rethinking democracy

Socialism and democracy belong together, and recent popular movements of the left make possible a fight for authentic democracy, argues Sean Ledwith


Rethinking Democracy: Socialist Register 2018, eds. Leo Panitch and Greg Albo (Merlin Press 2017), 296pp.

This latest addition to one of the most prestigious journals on the left is a timely examination of the relationship between socialism and democracy. Decades of Stalinist distortion in Eastern Europe still leave a residual notion in the minds of many that these two concepts are, in fact, antithetical. Throughout the era of the cold war, the Western states propagated the related idea that only capitalism was capable of securing the individual freedoms that are synonymous with the idea of democracy. The euphoria on the political right that greeted the fall of the Berlin Wall has ebbed, but the task of reclaiming the democratic credentials of the socialist project is still an unfinished one. The focus on democracy here is also justified by the recurrent situations in which its supposed status as a bulwark of the ideology of the West is far from secure.

Recently, we have seen Facebook embroiled in controversy over alleged harvesting of data to affect the outcome of the 2016 US election, ongoing questioning of the validity of the Brexit referendum in the UK, and the suppression of Catalan nationalism in Spain. The editors of Socialist Register perceive these and other trends as possible indicators of an incremental slide towards ‘post-democracy’ in the West. In other words, the manner in which capitalism is quite capable of developing in the future could be without a democratic shell. Their view, rightly, is that the real fight for democracy in the twenty-first century is one between left and right; hence the overall rationale of this volume is to provide:

‘a sharp reminder that the achievement of what is known as democracy today involved profound and protracted social struggles by working-class people, men and women, which were always resisted by those whose privileges and property were thereby challenged’ (p.ix).

One of the prisms for this debate on the reality of democracy is the ambiguous concept of populism that now features routinely in mainstream discourse. There is legitimate fear of the rise of what the editors, Leo Panitch and Greg Abbo, refer to as ‘authoritarian populist’ regimes, such as Erdogan in Turkey and Orbán in Hungary. However, the electrifying electoral campaigns of Corbyn, Sanders and Mélenchon also highlight the progressive dimension of this phenomenon.

Left prospects

Collectively, the authors are far from pessimistic on the prospects of this ideological battle being won by the disparate forces of the left. In their introduction, Panitch and Albo pay generous tribute to the uplifting manner in which Jeremy Corbyn has been a catalyst for re-energising the radical left in the UK, both within and without the Labour Party, and how his near miss in last year’s election should be regarded as the foundation for a movement that creatively synthesises democracy and socialism.

The pressure group, Momentum, to some extent, has managed to provide an organisational vehicle for this revival and indubitably played a substantial role in galvanising working-class voters in the 2017 campaign. As the editors put it:

‘With the greatest electoral support coming from working-class voters under 35 and especially from the semi-skilled, unskilled and unemployed workers among them, this not only suddenly gave the Labour electorate a remarkably young cast, it also signalled a potentially very important shift in the party’s class base’ (p.xi).

Events since the vote, however, also underscore their justified scepticism over the long-term viability of the project of utilising the Labour Party as the primary means of a truly transformative politics. This year we have witnessed the establishment, inside and outside the party, marshalling its forces to undermine Corbyn’s position with absurd allegations of links to the Czech secret service, attacking his entirely reasonable caution regarding the Skripal poisoning, and calumnious accusations that he condones anti-Semitism.

Remarkably similar to the Corbyn phenomenon was Bernie Sanders’ bid for the Democrat nomination in the US two years ago. Like the Labour leader, Sanders spent many years on the political margins, acquiring a reputation for principled socialist opposition to the invasive impact of neoliberalism in public life. Both men probably felt their political apogee was behind them but then, astonishingly, found themselves spearheading mass mobilisations, conspicuously full of young people. The highly rated polling website FiveThirtyEight called the Sanders campaign ‘one of the greatest upsets in modern political history’ (quoted on p.115).

The Democrat problem

The septuagenarian senator was denied the nomination as the Democrat establishment closed ranks and ensured his insurgent campaign was squeezed out in favour of Hillary Clinton. Her woeful defeat at the hands of Trump in the subsequent election inevitably generated a debate among American socialists regarding the best way to exploit the Sanders phenomenon and hopefully generate a radical movement of the left. The crux of the contest is, not for the first time, whether US leftists should focus their efforts on steering the Democrat Party onto a more overt leftward trajectory, or abandon that project as inherently doomed and concentrate on constructing a new socialist organisation with no ties to the tainted legacy of Obama and the Clintons. Adam Hilton provides an enlightening commentary on the obstacles confronting both these options.

The task of turning the Democrats away from a pro-corporate agenda has failed on many occasions partly because of the peculiar nature of the party system:

‘Because US party organisations were developed by parties-in government to develop a voter base in civil society, those organisations have been more orientated toward helping candidates win elections than in building the political capacities of their social base’ (p.107).

One of the problems facing the second option is that there is still tremendous loyalty to the party among key sections of the US working class. Hilton notes that ‘Sanders did relatively poorly among older voters of colour whose degree of Democratic partisanship far outstrips their rate of ideological self-identification as liberal’ (p.116). In other words, for the older generations of African-American voters, memories of how Democrat Presidents such as Kennedy and Johnson pushed the civil-rights agenda with Martin Luther King still shape their positive perception of the party.

