Socialism and direct democracy

It is a commonplace enough observation that hithertoo existing socialisms suffered from a lack of democracy, but in the sense that the word democracy is commonly understood, the observation is misleading. For the assumption is that more democracy, as commonly understood, would have been a good thing.

From the standpoint of liberal opinion there is nothing problematic about it. Liberals, quite rightly, saw that the adoption of western style democratic institutions would be the quickest way to get rid of socialism. Historical experience shows that they were dead right. As soon as multi-party elections were instated, pro-capitalist governments came to power.

Faced with this there are various possible responses:

  1. From the Blairite left, the response was welcome an unalloyed triumph for democracy. Good riddance to all that nonsense about a planned economy. We had a historic breakthrough which allowed us in New Labour to become intensely relaxed about the filthy rich.
  2. A relic Communist left, insignificant in Europe, but obviously of much greater significance in East Asia, concluded that it was a big mistake to have ever allowed multi-candidate or multi-party elections in East Europe and the USSR. So socialism was to be preserved by the only way they knew: continued Communist Party monopoly.
  3. Trotskyist left and their sympathisers in the Labour party the responded that what the USSR had actually needed was a revival of Soviet Democracy not ‘bourgeois democracy’.
  4. A final response about which I shall leave you in suspense until I have addressed the others.

Table 1: Excess deaths consequent the introduction of ‘democracy’ in Russia.

Year Thousand deaths Excess relative to 1986
1986 1498 0
1987 1531 33
1988 1569 71
1989 1583 85
1990 1656 158
1991 1690 192
1992 1807 309
1993 2129 631
1994 2301 803
1995 2203 705
1996 2082 584
1997 2105 607
1998 1988 490
1999 2144 646
2000 2225 727
2001 2251 753
2002 2332 834
2003 2365 867
2004 2295 797
2005 2303 805
2006 2166 668
2007 2080 582
2008 2075 577
2009 2010 512
total 48388 12436

What was presented by liberals and Blairites as a great triumph of democracy was viewed by millions who lived through it as a great catastrophe. The collapse of the Soviet and later the Russian economy under Gorbachov and then Yeltsin was an economic disaster that was otherwise unprecedented in time of peace. The world’s second super-power was reduced to the status of a minor bankrupt economy with a huge decline in industrial production and in living standards. Nothing brings out the scale of the catastrophe than the demographic data which show a huge rise in the mortality rate brought about by poverty, hunger, homelessness and the alcoholism that these brought in their wake (Table 1). A discipline less sure of itself than economics, might question its starting hypothesis when an experiment went so drastically wrong.

Liberal theory held that once enterprises were free from the state, the `magic of the market’ would ensure that they would interact productively and efficiently for the public good. But this vision of the economy greatly overstated the role of markets. Even in so called market economies, markets of the sort described in economics textbooks are the exception restricted to specialist areas like the world oil and currency markets. The main industrial structure of an economy depends on a complex interlinked system of regular producer/consumer relationships in which the same suppliers make regular deliveries to the same customers week in week out.

In the USSR this interlinked system stretched across two continents, and drew into its network other economies: East Europe, Cuba, North Vietnam. Enterprises depended on regular state orders, the contents of which might be dispatched to other enterprises thousands of miles away. Whole towns and communities across the wilds of Siberia relied on these regular orders for their economic survival. Once the state was too bankrupt to continue making these orders, once it could no longer afford to pay wages, and once the planning network which had coordinated these orders was removed, what occurred was not the spontaneous self organisation of the economy promised by liberal theory, but a domino process of collapse.

Without any orders, factories engaged in primary industries closed down. Without deliveries of components and supplies secondary industries could no longer continue production, so they too closed. In a rapid and destructive cascade, industry after industry closed down. The process was made far worse by the way the unitary USSR split into a dozen different countries all with their own separate economies. The industrial system had been designed to work as an integrated whole, split up by national barriers it lay in ruins.

The figures in Table 2 show how far the economy had regressed. These figures show how little recovery there had been, even after 13 years of operation of the free market.

