4. Marx and Radical Democracy


June 4th, 2020

32 mins 44 secs

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About this Episode

The first socialists were not political. Groups like the followers of St. Simon were trying to block themselves away from the rest of society and create a utopia as an example to everyone else. At the same time you had radical democrats, many of whom remembered the French revolution as a kind of lost glory or lost opportunity. Marx was one of these radical Democrats. Some say that in the late 1840s he became a socialist, which they think means he stopped caring about individual rights, like the right to property, but started caring about collective rights, such as the rights of factory workers to the wealth they produced. I just got done providing for you a reading of Capital that is radically humanist, that emphasizes the importance of fighting against fetishized relationships between people. That means, at the very end of his career his philosophy was still Epicurian, meaning it was still a science at the service of human happiness, still ethically a humanism. So, how did his followers end up abandoning radical democracy? I’m going to argue that Lenin was still a radical democrat, but that Stalin was not. Still, what you don’t get from studying the ideas of these “great men” is how a certain society made them possible.

After the dumbest revolution, France ended up with a restored monarchy, first Louis 18th was put on the throne by Napoleon, and then later by Louis Phillipe. Louis Phillipe had been one of the so-called progressive nobles and a part of the Jacobin club. When the terror broke out in 1793 LP fled France, living in Philadelphia for a while. When Napoleon took power in 1799 LP returned to Europe, and having never plotted against the revolution, returned to France in 1814 to reclaim what royal property hadn’t been sold off. Under Bonaparte a law was passed to return to the nobility some of their wealth. Did I mention the French revolution was dumb? I’ve mentioned it. Moving on… Following a rebellion against oppressive state measures in 1830, Louis Phillippe became the king, and he kept power by letting the bourgeoisie have a colonial adventure in Algeria. It’s under the rule of Louis Phillippe that Marx moves to Paris in 1843 to begin work at a radical newspaper. By that point Marx had gotten too radical to teach in Prussian universities or for the Prussian press, which suffered new suppression that year. If you’re looking for a moment when Marx turns away from enlightenment radicalism and democracy towards a socialism from above, this is probably that moment. I happen to think that in moving to a discussion of class Marx was recognizing that free individuals must come from free social settings, that you can’t be said to enjoy liberty if you are starving to death. We have talked about all this. What’s more, he must have felt acutely the political isolation of the radical enlightenment, and he seems to have been deeply motivated to make enlightenment ideals into a social reality, something to move the masses. What could be more democratic?

To the point, Riazanov tells us Marx balked at joining the League of the Just, later the Communist League, in Paris until they came around to his way of thinking on these grounds: “He did not join this League because its programme was too greatly coloured with an idealistic and conspiratory spirit which could not appeal to Marx.” (64). Riazanov should know: he was the Bolshevik that founded the Marx-Engels Institute in Soviet Russia after 1917. Marx objected to idealism because he associated it with small conspiracies, and he knew this to be an undemocratic dead end. In his “Two Souls of Socialism,” Hal Draper gives us more details about this point, how Marx could only be a socialist in a group that was democratic: “Before they joined the group which became the Communist League (for which they were to write the Communist Manifesto), they stipulated that the organisation be changed from an elite conspiracy of the old type into an open propaganda group, that ‘everything conducive to superstitious authoritarianism be struck out of the rules,’ that the leading committee be elected by the whole membership as against the tradition of ‘decisions from above.’...In the socialist movement as it developed before Marx, nowhere did the line of the socialist idea intersect the line of democracy-from-below...Marx was the first socialist thinker and leader who came to socialism through the struggle for liberal democracy.” (Draper, Two Souls of Socialism, pp11-12, quoting Marx). It’s not clear where Draper gets his quotes from as he doesn’t cite them. But it’s very likely Marx did say such things, since we can cite Engels in this Confession of the Communist faith (question 14). Note how revolutionary action by the proletariat here is seen as the solution against the violence of the upper class in defence of oppression:

“Question 14: Let me go back to the sixth question. As you wish to prepare for community of property by the enlightening and uniting of the proletariat, then you reject revolution?
Answer: We are convinced not only of the uselessness but even of the harmfulness of all conspiracies. We are also aware that revolutions are not made deliberately and arbitrarily but that everywhere and at all times they are the necessary consequence of circumstances which are not in any way whatever dependent either on the will or on the leadership of individual parties or of whole classes. But we also see that the development of the proletariat in almost all countries of the world is forcibly repressed by the possessing classes and that thus a revolution is being forcibly worked for by the opponents of communism. If, in the end, the oppressed proletariat is thus driven into a revolution, then we will defend the cause of the proletariat just as well by our deeds as now by our words.”

