The Democracy Trap

by Rick Rhoads

Democracy is a word loved by almost everyone. Democracy has come to be equated with capitalism in a marvelous distortion of reality. Most US workers think it means that they live in a system where they have real choices over how their lives are run and who holds power. To capitalists democracy is a word to hide their monopoly on power while workers are led to believe that choosing which capitalist will hold elective office is all the democracy they need.

As Marxists we understand that what class holds power determines in whose interest society is run and that there can only be widespread participation in decision making among members of that class. It is the capitalists who run industries and banks and control the government, a government that is in essence armies, police, jails, courts, and their support apparatus (Marx and Engels referred to it as “special bodies of armed men”). It is not a neutral body arbitrating between competing interests, but state power, a weapon that one class uses to rule over another. Under capitalism, state power is a weapon of the capitalist class to dominate the working class and to fight against competing capitalist classes in other countries. Perhaps after a lengthy period of communism – working class rule – the remnants of the bourgeoisie and their ideas will fade away and then there will no longer be antagonistic classes. But that day is far off. When workers do take power they will have to suppress capitalists and their adherents and their ideas, which have been embedded in us all, in a long post-revolutionary period.

Democracy Under Capitalism

Let’s think about some ways the US capitalists have used democracy lately. Reviewing the sequence of justifications offered by US (and British) politicians for the invasion of Iraq, we might say, “Democracy is the next-to-last refuge of a scoundrel” (the last one being “winning the war on terror”). The Bush administration, Republican and Democratic congressional leaders, and capitalist publications such as the New York Times originally based their support for invading Iraq on the theory that Iraq possessed nuclear, chemical, and/or biological weapons of mass destruction. They also argued that Saddam Hussein’s government had ties to Al Qaeda and to the events of 9/11 and was therefore a threat to collaborate with Al Qaeda in launching further terrorist attacks on the United States.[1]

No weapons of mass destruction turned up in Iraq. And it became increasingly obvious to millions of people in the US and throughout the world that the evidence for their presence and for Iraqi ties to Al Qaeda had been fabricated (like the Tonkin Gulf incidents that were used to justify attacking North Vietnam). But the US capitalist class remained united around the real reasons for the invasion, their need to control Mideast oil rather than have it fall into the hands of their rival imperialists. of Europe, Russia, Japan, and China.[2]  What were they to tell workers, students, and members of the armed forces to distract them from the original lies they had been told and to get them to continue to pay for the war in Iraq, and to fight and die in Iraq?

The Bush Administration, echoed by the usual chorus of Democratic and Republican politicians and capitalist media mouthpieces, launched what has been called a “democracy offensive.” The essence of this new justification for invading and continuing to occupy Iraq contains the following elements:

  • Saddam Hussein was a brutal, corrupt dictator who exploited, oppressed, murdered, and stole from the people of Iraq.[3]
  • Overthrowing Hussein and putting him on trial for mass murder, along with holding a series of elections in Iraq to create a constitution and a democratic government, will bring freedom to the people of Iraq.
  • Democracy in Iraq will be a beacon of change for all Arab and Muslim nations.[4]
  • It is the special mission of the United States of America (and their British junior partners) to help bring the blessings of democracy to people around the world who live under tyranny but long for freedom.

The democracy rationale was, for a time, a big winner for the US ruling class. Millions of Iraqis voted and believed, or at least hoped, that they were on the purple-fingered road to freedom.[5] Many US workers, students, and soldiers who had opposed the invasion and occupation of Iraq—even many who had marched against it—were won, however grudgingly and temporarily, to the idea that the US must stay in Iraq to help defeat the insurgency and strengthen representative government there. Many even bought into the idea that Iraq could become a beacon for democracy through “regime change” in other dictatorial Mideast countries such as Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

It is not surprising that the US ruling class fell back on democracy to cover their power play for continued, and expanded, control of Mideast oil. Fighting and dying for oil and profits is not popular. Democracy is popular. Throughout the world, the great majority of people, including those who consider themselves leftists or even communists, have positive feelings about this popular term. They associate democracy with “freedom,” “self-government,” “civil rights,” and “civil liberties.” They think democracy is the opposite of “dictatorship,” “tyranny,” “fascism,” “totalitarianism.” Anti-communists would include communism on that list of evils. Fighters in the US civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s thought that winning the right to vote was critical to defeating racism. Before that, the international movement for women’s suffrage (which in the US culminated in 1920 with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, forbidding gender-based discrimination in voting) thought that the right to vote was critical to defeating discrimination against women.