Table 2: Output of Selected Branches of Industry in Russia in 2003 Compared to 1990 (1990 = 100)Source: Goskomstat, 2004, Table 14.3.

Total Industry 66
Electric power 77
Gas 97
Oil extraction 94
Oil refining 70
Ferrous metallurgy 79
Non-ferrous metallurgy 80
Chemicals and petrochemicals 67
Machine building 54
Wood and paper 48
Building materials 42
Light industry 15
Food 67

If the economy had continued to grow even at the modest rate of the later Brezhnev years ( say 2.5%) then industrial production would, on this scale have stood at 140% of 1990 levels. The net effect of 13 years of capitalism was to leave Russia with half the industrial capacity that could have been expected even from the poorest performing years of the socialist economy.

It is no wonder that Communist Parties in Asia took this as an awful experiment not to be repeated. The lesson that they took from it was that the political dominance of the Communist Party was essential, and that any concession to political liberalism would be disastrous. Economically and socially they were willing to concede all sorts of things: foreign investment, private business within the country, freedom to leave the country and study abroad. Officially Marxism remains the ideology in China, all students have to study some variant of it, but the actual ideological spectrum in debate, on the internet, and in academic journals runs the gamut from neo-Maoism, via orthodox Marxism, to social democracy, liberalism and neo- Confucianism [1]. If you establish a mixed economy with contesting classes then you will get mixed and contending ideologies. Within of this structure the ideologies which represent the interests of those who do best out of the social order will become more and more influential, by the same mechanisms that have always operated in socially stratified societies – the differential access to education of different social classes, and the tendency of the educated to express both their own particular interests and those of the groups with whom they seek favour.

Given this gradual ideological shift it becomes a moot point to decide what the CP monopoly achieves in the long run, apart, that is, from the obvious : rapidly rising living standards, high speed trains, peace, longer life expectancy and social stability

Reg: All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

PFJ Member: Brought peace?

Reg: Oh, peace? SHUT UP!

([2] )


Western Leftist groups look at China, see the widespread corruption, exploitation of workers by private capital, the strike militancy of the workers and conclude that what you need to defend the gains of the workers there is old style Soviet Democracy.

From the liberal left we have a remedy that leads directly to the abolition of socialism and economic catastrophe. From the Chinese we have the advocacy of a political form that is at least known to be practical for three quarters of a century, but which has led to growing social inequality. From the Trotskyist left we have the advocacy of a form which leads dialectically to the very condition whose remedy it is supposed to be.

What the Western far left fails to recognize is that:

  1. The constitutions of both the USSR and the PRC were based on exactly the structure of hierarchical indirect elections that the Western Left hold up as the ideal of Soviet Democracy.
  2. That such a system of indirect election is tailor made for one party rule.
  3. That elections are anyway more an aristocratic than a democratic institution.

Indirect election has, since the days of slave society, been a system prefered by aristocrats. It should be obvious after the 2016 election in the US, that the institution of the Electoral College was tailor made to allow the popular vote to be over-ridden. The US college system only has one level of indirection, and elects only a President and vice President. The Soviet system, and the Chinese system which copied it, have multiple levels of indirection.

In China the president is elected by the National People’s Congress Chinese constitution article 79..

The National People s Congress is composed of deputies elected from the provinces, autonomous regions, municipalities directly under the Central Government, and special administrative regions, and of deputies elected from the armed forces Chinese constitution article 59..

The National deputies are elected by the Local People’s Congresses. Deputies to the people s congresses of provinces, municipalities directly under the Central Government and cities divided into districts are elected by the people s congresses at the next lower level; deputies to the people s congresses of counties, cities not divided into districts, municipal districts, townships, nationality townships, and towns are elected directly by their constituencies Chinese constitution article 97..

At each level of the council/congress system there is a standing committee/presidium which exercises day to day power.

