Marxism and Democracy

Richard Wolff. Rethinking Marxism. Volume 12, Issue 1. Spring 2000.

The historical relationship between democracy and Marxism reveals a sequence of reversals (Miliband 1977, 74 ff.). Sometimes Marxism has stressed the projection of itself as the fulfillment of democracy, broadly defined. At other times, Marxism’s thrust has been more to criticize contemporary forms of democracy and democratic movements as bourgeois, hence deeply and unacceptably limited in their scope and contents. Further, Marxists have argued among themselves and reversed positions on how Marxists should define and commit to democracy (Williams 1976, 82-7). Marx himself punctuated a personal passage from radical democrat to communist by strong critiques of the politics of those he often called democrats-for example, in his 1850 “Address of the Central Committee of the Communist League” and in the 1851-2 Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.

Later Marxists have differed among themselves in regard to democracy and democrats. Significant numbers have embraced democracy theoretically and engaged democrats as political allies. Indeed, some recent “post-Marxists” have declared their commitment to “radical democracy” instead of to Marxism (Laclau and Mouffe 1985, 1987). Other Marxists have rejected democracy and democrats as elements of a movement that deflects workers from class-revolutionary projects, thereby blocking transitions to socialism or communism (Mercer 1980). Where Marx changed his position (mostly in one direction) across his lifetime, many Marxists since have oscillated between opposing positions as first one and then the other gains sway over the majority. As a recent study concludes, “The world-wide controversy over Marx’s legacy today turns largely on its ambiguous relation to democracy” (Meister 1990, 99).

The collapse of Eastern European socialism accelerated the post-1945 shift of Marxists toward an enthusiastic embrace of democracy and democrats-expressed, for example, in the view that insufficient democracy caused that collapse (Kotz and Weir 1997). Unfortunately, in my view, these debates and oscillations have largely missed the class specifics of Marx’s critique of democracy; hence they have also missed opportunities for an alliance of Marxism (Marxists) and democracy (democrats) that respects the differences between them.

The particular Marxist position I want to advance here aims to break out of these oscillations on the grounds that either polar position is inadequate. Thus, I do not argue for yet another reversal-for Marxists to distance themselves from democracy and democrats as they have done in the past. Rather, Marxists should draw clear lines of demarcation between the kind of democracy they affirm and the very different kinds typically affirmed by most democrats today (as in the past). As Avineri noted, Marx did something similar in his differentiations between “true democracy,” which entailed “abolishing class differences,” and those “formal,” “radical,” “political,” and “Jacobin” kinds of democracy that did not (Avineri 1971, 34-8. 47). Moreover, Marx’s differentiations need not be seen as positing that true democracy is only some distant ideal awaiting classlessness as its precondition. For example, I will interpret Marx’s differentiations as offering a basis and criterion for an alliance here and now between democrats and Marxists.

Marxism’s distinctive approach (and, hence, contribution) to democracy focuses on the objects of democratic decisionmaking: the “what” of democracy’s concerns. This alone distinguishes it from many other approaches to democracy. Many among these stress the “how” of democracy: for example, can its procedures be indirect and representative, or must they be direct and immediate? The “how” democrats debate such alternatives and sometimes denounce each other as not genuine democrats because of their positions on them. Other democrats debate the “who” of democracy: must it include all, or can only some members of the community participate in a democracy? If the latter, debate focuses on what will determine members’ eligibility to participate in democratic collective decisionmaking; such as age, gender, race, property, education, and so on. While Marxists have engaged in these debates, their special contribution to democracy as a concept and social movement does not lie in propositions regarding the “how” and “who” of democracy.

In my interpretation/understanding of Marxism, its distinctive focus falls primarily on what is to be decided democratically. However, before describing this Marxism’s view on the “what,” I need to acknowledge that Marxian approaches to democracy are not the only ones concerned with the “what.” Implicitly or explicitly, all approaches take a position on what is to be decided democratically within any community (for explicit examples, see Dahl 1985; Ellerman 1990). The reason for that lies in an inescapable practical problem: the potential objects of collective decisionmaking in any community comprise an infinite list (spatial location, population growth, kinship systems, religious practices, what to produce, how to distribute products, how to organize political life, class structures, artistic expressions, and much else.) Within any society that includes collective decisionmaking, whether democratic or not (by any definition), practical limitations of time, energy, and place require some selection from the infinity of potential objects of such decisionmaking. Only a relative few can become its actual objects during any particular historical epoch. Marxism’s distinctive contribution to debates over democracy is its explicit, critical argument about what should be included among such actual objects of democratic decisionmaking and why.

