Charles McKelvey: Does the world need capitalist democracy or socialist democracy?

We are pleased to republish these reflections on our recent event, The Summit for Socialist Democracy, originally posted by Charles McKelvey on his Substack.

With respect the December 9-10 “Summit for Democracy,” hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden, the Korean intellectual Kiyul Chung had the quote of the day.  Kiyul characterized the event as an “imperial circus,” and he declared that “if Malcolm X were still alive, he would probably say that all of the house Negroes have been invited, but all of the field Negroes have not been invited.”

In response to the imperial circus, the Friends of Socialist China and the International Manifesto Group organized The Summit for Socialist Democracy.  The participants in the December 11 panel were:

Radhika Desai, Professor at the Department of Political Studies, and Director, Geopolitical Economy Research Group, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada, and coordinator of the International Manifesto Group;

Danny Haiphong, socialist activist and journalist, Co-editor, Friends of Socialist China;

Cheng Enfu, Professor, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences;

Carlos Ron, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs for North America, Venezuela;

Luna Oi, Marxist-Leninist popular educator and blogger, Vietnam;

Kiyul Chung, Professor, Tsinghua University, China; Korea University, Tokyo, Japan; former visiting professor, Chinese Academic of Social Sciences; fighter for Korean unification;

Roland Boer, Professor of Philosophy, Dalian University of Technology, China; Visiting Professor, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences;

Ju-Hyun Park, writer organized with the Nodutdol network for Korean Community Development, a fourth generation Korean-American organization;

Isabel Monal Rodríguez, Director of the Department of Marxist Studies, Academy of Sciences of Cuba;

Zhai Guoqiang, Professor, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences;

Layla Brown, Assistant Professor, Northeastern University, USA, and radical black podcaster; and

Elias Jabbour, Professor, Rio de Janeiro State University, Brazil.

Danny Haiphong maintained that Biden’s Summit was an attempt to legitimate the unilateral claim of the United States to establish the rules for the international order.  The Summit is consistent with the U.S. strategy of cloaking its exploitative and aggressive policies under the guise of democracy.  He noted that the Biden administration has repeatedly hyped a distinction between autocracy and U.S.-led democracy, and its allies were summoned to give credibility to the U.S. vision.  Biden’s Summit is nothing more than a projection of the narrow form of democracy championed by the world’s foremost imperialist hegemon.

Radhika Desai observed that the Summit could boomerang, by provoking China and others into a serious critique of capitalist liberal democracy, offering its own concepts and practices of democracy.  China already has initiated this process with emission of a white paper.  Haiphong adds that the USA does not want scrutiny of its view that capitalist democracy is the only form of democracy, because further examination would expose its false claims and contradictions.

In a similar vein, Kiyul Chung maintained that the Summit, rooted in hypocrisy and self-deception, was foolish and self-inflictive; and it could have a boomerang effect.  It is, Kiyul maintains, another irrefutable testament that capitalism is in its final stage.

Ju Hyun Park maintains that absurd claims are possible, because the people of the United States have been actively taught that China and the DPRK are undemocratic societies.  This manufactured ignorance is used to disguise U.S. oppression as liberation.  Luna Oi notes that as a person born and living in Vietnam, she has heard distortions about her country her entire life, including the claim that Vietnam is authoritarian and does not have democracy.  She states that, unfortunately, these absurd lies influence people, especially those living in the bourgeois democracies.

The types of democracies in human history

Roland Boer stated that democracy never exists in a pure form; rather, democracy takes form in accordance with the social and economic conditions from which it emerges.  He describes five historical forms of democracy.

(1)  Baseline democracy, which was characteristic of early human forms of tribal society.  There was democratic participation by all adults, men and women, with respect to decisions concerning interpersonal relations, relations with other groups, and so on. 

(2) Ancient Greek democracy, which was practiced in a few city-states in Greece.  This type should be called “slaveholder democracy,” because the only people permitted to participate were adult males who owned at least one slave.  The great majority of people were excluded.  This concept and practice of democracy emerged from the slave economy that was the reality in Ancient Greece.

