The Democratic Road: Marxism’s Greater Vehicle

by modulus on December 15, 2013

Movements are never uniform. Where humans meet to achieve a common purpose, more likely than not, divergences exist: on ends and means, on commitment and focus, on vision and motivation… Even the sort of movement Nechayev proposed in his mad catechism1 is composed by different tiers, and if in all other aspects it is an insane elucubration, at least in this aspect it correctly arrives at the inevitable necessity for heterogeneity.

The workers’ movement, and its scientific manifestation, Marxism, are no exception. The distinctions which bedevilled religious and political movements through the ages—Monophysites and Orthodox, Counter-remonstrants and Armenianists, Jacobins and Girondines, and so many others—have not and will not evade us on the sole basis that we constitute ourselves as a materialist movement. On the contrary, the tension between bourgeois power, as firm a hegemony as has ever existed, and the attempt to rid ourselves not of a particular oppression, but of oppression altogether, not of a particular form of class rule, but of class society altogether, inevitably results in the known dialectic of sectarianism and opportunism. Is there a synthesis that may lead us to victory?

Unfortunately the problem has material sources, and cannot be conjured away by clever ideas or organisational arrangements. Every movement is mindful of the danger of degeneration, and makes constant affirmations that it will not fall into the trap. However, if such affirmations were of any efficacy, we would not find ourselves at our present bind. The Second International wouldn’t be a refuge for the likes of Ben Ali and the First wouldn’t be torn by the thorns of a seductive rose. Yet these realities obtain, and here is where we must begin if we are to arrive at a useful destination.

Rosa Luxemburg wrote Reform or Revolution as a polemic against Bernstein’s opportunism, and since then her text has been regarded by most Marxists (except of course revisionists beyond the utter darkness) as a sort of map establishing the boundaries of revolutionary socialism, vis-a-vis bourgeois reformism. Before writing this article, I wanted to reacquaint myself with her work, and it has profited me to read it again, although perhaps in unexpected ways.

Possibly the most relevant conclusion from the exercise has been that Rosa Luxemburg was invariably correct about the theoretical arguments: Bernstein is indeed wrong about capitalism’s collapse, and about surplus value being a mere theoretical artifact comparable to utility, for example. Yet, when it comes to concrete matters of practice, while she’s not invariably wrong, Bernstein scores some telling hits: capitalism has indeed proven more adaptable and more varied in production than previously believed—after all it’s still here 113 years later—, the immiseration thesis became highly problematic even accounting for the developing world, the progressive advance of democratic forms has continued, the system of tariffs has been largely dismantled, militarism has run its course as a policy of inter-imperialist rivalry—though not as a lever of the developed world against the rest—, and the working class has become more heterogeneous and less clearly bound by a common economic interest. These are facts. Whatever else we think about Bernstein and Luxemburg as people and as revolutionaries we must acknowledge that her concrete positions on Reform or Revolution were not proven in the test of history. Of course, when one prophesizes, one runs the risk to err.

Another dividing lines between revolutionaries and reformists comes from the polemics between Lenin and Kautsky. The notion of imperialism, particularly conceived as export of capital, and Kautsky’s notion of ultra-imperialism, are supposed to set the border between internationalist revolutionaries and social patriot sellouts. Yet, unavoidably, when we contemplate the contemporary world—with institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the UN, NATO, the European Union, the many free trade areas, and so on—what does this look like? Is it not a vindication of the ultra-imperialism thesis, admittedly realised after two unprecedentedly cruel world wars?

So does this mean we give up on revolution altogether, that we regard the movement as everything and the goal as nothing? By no means. The fact that the lines of demarcation were, in my view, erroneously drawn, does not mean there are no lines of demarcation altogether. There are, however, things we should learn from this experience.

First off, it’s possible to degenerate through opportunism. We’ve seen it happen, and the flower of social democracy is today reaction’s dancing partner in Germany, as their feet heedlessly tread on the hopes of a continent. However, it is considerably more difficult to ascertain what particular positions constitute opportunism. Even looking back, it is sometimes hard to discern. Was Bernstein an opportunist? Almost certainly. Was Kautsky? I don’t believe so. From this we should learn that premature demarcation is the root of all evil. Schisms are harmful per se, leaving the class confused and many of our assets—our cadre—embittered and disinclined to continue the struggle. Socialist politics can be personally taxing, and faction fights can feel like tragedies. Do not call anathema lightly.

