Capitalist and Socialist Varieties of Democracy

Cliff DuRand

The kind of political system a country has is related to its economic system and its class structure.  While historical contingencies can shape political systems and especially political cultures, in the longer run there are functional requirements needed to sustain an economic system.  At least in modern societies, the state creates and maintains the conditions for a particular kind of economy and so it has to be suited to perform that function.  At the same time, the class forces within civil society shape the state.  The relation is dialectical. 

Accordingly, capitalism and socialism require different political systems, although both claim to be democratic.  But they are very different kinds of democracy, as we will see.  Both base their claims to democratic legitimacy on the fact that they represent a sovereign people.  In the case of capitalist democracies, that representation is based on competitive elections.  In the case of socialist democracy it is based on a historical project to build a just society with equality. 

The U.S. offers itself as the model of democracy in the world today, seeking to shape other countries in its own image.  The type of democracy it offers is a political system of representationism by which legitimate power can be passed from one part of the elite to another in an orderly way. Its essence is found in contested elections and in the deliberations among the representatives chosen thereby. The role of the people is to choose from among a political elite those representatives who are to rule them.  The role of elections is simply to produce a government. Once this is done, we have discharged our civic responsibility as citizens and we are expected to return to the affairs of our private lives. While claiming to be a theory of democracy, this polyarchy (as political scientists have dubbed it) is actually an elitist theory of democracy, a kind of low intensity democracy at best. As Joseph Schumpeter put it, democracy simply means that “the people have the opportunity of accepting or refusing the men who are to rule them.” Sheldon S. Wolin has called it a managed democracy.


Polyarchy’s claim to be democratic at all rests on the myth of popular sovereignty.  However, as the chief architect of the American polyarchy, James Madison, boasted of his success in removing the people from the councils of government, ensuring that it would remain in the hands of those whom he deemed better qualified.  What the U.S. Constitution framed was a government of the people in the sense it derived legitimacy from their votes, but decidedly not a government by the people.  Nor was it to be for the people.  In fact Madison was deeply suspicious of the common man, fearing that if they were to rule, the property of the wealthy would be threatened.  As he said in Federalist Paper #10

“Democracies have ever been…incompatible with…rights of property…. The interest in a majority…must be prevented…[because it would threaten] the unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society…and divide them into different classes.” 

Today that wealth is concentrated in large corporations that have become transnational in scope.  And so, updating Lincoln’s famous formula, democracy has become government in the name of the people, by the political elite, for the transnational corporations.  This is a far cry from the classical concept of democracy expressed in the original meaning of the Greek word—the rule or power, kratia, of the people, demos. In that sense, democracy means people’s power, not the legitimating of elite rule on behalf of the wealthy.


Nevertheless, even in capitalist societies there are democratic moments in that classical sense.  These arise in those moments of high historical temperature where masses of people become active political participants in social movements.  In such social movements the popular classes refuse to be left out of the decision making process, reclaiming their sovereignty as a people.  In effect, they demand the right to participate in making those decisions that shape their lives.  But they do this from outside the established political system.  They seek to force the political elite to respond to the popular will in order to maintain their legitimacy and preserve governability.  It is precisely because in polyarchy the people have been excluded from government that there are social movements in capitalist societies.  [And when there is a crisis of legitimacy the state must either make concessions or resort to force, as we have been seeing in Turkey and Brazil in recent days.] 

It is here that we find the most decisive difference with the socialist variety of democracy.  In socialism we see the popular classes within the formal structure of governance.  In the Cuban case popular constituencies that might otherwise form as social movements are inside the decision making process.  I refer to the mass organizations: CTC, FMC, FEU, ANAP and CDR.  Their presence within state power obviates the need for social movements in socialism.  As my co-author Steve Martinot says so well

“these organizations represent within Cuban society what would be the various movements of exploited or dispossessed people under capitalism (unions, women’s movements, student movements, etc.). Each mass organization represents a traditional form of resistance to hierarchical control (patriarchy, elite academic training, class exploitation, latifundia, and colonialist segregation and social domination of the colonized). While, under capitalism, the movements of resistance that the oppressed have had to organize to express their needs and interests remain marginalized, this is inverted in Cuba. These movements are brought into the center of governance. In representing a consciousness of the past (of past exploitation and suppression), they stand as resistance to the resurgence of that past.”  [page 188]

In addition to this structure, there are also occasional consultations with the population when there are decisions of great moment to be made.  The most recent example of this was the process by which the Guidelines (Lineamientos) were developed.  Over a four year period, from July 26, 2007 up to April 2011, there were successive consultas involving as many as 8.9 million participants at their workplaces, schools and neighborhoods in discussions of proposed changes in economic and social policy.  It is hard to imagine anything remotely like this democratic participation occurring in the U.S. where the most the public is likely to get is sound bites from politicians that obfuscate rather than illuminate and an inspiring speech from the President, but no real input from the grassroots.  In Cuba, the aim of the process is to educate and illuminate while building consensus in pursuit of a common good. 

In a socialist society politics is not a spectator sport.  It is highly participatory.  Participation is valued not only as a way to move society forward together, but also because through it what Olga Fernandez has called democratic personalities are nurtured.  Socialism needs a participatory political culture in which all think of themselves as full time citizens. 

At the same time we cannot forget that socialism is not a fixed thing but a process.  It is a directed transition.  And as such, it needs a leadership that has a sense of the direction it is to go.  That is, it needs a vanguard.  The role of that vanguard is to educate, to persuade, to inspire and to lead by example while at the same time listening to and learning from the people it leads.  However, there is a potential contradiction here.  It is what Michael A. Lebowitz in his new book The Contradictions of Real Socialism has called the contradiction between the conductor and the conducted.  The failure to correctly handle this contradiction was a major contributing factor to the collapse of real socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.  

While Cuban socialism has been better at avoiding that fate, it has not been immune to vanguard substitutionism, as it has also encountered the allied problem of bureaucratism.  A saving grace of the Cuban Revolution has been the ability of the leadership to admit shortcomings and make changes.  As Fidel famously said in his 2005 speech here at the University, “among the many errors that we have committed, the most serious error was believing that someone knew how to build socialism.”  A successful transit through a socialist transition requires an experimental attitude, a willingness to learn from experience and the wisdom to build institutions at the base of society that will spontaneously generate momentum toward that society of associated producers that is the aim of socialism. 

It seems to me that one such institution is the cooperative.  By bringing people together in their daily work life in democratically self managed cooperatives, the democratic personality is nurtured and the human being is more fully developed.  These little schools of democracy are the soil in which the new socialist person will thrive, more so than was possible under state socialism.   And with that it becomes possible to envision the state eventually withering away as society comes more and more under the direction of a civil society, or what Marx called the associated producers. 


·        Paper presented in Seminar on “Socialist Renovation in Cuba and the Capitalist Crisis” at University of Havana, June 25, 2013.