What do socialists say about democracy?

“DEMOCRACY DOES not come from the top, it comes from the bottom,” Howard Zinn tells us at the beginning of his wonderful filmThe People Speak. “The mutinous soldiers, the angry women, the rebellious Native Americans, the working people, the agitators, the antiwar protestors, the socialists and anarchists and dissenters of all kinds—the troublemakers, yes, the people who have given us what liberty and democracy we have.”1 This insight from Zinn provides a key to our topic—the relation between democracy and socialism, especially the socialism associated with the outlook of Karl Marx.

The great democratic ideal of our country, historically, has been that we live in a land in which there is government of the people, by the people, and for the people, with liberty and justice for all. It is worth raising a question about how much democracy—how much rule by the people—actually exists in this American republic of ours. The definition of “republic” is rule (or government) by elected representatives—not quite the same thing as government by the people. We’ll need to come back to that shortly. But certainly even an imperfect democracy is better than rule over the people by a government that decides it knows what is best for them. Many right-wingers today claim this is the goal of socialism.

That is a lie. Yet one of the tragedies of the twentieth century is that so many self-proclaimed partisans of socialism plugged themselves into that lie, leaving “rule by the people” out of the socialist equation. They defined socialism as government ownership and control of the economy, and government planning for the benefit of the people, who some day (but not yet!) would be permitted to have a decisive say in the decisions affecting their lives. This so-called socialism from above was central to the ideology of certain elitist reformers associated with the so-called moderate wing of the socialist movement, and it was also central to the Stalin dictatorship in Russia. Even down to the present day, some well-meaning folks use this logic to describe despotic regimes (such as that in North Korea) as “socialist.” Such thinking has disoriented millions of people over the years. But as the Afro-Caribbean revolutionary internationalist C. L. R. James insisted (using the word “proletarian” where many of us would say “working class”),

the struggle for socialism is the struggle for proletarian democracy. Proletarian democracy is not the crown of socialism. Socialism is the result of proletarian democracy. To the degree that the proletariat mobilizes itself and the great masses of the people, the socialist revolution is advanced. The proletariat mobilizes itself as a self-acting force through its own committees, unions, parties, and other organizations.2

Similar things were said in earlier years by the Italian Communist leader Antonio Gramsci, the Chinese dissident Communist Chen Duxiu, and the Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui, to name three of many.

“Socialists should not argue with the American worker when he says he wants democracy and doesn’t want to be ruled by a dictatorship,” said James P. Cannon—a founder of both the U.S. Communist Party and U.S. Trotskyism—in the wake of the 1956 Hungarian workers’ and students’ uprising against Stalinist bureaucratic tyranny. “Rather, we should recognize [the worker’s] demand for human rights and democratic guarantees, now and in the future, is in itself progressive. The socialist task is to not to deny democracy, but to expand it and make it more complete.” Cannon stood in the revolutionary Marxist tradition of not only opposing capitalism, but also opposing oppressive bureaucracies in the labor movement throughout the world, asserting that “in the United States, the struggle for workers’ democracy is preeminently a struggle of the rank and file to gain democratic control of their own organizations.” He added that—both in Communist countries and capitalist countries—“the fight for workers’ democracy is inseparable from the fight for socialism, and is the condition for its victory.” We can find the same kinds of points being made by Eugene Victor Debs and others during an earlier heyday of American socialism in the first two decades of the twentieth century and by revolutionaries in Europe—Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and many others.3

The failure to recognize that genuine democracy and genuine socialism are absolutely inseparable is only one source of confusion. Another source of confusion has to do with the relationship between capitalismand democracy. Most of what I have to share here will actually focus on that question. A useful case study for us will be the American Revolution and its aftermath. Then we will need to touch on what some have called “the democratic breakthrough” for which Karl Marx and the labor movement with which he was associated are largely responsible. We should then consider descriptions of so-called democracy in the United States over the years by people in a position to know. We will conclude with some key insights from Lenin and Trotsky on combining the struggles for democracy and socialism.

