Marxism and Democracy

Democratic demands are the only way the people can rule. They are, more than ever before, the essential condition of socialism.

DSA founder Michael Harrington wrote widely on the relationship between democracy and socialism. In this essay, Harrington provides a brief survey of Marx’s and Engels’s approaches to democracy and socialist political strategy, Marx’s theories of capitalism, and the question of Stalinism – or, as Harrington and others often described it, “bureaucratic collectivism.” We republish it here to introduce a new generation of DSA members to Harrington’s writings, and to help stimulate further thought and discussion on the role of democratic demands in socialist politics today. This piece originally appeared in Praxis International, (1:1) April 1981. – eds.

Karl Marx (and Frederich Engels) was a democratic socialist in the most profound sense of the phrase. More importantly for the purposes of this essay, the vision, methodology and analyses which are Marx’s living heritage are democratic as theories and as guides to praxis. Indeed, I would argue that the development of Marxism since the death of Marx and Engels has made this last point so compelling that those who do not understand it or, worse, who take up arms against it, are anti-Marxists no matter what they call themselves.

The anti-democratic societies of the Right and pseudo-Left have demonstrated conclusively that collectivism without democracy is the specific form for perpetuating class rule in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. So I do not write simply as a scholar but as a militant as well. To be sure, I will try to be scrupulously careful in documenting and interpreting the democratic foundations of the Marxist perspective. But that intellectual task is obviously related to the search for an emancipatory socialist politics under conditions which Marx himself never experienced or, for that matter, even imagined. I turn to the past in Marx’s spirit: to gain insights for transforming the present and future.

I will develop these ideas in three different ways. First, there will be an interpretative review of Marx‘s analyses of democracy and the political conclusions which he drew from them. Next I will deal with Marx’s theory of democracy and capitalism. Finally, I will discuss bureaucratic collectivism in the Soviet Union and its role in forcing Marxists to understand how central democracy is precisely in collectivized societies. That will suggest a few thoughts – unfinished, speculative, in progress – about Marxism, democracy and the Third World.


In an essay containing much of great value, Göran Therborn wrote, “Democracy is one of the key words of contemporary ideological discourse, despite – or perhaps precisely because of – the fact that so little serious research has been devoted to it. It is hardly surprising that the classical Marxist writers produced almost nothing of substance on the question, for none of them had personal experience of a fully-fledged bourgeois democracy” [1]. Now it is obviously true that the classical Marxists – including Marx and Engels – had no personal experience of a “fully-fledged” bourgeois democracy. But it is false that they produced “almost nothing of substance on the question.” On the contrary. The politics of Marx and Engels during their lifetime can be quite usefully understood in terms of their relationship to democracy as a theory and as a movement. Let me examine that proposition from two different vantage points: first, in terms of Marx’s and Engels’ tactical and strategic conceptions and practice with regard to the democratic movement; secondly, with regard to the centrality of democracy in Marx’s analysis of capitalism and socialism.

Marx began his political life as a member of the democratic party. His first writings are concerned with freedom of the press and are permeated by Feuerbachian values and Hegelian methods. The censorship law, he wrote in the Rheinische Zeitung in May, 1842, is not (really) a law but a police measure and a poor one at that. Shortly thereafter, he wrote that the state must be organized according to the criteria of reason and freedom, for it is the great merit of Machiavelli, Campanella, Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, Fichte and Hegel to have freed the analysis of politics from the domination of the theologians. It was only some months after he took up the role of journalist that he discovered – while covering the debate on the law with regard to wood gathering – that the government was being used as the means of enforcing private interest rather than reason or the common good [2]. All of this is familiar enough and hardly requires elaboration.

In the summer of 1843, Marx analyzed democracy at great length in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. The themes which he developed there, we shall see, stayed with him throughout his entire life. They marked an important stage in Marx’s transition from “pure” (bourgeois, rationalist) democracy to socialist (or communist) democracy. This is not immediately obvious to the general reader since Marx develops his analysis in a Hegelian language which is difficult enough for the specialist to penetrate. But these passages are of such importance in defining the relationship of Marxism and democracy that one is justified in examining them rather carefully.

Hegel‘s book was a rather ingenious attempt to reconcile the claims of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft in a modern industrial society. It recognized, as Marx noted in his critique, that civil society was the arena of the war of each against all and sought to deal with that problem by means of syndicalist (“corporation”) representation, monarchist sovereignty and a neutral mediating bureaucracy. Without getting into the interminable argument over precisely where to locate Hegel on the political spectrum, it can at least be noted that, by the standards of the time and of Prussia in particular, his point of view was certainly not reactionary (Kant, who supported the French Revolution even after the Terror had disenchanted most of his contemporaries, was for the principled exclusion of propertyless workers and all women from the franchise). Marx made a democratic, and to a certain extent democratic socialist, critique of Hegel’s theory.

First, there is the assertion that “Democracy is the truth of monarchy; monarchy is not the truth of democracy.” In the Hegelian method, one idea is “the truth of” another idea when it enables one to resolve the former’s internal contradictions. The concepts of essence and accident are the “truth of ” the experience of sense certainty; Christianity is the “truth of” all other religions since it explicitly states the divinity of man (or the humanity of God) which was implicit in all of its predecessors, albeit in imperfect and one-sided form. Monarchy is contradictory because it asserts the domination of the part (or “moment“) over the whole.”In monarchy,“ Marx comments, “the totality, the people, is subsumed under one of its modes of empirical existence, the political constitution; in democracy the constitution itself appears as only one determination, and that the self-determination, of the people” [3].

