The Democratic Foundations of Marxism


The communist and broadly socialist project have been marred by claims that it leads from workers power directly to authoritarianism. This claim has been echoed by both right-wing detractors and socialist critics. The communist experiments of the 20th century have largely taken on the form passed down by the Bolsheviks in the ideas of Marxism-Leninism. While this model of government was not uniformly applied – the Yugoslav communist employed a form of market socialism, it had tremendous influences on the Third World communists who looked to the Soviets for revolutionary guidance. The consequences of this is a proliferation of a form of government that was hostile to democracy in the public sphere and employed coercion to suppress perceived enemies and counter-revolutionaries. All this was done in the name of the defence of the revolution and the enacting of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. Bourgeois historians trace the evolution of this idea from Marx to Lenin, and finally to Stalin and his political progenies. Yet, Marx’s notion of this infamous concept bore little resemblance to these communist governments. While Marx was ambiguous on certain aspects of public life in a communist society, he and Engels were unequivocally dedicated to the principle of workers control, political democracy and an open society.

Marx and Engels on Democracy

In their early writings, Marx and Engels demonstrated a strong commitment to civil liberties like the freedom to assemble, of speech and the press, contrary to the distorted image of him presented today. They saw the deep flaws of bourgeois democracy in the advancement of human freedom and clearly understood that force would be needed to upend the ceaseless exploitation of capital over all other classes.

Marx and Engels derided bourgeois democracy for its separation of civil society and the state, allowing for bourgeois domination of the state with little recourse. They saw its hollowness and the political alienation it engendered. They saw a bourgeois-dominated parliamentary democracy as bourgeois dictatorship par excellence.

Marx and Engels advocated for universal suffrage as merely a means for workers’ emancipation, not an end in itself. For the exploited classes could attain political power and yet not economic power if the means of production is still held firmly by the bourgeoisie. In The Principles of Communism, Engels wrote

“Democracy would be quite useless to the proletariat if it were not immediately used as a means of carrying through further measures directly attacking private ownership and securing the means of subsistence of the proletariat.”

In the struggle for revolution, Marx and Engels never wavered in their commitment to democratic rights, civil liberties, and most importantly, popular control in that struggle. They asserted the need for popular control in order to pressure elected representatives and the bureaucracy. They even called for local workers’ societies to set up revolutionary workers’ government to take over executive functions (Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League, 1850). Communism, as Marx and Engels had envisioned, was to be both democratic and proletarian in its political and economic forms.

The Dictatorship of the Proletariat

The first instance of the use of the term ‘dictatorship’ was a reference to the “dictatorship of Democracy”, an alliance between the classes of democracy, the petty bourgeoisie, the proletariat and the peasantry against the German monarchy and bourgeoisie liberals during the German Revolution of March 1848. In a later writing, The Class Struggle in France, Marx wrote that “only the fall of Capital can raise the peasant; only an anti-capitalist, a proletarian government can break his economic misery, his social degradation. The constitutional republic is the dictatorship of his united exploiters; the social democratic republic, the Red republic is the dictatorship of his allies.” In his various uses of this term, Marx uses ‘dictatorship’ interchangeably with ‘rule’. The dominance of the proletariat within the bloc of ‘democracy’ gave way to the idea of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, understood by Marx and Engels as the hegemony of the working class within the bloc, rather than any kind of dominance over the other exploited classes.

Marx asserts that the class rule of the proletariat would usher in the abolition of class distinction as a whole and ultimately the dissolving of any political power. Marx expected proletarian rule to be more democratic and gradually less bureaucratic, abolishing hierarchical power relations and thus political alienation of the masses. The Communist Manifesto affirms that

“the first step in the revolution of the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of the ruling class, to win the battle of democracy”.

Engels proposed the democratization of the economic order, against any imposition of a bureaucratic state authority. In the most detailed presentation of their view of the future, Engels wrote: In making itself the master of all the means of production to use them in accordance with a social plan, society puts an end to the former subjection of men to their own means of production. It goes without saying that society cannot free itself unless every individual is freed. (On the Division of Labour in Production) The task of the dictatorship of the proletariat would be to overcome the separation of the political and the economic in capitalism.