Democracy and Class

At all times, while some potential objects become actual objects of decisionmaking in any society, others remain merely potential. For example, feminists who are also democrats might stress that their contribution (and commitment) to democracy prioritizes making gender relations an object of democratic decisionmaking within their communities. Antiracists who also are democrats might likewise focus on establishing race relations as actual objects of democratic decisionmaking. Such feminists and antiracists would link their commitments to democracy (whatever their particular views on the how and who) inextricably to the what of democratic decisionmaking. They might well refuse to continue to allow gender and race relations to remain merely potential but not actualized objects of such decisionmaking.

The particular Marxist position that I am arguing for takes a parallel position toward democracy, but its focus is on class. The point is to make class and class change actual objects of democratic decisionmaking. What Marxism contributes to the debates over democracy is, first and foremost, the demand and arguments for placing class structures as such on the list of objects to be decided by democratic decisionmaking. Such Marxist democrats might thus refuse to embrace those democratic movements that keep class structures off that list. Such a refusal would recognize and concretely specify in class terms what it means to differentiate a bourgeois from a Marxian democracy.

To say that Marxism’s contribution to democracy is to place class on its agenda requires that the meaning of class be specified. This is necessary because Marxism has a long, contentious history of coexisting multiple, different, and often incompatible concepts of class in its theory and its practice. Having documented these in detail elsewhere (Resnick and Wolff 1986, 1987), I will be brief here. The Marxian concept of class I mean here is one not defined by reference to property ownership, the distribution of power in society, or the consciousness of particular groups of people. Rather, it is defined in terms of surplus labor-more specifically, in terms of the processes of producing and distributing surplus labor or its products.

This interpretation of Marx’s innovative concept of class thus differs from other interpretations that see classes in terms of property owned (rich confront poor). Likewise, a surplus-labor approach differs from those that see classes in terms of who has authority (powerful confront powerless) or which social groups become conscious of themselves as classes confronting others.$ Which of these different class concepts) an analyst uses to think about society will shape the conclusions he or she reaches. People with wealth may not have power or self-consciousness as a class, people wielding power may not have wealth, people with self-consciousness as a class may lack wealth or power, and so on.9 The different conceptualizations of class correspond and contribute to different (interpretations of) Marxisms, hence to different notions of Marxism’s relation to democracy. In my interpretation, while Marx clearly sympathized with and used property, power, and consciousness concepts of class, he also offered a new and different concept of class focused on surplus labor. By means of that surplus-labor concept of class, he generated a correspondingly unique social analysis and project for class transformation. My argument about democracy and Marxism builds from this surplus-labor concept of class.

Class and Surplus Labor

Marx’s distinctive contribution focused attention on a set of three social processes others had overlooked-namely, the production, appropriation, and distribution of surplus labor.’ He argued that all societies display subgroups of their populations engaged in transforming nature by their labor. Part of the produce of this labor is consumed by those laborers: that is, their “necessary product” as yielded by their “necessary” labor. However, these laborers do more than necessary labor and therefore generate more than the necessary product. In its English translation, this Marxist “more” has come to be known as “surplus.”” Societies display different modes of appropriating that surplus (that is to say, different mechanisms for designating who receives such surpluses). Finally, the appropriators of surplus distribute portions of it to others. The combination of the three class processes-production, appropriation, and distribution of the surplus-comprises what Marx called a class structure.

Across the three volumes of Capital, Marx showed how European history depended in significant ways on its interacting class structures (capitalist, feudal, and other kinds). Since capitalism was, in his view, the prevalent (though hardly the only) kind of class structure in modern Europe, he aimed to show his contemporaries that the social injustices of their time were products in part of the particularly capitalist class structure (the capitalist organization of surplus labor). He sought to remedy the failure of other analysts, and especially of the social critics and radicals he saw as his allies, to understand the capitalist class structure and to include its transformation explicitly on their agendas for social change.

