Communism, Democracy and the Left: What Lessons on Democracy and Politics Can We Learn from the History of Communism?

By Makin-Waite, Mike | Soundings, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

Communism, Democracy and the Left: What Lessons on Democracy and Politics Can We Learn from the History of Communism?


Makin-Waite, Mike, Soundings


There is currently a widespread sense of frustration with contemporary forms and practices of democracy, a sense that they are in crisis. Recently this frustration has most frequently found its expression in support for the populist right. Trump won the White House with appeals to people who have been marginalised and damaged by economic trends tied to globalisation: de-industrialisation, the decline of manufacturing, and jobs going overseas. As with the Brexit vote, these issues were articulated by the populist right to focus anxieties on immigration, and make a nativist and racialised appeal to a defensive sense of identity; and this was linked to the encouragement of a resentful belief that 'the contract' and 'trust' between the 'political elite' and 'the people' has been broken. Similar themes are also reshaping politics across Europe.

From other points on the spectrum there are different forms of disaffection with democracy and what it can deliver. Some of these are a direct reaction to the successes of the right: Trump only won because of the bizarre 'electoral college', say liberals and left-wingers outraged and frightened by the election result--Clinton actually won the popular vote. 'Remainers' remind us that Brexit campaigners promoted untruths. 'Leave' did not win 'overwhelmingly', as some now claim. And even if the binary 'remain'/leave' referendum produced a mandate--understandably disputed in Scotland and Northern Ireland--it is still not clear what the vote was for, or what it will actually lead to.

Within and around political parties, there is frustration with established processes, practices and policies. One symptom of this was the election and re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, which suggested a potential for left populism in Britain that was surprising to many. There have also been calls to set up a 'progressive alliance' involving some or all of Labour, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and others, linked to another push for voting reform. Many progressive people now believe that any prospects for success depend on a reconfiguring of party politics and the current electoral system.

Some of these impulses draw on well-established scepticism about 'formal democracy' from progressive social movements. Since the 1990s, campaigners from anti-globalisation protests to Occupy have counter-posed direct action, 'horizontal' ways of organising and participatory, consensual processes to the arrogant, elitist, top-down behaviour they have defined as 'politics'. This trend was partly in reaction to the negative aspects and then the collapse of statist socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. It was also an early expression of the feeling that 'the political class' were self-serving, and disconnected from ordinary people. Varied forms of identity politics have provided many people with an alternative to leaving our interests in the hands of 'representatives'.

There are also recurrent statements of concern about the ability of democracy to successfully address the interests of the majority of people. These are amplified in light of the apparent incapacity of democratic systems to address the foreseeable but dramatic challenges facing the planet today. Reflecting on anxieties about global warming, David Runciman commented that, 'given the reluctance of national electorates to face up to the scale of the challenge', one of the hard questions is whether we are 'going to have to find a way round democracy ... at any given moment, democracy looks more like part of the problem [of effectively tackling climate change] than part of the solution'. (1) In their remarkable 'view from the future' on what might bring about, and happen after, a twenty-first century ecological catastrophe, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway visualise that, 'as the devastating effects of the Great Collapse began to appear [from 2093], the nation states with democratic governments ... were at first unwilling and then unable to deal with the unfolding crisis. …

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