There are at least 4 macro levels of indirection here, 7 if you allow for the effects of the presidia, quite enough to ensure that once one political party takes hold of such a state machine it becomes almost impossible to shift it from dominance. Since the highest level congress, soviet or council has the power to amend the constitution, the party dominating it is free to adjust the constitution in such a way as to cement its rule. It can write itself into the constitution, as the 1977 Soviet constitution did with the CPSU, or it can simply rely on the indirect election system to ensure control.

I was going to write that clearly it is a non-starter to advocate a system of Soviet democracy as a remedy to the ills of China or the old USSR, since the advocated system is no different from what it is supposed to replace. But for some reason this remains obscure rather than clear. Perhaps it is because few on the left bother to look at constitutions.

The great strength of the Soviet and Chinese systems was that they allowed a revolutionary aristocracy to assume absolute power, and use that power to radically transform social relations. The weakness is that of all aristocracies, their tendency to degenerate into self serving oligarchies.

So what is left if we exclude parliamentary democracy and soviet democracy?

Well there is what people now call participatory or direct democracy, but these are misnomers. In the original meaning of democracy, there was no other kind. The democratic form of rule involved direct votes by the entire citizen body. Day to day decisions were relegated to councils chosen by a lottery process. In its original sense, the word democracy did not just mean rule by the poor, the term demos meant something closer to plebs, it meant rule by the plebs, rule by the working classes. It dispensed with professional politicians and handed all decisions over to the common people.

It is clear that neither parliamentary constitutions developed in the West, or the various Soviet/Council/Congress constitutions used in socialist countries were democracies in this sense. They all involved the election of a political elite who took the decisions on behalf of the people. In contrast to this ideas of direct democracy are slowly gaining credibility, most notably in the more frequent calling of referenda. It is in the interests of a modern socialist movement to fight for the extension of such institutions: the right of citizens to call referendum votes once sufficient signatures are collected is one aspect. Other aspects are the replacement of elected parliaments by citizen assemblies, or at the very least ensuring that a majority the parliament is made up of of citizens selected by lot.

Only selection by lot can overcome the huge built in bias that the electoral system has against people of low social status. Whatever the cause, whether the low status is because of class, sex or race, you can see that very few low status people ever get into a parliament. In consequence all parliaments are grossly unrepresentative in class and sex terms. In racially mixed societies they tend to be unrepresentative on race grounds as well.

An assembly selected by lot will be a representative sample of the different classes in society. The elites are invariably suspiscious of direct democracy. They complain that the general public are too ignorant and prejudiced to make decisions on their own behalf – far better to leave decisions to educated and cultured people. But the obvious point is that the educated and cultured will look out for themselves and can certainly not be trusted to have the interests of the poor and less educated at heart. The old 19th century socialist movements knew this and advocated direct popular legislation – an idea that was disliked by the Socialist Party leaderships even then.

Modern technology makes it much easier to hold popular votes. Almost everyone has a mobile phone, and secure, anonymous and verifiable voting can be done this way As an example the Handivote system[4,3] allows voting by SMS with people being able to check that their votes are correctly tallied..

Such digital systems can be easily extended to allow the citizens at large to make the sorts of major strategic choices needed for socialist planning. Planning is only democratic if at least the big ticket headings: health, education, investment are settled by popular decision. It is possible for voters to make numerical choices about levels of public resources. Suppose there are 3 telephone numbers that you can text for a vote on health expenditure:

xxx xxx0 means reduce it by 5%,

xxx xxx1 means leave it unchanged and

xxx xxx2 means increase it by 5%

It is clear that by averaging the votes casy you can get percentage change in health expenditure. The result is the average of what the voters want. This will, in our case, be bounded by -5% to +5%, but these bounds could be varied by those setting the vote, and, at the cost of some slight increase in complexity, a broader range of numbers to dial could be provided without changing the basic procedure.

