|Workers of all lands, unite... Marx's grave in Highgate|
From Plato to Rousseau few ideas provoked greater contempt or even horror than the simple proposal of democratic government. For Plato it forced the naturally unequal in to a false form of equality. Its decadence, he said, made the popular imposition of tyranny inevitable.1 In early modern Europe, the birthplace of bourgeois 'commercial society', Ellen Meiksins Wood writes, democracy was likely to be "a word of condemnation, conjuring up the spectre of mob rule and, among the propertied classes, a threat to their very existence."2 Theories of natural rights and the power invested in the corporate bodies of society were used to justify worldly power more often than they were used to question it. Either aristocracy or a legitimately grounded monarchy were widely preferred. "If there were a nation of gods it would be governed democratically," the radical modern Rousseau later argued. "So perfect a government is not suitable for men."3
The contempt was not wholly unanimous, however. There were subaltern resources, often excavated by slaves, peasant radicals or proletarianised craftsmen from the very texts that ostensibly sought their submission to secular or holy power. Many of those who struggled to articulate these alternatives have been condemned by what the historian E.P. Thompson called "the enormous condescension of posterity." There is little point in attempting to attribute to this oppositional tradition a coherent thread, since it has emerged in a thousand different contexts and is invariably the condensate of particular social and political struggles. To take just the English example of the nineteenth century, radical Jacobinism, apocalyptic chiliasm, and Methodist strictures sat awkwardly alongside nascent, mass working-class consciousness in various combinations and extents as struggles ebbed and flowed. The radical movement combined ancient loyalties to the monarchy, concepts of "natural rights" and the notion of the "free-born Englishman" with new concepts of the right to political representation, individual citizenship, and, as a consequence of the enormous levelling effect of the Industrial Revolution, a new commitment to popular equality. As the parliamentary system sought to protect itself both from revolutionary France and the radicalisation of its own, newly industrialised society, the masses were given a peculiar leading role in the democratic movement. "The twenty-five years after 1795 may be seen as the years of the counter-revolution, and in consequence the Radical movement remained largely working-class in character, with an advanced democratic populism as its theory."4
Democracy leads to either social breakdown or a centralised tyranny. Substitute the word democracy with socialism and you have in nuce the powerful conservative argument for a market society articulated in the twentieth century by the likes of Friedrich Hayek. The Road to Serfdom, Hayek's hugely influential war-time political tract, directed against central planning and the then prevalent notion of the command economy, embraces the same traditional scepticism about human nature as the classical economists and many of the early modern philosophers. The move from the spontaneous order of commercial society to one consciously constructed by state functionaries would come at the cost of individual liberty.5 However, Hayek had to ground his objection to socialism in that conception of individual liberty won in the history of social and political struggle by popular classes. Hayek's means of objection to socialism were grounded in a conception of popular participation in the political - as opposed to simply commercial, 'civil' - sphere that had been wrested from the dominant classes in the course of profound struggles. By this point, and despite his scepticism regarding democracy,6 even conservatives like Hayek could not fully dispense with the notion of democracy as an indispensable foundation of a legitimate state.
Democracy was tried many times before it took root in the intellectual imaginary of modernity, even then being subjected to major restrictions related to wealth, gender, age, place of birth, and multiple other arbitrary determinants. Indeed democracy continues to be a largely unrealised ideal. It is also deeply contested; a signifier that is often mobilised in defence of existing conditions of vast inequality and against more radical notions of popular sovereignty. Likewise, socialism has been tried in the past and has radically failed. Like democracy the name socialism is also often used to defend or to help construct and legitimise regimes of exploitation and domination. Indeed precisely because of its power to represent alternative ways of organising and distributing wealth in modern societies, along with its relative openness to political interpretation, the name socialism can mask the most egregious attacks on popular sovereignty and individual liberty. Moreover, individual liberty and social equality exist in a relation of profound political tension, though both concepts depend historically on each other. Though modern history sets this pair of ideals up in opposition to each other, it is deeply unlikely that either could have developed independently of the other. Indeed, contemporary political philosophy, from John Rawls to Jurgen Habermas, can dispense with neither fully. Modern political philosophy is often characterised by an attempt to conceptually balance these two terms.
The political liberty established by liberal democracy, and the formal equality which it guarantees, are not merely legitimising masks worn by bourgeois rule. Rather, what we find in all modern societies is a struggle between social groups over the legal and institutional means to create liberty and equality. However, do we find that either ideal is realised in a world dominated by wars of escalating technological intensity; extreme environmental devastation; and the daily exploitation of billions? Of course, we do not. But what grants us the right to imagine, indeed even to pursue, a world where these political and social ideals become more readily attainable for all?
To understand the radical commitment to socialism it is essential first to understand the socialist critique of capitalism. Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment philosophers and economists made great strides in interpreting the 'commercial society' that was coming to prominence around them. For the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, merchants were "one of the most useful races of men, who serve as agents between... parts of the state."7 The economist Adam Smith believed that commercial society was dictated by the supply of investment from parsimonious individuals. "Parsimony, not industry, is the immediate cause of the increase of capital... whatever industry might acquire, if parsimony did not save and store it up, the capital would never be the greater."8 This conception of the self-sacrificing commercial entrepreneur, saving in order to invest, allowed economists like Smith to conceive of capitalism as the social expression of the increasing role played by commercial psychology in the modern world. Free of tributary demands and artificial protections, capitalism was just an inherent part of human nature finally unbound from state domination.