Second, just as one can fail through opportunism, it is just as likely and indeed more likely to fail through sectarianism. The history of the post-war revolutionary left is, barring exceptional cases, the history of sects. In this regard, the official communist parties2 appear to have kept their cohesion better than the Trotskyist and Maoist alternatives. Perhaps Trotsky’s project was idealist from the start, or it could be that because of the circumstance of being the minority tendency with a more developed theoretical stance it attracted those people who thrive on being heretics, correct but ineffective. In any event, this is the more common failure mode of left formations, and we underestimate the long-term harm it does to our cause at our peril. Cycling thousands of activists through the gruelling gauntlet of permanent mobilisation and splits to no good purpose is tantamount not even to eating our seed corn, but to burning it.

Additionally, it is vital to recognise the role of democracy to our movement. Bureaucratic means weren’t ever good arbiters of truth or good policy, nor will they serve us well in learning to govern ourselves. It is not only the labour unions that should function as a school for communism, but all party organs and affiliated bodies. Production centres won’t be the only things to be organise, nor perhaps even the hardest. Bans on fractions, limitations of discussion to pre-congressional or congressional periods, slate voting, and similar bureaucratic tactics only weaken the party’s ability to learn, decide and adapt in a genuinely responsive manner. They also happen to be, justly, abhorrent to many young activists, who have no interest in being dictated by political operatives as well as bosses.

A broad party—and the only feasible way to achieve our ends requires the mobilisation, or at least the acquiescence, of the majority of the class, thus requiring a mass party—needs to recognise multiple facets of heterogeneity. In thought, not only allowing but promoting the formation of fractions, currents and tendencies to produce and confront their positions; in commitment, recognising the role of highly conscious and mobilised cadre, as well as that of more passive supporters; in aptitude, making use of the different skills and temperaments of members, within organised labour, the cooperative movement, political bodies, direct action, and so on; and generally creating a space where all who share the goal to emancipate themselves as a class can find a place to contribute to the collective effort.

Such an approach to democracy should extend within and without the party. On my previous post I pointed out the limits of current democratic systems, and yet in most of Europe we have sufficiently responsive parliaments and mechanisms of public participation we should not spurn them. First, because it will be difficult to explain to the people, who rightly or wrongly believe they have some measure of control over the state; but second, because whatever effort it may take to conquer parliament, conquering state power by force would require considerably more. If we are not in a position to get people to spend 15 minutes of their lives voting for us, they certainly won’t risk jail, injury and death to wage an insurrection, nor should we ask them to. The best position to carry out the struggle, given the considerable ideological power of democratic legitimacy, is from the defensive, once we wrest control over the state through electoral means. It can and will be argued, like Rosa argued, that as soon as the democratic content overrides bourgeois interests the ruling class will dispense with democratic forms altogether. Doubtless this may occur, though it is worthwhile to point out that such a firmly established source of legitimacy is not easily discarded. However, stipulating this, there is nothing to lose and a great deal to gain in waging this struggle on the defensive, with popular legitimacy on our side, rather than offensively, against legally constituted power.

In order to successfully attain popular support we must do at least three things: produce propaganda to counter bourgeois hegemony, organise ourselves to present a credible alternative to the default capitalist future, and build the necessary capacities to carry out a transition as seamlessly as possible. This entails a strategy oriented towards self-sustaining capture of capital through cooperative means, withdrawing increasing portions of economic activity from the unconstrained scope of the law of value. It entails being deeply rooted in organised labour, giving our members not just an interface to contractual and economic disputes, but means to obtain training and jobs within party affiliated entities. It entails building up or colonising all sectors of civil society, bringing the ensigns of class emancipation and self-government to all spheres of activity.