During the revolution, Marx advocated armed uprisings to protect democratic gains against legally enshrined feudal priviledges. The phrase he used for the resulting power arrangment was the “Dictatorship of the Democracy.” After the March revolution of 1848 a dual power existed in Prussia. This meant that there were democratic assemblies, a National Assembly, that vied for power with the older government. Marik: “The establishment of a Liberal cabinet had not come about because of the constitutional agitations but because of the March Revolution, which breached feudal legality. The real reason for Liberal objection to the establishment of democracy was not that it was to come through dictatorship, but rather, that this dictatorship would give power to the exploited people. In a subsequent article Marx wrote that the National Assembly: ‘only needed everywhere to counter dictatorially the reactionary encroachments by obsolete Government in order to win over public opinion, a power against which all bayonets and rifle butts would be ineffective.” (Marik, p.191)

The attitude of Marx, though not always the attitude of so-called Marxists, was always to adjust one’s theory in the light of experience. After the defeat of the revolution of 1848 Marx did just that. Remarkably, he never gave up on radical Democracy. This is the period where he formulates his idea of “Permanent Revolution,” or the idea that the most vulnerable and oppressed could forge by democratic means a polity that would end class divisions. In the context of a Europe dominated by governments that allowed no meaningful political participation by the masses, the only realistic attitude for a democrat was revolutionary. Only by attacking material inequality could a democracy be established where some were not more capable or powerful than others. This is the fruition of a long meditation in Marx’s life on the nature of democracy, a period that saw the writing of the Communist Manifesto, a period where Marx, so the legend has it, becomes a Marxist. Soma Marik remarks: “Both the dominant strategy of proletarian independence and hegemony, and the subordinate tactics involving occasional collaboration with the bourgeoisie were tried out in the revolution of 1848 and both were modified in the light of experience. What emerged was the final version of the strategy of permanent revolution explained most elaborately in the “Address of the Central Authority to the Communist League” of March 1850…’While the democratic petty bourgeois wish to bring the revolution to a conclusion as quickly as possible… It is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent, until all more or less possessing classes have been forced out of their position of dominance, the proletariat has conquered state power… and that at least the decisive productive forces are concentrated in the hands of the proletarians. For us the issue cannot be the alteration of private property but only its annihilation, not the smoothing over of class antagonism but the abolition of class.’” (Marx, cited in Marik, p141). Here Marx is addressing a society of revolutionaries. What do his words mean in context? Marik goes on to explain what actions went along with Marx’s permanent revolution line just prior to and just after his 1850 Address cited above. In the leadup to the events of 1848, Marx had to oppose multiple conspiracies within the radical democratic movement to general insurrection. Note in this passage how Marx feels the need for an armed working class at the moment when a democratic government is being threatened by an armed feudal reaction, and that in another context he argues against hasty action, preferring in Cologne to emphasize educational efforts, in each case the goal is to spread democratic governance and the enlightenment philosophy of equal rights for all. The thrust of Marx’s political project was to popularize and then defend from its enemies the widest possible democracy: the armed defense against reactionary counter revolution is what he meant by “dictatorship of the proletariat.” “Whenever the relation of force was clearly against the revolutionary people Marx was opposed to insurrection. For instance on September 25, 1848, when the authorities tried to provoke an insurrection, Marx prevailed on the Committee of Public Safety that they had helped to found, to retreat in good order. This may be contrasted with the event of September 11 to 13, when taking advantage of the popular discontent against the army Marx and other communists, acting through the Democratic Association and the Workers’ Society, demanded the mobilization of the civic guard and the direct election based on the universal suffrage of the Committee of Public Safety in order to fight counter revolution. Gerhard Becker points out that this was the only revolutionary governmental organization in 1848 composed of the people themselves. As the name indicates, Marx’s aim was to create a revolutionary democratic agency to carry out a thoroughgoing revolution. But the existing popular consciousness at the national level meant that in Cologne, an advanced outpost, he had to proceed slowly. In Cologne they followed a policy of building a Worker’s Society with its own paper, Freiheit und Arbeit, a Democratic Association, and the NRZ. From the beginning the latter functioned as a proletarian mouthpiece of the Democratic bloc in attacking feudal monarchist counter-revolution, but from the very first issue it also criticized the bourgeoisie for not being revolutionary.”” (Marik, p143). In the event, the Bourgeoisie, believing a broad franchise would mean the abolition of their privilege, drew back from revolution, leaving entrenched interests largely untouched. Germany would have a Kaiser for another 71 years. Revolutionaries had to decide whether to abandon the coalition between liberals and radicals. Navigating between capitulation to liberal monarchists and the abandonment of coalition politics, Marx and Engels plotted a middle path. The working class would be organized independently in coalition with liberal reformists until the working class movement was strong enough to assert itself politically. They utterly rejected conspiratorial politics then embodied by Banqui, who was a figure whose idea of a small revolutionary clique dominating society became then and now a bogeyman warning the people away from left politics. Leftists who now embrace that way of thinking are playing to conservative narratives.

