Radical democracy: why is it still relevant today?

Scientific humanism and its political correlate offer a philosophical perspective of human freedom based on scientific knowledge in an age harangued by orthodoxy and regression

Published - May 21, 2024 08:30 am IST

For representative purposes

For representative purposes | Photo Credit: iStockphoto

Periods of crisis, social, political or economic, call attention to the necessity for a radical reorganisation of society; all rational and progressive individuals are cognisant of this urge. This was the case with 19th century liberal democracy, which had degenerated into exploitation under capitalism, forcing those with a sense of dignity and justice to seek out a better alternative to a social order that was building itself atop the dictum “every man for himself, and devil take the hindmost’‘. In time, a large part of these radicals and revolutionaries came under the influence of new collectivist doctrines, which offered a transitional dictatorship and centralised economic planning as a remedy to solve the defects of liberal democracy and capitalist exploitation across the world.

The initial enthusiasm of that age of revolution came to a close when the “spectre of communism’‘ that had once threatened capitalist hegemony had itself degenerated into a dictatorship; what was stipulated to be a transitional phase had come to be the norm. The concurrent rise of 20th century fascism led to the development of a political situation where there were outright dictatorships on one end and the mere panacea of democratic formalities on the other. The world lurched toward the dangerous realm of global conflict as a result of these developments.

With millions dead and the world in a state of chaos, many who had been champions of solving humanity’s problems saw dictatorship as no solution at all. Those who had fought apathetic spiritual dogmas, exploitative capitalists, and absolutist imperialism had done so with the intent to see human beings free to choose their own destiny, and not become vassals to a new form of tyranny. However, the question of reconciling the aspirations of freedom and democracy, and the desire for social and economic justice, continued to remain a quandary as before.

During this period of social crisis, one that continues to this day, the Indian freedom fighter and humanist philosopher Manabendra Nath Roy, and many of his colleagues, which included critical Marxists as well as thoughtful nationalists, developed a theory which they felt offered a solution that reconciled the aspirations of freedom with the desire for justice.

Scientific humanism: a new orientation

Before a contour of a radical democratic political economy can be laid out, a scientifically consistent philosophical outlook must be iterated. To this end, Roy and his colleagues developed the philosophy of new humanism. Humanism, they argued, was as ancient as human beings, and could only be enriched by the new discoveries in scientific thought. A humanism enriched by these new developments in the understanding of the natural world would be best described as ‘scientific’ or ‘new’ humanism.

However, the reaction felt by the bewildered bulk of modern humanity in the aftermath of the discoveries of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century led many to believe that only two ways existed out of the intellectual chaos and moral confusion of that age. The first was the lure of a security offered by a totalitarian State which would regiment the lives of the masses through the control of its social, economic, and cultural existence; the second way was a recrudescence of modern society into the dark embrace of old world theology. In some cases, both notions were fused to create an even more horrifying Frankenstein’s monster.

These routes are likely to ensure that civilised humanity is defeated, and would mean a relapse into a sort of modern-day savagery. It would be a negation of the intellectual revolt that brought forth the development of modern science, which represented a great advance in humanity’s ancient quest for freedom from the vagaries of nature.

Human behaviour includes the capacity for rational thought, the radicals argued. “Morality results from man’s intelligent response to his surroundings. Therefore, it can be deduced from his innate rationality. Since rationality is inherent in human nature, it is only necessary to remind him of his biological heritage, and he will regain faith in himself and undo the harm done to him. Having realised the mistakes of the past, and trying to rectify them, modern mankind will find a way out of the crisis of our time,” Roy writes in his Reason, Romanticism and Revolution.

The realisation of the possibility of a secular rational morality opens up a new perspective before the modern world. The concepts of human dignity, sovereignty, and creativeness, have meaning only when they arise, not as a token to divine writ or as the fief of an all encompassing collective ego, but from the rational faculty of the individual.

To that end, Roy proposes in his New Orientation, “Revolution is not inevitable. Only objective conditions and even historical necessity do not make a revolution successful. Fundamental changes in the structure of society take place only when there is a group of individuals who feel the necessity, who see the possibility of fulfilling it, and who can develop an adequate amount of will to bring about the changes which are both necessary and possible. In the absence of such a group of people, revolution is not only not inevitable, but even when it is necessary, it does not take place. The history of the world is littered with unsuccessful revolutions. Revolutions fail as a rule. Successful ones are exceptions to the rule. There have been very few such exceptions in history.”

The radical democratic approach to the problems of human life radiates back to the common centre of all social, political, economic and cultural questions of humanity — the individual human being. Women and men, cognisant of their own capacity for reason, and driven to reshape the conditions around them, can do so by cooperating with each other to develop a just and free society. Society cannot remake itself merely through manifestoes for justice or declarations of independence, nor can a mere economic reorganisation or parliamentary formalism bring such change. Without the intelligent action of individuals, cognisant of the human capacity to transform the conditions around them, social change cannot occur merely as a fact of history.

A radical approach to elections

Democracy, if it is to mean a mere regularised counting of votes is not much more than deception, particularly if the voters have not had a chance to raise themselves up in dignity.

