The main source of this series of articles is Bob Avakian's book Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That? and his other works on democracy/dictatorship.
In Part 1 of this series, we discussed how every democracy and state has a class content and to talk about democracy without talking about its class content is meaningless. We also said that bourgeois democracy is in fact the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie established on the basis of capitalism, namely capitalist oppression and exploitation (and specifically capitalism-imperialism). And, we said that democracy is actually only practiced within the ranks of the ruling class, while dictatorship is exercised over the oppressed class or classes. Military force is the concentrated expression of the domination of one class over another: the military represents the monopoly of the exercise of force by the ruling class, and all other institutions, including parliament [or Congress] and elections, are secondary or subordinate to it, and can even be dispensed with, when necessary. (Despite this, people generally identify democracy with [a parliament and elections].)
In short, the state apparatus—especially the armed forces, but also the courts and legal system, the administrative bureaucracy, etc.—is in the hands of one class, a class that dominates the economic relations of the society. Even the ideas and values engendered by this state, ideas such as “equality,” correspond to the needs of this economic infrastructure, and all individual rights are conferred and restricted by the framework of this system. Thus, the state apparatus of bourgeois democracy is not and cannot be neutral, nor can any other state (including the democratic state/socialist dictatorship).
In Part 2, we will examine existing illusions about democracy and also look at the arguments of theorists who try to reconcile the stark contradiction of the reality of democracy with the ideal of democracy.
These illusions play an important role in the practice of turning a blind eye to the crimes against humanity committed by bourgeois democracies—which today include the destruction of the environment. All Western democracies unconditionally defended the Israeli army's genocidal war against the people of Gaza. They regard Hamas's October 7, 2023 attacks on Israeli civilians as an obstacle to democracy—one which requires the murder of 2.5 million of the human beings on planet Earth, using technology that is far more advanced than the Auschwitz crematoriums!
One of the illusions, when confronted with the undeniable realities of democracy, is the belief that [democracy] can be perfected, that it is an ideal that we have not yet achieved, but must keep moving toward. This is one of the arguments used by democracy advocates when confronted with the undeniable crimes of the major bourgeois democracies. Yes, they say, a lot of terrible things have been done in the name of democracy, but despite all its flaws, democracy is still the best possible form of government. This way of thinking is particularly popular among people in countries ruled by violently repressive authoritarian regimes (such as Iran, under both the [Shah] Pahlavi regime and the Islamic Republic).
During the Jina uprising [in Iran], we witnessed a tendency among many young people to idealize democracy. For example, listen to the words of [the late] Sarina Esmailzadeh, who compares the situation in Iran and Ethiopia to that of Los Angeles in the U.S., and concludes that achieving “Los Angeles” is the ideal to strive for.1 But, this superficial glance can never reveal that Iran/Ethiopia and Los Angeles are two sides of the same coin. Here, we put “Los Angeles” in quotation marks, because the city of Los Angeles itself contains stunning poles of poverty and wealth, as can be seen in the contrast between its handful of gated communities that are home to a minority with legendary wealth, and the miles of encampments of homeless people along its roadsides. Or, to take another example, the slogan raised in Baluchistan [a province of Iran], “Neither Monarchy nor Theocracy! [We demand] Democracy and Equality!” proposes democracy as an alternative to decades of oppression and exploitation by the Shah and the sheikhs [mullahs].
These examples illustrate people’s spontaneous tendencies to reach for such a solution when they are under the enormous pressure of authoritarian and fascist/religious governments such as the Islamic Republic that exercises absolute extra-legal power—and to superficially compare their own oppression and exploitation with “the other side of the world” in Europe and the U.S.
But, in addition to this unscientific spontaneous tendency that keeps people from understanding the reality of the problem, there are others whose theorizing “justifies” this deadly, unscientific attitude, and uses instrumentalist logic to analyze history for their own benefit. They even promise that the struggle for democracy is merely a “first step” in overthrowing the Islamic Republic, and by relying on it higher goals can be achieved “later.”