(3) Feudal democracy is largely ignored by Western historians, but it is discussed in Chinese scholarship.  It was a question of democracy among the nobility, which possessed a sense of their particular rights and demands, and they practiced a high level of interactions among themselves.  They formed advisory panels for the monarchs.

(4) Capitalist democracy, which emerged 200 years ago in Europe. Its defenders and practitioners prefer to call it “liberal democracy” rather than “capitalist democracy.”  It has three characteristics.  First, it believes that the will of the people is expressed in elections, which is actually a thin notion of democracy, in that it tends to restrict democracy to elections.  Secondly, it is a highly antagonistic form of democracy.  Political parties are more interested in scoring political points against each other.  Efforts to bring down an opponent use whatever means possible; scandals are brought forward.  This problem has been seen in the pandemic, in which health has become a political football.  Thirdly, we can see that capitalist democracy is in a stage of fragmentation and decline.  This is illustrated by the prevalence of conspiracy theories, the narrative of the anti-vaxxers, and the chronic lack of trust in government. 

(5) Socialist democracy has been developing in different countries in different conditions for 100 years, beginning with the Soviet Union and continuing today.  In China, socialist democracy is called “whole process people’s democracy,” which integrates a series of components, including elections, consultations, grassroots participation, the crucial leadership role of the Communist Party of China, and strict compliance with the law. 

Even through democracy never can assume a pure form and always expresses itself in concrete conditions, we can see as we observe the various historical forms that democracy, in essence, means the rule of the people.

It is becoming increasingly clear, Boar maintains, that socialism is a superior form of democracy.  And the reason for this is that socialism is far more democratic that capitalism.

Radhika Desai recalled the work of C.B. Macpherson, who in the 1970s maintained that all countries had right claims to be called democracy, including the socialist and Third World countries.  He maintained that democracy was only one form of democracy.

Desai notes that, for Macpherson, the Western governments at first had liberal representative politics, not democracies.  But the struggles of the working people, women, and minorities, with their demands for democratic rights, converted representative liberal orders into liberal democratic orders.  But at the same time, Macpherson maintained, democracy was converted through this process of social change into liberal democracy; that is, constitutional and legal limits were placed on democracy, preventing the popular power of the people. 

Thus, in Macpherson’s view, democracy in the West came to be understood as a system of government; whereas in the socialist countries, democracy came to be understood more as a type of society.

Socialist democracy as a type of society

In accordance with the socialist vision of democracy, socialism sought to develop democracy of a new type, Isabel Monal maintains, essentially different from previously existing forms of democracy and different from bourgeois democracy.  Socialist democracy seeks to construct a complete socialist society, which is superior to capitalism and at the same time is transitional to communism.  Democracy is part of an organic totality of a new socio-economic formation, even though it must unavoidably inherit up to a certain point the existence of liberal bourgeois democracy. 

The new machinery, Monal maintains, unifies the state and civil society.  Marx had written that the new society has to overcome the separation between state and civil society, a separation that came into being during the period of capitalist society.  State and civil society had to be reunited in the construction of socialism.  This unity of state and civil society, Monal maintains, is an essential characteristic of socialist society, which holds true in spite of the differences in socialism from country to country.  In socialist society, the state and the civil society need each other.  They are united by the same project for the society; the project of the construction of a new society.  Monal maintains that the unity of the state and civil society is central to understanding democracy in the societies constructing socialism. 

Socialist revolutions, Monal says, seize political power, and having taken power, they must destroy the machinery of the bourgeois state.  They must replace the machinery of the bourgeois state with the new machinery capable of constructing an alternative political-economic reality.

The project of socialist democracy seeks to overcome social inequalities, and therefore, a number of the panelists stressed that socialist democracy protects the socialist and economic rights of the people.  Danny Haiphong notes that socialist democracies give priority to securing the rights to housing, health care, education, and employment.  This makes historic sense, he maintains, in that socialist revolutions have occurred in the context of colonialism and underdevelopment, and the revolutionary governments emphasize economic productivity and the economic wellbeing of the people as essential to political stability. 

Similarly, Carlos Ron points out that the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela is centered on the protection not only of political and civil rights but also social and economic rights, including housing, health care, and education.  In the same vein, Luna Oi notes that the communist revolution in Vietnam has enabled universal health care coverage and 90% home ownership, and at the present time, there is a rapidly improving infrastructure. 

