Socialist Democracy and Solidarity

By Richard Schmitt

For a long time now, socialists have insisted that their system must be democratic. That has always meant that everyone should participate in decisions affecting them. Participation is said to be a central characteristic of socialist democracy.1 Many contemporary socialists use formulas like: “A democratic decision is normatively legitimate only if all those affected by it are included in the process of discussion and decision-making.”2 A similar formulation keeps reappearing in books by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel: “Political outcomes have got to be ‘fair.’ This means the interests of all parties and especially of those involved in the actual interchange have to be effectively translated into programs respecting the needs, inputs, and potentials of each.”3 David Schweickart writes, “People have the right to participate in the decisions that affect them. This is the core principle of democracy.”4 We can find similar formulations in the writings of Erik Olin Wright.5 Demands for everyone participating in decisions that affect them were equally prominent in the Argentine uprisings of 2001 and 2002 and were often made during the many Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011.6

Wikipedia’s article on democracy stresses the centrality of participation to electoral democracy; so does President Obama when he talks about democracy, as do solidly centrist non-profits.7 The League of Women Voters, for instance, “has stressed citizen participation as a necessary component of decision-making at all levels of government.”8 Everyone believes that democracy should be participatory but few of those advocates of participation are socialists. The call for widespread participation does not distinguish socialist from capitalist democrats. In order to characterize socialist democracy and distinguish it from different versions of capitalist democracy, one needs to say a lot more than that it is participatory. One needs to make clear how socialist participation differs from participation in the prevailing systems of electoral democracy. But socialists have very little to say about what makes participatory democracy socialist beyond the very general endorsement of participation.

This is a serious lacuna in socialist theory. Contemporary socialists, decisively distinguishing their own project from the centrally planned communism of the Soviet Union or Maoist China, insist that participatory democracy is an indispensable element of their vision of socialism.9 It is therefore an urgent task for them to show clearly how socialist participation is different from the various forms of electoral participation in capitalist societies that liberal political groups and individuals advocate. But so far no one has taken up that challenge.

In this paper I discuss some versions of “deliberative democracy” as one possible way of specifying what socialist participation is. But deliberative democracy theorists tend to concentrate attention too exclusively on giving each other reasons in conversations. Instead, I will argue that socialist democracy requires a background condition of solidarity. Political conversations and deliberations are bound to be unfruitful unless the deliberators live in relations of solidarity. The central feature of socialist democracy is not only participation but strong ties of solidarity among the participants.

Deliberative democracy

Many theorists reject the electoral system—certainly as it exists today— and instead recommend what they call “deliberative democracy.” These theorists are not socialists. But, like socialists, they want to replace the electoral practices currently in force. I will discuss in more detail below why socialists, when they try to clarify their vision of a participatory democracy, might do well to consult the work done by deliberative theorists.

Deliberative theorists give a number of reasons for rejecting electoral democracy: in an electoral democracy voters may decide individually, without consulting anyone else, for whom to vote. They may do so thoughtfully or their choices may be completely arbitrary and wildly irrational.10 Preferences are taken as given; they are not open to discussion. Where democracy consists of the aggregation or counting up of different preferences, the question which preferences are most reasonable can therefore not even be raised.11 In a political culture of this sort, collective reflections about the best policy in any given domain are quite rare. Much more common are attempts to sell one’s particular project to voters. Policy is the result of complex bargains and deceptive presentations of different agendas. Political agents are prepared to go very far in order to attract voters to their projects: opaque bargains are struck in which I promise to vote for your undertaking if you will vote for mine, regardless of what either of us thinks of the other’s project. In addition, no one hesitates to misrepresent the project they advocate in order to gain votes.

As a consequence, political discourse does not provide for thoughtful evaluations of alternative policies. Instead candidates appeal to vague mottos such as “the free market” or “socialism” or “small government” without anybody having a clear idea of what is being talked about. Collective deliberation is replaced by huckstering.

Then these votes are counted up; the majority wins and the minority finds itself coerced into obeying laws they do not support. Electoral democracy allows widespread coercion of citizens. Contrary to the frequent claims that political freedom is enhanced by electoral democracy, that system restricts the political freedom of electoral minorities. In some situations, those coerced constitute a numerical majority. Along with violating political freedom, electoral democracy also does not meet demands for political equality as long as some people get the laws they want and others do not.

The general idea of deliberative democracy is framed in contrast to these shortcomings of electoral democracy. In contrast to the limited participation of voters in electoral systems, citizens in a deliberative democracy participate in much more substantial ways. Citizens no longer only choose who will represent them, but they participate actively in making decisions about issues that affect their lives. At best, policy is not to be made by elected representatives but in collective deliberations.12 No longer are individual opinions formed privately; political deliberation is conceived as a public process. This public deliberative process does not just consist of any old conversation, where everyone says whatever they want and opinions, factual claims, and statements about values are flung about, often to be ignored by the other participants to the conversation. Democratic deliberation requires that we participate in an exchange of opinions, of giving reasons.13 All participants try to be as reasonable as they can, to be open-minded, to pay careful attention to what others have to say. All try to be rational, to avoid logical errors, to base their views on reliable evidence, to avoid being carried away by their emotions. Everyone agrees that conclusions be based on the strongest argument, not on coercion.

