Revolution or War n°21

(June 2022)

PDF - 597.9 kb

HomeVersion imprimable de cet article Version imprimable

Contribution: Capitalism and Bourgeois Democracy

We publish here the third and last part of the series of contributions on Communism and Community and Marxism and Knowledge from previous issues. This part has raised some criticisms in our midst.

The first is the direct link that the contribution establishes between the passage from formal to real domination of capitalism on the one hand and the development of bourgeois democracy on the other. For those comrades who disagree, the formal domination of capitalism corresponds to the extraction of absolute surplus-value and to the labor process linked to manufacturing as opposed to the factory and then to large-scale industry; the latter corresponds to the extraction of relative surplus-value and to real domination. The 4th and 5th sections of Capital develop this question at length. However, by establishing an automatic link between the form of domination and the development of bourgeois democracy, the contribution actually situates, however vaguely, the passage from one to the other at the earliest in the middle of the 19th century. Yet, for K. Marx, “that form of co-operation which is based on division of labour assumes its classical shape in manufacture. As a characteristic form of the capitalist process of production it prevails throughout the manufacturing period properly so called, which extends, roughly speaking, from the middle of the sixteenth century to the last third of the eighteenth century.” [1] This results in positions that are not shared by all the comrades: “Between primitive European accumulation and the authoritarian regimes of the Eastern bloc in the 20th century, there is in fact more of a difference in form, linked to the different eras, than in substance”; or still, “England is much more democratic today than it was in the 18th century.” This last point brings us to the second criticism.

It points to false formulations that reveal an abstract, non-historical approach to dealing with ’democracy’. It is presented several times as only conservative or only guarantor of the social order: “Democracy is the political form par excellence of social conservation”, “The dynamism of democracy aims above all at socio-political conservation, at maintaining the strict political status quo

Finally, the contribution quotes a passage from the 1952 text Invariance of Marxism of the ICP-Communist Program on the question of the party taking the following position: “The dictatorship of the proletariat, for us, [is] the organized historical force that, followed at a given moment by a part of the proletariat, and not necessarily by the majority, expresses the material pressure that blows up the old bourgeois mode of production...” For those comrades who disagree with it, it contradicts the platform we have just adopted according to which “effective political action and leadership of the party are realized when the proletariat seizes en masse, and then puts into practice, the orientations and slogans of the party, the insurrection itself and the class dictatorship...” and which defines the workers’ councils, the soviets, as organs of the insurrection and organs of the class dictatorship.”

Nevertheless, we publish this controversial text in our midst as it is. It will certainly call for answers in the next issue.

The editorial committee

Capitalism and Bourgeois Democracy

Democracy is a concept mobilized by all the political currents on the left and the right of the political axis. Henceforth, any political discourse can only be judged as rational within the framework of the norms that govern democratic practice. Thus, for example, democracy can be used to legitimize both imperialist policies, in the name of the principle of humanitarian intervention, and "decolonial" policies, in the name of the principle of the right of a peoples to self-determination. Similarly, American Trumpists and other right-wing extremists invaded the Capitol, symbol of democracy in the United States, to protest an attack on democracy – an alleged electoral fraud – while Democratic Party supporters protested the riot in the name of defending and preserving those same democratic institutions against a supposed fascist coup.

We see many bourgeois commentators theorizing that democracy is a kind of blank slate, a framework within which one can then choose the direction that society should take. This conception of democracy as a regime that is indeterminate a priori leads to the need to add an adjective to democracy that would help determine it a posteriori. Thus, the bourgeois left is usually critical of what it calls bourgeois or liberal democracy and opposes to it forms of democracies qualified sometimes as radical, direct, participatory or wild. Inversely, the right will usually be critical of the forms of democracies that it will name plebeian to oppose the necessity and the effectiveness of the liberal and representative democracy. Having noted this, we will attempt in this contribution to analyze democracy in itself, without any other adjective. The question we will ask ourselves is whether democracy is really an unsurpassable horizon and a principle exempt from all criticism. By reappropriating the political tradition of the Communist Left, in particular the so-called "Italian" one, we will demonstrate that democracy is not the ready-made path to human emancipation [2]. By force of circumstance, we will be led to glimpse what form of society can surpass democracy as a superior mode of social organization.

