Why Today’s Attack on Democracy Matters

Peter Hudis

This article is taken from an oral presentation made to one of a series of public discussions the International Marxist-Humanist Organization in Chicago is currently holding on “Where Do We Go from Here? Taking Stock of the Present Moment,” on February 28, 2022. ⁠— Editors


No one can doubt today that political democracy is under attack worldwide. We see it in the far-right’s carefully planned and orchestrated efforts to severely limit voting rights in the U.S., the rise of authoritarian regimes in Brazil, Hungary, Poland, Turkey and India, as well as the increasingly repressive policies pursued by Xi Jinping in China. But the foremost expression of the attack on democracy at the present moment is Putin’s imperialist invasion of Ukraine.

Ukraine is hardly a true or ideal democracy; though the same can be said of just about every bourgeois democracy on this planet. But neither it is an authoritarian or neo-fascist state — which is more than can said of Putin’s Russia, which has become exactly that. Which is why so much of the neo-fascist right in US, Brazil, France, Hungary, etc. adores Putin and endorses, in one way or another, his effort to conquer Ukraine. One would not know this, of course, from those who repeat or mimic Putin’s assertions, without even a minimal effort to check the facts for themselves, that “fascists” and “neo-Nazis” have been running Ukraine since 2014. This is, of course, a Big Lie: Ukraine has had conservative governments since then, but no more conservative (and in most respects less so) than those in Poland, Hungary, or even Italy. Only 2.5% of Ukrainians voted for far-right or neo-fascist parties in the last national elections.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has many ramifications, not all of which can be covered in this article. This much I wish to single out for about the war as of now:

There is no question that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is part of an effort to restore the power and prestige that Russia lost with the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Of course, he cares nothing for the ideology or policies of the old USSR—he is a virulent anti-Communist. But like his Stalinist forebearers, he is what Lenin called “a great Russian chauvinist.” If there is any doubt about this, look at his comments justifying the invasion on Feb. 24: he referred to the collapse of the USSR as “the collapse of historical Russia.” Everyone knows that 60% of the populace of the USSR was not Russian — so what did he mean by this? He meant that the collapse of the USSR represented a setback for Russian nationalist imperial domination. This he is now determined to reverse. And since that is his ambition, he will not stop at bringing Ukraine under his heel: Putin already effectively occupied Belarus, thanks to Lukashenko’s decision to become his poodle after he was threatened with a massive pro-democracy movement last year that brought hundreds of thousands, spearheaded by the Belarusian working class, into the streets calling for the end of his dictatorship. That Russian troops are now permanently stationed in Belarus means that Russia now has a common border with Lithuania — excepting the longstanding Kaliningrad enclave  — for the first time since 1939 (when the Hitler-Stalin Pact handed over Lithuania to the USSR). Russia’s sharing of a border with Lithuania is of huge importance since it means that Putin’s army is only a short distance from the Kaliningrad Corridor, which is separated from Russia by Lithuania.

While Putin’s imperialist ambitions are no secret, let’s not forget that what motivates him most of all is hatred of democracy—especially the movement for democracy in Ukraine, which forced his authoritarian lackey, Yanukovych, from power in 2014. He was terrified at the time that the democracy movement in Ukraine that forced Yanukovych from power would spread to Russia (large pro-democracy protests occurred in Russia as well at the time), which is why he has worked to undermine the Ukrainian government ever since. Since, like all rulers, what he fears most is a revolt against him by his own people, it should be obvious that Putin would be seeking to destroy Ukraine’s limited and half-hearted democracy even if the U.S. and NATO didn’t exist.

If Putin’s aim in invading Ukraine was to weaken NATO, he clearly hasn’t succeeded: it has had the opposite effect of uniting the European powers with the U.S. The EU countries are now increasing their military spending well beyond the 2% of GDP the U.S. has been fruitlessly urging them to do for years—something that would have been unthinkable a few months ago. And public opinion in Europe has swung solidly behind Ukraine, with rallies of up to 500,000 in Berlin and elsewhere. If you support NATO and wish for its expansion — which I certainly do not — then you have no one to blame more for its impending consolidation and empowerment than Putin himself.

Of course, the U.S. and NATO bear a great deal of responsibility for the current war against Ukraine. The U.S.’s decision to respond to the collapse of the USSR by not only maintaining NATO but expanding it to the borders of Russia has to be one of the most arrogant and disastrous decisions in modern history. It played right into the hands of the Russian reactionary nationalists who viewed it for what it was — an effort to prevent Russia from ever again becoming a major power; the U.S.’s offer in 2008 to offer future NATO membership to Ukraine sent the same message. You may recall that after the collapse of the USSR, even major figures in the US foreign policy establishment argued that NATO should be dismantled; George Kennan, the intellectual architect of the Cold War, argued at the time that NATO had become pointless since that Yeltsin’s Russia had become a veritable ally. Marxist-Humanists argued at the time (that is, the early 1990s — full disclosure: I wrote some of these analyses) that while it makes sense in the abstract for NATO to be abolished, the U.S. will not allow it, since what governs it is a drive for single world domination that hardly comes to an end just because its main opponent has cried uncle. I hate to say it, but our prognosis was proven correct. Imperialism is not some conspiracy on the part of greedy individuals: it is the expression of the drive of capitalist states to secure as great a share of global capital accumulation as possible. So long as there is capitalism there will be imperialism, whether it has a U.S., European, Russian, or Chinese expression.

As Marxist-Humanists, we take no sides in intra-imperialist conflicts: we denounce Russia and the U.S.-NATO with equal fervor; instead, we extend solidarity to its victims. And the victims in this case are the Ukrainian people — who, contrary to Putin’s expectations, are putting up a solid fight in defense of their right to national self-determination. This we unreservedly support. National self-determination is an integral principle of revolutionary Marxism and Marxist-Humanism: we oppose all state powers and political tendencies that stand in its way. That does not mean that movements for national liberation are ends-in-themselves or free of contradictions: there has never been a nationalist movement, either in this country or in any other one, that has not contained bourgeois and regressive tendencies — and in some instances imposed discriminatory practices against other groupings or nationalities within its borders (stating that fact is of course no excuse for them). But those contradictions can only be faced, fought out, and resolved through open and ongoing democratic discussion and debate — which Putin, along with a slew of other rulers around the world and the Republican Party in the U.S., is seeking to destroy.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine is part and parcel of a worldwide attack on democracy — one that is more deeply-rooted in the U.S. than anywhere at the present moment. As Kevin Anderson notes in his article “The January 6 Insurrection: Historical and Global Contexts,” “The Trumpist Republican Party may be both more powerful within its own country — except for the case of Orban in Hungary — and even further to the right than most of its international counterparts. Shockingly, Trumpism can be seen as further to the right even when one compares it not to mainstream conservatives but to far-right parties in Europe …These various political tendencies, especially in Europe, tend to view Putin’s Russia as a bulwark against LGBTQ rights, as a bastion of Islamophobia, and sometimes as an attractive example of authoritarian nationalist politics.” And we know that Trump is extremely fond of Putin.



Of course, it is the attack on democracy in the U.S. that has to be at the forefront of attention. And we are facing a most perilous moment, since democracy has never been in greater peril in this country than it is today.

Whatever differences may exist between individual members of the Republican Party, all of them, without exception, want to eliminate what remains of the very limited and corrupt democracy that we still have in the U.S. Most Republicans do so openly — by making it harder than ever for workers and people of color to vote, to ban the teaching of racism and sexism from classrooms, and to support outright insurrection, as on January 6, 2021, to reverse a democratic election. They are clearly willing to utilize extreme violence to promote their goals — as their total support for Trump shows. Some others (such as Mitch McConnell) share the same hatred of democracy (as seen in his endorsement of the effort to restrict voting rights and completely control judicial appointments), though they still prefer (for now) to do so through “normal” legal channels. But let’s not forget that Hitler’s destruction of German democracy was also achieved by legal means (by the way, over half of the attendees at the infamous Wannsee Conference of February 1942 that planned out the Holocaust were lawyers). Nor is this attack on democracy limited to Republicans, as seen in corporate democrats from Manchin and Sinema in the Senate and Laurie Lightfoot and Eric Adams in Chicago and New York, who are doing whatever they can to undermine democratic movements calling for defunding police and prison abolition.