Reason-giving is important because elections produce majorities and minorities. Only the winners in the election are free, in the sense of being subject to rules they approved of. The losers are not so lucky. Deliberative theorists conclude from such unfair results that deliberation must produce a consensus so that the laws adopted are approved of by everyone. (Rousseau hovers in the background of that thought.) But there is little hope for reaching consensus unless we think seriously together, and together find the policies and laws that are supported by the very best evidence we can marshal. Hence the public deliberations must consist of efforts to give reasons based on the best evidence. These deliberations come to an end when different proposals have been examined and the one supported by the strongest reasons is adopted by everyone.

Two other conditions must be met if we are to have a ghost of a chance to reach consensus.  Participants in an electoral democracy are pursuing their individual interests, using bargaining and misrepresentation in their attempt to forge majorities supporting their projects. Where all participants seek their own, personal betterment, possibly at the expense of other participants, general agreement is not the goal, nor is it possible. Different ones among us have different individual interests. If that is all we think about we can never agree.  But deliberative democracy seeks consensus. However difficult it may be to achieve consensus, it is only possible if participants are not exclusively focused on their private interests but are deliberating about what is good for all. The topic of our conversation must not be just my individual interest of yours, but what is in the best interest of all of us.

In our political system we are familiar with debates. Often they have an ostensible, public agenda but are actually driven by a hidden undertaking. Politicians speak of “what the American people want” but what really motivates them are the specific desires of their constituents, or of their campaign donors. Faculty members debating curriculum speak movingly about the ideals of liberal education while actually trying to enhance the size and power of their departments. The reasons given are not authentic; they are only for public consumption. The underlying self-interests are the driving force of the deliberation.

Deliberative democracy, by contrast, consists of reason-giving in the interest of forging a consensus with respect to what is the common good in a given situation. Deception is unacceptable. No one may agree with an emerging majority only because it is in their private interest, no one may withhold information, or profess to be convinced by reasons which they actually regard as inadequate. The deliberation cannot reach its goal – a consensus about the common good – if private agendas determine participants’ responses. Everyone’s reasoning must be transparent and authentic.

This, in broad outline, is the theory of deliberative democracy, a process of public exchange of opinions and reason-giving in which the participants authentically strive to reach a consensus about the common good. Participants are equal in that all may speak and listen, and everyone’s ideas enter into the final consensus. Participants are also free because they are only subject to rules which they themselves have adopted.

The relevance of deliberative democracy theory to socialist democracy

This train of thought about democracy originated, in modern times, in the work of Jürgen Habermas14 and has been taken up by a number of important thinkers. But the bulk of the discussion of deliberative democracy theory has been conducted against the background of liberal theory – an approach that separates the functioning of democracy quite sharply from the prevailing economic system. Most reflections on deliberative democracy have nothing to say about classes and class conflicts. They have very little to say about how economic power bleeds into political power, and how considerations of freedom and equality must take economic relations into account. Using the liberal vocabulary, deliberative theorists define key terms like “freedom” and “equality” and “participation” in ways that separate the political sharply from the economic life of a society.

Socialists reject this distinction central to liberal theory. Why then should socialists be interested in deliberative theory, and its explication of political participation?

I want to begin responding to that question by raising another one. Socialists reject as a useless exercise any discussion of political democracy that ignores the economic relations between groups of citizens. They argue that any discussion of democracy is radically incomplete if conducted in isolation from the economic system in which it functions. We cannot assure freedom and equality for everyone if we do not consider their positions in the prevailing economic hierarchies. But focusing on the economic system in which politics are embedded does not, of course, answer all political questions. Specifically the question with which I began this paper: ‘what is political participation in a socialist democracy?’ still needs to be answered. Economic analyses of capitalism, of its class structure, and the influence of class conflict on democracy are all important but do not yield answers to questions about the nature of socialist democratic participation.

Socialists have good reasons for paying attention to deliberative democracy analyses because they share important goals with them. Among these are a political system where all are equal participants, each is equally free, autonomous, and uncoerced. In the process of reason-giving, deliberative democracy advocates strive for consensus. When all agree, they are therefore free, because they are not coerced to follow laws they oppose. The laws they follow have been adopted with their agreement. Deliberative democracy abhors the competition animating electoral democracy and the intense focus on self-interest. When all agree on what the common good demands, no one is surreptitiously following private agendas, and no one is excluded from the decision-making process. Instead deliberative democracy seeks to discover what, in any given case, is best for all. Every member of a deliberating group is an object of concern for all the others. No one is excluded, ignored or overlooked. Everyone is a full participant.

