Democratic Socialism: The Impossible Dream?

Photo Source David Shankbone | CC BY 2.0

The founders of “scientific socialism,” Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, assumed it was quite possible, even historically inevitable, for working people to democratically govern an industrial society.  However, they never went into detail about how this would work.  Even today, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, many orthodox Marxists persist in believing that vast, complex, globalized, industrial economies can be run by and for the workers who operate the machinery of production.  In fact, doctrinaire Marxists still cling to the fantasy that worker-run industrial socialism is not only possible, it is the historically destined, superior replacement for industrial capitalism.

This Marxist conviction is dubious for two reasons.  First, history has demonstrated that after many attempts, and despite their best intentions, the leaders of “socialist” revolutions have never succeeded in building an industrial society run by and for working people.  Second, the primary underlying reason for this failure flows from the structural requirements of industrial society.  Fossil-fueled industrial economies exert a powerful influence over their social structure. The extensive, intricate, hierarchical configuration of carbon-powered industrialism appears structurally unsuited and deeply resistant to bottom-up, democratic management.

When socialist-led revolutions seized political power in Russia, China, and elsewhere, Marxists were quick to label these countries “socialist.”  They were convinced that their ruling communist parties would industrialize these countries and bring them under democratic, working class control. Meanwhile, in Western Europe, reform-minded Marxists believed working people could gain power over their industrial economies through the ballot instead of the bullet.  But whether socialist parties were elected or seized power through revolution, they were never able to bring an industrial economy under the democratic management of working people.

Does this mean industrial societies are stuck with capitalism?  No. History has proven that industrial societies can possess relations of production other than profit-driven capitalism. Just as the agricultural societies generated despotic, slave, feudal, and capitalist class relations at different places and points in history, modern industrialism’s brief 200-year lifespan has generated a spectrum of economic relations as well.  But none of them have been democratic.

History demonstrates that industrialism can be dominated by capitalist owners out to maximize their profits or by central planners who manage the economy to benefit themselves while governing in the name of the people. Thus, the actual distance been industrial capitalism and the statist economies falsely labeled “socialist” or “communist” is much narrower than either old-line Marxists or free-market ideologues want to admit.  Throughout the 20th century, capitalists and communists waged ideological warfare over which type of industrial system was superior—privately run or government planned. But these arguments exaggerated the actual, real world differences between state-run (“socialist”) and corporate-run (capitalist) industrial systems.  In doing so, they hid the pervasive similarities between these two versions of industrial society.

During the Cold War, most Marxists asserted that the state-planned, industrial societies they called “socialist,” were far superior to capitalism. They denounced capitalism as a crisis-ridden system that benefitted the few by exploiting the labor of the vast majority.  These Marxists believed that government-planned industrial economies would outlaw labor exploitation for private profit and promote the general welfare of all.  Conversely, free market ideologues insisted these statist industrial economies (that they also called communist or socialist) suppressed economic liberty; stifled competition, efficiency, and innovation; and imposed totalitarian control over every aspect of life.

The original meaning of “socialism” and “communism” was lost in this ideological shadow boxing.  As originally intended by Marx and Engels, a socialist society would be run democratically, by the vast majority of working people, on the basis of human need, not profit.  In other words, socialism meant economic, political, and social democracy. They believed worker-run socialism would eventually become classless communism, as industry produced enough wealth to satisfy everyone’s basic needs and people became accustomed to contributing their abilities to a commonwealth that encouraged their talents and potentials in return.

When self-proclaimedsocialist revolutions came to power in Russia and China, Western capitalists were worried. They feared that thriving workers’ democracies could make capitalism look inferior and inspire more class rebellions around the world.  They tried to eliminate, subvert, and vilify these socialist experiments whenever possible. But sabotage failed to prevent these experiments in “socialist construction” from rapidly industrializing. Unfortunately, industrialization was never accompanied by economic democracy.

For years Marxists excused the failure of self-proclaimed socialist governments to promote democracy in the workplace, the community, and in government.  There was substantial truth in their excuses.  The conditions for promoting democracy were definitely not ideal in the USSR, China, or any of the other countries where communist parties came to power.  These countries were not the advanced industrial societies Marx and Engels believed would become the birthplace of socialism.  The working class was not the majority; instead, it was a poorly organized minority in underdeveloped nations of peasant farmers.