Now the notion of self-determination as a key political idea is a liberal commonplace of the time. It is found, for instance, in both Kant and the young Fichte. But Marx’s formulation of the idea is much more socialistic than that of his forebears. “Christianity is the religion above all others, the essence of religion, deified man, as a particular religion. So is democracy the essence of all political constitutions, socialized man, as a particular political constitution…” In democracy, “Man does not exist for the law, but the law for man…” “Hegel departs from the state and makes men into the state seen from a subjective point of view [zum versubjektivierten Staat]; democracy departs from man and makes the state the objectification of men.”

Secondly, in a particularly complex and difficult passage, Marx makes a first formulation of an idea which will play a key role in his thought throughout his life, one that bears most importantly on both his early and mature analysis of democracy. In the “abstract state form,” one considers the political structure without regard to the social and economic relations of the system in which it functions. In all pre-democratic societies, the state does not actually permeate, or dominate, those material relationships but is only their organizing form. The (bourgeois) republic is the extreme case of this situation and differs in degree, but not in kind, from monarchy. “Property, etc., in sum the total content of law and the state is, with a few modifications, the same in North America as in Prussia. Thus, the North American Republic is as much a mere form of the state as the Prussian monarchy. The content of the state is external to its  constitution.”

This is, in embryonic form, the concept of bourgeois democracy which will preoccupy Marx all of his life. And “democracy“ pure and simple, as Marx uses the term here, is clearly an anticipation of social democracy, i.e., of democracy not simply as the principle of an “abstract form of the state,” as in the North American republic, but as the principle of the “material state.” In the Middle Ages, Marx continues, the economy is political and man is the basic principle of the state – but the “unfree man.” Then, as landed property and trade are freed from the medieval constraints, the material sphere becomes private and independent, which clears the way for a republican political system. The republic is the negation of monarchy but within the same sphere as monarchy, for it merely creates a heavenly beyond of political equality within an earthy framework of continuing inequality (This same thought is developed in the discussion of the relationship between political and social-economic emancipation in The Jewish Question.)

Thus, I would argue that Marx came to his socialist conclusions precisely through consciously developing a consistent democratic critique, not simply of feudal reaction, but of bourgeois liberalism as well [4]. Because of an historical accident Marx provided, at the same time, the basis of a democratic socialist critique of Stalinism (or, to depersonalize and internationalize that phenomenon, of bureaucratic collectivism). That accident (which was not at all “accidental” in its own social-economic context) was the bureaucratic character of German society at the time as it was refracted in Hegel’s idealization of bureaucracy.

Marx wrote that “the corporation“ – the private sector organized in pursuit of its own self interest – “is the bureaucracy of civil society; the [governmental] bureaucracy is the corporation of the state. The political bureaucracy, Marx continues, presents itself as the representative of the universal, of the common good. But in fact the bureaucracy “has the essence of the state, the spiritual essence of society, in its possession; it is its private property.” “The universal spirit of bureaucracy,” Marx notes in a justly famous passage, “is the secret, the mystery, maintained internally by means of hierarchy and as against the outside world by means of a closed corporation… Authority is therefore the principle of its knowledge and the deification of authority is its basic conviction.” And a little later on, in criticizing Hegel’s attempt to utilize medieval notions of the “estate” [Stand] in a class society, Marx comments that “Estates in the medieval sense remain only within the bureaucracy where the economic [bürgerliche] and political position are immediately one and the same.”

At every point in this theoretical analysis, Marx used explicit democratic concepts and values to move toward, and in some cases arrive at, socialist conclusions. His asides on the subject of bureaucracy, motivated by the same commitment to bottom-up – democratic – transformations are, we will see, an important element in the socialist critique of bureaucratic collectivism. Moreover, Marx took these ideas of 1843 so seriously that they can be fairly said to have permeated his politics for the next six or so years. The first Marxist strategy was to urge a united front of the nascent socialist (and Marxist) groups and the much larger democratic movement.

Consider just a few fragments of the abundant evidence for this statement. In 1846, in an address to the Chartist (democratic) leader Feargus O‘Connor, Marx and Engels described themselves as “German democratic communists.“ In 1847, Engels wrote, “The communists, far from starting useless arguments with the democrats in the current situation, appear for the moment in all practical party matters as democrats. Democracy in all civilized lands has the political rule of the proletariat as a necessary consequence and the political rule of the proletariat is the first precondition of all communist measures.” In his communist “catechism” of 1847, Question 18 is “Which road will this [communist] revolution take?” Engels answers, “Above all, it will be a democratic political structure [Staatsverfassung] which will thereby, either directly or indirectly, establish the political rule of the proletariat. Direct rule in England where the proletariat already constitutes the majority of the people; indirect rule in France and Germany, where the majority of the people are not yet proletarian, but is also constituted by a small peasantry and petty bourgeoisie [aus kleinen Bauern und Bürgern besteht] which are only now in transition to the proletariat and which are more and more dependent upon the proletariat in all of their political interests and therefore must support the demands of the proletariat.” In the speech on Poland in 1847, Engels once again spoke of “we German democrats” [5].

But the most obvious, and important, statement of Marx‘s democratic strategy is to be found in the Communist Manifesto, particularly in Section IV, “The Position of the Communists with regard to the various Opposition Parties” [6]. There Marx and Engels clearly advocate united fronts with radicals, democrats, even (in the United States) with mere land reformers demanding private property in the fields for the working class. Moreover, in the outline of immediate demands in the Manifesto one reads that “the first step in the labor revolution is to raise the proletariat to the position of a ruling class, the winning of democracy” [7].

So there is a continuity of theory and praxis from 1843, when Marx‘s principled democratic commitment led him to the critique of bourgeois liberalism and the recognition of the necessity of socialism, passing through the Communist Manifesto and lasting at least until 1849. That attitude is probably most brilliantly and succinctly rendered in the third Thesis on Feuerbach with its criticism of any philanthropic, “top-down” liberation of the proletariat (and even Louis Althusser admits that the Theses constitute the very first statement of Marxism as he defines it) [8].