Deliberation asks of us that we have no hidden agendas but be authentic when discussing issues with others. The political debates in electoral democracies, since they are animated by hidden agendas, involve a great deal of deception. Elected representatives pretend to advance the interests of voters, while actually advancing their own careers and the desires of their financial supporters. The face they show to the world is only a mask. Voters who are deceived by the manipulators believe they are wielding political power when in fact they are being used. Voters who see through the official charades nevertheless continue to participate for lack of alternatives, or drop out in disgust. Electoral democracy as we practice it today alienates both leaders and followers in the political process. The deceivers and manipulators must constantly lead voters astray about who they are and what they stand for. Voters, whether deceived or not, participate in ways carefully choreographed by political actors. They have little or no power; they are not agents in their own right. In opposing a political process thriving on deception, deliberative democracy also opposes alienation.

Deliberative theorists and socialists share central goals. Deliberative theory clarifies problems about electoral democracy that the economic analyses of more traditional socialists leave aside. Additionally, both deliberative theory and socialist democrats seek a society where coercion is as close to non-existent as we can make it, and where everyone participates in formulating laws. Both efforts strive for a society rich in communities where politics does not promote widespread alienation. Socialists, who try to clarify the idea of socialist participation, have good reasons for taking the suggestions of deliberative democracy theorists very seriously.

Some difficulties in deliberative democratic theory

The demand for a democratic process consisting of giving reasons confronts us with several serious questions. On the one hand, there is no question that we should welcome the pressure towards thinking clearly about political problems, towards weighing alternatives soberly in view of existing evidence. We should strive to reason our way toward conclusions that are as firmly supported by evidence and reasoning as possible.15 But at the same time, the picture of a democratic process that includes nothing but rational argumentation appears excessively simple.  Reason-giving, however authentic and devoted to the common good, will not allow us to forge consensus for several important reasons.


Often discussions of deliberative democracy present reasons as if they were bank notes of different denominations or playing cards which bear their value on their face. (I ignore here that, of course, the face value of bank notes or playing cards also depends on complex conventions.) In a deliberation, each participant shows his or her cards or banknotes and the highest denomination wins. Reason-giving is a sort of intellectual blackjack.

Deliberative theorists tend to mis-describe what it means to deliberate. Yes, giving each other reasons for one’s positions is important, but it is not as simple an operation as some deliberative theorists make it out to be. It is not enough to offer reasons, what one offers must be accepted as a reason and, in addition, as a good reason. Imagine the card game where you use regular playing cards but I offer you tarot cards. You would say: ‘those are not the right cards.’ In deliberation, in comparable ways, we often say: ‘that is not a reason’ (meaning ‘that is not a reason I am prepared to accept’), even though you offered it as one. A statement can function as a reason only if it is offered and accepted as one. If one of the parties does not recognize what I have to say as a reason or only as an unconvincing reason, my case will not advance.

Whether an opinion offered in the course of a deliberation is an acceptable reason at all is frequently quite controversial. We may recognize that an opponent has offered us a statement as a reason but refuse to accept it as a reason that we should take seriously. Conflicts can therefore not be resolved by simply offering reasons. On the contrary, offering reasons and discovering that what is a powerful reason for one person seems uninteresting or entirely beside the point for another, only uncovers much more challenging underlying divergences in outlook.16

Here is an interesting example of a disagreement about what counts as an acceptable reason.  In 1983, Mrs. Vicki Frost brought suit against the Hawkins City, Tennessee, school board for adopting a series of readers which presented children with some ideas that she regarded as false and as opposed to her religious beliefs and those of other parents whose children attended Hawkins City schools.

The Christian parents agreed with the school board that children should acquire critical thinking skills in school, but they strongly opposed teaching critical thinking skills with respect to the Bible. In their view, the Bible was the word of God and therefore not open to critical reflection or interpretation.17 The teaching of critical thinking skills should exclude any critical discussion of alternative interpretations of biblical texts.

In the course of our attempt to understand what democratic participation might mean, this case is of interest because even advocates of deliberative democracy cannot agree whether the arguments put forward by fundamentalist Christian parents should be taken seriously or rejected out of hand. Some advocates of deliberative democracy accept the demand of the Christian parents. Joshua Cohen points out that religious convictions are often not chosen but are accepted as God’s demands. They are firm obligations which the believer may not evade. To reject the opinions of religious citizens as unreasonable or not acceptable as respectable arguments is to “deny the person standing as an equal citizen.”18 In Cohen’s version of deliberative democracy, all citizens must be equal participants in the deliberative process. Rejecting arguments based, for instance, on Scripture as unreasonable or irrational is denying equality to religious citizens.