This is an important point and one that advocates of a breakaway party to the left in the US need to consider. However, it is also worth considering what might have happened if Sanders had declared an independent candidacy once it was apparent the party establishment was stitching him up. The momentum he had acquired in the first half of 2016 could have become the foundation, if not of a successful Presidential bid, at least that of a new organisation. Regrettably, after the election Sanders has chosen to renew his loyalty to the Democrats and has eschewed the possibility of launching a new party. Adam Hilton’s prognosis regarding this familiar dilemma for the US left is arguably a sensible one in light of this missed opportunity.

The need for united fronts

In the current conjuncture, there are many committed socialists inside the Democrats and there are many outside it. The key point now is that they work together wherever possible and focus on constructing a radical movement that is prepared to take to the streets in massive numbers against the obscenity of the Trump White House. Paralleling the situation in the UK, the priority has to be for socialists inside and outside the traditional parties of the left to form united fronts to attack, at its vulnerable points, a decaying neoliberal system that is addicted to austerity and war.

Last year’s Women’s Marches against sexism and this year’s March for Our Lives rallies for gun control have been premised on this form of cooperation and provide the best hope, in the short term, for a renaissance of the US left. The goal of an authentic workers’ party will be an essential task in the future but, for now, argues Hilton, ‘our response must be to invent extra-party organisations that compensate for this deficiency, which develop people’s potential to think, strategise, and act collectively, and can engage strategically and effectively inside the Democratic Party’ (p.125).

On balance, this is a realistic perspective, but we should also note the particular danger that in this year of the mid-terms, activists in the US may find themselves more likely to become seduced by the electoral pull of Democrats cashing in on the popular disdain for the current occupant of the White House. The early years of the administration have made it apparent that Trump’s mainstream opponents are more interested in utilising alleged Russian links as a short-term means of undermining him, than the long-term project of cultivating a grassroots movement from below.

The left and the media

Partly as result of the President’s unhinged outbursts, political discourse on both sides of the Atlantic has increasingly become dominated by anxiety about fake news and post-truth politics. A number of essays address these issues from a leftist perspective. The role of the BBC in fostering a co-ordinated campaign against Corbyn and the left revival he personifies has become increasingly blatant in recent years. Some liberal commentators have recognised this growing partisanship on the part of the Corporation but then argued it represents a recent deviation from a traditional neutral stance.

Tom Mills, in his illuminating contribution on the history of the BBC, explains how this myth of non-partisanship does not reflect the historical reality. The dominant personality in the early years of the state broadcaster in the 1920s was Lord Reith, who was an unapologetic admirer of Hitler and Mussolini (p.155). As its first Director General, Reith did gradually steer the BBC away from excessively pro-fascist sympathies, but in the cause of a rival British nationalism rather than democracy per se, argues Mills.

If there ever was a progressive golden age of the Corporation, it was necessitated by the subsequent war against the fascist states in World War Two, in which leftist intellectuals such as George Orwell and JB Priestley were hired to provide a leftist slant to output during the conflict. The high tide of social democracy in British society following 1945 also added impetus to attempts to deepen this progressive element at the BBC. One of Reith’s successors, Hugh Greene, ‘certainly reflected some of the creative and egalitarian spirit of the sixties, producing celebrated comedies, irreverent satire, and dramas and documentaries more reflective of working-class life’ (p.156).

However, just as the wider ethos of social democracy began to wilt in the face of insurgent neoliberalism from the late 1970s, so the BBC began a drift back to the right in its practices and processes. Aside from the anti-Corbyn bias that now permeates the Corporation, this shift:

‘was to turn economics reporting away from employment, wages and trade-union politics and towards financial markets, technocratic questions of economic management and explicitly pro-business perspectives, with even popular and politically moderate policy options absent or completely marginalised’ (p.163).

Natalie Fenton and Des Freedman helpfully explain how paranoia about fake news is actually rooted in justified concern about our fake democracy. Western leaders frequently proclaim an open media as one of the cornerstones of the free world. The reality of elitism and monopolisation in the media world paints a very different picture. Five companies control 90% of the UK newspaper market, 90% of global internet searchers use Google, and Spotify controls over 60% of the streaming industry (pp.135-6).

The notion that the twenty-first century would witness a huge democratisation of information is clearly not coming to pass; in fact, the digital world is conforming to the wider trends identified by Marx in the nineteenth century as the growing centralisation and concentration of capital. Despite these sobering facts, Fenton and Freedman rightly indicate that the Corbyn phenomenon should provide us with grounds for optimism as it reflects the ability of growing numbers to see through the deceptions and obfuscations thrown at us every day by the media establishment:

‘it was precisely Corbyn’s direct engagement with voters through rallies and social media connections, together with his refreshing passion for social justice and his accountability to democratic decision-making that saw Labour climb so dramatically in the polls’ (p.143).

Just recently, we have seen the BBC and other hegemonic news outlets provide threadbare analysis of Western justification for bombing Syria. Apart from the absence on screen of anti-war voices on a significant scale, the missile attacks in April, of course, also underlined the anomaly of three putatively democratic states going to war without bothering to consult their respective legislatures. The urgency of the fight for authentic democracy, as outlined in this volume, has rarely been more egregiously demonstrated.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters