Democracy in Marxism

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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.

Karl Marx believed that "democracy is the road to socialism", (although this line is not directly stated in his works), democracy being Greek for "rule by the people". Marx believed that the working class could achieve power through democratic elections, but that working people had the right to revolt if they were denied political expression.[1]

After the workers, i.e., the proletariat, achieve political power and use the state to transform bourgeoise society into a classless, communist society, the state would lose its reason for existence, which is the suppression of the one class by another, and would no longer be needed.[2] But how long after the revolution will the state continue to exist? In his 1891 introduction to The Civil War in France, Friedrich Engels wrote:

In reality, however, the state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and indeed in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy; and at best an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, whose worst sides the victorious proletariat, just like the [Paris] Commune, cannot avoid having to lop off at once as much as possible until such time as a generation reared in new, free social conditions is able to throw the entire lumber of the state on the scrap heap.

— F. Engels[3]

In other words, most of the oppressive institutions of the state, such as armed organizations to control the public, will be abolished "as much as possible" immediately after victory over the bourgeoisie, but administrative functions might continue until a generation raised under communism was able to cooperate without any hierarchical administration whatsoever.

While Marxists propose using the state to carry out the revolution, and then abolishing it, anarchists reverse the process, abolishing the state and then carrying out the revolution. The desired end results, a stateless, communal society, are the same, however.[4]

Leninists believe democracy under capitalism is 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[5]

Moreover, even if representatives of the proletariat class are elected in a capitalist country, Leninists 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[edit]

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.

In his "Critique of the Gotha Program" Marx wrote that, in Germany at least, a revolutionary dictatorship would be necessary: "Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat."[6] His critique was written in opposition to the moderate, democratic approach of the Gotha Program of the merged Social Democratic Party of Germany/Social Democratic Workers' Party of Germany, which states, "...the Socialist Labor Party of Germany endeavors by every lawful means to bring about a free state and a socialistic society."[7]

USSR and Bolshevism[edit]

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. Thus, the results of the long-awaited Constituent Assembly election in 1917, which Lenin's Bolshevik Party lost to the Socialist Revolutionary Party, were nullified when the Constituent Assembly was disbanded in January 1918.[8]

A key concept with Leninism and Trotskyism is democratic centralism. The democratic aspect of this organizational method describes the freedom of members of the political party to discuss and debate matters of policy and direction. But then, once the decision of the party is made by majority vote, all members are expected to uphold that decision; this latter aspect represents the centralism. As Lenin described it, democratic centralism consisted of "freedom of discussion, unity of action."



As we have seen, the state exists merely as political state. The totality of the political state is the legislature. To participate in the legislature is thus to participate in the political state and to prove and actualise one's existence as member of the political state, as member of the state. That all as individuals want to participate integrally in the legislature is nothing but the will of all to be actual (active) members of the state, or to give themselves a political existence, or to prove their existence as political and to effect it as such. We have further seen that the Estates are civil society as legislature, that they are its political existence. The fact, therefore, that civil society invades the sphere of legislative power en masse, and where possible totally, that actual civil society wishes to substitute itself for the fictional civil society of the legislature, is nothing but the drive of civil society to give itself political existence, or to make political existence its actual existence. The drive of civil society to transform itself into political society, or to make political society into the actual society, shows itself as the drive for the most fully possible universal participation in legislative power.

The political revolution which overthrew this sovereign power (feudalism) and raised state affairs to become affairs of the people, which constituted the political state as a matter of general concern, that is, as a real state, necessarily smashed all estates, corporations, guilds, and privileges, since they were all manifestations of the separation of the people from the community. The political revolution thereby abolished the political character of civil society. It broke up civil society into its simple component parts; on the one hand, the individuals; on the other hand, the material and spiritual elements constituting the content of the life and social position of these individuals. It set free the political spirit, which had been, as it were, split up, partitioned, and dispersed in the various blind alleys of feudal society. It gathered the dispersed parts of the political spirit, freed it from its intermixture with civil life, and established it as the sphere of the community, the general concern of the nation, ideally independent of those particular elements of civil life. A person’s distinct activity and distinct situation in life were reduced to a merely individual significance. They no longer constituted the general relation of the individual to the state as a whole. Public affairs as such, on the other hand, became the general affair of each individual, and the political function became the individual’s general function. But, the completion of the idealism of the state was at the same time the completion of the materialism of civil society. Throwing off the political yoke meant at the same time throwing off the bonds which restrained the egoistic spirit of civil society. Political emancipation was, at the same time, the emancipation of civil society from politics, from having even the semblance of a universal content. Feudal society was resolved into its basic element – man, but man as he really formed its basis – egoistic man.

— Karl Marx, On The Jewish Question, 1844[10]

Marx and Engels[edit]

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 will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.

— Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto[11]

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. In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

— Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto[12]

We are not among those communists who are out to destroy personal liberty, who wish to turn the world into one huge barrack or into a gigantic workhouse. There certainly are some communists who, with an easy conscience, refuse to countenance personal liberty and would like to shuffle it out of the world because they consider that it is a hindrance to complete harmony. But we have no desire to exchange freedom for equality. We are convinced that in no social order will freedom be assured as in a society based upon communal ownership.

— Marx, Engel, et al., Communist Journal, 1847[13]


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.

Now, since the state is merely a transitional institution of which use is made in the struggle, in the revolution, to keep down one's enemies by force, it is utter nonsense to speak of a free people's state; so long as the proletariat still makes use of the state, it makes use of it, not for the purpose of freedom, but of keeping down its enemies and, as soon as there can be any question of freedom, the state as such ceases to exist.

— Engels[15]

In 1881, Friedrich Engels wrote a leading article in The Labour Standard which included the following quotations:[16]

Thinking men of all classes begin to see that a new line must be struck out, and that this line can only be in the direction of democracy. 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.

— Engels[16]

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.

— Engels[16]


...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, allegedly quoting Karl Marx in The State and Revolution (1917)[17]


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

— Leon Trotsky, in a statement of 1936,[18] sometimes paraphrased, "Socialism needs democracy like the human body needs oxygen."


Marx was by passion a revolutionary fighter, but his passion did not blind him to the teaching of experience. He admitted in 1872 that in countries like England it was possible to bring about the emancipation of the workers by peaceful means. Today this is certainly still more the case, since the influence of the workers on the legislation has increased more than threefold.

Scholarly opinion[edit]

Hal Draper[edit]

In sum: Marx and Engels always saw the two sides of the complex of democratic institutions and rights which arose under bourgeois democracy. The two sides corresponded to the two classes which fought it out within this framework. One side was the utilization of democratic forms as a cheap and versatile means of keeping the exploited masses from shaking the system, of providing the illusion of participation in the state while the economic sway of the ruling class ensured the real centres of power. This was the side of the “democratic swindle”. The other side was the struggle to give the democratic forms a new social (class) content, above all by pushing them to the democratic extreme of popular control from below, which in turn entailed extending the application of democratic forms out of the merely political sphere into the organization of the whole society.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mary Gabriel (October 29, 2011). "Who was Karl Marx?". CNN. 
  2. ^ Hal Draper (1970). "The Death of the State in Marx and Engels". Socialist Register. 
  3. ^ Frederick Engels (March 18, 1891). "The 1891 Introduction to The Civil War in France". 
  4. ^ Hal Draper (1970). "The Death of the State in Marx and Engels". Socialist Register. 
  5. ^ Lenin, Vladmir Illych (1917). "2. The Transition from Capitalism to Communism". The State and Revolution. Retrieved 17 January 2015. 
  6. ^ Karl Marx (1875). "Critique of the Gotha Programme, Sec. IV A". 
  7. ^ "The Gotha and Erfurt Programs". Hanover Historical Texts Project. 1875. 
  8. ^ Tony Cliff (1978). "The Dissolution of the Constituent Assembly". 
  9. ^ Karl Marx (1843). "Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, Chapter 6". 
  10. ^ Karl Marx (1844). "On The Jewish Question". Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher. 
  11. ^ Karl Marx; Friedrich Engels (1848). "II. Proletarians and Communists". The Manifesto of the Communist Party. Marxists Internet Archive. Retrieved 17 January 2015. 
  12. ^ Karl Marx; Friedrich Engels (1848). "II. Proletarians and Communists". The Manifesto of the Communist Party. Marxists Internet Archive. Retrieved 17 January 2015. 
  13. ^ Robert Eccleshall (2003). Political Ideologies: An Introduction. Routledge. p. 40. 
  14. ^ Engels, Friedrich (1884). Friedrich Engels to Eduard Bernstein In Zurich. Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975. Retrieved 17 January 2015. 
  15. ^ Engels, Friedrich (1875). Engels to August Bebel In Zwickau. A. Bebel, Aus meinem Leben, Part 2, Stuttgart, 1911. 
  16. ^ a b c A Working Men's Party (No. 12 ed.). The Labour Standard. 23 July 1881. Retrieved 17 January 2015. 
  17. ^ Lenin, Vladmir Illych (1917). The State and Revolution. Marx grasped this essence of capitalist democracy splendidly when, in analyzing the experience of the Commune, he said that the oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class shall represent and repress them in parliament! 
  18. ^ David Hawkins (2002). The Informed Vision : Essays On Learning And Human Nature. p. 25. 
  19. ^ Eduard Berstein (April 1897). "Karl Marx and Social Reform". Progressive Review. 
  20. ^ Hal Draper (1974). "Marx on Democratic Forms of Government". Socialist Register.