The Rediscovery of Democratic Republicanism

The history of struggles for a democratic constitution remains relevant because the U.S. was not a democracy in the past and it isn’t now.

Until the Russian Revolution, the Marxist strategy was to achieve democracy in non-democratic countries. This demand applied to all countries that lacked a system of universal and equal suffrage, whether that country was economically advanced, like France, Germany, and the United States, or economically backward, like Poland or Russia. This new state would be outlined in a democratic constitution—the “first” and “fundamental condition” for the “political liberation of the proletariat,” according to Friedrich Engels

Victor Berger, a leading member of the Socialist Party of America, described this principle to an American audience when he introduced a Constitutional Amendment to abolish the United States Senate. The Senate, he said, was an “obstructive and useless body, a menace to the people’s liberties, and an obstacle to social growth.” In a future democratic society, “All legislative powers [will] be vested in the House of Representatives. Its enactments, subject to a referendum…[will] be the supreme law, and the president shall have no power to veto them, nor [will] any court have the power to invalidate them.” 

This article reintroduces little-known history and attempts to normalize discussions about the Constitution on the left. We argue that the history of struggles for a democratic constitution remains relevant because the U.S. is not a democracy. It wasn’t in the past and it isn’t now.

The Roots 

The roots of  democratic republicanism can be found in different places, such as Thomas Paine’s writings, Common Sense, Rights of Man, and Dissertations on the First Principles of Government. In Dissertations, Paine explained, “The true and only true basis of representative government is equality of rights.” Universal and equal suffrage is the “primary right by which other rights are protected,” and to take away that right is to “reduce a man to slavery, for slavery consists in being subject to the will of another, and he that has not a vote in the election of representatives is in this case.” Men had natural and inalienable rights, including the right to democratic representation. Paine argued for a unicameral legislative system (one house, as opposed to bicameralism), with the understanding that “the poor can escape their wretched condition only through politics.” He contributed to the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, which temporarily created the Union’s “sole unicameral and near democratic state.” Following the American Revolution, a debate raged between democratic republicans like Paine and aristocratic republicans like James Madison over whether or not the sovereign will of the people was desirable. Paine advocated for a democratic republic, in which unimpeded legislative powers would lie in a unicameral legislature with representatives elected by universal and equal suffrage. Paine’s aristocratic-republican opponents feared universal and equal suffrage. They sought a mixed government that divided power between two legislative houses with a malapportioned Senate, a veto-wielding executive, and an unelected federal judiciary. The ideas of aristocratic republicans won out; the new federal constitution created a constitutional republic that was explicitly not a democracy.

The French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens soon became the paramount statement of equal rights, especially of universal and equal suffrage. Mary Wollstonecraft attempted to expand the Declaration’s principles in her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Enslaved Africans in Saint-Domingue and Louisiana were inspired by the French Revolution and “constructed it in their own image.” The Babeufists focused on the property question in the Manifesto of the Equals, writing, “The French Revolution is nothing but the precursor of another revolution, one that will be greater, more solemn, and which will be the last.” The French Constitution of 1793 laid out a system of democratic republicanism in which legislative and executive power were combined in a single body. 

Steeped in the history of previous revolutions, Marx and Engels took hold of these theoretical roots during the English Industrial Revolution. They concluded that the emerging working class would gain political power through a democratic republic. From that position of power, workers, who would soon make up a majority of society, could “wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie” and begin socializing the economy. Works like The Principles of Communism, The Communist Manifesto, and The Critique of the Draft [German] Social-Democratic Program of 1891 show the presence of democratic republicanism in Marx and Engels’ thought. “If one thing is certain,” said Engels to the German Social Democratic Party, whose 1891 program auspiciously lacked the demand for a democratic republic, “it is that our party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. This is even the specific form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the Great French Revolution [of 1793] has already shown.” 

