Marx on Democratic Forms of Government

Draper, Hal

Publisher:  Socialist Register
Year Published:  1974  
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX7256

Marx's socialism (communism) as a political programme may be most quickly defined, from the Marxist standpoint, as the complete democratization of society, not merely of political forms. For Marx, the fight for democratic forms of government - democratization in the state - was a leading edge of the socialist effort; not its be-all and end-all but an integral part of it all.

Throughout the history of the socialist/communist movements, one of the persistent problems has been to establish the relation, in theory and practice, between the struggle for socialism and for democracy (or democratic rights), between socialist issues and democratic issues. Every distinctive socialist current or school has had its own characteristic answer to this problem. On one extreme end of the spectrum is the view (held consciously in theory or expressed in practice) which puts the advocacy of democratic forms in the forefront, for their own sake, and subjoins the advocacy of socialistic ideas as an appurtenance. (From the Marxist standpoint, this is merely the leftmost wing of bourgeois-democratic liberalism extruding into the socialist spectrum.) On the other extreme is the type of radical ideology which counterposes socialistic ideas - in the sense of anti-capitalist views - against concern with democratic struggles, considering the latter as unimportant or harmful. Every conceivable mixture of the two approaches has cropped up too, but they all form a single family insofar as they are mixtures, (For example: in the tension between socialist aims and democratic means, is your concern 50-50, 60-40, 30-70, etc.?)

Marx's approach is qualitatively different from this sort of eclecticism, and does not attempt to establish a sliding scale of concern with the two sides of the duality. For him, the task of theory is to integrate the two objectively. The characteristic answer to the problem emerging from Marx's theory was already heralded in his notebook critique of Hegel's philosophy of right [2], where he sought to show that 'true democracy' requires a new social content - socialism; and it will be rounded off with his analysis of the Paris aommune, which showed that a state with a new social content entailed truly democratic forms. Marx's theory moves in the direction of defining consistent democracy in socialist terms, and consistent socialism in democratic terms. The task of theory, then, is not to adjudicate a clash between the two considerations (a hopeless job once the problem is seen in that light), but rather to grasp the social dynamics of the situation under which the apparent contradiction between the two is resolved.

Marx did not work this out simply within his skull; progress toward a solution came only in the course of the first historical experience which he went through in which this problem was concretely posed. This was the period of the 1848-9 revolution, when democratic demands and socialist aims seemed to be at swords' point. One of the results was his so-called theory of permanent revolution; we will follow this process in some detail in a later part, and the problem will remain with us throughout.

Against "The Old Thesis"

From the start there was the problem of self-styled radicals who held the same attitude of hostility and contempt for democratic forms that emanated from the old régime, though presumably from an opposite direction. This is an aspect of the almost unanimous anti-democracy of pre-Marxist socialism. When Marx referred to it in The German Ideology, he already called it contemptuously 'the old thesis:' "The old thesis, which has often been put forward both by revolutionaries and reactionaries, that in a democracy individuals only exercise their sovereignty for a moment, and then at once retreat from their rule ..." (The polemic here is against the anarchoid Stirner.) This was only one favourite anti-democratic argument among many, one which flourishes today as lustily as two centuries ago. Marx gave them all short shrift, in the apparent belief (wrong, as it turned out) that they were simply vestiges of the past and had no future.

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