What is most disturbing about all of this, at least to me, that the Right is out-organizing the Left. The far-right has a clearly thought-out plan to subvert future elections — down to the level of running their own candidates for such often-ignored positions as poll watchers and ballot counters. And what have Biden and his allies done in response? Nothing. They couldn’t even get a relatively modest voting rights bill through Congress. But that’s not what most disturbs me, since what else does one expect from corporate Democrats? Have they ever shown themselves to be the bearers of the democracy that they so readily proclaim is needed for countries overseas? Hardly. What really worries me is the relative silence in recent months from many progressives and those to the left of the Democratic Party. Where are the protests, sit-ins, and campaigns seeking to reverse the attack on voting rights? Why were there hardly any counter-protests on the left during the anniversary of the January 6 insurrection? Why hasn’t a grassroots movement yet arisen to counter the attack on political democracy, less than two years after this country experienced the largest series of protests in its history against racism and police brutality?

I will return to these questions, but for now, I’d like to spell out some basic principles that need to be kept in mind in discussing today’s attack on democracy:

First, it is vital not to confuse liberalism with liberal (or bourgeois) democracy — the two are not the same. Political democracy has many names — some refer to it as liberal democracy (I prefer the term bourgeois democracy). But all three mean the same thing. Marx and the greatest Marxists consistently defended liberal democracy (knowing full well its limitations) even as they attacked liberals for betraying it (as they did during the 1848 European Revolutions and in dozens of occasions since then). Of course, nothing stops revolutionary Marxists from temporarily uniting with liberals on behalf of a particular cause or campaign; many of us have often done so in working with liberals to oppose attacks on abortion clinics, opposing wars, supporting civil rights, etc. But we do so by not hiding our organizational affiliation or refraining from publicly expressing our own distinct political and philosophical standpoint.

Second, even the best form of political, liberal, or bourgeois democracy is inherently limited and incomplete, since none reach true democracy — which entails democratizing the economic sphere of social production and reproduction. The rights accorded to individuals by political democracy do not apply to the workplace: there, the despotic plan of capital presides. Nor does it apply to policing, prisons, the mental health system, the military, and other components of the state. True democracy entails the transcendence of political, liberal, or bourgeois democracy — since they are incapable of resolving by itself the problems of racism, sexism, and class domination. But transcendence — the German word is Aufheben — involves at one and the same time a negation and a preservation. And it is not possible to overcome racism, sexism, and class domination without thoroughgoing political democracy. You can make all the changes in the economic or social system that you want, but there will not be new society if people are denied freedom of expression, thought, and association. Socialism does not subvert democracy; it extends democracy beyond its limits in capitalism. Where that is missing, you don’t have socialism, but state-capitalism, regardless of what other names are attached to the regime.

Third, some countries have more political, liberal, or bourgeois democracy than others. The U.S. has one of the weakest democracies of any Western country: we have an unelected Supreme Court that can strike down legislation at will, small and rural states have greater representation in Congress than populous ones, and we don’t directly elect the President. But even a limited political, liberal, or bourgeois democracy is better than none: if you have any doubts about that, try agitating for women’s rights, independent unions, or police and prison abolition in places like China, Myanmar, Cambodia, Belarus, North Korea or Eritrea and see how far you get.

Fourth, political democracy is not a gift created by and/or handed down from the bourgeoisie to fool the masses. On the contrary, it is a product of the self-activity of the masses — indeed, the poorest and most downtrodden among them. This is the central point that Raya Dunayevskaya hammers away at in the first chapter of Marxism and Freedom — please note that its subtitle is “From 1776 Until Today.” She writes, “It is a popular pastime of liberal historians to say that [the French Revolution] of 1789, which brought the middle class into power, was a ‘child of 18th century [Enlightenment] philosophy’” (p. 28). She rejects this claim, arguing that even though the sans culottes (the most disenfranchised part of the working populace) “had no theory of direct democracy,” they sought to implement it “by infusing the old institutions, such as the Commune, with a new content.” They brought the idea of radical democracy to life by “transforming the electoral assemblies” — which were “indirect, cumbersome, and abstract representations of parliamentary democracy” — into “genuine assemblies of deliberation and action.”