But that is exactly what Gutman and Thompson propose to do. In their book Democracy and Disagreement, they write with respect to the case brought by fundamentalist parents against the Hawkins City Board of Education:

The [fundamentalist] parents’ reasoning appeals to values that can and should be rejected by citizens of a pluralist society committed to protecting the basic liberties and opportunities of all citizens. Keep in mind that the parents are trying to prevent schools from teaching their children to make critical judgments …’in areas where the Bible provides the answer.’… If the parents were successful, their children (and perhaps others) would fail to receive the education that is necessary for developing their capacities as democratic citizens.19

This has proved to be a controversial position. Gutman and Thompson have been accused of misconstruing the claims made by those fundamentalist parents20 or of insisting that only they and their friends are sufficiently rational to participate in a democratic debate.21 The disagreement brings to light a serious difficulty in the description of democratic deliberation as a process where participants give each other reasons for their respective positions. Deliberation and reason-giving presuppose a shared understanding of the rules of reasonable disagreement and exchange of opinion. Everyone must have an approximately similar conception of what it means to provide reliable evidence, of what it means to argue in a logically acceptable fashion, and what are plausible premises with which to begin one’s presentation. Everyone must agree what sorts of reasons are acceptable and which are not. If one side in a disagreement gives reasons, as do the fundamentalist parents in Hawkins City, which the other side regards as completely unacceptable, the conversation cannot proceed, let alone come closer to some mutual understanding.

But quite obviously unanimity with respect to the standards of reason-giving is quite limited in our society. The present case is one notable example: the fundamentalist parents of children in the Hawkins City schools did not believe that critical thinking or reasoning to interpret biblical texts is permissible. Similar disagreements about what are reasonable forms of disagreeing often come up in dialogue about affirmative action or, more generally, about the treatment of people of color by institutions dominated by whites. The common insistence of college administrators, for instance, on ‘calm and reasonable dialogue’ meets the intense suspicion of students of color who have found, in the past, that this insistence on dialogue is a thinly disguised form of racial domination.22 Many women are similarly suspicious of the white males, dominating different institutions, who pretend to speak reasonably and open-mindedly when, in fact, they regard their female students and colleagues primarily as sexual objects for possible seduction.23 When called on their attempted seductions, professors often use in their defense that “it was all in good fun”; the offended women rarely regard that as an acceptable interpretation of the professor’s conduct.

These cases compel two observations about reason-giving as a form of democratic participation. Reason-giving can move a group towards consensus only if the group agrees on what are acceptable reasons and what are not. We have seen a number of cases where one basic difficulty is precisely the absence of such shared standards of what are good reasons and what are not.

More important even is the second observation: disagreements about what are good reasons, are not themselves subject to rational discussion and resolution. The Hawkins city case makes that very clear. The fundamentalist parents are not opposed to critical thinking in general, but reject it in the case where Scripture is involved. If asked to defend this they can only repeat that Scriptural authority is not to be questioned. But their opponents regard that assertion as an unacceptable argument. The fundamentalists cannot defend their conception of what are acceptable reasons in terms their opponents would regard as legitimate. What is more, they regard as completely illegitimate the demand of their liberal opponents that they provide rational reasons for regarding Scripture as unquestionably authoritative. It would be a surrender of the authority of Scripture to try to give rational support to that authority. The disagreement cannot really be discussed. Reason-giving can produce consensus only under very restricted conditions, namely where the participants in a deliberation share criteria for what are acceptable reasons. If there is no unanimity on those criteria, reason-giving will run into dead ends.


I have shown that giving reasons to each other will not, in the end, produce consensus because there is no agreement about what are good reasons, what constitute reasons that one should accept.

Underlying this problem is a more pervasive source of disagreement. Reasoning proceeds on the basis of complex sets of premises. But these sets are finite.24 If we trace any argument back to its beginnings, we encounter some premises that have no other support except that the arguer takes these premises to be true. In the course of reasoning, all make assumptions which strike them as eminently plausible but for which they have little or no reasoned support.

In all great controversies, the opposing sides may agree on many things but they end up on opposing sides of the controversy because some of their fundamental assumptions are quite different from each other.

Here is a powerful example: A New York anthropologist, Faye Ginsburg, went out to Fargo, North Dakota, in the 1980s to talk with both pro-life and pro-choice activist women. In the course of these conversations about sexuality, the role of women, women’s lives in America today, and about abortion, the groups found many areas of agreement. They not only began to like and to respect each other, but found that they agreed on many important points that had a bearing on their views about abortion. Both sides demanded equality for women. Both were concerned about the commodification of child bearing and raising. Both were highly critical of male domination of women’s lives; both demanded equality for women.25

But they did disagree about what it meant to be a woman, what it meant actually and, more importantly, what it ought to mean. Pro-choice advocates tended to minimize the difference between men’s lives and the lives of women. Women should be able to be as autonomous and in charge of their lives as men. Whatever the one group could do the other should be allowed to do also. To be sure the biological roles of men and women are different and having children and raising them does tend to make a serious difference in the lives of women and less so in the lives of men. Nevertheless the thrust of pro-choice women was in the direction of minimizing the role differences between men and women. Access to abortion on demand was a necessary element in freeing women to have the same life choices as men.

