Edmund Griffiths  

E d m u n d   G r i f f i t h s

Rough notes towards The Modern Discorsi

Some criteria for assessing how democratic a system is

Are there any general criteria that can be used to assess how democratic a system is? At first glance, it seems evident that there aren’t. People in Western countries sometimes speak naïvely as though the presence or absence of particular institutions—multiple political parties, contested elections, universal suffrage—could be used as a criterion; but a little reflection ought to convince them of their mistake. For one thing, these institutions are only really characteristic of states. No-one expects to find multiple competing parties in a chess club, a trade union, a professional association, a joint stock company, a co-op, a film society, or indeed a political party, although it does not seem unreasonable to speak of these organizations as being more or less democratic. In fact, if we examine a non-state organization and find that every decision is energetically criticized by a large and dedicated opposition, that every position of responsibility is contested between ‘leadership’ and ‘opposition’ candidates, and that most of the members are active supporters either of the leadership or of the opposition, we shall probably think we are looking at an organization in profound crisis. It is only in the state that the same indicators would be taken as signs of a robust and healthy democracy.

The naïve criterion is similarly helpless when we turn our attention to states organized on a very different model. It seems to me intuitively obvious that the Soviet system was sometimes more democratic and sometimes less so, at different points during its history. But multiple parties and contested elections ceased to be a feature of that system within a matter of months; and universal suffrage was not introduced until the ‘Stalin’ Constitution of 1936. (Priests, landowners, etc., had previously been denied the vote.) Are we then to say that the USSR was not at all democratic from its foundation until 1936, at which point it became slightly democratic,—which it remained, to just the same extent, until its dissolution at the end of 1991? The conclusion is manifestly absurd.

In the specific case of the RSFSR / USSR, the most obvious proxy for ‘degree of democracy’ seems to be the frequency of Congresses of the ruling party. The Congress of 1917 was held before the October Revolution; subsequently, there were Congresses in 1918, 1919, 1920, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1924, 1925, 1927, 1930, 1934, 1939, 1952, 1956, 1959, 1961, 1966, 1971, 1976, 1981, 1986, and 1990. A visual representation, using a dot to indicate a year with a Congress and a blank to indicate one without, makes the point quite clearly:
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But this criterion is still less generalizable. I am not even sure it applies very usefully to the Soviet Union itself from the 1960s onwards, when Congresses came to be held every five years as a matter of routine.

To be useful and general, a set of criteria for democracy must meet some basic tests.
      1. It must avoid referring to specific institutional arrangements.
      2. It must describe what does happen, not what theoretically can happen: a situation in which, say, there is no rule prohibiting the formation of an opposition party—but no opposition party actually exists—does not differ meaningfully from one in which forming such a party is banned.
      3. It must represent ‘democracy’ as a matter of degrees, not as a Yes / No question.
      4. It must be applicable both to states and to non-state organizations.
The criteria that are listed below are offered as an attempt to meet these requirements. It is an inevitable consequence of the final one that the terminology sometimes seems artificial: in particular, I have referred everywhere to ‘the leadership’ and ‘the rank and file’, instead of ‘the government’ and ‘the citizens’, ‘the executive committee’ and ‘the membership’, or other terms that are applicable only to specific kinds of organization.

One question that needs further thought refers to democratic organizations such as political parties, campaign groups, etc., that act in the name of a support base broader than their actual dues-paying membership. Take the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Identifying the ‘leadership’ presents no problem: it is the organization’s Council, officers, etc. But who is the ‘rank and file’? Is it the members? Is it the people who attend CND demonstrations and other activities, many of whom are not members of CND even though they support it? Or is it everybody in Britain who wants the country to give up its nuclear weapons? The last is almost certainly too broad; but it seems prima facie wrong either to ignore the ‘supporters’ altogether, or else to treat them as if they were on the same footing as the membership.

This problem is a real one, but its importance should not be overstated. It does not arise at all in the case of states, where the ‘rank and file’ are the subjects (whether or not they have the rights of citizens). And it is equally irrelevant to an organization like a chess club or a co-operative, which has members and does not have supporters. But I hope to return to the question of democracy in organizations like CND in the future.

We should also be clear that criteria for assessing how democratic a system is are not in themselves a blueprint for creating democratic organizations, any more than being able to identify different breeds of sheep tells you how to rear them, or knowing that the square root of 2 is that x for which x² = 2 enables you to calculate its actual value.

On that basis, and subject to those provisos, I suggest (in no particular order) that a system is more democratic to the extent that:

      • decisions are taken without unnecessary delays;

      • most of the rank and file know how decisions are taken;

      • most of the rank and file understand the actual reasoning behind most major decisions;

      • most of the rank and file know who is in the leadership, including particular leadership positions, and how they came to be so;

      • decisions, once taken, are consistently and reliably implemented;

      • questions about the organization’s fundamental direction and nature are debated with the participation of a considerable proportion of the rank and file;

      • local and specific questions are debated with the participation of a considerable proportion of the rank and file;

      • debates are mostly conducted in a courteous, reasonable, and well-informed way;

      • decisions that are logically independent of one another are not arbitrarily taken together as a block;

      • contributions to debate do not receive very much more or less attention based on irrelevant attributes of the person making them, where ‘irrelevant’ refers to any attribute other than (perhaps) known expertise and record as a contributor to debates in the past;

      • the people who contribute to debate are sociologically typical of the rank and file as a whole;

      • physical violence and the threat of physical violence play no part or only a minimal part in decision-making and debate;

      • very diverse opinions and suggestions are put forward in the course of debate;

      • everybody who participates in debate and decision-making, including members of the leadership, sometimes argues for proposals that are not ultimately adopted and against proposals that are;

      • most people in leadership positions have been rank-and-filers for much of their lives and can expect to be so again;

      • the leadership is broadly sociologically typical of the rank and file.

These criteria are preliminary and may turn out to require substantial amendment: but they do allow us to draw one conclusion. This is that the ideally democratic system, although it does not exist anywhere and may never have done so, is not an obvious logical impossibility: there is no reason why we cannot imagine an organization that would meet all these criteria perfectly. But the ideally undemocratic system, the organization that would fail totally on every test, would not be recognizable as an organization at all. In other words, every organization or state—and every conceivable organization or state—has some democratic features, corresponding to the fact that every political system incorporates some element of consent as well as coercion.

Sunday, 22 May 2016