First we should acknowledge an element of confusion that flows from a particular understanding—or misunderstanding—of Marxism. Marxist theory outlines different stages in human history based on different economic systems, first a primitive tribal communism that lasted for thousands of years, then a succession of class societies—in Europe including: ancient slave civilizations, feudalism, and then capitalism, with its immense productivity and economic surpluses that have paved the way for the possibility of a socialist society.

The misunderstanding flows from the fact that according to Marxists, the transition from feudalism to capitalism is facilitated and largely completed by something that has been termed “bourgeois democratic revolutions.” Bourgeois, of course, refers to capitalism, and the term bourgeois-democratic revolution refers to those revolutionary upheavals, involving masses of people in the so-called lower classes, that have swept aside rule by kings and domination of the economy by hereditary nobles or aristocrats, creating the basis for both the full development of capitalist economies and more or less democratic republics.4 Some Marxists, and many capitalist ideologists, have projected an intimate interrelationship between the rise of capitalism and the rise of democracy. Just as “love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage” in the old song, so capitalism and democracy naturally go together. But, as a number of sharp-minded historians and social scientists have argued, this notion is quite misleading. In order to clarify that, we should take a look at an aspect of our own bourgeois-democratic revolution, the American Revolution of 1775 to 1783.

The American Revolution and democracy
The big businessmen, the capitalists, the ruling elites of the thirteen North American colonies were the great merchants of the North and the great plantation owners of the South, and they did not want to be bossed around and constrained by the far-off government of an incredibly arrogant monarchy and aristocracy, combined with privileged merchants in England, who dominated the British Empire. To be able to pose an effective challenge, however, they needed to persuade a much larger percentage of their fellow colonists—small farmers, shopkeepers, artisans and craftsmen, laborers and more—to make common cause with them. It became clear that these plebian masses were particularly responsive to the kinds of revolutionary-democratic conceptions that radicals like Tom Paine put forward in incendiary bestsellers such asCommon Sense. Such notions were consequently incorporated into magnificent rhetoric that Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was used to rally enough support throughout the colonies—now transforming themselves into independent, united states of America—to stand up to the greatest economic and military power in the world. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” it declared, “that all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The document went on that governments are not legitimate if they do not enjoy the consent of the governed, and that the people who are governed have a right to challenge, overturn, and replace governments not to their liking.5

Yet certain revolutionary leaders who wished to conserve the power of the wealthy minority of merchants and plantation owners were uncomfortable with the implications of such potent stuff. Early on, one such conservative, Gouvernor Morris, commented:

The mob began to think and to reason. Poor reptiles! It is with them a vernal morning; they are struggling to cast off their winter’s slough, they bask in the sunshine, and ere noon they will bite, depend upon it. The gentry begin to fear this. . . . I see, and I see it with fear and trembling, that if the disputes with Great Britain continue, we shall be under the worst of all possible dominions; we shall be under the domination of a riotous mob.

John Adams fretted that, “our struggle has loosened the bands of government everywhere. That children and apprentices were disobedient—that schools and colleges were grown turbulent—that Indians slighted their guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their masters.” Adams was dismayed by pressures to give propertyless men the right to vote (and by pressure from his own wife even to extend this right to women). He brooded: “It tends to confound and destroy all distinctions and prostrate all ranks to one common level.” He warned: “Men in general in every society, who are wholly destitute of property, are also too little acquainted with public affairs to form a right judgment, and too dependent upon other men to have a will of their own.” Alexander Hamilton, a visionary enthusiast of an industrial capitalist future, was perhaps clearest of all. “All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well-born, the other the mass of the people.” Since the “turbulent and changing” masses “seldom judge or determine right,” the wealthy elite must be given “a distinct permanent share in the government.” Or as he put it earlier, “that power which holds the purse-strings absolutely must rule.”6

Three years after the revolution was officially won, and in the wake of Shays’s Rebellion of small farmers and poor laborers in Massachusetts, General Henry Knox wrote to George Washington: “Their creed is that the property of the United States has been protected from the confiscation of Britain by the joint exertions of all, and therefore ought to be the common property of all.” Knox’s exaggeration expressed the anxiety of the well off in the early republic. “This dreadful situation has alarmed every man of principle and property in New England,” Knox continued. “Our Government must be braced, changed, or altered to secure our lives and property.” By the late 1780s, a majority of the states had given the right to vote to a minority—white male property owners. Of course, some of the property owners might be small farmers, artisans, and some shopkeepers with ties to what Hamilton called “the mass of the people.” Most of the state governments had a more representative lower house for such folk—but it was held in check by a more powerful upper house that was controlled by the rich. In addition, many powerful state and local offices were appointed from above rather than elected.7

