Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Socialist or Democrat?

A few days ago, Norm had a post up, asking "why the left has a bad record and a bad reputation with regard to its attachment to democracy".

Norm's regulars won't be surprised by any of the reasons that he advances, and I'd I'm among those who would generally agree with him on things like this. But I think that there is one possible explanation that is missing here. I say 'possible' because I've never really tried it out properly. So here goes:

Is it possible that the biggest problem that the entire left has is that it doesn't understand the central role that liberal democracy plays in advancing its aims?

Could it be the case that, when presented with a choice between supporting...
  1. a political programme that was long on generic socialism (Union rights, common ownership, secular republicanism, internationalism, anti-racism, etc), but short on ambition to improve the general quality of standard liberal democratic practice, or....
  2. a political programme that is broadly indifferent, or even mildly hostile to the general demands of socialists, but that places a high priority on improving the institutions of liberal democracy
... that most socialists would choose the former?

I would suggest (and at this stage, it's only a suggestion) that leftists would generally achieve their aims more effectively, and in a more sustainable way by supporting the latter. I would qualify this, of course, by insisting that only a representative democracy (no plebiscites, strong parliamentarians, unconcentrated media ownership, bicameralism, etc) can be treated as genuine 'liberal democracy' for the purposes of this argument. So Switzerland or the US can't really be used to contradict me here.

And I'd argue this because I can't think of an example of any state achieving lasting progress of the kind that socialists would like to see without it also placing a premium upon the values of liberal democracy. Labour - in the 1960s - can put it's greatest achievements down to liberalising reforms rather than any red-blooded socialist policies.

I can also think of examples of states that have had a political leadership that is indifferent - or even hostile - to many of the totemic socialistic demands, but that have nevertheless become much more acceptable societies from a left-wing point of view. Almost every EU state would fit this description over the past 50 years. And states where the quality of democracy hasn't improved (or has even deteriorated) - see Italy for details - have also resulted in a lack of social progress.

On the other hand, there are numerous examples of states failing to effect lasting change (indeed, becoming objectively less progressive) despite the protestations of their supposedly left-wing leaderships.

Is the problem with the left that it is too busy striking postures to see what is under its very nose? That liberal democracy has achieved more socialistic progress than active socialism even has? Is it time to park socialistic demands and instead to focus upon democratic renewal?

Now where did I put that hard hat?

1 comment:

Chris said...

I think you may be on to something, certainly when it comes to making excuses for countries that are implementing some socialist programmes. I'm not sure where it leaves making excuses for the countries or movements that aren't really socialist at all but only 'anti-imperialist' - in that case it definitely seems not so much a lack of appreciation of liberal democracy as active hostility to it even though in many cases liberal democracy would serve those causes better as well.

However, it probably does relate to and/or is inherent in Norm Geras's third point - 'Claims that, in any case, the democracies of advanced capitalist societies are either flawed and limited as democracies or not really democracies at all but disguised forms of dictatorship.' Admittedly those claims may be cognitive dissonance, but if you do believe that sort of thing then it could be that you do appreciate liberal democracy but just don't recognise it, rather than thinking that there's such as thing democratic realtivism.

The other comment I'd make is that many on the left who do have issues with liberal democracy in other countries seem to have a different view in their own countries. I'm not sure if that's just basic hypocrisy (of the 'well they're not ready for it' variety), rhetoric for home-consumption or if it's the case that they still think socialist policies should come first but that they also think that their own countries are just fine and dandy and so it's time to go to phase 2.