But even though the Soviet Union and China fell short of their vision of working class democracy, most Marxists were hopeful that they were a work-in-progress.  They claimed economic democracy would come later, after a modern industrial economy was constructed under the direction of the communist party’s central planners.  Unfortunately, later morphed into never.  Although the USSR and China industrialized and the “socialist” nations of Eastern Europe modernized rapidly after World War II, efforts to promote genuine economic and political democracy never gained traction, even after the working class was the vast majority of society.

In fact, no self-proclaimed socialist country, from Poland and East Germany to Cuba and Vietnam, ever achieved the type of economic and political democracy Marx, Engels, and most socialist revolutionaries envisioned. Instead, what passed for socialism were statist societies ruled from above by an elite cadre of party officials and central planners.  Needless to say, the proponents of capitalism seized every opportunity to disparage and vilify the idea of communism and socialism whenever these statist governments failed to live up to their self-proclaimed socialist ideals, which they invariably did.

The rulers of statist systems insisted they were Marxists, leading their socialist nations toward a classless, communist society.  Yet, as time passed, it appeared that centrally planned industrial systems consistently fostered an entrenched, privileged class of party officials and central planners rather than a socialist democracy run by and for working people.[1]  Yet, both communist and capitalist cold warriors insisted on mislabeling these statist societies “socialist” and either condemned them as grim totalitarian tyrannies or extolled them as prosperous workers’ democracies.

It is important to note that it served the interests of both sides to mislabel these statist systems “socialist” or “communist.”  Western capitalist governments wanted to discourage their citizens from seeing socialism as a viable alternative, so they highlighted the worst qualities of these state-planned economies to portray socialism as an evil totalitarian system.  From the other side, the ruling parties of these statist economies proclaimed themselves to be the leaders of prosperous socialist democracies on the path to classless communism, while glossing over the grim realities of industrial statism with glowing propaganda.

Thus, for opposite reasons, both sides of the Cold War tacitly agreed with the self-serving fiction that these statist industrial societies were genuine examples of socialism.  So when the Soviet system imploded and China integrated itself back into the global capitalist system, it became a commonly accepted myth that socialism (and communism) had failed and capitalism had won the Cold War.  When actually, what failed was statist industrialism.

In reality, genuine democratic socialism has never existed despite the self-serving claims of both sides to the contrary.  In fact, the complex, large scale, highly centralized, vertically integrated nature of industrial society cannot possibly accommodate authentic, bottom-up, democratic control over this top-down economic process.

There are multiple theories for why democratic socialism failed. Some critics of revolution insist that the leaders of socialist insurrections were merely power-driven opportunists who never intended to bring the working class into power.  However, to be a valid explanation for the universal failure of democratic socialism this would have to be true across the board, for all those who led and organized every socialist revolution.

History provides no evidence for the assertion that none of the revolutionaries who risked their lives to lead anti-capitalist revolutions were sincerely committed to democratic socialism.  Of course, there are always opportunists in every political movement.  But it is inaccurate to claim that socialism failed because these revolutionary Marxists were never genuinely committed to democratic socialism.  Instead, most either believed the communist party represented working people or hoped to bring the working class into power eventually. Yet, despite their best intentions, this never happened.  Why?

As Engels reminds us, sometimes our intentions,“are from the outset incapable of realization, or the means of attaining them are insufficient.”  He goes on to explain that when our intentions are unattainable, “the conflict of innumerable individual wills…for the most part, produce results quite other than those they intended–often quite the opposite.”[2]  The socialist-led revolutions of the 20th century did indeed produce results quite other than those they intended.  Yes, they were able to launch nations down a path of state-planned industrialization that did not operate according to the profit-driven imperatives of capitalism. But these statist systems bore no further resemblance to democratic socialism.

Most historians have rejected opportunism as a universal explanation for the failure of democratic socialism.  But many doctrinaire Marxists went so far as to insist that any criticism of self-proclaimed socialist countries was merely capitalist propaganda. However, less ideologically rigid Marxists have offered a range of plausible reasons why democratic socialism has failed to materialize.