Their idea of radical democracy was not given to them by philosophers; as she puts it, “There is nothing in thought — not even in the thought of a genius — that has not previously been in the activity of the common person.” Marx picked up this idea of radical or true democracy thr came from below, coupled it with the critique of political economy (which was not within the horizon of the revolutionaries of 1789) and called it “communism.” Dunayevskaya concludes, “To Robespierre, Reason was the ‘Supreme Being.’ But Reason…lived among the masses.” Here we have a distinctive concept of Marxist-Humanism — “Masses not just as force but as Reason.” For Marx, the embodiment of that Reason was the revolutionary proletariat. Marxist-Humanism, based on its consideration of 20th century realities and the way class relations in the U.S. have been shaped by racial considerations since its inception, extended this to “Women as Reason and not just force of Revolution” and the “Black masses in struggle against racism as vanguard” of freedom struggles in the U.S.

Fifth, the reason for the global attack on democracy is that ruling elites have lost confidence in the ability of their social, political, and economic systems to satisfy the demands of masses of people and therefore want to protect their power and privilege by shutting down the ability of these masses to have democratic input in deciding their future. They are doing so with enormous intelligence and cleverness (much as one is tempted to make fun of the idiocies of Trump and Bolsonaro), since they have found a way to obtain mass support for their anti-democratic and racist and sexist agenda. These are not people wandering in the dark without a clear idea of their goal and how to reach it. The question that faces us is: can we say the same about ourselves?



As part of grappling with these and related questions, we need to turn back to history — both to actual history and the history of thought.

Kevin Anderson’s essay (which I quoted from above) contains an observation that is worth noting. “While the [Jan. 6, 2021] insurrection can be regarded as an expression of neofascism, the attack also has roots in those defenders of slavery who tried to storm the Capitol a century and a half ago in an attempt to thwart Lincoln’s election… In this sense, Jan. 6, 2021 exhibited deep continuities with 150 years and more of U.S. history, that is, of white, especially southern white, resistance to any form of empowerment of people of color. This kind of resistance waxed violent over Lincoln’s very limited opposition to slavery in 1860-61; it did so in the early twentieth century in order to relegate Blacks to second-class citizenship; it did so with the mob violence against racial integration in the 1950s and 1960s. And, I would argue, this form of resistance emerged again on January 6, 2021 in opposition to the election of Joe Biden, whose victory was due to substantial support from Blacks, Latinx, Asians, and Native Americans.”

It has often been said that fascism is the relation of boss to worker extended to the whole of society. I would broaden that to say that fascism is the racialized relation of boss to worker extended to the whole of society. The lie that American “democracy” is the ne plus ultra of human experience is nowhere more starkly revealed than in race-based slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, legalized segregation, and most of all, the police and prison system. All fascist and neo-fascist movements are deeply implicated in racism, since racism is the ultimate form of dehumanization that the misanthropes of the Right consider the “natural order” of things.

But it by no means follows from this that the defense of political, liberal, or bourgeois democracy is irrelevant to the fight against racial injustice. The very opposite is the case—as is proven by the history of Black freedom struggles in the U.S. The struggle against slavery forced U.S. capitalism to agree to the passage of the 13th and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution that abolished slavery and extended citizenship to African Americans. Both are integral to the democratic liberties we enjoy today (let’s not forget that birthright citizenship as well as same-sex marriage obtained legal sanction through the application of the 14th amendment). The abolition movement and anti-slavery revolts also led to the 15th amendment, which prohibits voting discrimination based on race; while a reactionary Supreme Court stood in the way of its application for a century, it served as the basis of the 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights Acts—which millions of Americans devoted their lives to achieving during the Civil Rights Movement. A similar pattern was followed in the decades that followed: every step of progress in the liberation of people of color has been part and parcel of expanding the democratic franchise. Here too we see “masses as reason” insofar as it demonstrates awareness that the fight to against racism involves an expansive democratic republic. The latter is a necessary but insufficient condition for freedom, since racism is deeply embedded in the drive for capital accumulation and will not be put to rest until capitalism comes to an end.