From the perspective of this interpretation of Marx, it follows that what Marxists want within a democratic movement now continues to be the explicit inclusion of the class structures-in the surplus-labor sense-among the declared objects of democratic decisionmaking. Thus, if a democratic movement’s goals are limited to the distribution (ownership) of social wealth and/or the distribution of political power and/or the organization of popular consciousness, that does not accommodate the Marxist goal specified above. For example, democratic movements that struggle to make state versus private ownership of productive assets an object of democratic decisionmaking but do not do likewise for class-for the ways in which surplus labor is to be organized-thereby reject the Marxist class agenda. The same applies to movements committed to democratizing the social distribution of political power (e.g., suffrage) or the cultural formations of consciousness (e.g., education) while ignoring class qua surplus labor. Only insofar as democratic movements commit to including the class structures of a society (the particular ways in which surplus labor is organized and its fruits distributed) among the actual objects of democratic decisionmaking do they include what is here termed the distinctive Marxist contribution to the democratic project.


Like feminists and antiracists, Marxists face the following possible contradiction. A particular democratic movement may focus on the hows and whos of democracy while excluding from the whats, the actual objects of democratic decisionmaking, those objects prioritized by feminists, antiracists, and Marxists. What then is to be done? If the society in which this democratic movement arises is sexist and racist, it will be understood that feminists and antiracists will voice strong criticisms of the democracy proposed by such a movement. They may plausibly claim that such a democratic movement secures and even strengthens sexism and racism by deflecting its activists’ thought and action away from those injustices. They may declare such a movement to be among their enemies politically. This would hardly amount to a blanket, totalizing opposition to democracy as an ideal or to its concretization in particular systems (such as how democracy is organized [direct or indirect] or who shares in democratic activity [all or some people]). Rather, it would constitute an opposition over the what of democracy, an opposition concerned with what are included among or excluded from the potential objects of democratic decisionmaking.

The particular Marxist position advanced here reasons in a parallel way. When Marx denounced petty-bourgeois democratic movements, I think he meant to criticize not their notions of direct or inclusive democratic decisionmaking, but rather their complicity in keeping the object of class in its surplus-labor sense off the popular agenda for social change (see Marx 1933, 45-7). They were advancing a democracy disinterested in the Marxian project of transforming class in its surpluslabor sense. Such movements’ focus on suffrage, empowerment, wealth redistribution, direct elections, recalls and referenda, and so forth struck him as crucially inadequate precisely because they colluded in the repression of alternative organizations of surplus labor, especially communist, thereby blocking them from becoming an explicit issue for debate, democratic decisionmaking, and social change.

Marxists who focus on class in its surplus-labor sense (in part to undo just that repression) confront movements for democracy that are complicitous with that repression-intentionally or not, knowingly or not. Such movements have occasioned Marxist critiques, as noted, in the past; they also confront Marxists nearly everywhere today, as in the Economy and Democracy movement based in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States but reaching beyond as well (Buzgalin 1992). Marxists have criticized such democratic movements and their definitions and visions of democracy even to the point of declaring them to be political enemies. Marx did that in his time. I think it is appropriate again, adjusted for changed circumstances, now.

To take one example of such criticism, we may consider the history of the Soviet Union. In the early years after 1917, masses of people participated for the first time in democratic decisionmaking. The Bolsheviks altered the how and who of democracy in radical ways that were stunningly exemplary for their time (and ours). They also altered the what of their democratized decisionmaking: property distribution, power distribution, cultural expression, and much else became actual objects of democratic decisionmaking for a while. The tragic history of how that democracy was later narrowed and then abolished (a history associated with Stalin’s name) is too well known to need repetition here. However, a Marxist approach to the history of the Soviet Union that proceeds with a concept of class in surplus-labor terms yields a critique of both its more and less democratic phases. This critique pinpoints both phases’ disregard for the organization of surplus labor inside industry, their common nontransformation of industrial class structure.

Neither in the immediate aftermath of the 1917 revolution nor later did Soviet leaderships make the specific transformation of the organization of surplus labor inside state industrial enterprises an explicit object of decisionmaking, democratic or otherwise (Resnick and Wolff 1994). Marx had defined exploitation as the organization of surplus labor such that its producers were not also its collective appropriators. The Bolsheviks made the eradication of exploitation a central commitment. One might thus have expected officially promoted debate and democratic decisionmaking regarding the various aspects of a communist reorganization of surplus labor inside industrial enterprises, a restructuring such that those enterprises’ industrial laborers who produced the surplus would themselves collectively appropriate and distribute it.