Origin of bourgeois democracy

From the Marxist perspective, it would be quite incorrect to imagine democracy as a principle that, having first been invented in ancient Greece, disappeared momentarily from human consciousness during the Middle Ages, only to return with boldness in modern societies. The liberal democracy of modern societies has its own history. To try to understand it as adequately as possible, it is not a matter of referring to great invariant and transhistorical ideals, but rather of analyzing the political manifestations of social life as the result of the specific configuration of social relations.

The bourgeois democracy is thus born through a revolutionary struggle against the type of society which preceded it directly in history: the monarchic regime and the mode of production which founds it, namely feudalism. Thus, each of the basic principles of democracy can be conceived as dialectical negation of the respective basic principles of feudal society. To the traditional darkness of the medieval thought, one opposes the modern philosophy of the Enlightenment. To the social status designated by the birth of feudalism, one opposes the modern equality of citizens. To the religious faith, one opposes rationality and the scientific method. Finally, to the government of one, the monarch, one opposes the government of the people, democracy in short.

At the ideal level, that is, at the level of human consciousness, the dialectical opposition between absolute monarchy and democracy was presented in the following way:

“The old political doctrines based on spiritualist concepts or even on religious revelation claimed that the supernatural forces which govern the consciousness and the will of men had assigned to certain individuals, families or castes, the task of ruling and managing the collective existence, making them the repositories of “authority” by divine right. To this, the democratic philosophy which asserted itself at the time of the bourgeois revolution counterposed the proclamation of the moral, political and juridical equality of all citizens, whether they were nobles, clerics or plebeians. It sought to transfer “sovereignty” from the narrow sphere of caste or dynasty to the universal sphere of popular consultation based on suffrage which allowed a majority of the citizens to designate the leaders of the state, according to its will." [3]

Once again, it would be unfortunate to represent the history of the birth of bourgeois democracy as a simple battle between different ideas from which democracy finally emerged victorious. What we usually think of as the transition from traditional to modern societies was basically the revolutionary transition from one mode of production, feudalism, to another, capitalism. As ideological superstructures of modes of production, monarchy accompanied feudalism, while democracy is the alter ego of capitalism.

Marx’s view of the relationship between monarchy and democracy is interesting in this regard. He was originally from Germany, a country that was still under a regime of absolute monarchy at the time. Marx’s first militant actions were within the democratic and republican movement. In the philosophical circle of the Young Hegelians, a liberal circle to which he critically belonged, the Prussian monarchy was usually characterized as a non-political regime. Indeed, politics was the private affair of the monarch and his immediate entourage. Civil society, on the other hand, was alien to all political life. In terms borrowed from Hegel, Marx would say that it was cut off from the political community, i.e., that the whole of the non-dominant social classes, from the peasants to the artisans to the bourgeois, had no possibility or right to participate in political life. For the young Hegelians, the democratic movement around 1848 had to somehow bring civil society into the political community, which in our contemporary terms means establishing the power of the people by overthrowing the power of the monarch.

It is possible to consider with Marx the nature of politics as being linked to social conflicts, more particularly to class conflicts. After all, “the history of all hitherto existing society” is precisely “the history of the class struggles." [4] Feudal society is thus for Marx of a non-political nature in that it forbids civil society any possibility of contestation and protest. On the contrary, democracy is the political society par excellence since it allows all the classes of the society to take part in the social confrontations.

The struggle for the constitution of a democratic regime was thus of fundamental importance for Marx. Indeed, the political emancipation and the accession to the political community that the bourgeois revolutions allowed made possible the reorganization of the power relations between the social classes. The aristocracy now driven out of power by the bourgeoisie, a new struggle was announced within modern society: the struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.

In his writings around 1843-1844, Marx presents democracy as the last form of political emancipation, a position that most modern liberals could share. Fukuyama, author of The End of History and the Last Man, expresses a similar idea with his concept of the end of history. But Marx already goes beyond the liberal point of view by affirming that the political emancipation that democracy puts in place is only a formal emancipation. It is not yet the real and radical emancipation: human emancipation. Marx brilliantly shows that democracy emancipates the citizen, this abstract being modeled in the image of the individual capitalist entrepreneur, instead of emancipating the concrete human being. According to Marx, with political emancipation, “man was not freed from religion, he received religious freedom. He was not freed from property, he received freedom to own property. He was not freed from the egoism of business, he received freedom to engage in business." [5] In other words, the political emancipation that democracy sets in motion is not an emancipation of human beings from the relations of domination and exploitation that overwhelm them, but rather a liberation for capital from the obstacles that can harm its domination. In short, despite the establishment of formal juridical-political guarantees, such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, bourgeois society is still traversed by class antagonisms and social relations of exploitation.