When the results of their victories fail to produce the gains they had hoped for, reformers and “left” commentators tend to blame subversion of democracy or imperfections in democracy. A perennial favorite in the US is campaign finance reform. The idea is that if only getting elected did not require big money from private donors it would be more likely that democratic governments would actually govern on behalf of working people. There’s also criticism of the way votes are counted, particularly after the debacle of the 2002 presidential election, where a recount in Florida was stopped by the US Supreme Court. The idea here is that if only the election had been fair, Gore would have beaten Bush and everything would have been much better for working people. That control of Mideast oil has been a central strategy of all representatives of the US capitalist class, Democrat and Republican, for decades, is forgotten, along with the bombing of Bosnia, cuts in welfare, and other attacks on the working class under Clinton.

Similarly, when Salvador Allende, the elected president of Chile, was overthrown and murdered by a military coup in 1973, the horrors subsequently suffered by the workers in Chile were correctly attributed to the fascist Pinochet regime and its backer, the US government. But the liberals and revisionists (fake Marxists) stated or implied that the solution was a return to democracy in Chile rather than a communist revolution there.[6]  In other words, democracy must be perfected, not smashed.

Where Democracy Began

As many of us were taught in school, democracy was first practiced in the ancient Greek city-state of Athens. Athenian democracy existed on and off from the 5th through the 3rd Centuries BC. The word “democracy” was created by combining demos (“people”) with kratos (“force” or “power”). These days, advocates of democracy like to define it as “rule by the people,” but the ancient Athenians did not shy away from acknowledging that naked force was the key to rule. How could they? Ancient Athens was a society in which production was based on slavery. Only adult male citizens who had completed military training got to vote. Almost all population estimates conclude that slaves outnumbered citizens and their families. (“Resident aliens” formed another large segment of the population.) The two most critical tasks of Athenian democracy were

  1. Keep the slaves captive and working. Suppress slave rebellions.
  2. Make war when necessary or useful against other Greek city-states.

To oversimplify, forms of government known as “oligarchy” and “tyranny” preceded (and often replaced) democracy. Oligarchy was rule by a group of nobles. Tyranny was rule by one man, what is now commonly known as a dictatorship.

The problem with oligarchy and tyranny was that when a significant section of the slave-owning class that was not part of the oligarchy or not in with the tyrant wanted to change things based on their particular economic interests, they had no voice in government. Their only choice was armed insurrection to overthrow the government and set up their own government. If they in turn created an oligarchy or appointed a tyrant, they could expect to eventually suffer the same fate. With constant warfare among the city-states, armed struggle within a ruling class could seriously weaken it relative to its enemies (or relative to its allies within the constantly evolving alliances of city-states that fought other alliances).                  

Democracy, where differences within a ruling class could be settled (at least most of the time) by votes in representative bodies and by legal battles in courts, seemed like a good alternative. Under democracy, a third central task of government became

3. Resolve conflicts within the ruling class without resorting to civil war, armed insurrection, or assassination.

A fourth wonderful feature of Athenian democracy — for the elite among the slave-owning class — was that it appealed to the thousands of adult male citizens who were not super-wealthy. Democracy could

4. Mobilize citizens to fight not only out of allegiance to their city-state (similar to modern patriotism) but also because they believed they were defending a system that granted them “rights” and made them “free.”

Democracy proved to be a good system of government for the Athenian ruling class for most of two centuries. During their democratic periods they achieved notable commercial and military successes, including victories against the Persian Empire and a league of city-states led by their arch rival, Sparta. The Spartans later allied with the Persians and crushed the first Athenian Empire, bringing its democracy to an end.

Democracy Under Feudalism

A similar story can be told about the rise of modern, capitalist democracy (AKA “bourgeois democracy” or, in common use, just plain “democracy”). As we also learned in school, ancient slave societies were replaced by feudal societies. After centuries of rule by feudal lords, advances in production led to increased trade and the beginnings of a capitalist class and a proletarian (working) class, classes not tied to the feudal system. To again oversimplify, the capitalist classes (we are talking here mainly about Europe, where capitalism first flowered) fought against dictatorships of feudal lords and/or kings for political power.

The emerging capitalist classes knew that they needed a form of government that protected private property rights. A capitalist would not want to invest in a factory, for example, unless he knew that he would be able to benefit from that factory’s production without fear that the factory could be arbitrarily taken away from him, or that the king could suddenly demand a piece of the profits or grant an exclusive license for that product to a competitor.[7] The capitalists looked back at ancient Athenian democracy and saw a system that could work well for them, for the same four reasons it worked well for the Athenian ruling class, with a little modification to numbers 1, 2, and 4.