But neither such a debate nor such a class transformation inside state industrial enterprises occurred. The interpretations of Marx dominant among Soviet leaderships understood the transition from capitalism to communism differently, chiefly in terms of property (from private to state) and power (from market to state planning). The organization of surplus labor inside industrial enterprises was rarely even a secondary matter; it usually disappeared altogether from discussion and policy. Both during the relatively democratic period before Stalin and thereafter, the issue of class in the sense of surplus-labor organization was not among the objects of debate and policy; it was absent from the agenda for industrial change in the Soviet Ruccio (1984, 1986) has demonstrated the parallel point that in its technical focus (upon physical output maximization from the available physical inputs), central planning in the Soviet Union also ignored the issue of class as surplus labor.

In the prevalent Soviet interpretation of Marx, the transition from capitalism to socialism and communism entailed changing from private to state ownership of industrial property, subordinating markets to the power of state economic planning, subordinating state power to a workers’ political party, universalizing access to medical care, education, and housing, developing workers’ culture and consciousness, and so forth. These, rather than industrial surplus-labor reorganization, were understood to be “class changes.” Lenin (1961, 696), perhaps sensitive to the continuing exploitation inside industrial enterprises, had the courage to call the early Soviet Union an example of “state capitalism” (Moore 1957, 30ff.). His successors repressed the issue of class in terms of surplus labor by simply declaring that capitalism (and, by implication, exploitative class relations) had been vanquished and replaced by socialism. On the basis of that declaration, successive Soviet leaderships found any further discussion or action on the class organization of surplus labor inside the Soviet Union to be unnecessary, irrelevant, or evidence of hostility toward the Soviet Union. Communism came increasingly to be characterized as the Soviet goal and defined in vague, futuristic terms of production according to ability and distribution according to need. This formulation, too, served further to obscure the issue of the social organization of surplus labor.

Marxism, Class, and Democracy

If class were to become an actual object of democratic decisionmaking, that would mean discussing, debating, and choosing from among alternative social organizations of surplus labor (Cullenberg 1992). The strengths and weaknesses of past and present experiences with them would become matters of historical and theoretical research, public education, popular debate, and practical experimentation. The complex social effects of exploitative versus nonexploitative class structures would be exhaustively explored.

To the extent that class became an object of democratic decisionmaking, directly related questions would likewise become such objects. Class democracy involves more than choosing among alternative organizations of surplus labor for any society (communist, capitalist, feudal, and so on). Related questions to be decided by democratic decisionmaking would include, among others, the following.

Will different class structures coexist? if so, which class structures will coexist in which industries, regions, and so on and in what proportions?

Which individuals or groups will occupy the positions, respectively, of producers, appropriators, and receivers of distributions of the surplus in (co)existing class structures? Will they occupy different positions across their lifetimes?

In communist class structures, how would the people who are not producers of surplus (and therefore not its appropriators or distributors, either) nonetheless participate in deciding democratically how much surplus will be produced and who shall get what distributed portions of such surplus?

What mechanisms would be needed to subject the question of changing a society’s class structures to democratic decisionmaking?

At the moment when class is finally placed on the agenda for decisionmaking, how will account be taken of each society’s prior history of celebrating some class structures and demonizing others?

The contribution to democracy and to movements for democracy that Marxism can offer is lost when Marxists simply add their voices to support democracy in some general, abstract way. Likewise, the relation between Marxism and democracy is addressed inadequately by arguing the latter’s “indeterminacy” in the sense that democracy enhances both capitalism’s stability and the struggle for socialism (see Jessop 1980). That kind of argument, like abstract support, renders democracy an instrument we all define in the same way rather than, as stressed here, contesting the very content of democracy as central to what is at stake. On the one hand, it is true that democracy is about politics, or the social distribution of power, while Marxism in the interpretation used here is about class, or the economic organization of surplus labor. On the other hand, these two different sets of social processes help to constitute one another. Thus, the content of democracy includes a class component. For Marxists committed to democracy as well as to a collective, nonexploitative class structure, their democracy includes that class component. By contrast, when class is barred from the explicit decisionmaking agenda of a democratic system or movement, that exclusion can only work to sustain the existing class structures. Marxists have the right and the obligation to criticize such kinds of democracy and the movements that advocate them.