Democracy tries in an illusory way to unite in its political community a society which remains fundamentally torn by social antagonisms. It tries to unite opposing social poles under the aegis of a formal unity that it calls people or nation. But in practice, it is impossible to harmonize and pacify social conflicts unless the social classes that are at the origin of these same social conflicts are abolished revolutionarily. But this is certainly not the objective of democracy. On the contrary, it aims at maintaining conflicts within a certain acceptable framework so that the dominant class can perpetuate its domination without too many problems.

The fact that Marx participated in the struggle for democracy in the middle of the 19th century and that he affirmed the necessity of democracy as a transitional form of the struggle for emancipation brought about its share of confusion, with certain opportunist currents in the workers’ movement even using Marx’s arguments to try to adapt socialism to the principles of bourgeois democracy. But as early as 1843, Marx explicitly placed himself on the terrain of communism, and thus outside the defense of democracy for the subsequent cycles of struggle that would see the direct confrontation of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. This is expressed, among other things, by the fact that against liberal democracy, Marx does not defend any real democracy, but proposes the human community, radical emancipation, in short, communism. In this sense, Marx is certainly not a radical democrat, but rather the most radical and revolutionary critic of democracy.

Principles of bourgeois democracy

It would now be useful to show how this radical critique of democracy is articulated by examining how Marx conceives of the two great principles of democracy: freedom and equality. The political distance between Marx’s thought and the democratic traditions is best expressed in his conception of the two fundamental principles of democracy.

First, we must introduce a distinction in method. The liberal democratic tradition thinks of freedom through the prism of the individual. According to Marx, this conception of freedom requires first that the human being be separated from their gemeinwesein, i.e., from their communal being, and that thus the isolated individual be historically created and separated from other individuals. Since these socio-historical conditions are achieved precisely through the emergence of capitalist social relations, Marx asserts that

“Liberty, therefore, is the right to do everything that harms no one else. The limits within which anyone can act without harming someone else are defined by law, just as the boundary between two fields is determined by a boundary post. It is a question of the liberty of man as an isolated monad, withdrawn into himself." [6]

Marx thus makes here an implacable critique of the nature of individual freedom dear to democratic regimes. It is interesting to see how Marx presents freedom using a metaphor in relation to space (the stake between two fields delimiting a property). He makes a strong conceptual association between individual freedom and private property, both of which are the foundations of capitalism.

Still from the methodological point of view, Marx conceives freedom from the point of view of the totality of the human community, that is, in the relation of human beings to the state on the one hand and the relation of the same human beings to nature on the other. Marx often presents freedom as a principle antithetical to any form of state. He put forward the following aphorism: “The existence of the state is inseparable from the existence of slavery." [7] Obviously, a nuance must be made here. When Marx speaks of slavery, he is not referring specifically to slavery as a trade and a mode of production, for example the exploitation of Africans and their descendants in the United States, but more generally to any situation of unfreedom, that is, any relation of domination or exploitation, including of course capitalist social relations. In other words, where there is a state, there is no freedom for humanity. Marx thus conceives the realization of freedom not in the ever-increasing extension of individual liberties that a democratic state would guarantee, but in the revolutionary abolition of the state.

Another aspect of Marx’s conception of freedom concerns the relationship between humanity and nature. Here, the dialectical relationship is expressed in the opposition between necessity and freedom. According to Marx, as long as humanity is not able to control its social relations and its relation to nature, it is subject to the domination of natural constraints. In other words, where there is hunger, there is no freedom for humanity. Again, Marx does not locate freedom at the level of the individual. He locates it in the relation that a communist society would be able to establish between humanity and nature. This is how he intends to settle theoretically the opposition between necessity and freedom:

“In fact, the realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production. Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all social formations and under all possible modes of production. With his development this realm of physical necessity expands as a result of his wants; but, at the same time, the forces of production which satisfy these wants also increase. Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature. But it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite." [8]

Instead of being dominated by natural necessities, humanity having conquered freedom would be able to establish a harmonious metabolism with nature to meet all human needs. It is interesting to note that in this passage Marx makes a kind of foray into the future by presenting from his analysis of capital a description of what a communist society would be like.