Such an approach would allow us to practice planning internally, increasing the vertical depth of our cooperatives, and serving our own members directly in kind without exchange. It would allow us to serve our people by providing at-cost services and communising expensive resources such as housing, tools and educational equipment. It would, in sum, prepare us to build a ramified structure whereby the party becomes progressively the fundamental force through which we act, so that instead of expropriation under a bureaucracy we can simply merge production units under the experienced hand of our own management. Most importantly, it would give us the necessary depth to propagate our message not only with words, spoken from our commercial press organs—death to amateur party newspapers!—but also with deeds, in the manifold endeavours we would conduct. Such a depth would be of inestimable help in acquiring majority support, and probably a necessity when competing against the monotone pro-market message of the corporate media.

Dharmacakra, "Wheel of Dharma" or "Wheel of Life", a symbol that has represented dharma, the Buddha's teaching of the path to enlightenment.

Dharmacakra, “Wheel of Dharma” or “Wheel of Life”, a symbol that has represented dharma, the Buddha’s teaching of the path to enlightenment.

There are two major doctrinal divisions in Buddhism. One, the lesser vehicle (hīnayāna), focuses on monasticism and individual liberation from rebirth through ascetic practices and deep contemplation, while the greater vehicle (mahāyāna) acknowledges a duty to save all sentient beings from suffering, and has a more popular approach, addressing not only those who can devote their whole lives to the project, but everyone. Likewise, in the building of a mass party, the activist bearded monks will come from the desert and contest our purity and resolve. It will be very tempting, because many of us are suited for it, to retreat into monastic life. To give up the slow, thankless and seemingly endless process of exposing our ideas to the world, changing, bit by bit, the balance of forces. Sometimes, we will be too narrow. Sometimes, we will be too broad. However, only through this greater vehicle will we attain the goal of socialising production and emancipating ourselves from class power. So when the monks come and whisper about transitional programmes and protracted people’s war, when they entice us with their 21 conditions, when they remind us of lineage and ritual, we must remember our duty is not to ourselves, but to all: to those who cannot participate, because they are on the edge; to those who dare not participate because their family or their employers won’t allow it; to those who fear for themselves or their children, and will not confront the state or the bosses head-on. For all of them, and ultimately for ourselves, we shall give our reply: no.

  1. A paradox of anarchism is how often it descends to the extremes of brutal authority it is so prone to denounce, perhaps because a school so categorical about the moral depravity of all use of authority cannot conceive but to use authority in like manner. Nothing like the so-called revolutionary catechism to illuminate this topic.  
  2. By which I mean third internationalist formations.  

(Originally published at Spirit of Contradiction)

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

stevenjohnson2 December 15, 2013 at 2:51 pm

Ultraimiperialism may be with us. But it is not a manifestation of concrete material forces creating the real world elements of the new socialist order. It is a counterrevolutionary alliance that sacrifices the old achievements of the capitalist epoch. Kautsky was wrong.

And, given the historical connection between democracy and imperialism, between democracy and national oppression, between democracy and genocide, it is wrong to uphold its tatterered, bloodstained banner. Democracy is a mode of class collaboration of one people against another. This has been true since the days when the Equals of Sparta united against the Messenians or the Athenians dispossessed the Euboeans. It was true later when the whites congratulated themselves on their democratic freedom while a handful owned black slaves. It was true when the Turks drove out the Armenians and the Greeks in the birth of democratic freedom that replaced the tawdry remnants of the Ottoman Empire. And it is true now when the glorious triumph of freedom in central Europe has allowed the new democratic states to defend themselves against the threat of…the Roma.

The good press that democracy has is part of the campaign against Communism. Anti-Communist politics are not progressive.

Besides, this strategy gave us powerful figures like Ebert, Scheidemann and Noske, men perfectly situated to exercise state power, well experienced in administration. Why would you want something like that again, unless you picture yourself as Ebert, Scheidemann or Noske except so manifestly morally superior that you’ll do it right the next time?


Gavin Mendel-Gleason December 15, 2013 at 8:04 pm

Ultraimiperialism may be with us. But it is not a manifestation of concrete material forces creating the real world elements of the new socialist order. It is a counterrevolutionary alliance that sacrifices the old achievements of the capitalist epoch. Kautsky was wrong.

