Marxism and the Democratic Tradition

The modern democratic tradition was born in revolution and developed in the class struggle of the masses to realize the democratic promise of the revolution against feudalism. It has been per-eminently a people’s tradition, associated with the activity, the welfare and the flourishing of the “common man.” Militant in character, republican in principle, and international in outlook, it is, above all, a tradition of progress and freedom, of work and happiness for everyone. Its intellectual qualities are distinguished by the spirit of enlightenment, the affirmation of reason, and an organic aversion to ignorance and prejudice. Its development has been interwoven with the growth of modern science and has been animated by the temper of humanism with its concern for the rights, dignity and elevation of every individual – all essential elements of a social climate indispensable to a free and rapid development of the productive and creative capacities of society.

What is the relation of Marxism to this tradition?

Modern democracy, as we have seen, had its genesis in the struggle for the abolition of feudal property relations and the establishment of freedom for bourgeois property. This historical origin endowed the democratic tradition with a twofold character which shaped the main features of its subsequent development.


The bourgeoisie wanted political power for the purpose of protecting and promoting its economic interests; it strove to introduce democratic improvements not to abolish privilege but to replace feudal privilege by the privilege of wealth. It sought from the outset to restrict the scope and range of these democratic rights by restricting liberty to political liberty and equality to formal equality before the law. By establishing property qualifications for the right of electing and being elected, it intended to retain the suffrage for its own class. By limiting equality to a mere equality before the law, based upon the inequality of rich and poor, its object was to preserve it as a purely bourgeois privilege. Consequently, the democratic current, which arose with the ascendance of the bourgeoisie, was bound, in the course of its development, to reveal an unmistakable divergence between its formal premises and its actual historical substance. The bourgeois reality of limited liberty and equality could not assert itself without constantly breaking through the formal premises of unlimited freedom, thereby exposing them as largely an appearance in sharp contrast to the real substance. The appearance, in turn, representing the aspirations of the people, was bound constantly to “embarrass” and “plague” the reality, finding over and over again that it could become into its own only by itself becoming the historical reality.

The chief premise of the democratic conception, as established in the historical declarations of the American and French Revolutions, is that all power derives from the people. The struggle against feudal privileges and the feudal state, based on the divine right of kings, was waged in the name of the sovereignty of the people. Appearing as early as the fifteenth century in France, the conception of the equal participation of all the people in the conduct of the affairs was further encouraged by the Dutch and British Revolutions of the seventeenth century, and was given its clearest theoretical expression by Rousseau in the eighteenth century. It was the fundamental argument of the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man.

True, the bourgeoisie in the American and French Revolutions restricted the concept of “the people” to the property owners. But the very nature of bourgeois society, based on cities, and the historic need of involving the urban masses in the struggle to overthrow feudalism, could not long maintain this restriction. The history of the democratic struggle, from the middle of the seventeenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century, is replete with efforts of the people to realize the full and literal meaning of the concept of the sovereignty of the people, first of all, by abolishing qualifications and restrictions on suffrage and the holding of office and by securing a bill of rights witch would implement this concept. In the United States during this time, this effort was expressed in two chief periods of collaboration of the urban masses, artisans and petty bourgeoisie with the small farmers; first during the period of Jeffersonian democracy, and then during the period of Jacksonian democracy, when the emergent labor movement, based on the new factory system, united with the small farmers and other democratic forces of the cities.

The idea of the sovereignty of the people was grounded in the concept of natural rights. This concept first served the rising bourgeoisie while it was still developing within the framework of the feudal system. Belief in a Law of Nature or Law of Reason had been an element prominent in medieval thought since the time of Thomas Aquinas; it fed the idea of Natural Rights by which the gentry and the middle class corporations defended their interests against the unlimited and irresponsible power of despotic kings. In the seventeenth century, John Locke transformed the theory of Natural Rights into a philosophic justification of the British Whig Revolution of 1688; and through Locke, it passed into British classical political economy. Through Locke also, and to a lesser extent though Montesquieu, it became the philosophy of the eighteenth century revolutions and of the leading rationalist thinkers of the Enlightenment throughout Europe. Thus, the so-called natural, inalienable rights of man were in their historical origin no more than the rights of a member of bourgeois society.


