Chomsky on “democracy” in the U.S. and Iran

“The U.S. isn’t Iran, where say candidates are vetted by the clergy before you can vote for them and then you get a democratic vote. In the United States they’re vetted by concentrations of private capital, and then you get a vote. It’s a difference. But not a very substantial one.” – Noam Chomsky, SUNY New Paltz, Sunday 4 December 2011, at an event with Anthony Arnove, honoring the legacy and work of historian Howard Zinn

C.L.R. James: “the struggle for socialism is the struggle for proletarian democracy”

“The struggle for socialism is the struggle for proletarian (working class) democracy. Proletarian democracy is not the crown of socialism. Socialism is the result of proletarian democracy. To the degree that the proletariat mobilizes itself and the great masses of the people, the socialist revolution is advanced. The proletariat mobilizes itself as a self-acting force through its own committees, unions, parties, and other organizations.” – C. L. R. James

(via Paul Le Blanc’s excellent piece: “What Do Socialists Say About Democracy?

Further Reading:

The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution by C.L.R. James

Óscar Romero: “One of the signs of the present time is the idea of participation…”

“One of the signs of the present time is the idea of participation, the right that all persons have to participate in the construction of their own common good. For this reason, one of the most dangerous abuses of the present time is repression, the attitude that says, ‘Only we can govern, no one else; get rid of them.’” – Óscar Romero, 10 July 1977, born 15 August 1917 – assassinated 24 March 1980

Robespierre: “Virtue and Terror”

“If the mainspring of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the mainspring of popular government in revolution is both virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is disastrous; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a specific principle as a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our homeland’s most pressing needs. [...]

“Let tyranny reign for a single day; the next day not a patriot will remain. For how long will the rage of despots be called justice, and the people’s justice be called barbarity or rebellion? How tender people are towards oppressors and how inexorable towards the oppressed! Nothing could be more natural: who does not hate crime cannot love virtue.

“One or the other must succumb, however. Indulgence for the royalists, cry certain people. Mercy for scoundrels! No!: mercy for the innocent, mercy for the weak, mercy for the unfortunate, mercy for humanity!” – Maximilien Robespierre, On the Principles of Political Morality

Discuss in the comments.

On the Fetish of Constitutions

“(…even the most radical constitution could be exploited by the Revolution’s enemies and hence the necessity for the dictatorship, i.e., a power not limited by fixed and written laws).” – Antonio Gramsci, Q3§56

“Consensus is imposed on everyone. The Constitution is sacred and it absolutely unimaginable that it is possible to replace it with another one (which is not the case in Europe!) and private property provides the inviolable foundation for the permanence of this mode of social organization (no horizon beyond capitalism is imaginable).” Samir Amin, “Consensus or Inventive Democracy?

Here in the United States we must deal with an incessant worship of the Constitution. Upon this document rests a whole load of claims of the exceptional nature of the nation and its people, who, through divine inspiration, forged the most libertarian document of governance ever conceived. Having reached the ideal form of government, the constitution is worshiped and change is seen as both impossible and undesirable.

As Gramsci points out in the above note, whatever advances the U.S. constitution ushered into the world, it has been used primarily as a tool by reactionaries to prevent further progress. In revolutionary periods, only a new power not limited by the rigid and formalistic methods of operation can successfully ensure the success of the Revolution, the suppression of its enemies, and the permanent stability of a new society.

Only this new power – a democracy of the vast majority, i.e. a “dictatorship of the working class / proletariatover and against the old exploiting classes and in the interests of the immense majority – can ensure the stabilisation of a new form of socialist democracy and the destruction of all forms of oppression and exploitation which comes along with the current dictatorship of capital.

All of us must struggle against the fetish of outdated forms, of documents and habits of old, if we wish to see birth of the final and most emancipatory stage of human history.

For all their praise of “orderly transitions”…

It is worth repeating that for all their praise of “orderly transitions” the bourgeoisie came to power through some of the most tumultuous revolutions in history.