It’s worth quoting Marik at length as she is one of the few people who have written about Marx’s theory in light of what Marx did in practice, in his actual organizing work. “After the failure of the revolution, when the Communist League regrouped in London, the balance sheet was drawn in the March Address. It pointed out that in general in the past revolution the petty-bourgeois democrats had hegemonized the working class. After insisting on the need for a proletarian party, it went on to explain that the worker’s party should march together with the petty-bourgeois democrats as long as the existing regime was not overthrown, but should organize separately the working class so that the petty bourgeois leaders could not consolidate the state with a few paltry reform measures. This process of unity and struggle with the petty bourgeois leaders had the aim of consolidating the proletariat and even winning over sections of petty bourgeois masses who at the beginning of the process followed the Democratic Party. The revolution was not to end with the conquest of state power by the proletariat. The immediate aftermath of the conquest of state power was seen as the concentration of the ‘decisive’ productive forces in the hands of the working class. Throughout this period of permanent revolution the task of the communists was to fight for the establishment and broadening of workers’ democracy backed by the proletariat in arms.” (Marik, pp144-145). Soma Marik’s Revolutionary Democracy: Emancipation in Classical Marxism goes on in this way to provide a detailed accounting of Marx’s lifelong insistance on democratic control as the goal of the progressive movement and as the means of achieving that goal. She very rightly holds up the failures and notable successes of the movement for women’s rights within this broader democratic movement. It is perhaps textbook and cliche to note that once women were allowed into the workplace it became harder to deny them equality based on gender. Seldom is the story told of how brave women like Clara Zetkin’s engagement in the workers’ struggle enabled a burdgeoning feminist movement to get its feet. Soma Marik tells that story.

Our focus is different, so I’ll just urge you to buy and read Soma Marik. Her book is worth the effort ten times over. I want to finish the discussion of Marx here and move on to why the socialist movement in western Europe rejected democratic values. Naturally, many people identify Marx with the later course of that movement, with an undemocratic socialism based on economism and class antagonism. One can sympathize if people misunderstood the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat,” interpreting it as undemocratic. Late in their life Marx and Engels had to face a socialist movement that became less and less united in a commitment to radical democracy. I go back and forth with myself wondering what Marx and Engels could have done, if anything to counter this misunderstanding. I think Marx took radical Democracy for granted, and Engels just wasn’t aware that there was a problem, or couldn’t imagine a way to be relevant if he opposed the Lassallean tendency too overtly. If you have some insight into this, as always please @ me. I’ve already pointed out earlier that Capital should be read as an attack on the treatment of people as things, an affirmation of the need to treat all people, even the lowest in society, as having agency in their own lives. But what about Marx’s final political engagements? Again, I can’t in the space of this podcast do Marx’s whole development justice: you have to read Marik to get that. Let me just discuss briefly what Marx said about the Paris Commune, and we’ll move on.

In a sense we are justified to skip ahead like this. The 1850s and 60s were a time of ascendent reaction in Europe, with very little possibility for democratic politics. Aside from the possibility of Italian reunification that opened when Napoleon 3rd went to war with Austria, there was little reason for optimism, and the lack of opportunity likely accounts for the fact that through this period the phrase “dictatorship of the Proletariat” vanishes from Marx’s work. His writings of these decades are full of economics and invective against Russian imperialism. What’s more important still, Marx and Engels both considered the Paris Commune of 1871 to be the first real life example of what they meant by the dictatorship of the proletariat.

From his exile in London, Marx publicly and privately expressed his belief that the Paris uprising was a bad idea, because he thought it would fail. Nevertheless, once the Commune was established, Marx gave it his support and rallied the English working class to it. It is often the case that a progressive and democratic movement gets out over its skis. We will see this same situation in Spain in the 30s, and again this year if Sanders is the candidate in the general election. We’ll be visiting both topics in detail in later podcasts. In the 1872 edition of the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels wrote that because of the Paris Commune the Manifesto was in part outdated, and in the Russian version of the Manifesto in 1884 Engels had The Civil War in France, their masterful work on the Commune, published in the same volume. You get the idea: Marx and Engles were big time stans for the Commune.