As a result of this two-fold character of the democratic current, part of the bourgeoisie preferred a constitutional monarchy to the hazards of a republic with its democratic promise and opportunities. Indeed, the first efforts at establishing a republic in the seventeenth century ended in monarchic restoration. The British bourgeoisie, for instance, struggling to emerge from the local and provincial limitations which circumscribed it at that time, dreaded the despotism of pure monarchy and was no less hostile to pure aristocracy; but since it regarded democracy as more terrifying than either, it chose the constitutional monarchy as the best means for its rule. The financial aristocracy of France did the same thing in the Revolution of July 1830, establishing a bourgeois monarchy despite the fact that the republicans and workers fought and won the Revolution with the object of establishing a democratic republic. To maintain the pretense, Louis Philippe, the bourgeois king, spoke glibly of his republican institutions. Even Prussia, in 1830, presented itself as a monarchy surrounded by republican institutions. And in Italy at this time, the bourgeois Party of Moderates likewise tipped their hats to the republic, but preferred the surer safety of the monarchy, a tendency which became all the more marked after 1830 with the emergence of the modern proletariat as the leading democratic force. This was repeated in Germany in 1848 when the king sacrificed the nobility to the bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie sacrificed the people to the king; the monarch, as Marx aptly remarked, becoming bourgeois and the bourgeoisie becoming monarchist. It was historic irony that Metternich, arch-symbol of feudal restoration and reaction in the first half of the nineteenth century should have been the one to put his finger on this contradiction embodied in the bourgeois fear of democracy.


In the light of this relationship of the bourgeoisie to democracy, it is understandable why the working people were the most consistent “pure democrats,” as they were called after 1830 in Europe. It was the people, not the bourgeois property owners, who were the most ardent champions of the republic, who believed in democracy and strove for its realization.

“For the past six hundred years,” Engels said, “every progressive movement had its origin in the cities, so much so that the independent democratic movements of the farm population (Way Tyler, Jack Cade, Jacquerie, Peasant War) not only made a reactionary appearance but also were suppressed. The industrial proletariat of the cities has become the kernel of all modern democracy; the petty bourgeois, and more so the peasants, depend entirely upon its initiative. The French Revolution of 1789 and the most recent history of England, France and the Eastern states of American demonstrate this.”

Democracy meant political rights for the people, and the people, in turn, were anxious to secure these rights and to give them substance through the fulfillment of its economic demands and social aspirations. It therefore strove to enlarge the concept of democracy to include social, as well as political rights.


The democratic current was thus characterized historically by an inner contradiction already implicit in the struggle between bourgeois and feudal property. This contradiction was constantly threatening to emerge and become the central issue, and actually did emerge in the great democratic revolutions of Europe and America. It was a contradiction created by bourgeois property itself – the contradiction embodied in the social question. It expressed itself in the rise of movements, within these revolutions, for the abolition of all inequality, not only political inequality, through the abolition of private property. These were movements of the people who saw in private property the source of the exploitation of the many by the few and of the political domination of the wealthy minority in possession of economic power and, consequently, of effective political power.

They were communist movements that arose historically within the stream of modern democracy. It was for this reason that Karl Marx declared, “Socialism and communism did not originate in Germany, but in England, France and North America. The first appearance of a really active communist party may be placed within the period of the middle-class revolution, the moment when constitutional monarchy was abolished. The most consistent republicans, in England the Levellers, in France Babeuf, Buonarotti, etc., were the first to proclaim these ‘social questions.’ The ‘Conspiracy of Babeuf,’ written by his friend and comrade Buonarotti, shows how these republicans derived their social insight from the ‘historical movement.’ It also demonstrates that when the social question of princedom versus republic is removed, not a single social question of the kind that interests the proletariat has been solved.”

Scientific communism, or Marxism, represented the historical continuation of this development. It arose in the course of the struggle for democracy in the 1840’s. Like its predecessors, it originated within the bourgeois democratic movement in response to the social problems which this movement had no interest in solving. Arising on the basis of the most advanced thought of Western Europe and America, Marxism was the historical continuation of the democratic efforts represented by the seventeenth and eighteenth century revolutions, the struggle of the Levellers within the British Revolution of 1648 and of the Babeuvists in the French Revolution of 1789. It was the continuation, on a more advanced level, of the humanitarian efforts of the great utopian socialists and communists after 1815 during the unfolding of the Industrial Revolution, and of the stream of scientific knowledge embodied in French eighteenth century materialism, British political economy, and German classical philosophy. It was the historical continuation of the democratic struggle of the proletarian communist movements of England, France and America after 1830. From the day of its birth as a scientific viewpoint of social development and as a practical party, Marxism therefore inscribed democracy on its banner and allied itself with the democratic movements of Europe and the United States.


