The question of democracy in the construction of socialism is not an accessory detail. Certain currents of Marxist thought tend to view representative democracy as a mere tool for the political education of the working class, for the conquest of occasional progressive reforms, and as a political regime that generally permits free circulation of socialist ideas and legal political activity by revolutionary socialists. This strictly instrumental perspective of representative democracy has been criticized by many Marxists, among them those who position themselves in the field of so-called Western Marxism.
Parliamentary democracy and universal direct suffrage are historical conquests of the subordinate classes, namely the labour movement. Most of the bourgeoisie disdained the possibility of mass political participation well into the late nineteenth century. The fact that the dominant classes learned how to use universal suffrage as an instrument of hegemony doesn’t annul the relevance of democracy for the labour movement worldwide. There’s no socialism without full democracy, political and socioeconomic. To achieve it, it is not enough to socialize the means of production and passively wait for the productive forces to develop up to a point when class contradictions disappear. The socialization of politics, set in motion by the struggle of the subordinate classes for universal suffrage and the representative state, has to be deepened; especially now when neoliberalism attempts to undermine this historical development. Democratic precepts are to be implemented during all phases of socialist transition, through an articulation of direct and representative democracy.
At the present phase, we have to demand the democratization of increasingly large spheres of civil society, so the subordinate classes may occupy positions within those institutions. Political struggle is not restricted to a frontal assault on the state in the Leninist style. According to the Gramscian conception of socialist transition in developed capitalist societies with representative political organs, revolutionary praxis encompasses a “war of position”, waged in that intermediary sphere between the economic infrastructure of society and the state sensu stricto, that is, the coercive state. Together with the latter, this intermediary sphere, or civil society, is an inalienable part of power relations.
The question of the democratization of civil society is posed rather concretely in Finland. The reform of social and healthcare services (sote-uudistus) recently presented by the Finnish government aims at the incorporation (yhtiöittäminen) of basic healthcare providers. In other words, basic healthcare institutions that so far have been in the public sphere (providing services instead of commodities) are to be transformed into profit-making enterprises governed by corporate law. It’s nothing less than the wholesale privatization of the basic healthcare system. It doesn’t take to be a genius in public governance to grasp the effects of this measure in terms of the democratic rights of the citizens: corporate law deals a heavy blow to the transparency of the services (corporations have the right to keep their books closed, among other things), and the average citizen’s capacity to influence the provision of these services is practically null. Where the market rules, there’s no democracy.
Since Juha Sipilä’s executive justifies this policy with “freedom of choice”, socialists must respond that we have nothing against freedom of choice. On the contrary, a socialist programme for the next local elections in Finland must propose the deepening of democracy and transparency in the management of public healthcare. For example, putting forward a new model of management of public healthcare institutions according to which users and workers wield effective power in the organs of administration. Thus, users would have the freedom to define what services they want and how they should be provided to the public. That’s real freedom of choice, not the farcical notion presented by the government.
The struggle for socialism is a struggle for the concretization of democracy. Socialism means expanding democracy down to the economic base of society. Political democracy is merely an empty formality while there’s no socioeconomic democracy. Democracy is simultaneously an instrument for and the objective of the revolutionary transformation of society. As Nicos Poulantzas famously claimed: “socialism will be democratic or it won’t be at all”.