The revolutionary events of 1848-49 caused a temporary break in Marx‘s democratic strategy. The Address of the Central Committee to the [Communist] League is filled with a sense of disillusionment with the non-proletarian allies. “The relationship of the revolutionary worker’s party to the petty-bourgeois democracy,” Marx and Engels wrote in that document, “is this: the workers’ party goes together with the petty-bourgeois democrats against that faction whose overthrow both seek; but it is opposed to those democrats in everything it wants to do on its own. The democratic petty-bourgeoisie is far removed from wanting to transform the entire society for the revolutionary proletariat; rather it strives for changes in social conditions which will make the prevailing society as bearable and comfortable as possible for itself.” It was in this period that Marx took up the Blanquist slogan of “dictatorship of the proletariat,” a position which is affirmed in the Address in the paragraph after the lines just quoted [9].

There is a problem here, one which I treated at length in an earlier book and will therefore only summarize at this point [10]. When Marx said dictatorship of the proletariat he did not mean the repression of the democratic rights of non-proletarians or even of non-violent anti-socialists. This is clear enough in The Class Struggles in France which appeared in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung between January and October, 1850 (i.e., in precisely the period during which Marx was rethinking his attitude toward the democratic movement). In that essay, Marx described “the constitutional republic” as the “dictatorship of their [the peasant’s] united exploiters; the social democratic, the red, Republic is the dictatorship of its allies” [11]. “Dictatorship,” then, can be constitutional and republican, even “social democratic” in the French meaning of that term in 1848. The term applies to the social content, and the consequent limits, of a regime, not to its political structure. For, as Marx made quite clear a little later on, during that time of “dictatorship” the proletariat enjoyed the freedom of press, speech and organization [12]. The difficulty, as I remarked in my earlier discussion of these matters, is that the average reader – or the not-so-average Stalinist – is quite likely to interpret “dictatorship” as meaning dictatorship, pure and simple.

By the end of 1850, however, both Marx and Engels had turned back – sadder, wiser and with fewer illusions about the democratic movement – to their older strategy. The faction fight within the Communist League with Willich and Schapper pitted them against an “ultra-Left” view, not unlike the one which they themselves proposed in the Address to the League. In France, they said, the secret organizations of the proletariat – forced into the underground by the loss of those freedoms which they have enjoyed during the constitutional “dictatorship” – must seek to overthrow the bourgeoisie. But in Germany, they must still work with the petty bourgeois democrats. And in England, Marx continued to support the Chartists – a democratic workers’ movement – arguing somewhat naively that “universal suffrage is, for the English working class, synonymous with political power, for the proletariat there constitutes the great majority of the population and, in the course of a long, though sometimes concealed, civil war won through to a clear consciousness of its class position” [13].

What is remarkable is that Marx and Engels insisted upon their realistic – and often tactically “democratic” – strategy even though it had serious personal costs for them. As Arthur Rosenberg put it in his very interesting study, Democracy and Socialism, “The situation of 1851 represents the lowest point in the political career of Marx and Engels, and in their relationship to the working class. Marx was personally embittered that the former Prussian lieutenant Willich had so easily deprived him of the leadership of the international labor movement. Nevertheless, as far as their cause was concerned, Marx and Engels remained completely unshaken” [14].

At this point, since the basic themes are established, let me briefly summarize some important later developments. In 1863-4, Marx and Engels became deeply involved in the establishment of the first workers’ international which brought together liberal-democratic trade unionists from England and the French followers of Proudhon. In his famous speech to the founding Congress, Marx referred to the Ten Hours Law as a triumph of the political economy of the working class over that of the middle class (a view which is reiterated at considerable length in Volume I of Das Kapital). It was in this period that Marx and Engels, in the course of the struggle with Bakunin and the anarchists, urged the formation of workers’ political parties. To be sure, during the Commune, Marx once again spoke of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” – but he defined it in ultra-democratic terms (the right of recall of all elected officials who would be paid workers’ wages).

In the period right after the Commune, as Rosenberg points out, the very idea of a revolutionary democratic movement all but ceased to exist in Europe. In France, he writes,

as a living movement revolutionary democracy had come to an end in 1871. During the same period the Chartist tradition had been completely forgotten in England. Similarly after 1871 the history of the Revolution of 1848 appeared like news from a strange world to the inhabitants of the German Empire. The German bourgeoisie, the intellectuals and the middle class had long since abandoned their revolutionary feelings… In Italy and Hungary the tradition of 1848 remained alive even after 1871, but it was only the national side of the revolution, which continued to exist in the cults of Garibaldi or Kossuth, and not the democratic aspect. The decline of the historic democratic movement in Europe was accompanied by a change in the opinion of general suffrage. Until 1848 its friends as well as its foes had taken general suffrage quite seriously. It was considered as absolutely self-evident that the acquisition of general suffrage would initiate the unrestricted political and economic rule of the broad masses… Now general suffrage no longer appeared to be such a menace to the monarchies and the wealthy upper classes. On the other hand, the radical labour groups doubted that it would ever be possible to defend the true interests of the working people with the help of general suffrage…

“Anyone who judges the historical facts of the nineteenth century objectively,“ Rosenberg argues, “must come to the conclusion that the social significance of general suffrage was greatly exaggerated before 1848 and just as greatly underrated afterwards” [15]. In the 1840s and again in the 1860s, I have suggested, Marx and Engels saw the socialist movement as growing out of and fulfilling the promise of the revolutionary democracy (socialist democracy would, in Hegelian terms, aufheben bourgeois democracy – not simply destroy it, but rather transform it). In 1884 one can glimpse Engels coming to a judgment much like Rosenberg’s, and a little later on Rosa Luxemburg was to deal with the same problem. Their way of handling it is quite illuminating in terms of the relation between Marxism and democracy.

