Capitalist Oligarchy and Socialist Democracy

by Dario Cankovic on October 14, 2013

“It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see….”

“You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?”

“No,” said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, “nothing so simple. Nothing anything like so straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”

“Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democracy.”

“I did,” said Ford. “It is.”

“So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t the people get rid of the lizards?”

“It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”

“You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”

“Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”

“But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”

“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in.”

(Douglas Adams, So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish)

Capitalist Oligarchy or Socialist Democracy

It is a testament to what extent ‘the traditions of dead generations weight like a nightmare upon the minds of the living’ that even revolutionary socialists who pay lip service to radical democracy find it difficult to break away from the bourgeois (mis)conception of democracy. Democracy is the lifeblood of socialism, and socialism of democracy. You cannot have one without the other. Political democracy without economic democracy is an illusion. The schism that bourgeois theorists erect between politics and economics—between public and private—is untenable in theory and practice. Freedom and democracy in public is incompatible with domination and dictatorship in private. Formal equality is empty in the face of substantive inequality. Socialists once saw socialism not only as a completion of democracy, but democracy as a route to socialism. The struggle for socialism is a struggle for democracy, and the struggle for democracy a struggle for socialism.

Socialists today wrongly assume that the struggle for democracy has been won. This stems from the misidentification of democracy with oligarchy. States that claim to be democratic are taken at their word, or at least those with universal suffrage and ‘free’ elections of representatives. This is because democracy is conflated with elections, which are equated with democracy. While occasionally paying lip service to plebiscites—to direct democracy—conservatives, reformists, and revolutionaries alike make a virtue of a purported necessity, accepting or arguing that the size and complexity of modern society makes direct democracy impossible or undesirable. If people cannot gather in assemblies to act directly, they can at least elect representatives to act on their behalf: this is the myth behind representative “democracy”.

Electoral (Mis)Representation

The reality is quite different. It is not a coincidence that the framers of bourgeois constitutions drew inspiration from the Roman republic but not the Athenian democracy; the former had elections, the latter did not. As Aristotle—no friend of democracy—recognized, elections are a mark of oligarchy (rule of the few, the rich), sortition is a mark of democracy (rule of the many, the poor).

Neither the expansion of the electorate through universal suffrage nor electoral reform (of the voting system, campaign finance, nomination rules, ballot access, media access, etc.) changes the underlying oligarchic logic of elections. This does not mean that socialists shouldn’t struggle for a more inclusive franchise or electoral reform, still less that we should oppose it. Any steps toward reducing the influence of money on politics are steps toward democracy, as property qualifications in any form are oligarchic. But we cannot remain content with reforms of oligarchic mechanisms and institutions while keeping those mechanisms in place.

To see the oligarchic character of elections and representation, we need only contrast them with sortition and plebiscites. Elections and representation replace the rule of the people, by the people, for the people with the rule of the self-proclaimed representatives of the people. It establishes a system of professional politicians who claim to speak on behalf of the people but never lets the people speak for themselves. It reinforces the bourgeois schism between state and civil society, public and private, political and economic. If we are political animals, as Aristotle remarked, it alienates us from our species being, or one aspect thereof, by erecting a division of labour and rendering politics into a specialized activity of technocratic experts instead of something that all citizens engage in.

The very logic of elections is aristocratic. During elections we aim to elect the best, whatever our criteria of ‘the best’ might be; or, as it more often the case, to elect ‘the least worst’, ‘the lesser of evils’. Even without the various barriers that bourgeois society erects to keep just anyone from standing for office, elections by their very nature render politics into a popularity contest, thereby excluding large segments of the population from anything but the most passive participation in politics through voting. Those who are not adept at rhetoric, persuasion, and public speaking are effectively excluded from politics.

Free elections are much like the free market: the ‘freedom’ of citizens is that of the consumer. We can choose whom to vote for among a preselected ground of candidates, just as we can choose what to buy among premade products, but we have very little say in who gets selected to run, just as we have little say in what gets made.

One need only look at the composition of even the most democratic legislative assembly in the world to see the sort of distortions that elections create. The so-called representatives of the people aren’t, in fact, very representative of the people. To see this, we need only contrast a statistically representative sample of the population with our elected representatives. The latter are overwhelmingly drawn from the upper echelons of society: privileged, professional, educated, white, male. If statisticians used our elected representatives as a sample, they would get a very distorted picture of society.