Some blame capitalism.  Without a doubt, capitalist powers have tried very hard to vilify, abort, or undermine these revolutionary regimes at every turn.  Their efforts had an definite impact.  They made it very difficult for socialist experiments to succeed, while highlighting their failures to turn people against socialism.  Yet these efforts at sabotage did not prevent communist parties from rapidly industrializing or claiming they were constructing socialism despite “capitalist encirclement.”[3]

Other Marxists blamed the failure of democratic socialism on the authoritarian rule of communist vanguard parties that monopolized power while claiming to rule in the name of the workers.  There is truth in this criticism as well.  Most ruling communist parties extolled their nation’s faultless leaders and the infallibility of Marxist doctrine even as they departed further and further from anything resembling democratic socialism.  In fact, time after time, as countries became more complex and industrialized they became even less democratic.

The failure of democratic socialism was also blamed on the underdeveloped economies where revolutions brought communists to power.  When communist parties gained power after leading successful national liberation movements in the Third World, some Marxists doubted they could create socialism in these backward peasant countries. They believed socialism would be impossible unless communist parties pursued a policy of rapid industrialization to modernize the country and develop a working class majority.  But even in China and the Soviet Union, where rapid modernization succeeded and the working class became the majority, no working class democracy ever materialized.

Other Marxists reasoned that when communist parties led armed insurrections followed by policies of rapid industrialization they were compelled to impose top-down programs and directives incompatible with the messy, time-consuming process of bottom-up, participatory democracy.[4]  There is substantial truth to these Third World focused explanations because they reflect the underlying fact that rapid industrialization is inherently resistant to democratic management.

However, it is important to note that none of these partial explanations can account for the failure of socialists in the industrialized West to establish working class democracies—either through revolutions or elections.  In the more developed nations of the global economy, the revolutionary path to power has never succeeded.  Some Marxists attribute this to the enormous coercive power of the corporate state; others blame the false consciousness imposed by capitalism’s ideological “hegemony” over the entire culture.[5]

These Marxists highlight the political complacency fostered by media-hyped consumerism, individualism, and the higher living standards found in the industrialized core of the global economy.  These conditions produced a working class with no taste for revolution and a limited enthusiasm for electing “socialist” governments.  If elected, socialist and communist politicians never attempted to democratize the economy.  Instead they settled for taxing corporate profits and promoting welfare state industrialism.  But the economy remained largely in private hands.  Even when a “socialist” government exercised power over major portions of the economy, this power was never held by working people.

Ultimately, these are all partial, piecemeal explanations for the failure of democratic socialism.  Some theories focus on why it failed in poor nations, others on why it failed in wealthy nations; some focus on power-hungry politicians, working class apathy, or the inherent weaknesses of either reform or revolution.  However, universal failure would suggest that there are more pervasive, underlying, structural reasons why neither revolutionary nor reformist efforts to build democratic socialism have ever achieved more than welfare state capitalism or statist industrialism.  The essential truth remains that genuine democratic socialism has not succeeded anywhere, even though Marxists believed it would succeed everywhere.

Is it possible that a rapidly expanding, multi-state, globalized industrial economy—powered by an energy base of fossil fuels—is incompatible with nationally restricted efforts to bring it under genuine democratic control?  In hindsight, it appears that the physical constraints and social requirements imposed by globalized industrialism foster undemocratic, hierarchical economic relations resembling either corporatist or statist political economies that resist bottom-up, democratic governance.  This is the most feasible, comprehensive explanation for the failure of democratic socialism in both emerging and mature industrial societies.  The other piecemeal theories discussed above are partially accurate, yet limited, derivatives of this pervasive, underlying restriction on genuine economic democracy.

The problem solving theoretical principle known as Occam’s razor (or the law of parsimony)considers the strongest theory to be the one that provides the simplest, most comprehensive explanation in line with the evidence.[6]  The conclusion that economic democracy is incompatible with the hierarchical, vertically organized structure of industrial production meets these criteria.  By its very nature, fossil-fueled industrialism promotes extensive, highly integrated economies of scale that require top-down managerial direction.  Complicated, highly mechanized, global chains of industrial production frustrate nationally confined, workplace-centered economic democracy.  They require an managerial elite to oversee the planning, administration, and supervision these technologically elaborate, vertically integrated operations. Therefore, it becomes virtually impossible to govern these political economies in a decentralized, democratic manner—especially when chains of production override and transcend national borders.

Even for the “socialist” countries that tried to remain detached from the global capitalist economy, industrialization defied “democratic socialist planning.”  Without profit margins and market signals to influence economic decisions and erratically adjust supply and demand, the extremely complicated process of fossil fueled industrial production had to be centrally planned to meet the multiple contending needs of the workforce, the surrounding community, the entire nation, and the sophisticated technologies needed to operate it.

