Socialist democracy includes but can go beyond the state, class, and socialism. Luke Martell argues it should overcome dichotomous thinking in favour of a pluralist socialism of diverse values, approaches, democratic forms, and levels of organisation
This blog contributes to The Loop's Science of Democracy series by delving into socialist democracy to discuss the pluralism this calls for.
Socialism has different meanings but key principles for a socialist society are collective ownership and economic equality. Communism is about ownership of the economy by and for the people over private ownership, and planning for need over the market.
But attempts at communism were repressive and did not generate the collective consciousness needed. So, lessons for socialism are to be more democratic and liberal, to allow diversity, and to grow publicly minded consciousness before socialism.
At the turn of the 20th century, social democracy split from communism. It opted for parliamentary democracy over revolution, and for progressive change within capitalism rather than after it. It was more open to liberal tolerance, pluralism, and building social consciousness under capitalism.
But social democracy focused on top-down change, albeit with positive results, and diversity within capitalism rather than in socialist society. Social democrats ended up compromising with neoliberalism and dismantling their own collective ownership, public services, and equality; replaced by privatisation and inclusion.
Cooperative socialism is more bottom-up, generative of collective consciousness and variety. It contradicts capitalism, as much as compromising with or opting out from transforming it. But it can be within capitalism rather than breaking with it. It needs supplementation by the state in areas such as public services to ensure common treatment and equality, and in relation to climate change where we require urgent radical action.
Democratic socialism is more democratic than attempts at communism, for a socialist society rather than modified capitalism as with social democracy, and more state-oriented and society-wide than co-operative socialism.
Pluralist socialist democracy is open about levels, combining bottom-up with top-down change, rather than viewing these as alternatives to one another. It is within socialism rather than capitalism, but accepting liberal freedoms and diversity, including non-socialist forms inside socialism. It includes pools of communism, social democracy progressing to socialism through transformatory reforms, and democratic socialism that gradually constructs socialism.
Socialism can stifle freedom and diversity unless it limits itself, and allows alternatives and non-socialist forms within socialism
Socialism has faced challenges from other approaches. Liberalism emphasises freedom and pluralism. Socialism can be better at pursuing these than liberalism, with collective control and equality important bases for such objectives. But socialism can stifle freedom and diversity unless it limits itself, and allows alternatives and non-socialist forms within socialism. This diversity, regulated and contained inside a socialist framework, is important in itself and can also bring dynamism and progress. Socialism should not adopt liberalism but should be liberal.
Feminism, anti-racism, and movements against inequalities of gender identity and sexuality challenge socialism on its focus on class. The former are embedded in cultural structures like patriarchy as much as in economic inequalities and capitalism. Ecology highlights socialists’ commitment to growth and productivism.
In these cases, socialism does not need to limit itself; it is adaptable to such challenges. It can incorporate other inequalities alongside class inequality, and cultural oppressions – as well as capitalism – as problematic. It can pursue degrowth and green growth. In fact, collective ownership and egalitarianism make it well-suited to social control for the general interest and wider equality.
Socialism may seem Eurocentric, but there are important alternatives in places like India, Mexico and Syria, which reflect values of collective democracy, need, and equality
From decolonial perspectives, socialism may seem Eurocentric, exported to the Global South, based on the Western nation-state, and disregarding indigenous traditions. Methods for self-provision are pursued across poorer countries. There are important alternatives in places like India, Mexico, and Syria. In fact, many of these reflect socialist values of collective democracy, need, and equality. But socialism should respect and build on indigenous knowledge and values, theory on practice, adapting to diversity beyond itself.
Under austerity, democratic socialism has revived, from Podemos, to Sanders, Corbyn, and the Latin American left. In these, social democracy becomes combined with democratic socialism, reform with transformation, rather than the former viewed as holding back the latter, or the latter rejected in favour of pragmatism.
Socialists have brought back to the mainstream that democracy should be economic as well as political, but with a more pluralist approach to this than statism. Public ownership is seen to be not just that of the state and managers, but also including the input of the wider community, workers, and consumers.
Under austerity, socialists have brought back to the mainstream that democracy should be economic as well as political
As well as national state ownership, decentralised social ownership at local municipal level or independent of government is advocated, in public services or business. Participation in these can be direct as well as representative, and associational, via groups as well as individuals. Revived democratic socialism has grown out of anti-austerity movements, taking movement as well as party form.
Alternative experiments in civil society and change through government need not be opposed, to be chosen between. They can complement one another or even work together, as in participatory budgeting and community wealth building. And national politics can ensure universalism and counteract parochialism or inequality, to which localism might lead.
Socialism embedded in plurality is more difficult to reverse. Furthermore, the crises the world faces are too grim to choose some approaches over others. We need to tackle them with every available means. Local alternatives are needed but so is hierarchy.
We do not have to counterpose communism, social democracy, cooperative, and democratic socialism, party politics and social movements, central state action and localism. There are tensions between these, but they can combine.
Democracy can be economic as well as political, at different levels, with the participation of plural interests, and different means of participation. Pluralist democratic socialism is liberal within socialism and encompasses intersectionality and decolonialism.
Pluralist democratic socialism goes beyond polarising perspectives. It is not pluralism with socialism, or a middle way between socialism and liberalism, but dogma with the undogmatic, theory grounded in practice, socialism with pluralism.