In parliamentary democratic conventions, demagogues take power, by promising utopia to a hapless electorate; though once in power the demagogue is evidently unable to deliver, and must invariably resort to strongarm tactics to ensure retaining political power.

Any talk of benign dictatorship is also foolhardy, as can be witnessed by the experience of so much of the human population under the benignancy of such authoritarianism.

The theory and practice of dictatorship, even as the means to an end, is repugnant. Conversely, the limitations of parliamentary democracy can no longer be ignored. Under it, civil liberties can be reduced to mere formalities.

“Without accepting the view that parliamentary democracy is- also a class dictatorship, a view which cannot be easily disposed of, critical students of modern history should be able to see that the inadequacies of parliamentary democracy are inherent in itself. In the highly completed modern industrial society, individual citizens, particularly those labouring under economic disadvantages, have very little chance of exercising effectively the sovereign right which formally belongs to them. Law gives them little protection, particularly in critical times. It is an indisputable fact that under the parliamentary system democracy cannot control the executive. Between two elections, it is completely out of the picture. During that period, a party having a majority in the parliament can legally assume dictatorial power. The guarantee against such a possible abuse of power, attainable with democratic sanction, is not legal. The guarantee is provided by the moral sense of the majority party. Thus, parliamentarism as such cannot defend democracy, and guarantee civil liberties, under all circumstances,” Roy stated in a lecture in 1946.

Between the failures of traditional notions of liberal democracy and the promise of a ‘righteous’ tyranny, the masses have been duped into choosing one of two bad alternatives.

The decay of liberal democracies encouraged the rise of various collectivist doctrines which denied the possibility of individual freedom, ridiculing it as an empty abstraction. These doctrines, in turn, proclaimed that in order to be free the individual must merge himself in the mass. That is one way of saying that freedom for the self must be found in self-negation.

This also favoured political demagogues who preferred a mob that acts on appeals to passions. Political outfits need votes to come to power. It is easier to sway the people by calls to their sentiments than to their reason. The more backward a populace is, the more easily they can be swayed by appeals to emotional prejudices.

As such, dictatorship of any form, regardless of the pretext for it, is rejected by the radical democratic perspective.

“Politics cannot be divorced from ethics without jeopardising the cherished ideal of freedom,” Roy writes in his New Humanism. Democracy, as it exists today, must reorientate itself. It must revert to a humanist tradition.

“The character of a party is to be judged not by its ability to catch votes, but by the merit of its proclaimed principles and published programme. The people should be asked to vote not for professions and promises, but by judging the record of a government… Under the formal parliamentary system, unscrupulous demagogues can always come to the top. Intelligence, integrity, wisdom, moral excellence, as a rule, count for nothing. Yet, unless the purifying influence of these human values is brought to bear upon the political organisation and administration of society, the democratic way of life can never be realised,” he writes.

As such a conscious will to freedom, the desire to take destiny in your own hands, a sense of responsibility and the ability to critically examine the promises and programmes put before the people by parties and politicians are the preconditions for any successful democracy. One must become a judge as to whether such conditions exist in a given society, and if found wanting in this regard, must strive to create the conditions to that end.

“To ensure that elections reflect an intelligent public opinion, there has to be an intelligent public opinion first,” Roy writes.

The radical democratic approach to election begins with people in their localities meeting in local or regional conferences for discussions. The intention being to provide for educative and enlightening propagation of these ideas. Through such informal but regular meetings an intelligent public opinion is created. Having come to understand political questions and economic problems for themselves, the people will see that they need not merely vote for this or that party to solve their problems. This would also cultivate the ability for independent judgement and as such the people could choose to elect candidates of their own choice, from amongst themselves.

These candidates would enjoy greater independence since they would not be dependent on any political outfit; they can rely on their own conscience and be directly responsible to the electorate. This would do away with the mechanical nature of party politics and the demagogy and corruption that comes in its wake. Freed from the discipline of party machinery, the candidates can both think freely and speak with courage on issues pertaining to the voters.

This would also require, and in the process of doing so will ensure, a training of the electorate to not blindly rely on State machinery. As such, if an individual or a group wishes to create an atmosphere for general education, they can proceed to do so with whatever limited resources they can muster.

Such groups of individuals across any given territory would become the nuclei for a radical democratic movement; the progress of this movement would spread in geometrical progression to the rise of such individuals.

Such ‘people’s committees’ would not only have the ability to pick independent candidates from amongst themselves but also eventually become the locus of a pyramidical democracy. Empowered with the right of recall and the ability to hold referendums, these organised local democracies would wield a direct and effective control of the mechanics of the State.

“If we want to avoid the danger of totalitarianism, we must change that mentality of the people. That can be done only if those who are at least partially enlightened, conscious of their own responsibility to contribute to this effort,” Roy states in Politics, Power and Parties.

In the final analysis, the aim of democratic politics is to build up a state based upon popular initiative, social co-operation, and increasing participation of the people in the administration of all political affairs.