If it exists it’s clearly a manifestation of concrete material forces unless you believe it was achieved by witchcraft. Kautsky’s claim was that it’s quite possible that imperialism was not a final stage and some new cartel at a higher level could be constructed. Which part of this is wrong?

In terms of the anitpathy towards democracy, the fact that the liberal democracies are hegemonic and that they have committed gross atrocities is hardly a very good argument against democracy unless you can demonstrate a better approach.

The idea that democratic ideas are anti-communists is just gibberish. Liberal democracy is antagonistic to the working class because it is liberal, not because it is democratic. Liberalism can not and will never be able to achieve it’s own stated values on its own terms because of the failure for equality, fraternity and liberty to be realised within the context of a capitalist system where the economy continually is able to configure politics in its interests. This should not lead one to reject democracy or republican values, but to reject capitalism.

It is strictly impossible for the working class to collectively administrate in real terms without mediation through some political form. Which political form would meaningifully give the capacity to administrate and adjudicate conflicts if not democracy?


Aaron Aarons December 15, 2013 at 9:43 pm

Democracy is such a vague concept that can mean, if not almost anything, at least many contradictory things. For leftists, the fight should be not for ‘Democracy’ but for the democratic rights of the oppressed and exploited against not only the oppressors and exploiters, but against whatever section, even a majority, of the population that the oppressors and exploiters manage to win to their side, particularly in elections. And while we fight for democratic rights within both oppressor and oppressed nations, we should always defend an oppressed nation against the most internally-democratic imperialist nation. And we should always defend the right of governments and peoples everywhere to violate the “democratic rights” of capitalist plunderers.


C Derick Varn December 15, 2013 at 5:52 pm

I can think of few worse ideas than taking a misunderstand myth about the way two schools of Buddhism work and applying it as an analogy to parliamentary systems without dealing with costs of running effective campaigns and the nepotism/patronage that comes out of that. Such misapplications of Schmittian political theology seem not only dangerous, but silly.


Gavin Mendel-Gleason December 15, 2013 at 8:04 pm

First, I think it’s fair to apply loose analogies from religion in order to make cases for approaches to politics as one of the critically important factors of mass politics is that it requires convincing masses of the legitimacy of some idea. This will always involve the problematics of power within a given context. Politics was conducted through religion until quite recently so there are many long running features which are worth keeping an eye on.

If you think the loose analogy from Buddhism doesn’t fit, I’d appreciate more meat on the critique. As it stands its hard to know what you find objectionable – or it merely the idea of political theology altogether?

The current context has many dangers with patronage/nepotism obviously one of them. However, a technical critique of the characteristics has been given on Spirit of Contradiction and the author is not unaware of how deeply problematic elections are. That something is problematic does not make an argument that it is not better, and this piece is making an argument at a higher level – that in fact we need to be pushing where legitimacy is most likely to massify.

The following articles deal with the problems of elections for mass parties.


Saturnite December 16, 2013 at 11:35 pm

So cranky. The activist bearded monk thing made total sense to me. I often experience massive culture shocks as I move between Left and normal groups of people.

Patronage happens, you even get the funding by campaigning in the first place, campaigns run better off of volunteers than money anyway, and the moral of the story is Varn doesn’t want to even try. We expose the lack of real effective democracy by making attempts to utilize it. “Such a firmly established source of legitimacy is not easily discarded.” Force the contradiction to a head. Right on.


Ed Felien January 5, 2014 at 9:31 pm

Although tedious at points, I did enjoy his definition of Trotskyists and Maoists: [It] “attracted those people who thrive on being heretics, correct but ineffective. In any event, this is the more common failure mode of left formations, and we underestimate the long-term harm it does to our cause at our peril. Cycling thousands of activists through the gruelling gauntlet of permanent mobilisation and splits to no good purpose is tantamount not even to eating our seed corn, but to burning it.” But this is a criticism of any left protest movement. Our challenge is to have clear goal and a clear path toward that goal.


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