Here is where pro-life women disagreed sharply. They saw giving birth, nurturance, running a family and caretaking – not only of children but also of the sick and the elderly – as intrinsic to being a woman. Aborting an unwanted fetus appeared to them a sharp contradiction to that conception of their womanhood. Therefore they opposed abortion.

Ginsburg understands clearly that these conflicting conceptions of women’s lives were not supported by further argument. It was not an interesting question to ask how pro-choice and pro-life women defended their conception of being women. Instead it was interesting to look into their past, their growing up stories, their families, their experiences in younger years, to try to discern how their commitments to different conceptions of womanhood came to be.

Here are some of the answers she found: Pro-choice women tended to be older. They reached maturity in the late 1960s, early 1970s when second wave feminism was a powerful movement for change and the emancipation of women. Pro-life women tended to be younger and to have reached maturity in the early days of Ronald Reagan. By that time equality for women, women having careers had become very much a standard view for many middle class educated women. Choosing instead to devote themselves full-time to mothering and family support – without, of course, for one moment playing a role secondary to men – was a new and somewhat daring self-definition. Hence they tended to oppose abortion. In addition, they saw clearly that the ready access to abortion made it more difficult for women to resist sexual pressures from men and thus reduced women’s control over their sexual lives. If she got pregnant, well she could always get an abortion. There was no way for women to insist that men take responsibility for the children they fathered or their sexual importunities with women.26

Different attitudes towards abortion were, on the one side, based on different conceptions of womens’ roles in heterosexual relationships. More importantly they emerged from different stages in the history of developing new images of being a woman and the goals women could choose. Pro-life women had the sense that the early second wave feminism tended to foreclose the option of being primarily a nurturer.27

Attitudes towards abortion resulted not only from generational influences but also from more personal experiences. Crises women witnessed or experienced themselves, for instance of thalidomide babies, or a child born with spina bifida who lived only a few hours, of having too many children in close succession often influenced women to adopt a pro-choice stance.  On the other side, women who had children under extremely challenging conditions, who might then have been tempted to abort them, if that had been legally available, but who were now happy to have had them, were often inclined to defend pro-life positions. Life experiences made a key difference – life experiences with one’s own children and one’s own marriages, life experiences in relationships to one’s mother or witnessing the difficulties others had in relation to birth and or abortion.

The sources of these assumptions that help structure our lives are complex and no one can be altogether certain of what her own history has contributed to how she sees the world.28


Deliberative democracy promises us the sort of agreement among citizens that a full-fledged democracy demands. But as we have seen, deliberative democracy cannot keep that promise. To A’s offering a reason for an opinion, B may at times reply: “That is not a reason!” or “that is a very unconvincing reason.” There are no proofs that an opinion is a (good) reason. This is just one instance of a more general limitation of reason-giving: any reason, however powerful, is anchored in assumptions that are not supported by reasons.

But deliberative democracy faces a third serious disability: As deliberative democracy describes itself to us, opponents give reasons to one another until they reach agreement on truth and the best policies. In the real world, we know, this process of giving each other reasons is often interrupted by the fact that opponents on any question misunderstand each other. Because they hold different unargued assumptions, neither party, however well-meaning, understands the statements defended by their opponents as the opponents understand them. The supporters and opponents in Fargo illustrate that. Pro-choice and pro-life women agree strongly that there should be no hierarchical relations between men and women. Moreover they distrust most men. They resent men’s incessant demand for sex, they believe men to be frequently irresponsible, especially when it comes to the results of their sexual activities. If a pregnancy results from their sexual activities, men tend to take the next bus out of town.

As a result, pro-choice women are eager to equalize life choices between men and women as much as possible. Legalizing abortion is one strategy here: if women find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy, they too have a choice whether to have the baby or not. But in the perspective of pro-life women, that choice makes women into “structural men.” By choosing abortion, women adopt the irresponsible ways of men. From the pro-life point of view, one strength of women is that they care deeply for all things living. If they choose abortion they surrender qualities central to being a woman. Pro-choice women hear this encomium of nurturance as a return to the secondary role played by women for millennia, even though that is not what pro-life women intend.  Given their different orientations it is very easy for each side to misunderstand and misrepresent the other.

Under those circumstances, reason-giving cannot lead to agreement because, from the very beginning, mutual misunderstandings undermine the deliberation. Each side tries to refute views of the other which the other side does not hold. The two parties argue past each other.29

Is democracy unattainable?

From what we have seen it would certainly seem so. A more genuinely democratic system demands that decisions be based on agreement. As long as the majority rules, half the population may be excluded from participating in decision-making.30 The electoral system under which we live is at best a fairly inclusive oligarchy.

