Xiangyang Xin is Director of the School of Marxism, University of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and Vice-president and researcher of the Academy of Marxism of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. His research focuses on sinicized Marxism. His main publications include On China’s Development (in Chinese; Shandong People’s Publishing House, 2006), A Study of the Basic Issues concerning the Scientific Outlook on Development (in Chinese; China Social Press, 2008), and A Review and Analysis of Twentieth Century Western Theories of Democracy (in Chinese; Shandong People’s Publishing House, 2011). He is also the editor of A Study of the Road of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics (in Chinese; Hebei People’s Publishing House, 2011).
(This article is translated by Liu Zixu from original Chinese version)
The falsity of Western democracy is rooted in the fundamental contradiction of capitalist society. The basic contradiction of capitalist society is that between the socialization of production and the private ownership of the means of production. This contradiction is expressed in politics as the contradiction between the social demand for democratic development and the private appropriation of political power by capital. In real life, as the control of power by capital becomes tighter and increasingly well concealed, political activities become superficial, since the members of the public are given a right to vote that is without substantial content. Citizens may vent grievances at the ballot box, but what they receive in response is for the most part broken promises.
Western democracies make many promises that are vague or deceptive. Why are so many Western democracies so untrustworthy? What are the root causes of this deceptiveness? First, Western political thinkers invent many falsehoods intended to convince people that democracy is exclusive to the West, and that the East has been authoritarian since ancient times. Such false stories have convinced some people that democracy is in the cultural DNA of Westerners and is their inherent property. Typical of these stories is the one told by Karl August Wittfogel at the end of his book Oriental Despotism:
A Comparative Study of Total Power. Wittfogel’s story goes like this:
he good citizens of classical Greece drew strength from the determination of two of their countrymen, Sperthias and Bulis, to resist the lure of total power. On their way to Suza, the Spartan envoys were met by Hydarnes, a high Persian official, who offered to make them mighty in their homeland, if only they would attach themselves to the Great King, his despotic master. To the benefit of Greece—and to the benefit of all free men— Herodotus has preserved their answer. “Hydarnes,” they said, “thou art a one-sided counselor. Thou hast experience of half the matter; but the other half is beyond thy knowledge. A slave’s life thou understandest; but, never having tasted liberty, thou canst not tell whether it be sweet or no. Ah! Hadst thou known what freedom is, thou wouldst have bidden us fight for it, not with the spear only, but with the battle-axe.” (Wittfogel 1981, 448–449).
Outside of that historical era, unfortunately, the logic of this story does not hold so true. For one thing, it is a clear manifestation of eurocentrism, the habit of thought according to which the West represents freedom and the East implies tyranny. This story could not have been written by Herodotus, but is a pseudo-story contrived by modern Western scholars under the guise of Herodotus. For another thing, Sparta was a slave society, so how likely were its envoys to talk about freedom? Therefore, the words of Sperthias and Bulis to the effect that “you understand a slave’s life, but you have never known the taste of freedom,” are particularly untruthful and ahistorical; they are cited as if from a conversation between people today, and are thus far from convincing in both logical and historical terms. The reason why such arguments are implausible can be understood from a passage of Marx’s comments on Aristotle.
In the first volume of Capital, Marx suggests that Aristotle was the first to analyze the form of value. According to Aristotle, “5 beds = 1 house is not to be distinguished from 5 beds = so much money.” This clearly shows that “the money form of commodities is only the further development of the simple form of value,” and furthermore, that qualitative equalization is the basis for quantitative commensurability. Aristotle, however, “gives up the further analysis of the form of value” (Marx, 1906, p. 68), which is not his own problem since slavery—a society of inequality—cannot yield an explanation for the secret of a society of equality.
As Marx points out, There was, however, an important fact which prevented Aristotle from seeing that, to attribute value to commodities, is merely a mode of expressing all labour as equal human labour, and consequently as labour of equal quality. Greek society was founded upon slavery, and had, therefore, for its natural basis, the inequality of men and of their labour powers. The secret of the expression of value, namely, that all kinds of labour are equal and equivalent, because, and so far as they are human labour in general, cannot be deciphered, until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice.
his, however, is possible only in a society in which the great mass of the produce of labour takes the form of commodities, in which, consequently, the dominant relation between man and man, is that of owners of commodities. The brilliancy of Aristotle’s genius is shown by this alone, that he discovered, in the expression of the value of commodities, a relation of equality. The 196 X. XIN peculiar conditions of the society in which he lived, alone prevented him from discovering what, “in truth,” was at the bottom of this equality. (Marx 1906, 69).
Here Marx is actually telling us that no idea can be separated from the historical conditions from which it arises. The freedom understood by Sperthias and Bulis is nothing but the freedom of a few, not the freedom of the masses. Second, the falsity of Western democracy is rooted in the fundamental contradiction of capitalist society.
The basic contradiction of capitalist society is that between the socialization of production and the private ownership of the means of production. This contradiction is expressed in politics as the contradiction between the social demand for democratic development and the private appropriation of political power by capital. In real life, as the control of power by capital becomes tighter and increasingly well concealed, political activities become superficial, since the members of the public are given a right to vote that is without substantial content. Citizens may vent grievances at the ballot box, but what they receive in response is for the most part broken promises.
In sum, Xi Jinping’s four criteria* for distinguishing true from false democracy are valid and effective.They are objective and realistic criteria based on the law of development of democratic politics in human societies, as well as on scientific conclusions that flow from a dialectical analysis of the incomplete and one-sided nature of capitalist democracy. The kind of politics that features an abundance of fanfare during elections, but in which the people have no real voice, is not truly democratic.
The kind of politics that lets people feel entitled during election campaigns, but that leaves them completely out of account after the voting concludes, is not truly democratic either. And the kind of politics that encourages people to feel empowered at the ballot box, but that leaves them deeply depressed after they have departed from the polling station, is also a caricature of democracy.
The genuinely democratic kind of politics is the kind that is straightforward and realistic at the time of the election, after which various political rights continue to be realized. Also truly democratic is the kind of politics that has people feeling empowered and respected during the election period, knowing that their sacred rights will be effectively realized. And the kind of politics that gives people a feeling of solemn satisfaction at the ballot box, followed by genuine happiness after the process is completed, is truly democratic as well.
*Four criteria: “ The key to whether a country is democratic lies in whether its people are truly the masters of the country; it depends not only on whether the people have the right to vote, but also on whether they have the right to participate extensively; not only on whether they have been given verbal promises during elections, but also on how many of these promises are fulfilled after elections; not only on whether there are set political procedures and rules enshrined in systems and laws, but also on whether these systems and laws are truly enforced; and not only on whether the rules and procedures for the exercise of power are democratic, but also on whether power is genuinely subject to public oversight and checks”.
Marx, K. 1906. Capital, vol. 1. Translated from the Third German Edition by S. Moore and E. Aveling. New York: Modern Library.
Wittfogel, K. A. 1981. Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power. New York: Vintage Books.
Xu, J., and Y. Wang. 2021. “Adhering to and Improving the System of People’s Congresses, and Continuously Developing the Whole Process of People’s Democracy.” [In Chinese.] People’s Daily, October 15.