Democracy and Socialism – Two sides of the same coin


Democracy and socialism together constitute the synthesis that is evolving between the Cold War systems of Soviet socialism and Western capitalism. Chinese socialism is an element in the evolution of that synthesis.

The framework of this article is the theory of history that maintains that history is an objective, organic and evolutionary continuum that is created by the interaction between humans and the external environment on the one hand, and between humans themselves within a community as well as in different communities on the other. An analysis of the three elements of the continuum follows.

Objective Nature of History

Once something happens, albeit as a result of human motivation, it acquires, at the very moment of its occurrence, an existence of its own that is independent of the original motivation. The event becomes a part of the past which constitutes an imminent factor of the present and consequently of the future. History is that part of the past that accumulates and endures objectively. It is a continuum that becomes independent of human will even though without human will it would not have come into existence.

Henri Bergson underlined the objective nature of history when he suggested a hundred years ago that the past holds the present down and does not allow the future to burst forth freely. It is as if the past keeps the restless future on a leash. In other words, history bears heavily upon the scope as well as the possibilities of the present moment. History is the message of the past that restricts the freedom of the future and limits its potentially. It is an objective factor. Its force may be compared to the force of inertia.

The view that history has an objective existence is not historicist because, unlike Marxism, it does not predict the future on the basis of the past. The objective view of history recognizes that the present is a creative moment characterized by existence of choice but it maintains that the range of choice is limited by the past. The individual as well as the collective future is indeterminate but not infinitely so.

Organic Nature of History

History is not simply a bin that contains an infinite number of occurrences. It is not just a heap of events. It is an organic whole that organizes itself through the selection and adaptation of recurring patterns or sequences. That is why history seems to be repeating itself though it seldom does. The semblance of repetition is created by the recurrence of patterns though the specific events are, as they have to be, sui generis.

Based on the recurrence of adapted or adaptive patterns, some like Marx have developed what they call the laws of history. That is precisely the point of thought where the theory of history crosses over into historicism and gets discredited as it should. The attempt to lay down the laws of history is tantamount to claiming total as well as final knowledge of human destiny. If one agrees that human destiny is an evolving phenomenon, it follows that its totality or finality cannot be comprehended at any given moment. In other words, no one can command history or anticipate its total or final form. This attribute of history led Hegal to assert that history was a living organism.

Evolutionary Nature of History

Jacques Monod showed in the first half of the last century that basically evolution is the result of random mistakes during genetic replication. Most of the resultant changes are discarded as mistakes but, once in a great while, a change occurs that happens to meet the challenge of the external environment better than the parent organism. Consequently it is replicated in successive generations as long as the external environment remains hospitable. Once the external environment changes, successful adaptations too are selected out into oblivion. Indeed species continue to disappear daily. Evolution does not stop and evolving species continue to struggle with changes in their external environment.

Humans are no exception to this rule. We are evolving too; except that cultural evolution takes over where physical evolution can no longer cater to the challenges faced by human societies. Indeed humans may have reached a stage where the only possible form of evolution is cultural. Some of the challenges to human survival are of our own making. These will have to be surmounted culturally or homo sapiens will disappear.

Of course, a specific cultural response can prove to be destructive. We can destroy the human future on this planet as easily as we can save it. That is a part of our indeterminate future. Human cultural evolution follows the same laws as human biological evolution. Some cultures survive and some perish. History is not only the record but also the mechanism of cultural evolution since history builds upon the record of those human societies that succeed and become dominant over other societies.

Meanwhile, until the dominant societies are themselves selected out by cultural evolution, they play a larger role in creating human destiny than the dominated societies. History is not only written by the victors, it is made by them.

Lessons of History for Democracy and Socialism

History does not unfold from the top as a finished piece of tapestry. It is woven from the bottom up like a carpet by human cultural evolution. Societies can and do learn from the patterns of adaptive success retained by history. Those who fail to learn the lessons of history cease to exist.

Democratic and socialist societies of the latter half of the 20th century have both learnt from history. They are evolving into the two dimensions of a single paradigm of human organization. While democracy is the political dimension of this paradigm, socialism is its socio-economic dimension. Both are trends of history and are evolving in tandem. This idea has been explained in the following paragraph. At a given time, a particular society is comparatively advanced or backward in both dimensions. It cannot be that a society is advanced in democracy and backward in socialism or vice versa.