One passage by Engels is worth quoting at some length. Writing in The Origin of the Family he said:

In most states in history the citizens were assigned rights in proportion to their wealth. This explicitly made it clear that the state is an organization of the owning class for defense against the non-owning classes. This was true in the Athenian and Roman classes based on wealth. It operated in the Middle Ages when political power positions were articulated in terms of land ownership. And it exists in the electoral census in the modern representative state. However this political recognition of differences in ownership is in no way essential. On the contrary, it characterises a lower stage of political [staatlichen] development.

The highest form of the state, the democratic republic, is more and more becoming an unavoidable necessity under modern societal relations. It is the only state form in which the last, decisive struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie can be fought out. This democratic republic does not officially recognize differences in ownership. In it, ownership exercises its influence indirectly and is, because of that fact, more secure. It does so, on the one hand, in the form of the direct corruption of officials, for which America provides the classic model and, on the other hand, in the form of an alliance between the regime and stock exchange which is all the more easily consummated the more the public debt increases and stock companies  concentrate, not only transport, but production in their hands and find their middle point in the stock exchange… The owning class rules by means of universal suffrage. So long as the repressed class, in our case the proletariat, is not yet mature enough for its self-emancipation, just so long will the majority of its members recognize the existing societal order as the only possible one and thus they act as the rail of the capitalist class, its extreme left wing. To the degree, however, that the proletariat matures in the direction of its self-emancipation, it constitutes itself as its own party, elects its own representatives, and not those of the capitalists. Universal suffrage is thus the thermometer which measures the ripeness of the working class. It can be nothing more than that in the contemporary state; but that is enough [16].

In a letter to August Bebel that same year (1884), Engels added still another complexity to his more sophisticated view of democracy. In Germany, he commented, “pure democracy” (which in this letter clearly means bourgeois democracy) has less of a role to play than in the older industrial nations. But, he continued, that does not rule out a strategy in which the entire “reactionary mass’’ would pretend to be bourgeois democratic when threatened by socialist revolution [17]. In the lengthy discussion of democracy in Reform or Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg argued that liberalism (bourgeois democracy) had become superfluous given the development of capitalist society. She then went on to write,

Out of the fact that bourgeois liberalism, fearful of the rising labor movement and its program, has given up its soul, it only follows that the socialist labor movement is today the only support for democracy. Thus the destiny of socialism does not depend upon bourgeois democracy but inversely the fate of democratic development is bound up with the socialist movement. So democracy is not viable to the degree that the labor movement gives up its struggle for emancipation, but to the degree that the socialist movement is strong enough to battle the reactionary consequences of world politics and of bourgeois [democratic] surrender. Who seeks the strengthening of democracy must wish for the strengthening, not the weakening, of the socialist movement and the giving up of the socialist struggle is the giving up of democracy as well as of the working class [18].

In sum, Marx came to socialism precisely by an immanent critique of the theory and praxis of democratic liberalism. In the course of his life he tactically oriented toward both petty bourgeoisie and working class (Chartist) democracy. As time went on, both Marx and Engels rightly became more suspicious of the manipulation of bourgeois democracy and realized how wrong their naive and youthful hopes about universal suffrage had been. Yet they, and Luxemburg, remained committed to democratic values, insisting now that they could only be attained within the framework of a socialist revolution. But Marx’s concern with democracy was not confined to politics, or even to the theory of politics. It forms an essential element in his masterpiece, Das Kapital, and is profoundly relevant to its analysis. Das Kapital offers the most sustained explanation of why the earlier democratic hopes of Marx and Engels had to be disappointed. I turn to it now.


In the Origins of the Family, as we have seen, Engels stressed the structural relationship between bourgeois democracy and capitalism, characterizing it as “an unavoidable necessity” and noted that this system, precisely because it does not give formal political recognition to social class distinctions, is consequently more secure than earlier, more openly repressive formations. This does not mean that there is a simple, one-to-one link between the bourgeoisie and democracy. Engels himself had insisted in 1892 that “it seems a law of historical development that the bourgeoisie was unable to conquer political power in any European land – at least not for a long period of time – in the way that the feudal aristocracy did during the Middle Ages” [19].

In England, the political agency of the bourgeois revolution was a landed aristocracy, in France a petty bourgeoisie, in Germany and Japan an aristocratic bureaucracy. In some cases, most notably France, capitalism emerged through a genuine revolutionary process; in others, particularly Germany and Japan, there was a top-down transformation. In the latter instances, as Barrington Moore has documented, the failure to settle accounts with feudalism was a factor in disposing societies towards fascism [20]. Moreover, Göran Therborn’s article, cited earlier, usefully reminds us that it took a long, long time for bourgeois democratic rights to be extended to all citizens. In the United States, for instance, women did not get the ballot until after World War I, and a significant stratum of Southern blacks were excluded from the franchise until the second half of the nineteen sixties.

So when one asserts a connection between capitalism and bourgeois democracy, one is talking – as is the case with almost all Marxist “laws” – about a tendency, a structural predisposition, which can be and often is modified or even denied. In the extreme instance of fascism, capitalism becomes, of course, openly anti-democratic. And yet, with all of these qualifications Marxism does see a link between the bourgeois economy and bourgeois democracy. In a singularly important passage of the third volume of Das Kapital, Marx’s analysis illuminates that relationship.