Thus the democratic tradition associated with the rise and growth of modern democracy is identified exclusively with the progressive tendencies, material, social, and intellectual, in the historical process of which it is a part. The ascendant bourgeoisie made a series of major contributions to the origin and development of democracy. The growth of commerce and towns, the Renaissance and the Reformation, the eighteenth century Enlightenment and the subsequent American and French Revolutions are the eternal monuments of these contributions. This ascendant bourgeoisie created the conditions for the growth of science, the rule of reason and respect for the worth of the individual; but it subordinated all these to the needs of its material enrichment and the accumulation of capital. Thereby it impressed a bourgeois stamp upon them with all its limitations and restrictions. This was illustrated most strikingly by the central concept of the Rights of Man elaborated by the philosophers and inscribed on the banner of the great eighteenth century revolutions. Behind the stirring concept was the prosaic reality of bourgeois individualism based upon private interest and free competition. The man whose rights they proclaimed was the egoistic man of bourgeois self-interest. The rights which they assigned to him were rights which, as Marx said, left “every man to find in other men not the realization but rather the limits of his freedom.”

The growth of the factory system in the nineteenth century provided democracy with a new economic foundation and linked its further development with the ascendance of the new industrial working class and labor movement. After 1830, democracy in Europe became per-eminently a proletarian principle, the principle of the masses, since it was the European working class which emerged at that time as the main force in the struggle for democracy. In the principal countries of Europe, the bourgeoisie was demonstrating its unwillingness and inability to wage a consistent fight for democracy, despite the fact that the democratic republic provided the most logical form for its economic and political domination. With the emergence of this new type of working class, the industrial proletariat, striving to organize itself and conscious of its own class interest and aims, the bourgeoisie found consistent adherence to democracy too dangerous for the continuation of its economic and political rule. The working class movement deepened and enriched the democratic tradition which had attained such a high degree of development in the eighteenth century Enlightenment.

The eighteenth century philosophers and men of letters had made respect for the human being and the dignity of man a fundamental concept of modern civilization; and they allowed neither geographical boundaries nor racial distinctions to limit or restrict this concept. They were humanitarians and their humanitarianism was as universal as mankind. As firm believers in the unity of the human race, they displayed the same interest toward all peoples and lands and opposed the domination of one people by another. “If I knew something useful to my nation buy ruinous to another,” Montesquieu declared, “I would not propose it to my prince because I am a human being before I am a Frenchman, because I am by necessity a human being, whereas I am a Frenchman only by chance.” And again: “If I knew something useful to my fatherland which were prejudicial to Europe or something which were useful to Europe and prejudicial to mankind, I would consider it a crime.” Diderot wanted to spread the Enlightenment to all humanity and combatted those who sought to plunge the world into barbarism and darkness in order to dominate it more securely. Herder, proclaiming the fact that the old feudal order had outlived itself, summoned his fellow beings to direct their lives according to the spirit of humanity.

The eighteenth century thinkers grounded their humanism and universalism in the idea of the the universal validity of truth and justice and the universal operation of reason in “all known nations.” They were convinced that the law of the land which failed to conform to reason, even when sanctioned by the majority of the nation, could become the worst tyranny. But the men who provided the philosophical justification of the inalienable rights of the individual and extended those rights to all mankind, nevertheless were limited by the historical realities out of which their thought arose. These were the realities of bourgeois society just emerging out of the feudal world, the society to which “the bourgeoisie” was a synonym for “the people.”

The working class movement of which Marxism was the most advanced expression, freed the humanism and universalism of the Enlightenment from its bourgeois limitations. It provided them with new social content. In place of the competitive, antagonistic individualism which separated man from man and based the realization of the rights of one individual on the denial of the rights of many individuals, it introduced a new principle of human fellowship based upon the common bond of co-operative labor, a principle corresponding not to the private ownership but to the social character of bourgeois production. The working class movement also proclaimed the Rights of Man, but the right of every man to find in other men the realization of his freedom, not the obstacle to it.

Thus, the contradiction that appears to exist between Marxism and the democratic tradition is actually the contradiction historically inherent in the democratic current itself. (The first point at which Marxism allegedly departs from the democratic tradition is the property question. This was the question around which the theory of modern democracy had its origin.)

*this is an excerpt from Marxism and the Democratic Tradition by A. Landy

Isaiah chapter 2:

{God} will wield authority over the nations

and adjudicate between many peoples;

these will hammer their swords into plowshares,

their spears into sickles.

Nation will not lift sword against nation,

there will be no more training for war

hammer and sickle isaiah 2


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s