Corbyn, Brexit and the Impossibility of Democratic Absolutism



Geoffrey M. Hodgson


UK politics is currently in turmoil, as a result of the vote for Brexit on 23 June 2016. Should a narrow referendum result be implemented by the government, or should Parliament alone make the final decision? The constitutional position is that Parliament is sovereign. But many insist that even a narrow result should automatically be respected. To do anything else would be ‘undemocratic’ – and therefore wrong.

Within days of the referendum, the Parliamentary Labour Party passed a decisive vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn as its leader.

Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn

Corbyn is a ‘democratic socialist’, believing in a large public sector under some form of ‘democratic control’. His speeches and writings are silent on the detail on how this would work. We find a tiny bit more in the publications of his late mentor – Tony Benn. Benn argued that the essence of socialism was democracy, not simply in parliament, but in the economy and all civic life.

This is not a new idea. Vladimir Lenin wrote in 1917 in his State and Revolution of ‘an immense expansion of democracy’ (which of course was the reverse of what actually happened after he seized power).

G. D. H. Cole was a Fabian and Labour Party socialist. His vision of ‘guild socialism’ was of an integrated, national system where ‘a single authority is responsible both for the planning of the social production as a whole and for the distribution of the incomes which will be used in buying it.’ Within this ‘single authority’ he also sought devolved worker control, where groups of individuals would make democratic decisions on how production was organised and products were distributed.

Tony Benn

Tony Benn

The superficial attraction of this kind of thinking is immediate. The Corbyns of today, the Benns of yesterday and the Coles of the day before, all pointed to the towering concentrations of capitalist power and wealth that overshadow the festering estates of the poor. ‘Make it all democratic’ they say, ‘let the public own, and decide upon, what is to be done with the banks, railways, enterprises, and all the rest. This is just democracy in action.’

But there are grounds to hesitate. Leaving aside the issue of public ownership, democracy is not a solution to every problem. Furthermore, there are logical, practical and even ethical arguments against an indefinite extension of democracy. There are very good reasons to be in favour of democratic government. But the limits to democracy should also be acknowledged.

Absolutism refers to a form of undemocratic and unaccountable government. Absolutism also refers to the idea that a principle or standard should be all-encompassing or supreme. In the latter sense, some people are democratic absolutists. I offer an explanation why they are wrong. If you feel uncomfortable with this ironic conjunction of meanings, then you may substitute with something like ‘ultra-democracy’ instead.

First I outline some well-known logical problems with ultra-democracy (you may skip this section if you are more interested in practicalities). I then point to some practical problems with ultra-democracy. I end up defending representative democracy.

Logical problems with democracy

It is very easy to show that the absolute democratisation of every important decision is impossible. A decision cannot be made democratically without prior rules on how the vote is to be conducted. How is the proposal tabled? Who can vote? What system of voting is used? Can the proposal be amended? And so on.

That is why states or organisations have constitutions or standing orders, which hopefully can deal with these issues. Some of these ground rules – such as the constitution itself – may have previously been put to the vote. But then too some rules were assumed, concerning the way that vote was conducted. Often the choice of those rules were crucial for the outcome. But it is logically impossible to have a vote on every prior rule that is necessary for a vote to take place. It’s an example of an infinite regress.

Nicolas de Condorcet

Nicolas de Condorcet

Another intractable logical problem is the paradox of voting, as first explained by the French revolutionary Nicolas de Condorcet (1743-1794). Condorcet showed that while individuals themselves may have consistent preferences over different outcomes, when brought together in a population the collective expressions of those preferences may be inconsistent. Jonathan Portes has illustrated this neatly in the Brexit case. Attempts to deal with this problem – such as two-stage voting, as in French Presidential elections – are both fallible and dependent on prior choices of rules.

There is also the Arrow impossibility theorem, named after the Nobel economist Kenneth Arrow. His theorem states that no rank-order voting system can be designed that always satisfies these three reasonable criteria of fairness. I do not need to go into further details here. The overall point is that all attempts to implement democracy are inevitably incomplete, involve prior assumptions that cannot be voted upon, and may violate some principles of consistency or fairness.

Practical problems with ultra-democracy

Major practical problems with ultra-democracy stem from the complexity and scale of modern society. A small club or group can run things relatively easily. But even then, special skills are required, such as being able to keep accounts or chair meetings.

Making decisions and managing human interactions in a large-scale society is immensely more complex. Personal familiarity and trust remain vital at the family and small community level, but with decisions involving thousands and millions of people, something else is required. There has to be some kind of government, of one kind or another, based on some form of authority.

Consider the ‘democratic control’ of industry, favoured by Cole, Benn and Corbyn. Worker cooperatives are a workable and meritorious alternative to capitalist corporations. But even here, only a tiny proportion of decisions can be delegated to ballots or mass meetings. The complex processes and technologies of production have to be broken up into manageable units. The advice of experts has to be relied upon.

