Theses of IV. Congress of the Revolutionary Communist International Tendency (RCIT), September 2023, www.thecommunists.net
1. Bourgeois democracy has been an important form of political superstructure in the history of capitalism – first and foremost in the old capitalist heartlands of Western Europe and the U.S. but, to a certain degree, also in later developed capitalist countries. However, with the decay of capitalism, bourgeois democracy becomes more and more hollow, impotent and discredited and, as a result, the ruling class increasingly turns to authoritarian, bonapartist forms of domination. This provokes, at the same time, with increasing frequency, political struggles of the popular masses in defence of democratic rights.
The class nature of bourgeois democracy and its democratic limitations
2. Marxists have always recognised the (limited) progressive value of bourgeois democracy for the working class and the oppressed. The existence of democratic rights facilitates the class struggle and makes it easier for the masses to recognise the class nature of the capitalist system. At the same time, however, Marxists insist that bourgeois democracy is no real democracy for the labouring masses but is rather a political form which disguises the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. „In explaining the class nature of bourgeois civilisation, bourgeois democracy and the bourgeois parliamentary system, all socialists have expressed the idea formulated with the greatest scientific precision by Marx and Engels, namely, that the most democratic bourgeois republic is no more than a machine for the suppression of the working class by the bourgeoisie, for the suppression of the working people by a handful of capitalists.“ (V. I. Lenin: Theses on Bourgeois Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, 1919)
3. The basis of such class character of bourgeois democracy is the capitalist nature of the social formation based on private ownership of the production means. Such concentration of wealth in the hands of a small minority of capitalists automatically ensures this class not only economic domination but also huge direct and indirect influence in all political and ideological spheres of the society. They control political parties, influence and bribe the top layers in the state apparatus, etc. In the epoch of imperialism, it is first and foremost the monopoly bourgeoisie which dominates the political and economic spheres of the society.
4. On the basis of the capitalist mode of production, a gigantic bureaucratic apparatus of bourgeois superstructure towers. This capitalist state machinery has the police, army, and justice as its core, furthermore a bureaucratic administration, parliamentary institutions, education sector, etc. It often controls – directly or indirectly – sizeable sectors of the economy. Other elements of bourgeois superstructure are the media (usually controlled by a few monopoly capitalists), religious institutions, entertainment sector, etc. All these sectors of bourgeois superstructure – aside from parliamentary institutions – are not even formally elected by the popular masses but either directly owned by capitalists or indirectly influenced via non-elected bureaucrats.
5. Historically, bourgeois democracy has included (more or less) forms of political participation of (larger or smaller) sectors of the popular masses. People could elect a parliament and possess several political rights (freedom of assembly, speech, religion, press, etc.). However, bourgeois democracy has nearly always been limited – even by its own bourgeois-democratic standards. First it is often combined with forms of absolutist rule (monarchy) or extraordinary powers for a single person (e.g. President) respectively for the military. As Trotsky once noted: „Every bourgeois democracy bears the features of Bonapartism.“ (Leon Trotsky: Again on the question of Bonapartism, 1935)
6. Secondly, full bourgeois-democratic rights have hardly ever applied to all sectors of the population. In the early times of bourgeois democracy, rights were denied to the poorer sectors of the population, to women, young people, native people, etc. Today even the most democratic capitalist states in Europe and North America withhold the right to vote from migrants without citizenship (who often constitute sizeable minorities of 1/5 – 1/3 of the population in major cities).
7. It is a principle of bourgeois democracy in any form that it excludes democracy from the core sectors of the society. At the workplace, decisions are made by the owner(s) resp. by (unelected) managers and directors. Furthermore, leading position in police, army, and justice – core sectors of the political superstructure – are usually neither eligible nor accountable. Furthermore, aside from the possibility to cast a ballot every few years, the popular masses have no possibility whatsoever to influence which government / administration is formed and what decisions it is making. In short, for the popular masses the possibility of participation in bourgeois democracy is limited to make a cross on the ballot every few years. In all the years in-between, decisions are made over their heads and against their interests.