The discussion focuses upon the question of rent [21]. In the case of labor rent, Marx comments, the fact that surplus value is unpaid labor is an obvious fact (which is not the case in capitalism). Wherever the immediate producer is the possessor (Besitzer) of the means of production necessary for subsistence, Marx continues, the property relationship is immediately a relationship of domination and servitude. This is even the case in India where there is communal property and surplus value takes the form of a tax paid to the authorities. This is not to be equated with slavery, where the producer works with alien instruments of production, but it does necessarily involve personal unfreedom. This passage, it will be noted, repeats (from an economic perspective and in a much more developed way) some of the insights which are to be found in the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, On the Jewish Question, and On the Difference Between Medieval Estates and Modern Classes. We can generalize this point: pre-capitalist societies extract the surplus from the direct producers by political means; capitalist coercion is economic. The worker under the latter system, Marx always insists, is “free.” Indeed, the appearance of the “free worker” is one of the pre-conditions of capitalism.

Thus, exploitation under capitalism is a “phenomenal form,“ i.e., its reality is not what it seems to be (unlike labor rent where surplus value takes the immediate form of unpaid labor). The world of Kapital is one in which all the agents of production are paid a fair price, and yet the exchange of equivalents yields a fundamental inequivalency. Such a formation does not require political repression in ordinary times. More importantly, as Marx pointed out so often, the “heavenly” equality of equal political rights served to mask the “earthly” inequality of the social classes. Bourgeois democracy is not merely a rationalization of capitalist inequality – Marx always regarded the freedom to organize and speak and publish as of enormous value for the proletariat – but that is certainly one of its most important functions.

Marx‘s analysis parallels an important perception of Max Weber about “legitimacy.” There are, Weber said, three kinds of legitimacy: charismatic, traditional and rational, and the latter is characteristic of the modern, capitalist age. Under “legal” (rational) forms of domination “the legitimacy of commanding, for the possessor of the power, rests upon rational, statutory rules which are agreed to or handed down, and the legitimacy of the statutory rules rests upon a rational, statutory or interpreted, ‘constitution.’ Commands are made, not in the name of personal authority but in the name of an impersonal norm…” [22]. And such a system, as Engels rightly emphasized, will be more secure because of this indirect, “rational” form of legitimacy. In recent times, the Marxist who best understood this point was Nicos Poulantzas in his last book on democracy and socialism [23].

In summary, then, Marx’s and Engels’s attitude toward democracy was dialectical in the profound sense of that often abused and trivialized word. It emerges historically as bourgeois democracy, and in this guise one of its important functions is to provide an ideological rationalization for exploitation. For the first time a ruling class is able to command the free and rational acceptance of its domination, in normal times at least. The doctrine, and even the imperfect reality, of political equality conceals the decisive fact of economic and social inequality which permeates the democratic life and subordinates it to the purposes of a small elite.

But this very same system must therefore extend real rights to workers and the citizenry in general. These are, as Marx explicitly stated in his analyses of both the Revolution of 1848 and the Commune, of enormous importance for the organization of the socialist alternative; they provide, as Engels recognized in The Origins of the Family, the political framework in which the final conflict of bourgeoisie and proletariat takes place. The “truth of ” bourgeois democracy – the resolution of its internal contradictions, the preservation-transformation of all that is positive in it – is socialist democracy. Therefore, in tactical terms, Marx and Engels favored a united front with all democrats in the late eighteen forties and a united front of working class democrats and Marxists in the eighteen sixties. Experience eventually taught them that some of their earlier hopes – that universal suffrage in a country with a working class majority would automatically lead to socialism – were illusory. Engels, and later Luxemburg, saw that reaction could use bourgeois democracy as a last defense against socialist democracy.

But even then, their more sophisticated analysis of bourgeois democracy did not lead them to abandon their commitment to the democratic principle. Rather, as Luxemburg stated so plainly, Marxists now saw socialism as the necessary pre-condition for the desirable deepening of all that had been positive in bourgeois democracy, a task to be achieved by stripping the latter of its bourgeois integument. In short, contrary to what sometimes parades as “Marxism,” Marx and Engels were critical of bourgeois democracy, not because it was democratic, but because it was bourgeois, and they proposed to effect their critique in practice by utilizing the space provided by bourgeois democracy for the achievement of socialist democracy.


Stalinism, or bureaucratic collectivism, was and is the great challenge to this Marxist conception of democracy. This does not merely relate to the fate of the Russian Revolution. It has to do with the future of socialism in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and it has profound implications for the Third World as well as for the Communist and advanced capitalist systems.

One of the very best Marxist guides in these matters is Rosa Luxemburg, particularly because the analyses and norms which she applied to the Russian Revolution were first developed in the struggle against the “revisionist” Right led by Edouard Bernstein. Indeed, I believe there is a curious symmetry between the most conservative wing of social democracy and Stalinism since both propose to institute socialism top-down without excessive interference, or participation, by the great mass of people. I should immediately add, however, that the conservative social democrats never dismantled the basic institutions of the working class as the Stalinists did. In any case, there is an admirable Marxist consistency in Luxemburg, whether she was writing about Bernstein or Lenin. For her, as for Marx, the emancipation of the working class was the task of the working class itself, not of saviors from on high.

In the course of criticizing what she took to be the opportunism of Millerand‘s entry into Waldeck-Rousseau’s bourgeois government, Luxemburg noted that socialists were not on principle precluded from such a tactic. She wrote:

There can be moments during the development, or more precisely the decline, of capitalism when the final seizure of power by the representatives of the proletariat is still impossible, and yet their participation in a bourgeois regime appears as necessary. This would occur where it is a question of the freedom of the nation or of democratic gains, like the republic, and the bourgeois regime is already too compromised and disorganized to command the loyalty of the people without the support of the labor movement. In such a case, the representatives of the working people cannot allow devotion to some abstract principle as principle to make them shirk from the defense of the common good. Only the participation of the social democrats in the regime must take a form which gives no doubt to either the bourgeoisie or the people about the temporary nature and specific purpose of their act [24].