Marx and Engels spent their entire lives struggling to create democratic states, and their work touched all of the significant democratic struggles of the 19th century. In 1893, Engels explained, perhaps exasperatedly, “Marx and I have repeated ad nauseam that…the democratic republic is the only political form in which the struggle between the working class and the capitalist class can first be universalized and then culminate in the decisive victory of the proletariat.” 

The Chartists 

Marx and Engels came to appreciate democracy’s radical potential by observing the political movement of the working class in England, the only industrial nation at the time. During the mid-19th century, no political struggle was more significant than Chartism, which united working-class communities behind a desire for self-government into a robust political organization. Paine’s natural rights theory immensely influenced the Chartists, and they, in turn, profoundly influenced Marx and Engels. Chartism’s place in the history of democratic republicanism deserves special attention. 

Chartism began in 1838 with mass meetings in Birmingham, Glasgow, and Northern England. It was primarily a reaction to the perceived inadequacies of recent parliamentary legislation, including the Reform Act of 1832, the Factory Act of 1833, and the notorious 1834 Poor Law—the last of which was denounced as “the annihilation of every domestic affection, and the violent and most brutal oppression ever yet practiced among the poor of any country of the world.” 

In 1839, a national convention was held in London to facilitate the creation of a petition, the People’s Charter, to be presented to Parliament. The charter made six demands: universal and equal suffrage for all men over the age of 21, equal representation in parliament, a secret and direct ballot, annual parliamentary elections, payment for members of parliament to allow men of all social classes to hold office, and the removal of property requirements for parliamentary candidates. With over one million signatures, the petition was sent to the House of Commons. Yet, as expected, the House refused to hear the petition. After heated debate, “physical force” Chartists decided to hold a Grand National Holiday, which became modern history’s first call for a general strike. 

In 1842, the People’s Charter was again presented to Parliament, where it was rejected despite gathering an astounding three million signatures, about half of the adult male population of Great Britain. Engels’ book, Condition of the Working Class in England, published in 1845, described the Chartist movement and its demands in revolutionary terms, “In Chartism, it is the whole working-class which arises against the bourgeoisie, and attacks, first of all, the political power, the legislative rampart with which the bourgeoisie has surrounded itself…These six points, which are all limited to the reconstitution of the House of Commons, harmless as they seem, are sufficient to overthrow the whole English Constitution, Queen and Lords included.” 

But the British state was unified and robust, and the army was well-trained and professional. As time wore on, the Chartist movement began to fray. A series of challenges, such as concentrated state violence and well-placed reforms, sapped Chartist organization throughout 1848. These carrot-and-stick tactics ultimately spelled the end of England’s most militant and united labor movement and the most significant and best-organized political movements of the 19th century. The rise of the British working class was resisted.

The Heritage

After Marx and Engels’ deaths, it remained common knowledge among many Marxists that, as Engels explained, “democracy means the dominion of the working class, neither more nor less.” Democratic republicanism lived on through works such as Karl Kautsky’s The Republic and Social Democracy in France, Rosa Luxemburg’s Theory and Practice, and the Socialist Party of America’s platform of 1912. Yet no one, including Marx and Engels, championed democratic principles more clearly or consistently than Vladimir Lenin. The political demands in the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party’s program of 1903, including “concentration of supreme state power wholly in the hands of a legislative assembly” and “universal, equal and direct suffrage,” provide a clear and still relevant definition of democracy. Following the 1905 revolution, RSDLP representatives in the Imperial Duma leveraged their position to demand an end to Tsarist tyranny. The primary obligation of socialist electeds in an undemocratic political system, explained Lenin, was to agitate for democracy. 

Likewise, the Socialist Party of America (SPA) deserves special attention. Eugene Debs, the SPA’s presidential candidate in multiple elections, denounced the Constitution as “autocratic and reactionary.” Americans, Debs explained, were not “a free and self-governing people.” A new founding document needed to be written by “The people in the complete sense of that magnificent and much-maligned term,” not by “ruling-class lawyers and politicians” using the Constitution’s Article V process for amendments. The SPA’s newspaper, Appeal to Reason, regularly ran constitutional polemics, such as “Tricked in the Constitution.” In 1914, prominent SPA member—and soon to be 1916 presidential candidate—Allan Benson wrote Our Dishonest Constitution, in which he referenced the work of Charles Beard, whose writing on the Constitution was nothing less than the “generally accepted…view of the founding” during the Progressive era. Beard also taught classes on the Constitution at the SPA’s Rand School of Social Science in New York. 

