For a Socialist Republic

by Ryne Tipton on January 21, 2015

paris commune declaration


For many socialists, representative democracy is an institution firmly situated within a system of capitalist exploitation. Sure, there are plenty instances in which the Left has seized representative government in order to establish fundamental planks of a socialist program- one need look no further than Venezuelan cooperatives or the Emilian model of development within Northern Italy to see the modest success of such governments. A vision of peaceful progress leads some socialists to accept that the road to socialism will be a “long march through the institutions,” but they reject that the end of the march will be a system of political and economic representation– a binary division of constituents and politicos. Instead, they see workers’ councils, labor unions, trade guilds, nested councils, and a plethora of other models as viable end-game solutions to the failures of present-day liberal democracy. Others reject the use of representative institutions as a means entirely- preferring direct action, wildcat strikes, and the formation of leaderless social organizations to achieve revolutionary change. This approach (primarily advocated by Autonomist Marxists such as Antonio Negri) had its roots in 1960’s New Left activism, a venerable, charismatic alternative to more traditional socialist plans of action.

Though the range of particulars is quite varied, socialists tend to have a collective yearning for a non-representative society. If the ultimate goal for socialists within a system of capitalist exploitation is to get rid of this system, obviously a system of horizontal and direct governance seems like a quite appealing alternative to take its place. The fundamental problem with the capitalist system is not simply the existence of harsh market forces or insatiable consumer demand or even private property, instead the problem goes much deeper. Capitalism is a system by which power is concentrated in the hands of an elite class, while the rest of the population must toil for their benefit. What many socialists fear is that the fundamental problem with capitalism- power inequality- is the inevitable result of any representative system. Instead of a class of owners and a class of workers, society, if it indeed decided to take a representative socialist route, would end up devolving into a pseudo-democracy. On one hand, there would be an elite representative class who would cling to their decision-making power and elevated status and on the other, a base of constituents mired in powerlessness who would become detached from the political system (much like voters in our current system), further ceding the strength of their solidarity and their votes to an unaccountable bureaucracy.

Even though these concerns are quite legitimate, I think that representative democracy coupled with participatory underpinnings is a necessary component of a successful socialist program for a couple of reasons.



Superstructure and Cultural Hegemony

The achievement of a socialist revolution has to occur within the shell of an old, capitalist system. This is a system which has maintained its supremacy largely by cultural hegemony- “peasants for plutocracy”- whether it is by television news, trickled-down economic rationale, appeals to a heavenly-determined purpose from the pulpit, capitalists have found a sophisticated number of ways to illicit compliance from the working class without the need for violent exploitation. In trying to achieve a socialist society, the cultural values of capitalism so prevalent among working class people will most definitely remain. Exposing people who do not have proper egalitarian values to direct control over political (as well as economic) institutions could result in a counterrevolution and the failure of socialism. In order to solve the problem of residual capitalist hegemony, there must be two battles fought by a proletarian vanguard: a deep battle which hits at the power inequality propagated by capitalism, recognizing the dominance of exploitation in what Zizek calls the apolitical network of social relations, as well as a more superstructural battle fought against institutions which undermine democratic political and economic decision making.

Let’s be clear- representative democracy, if it’s truly authentic, can serve to properly reflect the will of working class people.

Current parliamentary arrangements do not consist of the social participation which authentic republicanism requires. Instead of political parties in which officials are elected directly by party members, where policy is deliberated in small working groups, and where official actions are taken with the consent of participants- current political parties exist as vehicles to serve their leaders or the forces of capital. Instead of the existence of voter-controlled citizen groups which help to nudge parliamentary deliberation towards proletarian demands, most “special interests” are undemocratic and well-funded by major corporate sponsors- or they themselves are composed of corporate heads. And instead of a system in which voters can fully realize the power they have by organizing around campaigns dear to their needs, our system has produced discouraged voters who either abstain from voting due to a lack of viable options, or vote “irrationally” against their own interests, simply because they have seen no change in their current circumstances under one party and feel the need to select the only other alternative that has a chance of winning.