The decay of bourgeois democracy
8. The Marxist analysis of bourgeois democracy as ultimately a form of capitalist dictatorship does not mean that the (monopoly) bourgeoisie rules as a united class or without alliances with other classes and layers. In fact, the monopoly bourgeoisie is often divided into several political camps which both collaborate and compete. Furthermore, the capitalist class – numerically a small force of usually not more than 1%-3% of the total population – could not dominate the society without basing themselves on other, allied, classes and layers. Such allied forces have been, in former times, semi-feudal classes of landowners and the nobility. In modern times, the bourgeoisie rests its rule basically on integrating sectors of the middle class and the labour aristocracy – constituting a kind of ruling bloc. In semi-colonial countries, the domestic bourgeoisie basically rules as a junior partner of the imperialist monopolies and Great Powers and tries to integrate sectors of the middle layers and the petty-bourgeoisie. The political structures of bourgeoise democracy constitute the framework in which such collaboration and competition between the different camps of the ruling class take place.
9. Hence, bourgeois democracy – formulated in a sociological way of class analysis – basically represents a pyramid-shaped system with the (domestic and/or foreign) monopoly bourgeoisie at the very top, followed by other sectors of the bourgeoise, and then sectors of the middle class, the petty-bourgeoisie and the labour aristocracy. Such a social formation of class rule can be relatively stable in a period of long-term boom of capitalism. However, the more capitalism is characterized by political and economic crisis, the more such a political-social system becomes instable.
10. This is even more the case in a period of acute capitalist decay as we saw it in the first half or the 20th century or since the Great Recession in 2008 which opened a new historic period of catastrophes and revolutionary crises. Such a period is characterised by sharp crisis, economic and ecological catastrophes, and political explosions. It sees an acceleration of the rivalry between imperialist Great Powers, between different camps within the ruling class as well as the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the oppressed classes. Hence, in such a period of decay and revolutionary and counterrevolutionary crises, the relationship between the classes and class fractions within the ruling bloc becomes highly instable and crisis-ridden. Consequently, bourgeois democracy becomes more and more instable, hollow, and corrupted, an empty shell for bourgeois cliques grabbing power.
Civilization threats, bonapartist attacks and democratic rights
11. With the ruling bloc in crisis, the (monopoly) bourgeoisie is increasingly forced to undermine bourgeois democracy, to attack democratic rights and to turn towards more authoritarian and bonapartist forms of domination. This is a general trend and not limited only to one specific sector of the ruling class. In its most brutal and obvious forms we have seen such shift to bonapartism in countries where the ruling class has carried out a military coup and created an undisguised dictatorship (e.g. Egypt 2013, Thailand 2014, Burma/Myanmar 2021, in a more gradual way in Tunisia in 2021/22). However, there also have been more subtle shifts towards bonapartism which leave some remnants of bourgeoisie democracy (e.g. Putin in Russia, Erdoğan in Türkiye, Modi in India, Orbán in Hungary). On the other hand, China – the most important imperialist power aside from the U.S. – has been a Stalinist-capitalist dictatorship since many years.
12. It would be utterly mistaken to imagine that attacks on bourgeois democracy and a shift towards bonapartism would be a policy only of “right-wing” sectors of the bourgeoisie. In fact, we see a similar tendency among the so-called “liberal” sectors of the bourgeoise. This was most obvious in the period of COVID Counterrevolution in 2020-22 when “right-wing” as well as “liberal” sectors of the ruling class imposed a policy of lockdowns and “Green Pass” control. More generally, we have seen in nearly all capitalist states an expansion of surveillance, of police power, and of protectionist power of control of the capitalist national states. This is a development which the RCIT characterises as Chauvinist State Bonapartism and which has become an increasingly important feature of bourgeois rule in the present historic period.
13. To put it more generally, the increasing number of civilization threats – real or exaggerated – both undermine capitalism and, at the same time, provide a pretext for the ruling class to justify its attacks on democratic rights and its shift towards bonapartism. Examples for such civilization threats are climate change and its devastating consequences (heat, water shortage, drought, floodings, etc.), nuclear power, Artificial Intelligence (AI), pandemics etc. We can expect an even more drastic acceleration of this tendency with the further development of AI and its deployment in all sectors of the society. Likewise, one can expect that the ruling class will use the worsening climate crisis as a pretext to attack democratic rights and to justify the expansion of power of the capitalist state apparatus.