Grassroots democratic control over this “pyramid of production” has never succeeded at the national level and is hard to even imagine on an international scale.  Invariably, the nature of this giant, complicated, hierarchical system resists democratic oversight and impedes bottom-up decision-making procedures.  Therefore, despite the polarized, antagonistic ideologies of capitalism and “socialism,” the spectrum of real world production relations compatible with carbon-powered, highly mechanized societies is much narrower than these rival ideologies care to admit.

Whether they call themselves socialist or capitalist, all modern societies generate a managerial elite of central planners or corporate executives to oversee them.  Even so, the enormity and complexity of globalized industrialism defies strict, comprehensive control.  However, by occupying society’s commanding heights, ruling elites dominate the decision making process and claim an inequitable share of the benefits for themselves.  They control the technologies of energy conversion and the institutions of economic power; they use this power to shape society’s political priorities and cultural institutions.  Thus, the party officials and state planners of “socialist” countries like China bear a remarkable resemblance, in both appearance and function, to the top corporate executives and government policymakers of their capitalist counterparts.  In each case, complex, centralized, mechanized, urbanized, fossil-fueled economies beget a powerful industrial elite who attempt to control the flow of energy, resources, money, power, and information.

While capitalist ideologues, in theory, extol the virtues of the competitive “free market” and spurn state regulation, in reality corporate executives revile competition and do everything in their power to avoid it unless the game is rigged in their favor.  As Marx pointed out long ago, each successive bout of boom and bust reduces capitalist competition, which inevitably succumbs to centralization and oligopoly.  Instead of a regulation-free competitive environment, giant corporations prefer a corrupt “revolving door” relationship with government policymakers who favor them with political influence, lucrative contracts, tax breaks, and subsidies, while forcing small businesses to contend with regulatory barriers and rigged markets that make competition nearly impossible.  The supposed separation between the public and private sectors is more artifice than reality.  At the pinnacles of power, capitalist elites circulate constantly between highly integrated “private” and “public” sectors of social control.

Powerful industrial states, whether capitalist or statist, always possess a well-funded national security apparatus of armies, propaganda and intelligence operatives, police, courts, and prisons.  These institutions of social mind control, coercion, and violence are used in exactly the same way: to defend and advance the industrial elite’s interests at home and abroad and to suppress any significant dissent and unrest.

Beneath this powerful class of industrial “socialist” and capitalist elites there are middle class functionaries, scientists, bureaucrats, and professionals who provide the intellectual talents, technological expertise, and managerial skills necessary to keep a complex society functioning. This middle class lives better than the vast majority of the population whose days are spent doing the mind-numbing, back-breaking, minimum wage jobs needed to tend the bureaucratic-industrial machine.

Except for relative differences in social welfare, modern conveniences, and purchasing power, these basic relations of production have characterized all developed industrialized countries from capitalist Europe and America to statist systems like the Soviet Union, its East European allies, and China. Wherever you look, genuine economic and political democracy has not proven compatible with the industrial mode of production, despite the dedicated efforts of free-market libertarians, anarchists, populists, radical democrats, communists, and socialist revolutionaries to redistribute wealth and power.  Instead, some configuration of industrial rulers have always emerged and prevailed.

Thus, genuine socialism has never become a reality despite the best intentions of those who struggled to bring it about.  Instead, their best intentions and noble aspirations were eroded and warped to fit the structural imperatives of modern industrial society.  The result became the various versions of statist industrialism that passed for “socialism” during the 20th century. With few exceptions, all of these statist systems had re-integrated themselves into the global capitalist system to one degree or another by the end of the 20th century.[7]  Marxists have been hard pressed to explain why.

This was especially perplexing for old school Marxists and communists who wanted to believe that these statist societies were genuine socialist systems at the vanguard of history, leading humanity down the evolutionary road to communism.  After all, why would a socialist nation, supposedly run by and for working people, ever choose to reverse the course of history and rejoin the capitalist system?  However, once you remove the ideological blinders, the answer to this question is much less perplexing: the working class was never in power in any of these so-called “socialist” governments.

Some Marxists claim these statist systems were actually socialist because, unlike capitalist countries, state-planned enterprises were not required to maximize profit and were not allowed to turn labor or means of production into commodities.  The government was the only owner of the means of production and thus the only employer of the working class.  It guaranteed workers a job and didn’t restrict basic social needs like education, housing, transportation, and health care to only those who could afford to buy them.