Truly functioning representative democracy, buttressed by participatory institutions would conquer the superstructural battle. It is the duty of a revolutionary vanguard party working within a liberal-democratic framework to stand by its participatory components in order to revolutionize the representative institution which they are a part of. By creating a microcosm of democratic-republican action in their own structure (strong popular control by their supporters combined with the nuances of representation within the capitalist state), a prototype of the future would be revealed to working class people desiring an alternative. The institutionalization of such a structure could serve as the model for the post-revolutionary state (a topic I discuss more in depth in my other piece, “The Vanguard.”).

On the deep front, the battle against cultural hegemony is a far more complex issue that can’t be fully summarized here. It’s an issue of transformation which must take place both in individual members of the working class and the collective culture of working people itself. Simply put, this is an issue of internal education, the formation of social bonds, and the utilization of activities which are not clearly delineated as political by our mainstream culture. Though the “how” of achieving a counter-hegemony may be complex, I think it is clear that it will be a long-drawn process which will require a number of stages. Class-conscious activists from within the proletariat would be first members to join a revolutionary vanguard and establish the seeds of a counter-hegemony. Many of this leadership cadre would become representatives within current representative institutions, committed to a socialist society and ideology in a way that many citizens without Marxist education may not be. Their expertise would serve as a bridge between the raw passion of proletarian struggle and the necessary calculations which are needed when making political maneuvers and structural reforms within a parliamentary setting.


Transition and the Possibility of Communism

Once revolution has been fully achieved, I think it is important to note that republican socialism would be something of a bridge itself. As a new socialist republic is developed, the purpose of legislative practice would be broadened- and a system of governance would include the political structure, as well as economic institutions- from small cooperatives (which serve a similar buttressing function as party cells within the political sphere) to large companies based on a mixture of participatory work-floor decision making and representative governance. Popular pressure from beneath would be the pressure to keep approaching the end of the bridge- an end in which the old State, an institution of class repression and violence and highly indirect rule wanes to a coordinating power that is reflective of the will of the entire society. This is the communist ideal, one which may never be achievable but must always be on the minds of those striving for revolutionary change.

There are objections to the bridge analogy in particular- and to the communist ideal. Some may ask, “What if the representatives don’t want to permit social change that simply reduces them to political coordinators?” and “Why should we hold a communist ideal, when past communist regimes have produced terrible outcomes?”

The answer to the first question is quite simple. In a system that is post-capital, in which participatory governance in the local arena and party structure has been established, representatives would no longer be held accountable to undemocratic social forces and corporate financing. The main thing that working class people would have to fear is the power lust of their representatives, but by the same token, representatives would now have to truly worry about the power wielded by the liberated working class. Unlike modern legislators who have been amenable to reforms but have ferociously held on to their power, socialist representatives would recognize that popular sovereignty determines their political fate- not the power of the bourgeoise. If the people demanded reform, reform would have to be undertaken, or the people would rise up and remove them from their position of delegated power. The dictatorship of the proletariat would be a fierce motivator, just as the dictatorship of capital is today.

In regards to the second question, I think that almost all socialists can agree that one of the most important principles of the movement is the aim that all people take part in decisions which affect their lives. A representative system of delegated power does achieve this goal, but in a sense which is definitely limited. Seeking statelessness, the abolition of market forces, and complete liberation is a worthy cause of the people- and in order to achieve this goal, there must be a permanence of revolution- a drive towards the withering away of representation and the evolution of direct action. I think that communism ought to be redefined as the point at which representative institutions (a hallmark of socialist democracy) have become integrated into civil society as committees of coordination and delegation. This is far more narrow and proper definition of statelessness- which challenges both an authoritarian connotation that those on the Right, as well as social democrats have given to communism and fuzzy definitions propagated by those who equate communism with a sort of perfect, blissful Utopia, a heaven on Earth.


Final Thoughts

Besides the necessity of representation in a transition from capitalism to socialism, there are other merits of a plan for representative democratic socialism (preferable to direct democracy) that ought to be mentioned.

