We Need to Fight for a Democratic Republic Again

Before the Russian Revolution in 1917, Marxist parties pursued a strategy of winning the battle for democracy. This meant establishing a democratic republic in all countries that lacked universal and equal suffrage, regardless of economic development. 

Democratic republicanism posits that a democratic state is one in which unimpeded lawmaking power lies in a unicameral legislature with representatives elected by universal and equal suffrage. The theoretical roots of democratic republicanism were established by various thinkers, including Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, Gracchus Babeuf, and the English Chartists. 

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels took hold of these theoretical roots and applied them to the Industrial Revolution and the formation of the English working class. According to Marxist theory, the working class would gain political power through a democratic republic. From that position of power, workers, making up the majority of society, would begin socializing the economy, and eventually, humanity would enter a new period of history. 

This Marxist synthesis — a developing working class armed with the strategy of democratic republicanism — is evident in The Principles of Communism, the Communist Manifesto, and the Critique of the Draft [German] Social-Democratic Program of 1891. After Marx and Engels’ deaths, it remained common knowledge among socialists thatdemocracy means the dominion of the working class, neither more nor less.” Theorists in the Second International picked up where Marx and Engels had left off, as seen in Karl Kautsky’s The Republic and Social Democracy in France, Rosa Luxemburg’s Theory and Practice, the 1903 Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party Program, and the Socialist Party of America’s Platform of 1912

However, the Russian Revolution and the subsequent civil war threw everything into the air. Circumstances forced Vladimir Lenin to repudiate democracy and adopt Jacobinism, in which an increasingly select group of people controlled the state. Rosa Luxemburg’s analysis of the Bolshevik’s dilemma during the earliest months of the revolution was on the mark; it was one thing to disband the long-demanded constituent assembly for reasons that Luxemburg herself appreciated, and quite another to make a virtue out of a necessity and claim, as many Bolsheviks did, that democracy had been superseded by socialism. As a result, the democratic republicanism of classical Marxism was lost after the Russian Revolution, resulting in a steep decline in constitutional agitation.

However, times are changing. Thanks to the work of a handful of scholars, the American left is rediscovering democratic republicanism. In the 1960s, Hal Draper wrote The Myth of Lenin’s ‘Concept of the Party,’ presenting Lenin as one of history’s foremost revolutionary democrats. Draper worked contemporaneously with Richard N. Hunt, whose 1974 book, The Political Ideas of Marx and Engels, traced the two men’s relationship with democratic republicanism. Draper and Hunt were contemporaries of Neil Harding, who, in his 1977 book Lenin’s Political Thought, wrote that according to Lenin, workers didn’t have to have come to “socialist consciousness” to acquire “political consciousness.” 

In 2008, Lars T. Lih, who had read Draper and Harding, published Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? In Context. There, he wrote, “if you were willing to fight for political freedom, you were Lenin’s ally, even if you were hostile to socialism. If you downgraded the goal of political freedom in any way, you were Lenin’s foe, even if you were a committed socialist.” Lenin’s belief that establishing a democratic republic is the paramount task of the working-class movement — is simply orthodox Marxism. 

In 2009, the British Marxist Mike Macnair published Revolutionary Strategy, which reintroduced the Second International’s democratic republic demand to a small American audience. In 2011, in Jacobin’s second issue, Seth Ackerman published Burn the Constitution, in which he explained that the US Constitution makes it “virtually impossible for the electorate to obtain a concerted change in national policy by a collective act of political will.” Finally, in 2018, former Student for a Democratic Society (SDS) member Gil Shaeffer wrote an essay about SDS, Lenin’s democratic republicanism, and the Constitution titled, You Can’t Use Weathermen to Show Which Way the Wind Blew

Democratic republicanism is currently the smallest of three general perspectives within the American left. I will refer to the others as “electoral” and “socialist.” To varying degrees, all three perspectives recognize that America is insufficiently democratic. However, only democratic republicanism chooses to make democracy its primary strategic goal and the content of its political agitation. 

The electoral perspective focuses on concrete demands for the immediate improvement of people’s lives through electoral campaigns and legislation. The primary focus of those holding this perspective the areas where energy concentrates is turning out the vote and pushing reforms. The United States has a democracy problem. However, the right person in the right branch of government can use the existing political structure to make the country more democratic and empower the working class. Political strategy amounts to getting the right person into office. Political agitation focuses on getting out the vote and popularizing particular demands. Those not already engaged will become politically active by learning about a specific campaign or initiative. 

Those holding the socialist perspective tend to reduce democracy and the Constitution to “superstructural” phenomena – the real power lies at the point of production. Those with this perspective primarily focus on strike support, tenant organizing, and other “local” projects. To the extent that the socialist perspective has a strategy, it avoids politics and focuses on energizing the working class. The proletariat is like a slumbering bear – once it awakens, socialism will follow. The job of socialists is to provide the bear with sufficient food and motivation. Political agitation focuses on a vision of what life could be like in a future socialist society. Those not already engaged will become politically active by learning Marxist economics and the “good news” of socialism.

Democratic republicanism says that the United States is not a democracy. We need a mass democratic movement. Concrete demands must be coupled with criticisms of our undemocratic political system to explain the lack of legislative progress and the necessity of changing the political system. To realize reforms and socialism, we need a democratic constitution. Our political agitation should connect each abuse to a lack of political power and self-governance. Those not already politically active will become engaged through the language of democracy and universal and equal rights. 

In the United States, the Constitution is like the proverb of the blind men and the elephant: someone touches a leg or the trunk but can’t understand how all the appendages fit together. Unable to understand what’s going on, people squabble amongst themselves. Once in a while, someone realizes it’s an elephant but decides to look the other way, maybe thinking the obstacle is too big or that it’s not an opportune time to raise the issue. 

The United States is not a democracy according to the standards laid out by Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Kautsky, Debs, and, most consistently and clearly, Lenin. Socialists in America used to be among the most vociferous critics of our undemocratic Constitution. The classic Marxist strategy was to create a democratic constitution and a democratic republic. This strategy is still relevant.