It is likely that a great majority of the Founding Fathers who gathered to discuss and compose a new Constitution of the United States in the late 1780s saw things in the manner explained by Aristotle many centuries earlier: “The real difference between democracy and oligarchy is poverty and wealth. Wherever men rule by reason of their wealth…, that is an oligarchy, and where the poor rule, that is democracy.” The fact remained, as Ellen Meiksins Wood has commented, that “the colonial and revolutionary experience had already made it impossible to reject democracy outright, as ruling and propertied classes had been doing unashamedly for centuries and as they would continue to do for some time elsewhere.” We will look at what happened “elsewhere”—at least in Europe—in a few moments. But what happened in the early American republic at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was an attempt to fuse democracy (government by the many) with oligarchy (government by the few) in a way that would conserve the power of the wealthy. The key was the notion of representative democracy in which the laboring multitude is represented by figures from the wealthy elite. Or as Alexander Hamilton put it in No. 35 of the Federalist Papers, “an actual representation of all classes of the people by persons of each class is altogether visionary,” and, instead, workers in the skilled and manufacturing trades, thanks to “the influence and weight and superior acquirements” of the wealthy merchants, will generally “consider merchants as the natural representatives of all these classes of the community.” Ellen Wood’s paraphrase is nicely put: “Here shoemakers and blacksmiths are represented by their social superiors.” She adds, “these assumptions must be placed in the context of the Federalist view that representation is not a way of implementing but of avoiding or at least partially circumventing democracy.”8

Even the more liberal-minded Founding Father, a close associate of Thomas Jefferson’s, James Madison—in No. 10 of the Federalist Papers—observing that “the most common and durable source of factions [in society] has been the various and unequal division of property,” emphasizes: “Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.” Here again we see the laboring majority and the wealthy minority. Insisting that “a pure democracy” will enable “a majority… to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens,” Madison hailed the Constitution’s conceptualization of a republic because it “opens a different prospect and promises the cure for what we are seeking.” Madison returned to this concern in No. 51 of theFederalist Papers, and praised the Constitution for creating structures and dynamics that will fragment the majority. Among other things, the checks and balances the Constitution established are able (as he puts it) “to divide the legislature into separate branches, and to render them by different modes of election and different principles of action, as little connected with each other as the nature of their common dependence on society will admit.”

There is another element in Madison’s calculations. He reminds us: “If the majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.” The solution is to ensure that, “whilst all authority [in the government] will be derived and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.” A geographically extensive republic, fragmented into states, with a “great variety of interests, parties and sects which it embraces,” will block a majority coalition that could endanger the wealthy minority.9

Even setting aside its original embrace of slavery, the design of the U.S. Constitution became a bulwark of privilege even as more and more men, and finally women as well, were able to conquer the right to vote. Three modern-day social scientists—Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Evelyne Huber Stephens, and John D. Stephens—have produced an important study entitled Capitalist Development and Democracy. They suggest it was a “constitutional or liberal oligarchy” (we could also call it an undemocratic republic) that was set up in the 1780s. They go on to trace important gains that were made in the 1820s and 1830s, in the 1860s, in 1920, and in the 1960s, to expand the right to vote and to make the government more responsive to the desires and needs of the majority.10

The expansion of voting rights was not a gift from on high, but was achieved through tenacious, protracted, and sometimes violent social struggles, spearheaded by the kinds of “troublemakers” that Howard Zinn has so lovingly described. And yet even with all this, genuine rule by the people cannot be said to have been established in our country—a reality we will explore shortly. But first we should turn our attention to what Rueschemeyer and his colleagues document as the democratic breakthrough in Europe.