In North Korea, Ju-Hyun Park points out, abortion is legal and widely available, maternity leave is guaranteed for up to 240 days, and child care and health care are free constitutional rights.  Housing and education are constitutional rights, as are culture and the arts.  There is even a constitutional right to relaxation, which means that everyone gets vacation time, and everyone as access to public resorts. 

As Kiyul Chung observes, democracy in much more than periodic elections.

The alternative system of governance in socialist democracies

In their desire to explain that socialist democracy is more than elections, there is a tendency among the defenders of socialism to understate the role of elections in the socialist systems of governance.  In fact, in the countries constructing socialism, elections are conducted with great care; and they play an important role in the socialist system of governance.

With respect to China, Cheng Enfu explains that the right to vote is one of the important dimensions of democracy in China.  He notes that there are competitive elections to the People’s National Congress, with both top-down and bottom-up nomination processes. 

Ju-Hyun Park explains the mechanisms with respect to the PDRK.  The highest organ of state power is the Supreme People’s Assembly, which is a directly elected legislative body that has the power to elect, appoint, and recall the members of the judiciary, the prosecutor’s office, the cabinet, and the members of the State Affairs Committee, including the First Chairman of the State Affairs Committee, who functions as head of state, and who currently is Kim Jong Un.  The members of the Supreme People’s Assembly are themselves subject to recall by the people.  They get no additional salary for their service; they retain their regular employment after they are elected.  They are not professional politicians.  There are not corporate campaign contributions as in the USA or other imperial core countries.

I have explained the mechanism of elections in Cuba in previous commentaries.  In essence, elections in Cuba are held without the participation of political parties.  Neighborhood nomination assemblies are conducted, which result in two or more candidates appearing on ballots in 12,515 small voting districts across the nation.  The candidates do not conduct electoral campaigns as in capitalist democracies, so they have no need for campaign financing.  In secret voting, with a voter participation rate ranging from eighty-five to ninety-five percent, the people elect the delegates of the 169 municipal assemblies of the nation.  These municipal assemblies elect the 602 deputies of the National Assembly of People’s Power, which is the highest authority in the nation.  It elects the head of state and the cabinet, and it enacts legislation. 

An important characteristic of the socialist systems of governance is that elections are not intended to determine policy.  Elections, conducted on the basis of universal adult voting rights, determine who sits on the highest organ of state power.  This highest organ elects the highest positions in the major branches of government; and it modifies and approves policy proposals submitted to it by these branches of government.  In the competitive elections to the highest organ, the candidates do not make campaign promises to the voters.  The role of the elected deputies is not to formulate policies, but to select those who do, and to modify and approve the policies that they put forth. 

In assessing this structure, Cheng Enfu observed that in capitalist democracies there is a system of checks and balances of power among the representatives of the elite; but in a socialist system of governance, there is the checking of governmental power by the people.

In socialist systems of governance, the Communist Party plays a leading role in the formulation of policy.  It does so on the basis of its understanding of the needs and aspirations of the people and of the social dynamics that are affecting the nation and the world.  If a Communist Party were to not know the people or the unfolding social dynamics, it would risk losing political power; because it has limited constitutional political power in its own right.  The Party leads, educates, exhorts, and formulates; but it is the elected deputies of the people that ultimately decide.  Therefore, the Party must continually demonstrate its preparedness and competence before the people. 

Luna Oi maintains that the fact that there is only one major political party in Vietnam does not mean that the system is dictatorial or authoritarian, as many in the West believe.  She notes that you do not have to be a member of the Communist Party to be elected, and the nation has many national representatives who are not Party members.  It is true, however, that the great majority of the representatives of the National Assembly are members of the Party, and the reason for this is that the Party enjoys the strong support of the majority of the people.  And such support should be expected.  The Party led the people in successful revolutions against powerful countries, and its governance has improved the lives of the people for decades.  Luna notes that if the people of Vietnam, with a history of heroic struggle against oppression, were in fact oppressed in the current moment, “we would be the first to free ourselves.”

