Marxian Perspectives on Democracy
28 February 2007
How Karl Marx’s account of democratic politics, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, is potentially defining for our view of dictatorship today.
Democracy is a movement against authoritarian, non-constitutional states in which power is held by an individual with a family in the background, or sometimes by families or associates foregrounding individuals. Either way, democracy was a revolutionary doctrine and practice directed at widening the circles of power, regularizing the rule of law, subjecting rulers to the laws they make, and enforcing an accountability of rulers to ruled.
Once established, however, the situation is the other way around, and dictatorship is then a kind of revolutionary activity to expunge, or at least severely curtail, democratic practice. Sometimes, of course, this can be a blow that arrives from the outside, usually through foreign intervention or conquest. More often, though, dictatorship arrives from within, and the coup is one that occurs with the support, or indeed the connivance, of politicians who were themselves supposed to be parliamentary democrats. Typically these forces are identified as ‘far right’ or ‘reactionary’ or (as in the Eighteenth Brumaire) royalist in an extra-constitutional sense.
Theories that modern democracies legitimated by popular sovereignty and universal suffrage have some supposed inherent tendency towards military rule and plebiscitary dictatorship (as opposed to ‘moderated’ republican regimes) were not Marx’s concern in the Eighteenth Brumaire. Rather Marx supported radical popular sovereignty extended from the usual political spheres into the economic realms of consumption and production, both in terms of control of resources and in terms of decision-making practices. His support for ‘bourgeois’ democracy as a revolutionary anti-authoritarian movement was fervent but qualified by his perspective on class politics in commercial societies.
Marx supported radical popular sovereignty extended from the usual political spheres into the economic realms of consumption and production
Marx’s perspective on the inclusiveness of democracy both in terms of people and issues, and on the exclusiveness of wealthy and privileged parliamentary politicians, provides an explanation for the success of Louis Bonaparte’s coup of 10 December 1851. Parliamentary democrats made it easy for him by reneging on the democratic idea of universal (male) suffrage and by gearing the state to the politics of their class.
Marx’s analysis has the advantage of delving further into the economic interests of these anti-democratic forces than is often the case in contemporary media reporting. This goes back to his fundamental vocation within the democratic movement, which was to get economic issues accepted at the top of the agenda for democratic movements and elected governments, as opposed to the idea that democratic politics simply leaves economic issues to the ‘free market’. He made this work both ways: he pushed to get the economically deprived masses involved in political struggle, and he wrote about what the economically privileged actually did in contemporary politics when they had power. To do the latter he did more than merely trace out their economic interests in terms of class and class-fractions; he also explored the vagaries of their collective mindsets and individual minds, using an untidy vocabulary of concepts and a repertoire of intuitions.
Marx's fundamental vocation within the democratic movement was to get economic issues accepted at the top of the agenda for democratic movements and elected governments
The virtue of contextualizing Marx’s simplifications politically within the Eighteenth Brumaire, and therefore of taking the fine detail of his narrative extremely seriously, is that it illuminates the class dynamics of democracy. It does this not merely by stripping away romantic delusions, say of royalism, but by tracing the devious strategies employed by monied interests in rendering democracy impotent with respect to the interests of the poor and powerless, and yet appearing to defend democracy as if these monied interests had the interests of poorer people at heart.
As Marx tells the tale, the ‘party of order’ wanted a strong executive to work on their behalf to defend their ownership of the means of production as a sacred form of private property, and to defend their anti-democratic programme of limiting the franchise and securing elite rule. Louis Bonaparte outmanoeuvered them by appealing over their heads to baser emotions (e.g. his foreign adventures, such as the expedition to Rome) and to higher ones (e.g. his appeal for the restoration of universal manhood suffrage, which the national assembly itself had curtailed).
The interaction of class politics, as played out by the wealthy within the political institutions of representative democracy, involves a flirtation with dictatorship
Marx had no difficulty in linking Louis Bonaparte to a very inactive class indeed – the peasantry. After all, they only needed to vote, and with that there is a lesson. While there are no dictatorial coups without demagoguery, these characteristically do not take place without subversion from within, and Marx put his finger on just the right place to look – a conjunction between rich and powerful economic interests and influential and determined parliamentary politicians. My point in this paper has been to draw attention to how the ‘circumstances and relationships’ in bourgeois class politics prepared the way for dictatorship within democratic institutions (and, in passing, to note how little proletarian politics occupied Marx in this work).
This is a chilling vision, a testament to Marx’s commitment to democracy (even in a bourgeois guise), and a warning. The warning is that the interaction of class politics, as played out by the wealthy within the political institutions of representative democracy, involves a flirtation with dictatorship. Democratic institutions are but imperfectly protected from this kind of class struggle, office holders can be corrupted into betraying democratic practice, and the electorate can be fooled about the democratic credentials of its leaders. It does not take a great man (or woman) to be a dictator. Caveat civis.