  1. Keep the wage-slaves working. Suppress strikes or rebellions by wage-slaves or peasants.
  2. Make war when necessary or useful against capitalist classes of other nations.
  3. Resolve conflicts within the ruling class without resorting to civil war, armed insurrection, or assassination.
  4. Mobilize workers and peasants to fight against feudal lords and against kings for “rights,” “freedom,” “liberty,” even “equality,” under the leadership of the capitalists, whose real goal was to take power and exploit the workers.

Number 4 should logically be at the top of the list: mobilizing the workers and peasants to fight for bourgeois revolution was the necessary precursor to a government that could carry out numbers 1, 2, and 3.

Working Class Vs Bourgeois Freedom 

The origin of bourgeois democracy in the fight against the restrictions of feudalism and monarchy accounts for the negative way that freedom tends to be defined in capitalist society. Freedom, or “liberty,” tends to be thought of as not being subject to governmental control, as in being “left alone” to, to use the 1960s phrase, “do your own thing.” Marxists view freedom differently. For workers, “freedom is the consciousness of necessity.”[8] What’s necessary for the working class? To work together to overthrow capitalist exploitation and build communist society. Not to be “left alone,” but to cooperate to achieve a common goal. To achieve fulfillment and satisfaction through working together for the common good.

Once capitalist power was established, number 4 became 4a. Mobilize citizens to fight not only out of allegiance to country but also because they believe they are defending a system that grants them “rights” and makes them “free.” “4a” is used to win workers to fight against workers in other countries (as in the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) and also to divide the working class domestically. For example, in the US over the past two and a quarter centuries workers have been mobilized to “defend” their “rights” and “freedom” in the following ways, among others:

  • “free” labor vs. slave
  • white vs. native American
  • male vs. female (voting, etc.)
  • white vs. black
  • white vs. asian
  • white vs. Hispanic
  • all of the above against each other
  • native-born vs. immigrant
  • citizens vs. “illegal aliens”

Just as workers are won to fight their fellow workers in other countries through the intersection of patriotism and democracy, workers are won to fight their fellow workers to “defend their rights and freedoms” domestically through the intersection of racism and democracy. In the US, a variety of nationalisms (black, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Salvadorian, Haitian, Dominican, Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, among others), ethnicities (black, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American, et. al.), and religious affiliations (Jewish, Islamic, Catholic, Evangelical Christian, and so on) are thrown in to add fuel to the fire.

Another common position among many US left/liberal advocates of democracy is that historically the US has been a beacon of true democracy/liberty/freedom for the world, but now (whenever now is) the country is betraying its heritage and acting (or appearing to act) tyrannical, oppressive, and exploitative. The solution, therefore, is for the US to “return” to its true democratic roots and principals. This notion negates the actual history of the US (and a similar story could be told for England, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Mexico, India, Israel, and every other democratic country). The democratic US government presided over slavery, Jim Crow racism, and de facto racism. It conducted genocide against Native Americans and refuses to compensate them for centuries of super-exploitation and oppression. It has always and to this day backed whatever dictators around the world supported its foreign policy (i.e., allowed its workers, markets, and resources to be exploited by US capitalism).

On a more fundamental level, this notion contradicts the true nature of state power. To reiterate, government, which is most essentially armies, police, jails, courts, and their support apparatus, is not a neutral body arbitrating between competing interests. Government, or more precisely state power, is a weapon that one class uses to rule over another. Under capitalism, state power is a weapon of the capitalist class to dominate the working class, and to fight against competing capitalist classes in other countries. “True democracy” in the modern era is and always has been capitalist class dictatorship.

At some level, workers grasp that so-called capitalist democracy is not the solution. Within almost all capitalist countries, there is a party (or several) that supposedly represents the interests of the working class, such as the Democratic Party in the USA or the Labour Party in the UK. And in every country workers are the majority of the population. So why doesn’t the “workers’ party” win every election? Because they party cannot deliver what it promises. Capitalism is based on exploiting workers to maximize profits, on competing with other capitalists, and on, ultimately, war against other capitalists. The workers figure out that “their” party has broken its promises, and enough workers swing over to the other party to elect them. Once shafted by the other party, they swing back. And so on. The 2 (or more) party system works well for capitalism, until communists win the workers to destroy it.

As the contradictions sharpen between competing imperialist powers, some capitalists see the need to make democracy work better through such measures (in the US) as campaign finance reform, registering more people to vote, eliminating “pork-barrel” projects in spending bills, and so on. These are the capitalists that understand that their class must be disciplined to subordinate individual profit (and graft and theft) to the good of US imperialism as a whole. These capitalists also understand the critical need to win the working class to support US imperialism by making the system appear fairer.