However, the Russian Revolution and the subsequent civil war threw everything into the air. Circumstances forced the Bolsheviks to repudiate their democratic values and create a one-party state. Rosa Luxemburg’s analysis of the Bolshevik’s dilemma during the earliest months of the revolution was on the mark; it was one thing to disband the long-demanded constituent assembly for reasons that Luxemburg herself appreciated, and quite another to make a virtue out of a necessity and claim, as many Bolsheviks did, that representative parliamentary democracy had been superseded by Soviets and was no longer relevant. Luxemburg warned against “Freezing into a complete theoretical system all of the tactics forced upon [the Bolsheviks] by…fatal circumstances.” As the Third International solidified, the democratic republicanism of earlier times was swept away. The result was a steep decline in constitutional agitation among self-described Marxists. By 1928, the Socialist Party of America’s presidential platform had stopped critiquing the Constitution. That same year, the newly formed Communist Party (CPUSA) denounced the malapportioned Senate but concluded that “democracy” was one of the three tools used by the ruling class to subordinate workers. Henceforth, democracy was no longer considered a strategic demand. The socialist movement stopped talking about the Constitution, and a necessary tool to understanding political power in America was lost.

The Rediscovery

Thankfully, several important voices helped revive democratic republicanism. In the 1960s, Hal Draper wrote The Myth of Lenin’s ‘Concept of the Party,’ presenting Lenin as one of history’s foremost revolutionary democrats. Draper worked contemporaneously with Richard N. Hunt, whose 1974 book, The Political Ideas of Marx and Engels, traced Marx and Engels’ relationship with democratic republicanism across the decades. Draper and Hunt were contemporaries of Neil Harding, who, in his 1977 work, Lenin’s Political Thought, wrote that according to Lenin, workers didn’t have to have come to “socialist consciousness” to acquire “political consciousness.” In other words, Lenin didn’t think someone needed to be a socialist to appreciate the struggle for democracy. The struggle for democracy was paramount. Draper, Hunt, and Harding debunked many of the myths of a supposedly undemocratic Marxism peddled by the West and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Thanks to them, we know that “dictatorship of the proletariat” meant a state based on universal and equal suffrage and that only the circumstances of civil war led Lenin to support a one-party state. 

In 2006, Lars T Lih, who had read Draper and Harding, published Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? In Context. Lih wrote, “The imperative necessity of political freedom is the central theme of Lenin’s political agitation.” He continued, “If you were willing to fight for political freedom, you were Lenin’s ally, even if you were hostile to socialism. If you downgraded the goal of political freedom in any way, you were Lenin’s foe, even if you were a committed socialist.” Lenin’s belief that establishing a democratic republic is the paramount task of the working-class movement is simply what was understood to be mainstream Marxism in his time. 

The theory and history presented above are essentially everything needed for a mass democratic socialist movement in the U.S. 

The Constitution

As Aziz Rana’s The Constitutional Bind describes in fascinating detail, critiques of the Constitution are as old as the Union itself. In 1913, Charles Beard published his iconoclastic, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. Beard’s work was followed by W.E.B Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America, in which the eminent Marxist and sociologist lambasted the 39th Congress that met during the two years following the Union’s victory. Du Bois described the assembled congressmen as spinning “around and around…in dizzy, silly dialectics”  and alienating their intellect and creativity in appeals to “higher constitutional metaphysics.” Constitutional devotion in the face of changing circumstances was the height of absurdity to Du Bois, “Here were grown, sensible men arguing about a written form of government adopted ninety years before, when men did not believe that slavery could outlive their generation in this country, or that civil war could possibly be its result; when no man foresaw the Industrial Revolution or the rise of the Cotton Kingdom; and yet now, with incantation and abracadabra, the leaders of a nation tried to peer back into the magic crystal, and out of a bit of paper called the Constitution, find eternal and immutable law laid down for their guidance forever and ever, Amen!” Du Bois followed Black Reconstruction with Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace. There, he described how the malapportioned Senate allowed the South to dominate national politics. 