In addition, a lot of decision-making has to be devolved. We are no longer a world where the role of an office secretary is simply to take down shorthand and type it out. A great deal of work involves processing information and making judgements, even at lower management levels. Think how many small judgements are made at work each day. It would be impossible to be ‘democratic’ and put them to the vote.

Greater industrial democracy, with worker participation in some workplace decisions, can improve productivity and make work more enjoyable. Moves in this direction are important and valuable. But it is impractical to have votes on more than a tiny fraction of the important decisions that have to take place every day in any large, complex economy.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

Everyone’s participation in every major decision, even if limited to a town or region, would be a crushing burden of endless decision-making on every citizen. It would guarantee economic paralysis. Oscar Wilde was right: socialism is impossible because it would take too many meetings.

Supporters of an ultra-democratic society, where individuals make decisions throughout industry as well as the polity, fail to consider the problems of relevant knowledge and the sheer number of meetings and decisions involved. That is why, contrary to the claims of many socialist ultra-democrats, private ownership and control are necessary to a large degree, so that producers and consumers can make decisions (within legal limits) through contracts and markets, unencumbered by local or national committees and their inevitable bureaucracies.

Robert Michels

Robert Michels

Robert Michels (1876-1936) was a student of Max Weber. He argued persuasively that full democratic control was impossible in large-scale, complex organizations. For individuals to coordinate and act together, sizeable organizations need leaders, who then delegate administrative tasks to complex bureaucracies. Leaders and bureaucrats manage information flows between members of the organization. They develop skills, and acquire expertise and knowledge, that are peculiar to their roles. Knowledge is specialized, and the management of information has unavoidably to be selective. It is impossible for everyone to become a specialist in more than a few areas, or to take account of every piece of information in the organization. Inevitably, this leads to oligarchy, with some power shifting away from individuals at the base.

Michels underlined the oligarchic distribution of knowledge and power in large, complex organizations. Because of localized knowledge, specialisms, complexities, and massive amounts of information, a direct democracy, where everyone votes on everything, is not viable. It is impossible to involve everyone in every significant decision. Michels argued in detail that ‘the principle cause of oligarchy in the democratic parties is to be found in the technical indispensability of leadership.’

The moral limits to democracy

Many Left politicians emphasize the importance of human rights. This is no less true of Tony Benn or Jeremy Corbyn. The specification and justification of those rights are controversial. But the majestic modern statement is the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. It proclaims inalienable rights including freedom of expression, freedom of worship, freedom from torture, and so on. It also includes the right to own private property, which may be an anathema for some socialists, but can be justified on the grounds of the right to resources for self-development and autonomy.

John Adams

John Adams

We may disagree on what should or should not be included on the list of universal human rights, but as long as we accept the veracity of any such list, then there is a problem for ultra-democracy. Two principles collide: the ultra-democratic maxim that if possible issues should be decided by a vote, and the idea that human rights are inalienable and may not be countered by any political power, democratic or otherwise. On this basis, some democratic votes can be immoral, such as a resolution to suspend important rights in the event of a national emergency.

As the American politician John Adams (1735-1826) pointed out, the rule of the majority can be abused to counter the rights or legitimate interests of minorities. That is one reason why universal human rights are important: their assertion protects minorities suffering illegitimate discrimination in the hands of majorities. Ultra-democracy opens the door for unwarranted discrimination and the disregard for rights. For democracy to work well, all powerful parties and interest groups must recognise its limits.

In principle, if sometimes not in practice, rights are protected by courts, including supreme courts whose role is to safeguard individual rights and the constitution. Courts are there to prevent democratic decisions countering human rights or breaking existing laws. It is even possible that the Brexit referendum was illegal, and the decision of the majority could be legally overturned.

Why democracy is essential

The most important reason for democracy is the legitimation of political power. Prior to the modern era, the authority of a tribal chief or a national monarch was legitimated by religion, myth, tradition, family descent, combat, or some combination of these. The rationalism of the Enlightenment changed all that. The English Levellers, the American Revolutionaries and the French Jacobins all sought to replace hereditary monarchies, which had been legitimised by religion. Instead there would be parliamentary system, with delegates elected from the population of adult males. The claim for legitimacy would be popular mandate, based on the male heads of households.

My forthcoming book elaborates on some of the political issues raised in this blog:

Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost

To be published by University of Chicago Press in November 2017

Of course, the major deficit here was the denial of votes to women, which was not widely recognised as an important omission until the second half of the nineteenth century. (Incidentally, the Marquis de Condorcet – mentioned above – was a very early advocate of female suffrage.) Neither the Levellers nor the Jacobins thought ‘servants’ (i.e. employees) should have the right to vote. Different American states had different rules, but property qualifications for voting were widespread. In practice, Native Americans and many African Americans could not vote until 1924 and 1965 respectively.