The same methodological distinction that we first drew between the bourgeois and Marxist conceptions of freedom holds equally for the concept of equality. Liberals think of equality as the equality of all citizens before the law. In other words, the law is the same for all individuals. This conception is again the dialectical negation of the tradition of the Middle Ages, where the treatment of an individual depended on his or her social status. For example, to simplify matters, we can say that there was one law for the class of lords and another for the class of serfs. In bourgeois society, on the other hand, the law is the same for everyone, whether the person is a billionaire or unemployed.

For his part, Marx pays little attention to the notion of equality between individuals. From his point of view, “they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal." [9] The methodological bias of liberal theory - an ideological bias that aims at perpetuating a regime of exploitation - is thus once again to start from the abstract and isolated individual to build its juridico-political edifice. Marx’s critique of the social relations of exploitation and domination does not stem from the inequality considered as natural between individuals, but rather from the configuration of society into dominant and dominated social classes. In other words, inequality is not individual, i.e., between individuals, but social or more precisely between classes. Through the liberal prism, one individual is stronger, more intelligent, more entrepreneurial, etc., than another individual, which explains their well deserved superior social status. In the Marxist conception, it makes no sense to compare individuals without considering the society that produced these same individuals. More simply, taking our example above, the first individual is inserted into certain social relations, they belong to the class of capitalists, whereas the second is equally inserted into certain social relations, they belong to the class of proletarians. The conceptions that individuals give themselves of their own social positioning are only ideological justifications a posteriori, such as the myth of the self-made man. Society produces and reproduces social classes that are fundamental to the functioning of its mode of production.

It makes no sense, then, according to Marx, to seek to equalize individuals who form antagonistic social classes and where one class exploits another. Continuing Marx’s non-democratic tradition, The Democratic Principle – a key text of the communist left – asserts that

“The Marxist critique of the postulates of bourgeois democracy is in fact based on the definition of the class character of modern society. It demonstrates the theoretical inconsistency and the practical deception of a system which pretends to reconcile political equality with the division of society into social classes determined by the nature of the mode of production." [10]

Equality before the law is only formal because this same equality sanctions the exploitation of one class by another. Thus, Marx does not propose to widen even further the equality of individuals or citizens, nor does he propose to equalize the social classes, as the opportunist socialists inspired by Lassalle in their Gotha program wrongly proposed. On the contrary, Marx makes the proposal to abolish social classes. In the same way, Marx castigates the socialists of his time, such as Proudhon, who gave themselves the task of realizing and finalizing the ideals of the bourgeois revolution which, according to them, had been betrayed by the bourgeoisie:

“What this reveals, on the other side, is the foolishness of those socialists (namely the French, who want to depict socialism as the realization of the ideals of bourgeois society articulated by the French revolution) who demonstrate that exchange and exchange value etc. are originally (in time) or essentially (in their adequate form) a system of universal freedom and equality, but that they have been perverted by money, capital, etc. (…) The proper reply to them is: that exchange value or, more precisely, the money system is in fact the system of equality and freedom, and that the disturbances which they encounter in the further development of the system are disturbances inherent in it, are merely the realization of equality and freedom, which prove to be inequality and unfreedom." [11]

The abolition of classes would make it possible to materialize socially the following communist adage: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." [12] From the point of view of the liberal tradition, this principle is inegalitarian. In effect, some individuals with greater abilities will give more to the community while other individuals with greater needs will take more from the community. The Communist Left thus comments on this apparent contradiction, sending a sharp arrow at Stalinism in the process:

“In economics as well we have long since dispelled the stupid opinion that Marxism is to do with equitable economic contribution and retribution, even as a demand for the future. Under communism not only will the relation between effort and consumption always be unequal, but whether it is or not will be a matter of complete indifference." [13]

In fact, the contradiction that is resolved here is the contradiction between individuals and society, between individual interest and general interest. Individuals are different, they have certain talents, certain intrinsic strengths or weaknesses. But these differences should not be significant or stigmatizing because all individuals belong to the same human community. And it is this same human community, once realized, that will be able to allow each individual to manifest the totality of their capacities and to satisfy at the same time all their human needs, which is what real human emancipation is.

The rise of capitalism and the rise of bourgeois democracy are inseparably linked. While it is true that capitalism did not appear in a directly and perfectly democratic form and that some capitalisms have been, for particular reasons in history, totalitarian regimes – from Pinochet’s Chile to Nazi Germany – it is fundamental to note that the natural habitat of capitalism remains democracy.