As spokesperson of the Left wing of the German Party, then, and in the course of a criticism of opportunism, Luxemburg saw the defense of democratic conquests of the working class as justifying, under exceptional circumstances and in a specific form, socialist participation in a bourgeois government.

But, it must be stressed again, this was an exceptional case, for, in the very same period, Luxemburg stressed the difference between bourgeois and socialist democracy. In this case she directed her fire against Edouard Bernstein at the 1899 Congress of the German Social Democratic Party and her comments, as we will see, provide the Marxist theoretical basis for her later critique of the Russian Revolution. “The weakest side of the theoretical conceptions of Bernstein,” she said, “is the theory of the so-called economic power which the working class must first conquer within the framework of the contemporary society before it can successfully carry through a political revolution.”

She continued:

Marx proved that each political movement of a social class has a specific, economic basis. And he showed that all previous classes in history had achieved economic power before they succeeded in winning political power. This is the model which David, Woltmann and Bernstein apply slavishly to contemporary social relations. And it demonstrates that they have not understood either the earlier struggles or those taking place today. What does it mean that the earlier classes, particularly the third estate, conquered economic power before political power? Nothing more than the historical fact that all previous class struggles must be derived from the economic fact that the rising class has at the same time created a new form of property upon which it will base its class domination…

Now I ask, can this model be applied to our relationships? No. Precisely because to chatter about the economic might of the proletariat is to ignore the great difference between our class struggle and all those which went before. The assertion that the proletariat, in contrast to all previous class struggles, pursues its battles, not in order to establish class domination, but to abolish all class domination is not a mere phrase…. It is an illusion, then, to think that the proletariat can create economic power within capitalist society. It can only create political power and then transform (aufheben) capitalist property [25].

Political power, Luxemburg argues, is the unique essence of the socialist transformation.

Let me expand on that thought for a moment. In terms of that famous (and normally misleading) metaphor of base and superstructure, in pre-socialist society the base determines the superstructure, the economic relations determine the limits within which the ruling class operates; in socialist society, the superstructure shapes the base and consciously works for the abolition of all class privilege. Therefore, to hold working class freedom in abeyance in the name of creating the economic “basis” of classless society is to attack the most decisive single precondition of that classless society: working class (more broadly, human) freedom. In criticizing the illusions of the social democratic Right about the potential of unions and cooperatives within a capitalist society, Luxemburg was laying the groundwork for her critique of Lenin and Trotsky’s abolition of democratic freedoms in revolutionary Russia. And that, in turn, bears upon the murderous assault which Stalin launched against every last vestige of those freedoms and the class society which he created as a result.

Luxemburg‘s critique of the Russian Revolution, it must be remembered, was written when there were still some of the democratic and socialist conquests of October in existence. Her remarks, then, apply with a thousand-times greater force to the Stalinist, or post-Stalin, Soviet Union.

Luxemburg wrote:

Lenin says: the bourgeois state is an instrument for the repression of the working class, the socialist state – for the repression of the bourgeoisie. It is, so to speak, merely the capitalist state stood on its head. This simplistic concept abstracts from the essential. Bourgeois class domination needs no political schooling and education for the broad mass of the people, at least not beyond narrow limits. For the proletarian dictatorship that schooling and education is a necessity for life, the very air without which it cannot exist.

A little later on she continues:

The silent assumption of the theory of dictatorship in the Leninist and Trotskyist sense is that the socialist transformation is an event for which the recipe is to be found in the pocket of the revolutionary party and which only needs to be energetically implemented. Unfortunately – or rather fortunately – that is not so. Far from being a sum of fixed and pre-existing doctrines which one only need implement, the practical implementation of socialism as an economic, social and legal system is a matter which lies completely in the mist of the future. What we have in our program are merely some great guides to the road to travel, the direction to take, in which the measures must be sought [for that implementation], and our propositions are mostly negative in character… Socialism then, in its very nature, cannot be decreed, introduced through ukases. It has as precondition a series of powerful measures – against property, etc. The negative, the tearing down, can be decreed; the positive, the building up, cannot be decreed.

A page later there is this prophetic insight:

Without universal suffrage, unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, the free battle of opinion, the life in those [Lenin and Trotsky] institutions will become a mere show and the bureaucracy will be the only active element. Public life will gradually be put to sleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and limitless idealism will direct and rule, under them a dozen outstanding brains will lead and an elite of labor will be convened from time to time to applaud the speeches of the leaders, to vote prearranged resolutions unanimously, so that there will basically be the dictatorship of a clique. In short, there will be, not the dictatorship of the proletariat, but a dictatorship of a handful of politicals, i.e., dictatorship in the pure bourgeois sense, in the sense of the Jacobin rule…

The basic error of the Leninist-Trotskyist theory is precisely that it, precisely like Kautsky, counterposes dictatorship and democracy. ‘Democracy or dictatorship’ is the way the Bolsheviks and Kautsky both pose the question. The latter naturally opts for democracy – for bourgeois democracy since that is what he represents as the alternative of socialist transformation. Lenin-Trotsky opt, on the other hand, for dictatorship as against democracy and thereby for the dictatorship of a handful of people, i.e., for bourgeois dictatorship.

And finally,

It is the historic task of the proletariat when it seizes power to replace bourgeois democracy with the creation of socialist democracy not to do away with any kind of democracy [26].