These extensions in the franchise reflected human rights. These were the ideological and moral forces behind the extension of the franchise. Often, the existing institutions of limited democracy were insufficient to establish these rights. Change came through crisis, protest, violence or war, with movements under the banners of universal rights.

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke

The Enlightenment gave us the principle of universal rights, and the notion of political sovereignty based on a democratic mandate from the masses. But many contemporary thinkers were aware of the problems involved. Charles-Louis Montesquieu (1689-1755) stressed the importance of checks and balances in the political system. Edmund Burke (1729-1797) argued that a polity should recognise the wisdom of tradition, as well as the carefully-applied and well-informed guidance of reason.

Burke was astutely aware of the complexities and uncertainties involved in governance. He stressed that members of parliament were there to uphold the interests of the nation as a whole. Decisions had to be reached through detailed discussion and expert advice. Members of parliament were not delegates, to be mandated through the expressed opinions of their constituents.

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine

The great radical thinker Thomas Paine (1737-1809) also understood that in larger societies, direct and complete participatory democracy is impossible. Problems of complexity, scale and location place severe limits on democratic involvement. Given the impracticalities of large-scale direct democracy, nations should adopt systems of representative democracy, relying on professional and trained experts in government offices. Paine would have also rejected the ultra-democratic dreamings of some socialists, including Benn and Corbyn.

By contrast, Tony Benn argued that Labour Party Members of Parliament should be mandated by their constituency parties. Corbyn has gone even further in this direction, proposing that party members should dictate policy to their MPs. This undermines a central principle of parliamentary democracy. An important reason for a parliament is that it provides a forum where proposals may be debated, expert advice may be heard and details amended.

The idea that MPs should simply represent the will of their constituents, or be instructed by their local constituency parties, would make parliament redundant. Instead we could all watch television, and as in a game show, express our preferences on every issue, from capital punishment to the expulsion of immigrants. This easily could steam-roller over human rights, and through manipulation serve a dictatorship.

Within a system of representative or parliamentary democracy it is possible to make a case for or against referendums on important issues. In Switzerland referendums are common. Their origins there are in the nineteenth century, where there was a need to keep together a country highly fractured on linguistic, religious and political lines.

Opponents of referendums argue that they can weaken representative democracy. They can be used by the party in power to resolve its internal disputes, or to abdicate responsibility over a difficult decision. The idea that a referendum should be more than advisory rests on a notion of direct rather than representative democracy, and assumes that a large number of voters have the capacity to make an informed decision, untainted by (say) a biased mass media or demagogic leaders. Hence some democratic countries – notably Germany – have legal provisions to limit the use of referendums at the national level.


The current political crisis in the UK has made the nature and role of democracy key issues for discussion and clarification. My first argument here that a leftist strain of ultra-democratic thinking – from Lenin to Corbyn – is untenable. I also argue that democracy and human rights can come into conflict, and when they do the former should submit to the latter.

Ultra-democracy cannot work. Through the frustration of endless committees and meetings, and the collapse of productive activity, attempts to move in this direction would lead to crisis. Unworkable plans for ultra-democracy would both raise and disappoint expectations, leading to the impatience of all, and a likely authoritarian reaction. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

There are strong practical and moral reasons to support representative democracy, particularly as a means of legitimising government power. The key proviso is that a government should be in principle removable by the electorate – not that the electorate should be the government.

There is strong evidence that representative-democratic systems, where there is some protection of human rights, can reduce the risks of famine and war. Evidence also suggests that democracy may also help economic development, at least for those countries above relatively low levels of output per capita.

I leave it to the reader to deliberate on the pros and cons of holding referendums. The Brexit experience has been illuminating, at least in that regard.

When the Brexit outcome was announced on 24 June, Corbyn immediately declared that the government should take Britain out of the European Union. He was being consistent with his dangerous view that politicians should carry out the orders of the electorate, irrespective of the slim Brexit majority and the lies and false promises in the debate.


30 June 2016



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Benn, Tony (1979) Arguments for Socialism (London: Jonathan Cape).

Benn, Tony (1981) Arguments for Democracy (Harmondsworth: Penguin).

Burke, Edmund (1774) ‘Speech to the Electors of Bristol’. Available on:

Claeys, Gregory (1989) Thomas Paine: Social and Political Thought (London and New York: Routledge).

Cole, George D. H. (1920) Guild Socialism Re-Stated (London: Parsons).

Michels, Robert (1915) Political Parties: A Sociological Study of Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy (New York: Hearst).

Polan, Anthony J. (1984) Lenin and the End of Politics (London: Methuen).

Portes, Jonathan (2016) ‘The Condorcet Paradox at Work? Rock-Paper-Scissors in the EU Referendum’, 6 June.

Waldron, Jeremy (1988) The Right to Private Property (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press).

Wilde, Oscar (2000) Oscar Wilde: A Life in Quotes, ed. Barry Day (London: Metro).

June 30th, 2016 by