Politics in Practice

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Lessons from Marx on Democracy

Robert Ware is Professor Emeritus in Philosophy at the University of Calgary and Adjunct Research Professor at Carleton University, Canada and the author of Marx on Emancipation and Socialist Goals. Read Chapter 9, “Emancipatory Democracyfree until March 31.

Karl Marx is widely misinterpreted and misunderstood as a socialist, but he is virtually unknown as a democrat, so his adherence to democracy is mostly subject to neglect or denial. Consequently little is known about his views about the nature and importance of democracy. For Marx, universal suffrage was at the core of democracy, without the illusions of the representative forms of his time. Democracy would help bring socialism. For Marx, it was a means for achieving the self-emancipation of workers and the people as a whole in a socialist society.

Lately, there has been considerable attention to socialism, with established socialist politicians like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, new democratically elected politicians in the US Congress throughout the country, and the Progressive International just established with the impetus of Sanders and Yanis Varoufakis. Marx would support the socialism and would applaud the importance given to democracy.

We live in times that are important for retrieving Marx’s work on democracy, yet there are obstacles to overcome for understanding Marx as a democrat. Obviously his ideas should not be tied to those of states like the Soviet Union and its satellites that claimed the legacy of Marx but practiced dictatorship with virtually no democracy. Reading Marx shows how different his ideas and associations were.

Once we read Marx, however, there is another obstacle of understanding his occasional remarks about the need for a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Such remarks are usually taken out of context where they were counterposed to the “dictatorships of the bourgeoisie,” a natural expression of his time, or a dictatorship of an elite vanguard, as some socialists proposed. Hal Draper has convincingly shown that Marx was simply writing about rule by the proletarian majority in a democratic state, with no indication of a need for dictatorial ways. (The “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” from Marx to Lenin, Monthly Review Press, 1987)

People are also misled by Marx’s many criticisms of democracy as he saw it. Marx railed against bourgeois democracy, attacked parliamentary cretinism (attempts to take over parliament by a few socialist parliamentarians), and scoffed at socialists spouting out a democratic litany of “universal suffrage, direct legislation, popular rights, a people’s militias, etc.” The attack on the ‘litany’ may sound like a denunciation of democracy, yet it is followed by the observation that universal suffrage is part of the logic of democracy, but not to be limited by laws and the police. As Marx wrote in 1880, “the emancipation … of all human beings without distinction of sex and race” requires using “universal suffrage … transformed from the instrument of deception … into an instrument of emancipation.”

A comprehensive study of the history of modern ‘democracy’ could be told in terms of limits, illusions, and deceptions surrounding modern state systems, with questions about whether the systems even deserve to be called “democracies.” Marx made frequent mention of electorates being restricted, laws allowing further limitations, and police interfering with democratic processes. He would not be surprised by modern gerrymandering and restrictive requirements for voter registration. Marx also saw clearly the illusions in democracies where ‘representatives’ serve the interests of the wealthy owners of capital. Citizens were, and continue to be deceived by—or powerless over—promises of mandates to serve the people and their ‘best’ interests. Simply having the vote does not make one free. Marx had even more reason than Rousseau for thinking that the poor English were free only for a vote and afterwards enslaved.

The manufacturing of consent, the power of campaign funds from corporations and the wealthy, the influence of lobbyists that can fashion and even write laws favorable to capital and finance, the structure of taxation, and the design of trade agreements all serve to control, restrict, and exploit. Even participatory democracy, the solution of many socialists from Marx’s day to the present, is overwhelmed by social powers that block the development of socialism.

For democracy to be emancipatory, in Marx’s view, it must support the self-emancipation of the people in a free association of all with control over the means of production. He was as much a democrat as a socialist. Marx was a strong supporter of trade unions and progressive internationals alongside democratic votes and delegates that would promote workers control. Democracy was both a tactic and a goal for Marx, who called for workers to first win the battle of democracy and then embark on an emancipatory democracy which would transfer control by the state to cooperation in society.

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