This is not to say there have not been tendencies within anti-racist movements which have downplayed the importance of fighting for political rights within the framework of existing political formations; some members of the Black Panthers adopted this view under the influence of Maoism by the early 1970s, though many other Panthers (such as Bobby Seale and Fred Hampton) were deeply invested in the fight to expand the democratic franchise. Those who dismissed the importance of linking the struggle against racism to winning the battle for democracy have always been a marginal tendency in both the Black liberation and women’s movements.

Let also not forget the critical role Marx himself played in generating support for the North during the U.S. Civil War as against the position of some leading socialists, such as Ferdinand Lassalle, who held that there was “no fundamental difference” between the southern plantation aristocracy and northern bourgeois democracy. Marx’s biggest and most persistent political disputes during his lifetime were with, 1) anarchists who held that there was “no basic difference” between “bourgeois democracy” and rightwing authoritarianism, and 2) reformist socialists who treated the struggle for democracy as an end-in-itself rather than the basis from which to wage social revolution. I would argue that these two tendencies (which do not always call themselves by these respective names) continue to dominate left discourse today.

Virtually every Marxist for the first 40 years after Marx’s death agreed with his view that the democratic republic is the political formation best suited for waging the class struggle to a successful conclusion — whether they be reformists (like the rightwing Mensheviks) or revolutionaries (like the Bolsheviks prior to the early 1920s). This completely changed with the rise of Stalinism, which had no use for democracy of any kind, whether bourgeois or proletarian. As a result, the Stalinist legacy has produced forgetfulness about the connection between a democratic republic and the fight for socialism. And you don’t have to be a Stalinist to suffer from that forgetfulness today.

Ironically, one political tendency that has not forgotten this is the far-right. It well knows that political democracy is a product of anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-capitalist movements: this is precisely why they want to destroy it. It is central to its entire agenda!

Since many today lack a fully clear understanding of the importance of fighting to expand political democracy while not treating it as a substitute for social revolution, it is also worth recalling a 1910 article by Rosa Luxemburg, in which she broke from the man considered at the time the Pope of Marxism — Karl Kautsky. A little historical background is in order: As of 1910 Germany was no model of democracy, since it was governed by an authoritarian monarchy. It had universal male suffrage and a parliamentary system, but voters were ranked based on their economic status (professors got the equivalent of two votes compared to one for workers or peasants and landowners, capitalists, and noblemen got three) and the Kaiser had the authority to veto parliamentary decisions. Germany was not a democratic republic and it was against the law to openly call for one. However, virtually all socialists favored its creation and promoted the demand for one within the confines they had to operate within.

In 1910 Luxemburg was deeply involved in a months-long campaign to expand the democratic franchise by abolishing the three-tier voting system and giving greater powers to parliament. In the course of this work — she gave dozens of speeches advocating these demands in a whirlwind lecture tour throughout Germany—her most severe conflict with the German Social Democratic Party of Germany broke out. Upon returning from her lecture tour, she found a letter from Kautsky stating that while he found an article that she had submitted to Vorwärts on the suffrage campaign important, he urged that she eliminate a paragraph calling for a democratic republic. This was no small matter: he objected to openly calling for a democratic republic on the grounds that it could provide a pretext for the government to employ repressive measures against the party. Luxemburg was furious — she saw it as a betrayal of all he had earlier written in support of the effort to infuse more radical demands into the Germany socialist movement on the basis of the heroic struggles of the masses during the 1905 Russian Revolution. When she responded by publishing the full version of her article in Leipziger Volkszeitung which included the offending paragraph, Kautsky was no less furious. A bitter debate ensued in which Luxemburg accused him of capitulating to opportunism and broke off all relations with him.