I do not believe that the situation is as dire as that. To be sure, genuine democracy is difficult to achieve. It is a serious challenge to which we do not do justice to when we talk loosely about “participation.” As we have seen already and a number of authors have pointed out, instead of talking about participation, we need to reflect seriously about disagreement and conflict.31 The advocates of deliberative democracy and giving reasons have an impoverished view of what disagreements and conflicts consist of and what, therefore, needs to be done to resolve at least some of them. Without a more detailed understanding of disagreements and conflicts, we will not make any headway towards a decision-making process that is not coercive but, instead, democratic.

In the disagreement between the Hawkins City school department and fundamentalist parents, the parents demanded that religions other than theirs be mentioned only with an explicit statement appended that those other religions were not the one true religion. The fundamentalist parents objected to a presentation of different religions as objects of free choice. They denied that such a choice existed, and they wanted their children to know that only their own religion was the true religion. The school department responded that mentioning other religions was different from advocacy and that the schools refused to advocate any particular religion including fundamentalist Christianity.

In this discussion, some will side with the school department and reject the worries of the fundamentalist parents as groundless. Others will see the point made by the fundamentalists: merely presenting a variety of alternative religions may suggest to the students that the choice between them is purely subjective. But in that case the choice between being religious or godless may also come to be seen as subjective: it matters not what you choose. For the fundamentalist parents it seems of overwhelming importance that their children not be exposed to that message. Experience shows that tolerance of the divergent ideas held by others often tends to weaken one’s dedication to one’s own.

As long as conflicts are thought of as opposing opinions where one of them is correct and the other not, each party believes that it has the truth and the other is mistaken. Such a belief presupposes that each party understands clearly what the other is saying. But often, of course, the two sides misunderstand each other because their convictions rest on different underlying assumptions. These different assumptions spawn disagreements about the importance of certain facts as well as about what they mean. For instance, are women who oppose abortion willing to return to a subservient position inside and outside the family? That is how pro-choice advocates tend to read it. For many in the pro-life movement that is a complete misunderstanding. Pro-life stances are subject to very different interpretations by the two parties in the abortion controversy.

In disputes over opposing opinions, much more than the truth of these opinions is involved. In reason-giving, when everyone insists that their view is the correct one, more is at issue than the force of the supporting arguments. The participants are also bolstering their self-esteem, their image of who they are – namely the persons with the true opinion – and in defending their beliefs they are also defending their self-identity.32

Given all these complexities, it seems best that, in situations of conflict and disagreement, we abstain from trying to overwhelm the opponent with more and better arguments. Instead, we should ask the others questions: what importance do they attach to different sets of facts, how did they come to the opinions which they now hold, what is the self-identity they are constructing as they defend their point of view? Before we try to prove the other to be mistaken, we would be better off trying to find out who the other is and what she is telling us. Only once we get that clear may we be able to appreciate what divides us from our opponents.

The possibility of reaching consensus and thereby of enjoying genuine democracy is foreclosed when we insist on trying to prove that we are right. A very different kind of conversation needs to take place, for democratic agreements to emerge – a conversation suffused with solidarity.


Solidarity is a fuzzy concept that different theorists describe in different ways. But in these different descriptions, common themes recur such as mutuality, reciprocity, giving each other the benefit of the doubt.33 Given this network of common themes, we can say that conflict and disagreement demand solidarity among the deliberators if we are to come closer to agreements. Reason-giving among interlocutors who lack solidarity will produce barren debates where no one listens to the other and everyone is trying to win the argument, not in the interest of truth or plausibility, but in the interest of being dominant or shoring up one’s personal identity. Reason-giving alone will not enable us to found and maintain a democratic society. Only in a society richly suffused with solidarity is reason-giving likely to enhance everyone’s uncoerced participation.

“Solidarity” describes a set of social relations between individuals, between individuals and groups, or between groups. Where there is solidarity, groups have a specific commonality such as membership in an ethnic or national organization. The commonality may also consist in shared values, or shared beliefs, or goals, or commitments.

This commonality is not merely given, but is deliberately chosen by members of a solidarity group as a determinant of common action.34 The fact that all of us are human beings does not automatically create solidarity among us. We need to declare that all human beings have certain rights, for instance, and then act to make sure that these rights are respected and violations corrected. Only then will solidarity have a chance to emerge.

Members of solidary groups respect each other; solidarity involves a good deal of mutual trust. Respect, in turn, has a number of gradations. “Like toleration, mutual respect is a form of agreeing to disagree. But mutual respect demands more than toleration. It requires a favorable attitude toward, and constructive interaction with, the persons with whom one disagrees. It consists in a reciprocal positive regard of citizens….”35 This “reciprocal positive regard” has further qualifications.