The democratic breakthrough
Following, revising, and elaborating on studies of earlier social scientists such as Göran Therborn, they comment that “the bourgeoisie, which appears as the natural carrier of democracy in the accounts of orthodox Marxists, liberal social scientists and [others], hardly lived up to this role.” Throughout Europe, the men of wealth and property were generally as reluctant as their U.S. capitalist cousins to go in the direction of rule by the people, preferring some form of liberal or constitutional oligarchy, or sometimes even to cut deals with kings, aristocrats, and generals. They tell us that “it was the growth of the working class and its capacity for self-organization that was most critical for the breakthrough of democracy. The rapid industrialization experienced by western Europe in the five decades before World War I increased the size and, with varying time lags, the degree of organization [of the working class] and this changed the balance of class power in civil society to the advantage of democratic forces.” Their studies confirm “that the working class, represented by socialist parties and trade unions, was the single most important force in the majority of countries in the final push for universal male suffrage and responsible government.” (It took additional feminist ferment, generally supported by socialists, to include women into the equation.)11

Here too, genuine rule by the people cannot be said to have been established in these countries. But it is undeniable that these gains, the right to vote and to organize politically, made it easier for the laboring masses to pressure the wealthy minority. This definitely brought about meaningful improvements for millions of people.

There is one additional very key point for us here. Another social scientist, August Nimtz, embracing the work of Rueschemeyer and his colleagues, finished connecting the dots, in his very fine study Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough. Essential elements in the thrust of working-class democracy, Nimtz documents, were the intellectual and practical-political labors of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in the Communist League, in the 1848 revolutionary upsurge, during the quiescent interlude that followed, and then in the years of the International Workingmen’s Association, First International, and Paris Commune. Nimtz is especially good at conveying a sense of the crucial importance of the First International in the larger political developments of the 1860s and 1870s, and particularly in the development of the labor movements of Europe and North America. He supplies extensive documentation for what he calls his “most sweeping claim”—that “Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were the leading protagonists in the democratic movement in the nineteenth century, the decisive breakthrough period in humanity’s age-old struggle for democracy.”12

And yet Marx and Engels themselves were highly critical of the so-called democracies that were coming into being in various capitalist countries, not least of all in the United States. It was not because the two men were antidemocratic, but precisely because they were fierce advocates of genuine democracy, that they were so critical. For Marx, communism (or socialism, which for him meant the same thing) was what he once called “true democracy,” which he passionately favored. He and Engels explained in The Communist Manifesto that under capitalism “the bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of modern industry and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative state, exclusive political sway,” and that “the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” Against this, they argued that workers must increasingly unite in the struggle for a better life, waged in their workplaces and communities, which would need to amount, finally, to what they called “the organization of the proletarians into a class, and consequently into a political party” that would be capable of bringing about “the forcible overthrow of the bourgeoisie,” laying “the foundation for the political sway of the proletariat.” This meant that communists and all the other working-class parties must seek “the formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.” The “first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy,” and then increasingly to take control of the economy in order to bring about the socialist reconstruction of society.13

Without this, genuine democracy would be impossible. In describing the first workers’ government in history—the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871, which pro-capitalist military forces soon drowned in blood—Marx commented that “instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in communes.” Twenty-two years later, Engels commented to a comrade living in the United States, “The Americans for a long time have been providing the European world with the proof that the bourgeois republic is the republic of capitalist businessmen in which politics is a business like any other.”14

The limits of bourgeois democracy
A brilliant description of “practical politics” has been offered by one of the outstanding working-class revolutionaries of the United States, Albert Parsons, one of the Haymarket martyrs who described himself as a socialist, a communist, and an anarchist. A tireless activist and organizer, he was also editor of The Alarm, the English-language paper of the International Working People’s Association—which was a powerful force in Chicago during the 1880s.

Parsons put these comments on page one of The Alarm during the election season of 1884:

There is not one sound spot in our whole social system, industrial, political, or religious. It is rotten to the core. The whole scheme as we now have was originated by pirates, founded upon fraud, and perpetrated by force. The United States of America possesses in all its glory that sum total of all humbugs—the ballot. This country is now in the midst of its periodical craze—a presidential election. The voters are enthused by the politicians, parading with torches, bands of music and shouting for this or that nominee or party. A man can no more run for office without money than he can engage in business without capital.