The France of Napoleon 3rd, who was like the Trump of his time, had been suckered into starting a war with Prussia in 1870 because nationalists in France had objected to Bismark’s attempts to put an Austrian Habsburg on the throne of Spain after Queen Isabella was dethroned in a revolution. Does that seem silly? It was very silly. Prussia had just gotten done mopping up the much larger Army of Austria through the use of advanced technology: the train and the needle gun (Clark, pp538, 539, 548). Then the provisional government allowed the National Guard to be slaughtered by the Prussians by intentional bad battlefield tactics. In this context, their seizure of power later is shown for what it was: an act of insubordinate self defence. The first task of government is to protect the lives of its citizens, and when a government fails to do that, or intentionally harms its citizens, it loses any legitimate title to being a sovereign state. This is not the last time we will make that observation. Into this vacuum of legitimacy the proletariat stepped, and with this act they became the first government in history based in the working class.

Following the overthrow of the Bonapartiste regime on September 4th, 1870 a provisional government was set up by Louis-Adolphe Thiers and others at Versaille. For their part the socialists in Paris established a committee called the Republican Socialist Committee, emphasizing that what they wanted was to establish a public realm, a Republic, a polity consisting in a publicly owned set of ressources. Quote Marik: “This Committee demanded, by a manifesto, the municipal elections, the control of the police by the municipalities, the elections and control of all the magistrates, absolute freedom of the press, public meeting and association, and so on.” (Marik, p202). The resulting elections saw rural France sending to Paris some 400 monarchists, a reactionary majority. The rural peasants of France still did not trust Parisian Republicans after the terrible mismanagement of the French Revolution. We have mentioned how stupid that revolution was. The left had a mere 150 delegates, but among them were the best revolutionaries of their time: Victor Hugo, Louis Blanc, Gambetta and Garibaldi. All the greats. More importantly, the city was protected by the National Guard, an army of citizen soldiers. On March 18th, 1871 the provisional government tried to seize the cannons of the National Guard, who promptly revolted. There’s the dictatorship of the proletariat Marx was talking about: an armed body of workers taking over the defence of the nation when the ruling class had proven that it could or would not. The Central Committee in Paris didn’t miss a beat and continued planning municipal elections. In those elections, out of a total of 90 seats the socialists and radicals got 60 with the liberals getting 18. These elections resulted in a body with a representation that was not majority working class, but which was majority radical. The composition of this body was nevertheless four times more working class than any parliament before it. According to Marx, the dictatorship of the proletariat was achieved once the National Guard had seized Paris. Why? Because they were defending a democratic movement in Paris from a reactionary government that sought to suffocate it. Once again the source of a state’s sovereignty is civil society. At that moment, with elections still to come, no state had been established, but civil society was poised to provide one. The Commune had been rudely thrown into existence largely by forces beyond it.

Crucially, the dictatorship of the proletariat thus formed depended for its existence on its ability to lead all the other classes of society, not in France as it turned out, but in Paris. The results of the municipal elections were due to all layers of society rallying to the cause of the Parisian proletariat. At least that is the version Marx claims as exemplifying his political project. We’ll get into the abstract nature of the working class later. The point is that the dictatorship of the proletariat as Marx understood it required working class leadership of all society, and the accomodation of a plurality of interests. Marik remarks on how the middle classes of Paris were convinced to rally to a working class government: “The past few months had shown that the French bourgeoisie, in pursuing a narrow class goal, was going against the national interest. In the first place, they refused to put up a resolute defense against the Prussians for fear of a radical revolution. Moreover, in accepting the German terms, including the payment of a massive indemnity, the Thiers government decided to float an internal loan. Newspaper reports claimed that the bankers who were prepared to back the loan also agreed to give Thiers and others 300 million francs as commision. Again, on March 10, 1871, the National Assembly adopted a law on overdue bills which set a seven-month moratorium for payments on security made from August 13 to November 12, 1870. No moratorium was allowed for payment on securities contracted after November 12. This meant that workers, the petty bourgeoisie, small traders and small industrialists were hard hit, while big capital was not. Finally, the National Assembly also refused to defer the payment of house rents any further. Such were the concrete events which pushed the lower middle classes towards the proletariat. But this proletarian hegemony was established partly by default of the upper classes, without adequate preparation on the part of the proletariat itself.” (Marik, p204)

After 1871 the socialist movement in Europe, having lost much of the generation who remembered 1848, and having had multiple disappointments with democracy, lost it’s connection to the tradition of radical democracy that originally informed Marx and Engels. We face a similar problem now. When people make criticisms of democratic institutions, one can rarely tell if the criticism aims at gaining real democracy or at giving up on it all together. Liberal hypocrisy is real, but does that mean we should give up on human rights as though they were nothing more than a lie some people use to get power?

