Revolution #261, February 26, 2012
An Excerpt from
Democracy—Concentrating Some Essential Understanding
Here I want to return to two brief statements regarding democracy that are run regularly in Revolution newspaper. These statements—one of two sentences, and one of three sentences—are an attempt on my part to capture some essential aspects of reality, and to concentrate much of the complexity bound up with this reality in a scientific way. Especially in light of what is going on in the world today, and the rationalizations that are being propagated to justify what the Bush regime (and U.S. imperialism in general) is doing in the world today, it is worthwhile digging further into these statements.
The essence of what exists in the U.S. is not democracy but capitalism-imperialism and political structures to enforce that capitalism-imperialism. What the U.S. spreads around the world is not democracy, but imperialism and political structures to enforce that imperialism.
To take "the two sentences" first, this begins (the first part of the first sentence is): "The essence of what exists in the U.S. is not democracy but capitalism-imperialism… " Now, you could get into a whole bunch of arguments about that statement if you didn't correctly understand it, and particularly if you approached it in a dogmatic way. [In a sarcastic voice:] "Well, I thought you said that democracy in the U.S. does exist but it's bourgeois democracy." Yes, but note that what's being said here refers to the essence of what exists. It is emphasizing that, if you want to understand the essential and driving forces in society, don't look to the superstructure of politics and ideology, and don't look to superficialities—look to the economic base first of all.
This is what is brought out in the first of these sentences, taken as a whole: "The essence of what exists in the U.S. is not democracy but capitalism-imperialism and political structures to enforce that capitalism-imperialism." Those political structures could be democratic (that is, bourgeois-democratic) or they could be fascistic (or they could be one in the name of the other). But what is their essence? And what is fundamental?
And then this statement goes on (the second sentence is): "What the U.S. spreads around the world is not democracy, but imperialism and political structures to enforce that imperialism." This, again, is the essence of what they spread around the world. The structures to enforce that imperialism may be the Saudi Arabian royalty—or it may be sweeping aside the Saudi Arabian royalty and instituting a more bourgeois-democratic form of government there. But what's the essence? What are the driving forces? It is imperialism—the capitalist system in the stage of imperialism—a worldwide system of exploitation under the overall rule of capital and driven by the laws of capitalist accumulation, as conditioned by the dominance of monopolies, international investment/export of capital, the division of the world among the imperialists as well as the great division between a few imperialist countries and a vast number of colonized and oppressed nations.
In a world marked by profound class divisions and social inequality, to talk about “democracy”—without talking about the class nature of that democracy and which class it serves—is meaningless, and worse. So long as society is divided into classes, there can be no “democracy for all”: one class or another will rule, and it will uphold and promote that kind of democracy which serves its interests and goals. The question is: which class will rule and whether its rule, and its system of democracy, will serve the continuation, or the eventual abolition, of class divisions and the corresponding relations of exploitation, oppression and inequality.
In the three-sentence statement on democracy, essential points are emphasized which closely interconnect with the two sentences I have just discussed. Now, I have said a number of times that if I were teaching a course on this subject (on the nature of democracy and its relation to the fundamental character of society, rooted in its economic system), I would read these three sentences, and the rest of the semester would consist of: explain. Because there is a tremendous amount concentrated in these sentences that is very important to understand—and is very widely misunderstood. How many people actually have engaged the substance of this? And how many people need to? So let's look at these three sentences.
The first is: "In a world marked by profound class divisions and social inequality, to talk about 'democracy'—without talking about the class nature of that democracy and which class it serves—is meaningless, and worse." How much further ahead would we be if there were a large section of people who understood the essence of that! I've often joked that, with the success of the socialist revolution, one of the first acts of the new revolutionary state—the dictatorship of the proletariat—should be to ban the word "democracy" for ten years, because it has been the source of so much misunderstanding and confusion. But that is, after all, a joke—we can't actually do that, and shouldn't try to do that, for a lot of reasons—just to be clear. But there is a tremendous amount of misunderstanding and confusion about this question of democracy, and people just keep falling, over and over again, into the same kinds of illusions about this. If there were a leap to where a significant section of people understood just this one sentence, think how much further ahead we'd be.
And then this statement goes on (the second and third sentences are): "So long as society is divided into classes, there can be no 'democracy for all': one class or another will rule, and it will uphold and promote that kind of democracy which serves its interests and goals. The question is: which class will rule and whether its rule, and its system of democracy, will serve the continuation, or the eventual abolition, of class divisions and the corresponding relations of exploitation, oppression and inequality."
