Michael Roberts, a British Marxist economist, in an interesting paper on China’s economy, makes the point near the end that China has a democracy deficit. And democracy, he suggests, is (or should be) at the core of the socialist project in China and elsewhere if socialist societies hope to surmount the inevitable contradictions – economic and otherwise – that arise in their growth and development in a globalized economy and multi-polar world. I agree with that observation, although that wasn’t always the case. At earlier points in my political life, I considered (as did the Communist Party of which I was a member and leader for many years) democratic governance in a socialist society as secondary, conditional, and subordinate to the defense, consolidation, and expansion of socialist power. 

What triggered an about face in my thinking was the sudden implosion of socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. When these states went belly up – and it happened quickly and to my great surprise – it forced me, a bit kicking and screaming, to reconsider my views. And upon reconsideration I reached several conclusions, but for the purpose of this post, I will only mention one: there is no substitute for authentic and robust democracy and popular participation – not able leaders, not a revolutionary party – if socialism is to stand a chance of surmounting in a timely way the formidable challenges, not least climate disruption, that it faces in the course of the 21st century.

But in each of these countries, the “vanguard” parties – guided by the “science” of Marxism Leninism – fell short in this regard. Upon gaining and then centralizing power, they became in a short space of time the ultimate arbiter on all matters of governance at every level of society. The much proclaimed rights and freedoms in each of these states turned out to be formal, limited, and subject to arbitrary reversal. Likewise, the democratic structures and civil society were more rubber stamps than sites of deliberation and decision making. The latter took place in the high councils – the politburo – of the ruling parties.

To take the most egregious example of this dissonance between proclamation and practice, the second (Stalin’s) Soviet Constitution of 1936, hailed at the time by the communists worldwide, came in the midst of Stalin’s Great Purge, with his prison industrial complex – an archipelago of work camps in far flung regions of the USSR – near peak capacity, and his vise like grip on Soviet society still intact. While the atmosphere of terror and fear subsided after his death in 1954 and a “thaw” began, the primacy of the Soviet Party and its control over politics, culture, and society still remained intact. 

Whether the proper lessons from the experience of the former Soviet Union and the socialist countries of Eastern Europe have been drawn by the Communist Party of China in particular or the communist movement in general isn’t evident, to me anyway. While China rightly can claim notable achievements that should earn it the respect of people and governments worldwide – not a new Cold War, the breadth and depth of its democracy strikes me as problematic and, if that is the case, it is in the long run counterproductive to its stated aspirations of building a mature, egalitarian socialist society and assisting in the creation of a peaceful and sustainable world.