The centrality of the state in the Marxist project of liberation undoubtedly raises questions on the use of force and coercion within a society. While Marx and Engels were unequivocal in their support of violence in the process of overthrowing the present order, this violence was seen as a necessity to push back the counter-revolution and defend democracy. Their view on the use of force was never the glorification of violence for its own sake. Once the old autonomous bureaucratic apparatus of the bourgeois state was smashed, the new workers’ state would repress the former ruling classes, enact a massive extension of democracy and deprofessionalize the public order, the withering away of the state.

As Marx refined in his understanding of alienation – from political alienation to alienation at the point of production – and capitalism, he sees the working class as the only class capable of liberating itself without the leadership of philosophers. Contrary to the traditional right-wing characterisation of a revolution carried out by a minority, Marxism asserts the dire need for action and upheaval by the majority for their own emancipation. In their later polemics, Marx and Engels repeatedly rebuked those who advocated for revolutionary ‘saviours from above’ or conspiratorial minorities who would seize power on behalf of the masses without their involvement. In a document of The First International (1864), Marx and Engels wrote

“the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves, that the struggle for the emancipation of the working classes means not a struggle for class privileges and monopolies, but for equal rights and duties, and the abolition of all class rule”.

However, Marx and Engels were ambiguous about the role of workers’ parties and their position on multi-party systems.

The Paris Commune of 1871

Use of the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ would re-emerge in Marx’s writing during the Paris Commune of 1871. At the onset of the insurrection led by the National Guard of Paris, Marx was critical of the action but later expressed solidarity upon its enactment. In the midst of a dual power situation, the reactionary government of Thiers fled the city of Paris after failing to seize the cannons of the radical-influenced National Guard. The leaders of the National Guard called for elections to the Commune in order to administer the ninety equal constituencies on March 26, 1871. Over sixty of the ninety councillors were revolutionaries of various currents. Even the petty bourgeoisie accepted the working class hegemony over the Commune as the bourgeoisie had betrayed them in pursuing their narrow class interests. This episode saw the working class, not pursue their own interest, but represented the general interest of the people.

The Commune was democratic in all aspects of its function. This pyramidal arrangement of democratic councils started at the bottom with communal assemblies, and subsequent levels being regional bodies and finally a national body. The councils at every level were to be modelled on the Paris Commune. Elected representative to these councils were chosen on the basis of universal suffrage and directly accountable through their subject to recall by the voters. The Commune also extended election to magistrates, judges and all categories of public servants. These deliberative councils also carried out executive function, as Marx proclaimed that “the Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.” (The Civil War in France) Popular control was the order of the day.

In The Civil War in France, Marx called the Commune “essentially a working-class government … the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour.” For Marx and Engels, the Commune was the first historic experience of working-class rule or ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’. Engels reaffirmed this in his later critique of the draft Erfurt Programme (A Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Program of 1891), writing

“if one thing is certain, it is that our party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat as the Great French Revolution [very likely referring to the Paris Commune] has already shown.”

Despite its brief seventy-two-day existence, the Commune was proof that the working class could rule and that its massive extension of democracy did not result in anarchy or mob violence. Though this democratic miracle was ultimately smashed by bourgeois forces, Marx concluded, “the great social measure of the Commune was its own working existence.” (The Civil War in France) It overcame the bourgeois-imposed separation of the state and civil society. According to Marx, the Commune was “the reabsorption of the State power by society, as its own living forces instead of as forces controlling and subduing it”. (First Draft of The Civil War in France)

Despite Marx and Engels’ adulation for the Commune, it was not explicit how they sought to organize communist society. Marx was notorious for his reticence to speculate about the future. While they desired the most far-reaching extension of democracy to the exploited classes, their vision of a workers’ state would still entail some form of centralized executive. However, they do distinguish between the Bonapartist bureaucratic centralisation and revolutionary-democratic centralisation of the Commune. As capitalist production was organized through the institution of corporations, a socialist economic arrangement done through central planning would no doubt give the planning body tremendous power. It was highly probable that Marx and Engels believed that such an institution would be able to be tamed by the forces of democratic popular control but this was to remain a quandary that future socialists would have to solve.

