Socialism Needs Democracy, Democracy Needs Socialism

Contrary to widespread belief, socialists do not reject democracy. On the contrary, we want more of it. The only real democracy exists when workers control the economy and have a say in every aspect of our lives. This is the world we are fighting for.

by | Jun 21, 2023

The authentic Marxist tradition has always stressed that democracy is fundamental to socialism. Marx defined socialism as the “self-emancipation of the working class.” In the Communist Manifesto, he and Engels said that the first step on the road to socialism and then communism was the need to “win the battle of democracy.”

The fight for socialism is fundamentally about democratically transforming the relations of production and all other social relations. No legislation can grant this transformation. Workers can only achieve power when they take power. This was the essence of what Eugene Debs meant by his classic statement: “If I could lead you into the Promised Land, I would not, because if I could lead you in, someone else could lead you out.” Rosa Luxemburg reinforced this point: “Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there they must be broken.”

The fight for socialism requires workers’ democracy

As Marx explained, revolution is needed for two reasons: Those with power will not give it up without a fight; and revolution is the only way workers can become “fit to rule.” It is the only way they can rid themselves of “the muck of ages” (racism, sexism, nationalism, homophobia, and all other forms of bigotry) and win the confidence to run society.

Unfortunately, this link between revolutionary democracy and socialism is rejected by Stalinism and its various offshoots — Maoism, Castroism, and related Third World nationalism. This has undermined the appeal of Marxism across the world. Many workers have looked at the elite dictatorships claiming the mantle of socialism and said, “If that is socialism, I don’t want it.”

Even the collapse of Stalinist states from 1989 onward has not killed off the Stalinist distortion of Marxism. Many young people in the U.S. rightly want to oppose U.S. imperialism and capitalism. They turn to what they think are its enemies: the remnants of the Eastern Bloc and its allies. They become campists, extolling the virtues of the supposedly anti-U.S. camp — China, Russia, Iran, and Assad’s Syria. In many cases this leads them back to support of the gravedigger of the Russian Revolution, Stalin himself.

We cannot sneak someone into power and achieve what we want. We cannot lie to workers or go behind their backs. We cannot move toward socialism by bureaucratically manipulating a union or a coalition to achieve the political stance we want. We cannot substitute ourselves or any would-be leader for the working class. We cannot win things for workers without workers’ direct involvement.

This is a tragedy and something that actual Marxists must continually confront. We need to explain over and over the direct connection of democracy and socialism. This is a difficult but necessary road, and there are no shortcuts. We cannot sneak someone into power and achieve what we want. We cannot lie to workers or go behind their backs. We cannot move toward socialism by bureaucratically manipulating a union or a coalition to achieve the political stance we want. We cannot substitute ourselves or any would-be leader for the working class. We cannot win things for workers without workers’ direct involvement.

This can cause frustration. Revolutionaries cannot will a revolution into existence. The revolution will come when the working class is ready for it, not when we wish it. Obviously, we need to do everything we can to build the level of struggle and lay the basis for successful revolution. Our main contribution is to build first an organization of revolutionaries, and finally a revolutionary party that can help convince workers to take power in a revolutionary upsurge. Organized revolutionaries do not make the revolution, but they are necessary to make it successful.

Capitalism is undemocratic in its essence

There is another link between democracy and socialism in a negative sense. Capitalism is undemocratic. It is founded on the legal right of the capitalist to control work and the worker. Workplaces are not democracies.

Beyond this, capitalists use their economic power to control government. As Engels said, the economic rulers also become the political ruling class.

Even the limited democratic rights that workers have under capitalism are truncated. Citizens are sometimes allowed to vote on public policy. Money has a large role to play in what even gets on the ballot. The measures that people can vote on are limited by economic conditions. Often the choice before voters is something along the lines of, “Tax yourselves and lower your living standards even more or don’t provide funding for schools.” These limited choices are no real choices at all. There is usually no choice on the ballot to tax the rich to provide social services. Even if there is, the money-backed message is, “If you tax the rich, you’ll kill jobs and put yourself out of work”.

This applies to contests over representatives as well. Too often elitist liberals chastise workers for voting against their interests by which they mean voting against Democrats. In fact, neither Republicans nor Democrats represent the interests of workers. In many periods, and certainly now on many issues, the vast majority are further to the left than the politicians.

Yet, this is not always true. Capitalism distorts the opinions of workers, as it does of the population generally. Calling for power to the working class does not necessarily mean endorsing the current opinion of workers. However, workers struggling for democratic power and for democratic rights under capitalism is part of the process of workers becoming “fit to rule”. Socialists may oppose and organize against reactionary positions held by sections of the working class, but we are always for expansion of workers’ rights and power.

The only real democracy is created when the vast majority has full control of the economy and thus has access to all technologically possible options. This can only happen after workers seize power in a socialist revolution.

Workers’ democracy and the transition to socialism

Beyond this, there is an even deeper interactive relation between democracy and socialism.

A working-class socialist revolution will destroy the bourgeois state apparatus and replace it with the democratic institutions run directly by the working class. Marx and Engels began to lay this out in the Communist Manifesto and elaborated on it in The Civil War in France. Lenin clearly explained this in State and Revolution.

Workers’ democracy is the necessary first step on the road to socialism. Without it the working class cannot concentrate the power needed to transform the economy toward socialism. Workers need political power to take the capital from the capitalists and begin to plan the economy for human needs.

As an aside, this means taking all political power, including the right to vote, from the remaining exploiters. Diluting workers’ power with internal sabotage by the enemy class would retard the transformation to socialism.

Yet, democracy at this stage is limited. Until workers have taken power throughout the world, options facing the working class are constrained. Against its best wishes, the workers’ state must defend itself. It must put a priority on weapons rather than human needs. It is forced to compete with other states for survival. The law of value still imposes itself on the workers’ state. This means that it must prioritize bourgeois efficiency.

To achieve fuller democracy, with more choices of priorities, the economy must be transformed in a socialist direction. As the workers’ revolution spreads internationally, the need for military defense lessens. The competition between states is replaced by cooperation. The law of value begins to lose its grip.

Only when the revolution has spread internationally can the workers’ states have all the choices available to the current state of technology. Only then can it have the fullest possible democracy. The transformation to socialism is a long and complicated process. There will be setbacks. The advance will be in a spiral rather than a straight line.

At the end of the process, what Marx called the higher stage of communism, the need for a repressive apparatus will be gone. When classes have disappeared, there will be no need to keep the capitalist class in check. This is what Marx, Engels and Lenin called the “withering away of the state”.

With the withering away of the state comes the withering away of repressive political democracy — the need for one class to impose its will on another class. However, there will always be the need for economic democracy. The whole population will still need to determine economic plans.

In summary, the relationship of democracy and the transition to socialism is this: workers’ democracy is essential to the transformation of capitalism into communism. Every advance towards socialism increases the strength of workers’ democracy, giving the working class more and more choices. Each positive exercise of these choices moves the society closer to socialism and further strengthens democracy. The full achievement of the highest stage of communism eliminates classes and therefore the need for democratic repression of hostile classes. The workers’ state withers away. With no more hostile classes, society democratically manages its economy without state repression.

Steve Leigh
(he/him) is a founding member of Firebrand and the Seattle Revolutionary Socialists. He has been an active Marxist since 1971 and was a founding member of the International Socialist Organization. He was a shop steward in SEIU for 35 years and is a member of the retirees chapter of SEIU 925. Read more from Steve on his blog.

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