It is not as if Luxemburg was the first to sense opportunism on Kautsky’s part — a small number of left-wing radicals in the Second International had expressed concerns about his emphasis on gaining a parliamentary majority, but he was still virtually universally regarded as the foremost representative of revolutionary social democracy. So much was this the case that almost none of the major figures of the Second International (with the exception of Clara Zetkin and Anton Pannekoek) came to Luxemburg’s defense; most dismissed the dispute as a dust-up caused by her being over-sensitive about one paragraph being cut from an article. Not even the most revolutionary tendencies of Russian social democracy, such as those of Trotsky or Lenin, took her side: each went out of their way to affirm fealty to Kautsky and dismissed her concerns.

We now have (thanks to Ben Lewis) the first English translation of the article that she published in response to Kautsky in Leipziger Volkszeitung (it will appear in Volume 7 or 8 of Luxemburg’s Complete Works, but it won’t be out for several years). Here is what she wrote: “Sixty years ago, Marx taught…a good old lesson: the workers do need the [democratic] republic, but despite everything they do not share Mr. Heinzen’s bourgeois illusions: [Marx stated] ‘They can and must accept the bourgeois revolution as a precondition for the workers’ revolution. However, they cannot for a moment regard it as their ultimate goal.’” Luxemburg continues: “We prefer the most expensive republic to the cheapest monarchy, because for us this is not a matter of money: the monarchy is the most backward tool of class rule, whereas the republic is the most progressive one. And the more progressive the forms of class rule, the closer their terrible end” (“Der Kampf gegen Relikte,” August 9, 1910). 

These words are closely conneted to what Dunayevskaya discusses in chapter 2 of Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution. She notes that since Kautsky refused to publish her article in the SPD’s theoretical journal, Die Neue Zeit, “she at once saw to it that her article was published in Leipziger Volkszeitung” (p. 21). Dunayevskaya proceeds to place great emphasis on Luxemburg’s 1910 break from Kautsky because it shows that even the slightest hesitancy to fighting to maintain and/or create a democratic republic can put one on a path to capitaluting to one or another capitalist state power — as Kautsky himself did only four years later, in 1914, when he failed to object to the decision of his colleagues in the German Social Democratic Party to vote for the war credits that initiated World War I (Kautsky was not part of the Reichstag delegation that voted for war credits, but he choose not to challenge their decision in order to preserve the unity of the SPD, which viewed itself as the bearer of the form of social relations that would define a future socialist society).

The effort to preserve and defend political democracy is not a defensive measure that detracts from theoretically preparing for revolution by developing a philosophically grounded alternative to capitalism. It is instead central to it. If someone cannot bring themselves to emphasize the need to defend the very limited and corrupt political democracy we have now, why assume they will be for democracy after a revolution? So far as I am concerned, those who are indifferent to or stand aside from the fight to defend liberal democracy from attacks by the Far Right cannot be trusted to be for a truly new society based on socialist humanist foundations. Marx addressed this directly in The Critique of the Gotha Program in attacking those who failed to see that “the democratic republic…is precisely [the] last state form of bourgeois society that the class struggle has to be fought out to a conclusion.”



I wish to conclude with a few preliminary thoughts about why progressives and radicals have so far not assumed a more active role in combating the Right’s attack on democracy. Some of it can be due to a sense of exhaustion over Trump’s four years in power as well as the pandemic, plus a hope by some that Biden and the Democrats will turn things around. But I’m not sure that is a sufficient explanation, especially when it comes to those to the left of Biden and the Democrats. What could be a factor is a risk for anyone living in “the belly of the beast” of a capitalist superpower: insularity. It is very easy to take for granted the limited political rights we possess (at least on paper), especially when they are touted at times by such a degenerate social system. That is not a luxury those living in authoritarian and outright fascist regimes can afford, and we should learn to listen to them. There is an old Russian saying, “Someone who lives in a warm house never really knows what it’s like to live in the cold.” Defending and promoting political democracy while fighting for an anti-capitalist alternative isn’t easy, but we make little progress if it is assumed that winning the battle for democracy doesn’t matter.