14. Hence, the difference between “right-wing” and “liberal” sectors of the ruling class increasingly disappears. As a general tendency, both are turning towards Chauvinist State Bonapartism and both undermine and attack democratic rights. Of course, this does not mean that “right-wing” and “liberal” forces of the bourgeoisie necessarily attack in the same form or at the same time. During the period of COVID Counterrevolution, it was rather the “liberals” which were the driving force of bonapartism. On other occasions (e.g. attack on democratic rights of ethnic minorities, women, LGBT+, etc.), it is usually the “right-wing” forces which are pushing. In any case, there is no fundamental difference in the anti-workers and anti-popular character between these sectors of the bourgeoise.
15. This tendency of all the fractions of the bourgeoisie and its parties towards Bonapartism, is not only a tendency produced by the current crisis but is the product of a long agony of the bourgeois democratic regime. For some time, the ruling class has tried to supplant bourgeois democracy with forms of Bonapartism, but this attempt was cut short with the defeat of the Covid Counterrevolution and in cases where Bonapartism is sustained, as in China, it was weakened by mass actions of the working class.
16. The result is a phenomenon of transition, in which representative democracy is dying and is no longer sufficient to exercise class rule, the relationship of forces does not allow the capitalists to advance uniformly against the still existing democratic freedoms – fundamentally it has been not able to impose more authoritarian regimes around the world. But, at the same time, the revolutionary, Soviet alternative has not yet emerged, although the crisis and the pace of class struggle create exceptional conditions for the emergence of forms of direct democracy, such as those we saw in the Arab Spring in 2011.
17. This process is the symptom of the end of an era. Bourgeois democracy had its origin and highpoint in the 19th century. However, with the transformation of free competition capitalism into monopoly capitalism, into imperialism, the bourgeoisie needed other forms of domination, more in line with the centralization that occurred in the economic base. However, the struggle of the working class throughout the world, for democratic freedoms and elementary rights, prevented the capitalists from leaving behind the bourgeois democratic regime. The socialist revolution in Russia was fundamental in that process.
18. Today the depth of the crisis and the long cycle of agony of the bourgeois democratic regime objectively leads the capitalists to curtail rights and eliminate democratic liberties, which is why the fight for those liberties can only be carried out consistently by the working class. This also objectively converts this struggle and the slogans necessary to promote it into transitional ones, in a phase that cannot be separated from the struggle for the socialist revolution.
Workers democracy versus bourgeois democracy
19. Recognizing the anti-popular and anti-democratic character of bourgeois democracy, Marxists advocate not an illusionary concept of a “more progressive” version of bourgeoisie democracy but the socialist system of workers democracy (or “council” resp. “Soviet democracy” as it has been called after the experience of the Russian revolutions in 1905 and 1917). Such a system is built from below to the top, from councils – assemblies of the toiling and exploited masses – in workplaces and neighbourhoods to councils on local, regional, national and international level consisting of delegates from the respective bodies below. Such delegates must be electable and recallable by the grassroots, and they must not earn more than the average wage of skilled workers. Such a system based on council democracy can be established only as a result of a socialist revolution of the working class led by a Bolshevik-type party. It is such a system that is based on councils which will constitute what Marx called the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.
20. Councils respectively pre-forms of councils do not emerge only when a socialist revolution has already taken place. In fact, soviets start as organs of struggle, as an instrument where the workers and oppressed organise themselves to fight for their interests. Naturally, socialists recognise the importance of traditional mass organisations like trade unions, popular associations, etc. and fight within such entities for their transformation into fighting organisations. However, at the same time, we advocate the formation of soviet-type organs in all struggles and mass movements and call to make such organs the centre of the struggle. Socialists will work within such bodies even if they constitute only a minority. In such a situation, they will – on the basis of the united front tactic – criticise the reformist or populist leadership and work towards their replacement by a militant leadership.