Sands: “There Is No Source or Foreign Force…”

“All things must come to pass as one, so hope should never die. There is no height or bloody might that a freeman can’t defy. There is no source or foreign force can break one man who knows that his free will no thing can kill … and from that, freedom grows.” – Bobby Sands

Connolly: “Under a Socialist System…”

“Under a socialist system every nation will be the supreme arbiter of its own destinies, national and international; will be forced into no alliance against its will, but will have its independence guaranteed and its freedom respected by the enlightened self-interest of the socialist democracy of the world.” – James Connolly

Socialism Means the Democratic Planning of the Economy

“Not the crumbs! Not the little pieces around the edges! You have got to name the dream or you’ll never get it!” – Harvey Milk

Do you often get the question “what would a socialist society actually look like?”? Do you feel that socialists talk far too little about this question or don’t take it seriously? Far from being “utopian”, such discussions are vital to the process of building a revolutionary democratic socialist movement. We must have an evolving vision of what a participatory, democratic, and egalitarian socialist society would look like.

Here are four articles – one by American socialists Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, one by Brazilian-French socialist Michael Löwy – on the question of democratic planning in a socialist society, one by Nick Dyer-Witheford on guaranteed income, decommodifying communication, and decentralised/democratic planning, and one by Ernest Mandel defending the goal of socialist planning.  I highly recommend them.

Participatory Planning” by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel in Socialist Visions edited by Stephen Shalom (South End Press).


Ecosocialism and Democratic Planning” by Michael Löwy.


Alternatives” by Nick Dyer-Witheford in Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High-Technology Capitalism.


In Defense of Socialist Planning” by Ernest Mandel

Some Quotes:

“Are we being utopian? It is utopian to expect more from a system than it can possibly deliver. To expect equality and justice —or even rationality—from capitalism is utopian. To expect social solidarity from markets, or self-management from central planning, is equally utopian. To argue that competition can yield empathy or that authoritarianism can promote initiative or that keeping most people from decision-making can employ human potential most fully: these are utopian fantasies without question. But to recognize human potentials and to seek to embody their development into a set of economic institutions and then to expect those institutions to encourage desirable outcomes is no more than reasonable theorizing. What is utopian is not planting new seeds but expecting flowers from dying weeds.” – Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, “Participatory Planning”.

“In Volume Three of Capital Marx defined socialism as a society where ‘the associated producers rationally organize their exchange (Stoffwechsel) with nature’. But in Volume One of Capital there is a broader approach: socialism is conceived as ‘an association of free human beings (Menschen) which works with common (gemeinschaftlichen) means of production’. This is a much more appropriate conception: the rational organization of production and consumption has to be the work not only of the ‘producers’, but also of the consumers; in fact, of the whole society, with its productive and ‘non-productive’ population, which includes students, youth, housewives (and house-husbands), pensioners, etc.” – Michael Löwy, “Ecosocialism and Democratic Planning”.

Einstein: “Why Socialism?”

by Albert Einstein

This essay was originally published in the first issue of Monthly Review (May 1949).


Is it advisable for one who is not an expert on economic and social issues to express views on the subject of socialism? I believe for a number of reasons that it is.

Let us first consider the question from the point of view of scientific knowledge. It might appear that there are no essential methodological differences between astronomy and economics: scientists in both fields attempt to discover laws of general acceptability for a circumscribed group of phenomena in order to make the interconnection of these phenomena as clearly understandable as possible. But in reality such methodological differences do exist. The discovery of general laws in the field of economics is made difficult by the circumstance that observed economic phenomena are often affected by many factors which are very hard to evaluate separately. In addition, the experience which has accumulated since the beginning of the so-called civilized period of human history has—as is well known—been largely influenced and limited by causes which are by no means exclusively economic in nature. For example, most of the major states of history owed their existence to conquest. The conquering peoples established themselves, legally and economically, as the privileged class of the conquered country. They seized for themselves a monopoly of the land ownership and appointed a priesthood from among their own ranks. The priests, in control of education, made the class division of society into a permanent institution and created a system of values by which the people were thenceforth, to a large extent unconsciously, guided in their social behavior.

Einstein: “On Capitalism”

“Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests …of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.” – Albert Einstein

Amin: “Consensus or Inventive Democracy?”

