People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 52

December 30, 2012


Alternative Conceptions of Democracy


Prabhat Patnaik


THE actual practice of democracy in capitalist countries where all major parties and candidates are financed by corporate groups and hence have virtually the same pro-corporate agendas, is a fraud and a travesty: the choice between candidates then becomes no different from a choice between alternative brands of detergents, and is made on the basis of who is more photogenic and who kisses more babies. But even leaving aside actual practice, there are alternative conceptions of democracy, between which distinctions must be drawn but are often not drawn.


The first conception is one that takes the demos as it empirically exists. Take the commonplace expression that “democracy must represent the will of the people”. In this bald form, this conception reduces democracy to mere majoritarianism, that the will of the majority of the people, in their empirical state of being, must prevail; not only is this an erroneous conception of democracy but even a dangerous one, for it entails that if the majority of the people subscribes to patriarchy then patriarchy must prevail, if a majority subscribes to Hindutva then the polity must cater to Hindutva, if a majority is imbued with caste consciousness then the polity too must reflect casteist attitudes, and so on.


A refinement of this conception sees democracy not as a reflection of the will of the majority of the people as they empirically exist, but as entailing negotiations between empirically existing groups of people, ie, it reduces democracy to “identity politics” where different identity groups are “accommodated” in different ways. A democratic polity then becomes a polity of “accommodations” between different identity groups, a give-and-take between disparate groups which remain disparate.


This entire conception whether in its majoritarian form or in its more refined (“less extreme”) form is the basic bourgeois conception of democracy. Its hall-mark is that it takes “people” in their empirical existence. Indeed bourgeois democracy does not just do this; it does something more, namely it deliberately fragments people into disparate empirical groups, who are divided among themselves by different identities, by caste, communal, and regional differences and who subscribe to notions of patriarchy, and, in our context (ie, in the context of an underdeveloped country), to the social legitimacy of status differences. Candidates for fighting elections are selected on the basis of “caste equations”; electoral programmes are decided by keeping the interests of various caste-groups and other identity groups in mind, so that a coalition of such groups can be mobilised for obtaining a winning percentage of votes, and so on.


Bourgeois democracy in other words, while conceptually accepting the supremacy of the “people”, takes the “people” in their empirical existence, as fragmented into different identity groups, as ordered according to status, and perpetuates and accentuates these differences. This is essential for bourgeois rule since any coming together of the people, transcending their empirical identities, to fight for an improvement in their conditions of life, or to fight for an alternative society from the one in which they exist as “objects”, constitutes a threat to this rule.


As against this, there is the alternative conception of democracy, where democracy represents the will of the “people”, not “people” in their empirical state, but “people” who have transcended their empirical state to form a new community. The term “citizen” used in the French Revolution connoted such a transcendence of the empirical division among the people. To say this does not mean that all other identities become obliterated and people become just one homogenous undifferentiated mass. It means two things: first, that identities which are rooted in inequalities of status, such as caste, are obliterated; and second, as regards other, non-status-differentiated identities, such as identities based on religion, region, or linguistic group, there is a lexical priority of people’s identity as members of a new community of citizens, of a new fraternity of equals, over all other such identities. Religious identity for instance may determine people’s modes of private existence but does not intrude into the public sphere.


Democracy in short is not just a world in which the will of the “people” as they empirically exist prevails; it consists above all in constituting the “people” themselves, so that they can actually become a collectivity, and thereby masters of their own destiny.


The relationship of democracy and socialism emerges clearly from this. Socialist theory holds that capitalism not only divides the people into atomised individuals, each confronting the market, but also makes them victims of a system that operates “spontaneously”, independent of human will and consciousness. Crises for instance happen not because anyone wishes crises to happen but because the spontaneity of the system is such that they become unavoidable occurrences; capitalists accumulate not because they love accumulating but because they are caught in a Darwinian struggle for survival, in which large capital drives out small capital: this constitutes one particular instance of the process of centralisation of capital and forces them to accumulate, so that they do not remain small. It follows that if people are to become masters of their own destiny, then they must overcome the spontaneous economic system within which they are trapped, and replace it with one where the economic reality affecting their lives can be shaped through political intervention.