The Soviet Experiment and European Parliamentarism

The year 1917 saw the mass proliferation of soviets (Russian for councils) throughout the Russian Empire, in the factories, villages and military garrisons. In a dual power scenario, these revolutionary-democratic councils of workers, peasants and soldiers were the de facto government as the de jure bourgeois government was essentially powerless. The soviets bore an uncanny resemblance to the Paris Commune, despite no documented direct influence. By the end of the year, the Bolsheviks took power in the name of the soviet rule. But as soon as they did, their slogans and ideal crashed against the harsh realities of governing in a situation of economic backwardness, capitalist encirclement and counter-revolutionary violence. In defence of their revolution, the Bolsheviks “made a virtue of necessity” and carried out the suppression of democracy in a distortion of ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’. Running of the factories were given from the workers back to the bourgeois managers. Soldiers were no longer allowed to elect their superiors. Opposition parties and their presses were banned. By 1921, much of political and economic power rested with the Bolshevik party-state apparatus, and the revolutionary energy of the masses dissolved.

The first quarter of the 20th century also saw Marxist and communist parties come to power in countries like Germany and Austria. These socialist parties attempted to govern and win as much as they could for the workers, but there were great limits to their progress. Ultimately, they won political power within a bourgeois-democratic republic without disrupting or smashing the capitalist arrangement of production. These parliamentary experiments to enact the transformation of capitalist democracies vindicated Marx and Engels in the critique of reformist strategies of achieving socialism. The political offices of the Left parties were still ultimately subordinate to the whims of capital.

The German Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg criticizes both these two paths of Marxism in her works. She asserts that the choice between the two paths – a reformist struggle within bourgeois democracy by Bernstein, and the socialist dictatorship of the few by Lenin and Trotsky – is a false one. In Reform or Revolution (Chapter VIII Conquest of Political Power), she rightly critiqued that pursuing the path of reforms within (bourgeois) ‘democracy’ would lead “not the realisation of socialism, but the reform of capitalism… the suppression of the abuses of capitalism instead of suppression of capitalism itself.” In a chapter of her book (The Russian Revolution), titled “Democracy and Dictatorship”, she lambastes the Bolsheviks for transforming their repressive action in the face of incredible hardship into theory in order to justify these actions. She links socialist democracy with the dictatorship of the proletariat beautifully in a passage from The Russian Revolution:

“but socialist democracy is not something which begins only in the promised land after the foundations of socialist economy are created… Socialist democracy begins simultaneously with the beginnings of the destruction of class rule and of the construction of socialism. It begins at the very moment of the seizure of power by the socialist party. It is the same thing as the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Reclaiming the Democratic Discourse

The centrality of political and economic democracy in the Marxist project needs to be reasserted in the face of continuous ahistorical attacks from all sides of the political spectrum. Any socialist experiment will come under attack from capitalist forces and it will be the task of future revolutionary leaders to draw important lessons from the missteps of the predecessors. The temptation to make a principle of necessity will continually emerge and counter-revolutionaries will undoubtedly rear their heads at key moments of crisis or transition. The broader Left need to reaffirm the “right to fail” and express solidarity with those who have to grapple with the complexities of governing as an anti-capitalist force in a sea of capitalist vultures. Revolutionaries will have to strike a tenuous balance between defending their revolution with coercive measures against violent counter-revolutionaries and allowing for genuine democracy and debate within the public sphere. Without the participatory energy of the masses, any revolution would wither and give way to bureaucratization or defeat.


Jeremy Lim is the secretary and project coordinator for Imagined Malaysia, working on themes of political economy and capitalism in Malaysia and Southeast Asia. He is also a member of Malaysia Muda and a regular contributor to their online publication, Jentayu.

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