“Liberal democracy is not authentically pluralist because it avoids conflict and seeks consensus. The latter is the only means to prevent competition between individuals, the fundamental principle around which liberal society is built, from degrading into chaotic and criminal anarchy. Recognition that there is no alternative to the existing world as it is, i.e. capitalism, is expressed through consensus. Conflicts of interest are thus only conflicts of particular and partial interests that can and must be reconciled. The good technocrat is able to offer solutions, after having heard the lobbyists advance their arguments. Radical political parties hinder more than contribute to the achievement of consensus. Consensus assumes that all subversions can be diluted and ultimately absorbed. The ideal is thus “bipartisanship” as found in the United States, in which the two parties are joined together on the main principles even if they address different supporters (above all not social classes!) with different tastes. Consensus is imposed on everyone. The Constitution is sacred and it absolutely unimaginable that it is possible to replace it with another one (which is not the case in Europe!) and private property provides the inviolable foundation for the permanence of this mode of social organization (no horizon beyond capitalism is imaginable). In contrast, the very definition of democracy is the right to innovation, invention, and imagination. Since nothing in the current social organization is sacred, democracy becomes subversive by nature. Subversion is the driving force of social transformation. Radical democrats do not like consensus, and when it appears to be operating in their society – in situations of war, for example – they are suspicious of its destructive effects on the critical spirit.” - Samir Amin, The World We Wish To See: Revolutionary Objectives in the Twenty-First Century.

Engels: “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat”

“Of late, the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” – Friedrich Engels, Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Civil War in France (1891).

Lenin: “The Working Class As Vanguard Fighter for Democracy”

by V. I. LENIN
from “Trade-Unionist Politics and Social-Democratic[Socialist] Politics: The Working Class As Vanguard Fighter for Democracy” in What Is To Be Done?: Burning Questions of Our Movement.

“…the Social-Democrat [Socialist]’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all their socialist convictions and their democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat”.

LeBlanc: “What Do Socialists Say About Democracy?”

International Socialist Review, Issue 74, November–December 2010

(Audio Version)

“DEMOCRACY DOES not come from the top, it comes from the bottom,” Howard Zinn tells us at the beginning of his wonderful film The People Speak. “The mutinous soldiers, the angry women, the rebellious Native Americans, the working people, the agitators, the antiwar protestors, the socialists and anarchists and dissenters of all kinds—the troublemakers, yes, the people who have given us what liberty and democracy we have.”1 This insight from Zinn provides a key to our topic—the relation between democracy and socialism, especially the socialism associated with the outlook of Karl Marx.

Lenin: “In the Spirit of the Most Consistent and Resolutely Revolutionary Democracy”

by V. I. LENIN,
“The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination.”

“The proletariat cannot be victorious except through democracy, i.e., by giving full effect to democracy and by linking with each step of its struggle democratic demands formulated in the most resolute terms. It is absurd to contrapose the socialist revolution and the revolutionary struggle against capitalism to a single problem of democracy, in this case, the national question. We must combine the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary programme and tactics on all democratic demands: a republic, a militia, the popular election of officials, equal rights for women, the self-determination of nations, etc. While capitalism exists, these demands—all of them—can only be accomplished as an exception, and even then in an incomplete and distorted form. Basing ourselves on the democracy already achieved, and exposing its incompleteness under capitalism, we demand the overthrow of capitalism, the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, as a necessary basis both for the abolition of the poverty of the masses and for the complete and all-round institution of all democratic reforms. Some of these reforms will be started before the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, others in the course of that overthrow, and still others after it. The social revolution is not a single battle, but a period covering a series of battles over all sorts of problems of economic and democratic reform, which are consummated only by the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. It is for the sake of this final aim that we must formulate every one of our democratic demands in a consistently revolutionary way. It is quite conceivable that the workers of some particular country will overthrow the bourgeoisie before even a single fundamental democratic reform has been fully achieved. It is, however, quite inconceivable that the proletariat, as a historical class, will be able to defeat the bourgeoisie, unless it is prepared for that by being educated in the spirit of the most consistent and resolutely revolutionary democracy.”