are complementary; more than complementary – indivisible. In the sense that a democratic society can only result from free, conscious choice, it is a by-product of freedom. But in both a social and a political context freedom can only exist as a by-product of democracy. Whichever way round it is will not matter, when it is thriving in that community yet to be established, where though it still rains, we still quarrel and new problems confront us every day – we have learned to accept that, just occasionally, we may be wrong but rejoice in the fact that tomorrow we retain the incontrovertible right to be wrong again.