In a similar vein, Danny Haiphong notes that the communist parties in the nations constructing socialism have led the nations against colonialism and imperialism, and they have enabled the transfer of power to the oppressed classes.  Their gains following the attainment of political power are evident.  In Cuba, 90% of the people are homeowners, and there is universal health care.  Vietnam and Laos have overcome poverty after the destruction of war.  The DPRK has defended itself against imperialist provocation.  China clearly demonstrates the superiority of socialist democracy.

The systems of socialist governance include the active participation of the masses.  Cheng Enfu maintained that in a genuine democracy, the people are active participants in the drafting of laws and in their implementation.  The right to vote is important; but more important is the right of participation.  Zhai Guoqiang noted that there has emerged in China an ample participation of the people in the National People’s Congress and the People’s Court via Internet. 

Carlos Ron notes that the 1999 Constitution of Venezuela declares for the concept of participatory democracy, in which there must be consultation with the electorate with respect to paramount decisions.  He further noted that organized communities participate in the drafting of legislation.  Citizen participation, he stated, makes politics meaningful; it connects politics to concrete changes and to everyday life.  Even though Venezuela has had twenty-nine elections in twenty-two years, Venezuelan democracy is not limited to elections. 

Isabel Monal observed that in the development of the Cuban Constitution of 2019, everyone discussed the proposed constitutional draft.  The opinions of the people were noted; and modifications were made in the text.  In a previous commentary, I have discussed the active participation of the Cuban people in the development of its new constitution.

The internationalism of socialist democracy

Danny Haiphong maintained that socialist democracies adhere to international law and champion multipolar approaches to global governance.  None of the socialist countries have waged an imperialist war in the modern era.  All have been at the forefront of demonstrating the benefits of international cooperation. 

Carlos Ron declared that Venezuelan democracy recognizes its responsibility to the international community.  It seeks global equilibrium, where one country or group of countries does not impose their will over others.  Cooperation is sought.   He noted that Venezuela defends its principles before the United Nations, which is the most democratic of actually existing international organizations.  Peace and solidarity, he observed, can only exist under socialism. 

In contrast, Haiphong notes, U.S. imperialism has launched numerous wars and military interventions.  Capitalist democracies repeatedly violate international law in order to satisfy its economic interests.  The USA and its allies utilize a unipolar, anti-democratic framework in international affairs. 

Similarly, Elias Jabbour observes that the United States launches military interventions in the name of democracy, with the intention of destroying entire societies.  It currently is taking steps toward the establishment of a global military dictatorship.  American democracy, he declared, is the greatest lie in human history.

There is not a single socialist model

Carlos Ron noted that Venezuela is building socialism.  It is a struggle.  Conditions are difficult due to economic sanctions and other imperialist attacks.  The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela must adjust its socialism to these conditions.  That is why no two models of socialism are the same, nor should they be.  The fundamental goal is to guarantee a better life to the great majority.

Socialist countries are not paradises; they pertain to the real world

Ju-Hyun Park declared that the DPRK is not a paradise.  It is a poor country, which has a history of colonial and imperialist exploitation, living in a hostile world that is bent on its destruction.  It is a socialist country in transition to communism, while it contends with the realities of actually existing imperialism, which imposes sanctions, retarding the material development of the society, necessary to produce sufficient food.  At the same time, it has to devote part of its resources to defense needs, in order to fend off imperialists who seek decolonization.  He maintains that North Koreans are making every effort to construct a society that provides for everyone’s basic needs, but in this goal, they are impeded and undermined by the forces of imperialism.

The sham and hypocrisy of Western democracy

The panelists declared that Western pretensions to democracy are hypocritical and a sham.  Radhika Desai noted that Winnipeg, Canada, the city in which she lives, has been constructed on land stolen from the indigenous peoples; and the government of Canada spends millions of dollars fighting their just demands for compensation.  The reality is that the governments that the Western democracies calls authoritarian have done far more to defend the rights of the indigenous peoples.

Other panelists addressed the issue of the violation of the rights of indigenous peoples with respect to the United States.  Layla Brown noted that settler colonialism and the forced labor of Africans are the base for the creation of capitalist democracy.  Kiyul Chung referred to the U.S. history of genocide against indigenous nations, imperialist aggressions against humanity, illegal wars of aggression and destruction, and the reckless subversion of governments.  Washington, he declared, in the center of global criminality.