In contrast, plebiscites put legislative power in the hands of the people directly, without being mediated through (mis)representatives. While we socialists seek to abolish the division of labour, especially in the realm of politics, we cannot do away with it entirely. But we can prevent the professionalization of politics by allotting offices, where necessary, by lot, i.e. via sortition. Where the bourgeoisie elect representatives—drawn from their own class or from the careerist, servile petit bourgeoisie—to act on their behalf, the proletariat should allot posts from their own ranks. This is both prudent and principled: prudent because it prevents the formation of professional politicians and thereby the concentration of power into the hands of an elite; principled because it is consistent with the demands of democracy.

(“Sortition as a sustainable protection against oligarchy”, presentation by Étienne Chouard on Athenian democracy.)


Democracy—as the Greeks understood—demands equality, and equality democracy, as C. L. R. James put it in his essay “Every Cook Can Govern”:

For the Greek, the word isonomia, which meant equality, was used interchangeably for democracy. For the Greek, the two meant the same thing. For the Greek, someone who did not take part in politics was an idiotes, an idiot, from which we get our modern word idiot, whose meaning, however, we have limited. Not only did the Greeks choose all officials by lot, they limited their time of service. When someone had served once, as a general rule, they were excluded from serving again because the Greeks believed in rotation, everybody taking their turn to administer the state.

All citizens must share in political decision-making through plebiscites, and have equal opportunity to share in office through sortition.

(Pseudo)Democratic Centralism

Thinking the struggle for democracy won, socialists have either engaged in a struggle of (what they mistook for) democracy (by attempting to seize state power through parliamentary means, by electing workers’ representatives, or, barring that, attempting to use elections as a platform on which to agitate for socialism) or else have become disillusioned with bourgeois ‘democracy’ in its entirety (rejecting completely the ‘democratic’ path to socialism, preferring instead a ‘Leninist’/Blanquist/putschist approach to seizing state power, or eschewing the seizure of state power—the political struggle—entirely). Whether they reject or embrace participation in bourgeois elections as a means of seizing state power, socialists tend not to question the logic of bourgeois ‘democracy’, insofar as socialists, like the bourgeoisie, identify democracy with elections. Whatever their strategy for seizing state power, social democrats and Leninists alike, as Gramsci observed, believe “in the perpetuity of the institutions of the democratic state, in their fundamental perfection. According to them the form of the democratic institutions can be corrected, here and there touched up, but fundamentally must be respected.”

Gramsci made the abovementioned remark about his social democratic opponents, but it was no less true of Leninism than of social democracy. While Leninists eschew the parliamentary path to socialism, ‘democratic centralism’—while paying lip service to democracy in theory—mirrors the worst of bourgeois pseudo-democracy in practice, creating an iron oligarchy of the central committee over the party and, in the states ruled by Leninist parties, over the proletariat. Rather than operating on a principle of direct democracy—which is certainly possible in the age of the Internet and given problems of scale are not a problem for small groups—socialist sects fetishize representation in the name of organizational necessity, often handing all power to a self-selecting central committee that legitimizes its existence through de facto show elections every so often. It is no wonder that the working class isn’t flocking to these tiny socialist sects when all they seem to offer is the empty promise of replacing one set of bad bosses with supposedly good bosses.

If one task of socialists is to prepare the working class to become the next, and last, ruling class, then both the hierarchically structured ‘(pseudo)democratic centralist’ socialist parties and sects with authoritarian central committees barking orders at their membership and bourgeois politics, which reduces political participation to occasional voting for preselected, well-funded, and branded bourgeois candidates, are a terrible way of carrying out that task. The emancipation of the working class must be an act of the working class itself, as must be the organization of the working class. We must abandon any organizational form that substitutes self-organization—the active participation in decision-making and organization of real working women and men—for the leadership of professional activists and academics. This type of ‘leadership’ replaces the self-organization of the working class for the organization of the working class by would-be liberators. It doesn’t render the working class fit to rule; rather such leadership reproduces servile followership. It substitutes the vanguard of the most advanced elements of the working class for the vanguard of activists and academics. This sort of leadership, and the followership it breeds, is antithetical to the self-liberation, self-organization, and self-education of the working class required of it to become the next and last ruling class.