There is another consideration, however, which I can only touch on here: the undialectical way in which most of us view the state (as you can see, I am not exempting myself from the criticism). By undialectical, I mean viewing the state as an undifferentiated entity. In fact, the state is highly differentiated—as Hegel puts it in a different context, the concrete is a totality of internal differentiations. This is overlooked by reformists, who tend to view the state as a “neutral” entity that can be “taken over” in imposing socialistic measures. The opposite position is to dismiss the state for its hierarchical and oppressive nature (which it surely has) and to proclaim that we should have little or nothing to do with it. Those holding the first position may be willing to join the battle for democracy (though for the wrong reasons, insofar as they subsume the struggle for socialism under it) while those holding the second position tend to abstain from the battle for democracy. Both view the state as one-dimensional in not seeing that it contains two overlapping but distinct determinations: one the state’s structure, geared to employ power and (where necessary) violence to maintain class rule, the other functions that are currently part of the state (schooling, medical care, representative bodies, etc.) but which could exist in a future society freed from the integument of an oppressive state apparatus.

Marx makes this distinction in his Critique of the Gotha Program in using the term Der Staat to refer to statist structures and Staatswesen to refer functions now performed by the state but which need not be defined by structures geared to promote the domination of one class over another.

When the distinction between state structure and state functions is overlooked, it is easy to either 1) collapse the struggle for socialism into demanding reforms from the state, or 2) overlook the need to defend and indeed expand certain state functions — like enabling the right to vote — in the course of combatting repressive state structures.

This much is clear: a terrible threat awaits us if (as is quite possible) Trump or someone like him wins control of the White House in 2024. It may well spell the end of what is left of democracy in America, but not only in America. Trump, after all, admires Putin and cares not a fig-leaf for the fate of East Europeans: if he is in charge in 2024, is it not likely that he will give Putin a green light to do whatever he wants? Perhaps, but Trump (or his equivalent) can just as easily decide to wage direct war on Putin if that serves the Far Right’s political aims: in that case, what kind of world will be facing with two such pathological narcissists having their fingers on the nuclear trigger?

We cannot predict the future, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the new-found sense of strength and unity of purpose that it has provided to U.S. imperialism and NATO, is the kind of once in a generation event that transforms the entire global landscape. It is akin to such historical turning points as 1914, 1939, or 1989. A storm is brewing, comrades, and the times has come to determine if we are ready for it.

[Slightly revised on April 20, 2022]


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  1. Tòmas

    Insightful and inspiring.

    I don’t wish to distract from the main arguments here, which I agree with very much, but I question one historical point:

    “Marx’s biggest and most persistent political disputes during his lifetime were with, 1) anarchists who held that there was “no basic difference” between “bourgeois democracy” and rightwing authoritarianism, and 2) reformist socialists who treated the struggle for democracy as an end-in-itself rather than the basis from which to wage social revolution.”

    In regards anarchists, it’s true that both historically and in the present day there are those who make this argument. In fact, some anarchists, and other revolutionary groups, say exactly this today in response to the Ukraine invasion – refusing to see any significant difference between the bourgeois democracy in Ukraine and Putin’s ethno-nationalist authoritarianism. But, this is not something shared by many other anarchists, most especially, of course, those in Ukraine who are actively involved in organising mutual aid and defence.

    If we go back to Marx’s disputes with the anarchists, was this really the issue at stake?

    It might surprise some that Bakunin wrote the following:

    “It is true that the most imperfect republic is a thousand times better than the most enlightened monarchy, for at least in the republic there are moments when, though always exploited, the people are not oppressed, while in monarchies they are never anything else. And then the democratic regime trains the masses little by little in public life, which the monarchy never does.”

    He went on to insist on the need to go beyond all class-based governments:

    “But whilst giving the preference to the republic we are nevertheless forced to recognise and proclaim that whatever may be the form of government, whilst human society remains divided into different classes because of the hereditary inequality of occupations, wealth, education, and privileges, there will always be minority government and the inevitable exploitation of the majority by that minority.”