It is important to distinguish two distinct phases in the history of capitalism. The first phase, which Marx calls the formal domination of capital, and which includes the process of primitive accumulation, refers to the phase in which capital emerges and dissolves the old traditional social relations. To do this, capitalism necessarily takes a rather authoritarian and undemocratic form. Examples include the censitary suffrage in most of the young Western democracies of the 18th and 19th centuries, or the establishment of English workhouses in the same period. But even the Russian Gulag and the Chinese Great Leap Forward appear as equally authoritarian forms of the emergence of national capital. Between primitive European accumulation and the authoritarian regimes of the Eastern bloc in the 20th century, there is in fact more of a difference in form, linked to the different eras, than in substance.

Once capitalism enters its phase of real domination, i.e., once it has successfully destroyed all the old social forms and established its absolute domination over social relations, it can let go and thus become more and more liberal in the modern sense of the term. If we take our examples mentioned above, England is much more democratic today than it was in the 18th century. Similarly, Russia and China are also much more democratic than they were in the mid-20th century, despite the fact that these are regimes that are considered undemocratic by the West. However, this progress of democratic institutions in history should not be conceived as the constant and indefinite progress of the democratic ideal. On the contrary, it is the result of the progress of capitalist development. In other words, the strong link between capitalism and democracy lies precisely in the interaction between the economic competition between individuals intrinsic to capitalism on the one hand, and the competition between the same individuals in the public arena concerning the decisions to be taken, a fundamental characteristic of democracy, on the other.

Capitalism and democracy also share another important characteristic that expresses their intimately linked nature. That is the integrating dynamism. Like capitalism, democracy integrates all that is external to it. Any social group that is oppressed and thus feels outside the political community of democracy can challenge the current social order. Whether it is the proletariat, women or oppressed peoples, the strength of democracy lies precisely in its ability to promise citizenship – rights, a voice, an end to discrimination, recognition, etc. – to all those who challenge the current social order. But the flip side of this promise is precisely the obligation for the newcomers to the big democratic family not to contest its dogma and especially the mode of production that this dogma protects: capitalism.

This integrating dynamism characterizing both democracy and capitalism is really their mode of existence. The dynamism of democracy aims above all at socio-political conservation, at maintaining the strict political status quo as to substance while ensuring a constant and unlimited dynamism as to form. The dynamism of capitalism, on the other hand, is rather situated at the socio-economic level. Indeed, the very logic of capital accumulation always pushes it to produce more and faster than before. It must constantly surpass its own limits, otherwise it will sink into its own immediate contradictions.

It is then ironic to see some leftist apologists of democracy advocating and valorizing the dynamism of democracy as a means of emancipation. What they cannot perceive because of their political positioning is that the dynamism of democracy is of exactly the same nature as the dynamism of capitalism, which Marx had already strikingly described in 1848:

“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind." [14]

Capitalism and democracy go hand in hand. It makes no sense to reject the former by basing one’s argument on the principles derived from the latter.

Political effects of democracy

We have seen the conditions of emergence of bourgeois democracy as a superstructural form of the establishment of the domination of the capitalist class at the end of the Middle Ages. Although the great bourgeois revolutions never established democracy in its pure form, the ideals carried by these revolutions were informed by the founding principles of democracy, i.e., the notions of freedom and equality. We have then shown how these two important notions are equally notions derived from capitalist social relations.

Now, once democracy has been established, the question remains as to its concrete socio-political effects. From the point of view of the radical Marxist tradition, democracy is far from being the privileged means of human emancipation. On the contrary, it is one of the most powerful forms of social conservation. Indeed, other regimes such as the traditional absolute monarchy or modern totalitarianism, which could be described as non-political in accordance with Marx’s thought as explained above, were not so effective in controlling and repressing social contestation that was external to them. These regimes were obliged to opt for continuous violent repression, which then produced even more contestation. The case of democracy is quite different since it accepts and integrates all contestation. On the condition that protesters abandon their criticism of the order – of capitalism specifically – they are absolutely entitled to enter the democratic political community. Democracy always extends the circle of its political community to more citizens. This has the effect of almost instantly disarming social conflicts into the framework of what is acceptable for the established order.