Luxemburg defended her libertarian ideas in the name of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and that brings up an extremely important political-semantic point. If the interpretation in this essay is right, the meaning which Marx intended to give to that term, as well as the meaning of it which is immanent in his work, is democratic. In between Marx-Engels and Stalin there were Marxists, like Luxemburg, who read the phrase as Marx did – and those who did not. Stalin took the issue out of the sphere of exegesis and, using Marx’s words as a justification, created a structure which was profoundly anti-Marxist. I think it was a tragedy that Marx’s phrase lent itself to this outcome even though I do not think (as Leszek Kolakowski now does) that Marx is responsible for its misuse, or rather, its inversion into its opposite [27]. Nevertheless, I think Marxists should stop using the phrase altogether. This is not one of those cases where Marx was wrong and must be revised within the framework of his own methodology and actual experience (e.g., the anticipation of an early victory of socialism and Gramsci’s reinterpretation of the point). Rather it is an instance where Marx’s real meaning is compelling but his words almost inevitably invite the wrong reading of it.

Stalin is, of course, the monstrous case in point. I will not repeat my own theoretical account of Stalinism which is already available at considerable length [28]. Rather, let me summarize. During Stalin’s life-time a number of Marxist thinkers – Christian Rakovsky, Bruno Rizzi, Lucien Laurat, Max Shachtman – suggested that Soviet society was anti-capitalist and anti-socialist, a new form of class society with a new ruling class, the bureaucracy. In at least one instance (Rakovsky), Marx’s comments in the Critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of Right were taken as a point of departure. That is quite appropriate, not because Marx foresaw Stalinism, but because his method and values allow one to understand it better. Bureaucracy, as I have already quoted, was seen in that essay as the one area of modern life in which the principle of the political determination of economic class position still operated. Moreover, within that context Marx understood that a bureaucracy could “own” a state as its private property and that when it did, it would make a fetish out of internal hierarchy and external secrecy.

Let me generalize – and the concept is important, not simply for coming to grips with Soviet (or any other Communist with a capital “C”) society, but for dealing with one of the most basic problems of the modern world. When the state owns (or directs or controls) the means of production, the critical question is, who owns the state? There is only one way for the people to own the state: through the democratic right to change its policies and personnel at will. Whether this is done through a parliament or a soviet (in the original sense) or any other form is not the essential point (though I should note that I believe that a mix of representative and occupational democracy strikes me as most appropriate). Can workers and citizens, in a routine and ordinary way without risking anything, command those who carry out technical and administrative functions? If not, there is no democracy, then the bureaucracy tends to “own” the state as its private property. And where there is a principled, totalitarian exclusion of the people from such control, that tendency becomes absolute. This was, and is, the case in Stalin and post-Stalin Russia; it is ambiguously the case in Poland because the workers, through heroic efforts, have achieved a de facto veto over the party in the great strikes of 1980.

Secondly, the historic function of bureaucratic collectivism is to carry out a process of totalitarian accumulation in semi-backward or outrightly backward societies in which the bourgeois revolution is no longer a possible road to modernity. Therefore bureaucratic collectivism is a tendency in all Third World nations, the anti-Communist as well as the Communist. The Brazilian generals, for instance, have nationalized almost all of the decisive means of production now owned by multinational corporations. In Sudan and Iraq, governments have persecuted the Communist Party and carried out substantial parts of its program. Stalinism, then, might be defined as the variant of bureaucratic collectivism which arises out of a Marxist movement and is rationalized in the name of Marx [29].

It is of considerable interest – and hope – that at least one contemporary Communist reached conclusions similar (but not identical) with mine from within bureaucratic collectivism. I am speaking of Rudolf Bahro’s The Alternative in Eastern Europe (though I should also mention an earlier case, Milovan Djilas’ New Class). For Bahro in “actually existing socialism” (his phrase, and not necessarily a felicitous one, for what I call bureaucratic collectivism) “the abolition of private property in the means of production has in no way meant their transformation into the property of the people. Rather, the whole society stands propertyless against its state machine. The monopoly of disposal over the apparatus of production, over the lion’s share of the surplus product, over the proportions of the reproduction process, over distribution and consumption, has led to a bureaucratic mechanism with the tendency to kill off or privatize any subject initiative.” And, a little later, “The essence of actually existing socialism is conceived as one of socialization in the alienated form of stratification, this being based on a traditional division of labour which has not yet been driven to the critical point that topples it over” [30].

There are points at which I take issue with Bahro, for example, his belief that Stalinism is somehow progressive because it does carry out an important economic transformation. That is certainly a notion which a Marxist can entertain if – and in the not so long run, only if – he or she adds that it is progressive in the sense that Marx regarded British imperialism in India as progressive, i.e., criminally progressive, and to be opposed at every turn in the name of simple humanity and alternative ways of carrying out the same transformation. But he rightly and profoundly understands that democratic demands are of the essence in such societies, that they provide the possibility of popular control over the collectivist means of production. The winning of the freedom of speech and assembly, he stressed, could merely make life tolerable for, and confer power upon, the stratum of intellectuals and experts located one or two rungs below the ruling bureaucracy in the present system. If democracy is to become socialist democracy it must, Bahro insists, actually empower people throughout the society and be a part of a process of the radical reorganization of the labor process and a redistribution of the “emancipatory” pursuits from top to bottom.

