To many socialists–myself included–the revolution of 1917 is an important referent. This was a time when our class, led by our party, rose up against the wasteful and murderous interimperialist war, smashed the last vestige of despotic monarchical power in Europe, and conquered state power. Whatever we may think about the future outcomes, it is difficult to oppose the revolution as such.
Because of the central importance of 1917, we have made into universals things that were conjunctural or particular to a given time and place. While some of these notions may have more general applicability, it is vital not to assume this heritage unobserved.
One instance of this is the system of Soviet democracy. It’s common currency on the left that bourgeois parliamentary democracy is a less representative and materially inferior system to council–or Soviet–democracy. Without minimising the flaws in bourgeois parliaments, and taking into account Soviets may play a useful role in the organisation of a socialist commonwealth, I will explain why this position is not accurate. I have been swayed by the arguments of a comprehensive paper, Decision-making and supervision in a communist commonwealth (pdf), from which I take many of the arguments and examples. All errors are mine.
Unequal size of Soviets
The first problem which arises for council democracy’s claim to represent people better begins with the fact that delegates from councils are representing an unequal number of voters. This is an inevitable circumstance if we expect our councils to have any actual relation to functional units (workplaces, working groups) or geographical communities, though as I will show later, even if we require and force equal sizes for councils, other problems will still exist. The problem lies in assigning a correct weight to council delegates.
Let’s imagine there are 3 councils: they contain 100, 50 and 45 workers respectively, each electing one delegate. The “natural” way to weight their votes is to do so in direct proportion to the number of people whom they represent. However, as a result, 51 members of the larger council can completely dominate the decision.
If 51 members of the larger council vote yes, with the other 49 voting no, and the entirety of the other 2 councils vote no, the result in terms of people would be 51 yes to 144 no, but in terms of weighted delegate votes it would be of 100 yes to 95 no, which would make pass a decision which a solid majority of council members want quashed.
Note this is nothing to do with delegates misusing their power, so any of the other checks on councils such as the right to recall are unusable to solve this problem, which arises from the very nature of the decision rule in use.
Some means to correct this problem may include weighing only the votes of those who supported the delegate, but this does present some of its own issues. In the case of a delegate which is merely conveying decisions from below, it is not an insurmountable problem, but in the case of someone who is expected to conduct themselves somewhat more independently, for instance negotiating with other delegates to reach a compromise position, it becomes unviable; and expecting all lowest-level councils to vote on every decision the commonwealth carries forward is likely to result in disengagement with politics. If it were possible, in any event, it would be best to simply dispose of the councils and use referenda, but the fact is, it probably would cause civic exhaustion.
Councils of equal size
Some of this can be sorted out by insisting in councils of equal size, but this isn’t itself enough to fix all the technical problems with the council pyramid structure. Another example follows.
Let’s have 3 councils with 3 citizens each. On councils 0 and 1, 2 vote yes and 1 votes no; on council 3 all vote no. In terms of delegates, this decision would pass, 2 to 1, while in terms of citizens, only 4 support it to 5 who oppose it.
Dilution of power
The core problem in council democracy lies in the dilution of power which citizens suffer as their decisions filter upwards through the tiers of delegation. There’s a mathematical formalisation, called Penrose’s power index which can be used to determine the actual power of voters under given decision rules, and which is based on the likelihood they will issue the “swing vote”. While it starts out from an assumption of randomness and independence in voting patterns, it’s a useful starting rule to consider such problems abstractly.
What this rule shows us is that the more tiers are involved in a council system, the more diluted the power of citizens becomes.
What is to be done?
There are clear deficits in the structure of council democracy, but this doesn’t mean it can’t–or shouldn’t–be used at all. On the contrary, some of the very collectivist bias of such a system, which represents better the functional or geographical units than their constituent parts, can be very useful in decision-making, and would be an invaluable source of feedback. However, such a system cannot displace parliamentarism as a whole. It cannot be the alpha and omega for a socialist commonwealth’s political organisation.
There are plenty of alternatives, some using councils as part of decision-making, some not. The whole point is we shouldn’t let our historical reverence for Soviets stop us from considering them. These are some:
- A bicammeral system which includes a chamber of councils and a directly elected chamber
- The use of sortition or similar means inspired in demarchy to serve as a brake for the councils
- Cybernetic solutions based on constant polling with large sample sizes in implicit or burdenless ways
- A direct negotiation between parties where they get attributed weighted power according to their membership
- Systems of liquid democracy–which is to say, those where voting can be proxied recursively in a directed acyclic graph for individual votes, votes on particular issues, or as a whole
Of all things Marx held, nothing is probably as important as his favourite motto: de omnibus dubitandum. It’s high time we apply it to those things in our history, methods and programme which have become sacred doctrine, and which lead some, not entirely unfairly, to accuse us of religious faith.