However, the working class did not have any effective control over these “socialist” governments.  These statist systems were not democratic; and the inefficient, unaccountable bureaucracies that managed every walk of life were self-serving, impassive, insensitive, and generally unresponsive to public criticism.  Even at its best, the quality of the jobs, goods, and services provided by these state planned economies was highly unsatisfactory for everyone except a politically privileged elite.

Thus, like capitalism, alienation pervaded every aspect of life under statist societies.  While the profit motive is the primary directive for corporate elites, “communist” officials were motivated to please their superiors in the chain of command by perfunctorily fulfilling the directives of the central plan.  This situation left most working people completely alienated from, and disillusioned with, the grand ideals of “socialism.” So when these centrally planned systems began to implode under the burden of their own bureaucratic weight, corruption, and inefficiency, those who imagined they could do better under industrial capitalism were not sorry to see them go.

As the Age of Fossil Fuels draws to a close, there is an important lesson to be learned from our brief, petroleum powered, roller coaster ride through industrial civilization.  Energy sources, and the technologies used to harness them, are not socially or politically neutral.  They have a powerful influence over how society can be organized.  They promote some types of economic relations and discourage others.  While hydrocarbon powered industrial societies have proven incompatible with genuine economic democracy, future societies will have to live without this enormously rich, ecologically devastating energy source.  The decentralized technologies needed to harness alternative energy sources may be much more conducive to democratic governance at the community and workplace level.  However, there is absolutely no guarantee that post carbon societies will be more just or democratic.  After all, feudal and slave societies were based on renewable energy.  Those who hope to build a less alienating, more democratic future will have to pay careful attention to the social and political consequences of the technologies they adopt to harness renewable energy.


[1] One of the first materialist analyses of this process was: Rizzi, Bruno. THE BUREAUCRATIZATION OF THE WORLD (Free Press, 1939); see also: Bahro, Rudolf. SOCIALISM & SURVIVAL. (Heretic Books, 1982) and Bahro’s FROM RED TO GREEN. (VERSO, 1981).

[2] Engels, Friedrich. LUDWIG FEUERBACH (1888): 47-51.

[3] The notion of “capitalist encirclement” was popularized by Joseph Stalin.  In his words, “Capitalist encirclement—that is no empty phrase; that is a very real and unpleasant feature.  Capitalist encirclement means that here is one country, the Soviet Union, which has established the socialist order on its own territory and besides this there are many countries, bourgeois countries, which continue to carry on a capitalist mode of life and which surround the Soviet Union, waiting for an opportunity to attack it, break it, or at any rate to undermine its power and weaken it.”

[4] Fagen, Richard R. “The Politics of Transition,”Monthly Review. (Nov., 1986).

[5] As popularized by the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, cultural hegemonyis the domination of capitalist society by a ruling elite that imposes its beliefs and values upon the entire culture.  Through its influence over all the venues of cultural indoctrination, education, and discourse capitalist ideology becomes the universally accepted ideology. It justifies the social, political, and economic status quo as natural and inevitable, perpetual and beneficial for everyone, rather than as an artificial social construct that benefits only the ruling class.  See: Hoare, Quentin and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, eds. SELECTIONS FROM THE PRISON NOTEBOOKS of ANTONIO GRAMSCI (1971).

[6] The law of parsimony, often referred to as Occam’s razor, is the problem-solving principle that the simplest viable solution tends to be the right one.  Thus, when presented with competing explanations, one should select the simplest, most comprehensive, hypothesis with the fewest assumptions and compatible with the evidence at hand.

[7] Since 1960, Cuban “socialism” has remained a relatively self-reliant, partially state planned society by default in many respects.  The collapse of the USSR and the stiff embargo enforced by the US imposed a level of self-sufficiency on the island that largely removed the potential for greater reintegration into the world capitalist system.  If the embargo is lifted, these new conditions will alter Cuba’s domestic and global economic relations.  This externally and internally reinforced isolation is similar to the situation of North Korea, although these two systems differ dramatically in many ways.

Craig Collins Ph.D. is the author of “Toxic Loopholes” (Cambridge University Press), which examines America’s dysfunctional system of environmental protection. He teaches political science and environmental law at California State University East Bay and was a founding member of the Green Party of California.