The article argued that even if a poor man is nominated because of his popularity, his campaign is financed by wealthy friends in the party who expect him to “vote the right way” on particular issues; if he doesn’t do this, he is replaced by someone who will.

He takes his seat and votes to kill all legislation which would invade the “sacred rights” of the propertied class, and guards like a watch-dog the “vested rights” of those who enjoy special privileges. This is “practical politics.” The poor vote as they work, as their necessities dictate. If the workingmen organize their own party, they are counted out; besides, those who own the workshop control, as a general thing, the votes in it. It is all a question of poverty; the man without property has practically no vote. “Practical politics” means the control of the propertied class.15

Related to one of the points that Parsons makes here—regarding the workplaces where a majority of us spend our working lives (and so much of our waking lives)—it is worth taking time to reflect on the fact that, even if we don’t let our employers intimidate us into voting one way or another, as soon as we walk through the doors of the workplace, we have entered a realm of economic dictatorship—sometimes a relatively benevolent dictatorship, sometimes a totalitarian nightmare, often something somewhere in-between. But there is no democracy—no majority rule, limited freedom of expression, often—especially if there’s no union—no bill of rights. A wealthy minority rules over us in the workplaces and in the entire economy on which all of us are dependent.

There are additional realities that flow from this, and you don’t have to be a genius like Albert Einstein to figure out what they are. The fact remains, however, that Einstein did discuss the question in 1949 and expressed himself rather well, so let’s see what he had to say:

Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.16

More recently, Sheldon Wolin, Professor Emeritus of Political Theory at Princeton University, updated some of Einstein’s points. To understand what he says, you need to understand Greek—so I will now give you a Greek language lesson. We got the word “democracy” from the ancient Greeks—demokratia, derived from demos (the people) andkratia (rule). Sheldon Wolin says: “It is obvious that today—in the age of communication conglomerates, media pundits, television, public opinion surveys, and political consultants—the exercise of popular will, the expression of its voice, and the framing of its needs have been emptied of all promise of autonomy.” No kidding! Noting that “American politicians and publicists claim that theirs is the world’s greatest democracy,” Wolin tells us, instead (and remember, “demos” means “the people”): “The reality is a democracy without the demos as actor. The voice is that of a ventriloquist democracy.”17 That is, “we the people” seem to be expressing ourselves politically, but really what is being expressed comes from the wealthy elites and their minions who control the economy, the larger culture, the sources of information, the shaping of opinion, and the political process as a whole.

Many anarchists, quite understandably, denounce the very concept of democracy as a swindle that should be rejected by all honest revolutionaries. Marxists argue, however, that the swindle must be rejected—but democracy should be fought for. It does seem, however, that given the many ways in which the electoral process in the United States is stacked in favor of capitalism and capitalists, a case can be made, at least in the present time, for our efforts to be concentrated outside the electoral arena. Just as politics involves much, much more than elections and electoral parties, so the struggle for democracy—as the comments of Howard Zinn suggest—can often be pursued far more effectively in workplaces, in communities, in schools, in the streets, in the larger culture through non-electoral struggles, and creative work of various kinds. The key for us is to draw more and more people into pathways of thinking and pathways of action that go in the direction of questioning established authority and giving people a meaningful say about the realities and decisions affecting their lives. That is the opposite of how so-called democracy—focused on elections—actually works in our country. This comes through brilliantly in the description of the wonderful anarchist educator Paul Goodman regarding the U.S. political system in the early 1960s:

Concretely, our system of government at present comprises the military-industrial complex, the secret paramilitary agencies, the scientific war corporations, the blimps, the horses’ asses, the police, the administrative bureaucracy, the career diplomats, the lobbies, the corporations that contribute Party funds, the underwriters and real-estate promoters that batten on urban renewal, the official press and the official opposition press, the sounding-off and jockeying for the next election, the National Unity, etc., etc. All this machine is grinding along by the momentum of the power and profit motives and style long since built into it; it cannot make decisions of a kind radically different than it does. Even if an excellent man happens to be elected to office, he will find that it is no longer a possible instrument for social change on any major issues of war and peace and the way of life of the Americans.18