In a future podcast, we will talk about the German Revolution. One of the really interesting figures from that revolution was Arthur Rosenberg. Rosenberg was a historian of ancient Rome until he was drafted into WW1. After Germany’s defeat in 1918, Rosenberg joined first the Independent Social Democratic Party, and then the Communist Party of Germany [KPD]. He was part of the far left wing part of the KPD in 1924, the part of the party that was still calling for a Socialist seizure of power. Around 1925 he began to argue that the German Socialist Workers Party had figured out a better strategy for representing workers’ interests because revolution was then impossible (http://sdonline.org/30/arthur-rosenberg-1889-1943-history-and-politics-between-berlin-and-new-york/).. He left the KPD in 1927, disgusted at the domination of the KPD by Moscow. When the Nazi’s took power he fled Germany, finding teaching posts in Liverpool and later Brooklyn. He died in 1943, and his books went through a period of renewed interest in the 60s.

In the another podcast I’ll discuss the democratic successful Russian revolution and the undemocratic failed German revolution. I can’t help but think that Rosenberg’s later historical writings must have been preoccupied with why his revolution failed. The answer, it seems to me, is for the same reason that the Black Panthers’ revolution sputtered out: they didn’t compel a big enough part of society. Here is how Arthur Rosenberg understood the development of socialist politics after the failure of the Paris Commune:

“The Berlin workers honoured the memory of the March dead, the barricade fighters who had fallen on March 18, 1848, in the same manner as the Parisian proletarians kept alive the memory of the Commune. Nevertheless the socialist workers of the German Empire had no vital connection with 1848 and consequently the example of that revolution could teach them nothing concerning the present… In France the radical workers were unable to forget that the June struggles of 1848 as well as the suppression of the Commune of 1871 had taken place with the approval of an assembly elected by general suffrage. Napoleon III had employed general suffrage in order to bestow a semblance of popular approval on his shady Empire. In 1867 Bismarck had introduced general suffrage for the Reichstag of the North German Confederation, and in 1871 for the new German Empire. From the point of view of the revolutionary labour movement the results were extremely wretched. The German people continued to present Reich-Chancellor Bismarck with the majorities which he desired. As far as any larger opposition parties existed in the German Reichstag, they represented the interest of the liberal capitalists or of the Catholic petty bourgeoisie. Now general suffrage no longer appeared to be such a menace to the monarchies and the wealthy upper classes...Anyone who judges the historical facts of the nineteenth century objectively must undoubtedly come to the conclusion that the social significance of general suffrage was greatly exaggerated before 1848 and just as greatly underrated afterwards. The temptation to consider general suffrage as something which would automatically work wonders was too great to be resisted. When the miracles failed to materialize, as is easily understood, the entire arrangement fell into discredit. Actually general suffrage cannot work wonders, but can only function within the limits permitted by the social structure existing in a country. If a completely ignorant group of people, unable to read or write, having no understanding of political concepts, and kept in a state of ideological and economic subjection, suddenly receives the franchise, it is incapable of deriving any advantage from it… [Personal Note: when we talk about Russia and managed democracy this bit about Napoleon III will come back to bite us]... General suffrage has just as little value in more developed countries if the government is in a position to falsify the election results at will or to nullify the propaganda of the opposition by means of police suppression. France under Napoleon III furnishes the classic example of such employment of general suffrage… In 1882 Engels considered it unnecessary to demonstrate the historical bond which united his own socialist movement with the democratic past, since there were no longer any social classes anywhere in Europe, with the exception of Russia, which could have been moved by an appeal to the traditions of revolutionary democracy.” (Rosenberg, Democracy and Socialism, pp 219-221, 217.)

So it happened that in 1914 the Russian SDP alone in Europe represented the radical Democratic Marxist position. That is the story we will tell in upcoming podcasts: the story of Lenin the small ‘d’ democrat.


Draper, Hal, and Dan Gallin. The two souls of socialism. Highland Park, MI: International Socialists, 1966.

Israel, Jonathon I. The Enlightenment that Failed. Ideas, Revolution, and Democratic Defeat, 1748–1830, Oxford (Oxford University Press) 2019.

Marik, Soma. Revolutionary Democracy: Emancipation in Classical Marxism. Haymarket Books, 2018.

Ri͡azanov, David Borisovitch. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Vol. 5. Martin Lawrence, 1927.

Rosenberg, Arthur. Democracy and socialism: a contribution to the political history of the past 150 years. New York, Knopf, 1939.

Music by: Harry Koniditsiotis