To begin, mutual respect implies that we are willing to talk to and perhaps negotiate with the other. Solidarity is not possible if we don’t take the others seriously enough to talk to them. In addition, respect must be deserved; solidarity cannot exist where citizens ignore each other’s serious moral and political failings. Furthermore, respect involves not only taking the other’s opinions seriously but also assuming that one must get to know that other person in order to understand what they are telling us. One must know what specific forms showing respect must take for this person.36 Respect also involves asking questions of others rather than telling them why they are mistaken. It involves accepting that others may see things differently from ourselves. To work and be in solidarity with them requires us to take their otherness seriously.37

Taking differences seriously is not just one aspect of respect. Some theorists insist that solidarity does not merely consist of common traits shared by the solidary group members, but that, on the contrary, solidarity can only be created by groups in spite of and in the face of differences. Difference is at the very center of the striving for democracy. Efforts at solidarity frequently focus on the commonalities, the agreements of members of groups. But the exclusive focus on commonalities forecloses the creation of solidarity. That is possible only after attempts at transparent explorations of difference.38

At best, solidarity involves careful explorations of differences between individuals or within groups. In the course of those explorations each side must adopt the perspective of the other, trying to understand it, as it were from the inside.39 But each side must also confront its own positions, opinions, basic assumptions. Where solidarity is a central social relation, citizens will together explore disagreements and their anchorage in the differences between them.

Solidarity is forged by individuals and groups and their members on the basis of common traits which all regard as very important. Central is a willingness to acknowledge differences, to explore them, to realize that mutual knowledge is limited and needs to be expanded through questioning and open-ended conversations about shared beliefs as well as about conflicts and differences.

Where solidarity is lacking, interlocutors regard each other as opponents, even as enemies; they often hold each other in contempt and are angered by the positions the other takes. Where parties are in solidarity they hold each other and their opinions in esteem. They take each others’ views seriously in spite of emphatic disagreements. Mutual respect and a kind of affection are central. Martha Nussbaum boldly insists that solidarity relations must be relations of love. Love “includes a delighted recognition of the other as valuable, special, and fascinating; a drive to understand the point of view of the other… Gratitude for affectionate treatment and guilt at one’s own aggressive actions; and, finally centrally, trust and a suspension of anxious demands for control.”40 Marina Sitrin heard similar observations in the neighborhood meetings in which Argentines tried to solve their most pressing problems during the crisis of 2001/2: “We can have very difficult discussions and disagree, but we all stay part of the organization. We try to love each other.”41

Such mutual affection is perfectly compatible with searing anger, as Audrey Lorde insists.42 Being angry at those we love is, after all, a very common experience.

Is socialist democracy possible?

When solidarity is pervasive in a society, many conflicts may prove manageable.  It is unlikely that consensus on all issues will be within reach.

On the one hand, solidarity will make many compromises possible which are not open to people who are trying to prove that they are right and their opponent mistaken. The somewhat unusual demands of the evangelical parents in Hawkins County, Tennessee could have been easily accommodated among people who regarded accommodation as a virtue. No serious conflict would have been necessary, had solidarity reigned rather than the desire to be right.

The evangelical parents were willing to have their children study other religions as long as it was made clear that evangelical Christianity was the only true religion. The school board clearly could not adopt that as an official position. Had each side, instead of engaging in futile arguments, tried to appreciate the position of the other side, easy compromises would soon have emerged. The evangelical children might have been excused from the study of world-religions to do some other schoolwork. Or, while their classmates studied world religions, they might have been instructed by one of the evangelical pastors.

On the other hand, the disagreements between pro-life and pro-choice women and Fargo could not all be compromised. Limited solidarity has again and again been forged between pro-life and pro-choice groups. They have worked together on projects preventing unwanted births, on projects improving prenatal care and on facilitating adoption where the parents wanted to go that route. But all these kinds of solidarities left the basic disagreement about abortion untouched. Some women continue to believe that abortion is allowable in some cases and that, at any rate, the choice is up to the pregnant woman. Others continue to find abortion unacceptable.

There is no reason to think that a society striving earnestly for solidarity between opponents would be able to reach agreements on all issues. Widespread solidarity may well facilitate agreements unreachable in a more contentious society like ours. But it does not solve all problems for those seeking a genuine democracy where no groups are coerced by others who won a vote. Consensus is not always attainable. The tyranny of the majority is a constant threat, even among citizens earnestly striving for solidarity. Deep-seated disagreements are a hard fact of life.

There is also no reason to think that all groups in a given society will be able to establish relations of solidarity. It is always worth a try, if not in some sense obligatory, to foster solidary relations. But some of those efforts are bound to fail.

But it is now much clearer how socialist democracy and participation differ from the participation promoted by liberal organizations that are content to live in a capitalist society. Liberals recommend participation in a competitive system where getting elected, or getting your measures passed constitutes winning. Liberal theorists  who roundly deplore the coercion involved in these competitions, recommend that we settle our disagreements by deliberations that consist of giving each other reasons for accepting our ideas over anyone else’s.

Socialist participation is very different. It is unwilling to tolerate coercion as a part of democracy. It eschews competitions either for votes or for the winning argument. Instead it is constantly striving to construct relations of solidarity among individuals and groups who are keenly aware of mutual differences. It hopes to achieve a democracy without coercion through a concerted and tireless striving for solidarity. Solidarity is a necessary condition for socialist democracy, although it remains to be seen how complete socialist democracy can be.