Finally, Bahro raises the question of the Third World. He writes: “The state as taskmaster of society in its technical and social modernization – this fundamental model can be found time and time again since 1917, wherever pre-capitalist societies or their decisive minorities have organized themselves for active entry into the 20th century. If from this standpoint the Soviet Union is identical not only with China, but also with Burma, Algeria or Guinea, and not only with Guinea but recently also with Peru or Zaire, and not only Zaire, but even Iran where a Shah stemming from an era before classical antiquity is conducting his own ‘white revolution’ – this only underlines the fundamental value of the state in this context.” Bahro’s last phrase about the state is somewhat puzzling since I assume that he is not (was not) a supporter of the Shah’s “white revolution,” that he is describing and analyzing it, not praising it. And I would add that the alternatives are as limited as they are in some considerable measure because of the continuing power of Western capitalism on the world market [31].

These last complexities should be underlined. The theory of  bureaucratic collectivism – of undemocratic socialization, if you will – can be usefully extended to an entire range of phenomena. But for precisely this reason, important distinctions have to be made. The bourgeois democratic version of the trend, the stratification of planned capitalism, still provides certain basic freedom to the workers’ movement; the Stalinist, or neo-Stalinist, variant does not. The Shah’s Iran was a corrupt, explicitly anti-democratic, top-down authoritarianism; Nyerere’s Tanzania has warred on corruption, sought to involve the people at the base as far as is possible and yet has certain authoritarian features, like the one party system. Only a blind man would equate the Shah’s Iran and Nyerere’s Tanzania.

Moreover, there is a question of when authoritarianism is a result of a functional necessity and when it has become simply a prop of a bureaucratic ruling class. The pre-conditions of democracy are quite intricate, historical and cultural as well as economic (Robert Dahl’s Polyarchy is a very interesting attempt at systematizing these factors) [32]. In Iran, to continue with that analogy, the Shah’s income from oil exports solved a good deal of the problem of capital accumulation. It would have been economically possible to follow a much more democratic road than Tanzania, but the Shah was much more repressive. In Tanzania, the moral and political quality of Nyerere has led to more of an emphasis upon democratic values and ethos (particularly in the struggle against corruption in the party and government, a tactic which limits some of the worst consequences of bureaucratic collectivism) than in Iran where the authoritarianism was a hallowed principle, not an unfortunate necessity.

This context, finally, also gives a new meaning to democratic demands. Under bureaucratic collectivism, the struggle for any classic bourgeois democratic right takes on an immediate socialist thrust. It is one thing to demand the right of free speech, assembly or press in a society of the indirect rule of the bourgeoisie; it is a qualitatively different thing to make that identical demand in a society of statist planning and privilege. In the latter case, any democratic right has the potential of undermining the power of the ruling class and opening the way to the rule of the people; in the former, as we have seen, that is not necessarily the case at all. So it was that the democratic movement in Hungary and Poland in 1956, in  Czechoslovakia in 1968 and again in Poland in 1980 was inevitably a movement for socialist democracy.

Marx realized the centrality of democratic demands even when, within the context of a capitalism ruled by economic rather than political coercion, they could have only limited effect. Indeed, he defined socialism in the most profound sense of the word as the “truth of” bourgeois democracy, as democracy stripped of the structural limitations imposed upon it by capitalist class society. That recognition of how decisive self-determination is for socialist theory and praxis had the consequences I have already described. Now, in the late twentieth century, democracy becomes even more critical for Marxists. For in the stratified economies which, with enormous national and structural differences, now exist throughout the entire world, democratic demands are no longer a matter of formal and individual rights; they are the very substance of the social and economic rule of the people; they are, indeed, the only way that the people can rule and are, therefore, more than ever before, the sine qua non of socialism.


  1. “The Rule of Capital and the Rise of Democracy,” New Left Review 102 (May-June, 1977), p. 4.
  2. Marx-Engels Werke (hereafter MEW) (Berlin, 1957), Vol. I, pp. 14, 60, 103 and 144.
  3. MEW I, p. 231.
  4. Though I disagree on some details, I find Hal Draper‘s treatment of this development in Marx’s thought quite persuasive. See his Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution (New York, 1977), Part 1, Chapter 3.
  5. MEW IV, pp. 24, 317, 372-3 and 417.
  6. MEW IV, pp. 492-3.
  7. Ibid., p. 481.
  8. Pour Marx (Paris, 1965), pp. 27 ff.
  9. MEW VII, p. 247.
  10. Socialism (New York, 1972), Chapter III, Section 3.
  11. Ibid., p. 84.
  12. MEW VIII, p. 458.
  13. Ibid., pp. 458 and 344.
  14. Arthur Rosenberg, Democracy and Socialism (New York, 1939), p. 142.
  15. Ibid., pp. 218-20.
  16. MEW XXI, pp. 167-8.
  17. MEW XXXVI, p. 252.
  18. Gesammelte Werke (Berlin, 1974), Vol. I, p. 426.
  19. MEW XXII, p. 307.
  20. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (Boston, 1966).
  21. MEW XXV, p. 798.
  22. Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie (Tübingen, 1972 [1922]), pp. 267-8.
  23. L‘État, Le Pouvoir, Le Socialisme (Paris, 1978).
  24. Gesammelte Werke, op. cit. I-1, pp. 485-6.
  25. Ibid., pp. 567-8.
  26. Ibid., Vol. IV, pp. 359-363.
  27. Main Currents of Marxism (Oxford, 1978), I, pp. 418-9.
  28. Socialism (New York, 1972).
  29. In a remarkable insight, Max Adler, the great Austro-Marxist, hypothesized that there might be an “industrial feudalism“ in which there would be better wages, a shorter working day, health insurance, etc., but no socialist ideal or reality. This would be a benign – perhaps American or West European – variant of  bureaucratic collectivism. Marxistische Probleme (Bonn, 1974 [1922]), p. 134.
  30. Rudolf Bahro, The Alternative to Eastern Europe (London, 1978), pp. 11, 13.
  31. See my The Vast Majority (New York, 1977).
  32. Polyarchy (New Haven, 1971).