The Inherent Contradiction of Democratic Socialism

Democratic Socialism and Democratic Efficiency

This is a basic argument that attempts to expose a contradiction at the heart of all forms of radical democratic socialism; namely Marxism, left-libertarianism, and anarcho-socialism. The argument can be extended to criticize any explicitly pro-democratic ideology, yet it is especially devastating against all democratic forms of socialism that fully reject capitalism. This argument should not be interpreted as a criticism of authoritarian anti-democratic socialism such as the form of governance practiced in the U.S.S.R, Communist China, and practically every other explicitly “socialist” country to ever exist, nor should it be considered an argument against “moderate” democratic socialism such as modern day Sweden and Norway.


Essential to understanding this argument is grasping the extent to which the democratic ideal pervades radical socialism. Despite being eternally strawmanned by their opponents as autocratic advocates, socialists have long been the most avid supporters of democracy in nearly all walks of life. It is the classic socialist, not the modern mainstream political activist who argues for direct democracy, democracy in the workplace, and democratic self-determination by communities. Indeed the more radical socialists wish to radically extend the reach of democratic control.

A uniting characteristic of all forms of radical socialism is the belief in the positive nature of democracy and the ability of majority rule in freely-held elections to reach positive outcomes for “the community”. This is not to say that the socialists believe democratic outcomes will always be perfect, but democracy usually yields positive results in a similar manner that the capitalist supporter would argue that entrepreneurs generally make wise investments. This assumption must be true or else any advocate of widespread democracy in the workplace and on a community level is advocating for the ruin of both of those organizations.

The Contradiction

The contradiction, from the above assumption, should be quite obvious. Democracy is not an imaginary construct; it’s here now, and it is yielding to non-socialist results. Widespread public elections have been held in the United States for over two centuries, and yet the nation shows no clear gravitation towards libertarian socialism or Marxism through the democratic process. Even if one looks at merely the past century during which we have had gender-inclusive elections and a fully industrialized economy, there has still been no clear push for any sort of socialist anarchism. The most that can be said is that democracy is pushing us into a more statist direction with a larger welfare state and greater government oversight, yet this is the opposite of what the radical socialist would predict. Therefore if anything it would seem that the true democrat, one who had no opinion of his own and simply supported the will of the majority, might be able to support social democracy, but not left libertarianism.


In Europe things aren’t much better. While socialism has always been more prominent in Europe, it is still usually of the more statist variety, and even then it is by no means full-on socialism. Most European economies, certainly all of the wealthiest ones, have well developed financial markets and other capitalist institutions. The role of the state has not been to get rid of these institutions, but instead to guide them and supposedly improve them into a more societally efficient manner.

This necessarily contradicts the thesis of the radical socialist. If democracy leads to generally positive results, and if socialism is the best system, then democratic elections should fairly swiftly lead to the achievement of the socialists’ preferred system. Therefore, after several hundred thousand trials with absolutely no tendency for democratic elections to favor socialism, we can disregard the thesis of the radical socialist using his own yardstick. This is especially devastating towards the socialists who like to be “scientific” and “empirical” by referring heavily to historical evidence, yet what outcome could more obviously condemn their own theory than what has occurred right before their eyes in election after election?

Socialism is not an especially popular ideology. The masses aren’t shouting for it in the streets, instead it is advocated only by the political fringe. Democracy does not tend towards this outcome advocated by the sternest democrats.

Possible Objections


                There are a handful of possible objections that are likely to be levied against this criticism of democratic socialism.

1. No country currently has direct democracy and therefore we cannot claim that democracy has failed

This argument is uncompelling for two reason. Firstly there is no reason to believe that direct democracy would lead to socialism even if it were adopted by every country on earth. Socialism is generally a lesser-known and advocated ideology, so there is no reason to believe that it would be adopted just by changing the exact nature of the democracy employed. Secondly, it doesn’t make sense why a representative democracy would be so much less effective. Why is it that the masses cannot come to a general agreement that radical socialism is needed, and elect only those officials who advocate and practice this theory? Or merely those candidates who advocate for instating direct democracy? It makes sense that direct democracy may be more efficient, but surely after a handful of elections where the politicians don’t provide voters with the socialism they desire the wise masses would soon catch on and elect candidates from their own ranks.

2. Capitalists manipulate the current process and prevent the ideology of socialism from becoming politically influential or ideologically widespread.

This argument fails because it assumes that the masses are easily fooled. If nations that allow near perfect freedom of speech still have no tendency towards socialism, then why would a group that is so easy to manipulate be effective at the head of industry and community? If the masses were clearly in favor of socialism then it would be nearly impossible for any social force to repress, yet this is so obviously not what is happening that this alone practically invalidates the position in question. Socialism is a specific political position just like all other political positions, it is not any more natural than American conservatism.

 3. What is needed to make direct democracy effective is radical socialism.

This argument implies some great change that will occur just because an election is direct or more localized. Today individuals are impressed with the importance of democracy and voting through the public education system and other social pressures. Democracy is something people are continually encouraged to participate in, it isn’t expressed as some elite club only experts should take part in. Why don’t the masses vote generally at the same quality that they would in the world of the radical democratic socialist if any local and national elections in our day are regarded with the same urgency and sense of community they would receive in the world of the radical socialist.


Radical democratic socialism is a contradiction. Democracy, by the very measure used by the democratic socialist, has provided results that are negative, capitalistic, and authoritarian. Therefore one cannot consistently advocate for radical democratic socialism since democracy has already contradicted this position.


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3 thoughts on “The Inherent Contradiction of Democratic Socialism

  1. I am the Walras 03/08/2013 at 18:13 Reply

    This is a well-thought-out piece. However, I am not sure the contradiction is really there. To clarify, as I understand things, to these types of socialists, democracy in the work place (and perhaps other areas of life) is simply what it means to be socialist. So they see democracy as beneficial not because it promotes “socialism” but because it leads to a higher standard of living, whether that means more goods, a healthier environment, lower crime, or whatever.

    Thus, if democracy fails to promote further democracy, it wouldn’t be a contradiction to still value democracy. It still may improve things where it exists. A fishing pole isn’t a failure if it doesn’t promote fishing, it’s a failure if it doesn’t catch fish. You have even said elsewhere on this site that democracy has historically been the best form of government. Now there was a time when democracy in government didn’t exist (or at least was very rare). Many people bought into the “divine right of kings.” Yet if the masses were so easily fooled in this way, then how is it that government improved once they took the reigns? If we are to concede that the ignorant masses taking over the government is an improvement, then I don’t see how we can exclude on those grounds the possibility that the ignorant masses taking over their workplaces might also lead to an improvement.

    Of course this doesn’t mean that democracy in the workplace is superior to traditional “bourgeois” organization. There would be no contradiction in democracy being the best way to organize a government but not be the best way to organize a workplace. Given this, then there is no contradiction in a democratic government not promoting workplace democracy. The masses might believe that democracy doesn’t work in the workplace. And given that they were wrong for hundreds (thousands?) of years about democracy not working in government, it doesn’t seem implausible that they might be wrong about this too.


  2. Neodoxy 03/08/2013 at 20:23 Reply

    I am the Walras,

    You make quite a good point, although I’m afraid I have to disagree

    “if democracy fails to promote further democracy, it wouldn’t be a contradiction to still value democracy. It still may improve things where it exists. A fishing pole isn’t a failure if it doesn’t promote fishing, it’s a failure if it doesn’t catch fish. You have even said elsewhere on this site that democracy has historically been the best form of government”

    If democracy is generally a good and efficient means of organizing things then it will yield positive results in all forms of organization. While I agree that democracy is the best form of government, this is as much an admission of its poverty as an admission of its efficacy, since while I’m not exactly a fan of government I nonetheless consider it to be organized in a far worse manner than it could conceivably be. If a socialist is to admit that democracy is this ineffective a means of organization then they really have some explaining to do since by their very admission capitalism has proven itself an effective way to increase output in whatever sphere it is applied to.

    If socialism is a good means of organizing complex systems, and production, community organization, and workplace organization all fall under these categories, then socialists have to show why organizing a modern state is so much different from one of these other areas they advocate spreading democracy to when the state is another example of complex organization. I admit that there might be such a reason that separates these things, yet I find the existence of such a reason unlikely to say the least. This is particularly true since local governments exist and are much closer to what socialists advocate, yet these local governments don’t yield socialistic results very often even though they are quite numerous and “locally democratic.”

    Thank you for your input :)

  3. I am the Walras 03/10/2013 at 17:07 Reply

    When you speak of democracy in government being relatively ineffective, are you comparing it to other types of organizations? For example, are you saying that businesses that are owned by a single person demonstrate superior results over governments organized democratically? It seems to me that this isn’t a fair comparison of the “type” of organizational method since it doesn’t control for the nature of the institutions. If a capitalistic business proves to be more effective at delivering mail than a democratic government, for example, it might be due to the superiority of private enterprise (business or cooperative) over government for this purpose rather than the superiority of an organizational model based on the control by a single heir to that of democracy.

    It seems like it would be better to eliminate the variables. Compare a business with a democratic cooperative. Compare a monarchical state with a democratic one. Some libertarians, Hoppe for example, have argued that monarchy is the governmental equivalent to private business in terms of organization. They disagree with your belief that democracy has historically been the best form of government, claiming that monarchy was better. They might even say you are being logically inconsistent. However, I don’t think the superiority of one form of organization in the private sector necessarily means it is also superior when applied to the state, or vice versa.

    I do agree that socialists have to show that workplace democracy is superior to capitalistic organization and explain why there are so few democratic cooperatives (or communes or whatever). I think this is ultimately where the debate must take place.


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