In a similar vein, in a previous commentary I have discussed the various factors that explain that spectacular U.S. economic ascent from 1789 to 1965.  They include: the lucrative trading relation with slaveholders in the Caribbean, beginning in the seventeenth century; the core-peripheral economic relation between the Northeast and the slave South during the nineteenth century, stimulating the economic development of the Northeast and Midwest; the conquest of indigenous nations and lands during the nineteenth century; the forced acquisition of Mexican territory; imperialist penetration of Latin America and the Caribbean during the twentieth century; and profits from the world wars of the twentieth century. 

Desai further observes that liberal democratic governments function to keep elites in power, a point that was taken up by Danny Haiphong, who observed that capitalist democracy is democracy by and for the rich and the owners and managers of capitalist enterprises.

Haiphong also observed that, in capitalist democracies, policy questions are decided before elections are hold.  The elected representatives are bound to the dictates of capital.  Influential politicians in the United States, for example, receive enormous donations from financial institutions, weapons manufacturers, for-profit health insurers, and pharmaceutical corporations. 

Layla Brown noted that the Democratic and Republican parties are two sides of the same coin.  Elaborating on this point, Luna Oi observed that regardless of which party is in power, the USA bombs other nations, and it refuses to protect the rights of workers to a living wage or health care; and it tolerates the phenomenon of homelessness.  In Vietnam, she noted, there is only one major political party, and it is a party of the people.

Desai observes that the United States “weaponizes democracy,” that is, it utilizes accusations of undemocratic practices as a pretext to justify imperialist intervention.  The USA turned to the weaponization of democracy as a foreign policy strategy just as it was turning to the global implementation of neoliberal economic policies, which have been undermining liberal democracy for four decades.

Kiyul Chung declares that the U.S. government is the biggest enemy of human rights in the world.  The United States, he states, self-identifies with human rights, but it is one of the most authoritarian nations in the world today. 

The emerging global objective reality

Kiyul Chung observes that the world is changing, and a new objective global reality is emerging, defined by the emergence of a multipolar international order and the decline of U.S. imperialism.  The entire political class of the United States is morally, politically, and economically bankrupt, he declared.  It is only capable of creating tensions, undermining democracy, and fomenting war, guided by the dangerous hubris of Washington, which deludes itself into thinking that it is uniquely endowed to host a conference on democracy, when in fact it has no shame in being the ringmaster of conflict and war.

In this context, which implies a civilization crisis for humanity, socialist democracy is demonstrating its superiority over capitalist democracy.

A message from the heart of Vietnam to Leftists of the imperial core

Luna Oi declared,

“If you are a leftist from the West, especially the imperial core, I hope you can look at what countries like Vietnam have been doing, learn some lessons from our victories, and then focus on building your own socialist movement in your countries.  Because of the lies that have been said about us, you have to learn to investigate before you speak.  Remember that the capitalists don’t want you to have what we have, and that is why they want you to hate us.”

In response to a question from the public concerning what people in the United States should do, Luna stated that above all you should educate yourself, listening to people outside the imperial core.  And in organizing, you perhaps could learn a lesson from Ho Chi Minh, who got the support of the people in 1925 by distributing rice, which suggests paying attention to the concrete needs of the people.  At the same time, you should focus on explaining the true nature of the United States.

Conclusion

Ju-Hyun Park observes that Korea is an integral part of U.S. history.  The Cold War was born to justify the Cold War, and Korea remains central to justifications today of the enormous U.S. defense budget. 

Let us generalize this insight, and recognize that imperialism is an integral part of the story of the United States.  Imperialism has been central to U.S. economic development, and it has bound us to the neocolonized peoples that it attacks.  We are now inseparable parts of humanity, bound together in a common human destiny and a necessary struggle for human liberation.

Ju-Hyun further observes that people can participate actively in history, if they are armed with the truth.  So can the peoples of the United States actively participate in the shaping of the nation’s future, if they have insight into its fundamental imperialist character. 

Isabel Monal observes that the formation of consciousness is fundamental to revolutionary transformation.  The people must have a correct understanding of the world.  And that correct understanding must go beyond liberal democracy to opposition to imperialism.

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