In 1948, historian Richard Hofstadter published The American Political Tradition and pointed to the Framers’ “Calvinistic sense of human evil and damnation.” Like Thomas Hobbes, the Framers thought that “men are selfish and contentious” and needed “a good political constitution to control [them].” Above all, the new Constitution was necessary to confine the popular, democratic spirit present since the American Revolution. Martin Luther King made a similar point in 1967, explaining that the South’s stranglehold of the Senate kept the U.S. from achieving the enviable social-democratic policies of the Nordic countries. 

Having reached a high point in the early 20th century, constitutional critique waned following the Second World War. However, it reemerged in some circles in the 1990s. In the pages of The American Prospect, lawyer and author Thomas Geoghegan decried the “Infernal Senate” and its “Rotten Boroughs, full of Senators who are horse doctors, or in rifle clubs, targeting our bills.” In 2011, in Jacobin Magazine’s second issue, Seth Ackerman published “Burn the Constitution,” explaining that the Constitution makes it “virtually impossible for the electorate to obtain a concerted change in national policy by a collective act of political will.” Most recently, The America Prospect published an article by its editor, David Dayen, titled America is Not a Democracy. There, Dayen highlights the gerrymandered legislature, the Electoral College, the malapportioned and veto-wielding Senate, the Supreme Court, and the influence of money in politics. He concludes with a provocation, “Where can we find this democracy we need to fight to preserve?”

Putting the Pieces Together

The Constitution is the elephant in the room; a person wearing a blindfold might feel its leg or trunk yet not understand what the animal is. Once in a while, someone may realize it’s an elephant but decide to keep the blindfold on to avoid confronting such an enormous obstacle. We should throw away the blindfold. In 2021, DSA took a step toward confronting the Constitution by including the demands for a second constitutional convention and a call to abolish the Supreme Court, the Senate, and the Electoral College in its Political Platform. “The nation that holds itself out as the world’s premier democracy,” DSA concluded, “is no democracy at all,” and, “Democracy is necessary to win a socialist society.”

However, it’s YDSA that’s leading the way inside DSA. Last year, YDSA passed Resolution 21: Winning the Battle For Democracy, which demands “a new and radically democratic constitution, drafted by an assembly of the people elected by direct, universal and equal suffrage for all adult residents with proportional representation of political parties, and rooted not in the legitimacy of dead generations of slave-owners and capitalists, but that of a majority consensus of the working masses.” As the “youth of the democratic socialist movement,” YDSA urges all DSA members, including our elected officials to take “concrete actions to advance the struggle for a democratic republic such as agitating against undemocratic Judicial Review, fighting for proportional representation, delegitimizing the anti-democratic U.S. Senate, and advancing the long-term demand for a new democratic Constitution.” 

Now we can put all the pieces together: DSA’s Political Platform proclaims, “The nation that holds itself out as the world’s premier democracy is no democracy at all.” Engels insisted, “The democratic republic is the only political form in which the struggle between the working class and the capitalist class can first be universalized and then culminate in the decisive victory of the proletariat.” YDSA’s resolution calls upon DSA to take, “concrete actions to advance the struggle for a democratic republic such as agitating against undemocratic Judicial Review, fighting for proportional representation, delegitimizing the anti-democratic U.S. Senate, and advancing the long-term demand for a new democratic Constitution.” 

At the end of the day, people must decide where their energy will be most effective in moving everything else forward. We contend that the battle to democratize the political system is the leading edge of the class struggle. Organizing for a Democratic Constitution will put us on the road to sustained growth.

Image: The Preamble and Article I of the U.S. Constitution from 1787