Nature of Democracy

As the political dimension of human organization, democracy is concerned principally with the allocation by society of the power of management and control over itself. Political history suggests that, of the organizational methods devised so far, democracy is the best method of allocating that power. It is also the least destructive way to take evolving societies through the maze created by the imperfections of human plans and their implementation. Other methods, such as despotism, dictatorship, oligarchy, autocracy, etc., have been found to be destructive as well as regressive in the long run.

Fukuyama claimed at the end of the Cold War that history had ended. The author agrees with him that democracy is the choice of history but maintains that its evolution is continuing and must continue. History has not ended. The human search for the best paradigm of political organization has yet to go a long way. Despite its excellence in organizing individual communities politically, the democratic paradigm cannot be applied to the organization of international society. For instance, the weight that is given at present to the Chinese and the Indians in international decision making does not correspond to the demographic reality of the world of which they constitute a third.

Democracy begins at home and remains there. It requires a shared structure of basic values in the society in which it emerges. A common structure of religious, social, and cultural values comes into existence only within a single society. The world is not such a society yet. Indeed the imposition of one set of values over another is inadmissible. If ever a single structure of these values begins to regulate the whole world, Fukuyama’s claim could perhaps be examined afresh.

History seems to some as working in the direction of a single world society. Others do not agree. One has to await the judgement of history, which it will surely reach in its own inimitable way. Indeed the growing and irreversible interdependence of individual societies seems to be a pointer to the historical direction of the future.

Nature of Socialism

Being a political dispensation, democracy does not provide a programme for the production and distribution of goods and services that may be referred to together as social goods. Democracy only allocates to selected individuals the power to regulate on its behalf for a certain period of time whatever system of production and distribution of social goods may come into existence. That system raises certain questions of equity and justice that political democracy does not and cannot answer. Majority produces political authority but it does not necessarily lead to social justice. The issues involved in those questions relate to concepts that regulate socio-economic phenomena. Socialism began during the nineteenth century as one of those concepts. It was a reaction to the impact of industrialization upon the pattern of the production and distribution of social goods that prevailed during the preceding feudal stage of historical development.

It is difficult to define socialism just as it is futile to attempt a comprehensive definition of democracy. The reason is that the substance of both of these concepts is evolving as the choice of history for the political and socio-economic organization of society. They are at present the dominant trends of historical development but they cannot be held up long enough either in time or in space to submit to specific definitions.

Socialism and capitalism are not rivals. They simply cannot be, because capitalism is as much a trend of history as socialism. In fact, the two trends are complementary to each other. It is now quite manifest that the more democratic a country is, the more socialist it is.

The Cold War was a contest between capitalism and state capitalism, not between capitalism and socialism. The New Economic Policy introduced by Lenin after the Russian Revolution in 1917 was described by Bolsheviks themselves as state capitalism. That policy recognized capitalism, as did Marx, to be the only way to create an abundance of social goods. The difference was that, instead of surplus value accumulating as private capital, it was to be assimilated into state capital in the Soviet Union. The Bolsheviks believed and their successors continued to insist that state capitalism would prove to be more efficient than private capitalism. The issue finally came to head between the two systems after the Second World War.

The result of the contest is now clear. State capitalism has collapsed. But it is often claimed that socialism has failed. That is not only not so but it cannot be so because socialism is a trend of history. It will change its form and evolve like democracy but it will not disappear.

It is becoming clear now that social dynamism created by individuals in a democratic set up tends to become socialist in its collective form. In other words, patterns of ownership become less rather than more personal over time and individually owned capital evolves into socially owned capital. The burgeoning free market itself is an illustration of this principle.

A formulation of this principle follows: in a democratic society, privileges that accrue to a few tend over time to become available to all members of that society. The nature of democracy is essentially socialist and the nature of socialism is essentially democratic. The two are the two sides of the same coin of the historical development of human society.

To conclude the author proposes that the following propositions are the lessons of recent history:

First: Democracy is the trend of history in the political sphere and socialism is the tend of history of history in the economic sphere.

Second: Capital is the embodiment of human social progress. Its ownership is shifting from being individual to being social in a pattern in which common ownership does not entail collective ownership.

Third: Excellence emerges at the individual level and then spreads to the social level. This process cannot be reversed.

Fourth: Class structure is essential for human social evolution. In the cross section of a society, classes appear to be static but, in historical duration, classes are dynamic.