But there is an even more fundamental aspect to the inherently conservative character of democracy once it has played its revolutionary role against feudalism. Marx and Engels defended the view that

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it." [15]

If this passage has become a commonplace of the ’academic Marxism’, by dint of repetitive quotations, its critical content towards democracy is left in a blind spot. Indeed, if the dominant ideas of a society are always the ideas that the dominant class peddles thanks to its material and ideal power, democratic competition in the public space will necessarily validate every time to the dominant class. It is therefore easy for pro-capitalist thinkers to fetishize democracy. It is a political joust in which the class that imposes the rules invariably emerges victorious by force of circumstances.

This lends further weight to the argument that democracy is the most effective regime for maintaining the current social order. According to Lenin,

“The growth of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat in all countries has provoked the bourgeoisie and their agents in the workers’ organizations to convulsive efforts to find theoretical arguments in defense of the rule of the exploiters. Among these, particular emphasis is placed on the rejection of dictatorship and the defense of democracy." [16]

The current of the Communist Left, whose break with democracy was more than assumed, tried to deploy the Marxist critique of democracy in all its breadth from the passage quoted above from The German Ideology: “Bourgeois electoral democracy seeks the consultation of the masses, for it knows that the response of the majority will always be favourable to the privileged class and will readily delegate to that class the right to govern and to perpetuate exploitation." [17] If democracy is the political form par excellence of social conservation, it is therefore necessary to find the way of emancipation elsewhere.

But is this other way not precisely in the alternative conceptions of democracy proposed by the different variants of the bourgeois left such as direct democracy, participatory democracy or radical democracy? The Marxist critique of liberal democracy is equally valid for all kinds of direct democracy. Indeed, the various alternative conceptions of democracy keep and valorize all the presuppositions of liberal democracy, freedom and equality, but try to correct its bad sides. This is as true for advocates of proportional representation who want perfect representation as it is for advocates of direct democracy who reject the very principle of representation. The criticism of representativeness is quite superficial in that it overlooks the nature of democracy which, under the illusion of the equality of citizens, valorizes the existence of social classes and consequently the exploitation of one class by another.

Democracy has for more than a century served as a pretext for the various bourgeois lefts – from the most liberal social democracy to the most radical anarchism – to try to preserve capitalism during its worst political crises. One has only to think of the First World War, when the German socialists went to war against the Allies with the justification of defending German civilization against the Russian barbarians, while the socialists of the Allied countries also went to war to defend, for example in the case of France, republican and democratic values, against Teutonic barbarism. In both cases, the German and French socialists abandoned the Marxist perspective to defend their own national capital, and this with the pretext of defending ’true democracy’. The Communist Left analyzed the relationship of the democratic left to the revolution in this way:

“Thus, instead of developing a Marxist action and propaganda, that is to say, fighting all bourgeois, religious, nationalist and democratic conceptions, nine tenths of the socialist militants have turned into a chorus of crying men lamenting the contradictions of priests, rulers and demagogues unfaithful to their promises. And this is how the traditional socialist movement ended up trying to save bourgeois ideologies from bankruptcy instead of taking advantage of it to move forward victoriously." [18]

This is exactly what differentiates the conceptions of radical democracy from the radical critique of democracy. The former perceives certain problems related to the exercise of democracy and tries to solve these problems in accordance with the democratic logic itself. In doing so, it perpetuates and renovates bourgeois ideologies, of which democracy is the foundation. The second, on the other hand, tries to use the moments of crisis of the bourgeois ideology as well as of democracy – one has only to think of the Paris Commune, the October Revolution or May ’68 – to engage in the way of the social revolution. But the revolutionary way is not the way of the infinite perfection of the principles of the democracy, it implies on the contrary a clear rupture with these principles, rupture of which the Communist Left expresses clearly the nature:

“The dictatorship of the proletariat, for us, is not a consultative democracy transposed inside the proletariat, but the organized historical force which, followed at a given moment by a part of the proletariat, and not necessarily by the majority, expresses the material pressure that blows up the old bourgeois mode of production in order to open the way to the new communist mode of production." [19]

In other words, it is not important for the revolution to be the expression of a majority will, but it must be sufficiently massive to be able to materially overthrow the old world and let the new one arise.