21. At the same time, the RCIT rejects all reformist utopias which advocate a combination of “councils” and parliamentary democracy (e.g. the so-called “participatory democracy” promoted by various Bolivarian and reformist forces). Councils in a Marxist sense are organs of struggle of the workers and oppressed in order to fight and eventually overthrow capitalist rule. A reformist distortion of “councils” is rather a trap for integrating the popular masses into the bourgeois system. Marxists insists that bourgeois democracy can not be reformed – it must be replaced by a workers and poor peasants government based on popular councils and militias. Naturally, this does not exclude that socialists utilise the possibility to agitate within such reformist “councils” – similar to the socialist concept of utilising bourgeois parliaments for such purpose.
Tactics in the struggle for democratic rights
22. The fundamental rejection of bourgeois democracy by Marxists must not be confused with indifference to democracy as such or to concrete democratic rights. Quite the opposite, the RCIT considers the revolutionary struggle for democratic rights as an essential part of the liberation struggle of the working class. We resolutely defend democratic rights; we defend bourgeois democracy against capitalist dictatorship, and we defend a more democratic form of bourgeois democracy against a less democratic form.
23. Our approach to the defence of democratic rights is similar to the defence of national, women’s or LGBT+ rights. We do not imagine that national oppression would end if language rights of an ethnic minority would be recognised or that women’s liberation would be achieved if abortion becomes legal. Likewise, we do not suggest that capitalist exploitation will be abolished if workers get higher wages. However, socialists energetically fight for every single democratic right because it is such struggles which improve the living conditions of workers and oppressed and which help them to get political and organisational experience for the class struggle and, eventually, for the revolutionary overthrow of the ruling class.
24. However, Marxists do not spread the illusion that any form of bourgeois democracy could be fully democratic or could satisfy the needs of the working class and the popular masses. We do not defend rotten and corrupted bourgeois democracy against bonapartist attacks because we would view it as a system which has any vitality but because even the smallest democratic rights can be used by workers vanguard as a springboard for the class struggle.
25. It is such an understanding that encourages socialists to view each and every anti-democratic attack by a bourgeois government from the angle how such can be utilised to weaken the class enemy as well as to advance the consciousness and organisation of the workers and oppressed. Hence, socialists have to be highly sensitive to even the slightest attack on democratic rights and to any attempt of reactionary forces to enable a shift towards bonapartism. It is from such an angle that revolutionaries view a conflict between two bourgeois camps. Is it a conflict between two equally reactionary forces with neither of these reflecting any progressive interests (e.g. in the Sudanese civil war between General al-Burham and Hemedti in spring 2023); or is it a conflict between two bourgeois forces where one camp represents the main sector of the ruling class while the other camp, albeit bourgeois-populist in nature, reflects the aspirations of sectors of the popular masses. The latter was the case e.g. in Peru when the erratic bourgeois-populist President Pedro Castillo was overthrown and arrested by an institutional coup in December 2022, against which sectors of the masses responded with months-long militant street protests; another example is Tunisia where the trade union federation UGTT and bourgeois-Islamist forces around the opposition party Ennahda protest against the anti-democratic shift towards bonapartist dictatorship by President Kais since July 2021.
26. The RCIT strictly differentiates between political support for any (petty-)bourgeois force and practical siding with such forces in struggles against anti-democratic attacks. The first is absolutely illegitimate for Marxists and represents a kind of popular front capitulation. The latter is not only legitimate but also necessary since authentic socialists often represent a small minority among the masses while (petty-)bourgeois reformist or populist forces are able to lead sectors of the masses. In such situations it is imperative for socialists not to keep aloof but to intervene in mass struggles and to join forces with the camp opposing the anti-democratic attack. Such a united-front approach has to be combined with clear propaganda explaining the bourgeois-reformist limitations of the leadership as well as the necessity to build an alternative, revolutionary leadership.
27. The strategic task is to combine the struggle for democratic rights, the united front tactic towards reformist and populist forces with agitation for the independent organisation of the workers and oppressed and with the goal of revolutionary overthrow of the ruling class and the establishment of a workers and poor peasant government. This is an essence of the strategy of permanent revolution, of combining the struggle for democracy with the goal of socialist expropriation of the bourgeoisie. The struggle for such strategy can only be successful if the most advanced elements of the workers vanguard create a revolutionary party – nationally and internationally – in time. The RCIT calls all authentic revolutionaries to join us in this struggle of creating such a party!
Unity – Struggle -Victory!
No future without socialism! No socialism without a revolution! No revolution without a revolutionary party!