Now suppose that there are three items to be decided on: income tax, school expenditure and health expenditure. A simple extension would be to set up 9 phone numbers for voting as follows

xxx xx00 Income tax down 5%

xxx xx01 Income tax leave as is

xxx xx02 Income tax up 5%

xxx xx10 Health down 5%

xxx xx11 Health leave as is

xxx xx12 Health up 5%

xxx xx20 Schools down 5%

xxx xx21 Schools leave as is

xxx xx22 Schools up 5%

People could then text in to express their personal decisions. The result would be to obtain an average percentage change for each particular heading. As long as sufficient people vote on each individual issue, the law of large numbers means that will get a reasonably accurate estimate of public opinion on that topic. [5] shows that an opinion aggregated from many non-experts is usually superior to that of a few experts.


#1 Simultaneously voting on expenditure and taxation.

The obvious danger is that everyone votes for more expenditure and less taxation, but there are easy ways round this. Suppose that the average vote was [4, 2] indicating a 4% increase in school expenditure and only a 2% increase in taxes to cover it (let us make the simplifying assumption for now that schools are the sole form of expenditure). Figure 0.1 shows the average vote at position [4,2] and also a diagonal line representing the feasible combinations of expenditure and tax. The best choice given the constraints is labeled compromise Geometrically, the compromise is the closest point on the feasible combination line to the average vote. It is the choice which minimises voter dissatisfaction..

From a socialist standpoint it is very important that any form of participatory budgeting vote simultaneously on both expenditure and taxation. The right is willing to introduce participatory budgeting provided that it votes only on taxation since they hope, by this, to create a constant downward pressure on taxes and thus on expenditure for public services. By allowing people to simulataneously vote for increases in services and computing the compromise position you stand a good chance of preventing this.


The combination of labour value accounting, payment in labour credits, computerised planning, markets only in consumption goods, direct democracy and planned economy constitute a feasible new socialist model that builds on the experience of the past without repeating past mistakes.

The practical question is how society could move towards that. It is here that one must take seriously, but in an updated form, the old Lenin criticism of economism. The central point of that critique was that focussing on economic issues was not enough, to build a revolutionary movement it was necessary to bring to the fore the political struggle for democracy. In the context of Czarist Russia that was seen as the struggle for a republican constitution – but one still seen as parliamentary representation with universal adult suffrage. Today the struggle for democracy still has to be in the first place, but the aim has to be to overthrow existing constitutions and replace them with direct democracy.

By consistently advocating this, it should be possible for socialists to mobilise behind us people who may not share our socialist goals, but who are still still hostile to elite domination.

Once a genuinely democratic republic is established, without professional politicians, we would have the best possible environment to win support for a radical transformation of property relations.


William Paul Cockshott. Comments on the “China model”. International Critical Thought, 1(2):148-157, 2011.

Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, and Michael Palin. Monty Python’s life of Brian. Hand Made Films, 1979.

Karen Renaud and Paul Cockshott. Handivote: simple, anonymous, and auditable electronic voting. Journal of Information Technology & Politics, 6(1):60-80, 2009.

Karen Renaud and WP Cockshott. Electronic plebiscites. 2007.

J. Surowiecki, M.P. Silverman, et al. The wisdom of crowds. American Journal of Physics, 75:190, 2007.

File translated from TEX by TTH, version 4.08.


4 Responses to “Socialism and direct democracy”

  1. Nikolai Stavrogin Says:

    What is your source for Table 1 listing the excess deaths in Russia after the capitalist takeover?

  2. Daniel Says:

    I have seen it suggested elsewhere that sortation would be a good system for a socialist republic. But how is sortation any more likely to lead to a socialist economic system than current parliamentary democracy?

    • Paul Cockshott Says:

      It is a question of social class.

      Parliaments are drawn from members of the upper and professional classes whose immediate interests oppose socialism. Their average income is way above that of the general population. Sortition gives you an assemble of citizens that is representative in terms of social class. As a result the average income of such an assembly would be close to that of the general public. Assume that the assemblies are short term, not more than a year anyway. As a result an assembly would be predominantly drawn from people on low or below average income. Such people would in the main have an interest in measures that served their own class interests, and as such are more likely to vote through measures that help themselves rather than measures that help mainly the upper strata.

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