These elements of the capitalist class want to perfect democracy to prolong capitalist rule. A communist party’s goal is to destroy capitalist rule and establish the dictatorship of the working class, AKA the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The chief goals of a society run by the dictatorship of the proletariat will be

  • Unite all the workers of the world against all capitalists.
  • Eliminate capitalist production, capitalist culture, the capitalist way of life.
  • Eliminate nations, borders, and separations based on “race,” patriotism, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation.
  • Production based on need, not profit.
  • Everybody does mental and manual labor.

Within workers’ local clubs and leadership bodies, there would be discussion and arrival at a consensus as to what to do. If it doesn’t work out as planned, the next step is analysis about why and making adjustments accordingly. Within this method of operation, decisions of higher bodies (central committees, city committees, for example) are binding on lower bodies (clubs for example). That way the whole party can act in concert to fight for communism, and the results can be analyzed scientifically. If different groups in the party acted along different lines, it would be impossible to scientifically evaluate the results. Did the effort fail because the line was wrong, or because some comrades pulled in a different direction? Decisions are not made based on a constitution, on laws, or on sacred texts, but by actively working with other members and with supportive workers to figure out real solutions to real problems, in real time.

This method of operation will be continued under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Could it lead to corrupt leaders who look out for themselves instead of the working class? Yes. People trained by capitalism to be selfish — in other words, everybody — have the potential to become corrupt. But any other approach to leading society is guaranteed to produce corruption.

Look at the Soviet Union, Eastern European, Chinese, and Cuban experience. In their efforts to build socialist society, communist parties created governments similar in form to capitalist democracies. They had constitutions, parliaments, courts, ministries, which of course necessitated having hordes of politicians, judges, lawyers and support staff. They went through the pretense of holding elections, although it was a foregone conclusion that representatives of the communist party would win (just as it is a foregone conclusion in capitalist countries that representatives of the capitalist class will win). These trappings of capitalism helped lead to the full-blown restoration of capitalism.

In 1902, in What Is to Be Done? Lenin described the communist method of leadership as “democratic centralism.” “Democratic,” he wrote, referred to seeking out the views of all members of the party (and through them of the base of the party). “Centralism” referred to the necessity of acting in concert, around one line, to achieve socialist revolution. Once the collective leadership of the party determined a line, policy, strategy, or tactic, it was the obligation of all leaders and members of the party to carry it out, whether they agreed or not.

Lenin described democratic centralism as a necessity imposed upon the Bolshevik party because it was operating under the oppressive tsarist regime. He said they could not afford the luxury of endless debate when they were constantly trying to stay one step ahead of the tsar’s secret police. The implication was that democratic centralism was a tactic that might not be necessary in a “democratic” capitalist country and would surely not be necessary once there was no longer a class enemy and communism had been achieved.

However, in a communist society, regardless of whether we are operating under a fascist dictatorship or a democratic dictatorship, or even a proletarian dictatorship, we want to

  • Determine what needs to be done in the class struggle and (after the workers take power) in production, based on scientific analysis of the real world.
  • Unite (centralism) to do it.
  • Analyze the results of our efforts critically and self-critically; make whatever changes seem to be required.
  • Continue this process forever, even in fully developed communist society.

In other words,  “democratic centralism” describes a communist party’s process for making decisions, now and in the future. “Democratic” in this case refers to collectively applying dialectical materialism to analyze actual problems and arrive at solutions. Perhaps it would be better to call it “communist centralism.”

The success of democratic centralism, and all other aspects of leading the international working class to power and building communism, depends on involving more and more workers, students, soldiers, and other in actively fighting for communist revolution. As the revolutionary anthem, The Internationale, says, “The working class shall be the human race.” Ultimately, membership in the human race will involve being an active participant in the democratic centralist—or communist centralist—process: working with one’s comrades to figure out what to do, and doing it.


[1] As the war went badly for the US, and no weapons of mass destruction were found, many Democratic politicians and many publications such as the New York Times denounced Bush for having put these theories forward, even though they agreed with them at the time. Bush still says, “We must fight the terrorists in Iraq or we will have to fight them here [in the US].”

2 Thus Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, while criticizing Bush’s handling of the war, called for achieving victory in Iraq, which he said could be accomplished by, among other things, sending more troops.

3True. Of course, US support for this brutal dictator when Iraq was at war with Iran was conveniently forgotten, as was the US’s long history of support for brutal dictatorships around the world (Franco, Salazar, South Africa’s Apartheid Regime, Batista, Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier, Somoza, Pinochet, the Shah of Iran, Mobutu, Idi Amin, Samuel Doe, to name but a few). Also avoided was any reference to current US support for brutal, corrupt dictatorships that cooperate with US objectives, such as those in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan.