The Concept of Permanent Expansion and Improvement of Democracy
One of the arguments that democracy, even if not perfect, is at least perfect-able and expandable, is based on the [mis] understanding of the history of the development of democracy from antiquity to the present, as a straight line from the Greek city-state to the democratic states of today, and [in the process] have expanded to include sections of society that were previously excluded or discriminated against—slaves, women, the poor, etc. And from this, they conclude that today we should stay on the same historical trajectory, expanding democracy to include countries that are not yet democratic, and in democratic countries we should try to extend democratic rights to immigrants, queers and other excluded populations, and integrate them into bourgeois society. But unfortunately, this understanding of the historical evolution of human societies is contrary to dialectical materialism: in other words, it is unscientific and contrary to reality.
These types of arguments are not new. They were first put forward by French democrat Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th century. “[T]he scene is now changed,” he writes. “Gradually the distinctions of rank are done away with; the barriers that once severed mankind are falling; property is divided, power is shared by many, the light of intelligence spreads, and the capacities of all classes tend towards equality. Society becomes democratic, and the empire of democracy is slowly and peaceably introduced into institutions and customs.”2
This pretty picture has a “small” flaw: It is not true at all—it wasn't true then, nor is it true now! What happened with the dissolution of feudalism after the bourgeois revolutions was not the extension of democracy without class distinction, but the extension of the fundamental relations of capitalist exploitation replacing the relations of feudal exploitation. [It was] not an expression of the ever more broadly expanded sovereignty of the people regardless of social status, but democratic processes as an expression and necessary component of supremacy of the bourgeoisie’s dictatorship over the proletariat and other oppressed people for the ultimate purpose of ensuring and enforcing its domination over the basic economic system (capitalism, and later, the system of capitalism-imperialism, or global capitalism).
However, it must be borne in mind that, to an extent, the “change of scene” was itself the result of a leap in human social organization through bourgeois revolutions, which in turn, arose as a result of the development of the productive forces coming into antagonistic contradiction with the feudal mode of production. [This leap] radically changed the political superstructure and its economic underpinnings, and was never a gradual and straight-line process.
So, what makes the notion of “improving democracy” so important to the democratic worldview? As Bob Avakian writes, the democratic intellectual,
…wants the existing social system but without its worst excesses, with room for reform and for accommodating the demands of the oppressed so long as they do not threaten to spring the established order into the air and overturn all existing social relations.3
But regardless of the desires and aspirations of this [middle] strata, the reality is that this type of democracy (and all varieties of democracy under the capitalist system) cannot exist without [going to] violent “excesses,” without brutal exploitation, crisis, war and environmental destruction. If, at certain points in time and in some imperialist countries, an expansion of certain rights has been achieved—for example in the position of women—this has not been due to the expanding nature of democracy, nor even simply as a result of the struggle of women and groups to gain more rights. This view of the problem assumes that it was democracy which created this “possibility of struggle.” When applied to the countries of the global South, this same view reaches the chauvinist conclusion that the reason they have not achieved democracy and greater rights has been that they have not fought hard enough! While certain rights were expanded, this was primarily due to the privileged position of these countries in the imperialist capitalist system that allowed an economic and political stability based on the exploitation of the rest of the world, this is not something that has been or ever will be possible in democracies of the global South—from India to Brazil to Iran.
Looking at the larger context, we see that the danger of revolutions and the existence of socialist countries in the world have had a significant impact, putting pressure on the governing bodies of [major] democracies to give some rights within the framework of their system—so that people would not see their backwardness compared to [real] socialism. A negative example of this is that, despite large popular protests such as Black Lives Matter, there has been no improvement in the situation of Black people in the U.S. On the contrary, under the pressure of the system's crises on a global scale, Republican-led fascism has gained strength, and they have launched systematic attacks against rights previously granted, which they intend to repeal.
The Contradiction Between the Ideal of Democracy and the Reality of Democracy
One of the roots of this problem, despite all the above-mentioned facts, [is that] most people still consider "pure democracy" as the ideal, even though the ideal of democracy is controverted by the actual practice of “the democracies.” On the one hand, we are inundated with the writings of democracy theoreticians, who present both the universal and eternal principles, and the professions of the bourgeois oppressors who rule in the name of democracy. And on the other hand, we have the reality of life under the rule of these democracies and in the world where, for decades, they have held the top positions. While this contradiction is an important source for exposing the system and for struggling against it, [the contradiction] is itself a recurrent source of illusions about the “perfectability” of the democratic system, or the “actual realization” of democratic ideals not yet realized.