1. Carole Pateman, Participation and Democratic Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970). Pateman stresses that one can conceive of “participation” in importantly different ways, a lesson that later advocates of participation have not always taken to heart.

2. Iris Young, Inclusion and Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 23.

3. Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, Socialism Today and Tomorrow (Boston: South End Press, 1981), 291.

4. Schweickart, “But What Is Your Alternative?” in Taking Socialism Seriously ed. Anatole Anton and Richard Schmitt (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012), 49.

5. Erik Olin Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias (London: Verso, 2010), 155.

6. Marina Sitrin, ed., Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2006); Astra Taylor, Keith Gessen, and editors from n+1, Occupy: Scenes from Occupied America (London: Verso, 2011).


8. League of Women Voters History.

9. Michael Albert, Parecon (London: Verso, 2003); David Schweickart, After Capitalism (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002); Richard Wolff, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013).

10. Young, Inclusion, 19.

11. Ibid., 20.

12. That may, of course, not be possible under all conditions. I will return to this point.

13. Joshua Cohen, “Democracy and Liberty,” in Jon Elster, ed., Deliberative Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 193.

14. Jürgen Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action vol. I (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984); Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998).

15. The entire discussion of reasoned deliberation ignores the gender issues involved. For many women, “reasoning” names an obfuscatory technique men use to dominate them.

16. Gerald F. Gaus, “Reason, Consensus and Justification: Why Democracy Can’t Have It All,” in James Bohman and William Rehg, eds, Deliberative Democracy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997), 231.

17. Mozert vs. Hawkins City Board of Education,

18. Cohen, “Democracy and Liberty” (note 14), 206.

19. Amy Gutman and Dennis Thompson, Democracy and Disagreement (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 65.

20. William A. Galston “Diversity, Toleration and Deliberative Democracy: Religious Minorities and Public Schooling” in Stephen Macedo, ed., Deliberative Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 39-48.

21. Stanley Fish “Mutual Respect as a Device of Exclusion” in Macedo, ed. Deliberative Politics, 88-102.

22. William H. Simon “Three Limitations of Deliberative Democracy: Identity Politics, Bad Faith, and Indeterminacy,” in Macedo ed. Deliberative Politics, 49-57.

23. Linda Martin Alcoff, “What’s Wrong with Philosophy,” New York Times, September 3, 2013.

24. Aristotle, Posterior Analytics, Book 1, Chapter 3.

25. Faye Ginsburg Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

26. Ibid., 126.

27. Ibid., 143.

28. For an enlightening discussion of these personal perspectives see Linda Alcoff, Visible Identities: Race, Gender and the Self (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

29. The systematic misunderstanding between different sides in debates has also been noted in quite different contexts, in natural science by Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), and in philosophy by Richard P. McKeon in “Dialogue and Controversy in Philosophy,” in Freedom and History and other Essays ed. Zahava K. McKeon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

30. If there are more than two parties to a controversy, a minority may even win the fight and a majority ends up being coerced.

31. Z.D. Gurevitch, “The Power of Not Understanding: The Meeting of Conflicting Identities,” Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 25 (1898), 161-173; Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (New York: Penguin, 1999).

32. Gurevitch, “The Power of Not Understanding.”

33. Kurt Bayertz, “Four Uses of Solidarity” in Kurt Bayertz, ed., Solidarity (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1999), 3-28; Sandra Bartky, Sympathy and Solidarity (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002); Larry Blum, “Three Kinds of Race Related Solidarity,” Journal of Social Philosophy 38 (2007), 53-72; Avery Kolers, “Dynamics of Solidarity,” Journal of Political Philosophy 20 (2012), 365-383; Richard Schmitt, “Solidarity: The Elusive Road to Socialism,” Anton and Schmitt, eds., Taking Socialism Seriously, 135-154; Sally Scholz, “Political Solidarity and Violent Resistance,” Journal of Social Philosophy 38 (2007), 38-52.

34. Audrey Lorde, Sister Outsider (Trumansburg: The Crossing Press, 1984); Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” The New Yorker, Feb. 25, 1967, 1-19.

35. Gutman and Thompson, Democracy and Disagreement, 43.

36. Sara Lightfoot, Respect (New York: Perseus Boos, 2000); Richard Sennett, Respect in a World of Inequality (New York: Norton, 2003).

37. Avishai Margalit, On Compromises and Rotten Compromises (Princeton: Princeton Universty Press, 2010).

38. Kolers, “Dynamics of Solidarity” (note 34).

39. William Rehg, Insight and Solidarity: A Study of the Discourse Ethics of Jürgen Habermas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), Chapter 4.

40. Martha Nussbaum, Politics and Emotion: Why Love Matters for Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 176.

41. Sitrin, Horizontalism, 64.

42. Lorde, Sister Outsider.

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