4 T his is propaganda, but not just propaganda. There is some reality to the US policy of promoting democracy in Arab and Muslim countries, particularly those with oil. Why? Because many of these dictatorships face tremendous popular opposition, and at the moment, Al Qaeda and other Muslim fundamentalists are the forces most likely to take power from them. The Saudi Royal Family, which controls the largest oil reserves on the planet, is on particularly shaky political ground, and Al Qaeda’s primary goal is to take power in Saudi Arabia. That would be a disaster for US imperialism, as an Al Qaeda regime would likely develop petroleum partnerships with the EU, Japan, and China and/or demand a bigger cut from the US. The US wants to cultivate secular, pro-US political leaders in these countries who could take over, instead of anti-US Islamic fundamentalists, when and if the pro-US brutal corrupt dictators lose their grip.

5To show that they had voted and to prevent them from voting again, Iraqi’s index fingers were dipped in purple ink.

6 Allende was overthrown relatively easily because he tried to ally with the Chilean army rather than arm the working class. He was afraid to rely on armed workers, because his “socialist” program was one of liberal reforms and continued exploitation and oppression of workers by the capitalist class.

7The capitalists also wanted to abolish fiefdoms, which enabled each feudal lord to impose taxes and restrictions on any goods moving across their boarders. Instead of dozens or hundreds of fiefdoms, they wanted a free-trade zone consisting of an entire nation state, with uniform currency, taxes, and laws (and the ability to compete via tariffs, trade rules, and war with other such nation states). Therefore, the fight for democracy went hand-in-hand with the development of patriotism.

8 An enlightening essay on the difference between the capitalist and communist views of freedom is in Christopher Caudwell’s Studies and Further Studies in a Dying Culture.

Rick Rhoads is a member of the Progressive Labor Party

One thought on “The Democracy Trap”

  1. The word “democracy” was created by combining demos (“people”) with kratos (“force” or “power”). These days, advocates of democracy like to define it as “rule by the people,” –Rule by the people means the vast majority must make the decisions that affect their society.
    Yet the structure described is a top-down staus hierarchy of decision making.–You state:
    Within workers’ local clubs and leadership bodies, there would be discussion and arrival at a consensus as to what to do. If it doesn’t work out as planned, the next step is analysis about why and making adjustments accordingly. Within this method of operation, decisions of higher bodies (central committees, city committees, for example) are binding on lower bodies..
    What exactly is the consensus? Is it the majority, most, all? How is consensus arrived at? How is it exactly registered? How does the party know? Is there a show of hands, voting, what? In practice, there is no decision-making by the rank and file members of the organization. It is participatory centralism from on high. Decisions of higher bodies are binding on lower bodies. This is the form of hierarchy and decision-making under corporate capitalism and all previous non-egalitarian societies. This is not worker’s control. Social status hierarchies with centralized decision making–chiefdoms, and states. The resulting positions of leadership “open the door for a plethora of injustices and cruelties that come with warfare, slavery, and other types of exploitation by unchecked power-wielders.
    As you state this will
    — have the potential to become corrupt. Top-down hierarchy always leads to corruption and domination. It is guaranteed to produce corruption.
    Lenin said “seeking the views of all” but he did not say to be decided by all-by the rank and file members, by the working class masses. All previous societies or organizations that have a hierarchical social structure have resulted in a plethora of evils, corruption, domination oppression, etc. Why would this group be any different? This structure favors the rise of those who wish to dominate which is part of human nature. It is in form and practice, a reproduction of the hierarchy of all previous non-egalitarian societies which guarantee corruption and domination by “leaders”.
    Many philosophers, economists, and scientists from Karl Marx to Stephen J. Gould have agreed that human nature is determined in a specific social and historical formation as well as being in part biological. This fact has too often been neglected or given insufficient attention. The human brain, transmitted through evolution, is the biological basis for human nature:
    S. J. Gould states–“But the center of human nature is rooted in ten thousand ordinary acts of kindness that define our days. What can be more tragic than the structural paradox that this Everest of geniality stands upside down on its pointed summit and can be toppled so easily by rare events contrary to our everyday nature—and that these rare events make our history.”
    Discouraging, limiting, restraining, and punishing tendencies of the dark side of human nature require the use of force and militant egalitarianism, a society of economic, political; and social equality. Through eternal vigilance and control by the rank and file, equality can flourish, while the dark side of human nature is kept in check. Nayvin


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