One result of this is that radical variants of bourgeois democracy constantly arise, one after another, among opponents of the system, and even socialist tendencies that include the idealization of democracy as a central component. The socialist state is also a democracy/class dictatorship [of the proletariat]. However, if this democracy does not move towards the dissolution of the state and classes (i.e., towards the dissolution of itself), and does not advance towards a communist world, if it sees socialism as an end in itself, it will surely lose its socialist character. (We'll discuss this issue in future articles.)
As we mentioned, the distortion and lopsidedness of the world (i.e., the division of the world into imperialist countries and countries dominated by imperialism), and the advent of the era of imperialism that resulted from the globalization of capitalism, is a powerful material force fueling illusions about improving democracy and idealizing it. This contradiction finds an important political role in the world, within the framework of this distortion to shape thoughts and even oppositions and struggles. The political and ideological consequences of imperialism in this case have been multilayered and multifaceted. On the one hand, “normal times (which have existed for decades) in imperialist countries, have given rise to the “aristocracy” of a section of the proletariat—a strata of workers whose conditions are not desperate, who bargain for expanded democratic rights rather than for radical change. On the other hand, in countries dominated by imperialism, where conditions are constantly desperate, people generally want revolutionary change, [but] their hopes and dreams are shaped and colored by the position and privileges of the first group. This has led to a prominent tendency in imperialist countries towards social democracy in the sphere of politics and ideology, and towards bourgeois-democratic nationalism in the dominated countries.
Fundamentally, this political and ideological tendency reflects the outlook of small-scale capitalists and proprietors, whose ideal of democracy is a state in which wealth and power is not concentrated in the hands of the few. [Such concentration of wealth] is seen as a form of corruption or a violation of a democracy that once was practiced, or at least was attempted. The petty-bourgeois ideal of democracy does not mean that all, or even most, of those who put this view forward are themselves small-scale proprietors, or are merely looking out for their own interests. [This outlook] coincides with the thinking of intellectuals who understand that when wealth and power are consolidated in the hands of a few, it will inevitably be misused. This class wants to revert back from the era of imperialist monopolies to the era of early capitalism. But they lack the understanding that it was precisely the functioning and dynamics of primitive capitalism that led to the development of monopolies, that imperialism grew from the foundations of capitalism itself.
Another aspect of this problem is that the petty bourgeoisie sees self-styled “pure democracy” as being beyond classes. It sees its own interests as being the interests of all classes. Therefore it sees regulated capitalism, in which each person is able to exercise “direct democracy” in his or her own sphere, as being to the benefit of everyone! Such notions of freedom, equality and rights correspond to the position of small commodity producers.
What is central to this worldview? It is the ideal of individual sovereignty—of “controlling one’s own space”—that reflects the atomization of people whose identity as commodity owners is at the same time subject to the dictates of capital and the driving forces of capital accumulation. That is, this ideal in reality is unattainable by the majority of the world’s people (though the majority themselves don't think so).
So the problem is not that “real democracy,” “real human rights,” or “real equality” has not yet been implemented anywhere, but as Bob Avakian pointed out, talking about democracy without talking about its class content is meaningless and worse. He writes that even if all these bourgeois ideals and principles were implemented, [to paraphrase BA]
The result would be the same as it is today. That is, a minority would use any opportunity to be able to exploit the majority, and in order to ensure this exploitation, it would use force directly to maintain these relations, as well as employing enforcers, and using divide and rule policies. That is, if the principle of equal opportunities for all is fully and consistently applied, no other result will be achieved. In other words, we would have nothing, but the bourgeois society we have now, which includes social inequalities and exploitation of the proletariat. In order to achieve another result that includes the abolition of social inequality along with the abolition of exploitation, it is necessary to go beyond the ideals and principles of bourgeois society and those material conditions that are its expression, and overthrow it. It is necessary to overthrow the bourgeois state and get beyond what Marx called “the narrow horizon of bourgeois right” (equal opportunity for all) and all the economic and other social relations that reflect and enable it.
It is past time to let the dead bury their dead, as Marx put it, including, and indeed especially, in the idealization of democracy.