“The establishment of a genuinely democratic government — a government of the people and by the people. The qualification ‘ genuine’ excludes the third term in the well-known definition of a democratic government. A government ‘for the people’ cannot be a genuinely democratic government. The third term in the definition nullifies the other two terms, which is the essence of democratic government. A government for the people allows delegation of power. And delegation of power invariably results in usurpation of power,” Roy writes in National Government or People’s Government?.

No democratic movement can progress merely by formalising this or that procedural structure. If elections, voting, parliamentary proceedings were to operate mechanically then the human element is lost once more. It can occur only with the intelligent and conscious participation of the individuals who constitute a society. As such, the more individuals choose to think about and participate in the democratic process the more organically democratic it becomes.

“This can be possible only through the development of the spirit of liberty in more and more members of the society. The index of democratic development is the minimisation of the coercive functions of the state and the maximisation of the voluntary co-operation of the people in administration and legislation,” Ellen Roy states In Man’s Own Image.

A humanist perspective on economics

“It is indeed a stupendous task to plan the economic life of a fifth of the human race,” Roy had written in his People’s Plan for Economic Development.

Centralisation of politics is concurrent with the centralisation of economics. Under the so-called ‘free-market’ economies this is done by capitalist concentration of wealth, and under nationalised economies it reverts to state capitalism.

Capitalism produces goods not with the primary consideration of supplying the needs of the people, but of selling them at a profit. When goods cannot be sold with sufficient profit, capitalists will curtail production.

This is compounded in the case of countries like India where a large and continually expanding population is seen as detrimental to the economic development of the country. Rapid industrialisation is offered as a solution to many of these problems. However, industries can succeed only on the basis of a home market. A healthy export trade begins only when the home market is satisfied.

“Modernisation of agriculture is the greatest need of the economic life of our country if production of wealth is to be increased. But this is more a matter of organisation of rural economy than of mechanisation,” Roy said in a 1949 lecture in Patna.

Given the primacy for agriculture, the radical democrats cite three problems that need to be overcome in that regard. Firstly, a lack of irrigation which must be countered by the development of wells, reservoirs, canals, et al. Secondly, an improvement for the fertility of the land. This could be incentivised by the State. Thirdly, the development of new roads, and the repair of old ones for the countryside. Lastly, an organisation of rural consumers and local industries on a co-operative basis in order to provide employment and income for the rural populace.

With regards to the question of social security, Roy states that the “provision of such security ultimately depends upon the extent to which a surplus can be produced in the economy”. A radical democratic programme includes notions such as unemployment insurance, old age pension, and other provisions for the upliftment of the citizens. But these must be made with the principle that economic produce is in line with use and with reference to human needs, with a specific focus on the development of health infrastructure, housing and education.

Pointing to the correlation between economic and social freedom, Roy said in March 1943, “The established, feudal and patriarchal social relations must go if the standard of the masses of the Indian people is to be appreciably raised. It will take some time before modern industries will be able to relieve the pressure on land. The peasantry constitutes the vast bulk of Indian consumers. Therefore, greater purchasing power of the peasantry is the condition for the expansion of modern industries.”

Vast projects such as rapid and large-scale industrialisation, particularly when done without keeping in mind the human element, could change the face of the country without affecting any real change in its economic system and living standards. The objectives of restructuring agriculture and industry could also be met with less capital and provide a more immediate benefit to the people. This notion was conceived by the radical democrats who wanted social justice as being a corollary to economic justice; if rapid industrialisation would benefit only a small fraction of the labouring masses it would likely deepen the already considerable social iniquities.

Why radical democracy?

The concept of democracy is a product of civilisation. Regardless of the contrary assertions, democracy was impossible in primitive societies. The present stage of social evolution permits its existence, and as such it is incumbent on society’s individual constituents to recognise the fact that their freedom is interlinked with the freedom of other individual constituents.

A social order that is marked by economic depredation and social oppression will be fertile territory for a political order that is totalitarian and tyrannical.

“The brain is the means of production, and produces the most revolutionary commodity. Revolutions presuppose iconoclastic ideas. An increasingly large number of men, conscious of their creative power, motivated by an indomitable will to remake the world, moved by the adventure of ideas, and fired with the ideal of a free society,” Roy writes in New Humanism.

The conditions of the contemporary world present a dismal picture for those who desire for freedom and do not see it as a contradiction to justice. The looming threat of a ruinous war is only mitigated by the reality of a gradual breakdown of modern civilisation. It is indeed a paradoxical situation. Even as humanity is the most aware it has been about the cosmos and the laws that govern it, it is simultaneously the closest it has ever been to disintegration.

The way out must be one that harkens to the principles of scientific thought.

“The inspiration for a new philosophy of revolution must be drawn from the traditions of humanism and moral radicalism,” Roy had written. The radicals of the past were actuated by the principle of individualism, and realised the possibility of a secular humanism and a rationalist ethics. “To be radical is to grasp things by the root, but for man the root is man himself,” Marx said in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Roy recapitulates and extends this basic fact of history into the dictum that “man is the maker of his world”.

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