Elections can sometimes be used effectively by revolutionaries to reach out to masses of people with ideas, ?information, analyses, and proposals that challenge the established order. If elected, they may also find that—aside from proposing and voting for positive, if relatively modest, social reforms—they will also be able to use elected office to help inform, mobilize, and support their constituents in non-electoral mass struggles. But the insertion of revolutionaries into the existing capitalist state will not be sufficient to bring about the “true democracy” that Marx spoke of, because they would find themselves within political structures designed to maintain the existing power relations. They would not have the power to end capitalist oppression or to transform the capitalist state into a structure permitting actual “rule by the people.” Marx and Engels themselves came to the conclusion that it would not be possible for the working class simply to use the existing state—designed by our exploiters and oppressors—to create a new society. The workers would need to smash the oppressive apparatus in order to allow for a genuinely democratic rule, through their own movements and organizations, and through new and more democratic governmental structures.

It is possible that some revolutionaries might be elected before such revolutionary change restructures the state. But they can be effective in what they actually want to do only by working in tandem with broader social movements and with non-electoral struggles. These movements and struggles must be working to empower masses of people in our economy and society, and to put increasing pressure on all politicians and government figures, and also on capitalist owners and managers, to respond to the needs and the will of the workers, of the oppressed, and of the majority of the people. Remember C. L. R. James’s comment: “To the degree that the [working class] mobilizes itself and the great masses of the people, the socialist revolution is advanced. The [working class] mobilizes itself as a self-acting force through its own committees, unions, parties, and other organizations.” These are, potentially, the seeds of the workers’ democracy—germinating in the present—that will take root and grow, challenging and displacing the undemocratic and corrupted structures associated with the so-called bourgeois democracies.

Democracy and “communism”
Before we conclude, we need to look more closely, even if briefly, at a contradiction that seems to have arisen between the notion of democracy and the realities of what came to be known as Communism. Within the tradition of twentieth-century Communism, many (in sharp contrast to Marx) came to counterpose revolution and communism to democracy as such. This can’t be justified, but it needs to be explained. Lenin, Trotsky, and the Bolsheviks led a super-democratic upsurge of the laboring masses, resulting in the initial triumph of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Immediately afterward, Russia was overwhelmed by foreign military invasions, economic blockades, and a very bloody civil war nurtured by hostile foreign capitalist powers. In that horrific situation, a brutal one-party dictatorship was established to hold things together. The Bolsheviks (even comrades Lenin and Trotsky) came up with highly dubious theoretical justifications for the dictatorship, which caused Rosa Luxemburg—correctly—to sharply criticize them, even as she supported the Russian Revolution. The justifications they put forward were soon used as an ideological cover for the crystallization of a vicious bureaucratic tyranny propagated, in the name of “Communism,” by Joseph Stalin and others, ultimately miseducating millions of people throughout the world.19

Both Lenin and Trotsky, and also many others who were true to the revolutionary-democratic essence of the Bolshevik tradition, sought to push back this horrendous corruption of the Communist cause. But it was too late, and after the late 1920s such words as Communism,Marxism, and socialism became wrongly identified throughout the world with that horrendous, totalitarian, murderous corruption represented by the Stalin regime. The ideology and practices of Stalinism are close to being the opposite of classical Marxism.

And it was the classical Marxist outlook that animated Lenin for most of his life—an outlook insisting that genuine socialism and genuine democracy are inseparable. In fact, this was at the heart of the strategic orientation that led to the victory of the 1917 Revolution. It is an orientation that still makes sense for us today. Let’s see how Lenin maps that out in a 1915 polemic:

The proletariat cannot be victorious except through democracy, i.e., by giving full effect to democracy and by linking with each step of its struggle democratic demands formulated in the most resolute terms. . . . We must combinethe revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary program and tactics on all democratic demands: a republic, a militia, the popular election of officials, equal rights for women, the self-determination of nations, etc. While capitalism exists, these demands—all of them—can only be accomplished as an exception, and even then in an incomplete and distorted form. Basing ourselves on the democracy already achieved, and exposing its incompleteness under capitalism, we demand the overthrow of capitalism, the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, as a necessary basis both for the abolition of the poverty of the masses and for the complete and all-round institution of all democratic reforms. Some of these reforms will be started before the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, others in the course of that overthrow, and still others after it. The social revolution is not a single battle, but a period covering a series of battles over all sorts of problems of economic and democratic reform, which are consummated only by the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. It is for the sake of this final aim that we must formulate every one of our democratic demands in a consistently revolutionary way. It is quite conceivable that the workers of some particular country will overthrow the bourgeoisie before even a single fundamental democratic reform has been fully achieved. It is, however, quite inconceivable that the proletariat, as a historical class, will be able to defeat the bourgeoisie, unless it is prepared for that by being educated in the spirit of the most consistent and resolutely revolutionary democracy.20

This uncompromising struggle for the most thoroughgoing and genuine democracy is one of the glories of the genuine Leninist tradition. It is something that can resonate with the needs, the aspirations, and the present-day consciousness of millions of people—and at the same time it leads in a revolutionary socialist direction.

In a similar manner, Leon Trotsky pushed hard against ultraleft sectarianism in the early 1930s when he insisted on the struggle both to defend “bourgeois democracy” and to push beyond it to workers’ democracy in the face of the rising tide of Hitler’s Nazism. In this he stressed the need to defend the revolutionary-democratic subculture of the workers’ movement. “Within the framework of bourgeois democracy and parallel to the incessant struggle against it,” Trotsky recounted, “the elements of proletarian democracy have formed themselves in the course of many decades: political parties, labor press, trade unions, factory committees, clubs, cooperatives, sports societies, etc. The mission of fascism is not so much to complete the destruction of bourgeois democracy as to crush the first outlines of proletarian democracy.” In opposing the fascist onslaught on democracy, the goal of revolutionaries is to defend “those elements of proletarian democracy, already created,” which will eventually be “at the foundation of the soviet system of the workers’ state.” Eventually, it will be necessary—Trotsky says—“to break the husk of bourgeois democracy and free from it the kernel of workers’ democracy.” In the face of the immediate fascist threat, “so long as we do not yet have the strength to establish the soviet system, we place ourselves on the terrain of bourgeois democracy. But at the same time we do not entertain any illusions.”21

The situation we face today is as different from that which Lenin faced in 1915 and Trotsky faced in 1933 as their situations were different from what Marx and Engels faced in 1848 and 1871. But they are not totally different. Their insights and approaches may be helpful to us in our own situation as we struggle for rule by the people, genuine democracy, as the basis for a future society of the free and the equal.

This article is based on a presentation given at Socialism 2010, held in Chicago on June 18–20, 2010. 

