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Democracy in Marxism

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Democracy in Marxism

The role of democracy in Marxist thinking may refer to the role of democratic processes in the transition from capitalism to socialism, or to the importance ascribed to participatory democracy in a post-capitalist society.

Marxism holds that "democracy is the road to socialism", as Karl Marx believed (although this line is not directly stated in his complete works), democracy being Greek for "rules of the masses". The Marxist view believes that the capitalist state cannot be democratic by its nature, as it represents the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

Marxism views democracy under capitalism as an unrealistic utopia. This is because they believe that, in a capitalist state, all "independent" media and most political parties are controlled by capitalists and one either needs large financial resources or to be supported by the bourgeoisie to win an election. Vladimir Lenin (1917) believed that, in a capitalist state, the system focuses on resolving disputes within the ruling bourgeoisie class and ignores the interests of the proletariat or labour class which are not represented and therefore dependent on the bourgeoisie's good will:

Democracy for an insignificant minority, democracy for the rich – that is the democracy of capitalist society. If we look more closely into the machinery of capitalist democracy, we see everywhere, in the "petty" – supposedly petty – details of the suffrage (residential qualifications, exclusion of women, etc.), in the technique of the representative institutions, in the actual obstacles to the right of assembly (public buildings are not for "paupers"!), in the purely capitalist organization of the daily press, etc., etc., – we see restriction after restriction upon democracy. These restrictions, exceptions, exclusions, obstacles for the poor seem slight, especially in the eyes of one who has never known want himself and has never been in close contact with the oppressed classes in their mass life (and nine out of 10, if not 99 out of 100, bourgeois publicists and politicians come under this category); but in their sum total these restrictions exclude and squeeze out the poor from politics, from active participation in democracy.
—Lenin, The State and Revolution, Chapter 5

Moreover, even if representatives of the proletariat class are elected in a capitalist country, Marxists claim they have limited power over the country's affairs as the economic sphere is largely controlled by private capital and therefore the representative's power to act is curtailed. Hence, Marxists-Leninists see a socialist revolution necessary to bring power into hands of oppressed classes.

The dictatorship of the proletariat

While Marxism does not dismiss democracy, it views it along class lines. The democracy that Marxists aim to achieve is a workers' democracy also known as the dictatorship of the proletariat. This would consist of political power being held by the working class (the majority demographic of society) and state power wielded in their interests. Marxists also hold that a workers' democracy (the dictatorship of the proletariat) is only a temporary and transitional form necessary prior to the establishment of a communist society. Under a truly communist society, the class of proletariat would disappear, along with the state, to form a classless and stateless society.

USSR and Bolshevism

During the revolutionary ferment of the Russian Revolution of 1905 and 1917, there arose working-class grassroots attempts of direct democracy with soviets (Russian for "council"). According to Lenin and other theorists of the Soviet Union, the soviets represent the democratic will of the working class and are thus the embodiment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Lenin and the Bolsheviks saw the soviet as the basic organizing unit of society in a communist system and supported this form of democracy.

A key concept with Leninism and Trotskyism is


We have seen above, that 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.
The proletariat too needs democratic forms for the seizure of political power but they are for it, like all political forms, mere means. But if today democracy is wanted as an end it is necessary to rely on the peasantry and petty bourgeoisie, that is, on classes that are in process of dissolution and reactionary in relation to the proletariat when they try to maintain themselves artificially. Furthermore it must not be forgotten that it is precisely the democratic republic which is the logical form of bourgeois rule; a form however that has become too dangerous only because of the level of development the proletariat has already reached; but France and America show that it is still possible as purely bourgeois rule.
—Friedrich Engels to Eduard Bernstein

In Zurich 24 March 1884

(Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Correspondence (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975).
  • "But in England, where the industrial and agricultural working class forms the immense majority of the people, democracy means the dominion of the working class, neither more nor less. Let, then, that working class prepare itself for the task in store for it, -- the ruling of this great empire; let them understand the responsibilities which inevitably will fall to their share. And the best way to do this is to use the power already in their hands, the actual majority they possess in every large town in the kingdom, to send to Parliament men of their own order"
  • "Moreover, in England a real democratic party is impossible unless it be a working men's party."

Articles by Engels in the Labour Standard 1881 A Working Men's Party No. 12, July 23, 1881,

  • "The dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e., the organization of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling class for the purpose of suppressing the oppressors, cannot result merely in an expansion of democracy. Simultaneously with an immense expansion of democracy, which for the first time becomes democracy for the poor, democracy for the people, and not democracy for the money-bags, the dictatorship of the proletariat imposes a series of restrictions on the freedom of the oppressors, the exploiters, the capitalists."
  • "The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class shall represent and repress them in parliament."

Lenin The State and Revolution (1917)

  • "A nationalized planned economy needs democracy, as the human body needs oxygen."

Leon Trotsky in a statement of 1936, as quoted in The Informed Vision : Essays On Learning And Human Nature (2002) by David Hawkins, p. 25; sometimes paraphrased "Socialism needs democracy like the human body needs oxygen."

  • Engels: “As, therefore, the state is only a transitional institution which is used in the struggle, in the revolution, to hold down one’s adversaries by force, it is sheer nonsense to talk of a ‘free people’s state’; so long as the proletariat still needs the state, it does not need it in the interests of freedom but in order to hold down its adversaries, and as soon as it becomes possible to speak of freedom the state as such ceases to exist ....

See also


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