Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy | Study Guide

Joseph A. Schumpeter

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Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy | Part 4, Chapter 20 : Socialism and Democracy (The Setting of the Problem) | Summary

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Summary

Schumpeter notes, memorably, that it used to be "obvious" that socialists were democrats but that the Russian Revolution of 1917 and other events have made this much less certain. For instance, Schumpeter notes the enthusiasm some socialists possess for using undemocratic means (that is, violence) to institute what might or might not be the perfect democratic society.

Using the historical record of socialist parties, he notes that few have lived up to their claims to champion "the democratic creed." In Russia, for example, all other parties but the ruling party are banned. His sketch of the affairs of other parties and his earlier logical discussion allow him to say that socialism does not "imply anything about political procedure."

He notes with some dismay that few socialist parties, when they had the opportunity to prove their allegiance, threw their weight behind democracy. The one example that did, the German Social Democratic Party in 1918, split over the issue. Schumpeter's conclusion is that most socialists espouse democracy "if, as, and when it serves their ideals and interests and not otherwise."

Schumpeter indulges a mental experiment in which he aims to show that people who consider themselves democrats do not believe in the pure form of democracy but in higher "democratic virtues" that outweigh commitment to a democratic system. He offers his own definition of democracy as a political method. A method cannot be an end in itself. Schumpeter proceeds to justify his definition by considering what democracy is in practice. He dispenses with the idea that democracy is government "by the people" and instead considers it, at most, "government approved by the people."

Analysis

The problem of socialism's compatibility with democracy was made a major issue after the Russian Revolution. There, socialists overthrew a democratic government in a coup, then instituted a harsh autocracy. In Schumpeter's time, the full extent of Russian revolutionary Joseph Stalin's (1878–1953) authoritarianism, with its purges and prison camps, was not fully understood. Schumpeter would likely have been even more aghast than he already is. But in this section, the real-life example would be beside his point. He is interested in the compatibility between socialism and democracy in the abstract, not in whether a specific instance of socialism is compatible with a specific democratic system.

Schumpeter's mental experiment to prove that true democrats believe more in democratic ideals than a democratic system is more than just a mental experiment. In the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, just such questions had been matters of practical urgency across the world, as authoritarian regimes such as those of Stalin and Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) took power and began to brutalize "undesirables" within their population. Schumpeter was aware of these regimes, which is why his "mental experiment" is probably anything but an experiment. He is slyly trying to make his audience consider the real circumstances in which they were living.

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