    Based on this and other statements by early anarchists, Daniel Guérin briefly argues that Lenin was wrong to claim that anarchists view “that the form of oppression is a matter of indifference to the proletariat.”

    On universal suffrage itself, however, he says that ‘the anarchist attitude […] is far from logical or consistent. Some considered the ballot as a last expedient. Others, more uncompromising, regarded its use as damnable in any circumstances and made it a matter of doctrinal purity’. The point is, though, that there were some differences of interpretation among anarchists on this: examples of flexibility in certain circumstances as well as intransigence.

    One of the most interesting cases is that of pre-revolutionary Spain where anarchists did in fact vote en masse for left parties in 1931 and again in 1936 (but not in 1933!). Buenaventura Durruti gave a speech in 1931 on the new Spanish Republic saying, ‘The Republic does not interest us [i.e. it is not the goal of the revolutionaries], but we accept it as the springboard of a process of social democratisation.’ And, later he vowed that the CNT and other revolutionaries would ‘compel the people in government to carry out their mandate’ of reform.

    Even Malatesta, who took a hardline view of abstentionism, stated in 1924 ‘[f]or me there is no doubt that the worst of [bourgeois] democracies is always preferable, if only from the educational point of view, than the best of dictatorships.’

    I think anarchists, during Marx’s day and afterwards, often clearly did make a distinction between governments that allowed for rights to organise, freedom of speech, etc. and those that did not. And they acted on this: resisting the roll back of rights and right-wing authoritarianism, and making alliances from below with other left-wing groups to do so.

    The dispute in the First International wasn’t over this but how the working class should *relate to* bourgeois politics. The ‘anarchists’, as they came to call themselves after the Hague Conference– based on their own experience of organising and of suffrage in Switzerland, for example – rejected the idea that the emancipation of the workers can be achieved through the formation of parliamentary political parties, using universal suffrage to win control of the government and create – as the German social democrats (but not Marx) described it – a Free State. They were against alliances with bourgeois radicals, and for the independence of working class organisation. And, like the majority of sections, they opposed Marx’s centralising control of the International and party political agenda in favour of a pluralistic federation of unions.

    So, they were very much in favour of ‘the struggle for democracy’, but through forms of organising which empowered working class people, broke down the split between leaders and led, and seemed to point beyond the state and capital.

    Did anarchists in their critique of bourgeois politics, and participation therein, ‘[downplay] the importance of fighting for political rights within the framework of existing political formations’? Yes, I think we can say that anarchists in critiquing, for example, suffrage did not appreciate the importance of its extension as part of a broader struggle for rights within the existing political formation. I think tactical voting for reforms and against authoritarianism are necessary if very insufficient, and that restrictions on voting etc. need to be taken seriously. (Nonetheless, prioritising organising outside of electoral politics).

    Did Marx overestimate the potential of universal suffrage in places like the US and England/UK to achieve ‘the political rule of the working class’? I would say so! The criticisms Bakunin and others made against Marx were more applicable to Lassalle/early German social democracy. But it was difficult to separate them. Anarchists, then and many years later, had no idea of Marx’s revolutionary humanism or critique of the German movement. They knew him through his support for party politics and organisational manoeuvrings against them. And some of the criticisms applied just as well to him: on an apparent lack of attention to other forms of political practice, collective direct action and workers’ control; and on the contradictions of transcending state power after conquering it.

    How we negate as well as preserve political democracy is a complicated and important question.

  2. Peter Hudis

    Thank you for these very important comments, Tòmas: Just as it is important not to view ‘Marxism’ as a monolithic entity, it is no less important not to do so with anarchism, so I appreciate and agree with your correction of my all-to-too brief generalization. Your point that Bakunin and his followers were not aware of Marx’s distance from the Lassallean position of the ‘Free State’ (Marx’s followers for the most part did not know this either!) is well taken. I discuss some of these issues in the introduction to the forthcoming new translation of Marx’s ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’ being issued by AK Press,

  3. Tòmas MacAilpein

    Look forward to reading it, Peter!