One, direct democracy on a large scale is quite unfeasible from a logistics standpoint, as well as from a standpoint of democratic purpose. Taking the individualized interests of millions of people, the level of direct participation which pure democracy implies, and trying to compile those interests into a clearly bilateral set of decisions- yes votes and no votes- requires the existence of representative bodies to begin with. Campaigns on certain issues brought before popular vote would develop representative structures (or bureaucracies) which would stratify the system, counteracting its intent.

If direct institutions do not evolve into representative ones, there could be the possibility of hidden leadership- people who exert influence and power over citizens without holding any formal role of power. These leaders would have no title to challenge, no delegated power to revoke- an insidious kind of authoritarianism that would be hard to challenge. WIthout titles and clearly delineated power, there is no way to properly challenge those who hold an unhealthy sway over the electorate. They could argue that they are simply regular citizens, common people, equal in power (as they theoretically would be) to everyone else. And throughout history, there have been plenty examples of “leaderless” institutions in which individuals have ruled with strong sway: Mikhail Bakunin and his secret society in the First International, Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Muammar Gaddafi’s Jamahiriya, Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution…the list goes on. It is a sad truth that most leaderless institutions which adequately function are simply dictatorships, where the power of the masses is centered on one individual- or an elite ruling class who really pull the strings.

On the issue of purpose, democratic-decision making exists in order to solve collective problems in the first place. The issues which arise from social organization are not individual issues (though they certainly have individual effects) but are issues which require collective, mediated solutions. Policy cannot be a catchall for the interests of every citizen- instead, it must reflect the general will of the constituents to which the structure is accountable to. A representative system acts as the body of mediation, in which a laundry-list of public concerns can be boiled down to essentials, overarching needs which the public wants addressed. Most likely, a direct system would develop ways of achieving consensus on major issues, but this consensus could only be achieved by forming a system of representation and mediation, eliminating “direct” qualities.

Finally, it is necessary to point out that majoritarian direct democracy holds little impetus for the protection of the minority. In capitalism, representative democratic institutions exist to mediate internal class conflicts between diverging elements of the bourgeoisie- and the protection of the “minority” has meant for most of their history, protection of the forces of capital against the pressures of the public. In a liberated, socialist society, the protection of the minority- and the constitutional rights afforded to the minority- would serve the benefit of political minorities within the working class.

A direct system in which the whims of popular fervor are accepted as the basis of large-scale decision making would not afford these same rights, even if it was underpinned by constitutional limits. A majority is a majority is a majority, and if the majority decided that they were fed up with constitutional procedures (basic social rights or civil liberties), they could simply toss them out in the name of direct rule with far more ease than under a representative system which would be conditioned to take into account constitutional formality.


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

mtomas3 January 21, 2015 at 12:01 pm

This is a very good start (I also hear in it some of Ryne Tipton’s thinking). I believe the article–the author–gets ahead of himself in trying to predict what a “transition to communism” might be. It is not necessary to say–no one really knows–and the only effect is to try to answer beforehand those who may want to see the endgame of revolution before we actually achieve a revolution’s end (or beginning as it were); our generally sectarian-trained friends among us.

“Once revolution has been fully achieved, I think it is important to note that republican socialism would be something of a bridge itself.” Such a statement creates a very large horse, with all its required might, training, and directed leadership, before the cart that it must transport. There are too many questions to ask about a revolution being achieved never mind “fully” achieved.

All of that said, i believe the essential points–the “deep” structural problems of winning the masses into their own confidence combined with the “superstructural battle” for demonstrating democratic resolve in the context of pre-workers power as well as into workers power–are very important.

Learning is (at least it must be) defined as a change in behavior. Hence, the questions of how revolutionaries act, not only as elected representatives pr in our political statements but within our own structures and in the structures thrown forward by the mass movements, is essential if either the masses are to be won toward emancipating ourselves or any structures of government proposed by revolutionaries are to be successful. As a teacher, I must be willing to practice the democracy I hope to have my prospective teachers promote if I am to have any chance of their practicing it. So, too, must revolutionaries teach by example.

Finally, yes, some of my contribution above may seem rather vague to some. It is,after all at this point, purely an intellectual exercise as is this whole enterprise (North Star, the “Left”, in general). I believe we become much more specific in practice. I continue to look forward to that day.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: