In 1947, the Christian Socialist Methodist Minister Harry Ward wrote a pamphlet called Soviet Democracy, celebrating the achievement of a socialist democracy that exceeded anything built by the United States. Beyond a collaboratively constructed constitution establishing both the legal and economic rights of its people, the USSR was able to implement its lofty ideals through “hard-won experience”.
According to Ward, collective ownership of the economy allows for a new kind of “creative democracy”, in which the people collaborate with experts to develop plans working towards the common aims of all. All people share directly in the basic functioning of society, without the need for intermediaries like lawyers, businessmen, and politicians.
As for representatives, they’re elected by a direct popular vote. Elections are not competitive and only involve one candidate. This is a reflection of the fact that the communist party represents the unified interests of the people and candidates are appointed through lengthy mass meetings. Even after being approved and voted in, candidates are subject to instant recall. If a third of the people demand it, a vote will be called, and the representative may be made to step down.
According to Ward, accusations of a totalitarian government and phony elections come from a misunderstanding of the nature of Soviet institutions. Government comes mostly from the joint management of the common enterprises of the people. It’s an everyday process of participation and discussion by the workers in accordance with the values of the Soviet experiment.
Of course, Ward does not mention the roughly one million people who were killed in 1937 and 1938 as a result of political oppression, right after the constitution was ratified. This happened alongside the first elections. We know these deaths occurred because they were documented extensively by the regime itself.
Obviously, modern scholarship has a radically different view on “Soviet Democracy”. A people under extreme duress from state violence cannot genuinely participate in a democratic system. Political power, especially under Stalin, was dictated primarily from the central position of the Communist Party leadership. The will of ordinary people was ultimately subordinate to the authority of those who claimed to speak for them.
However, this does not mean that the Soviet Union had no concept of democratic participation. The hundreds of thousands of constitutional conventions with tens of millions of people in attendance really did happen. People were actively encouraged to write letters to the authorities, even with criticism and complaints. Active participation and criticism of authorities was seen as a crucial component of being a good Soviet citizen.
According to David Priestland, the Soviet conception of democracy had four main elements, based on the ideas of Karl Marx. First, democracy should involve the direct participation of everyday people, in contrast to liberal democracy where participation is limited to electing representatives. Second, democracy should be centered around the working class, who were seen as inherently collectivist and egalitarian. Third, popular control should be extended to the economy. This relates to the fourth point, that democracy should be practiced within the workplace. Labor should be a voluntary expression of innate creativity and love, and should not be bribed by wages or compelled by external discipline.
In essence, Ward’s rosy portrayal in “Soviet Democracy” is a very good representation of how Marxist-Leninists actually see themselves. Contrary to the popular imagination of Stalin as a cruel and cynical overlord, modern experts like Stephen Kotkin see him as an earnest student of Lenin and a true believer in the ideology of the USSR. Soviet leadership genuinely believed they were advancing the enlightenment project and implementing a more realized vision of democracy than the imperfect institutions developed by the United States and France. Lenin himself believed that the purpose of socialism was to dissolve the government entirely as workers learned to lead themselves through everyday acts of democracy.
There are some who still believe the USSR functioned as Ward described it. There are others who believe it would have functioned that way, if only the right people had been in charge. Both views are incorrect. Soviet leaders attempted on multiple occasions to democratize the country, and found time after time that unrestricted political participation was a threat to the existence of the regime. The institutions necessary to implement socialist democracy as such simply did not exist.
So, why even talk about it? I think there are some valuable insights to be gleaned from this research. The most obvious point is that institutions are important, and intent does not translate into behavior without a reliable system to enforce it. Liberal democracy as implemented by the United States was based in hundreds of years of tradition and practice, and even then it was born into severe contradictions, slavery being an unforgivable one.
The United States is currently experiencing a crisis in its own sense of democracy. The most prominent example of this is Gilen and Page’s study which concluded that “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy” when compared to the desires of wealthy elites and interest groups. I find that history can sometimes provide us with a mirror to see ourselves from an outsider’s perspective. If the United States were to collapse and the scholars of another regime were to analyze our system, would they see it as democratic?
The Soviet thinkers provided an alternate vision of democracy. Should we take any of it seriously? While the idea of the state representing a single unified will of the people feels to me approximate to fascism, a more participatory form of society where everyone takes a greater stake in all aspects of their own lives is worth pursuing in my view. One specific example is worker co-ops, a blossoming business model with a proven track record of workplace democracy. Another interesting concept is the democratic confederalism being tried in North and East Syria, although this is significantly more fraught and only time will tell if it’s a model worthy of replication.
There are really two separate questions here. Is a more advanced form of society desirable? Is it possible? Too often this is framed as a single question, answerable by thought-terminating cliches about the failures of the Soviet Union and other Marxist-Leninist projects. More and more people are answering yes to that first question, and it’s only inevitable they start contemplating the second. We would not live in our current society if we had not questioned the one that came before. I think it is positive that we are now questioning our own society, and it would do us good to recognize that we are by no means at the end of history.