In The Communist Manifesto and in the 1844 Paris Manuscripts Marx and Engels also largely identified capitalism with 'bourgeois' or 'commercial society.' "All that is solid," they famously wrote, "melts into air." It was only later that, as Gopal Balakrishnan puts it, Marx "put forth the previously unarticulated concept of a capitalist mode of production." Before this Marx had tended to conceive "of bourgeois society as the dissolution phase of the old regime, and not as a self standing form of society with a long history of development before it."9 A dissolution phase, not a self standing form: perhaps the epistemological limit of the social sciences lies in the inability to call the difference, since social reality is always fluid and yet at least potentially conceptually coherent. This ambiguity is likewise present in the social actors vomited up by capitalism itself: of course, on the one hand, the bourgeois is an abolisher melting solids into liquid (and liquidity). Yet the highest stages of capitalist development were also characterised by a rigid middle class conservatism, in which women were subjected to extreme subjugation. This poisonous moralism was the necessary flipside of an earlier form of capitalist adventurer which broke with traditional patriarchy, an ambiguity still present today. While contemporary Germany officially preaches a stern moral abstinence, its banks accumulate vast, destabilising surpluses which are ploughed into the riskiest of investments. The destabilising dynamics of capital come with their own, internal forces of stabilisation.
Marx's mature economics, the economics of the Grundrisse and of Capital, lays forth a unique innovation in the study of political economy. Capitalism, Marx suggested, was not about the quantitative growth of global trade but the struggle to qualitatively develop the social division of labour and the means of production for competition on the market. True, Smith had talked about the technical division of labour, but Marx put unprecedented emphasis on the social division of labour. In the Grundrisse, the notebooks where Marx first systematises his concept of the capitalist mode of production, he says, "Thus all the progress of civilization, or in other words every increase in the power of social production... in the productive powers of labour itself - such as results from science, inventions, divisions and combinations of labour, improved means of communication, creation of the world market, machinery, etc. - enriches not the worker, but rather capital... Since capital is the antithesis of the worker, this merely increases the objective power standing over labour."10 Marx goes through a great many levels of abstraction to develop his theory of how, by entering into the production process, the labourer alienates their productive capacity - the power to create and produce - for the benefit of capital. Through this alienation, capital is free to deploy for profit the human potential expressed abstractly as "the labour power commodity." Crucial here is the conception of labour and capital not as fluctuating quantities but as the expression of a relation between, ultimately, two socially opposed groups.
It would take Marxist historian-economists like Robert Brenner to properly embed this theory in a social history, but the rudiments are there in Marx. Capitalism is a system characterised by a conflictual social relation between those who need to work to survive and those who need to engage in commodity exchange for profit, established in agrarian England after the collapse of feudalism. With the social struggle on the land resolved in favour of landowning lords, who managed to return ex-peasants to work but now as freeholders, a mutual dependence on the market for survival was created. The outcome was a constant struggle to improve the technical and social division of labour, as the coercive power of the market dictated that landowners now had to compete for survival. What was known historically as agrarian "improvement" in economic activity is the root of modern capitalist processes of productivity growth. Capitalism was, then, distinctive in crucial social respects. It created new market-based dependencies; new social impulses for exploitation and domination throughout and across whole societies; totally new class forces and forms of solidarity; and eventually new, organised political powers and new state forms to represent them.
Capitalism is not simply the human tendency to 'truck and barter' freed from feudal fetters. It is a distinctive way of organising economic activity and, by extension, of administering social order. It generates novel, dynamic social forces, each carefully balanced through the power relations of the capitalist state, smoothed into what the Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci called society's "unstable equilibrium of compromises." Socialism is based on the promise that, because capitalism is a temporal phenomenon, it must also be a temporary one. There is no guarantee that what replaces it must be any better (many Marxists were mistaken about the development of the means of production leading by definition to a fairer society). But in the conviction that the present forms of exploitation and domination must end, socialists believe that it is worth organising to hasten that end and to secure its replacement by something better. Capitalism is the outcome of social struggle; it is reproduced by social domination and compromise; it can be undone by social cooperation and ultimately by conflict. We are revolutionary not in the simple sense that we believe the capitalist state must be overthrown by a violent "war of manoeuvre." Rather, we believe that capitalism can only be transformed in the long-run by a strategic "war of position." To be more specific, as the French-Greek theorist Nicos Poulantzas argued, we must enter into a struggle to take power over the capitalist state and to break it from within, whilst the social struggle is mobilised outside of the state. This is the sense in which we are revolutionary: we believe in a far-reaching transformation in the balance of class forces; in the dominant relations of society; in the nature of the state; and in the end a re-shaping of the fundamental class relations of society.
For as long as the concept of democracy has existed, it has been denigrated. Yet today it has achieved near universal acceptance, at least as an ideal. Socialism has suffered in much the same way. In the struggles ahead, it may be redeemed in equal measure too.
1Plato, Republic, Book VIII, 558c: "Democracy passes into despotism."
2Meiksins-Wood, Liberty & Property, Kindle loc. 2898-2901
3Rousseau, The Social Contract, 108
4Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Kindle loc 15210-12
5Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, p.24: "We have in effect undertaken to dispense with the forces which produced unforeseen results and to replace the impersonal and anonymous mechanism of the market by collective and 'conscious' direction of all social forces to deliberately chosen goals."
6Hayek famously wrote to the Times that, in the case of Chile, he preferred "transitional dictatorship", which might later become a "limited democracy".
7Hume, Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, 'Of Public Credit'
8Smith, An Inquiry into the Wealth of Nations, p.73
9Balakrishnan, 'Marx the Abolisher, in New Left Review 90, p.102
10Marx, Grundrisse, p.307-8