We need organizations that will equip workers for the tasks of seizing and wielding state power, for the task of leadership. One will not learn to lead by following; one cannot learn democracy through dictatorship. Radical democracy cannot just be an aim for after the revolution, it must be a reality here and now in how socialists organize. Radical democracy cannot be just a demand, a reform for which we struggle, nor just an organizational principle of socialist society; it must also be our organizational principle, that of the socialist movement. Democracy within the socialist movement should not only serve as an example of what we are aiming for—the kind of democratic society that we wish to build—but, and more importantly, as a school for socialism. The socialist movement will be the place where the working class becomes fit to become a ruling class, where it will cease to be just a class in itself and will become a class for itself.

The Struggle for Democracy

Insofar as we socialists aim to end the division of labour, even if some is necessary, we cannot tolerate the creation or existence of political specialists. Democratic politics is something that everyone must engage in. By abolishing capitalism and ending the artificial division between politics and economics, between public and private, we will deepen the democratic elements where they already exist and extend them where they didn’t exist before, including the workplace. Just as socialist politics cannot be conducted by some infallible central committee, socialist economics cannot be left to technocrats, however well-intentioned. If ‘socialism’ is to mean anything, it must mean economic democracy, and this demands the active participation in decision-making by workers and citizens at all levels of society, from the workshop floors to the halls of legislative assemblies.

The way to ensure such participation, or at least facilitate it, is through a combination of plebiscites and sortition, i.e., direct democracy and allotment of offices. As the experience of 20th-century social democracy proved, it is to our detriment to be wedded to electoral politics. And as the experience of 20th-century Leninism proved, it is to our detriment to eschew democracy. The degeneration and defeat of social democracy was partly a function of the movement’s having left the bourgeois political mechanisms in place, setting the stage for eventually losing its hard-won elections and submitting itself to electoral logic. Plebiscites and allotment ensure the widest possible participation in politics and prevent the formation of a political elite, of professional politicians. Elections, in contrast, facilitate the formation of an entrenched political elite and hinder the development of class consciousness by depriving most people of the opportunity to engage in politics. Elections reduce political participation to passive “consent of the governed”. Most people are deprived of the opportunity to hold political office, if not for lack of money (which electoral finance reform aims to remedy), then for lack of the sorts of skills and capacities—rhetoric, persuasion, public speaking—that enable politicians to win elections.

There is no reason why fear of public speaking, for example, should exclude one from public office. In fact, there is a disconnect between the abilities that enable one to win elections and the abilities that we demand of office holders. As bourgeois elections demonstrate, our politicians, while quite adept at running campaigns, aren’t necessarily adept at running countries. Furthermore, elections, by precluding most from participating in political office, in political life in general, preclude them from developing precisely the sort of political skills necessary of active citizens. Elections substitute representation for active participation. By handing power to elected representatives, we reduce politics to the election of representatives who are supposed to act on our behalf, often with little to no oversight. On the other hand, plebiscites and allotment invite active participation of all citizens. This is rule of, by, and for the people.

The struggle for democracy is not over. We mistook oligarchy for democracy and settled for it. It is no wonder that we have not been able to win socialism when we have been imitating the worst of bourgeois oligarchies. In the struggle for democracy, we not only struggle for the seizure of state power but also to dismantle it, to smash it, in order to change the terrain on which class struggle takes place and render it more favourable for workers. By demanding the abolition of oligarchy and the establishment of democracy, we demand an end to the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, for democracy would put state power in the hands of the overwhelming majority, the proletariat.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

dr. abraham Weizfeld October 15, 2013 at 6:40 pm

Direct Democracy has taken the form of the Soviets, the Councils in the Arab Revolutions and the student assemblies during the General Strike in Québec 2012.


Carl Davidson January 15, 2014 at 11:01 pm

Interesting, but foolish. Anyone close to the working class, including workers themselves, realizes there are vast differences among them–the more advanced, the middle and the more backward, just to use broad strokes. For example, half the workers in my county vote Republican. Even among unionized workers, 1/3 vote GOP. Among black workers voting, 95% or more vote Democratic. Choosing our reps among them by lot would not likely do us much better. It was William F Buckley who often quipped that he’s rather be governed by names taken at random from the Boston phone book than by elections where everyone had the franchise. Back to the drawing boards on this one. It has an unduly romantic and flawed core assumption.


Jim Rogers December 23, 2017 at 12:50 pm

As our collective struggles deepen the abyss grows larger-i find sanity in these notes and hope. That is an emotion i’ve found fleeting as of late. My fears are the KEY to solving our problem lie in education.With the current control of information access becoming more limited by the day. Please keep your ild printing presses /we may need them. Thank you for your enlightenment.


Leave a Comment

{ 6 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: