Comments on Richard Schmitt, “Socialist Democracy and Solidarity”

1. George Snedeker

Richard Schmitt’s article, “Socialist Democracy and Solidarity,” poses some interesting questions concerning participatory democracy and what he calls “reason-giving.” A theory of solidarity plays a central role in his argument about democracy. The problem as I see it is that Schmitt does not develop a theoretical conception of solidarity. What exactly does he mean by solidarity, and how is it to be achieved?

His answer seems to be that if only we were not so self-centered and if we did not always want to win arguments, we would create the kind of solidarity and respect for other people necessary to achieve consensus without relying on either coercion or manipulation of the other person or group. This sounds to me like saying that if only we were better people we would respect the views held by others and work to create a democratic consensus. He is clear that this is not what we usually do. My question to him is, “why not?” He writes as if we could create solidarity and a feeling of mutual respect for other people if only we decided to do this. This seems to me to be a highly voluntaristic conception of solidarity. Schmitt seems to operate with a psychological theory of democracy, a theory that focuses primarily on the attitudes and behavior of individuals.

In this article, Schmitt is more dependent on Habermas’s theory of “communicative reason” than he is on Marx’s theory of capitalist society. He does make it clear that the major limitation of Habermas’s theory of communication is the lack of any conception of capitalism and class conflict. However, after offering his criticism of Habermas, he then leaves out of his own theory of democracy the need to include an analysis of the capitalist mode of production. The examples of conflict that he offers from contemporary US society have nothing to do with class relations and class power.

He concludes with a liberal discussion of the need for solidarity and what we would have to do to create the kind of solidarity we badly need in order for there to be real participatory democracy. He mentions socialist democracy in the title of his article, but there is no discussion of socialism in the article itself. Instead, his discussion focuses on the model of a liberal democratic society. It seems to me that Schmitt has good intentions, but he fails to deliver much in the way of a theory of democracy grounded in a theory of socialism and a Marxist theory of capitalist society. Why would a Marxist philosopher abandon a Marxist analysis for a liberal psychological theory of democracy? This is a question that baffles me.

2. Gerald Meyer

In “Socialist Democracy and Solidarity,” Richard Schmitt introduces what he considers a hitherto missing requirement for socialist politics and presumably socialism, that is, the implementation of an elaborated system of participatory decision-making, which he terms “deliberative democracy.” The prerequisites for the proper functioning of this method include both an empathetic understanding of opposing views and heroic restraint in proffering one’s own. Schmitt’s arguments proceed from a critique of the electoral process, which he believes causes injury to the losers and engenders “inauthenticity” in all its participants.

Socialism, in theory and practice, is premised on the understanding that the underpinnings of any society, the economy, must be democratized, that is, socialized. One must assume that Schmitt is saying that the nationalization of the economy is insufficient for socialist democracy, which requires a more thoroughgoing democratic decision-making practice for its realization. While there is truth in this assumption, his choice of participatory democracy as the means for accomplishing this worthy goal conjures up an image of reclining older men engaged in some variation of Platonic discourse rendered under idyllic conditions. However, to date, socialism has only appeared in war-ravaged countries (Cuba is the exception) encircled by relentlessly hostile capitalist neighbors and weakened by widespread opposition from those displaced by the new economic and social arrangements. These are not environments conducive to deliberation. On the contrary, they have invariably engendered masculinized militancy, and even militarization. In the absence of some of this pertinent history, Schmitt’s essay reflects an innocence of the daunting, miserable, tragic situations that have incubated socialist societies and the challenges they have had to confront in the attempt to  build something better out of the ruins they inherited.

Schmitt’s insistence on participatory democracy is related to the disappointment (of many) with the experience of the Soviet Union and its allies. In part, this reaction is based on the unexamined premise that there was little or no participation in decision-making in the former socialist bloc. However, especially in the post-World War II period, there were efforts everywhere in the socialist bloc to involve workers not only in decisions on ways to meet production goals, but also in the allocation of special funds, and more. Peter Roman’s work documents the Cuban government’s construction of an elaborate system of participation of workers at the workplace and residents in neighborhoods in making decisions to improve working and living conditions as well as the allocation of resources.1 To some extent, the relatively better known Cuban experience of worker participation mirrors lesser-known practices in other socialist countries.

Yugoslavia was the socialist state with the most prolonged and intensive experience with structures entailing deliberation. In Yugoslavia, workers’ councils sprang from the Communist-led World War II resistance—which faced conditions requiring decision-making at the local level. While the workers’ councils combated some of the worst effects of bureaucratization, they led to another set of problems that point to the limitations of decentralization and localization of power (both of which are requirements for any kind of direct, unmediated decision-making). In 1971, constitutional amendments created a 22-member council elected from the country’s six republics and two autonomous provinces. The chair of this “collective presidency” was rotated among the heads of the country’s six republics. In this way, Yugoslavia changed from a centralized state to a federative state, setting in motion a centrifugal dynamic in the country as a whole. These changes also empowered the workers’ councils in the more profitable enterprises, located mostly in the more prosperous regions, to oppose the redistribution of part of their profits to the less developed areas. Previously, Yugoslavia’s centralized state and party had reallocated resources throughout the country’s eight constitutive entities so as to reduce disparities in living standards. The decentralization of decision-making and broadening the powers of the workers’ councils directly led to the country’s calamitous fragmentation, so that today of the ten poorest countries in Europe (based on GDP) four are former republics and one an autonomous province of the former Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia.

More generally, deliberation does not necessarily bring people closer together. In fact, it may lead to a hardening of positions. The two examples of deliberative democracy that Schmitt offers – both involving issues related to religious conviction – underscore this possible outcome. In neither case did deliberation lead to consensus; at most, it helped preserve a climate of civility.

Solidarity does not primarily arise from agreement on principles or (even less likely) rules. The true meaning of “solidarity” is best captured in the slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” That sense arises not from agreeing on a list of issues, but from shared, actually lived, experiences, such as eating, living, or working together, sacrificing one’s self-interest, contributing one’s resources, “showing up” for others in moments of need. Traditionally, it has been the job of the Left to politicize—that is, to clarify and materialize—the solidarity that spontaneously arises among the disadvantaged, the exploited, the oppressed. This means understanding the basis on which solidarity is possible – a question that Schmitt fails to confront.

3. Victor Wallis

The difficulty in describing the basis for solidarity is inseparable from the historical question of what issues can or cannot be agreed upon in a society. An issue that may be contentious in one epoch – such as the right to impose or to be free of certain religiously ordered precepts – may be either resolved or else taken out of the sphere of controversy in another. What is decisive is not the introduction of an ethical guideline – such as “solidarity” – but rather the evolution of the social forces identified with one or another approach.

The issues invoked for illustrative purposes by Schmitt – abortion and fundamentalist education – cannot be resolved at the level of personal conviction. What matters in terms of democracy, however, is the extent to which they can be settled at the level of policy. Here, the larger social-economic framework comes into play. The impasse at the policy level has to do not simply with the immediate attitudes of individuals, but with the political forces which take advantage of the more regressive attitudes for the purpose of advancing an overall pro-capitalist agenda. This is not to say that the whole capitalist class backs such attitudes; it does not. But the backing given to them by a significant sector of the capitalist class (epitomized in the US by the Koch brothers, the American Legislative Exchange Council [ALEC] and the Republican Party) is crucial to delimiting the sphere within which widespread political debate is encouraged. The underlying reality is that thanks to the propagation of certain reactionary social views – ranging from anti-abortion to “creationist” to implicitly racist – a numerically critical sector of the population can be persuaded to vote against its own economic interests. Such deception is most obvious in the case of low-income people who support the Republicans, but it operates also in the case of the many voters whose interests are not effectively represented by the Democrats yet who vote for the latter anyway in order to avoid the extreme measures of the Republicans.

In this sense, the limits to effective solidarity – i.e., to the possibility of overcoming irreconcilable differences – are directly linked to the capitalist setting. Understanding socialist solidarity requires examining the process by which this setting is replaced. This in turn requires drawing distinctions among the different issues currently seen as irreconcilable. The irreconcilability of the issues discussed by Schmitt is, in its political dimension, derivative. It reflects the scenario within which the capitalist ruling class manipulates the electoral process that Schmitt himself so eloquently criticizes. Behind those issues that stoke divisions among the people, however, we therefore find the more fundamental irreconcilability of class interests inherent to capitalism.

As Schmitt suggests, there are reasonable solutions to policy debates that are driven by religious conviction. Various adaptations are possible whereby fundamentalists, so long as they do not impose their practices on others, can continue upholding their beliefs. But in order for such adaptations to occur, the irreconcilability of class antagonism must first be recognized and fought out to a conclusion, so that there are no longer any elite backers to amplify the regressive positions. One might think that, with the socialist framework posited by Schmitt, this would already have been done. But to say this is to overlook the specific grounding on the basis of which solidarity can be established. The solidarity needed in order to introduce the new framework is indeed a solidarity of the great majority, but it is not (contrary to Schmitt) a function of purely ethical considerations such as universal respect. It is a solidarity grounded in common class interest, against the rule of capital.

With regard to deliberative practices, this means that certain positions have to be understood as incompatible with the common interest of the community, and therefore as not qualifying for consideration in determining policy. Such positions – essentially those which would establish patterns of domination or (more broadly) infringe on the basic rights of others – clash with the goal of creating a framework for broader consensus.

Solidarity that lacks a clear class basis will be no more than an abstract imperative, and will therefore be unable to take root. The development of true solidarity is a process which, although initially a precondition for revolution, must continue after the achievement of institutional transformation. For this to be possible, its origins in class consciousness must be recognized as fundamental.


1. “The Lawmaking Process in Cuba: Debating the Bill on Agricultural Cooperatives,” Socialism and Democracy, vol. 19, no. 2 (2005).

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