Once more, if we could actually get people to begin grappling with and understanding this, we would be so much further ahead. This is not just important as theoretical abstraction—which it is. It is theoretical abstraction, and it is extremely important as theoretical abstraction for people to be wrangling with. But it also has everything to do with what's going on in the world and major struggles that have to be waged in the world today. Whether you understand this—whether you grasp the essence of what is being captured and concentrated here—or whether you are full of the illusions that are promoted in opposition to that, is of tremendous importance and moment, literally in terms of what direction the world will be heading in. Because the fact is that not only do the imperialists not understand their own system. But, without negating positive things they do and contributions they make, the fact is that neither is all this understood by the many reformers, populists, and democrats on the political terrain.
To further illustrate the essential points here, I wanted to bring in another great shopkeeper quote from Marx (and in this case, Engels as well). As you know, Marx made a very profound observation about the relation between the democratic intellectuals and the shopkeepers—how, even though in their everyday approach to life, they may be as far apart as heaven and earth, they share an essential unity in that, in their thinking the democratic intellectuals do not get further than the shopkeepers get in their practical dealings; that the one, in the realm of theory, as much as the other in the exchange of commodities, does not get beyond what Marx termed "the narrow horizon of bourgeois right."1 The other quote I am referring to here is from The German Ideology:
"Every shopkeeper is very well able to distinguish what somebody professes to be, and what he really is, [but] our historians have not yet won even this trivial insight. They take every epoch at its word and believe that everything it imagines about itself is true."2
This really captures something very profound. How many people do you know who take every epoch, and in particular this epoch, at its word, and believe that everything it imagines about itself is actually true? How many people do we encounter in the course of our work who, as I put it in the polemic against K. Venu,3 take bourgeois democracy more seriously than the bourgeoisie does—and keep trying various ways in their minds and in their practice to try to perfect this bourgeois democracy into something other than what it is and what it is capable of being?
This goes back to the two sentences and the three sentences I spoke to above. There are so many people who take this epoch in particular, the bourgeois epoch, at its word, and who don't go beyond the appearance of things to get to the essence—to the underlying relations and dynamics that are driving things and that establish the foundation for, and ultimately determine the nature of, the political system and institutions, as well as the dominant culture and ideology, in any society, in any epoch. How many people ignore, or are simply ignorant of, the fundamental reality that, in any society in any epoch, political structures, institutions, and processes must be understood precisely in relation to the underlying economic base and to dynamics that are rooted in that economic base—in the relations and driving contradictions that characterize that economic base? How many people still need to be won to approach the world in that way?
1. The point from Marx, summarized here, about shopkeepers and democratic intellectuals is found in Marx's essay The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. The fuller statement by Marx is:
“… one must not form the narrow-minded notion that the petite bourgeoisie, on principle, wishes to enforce an egoistic class interest. Rather, it believes that the special conditions of its emancipation are the general conditions within the frame of which alone modern society can be saved and the class struggle avoided. Just as little must one imagine that the democratic representatives are indeed all shopkeepers or enthusiastic champions of shopkeepers. According to their education and their individual position they may be as far apart as heaven from earth. What makes them representatives of the petite bourgeoisie is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social position drive the latter practically. This is, in general, the relationship between the political and literary representatives of a class and the class they represent… ." (Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Moscow: Progress Publishers, pp. 40-41, emphasis in original) [back]
2. This passage from The German Ideology was cited in the article "On Empire—Revolutionary Communism or 'Communism' Without Revolution?" in A World to Win magazine, issue #32, 2006. This article provides important analysis of and polemics against the basic worldview and political positions found in the books Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2000) and Multitude (New York: Penguin Press, 2004) by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. [back]
3. K. Venu was an erstwhile "Maoist" in India who, at a certain point, with changes in the Soviet Union beginning with Gorbachev and with the Tiananmen Square events in China in the late 1980s, began to view as essentially negative the historical experience of socialism in the 20th century, not only in the Soviet Union but in China as well. Venu retreated into a position which, in the final analysis, amounted to upholding bourgeois democracy as the highest objective to be striven for—obscuring the fact that this bourgeois democracy is in fact a form of bourgeois dictatorship and that the socialist state, the dictatorship of the proletariat, makes possible not only a much broader and deeper democracy for the masses of people, but even more fundamentally that this state is essential for, and provides the vehicles for, the advance of communism, worldwide, with the abolition of the division of society into classes, and thereby the elimination of the need for a state of any kind.
The polemic against K. Venu, titled "Democracy: More Than Ever We Can and Must Do Better Than That," is included in Bob Avakian's book Phony Communism Is Dead… Long Live Real Communism! (Chicago: RCP Publications, 2004) and originally appeared in A World to Win magazine #17, 1992. The polemic is available online at revcom.us/bob_avakian/democracy/. [back]
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