Let us go back for a moment to the etymology of the term democracy. It designates the power of the people. Now, as we have seen previously, the people as a gathering of equal citizens is an ideological fabrication historically specific to the capitalist class. The people so dear to bourgeois revolutionaries is in fact torn by class antagonism. Therefore, communism aims not at reinvigorating the people by perpetuating their internal class conflict indefinitely, but at abolishing social classes. The abolition of the classes which compose the demos is at the same time the abolition of this same demos. By abolishing the demos which is historically created by the process of separation of the human beings from their social being (gemeinwesen), corollary to the division of the society in classes and of which the capitalism is the apotheosis, the revolution establishes the human community. The new society would therefore no longer need any separate power to function:

“When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organise itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class." [20]

This is exactly what Engels expressed when he took up the Saint-Simonian idea that “the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things." [21]

But if there is no more political mediation or democracy, how will society function? Who will decide? Indeed, the citizen of today’s democratic society is struck with the same vertigo at the idea that a future society could function without anyone formally making decisions as the aristocrat of the Middle Ages who was told that an assembly of rational citizens should make decisions instead of the King and God. The question is badly posed since it is always on the ground of politics. It is possible, from the materialist analysis of capitalist society, to glimpse relatively concretely how a classless society would function:

“Now the communist mode of production will make disappear all social antagonisms, all divisions and oppositions that tear humanity apart. It will make disappear automatically all domination, all coercion, all authority distinct from society. It will therefore make all forms of power disappear, even that ’truly democratic democracy’ of which the petty-bourgeois dream. For the ’ideal’ democracy itself can only be a form of oppression, the manifestation of social antagonisms. It is human society itself which, without any apparatus of direction or coercion, will direct and regulate its own activities. How will this happen? It is difficult for us to grasp it now, walled in as we are in a class society, but it will be simply and spontaneously by a diffuse mechanism which will permeate all social life, which will be social life, human life. It would be the devil if humanity did not manage to make its own needs known to itself!" [22]

In fact, the discipline of anthropology [23] has already given us a variety of very concrete examples of hunter-gatherer societies that functioned in exactly this way, that is, without separate political power. The overcoming of democracy by communism, the extinction of political power, in short the establishment of the human community, would thus close the loop of the historical arc that separates the past communism of the narrow communities of hunter-gatherers and the future world communism, making the class society a short but tragic parenthesis for humanity.

Robin, 2022



[1. The Capital, Volume 1, The Production of Relative Surplus-Value, chap.14, The Division of labour and Manufacture, 1. The Dual Origin of Manufacture, Penguin Classics.

[2. See also our text « “Democracy” is the Working Class’ s Main Enemy » in Revolution or War #2.

[3. « The Democratic Principle »,

[4. Karl Marx, Manifesto of the Communist Party, « Chapter I. Bourgeois and Proletarians »,

[5Karl Marx, « On The Jewish Question ».

[6. Karl Marx, « On The Jewish Question »,

[7. Karl Marx, « Critical Notes on the Article: The King of Prussia and Social Reform. By a Prussian »,

[8. Karl Marx, Capital Volume 3, « Part VII. Revenues and their Sources Chapter 48. The Trinity Formula »,

[9. Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme,

[11. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, « Notebook II – The Chapter on Capital, Section Simple exchange. Relations between exchangers. Harmonies of equality, freedom, etc. (Bastiat, Proudhon) »,, Emphasis is from Marx.

[12. Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme,

[14. Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, « Chapter 1: Bourgeois and Proletarians »,

[15. Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, A Critique of The German Ideology, « B. The Illusion of the epoch : Ruling Class and Ruling Ideas »,

[16. Lenin, Thesis on Bourgeois Democracy and Proletarian Dictatorship, 1st congress of the Communist International, March 1919,

[18. « Le rapport de force des forces sociales et politiques en Italie », chap. in Communisme et fascisme, pp. 54-66, Lyon, Éditions Programme communiste, 2001, p. 56. Our translation. Emphasis is from us.

[19. Invariance du marxisme, Lyon, Éditions Programme communiste, 2009, p. 46. Our translation.

[20. Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, « Chapter 2: Proletarians and Communists »,

[21. Friedrich Engels, Anti-Dühring, « Part 3: Socialism, chapter 2: Theoretical »,

[22. « La société communiste », Programme communiste, Numéro 17 (1961), p. 20. Our translation.

[23. Let’s think first of all of Morgan, of course, whose work Marx and Engels greatly appreciated. But we can also consider with a certain critical distance the works of Clastres, Sahlins, Testart, Darmangeat, etc.