Socialism which represents such a system free of spontaneity, is a precondition therefore for people becoming masters of their own destiny through collective political intervention. Social ownership of the means of production then becomes an essential condition for the realisation of democracy. Democracy where the people can shape their own destiny through collective political intervention becomes possible only under socialism.




The difference between the two conceptions of democracy, the bourgeois and the socialist conceptions, is fundamental. One sees democracy as representing the will of the people in their empirical existence, while the other sees democracy as representing the will of the people who have transcended their mere empirical existence, who have formed a new community, led by the class that alone in a “modern society”, ie, under capitalism, can lead the struggle for the formation of such a new community, namely the proletariat. The proletariat too overcomes its own mere empirical existence through its struggles. In other words, it transforms itself through its own struggles; and it transforms its allies, the people at large, by its support to their struggles.


The first conception sees democracy as an accommodation between castes within the pre-existing caste system, through some alteration at best in the pre-existing caste-system; and since such accommodation must necessarily reflect the prevailing bargaining strengths of the different castes, this conception sees democracy merely as carrying forward the legacy of this odious inheritance, though in a suitably modified and transformed manner. The second conception sees democracy as entailing an abolition of the caste-system altogether, an obliteration of this odious legacy through the formation of a new community of equals.


Since the people do not automatically step out of their empirical existence to form a new community, any more than the proletariat steps out of its trade union struggles to acquire a socialist consciousness automatically, it follows that democracy, no less than socialism, must be brought from “outside”, not in a geographical sense but epistemologically. Democracy too in short is an imposition; it is not a mere celebration of what exists. To be sure, this imposition cannot be an authoritarian imposition; the soil for it must already exist among the people, as a legacy of egalitarian ideologies, including the ideology of the anti-colonial struggle. (As Lenin had put it in the context of socialist consciousness: the proletariat has class instinct not class consciousness).


This point is often lost sight of in discussions about democracy. Let us take the instance of “decentraliSation”, where it is often claimed that power and resources should be devolved to the panchayats because they represent the “village community”. Democracy in other words is identified with the devolution of powers and resources to the “village community” through the mediation of the panchayats.


This is an apotheosis of the existing empirical reality. The “village community”, far from being glorified, preserved, and strengthened as the realisation of democracy, needs to be destroyed, based as it is upon a hierarchical order that is fundamentally anti-democratic. Karl Marx had expected colonialism to do this job. But to the extent that neither colonialism nor the domestic capitalism that succeeded it, has done this job (which, judging from the contemporary prevalence of khap panchayats, it obviously has not), it becomes the historical task of the working class and its political representatives, to accomplish it and to build a new community upon its ruins. The concept of this new community must be brought from outside, epistemologically. The naive romanticisation of the “village community” serves to undermine the realisation of democracy (just as the naïve romanticisation of the working class in its empirical existence serves to undermine socialism). It remains confined at best to the bourgeois notion of democracy mentioned above. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, it should be noted was opposed to decentralisation that entailed devolution of powers to the so-called “village community”, and rightly so.




There are many writers, including some who sympathise with the Left, who believe that the Leninist proposition about socialist consciousness being brought to the working class from “outside” is fundamentally anti-democratic. They see the origin of the transformation of the socialist regimes into one-party States as lying in this basic Leninist proposition. Still others see democracy and socialism as fundamentally antithetical, since the former is concerned with the views of the people as they are, while the latter represents an imposition.


These are obviously erroneous propositions, because democracy is no less an “imposition” from outside than socialism. Indeed, all revolutionary changes represent the intrusion of an epistemological “outside”; not to recognise this and to oppose such intrusion because it is from “outside”, is to defend the status quo, no matter how well-intentioned and how sincerely opposed to the status quo the persons who argue this way may be.


The necessity for this epistemological intrusion from outside not just for socialism, not just for democracy, but even for secularism, was often underscored by Comrade B T Ranadive who used to say; ”There are only a few persons in India whom you can call genuinely secular; but that is more than adequate to defend secularism in the country”. The people do not automatically grow into accepting secularism, which is more than the mere peaceful co-existence of persons of different religions. It entails a transcendence of the existing consciousness for the formation of a new community; and the belief in this transcendence was, according to BTR, as yet confined only to a few people.