  1. See Anthony Arnove, Chris Moore, and Howard Zinn, directors, The People Speak, 2009, and Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York: HarperCollins, 2004).
  2. C. L. R. James (with Raya Dunayevskaya and Grace Lee Boggs), “The Invading Socialist Society,” in Noel Ignatiev, ed., A New Notion: Two Works by C. L. R. James(Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2010), 28. Also see David Forgacs, ed., An Antonio Gramsci Reader (New York: Schocken Books, 1988), Gregor Benton, ed., Chen Duxiu’s Last Articles and Letters, 1937–1942 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998), and Michael Pearlman, ed., The Heroic and Creative Meaning of Socialism: Selected Essays of José Carlos Mariátegui (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1996).
  3. James P. Cannon, “Socialism and Democracy,” in Speeches for Socialism (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971), 356, 361. Also see Jean Tussey, ed., Eugene V. Debs Speaks (New York: Pathfinder Press, 197) and Paul Le Blanc, From Marx to Gramsci: A Reader in Revolutionary Marxist Politics (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1996).
  4. The controversial conception of “bourgeois revolution” is discussed and defended intelligently in Colin Mooers, The Making of Bourgeois Europe (London: Verso, 1991) and Henry Heller, The Bourgeois Revolution in France, 1789–1815 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2006).
  5. See Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence(New York: Vintage Books, 1998).
  6. I had to check on some of Morris’s words. Vernal means springtime, and casting off one’s winter slough is what snakes and other reptiles do—shedding their dead skin. For the quotes, see Gary B. Nash, The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America (New York: Penguin Books, 2005), 100, 203, 206, 278–79, 367; Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy, Jefferson to Lincoln (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005), 32.
  7. Knox quoted in Diego Rivera and Bertram D. Wolfe, Portrait of America (New York: Covici Friede, 1934), 104; Wilentz, 27–28. Also see Edward Countryman, The American Revolution, revised edition (New York: Hill and Wang, 2003).
  8. M. I. Finley, Democracy Ancient and Modern, revised edition (Rutgers, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1985), 13; Ellen Meiksins Wood, “Demos Versus ‘We the People’: Freedom and Democracy Ancient and Modern,” in Josiah Ober and Charles Hedrick, eds., Demokratia: A Conversation on Democracies, Ancient and Modern (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 132, 122–23; Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay, The Federalist Papers, edited by Clinton Rossiter (New York: New American Library, 1961), 214–15.
  9. Federalist Papers, 79, 81, 322–25.
  10. Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Evelyne Huber Stephens, and John D. Stephens, Capitalist Development and Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 40, 44, 122–32.
  11. Ibid., 141, 140. Also see Göran Thernborn, “The Rule of Capital and the Rise of Democracy,” New Left Review 103 (May–June 1977): 3–41, and Geoff Eley, Forging Democracy, The History of the Left in Europe, 1850–2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
  12. August H. Nimtz, Jr., Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000), vii; also see my review, “Marx and Engels: Democratic Revolutionaries,” International Viewpoint, September 2002, http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article381.
  13. Phil Gasper, ed., The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map to History’s Most Important Document (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005), 4243, 53, 56, 59, 69. On “true democracy” being the same as communism, see Richard N. Hunt, The Political Ideas of Marx and Engels, Vol. I, (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1974), 74–75, and Michael Löwy, The Theory of Revolution in the Young Marx (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005), 41–43.
  14. Karl Marx, “The Civil War in France,” in David Fernbach, ed., The First International and After: Political Writings, Vol. 3, (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1974), 210; S. Ryzanskaya, ed., Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Correspondence revised edition, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), 452.
  15. “Practical Politics,” The Alarm, October 11, 1884, 1 (microfilm).
  16. Albert Einstein, “Why Socialism?” Monthly Review, May 1949, http://www.monthlyreview.org/598einstein.php.
  17. Sheldon Wolin, “Transgression, Equality, and Voice,” in Ober and Hedrick, eds.,Dmokratia, 87.
  18. Paul Goodman, “Getting Into Power,” in Paul Goodman, ed., Seeds of Liberation (New York: George Braziller, 1964), 433.
  19. On the profoundly democratic nature of the 1917 Revolution, and on the horrors of its aftermath see: Rex A. Wade, The Russian Revolution 1917 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), and William Henry Chamberlin, The Russian Revolution, 1917–1921 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987). On the faulty theoretical justifications, see Hal Draper, The “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” from Marx to Lenin (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1987). On the Stalinist dictatorship, see Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1937), and Roy Medvedev, Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989).
  20. V. I. Lenin, “The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” in Paul Le Blanc, ed., Revolution, Democracy, Socialism, Selected Writings (London: Pluto Press, 2006), 233–34.
  21. Leon Trotsky, “The United Front for Defense: Letter to a Social Democratic Worker,” in George Breitman and Merry Meisel, eds., The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971), 367–68.


Issue #104

Spring 2017

Resistance and reaction in the time of Trump

Issue contents

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Upcoming Articles

  • Resistance and reaction in the time of Trump

  • The driving forces of the Russian Revolution

    Karl Radek
  • The Front Populaire and the 
making of the French Communist Party (1920–1962)

    Selim Nadi

Upcoming Reviews

  • Uncovering Boston's radical history

    Keegan O'Brien reviews A People's History of the New Boston by Jim Vrabel
  • Terror in the French Revolution and today

    Samuel Farber reviews In Defense of the Terror: LIberty or Death in the French Revolution by Sophie Wahnich
  • The New Deal and Little Steel

    Tim Goulet reviews The Last Great Strike: Little Steel, the CIO, and the Struggle for Labor Rights in New Deal America by Ahmed White