4. General Considerations on the Question of Democracy in the Imperialist Countries

Let us now elaborate some general thoughts on the question of democracy in the imperialist countries. Our fundamental thesis is that in the period of capitalist decay the democratic issues obtain increasing importance for the class struggle not only in the semi-colonial countries but also in the imperialist metropolises in the 21st century.

In one of the quotes cited above, Lenin stated that “imperialism is indisputably the ‘negation’ of democracy in general”. The experience of the past 120 years has shown that while Lenin’s thesis is fundamentally correct for the whole epoch of imperialism, it is obviously not true to the same degree in all different periods within this epoch. The period after World War II was certainly one in which bourgeois democracy was established in most imperialist countries.

This was the result of a combination of forces. At the end of the war and after the collapse of fascism the working class and the poor peasants rose up and fought for their rights. In a number of countries – Greece, France, and Italy – revolutionary situations emerged in the years 1944–47. Other countries experienced periods of sharp class struggles (e.g., Japan, Austria). However, these revolutionary possibilities were liquidated mainly because the Stalinists – who commanded the largest working class parties in most of these countries as well as in Eastern Europe – formed class-collaborationist popular front governments with openly bourgeois parties and subordinated the class struggle to the goals of the Moscow bureaucracy. The USSR’s interests were first to form a strategic alliance with Western imperialism which included leaving the capitalist profit system untouched in Western countries. After this turned out to be illusionary, because imperialism no longer needed the Stalinist collaborators following the end of the revolutionary situations in 1947/48, the Moscow bureaucracy strived for a peaceful coexistence with imperialism in the period of Cold War.

In addition, monopoly capital – as a result of the historic defeats of the working class and the undisputed absolute hegemony of US imperialism among the capitalist states – was able to restore the rate of profit and hence to open a new period of growth for world capitalism which lasted until the early 1970s. Strengthened by this economic boost, the ruling classes in the imperialist countries were able to make various social and democratic concessions to the working class (universal suffrage, the right to organize trade unions and to strike, higher wages, provision of health service, etc.) and in particular to the labor aristocracy. [1]


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To a certain degree a number of the concessions of this period – e.g., democratic rights like universal suffrage, the right to strike, etc. – are still in place in most Western imperialist countries. The main reason for this is contradictory: on the one hand until now the imperialist bourgeoisie could afford – despite the accelerating economic crisis of capitalism – to retain the formal framework of bourgeois democracy. They could do so because of the defeats of the working class – and the accompanying demoralization, defeat of strikes and drastically decreased trade union organization, “de-proletarization” of workers’ parties, etc. – as a result of the austerity offensive introduced in the early 1980s and the collapse of the Stalinist workers’ states in 1989–91. On the other hand, at the same time we have witnessed a acceleration of a mass democratic consciousness of a mass democratic consciousness among the working class and the middle layers. This mass democratic consciousness – expressed in an ever-increasing popular hatred against the greedy corporations, super-rich, and war-mongering as well as corrupt politicians – has been reinforced since the early 2000s (e.g., the mass anti-war, anti-globalization and occupy movements).

However, with the beginning of the new historic period of capitalist crisis in 2008/09 a qualitative change has emerged. Naturally, this transformation did not occur suddenly but was a result of preceding developments. First the capitalist crisis has qualitatively deepened and, hence, the bourgeoisie’s scope for concessions has dramatically decreased. In fact, it rather forced the capitalists to qualitatively accelerate the attacks on the working class as is demonstrated in the rapid rise of unemployment and the new wave of mass impoverishment. [2]

To illustrate, first we refer to the tremendous increase of unemployment within the Euro-Zone to 11.5% by 2014 which caused the Washington Post to warn that “the euro zone is experiencing conditions that some economists say echo the Great Depression.[3] In the United States, the Labor Force Participation Rate, i.e., the share of people who are employed, has dropped from 66% before the start of the recession in December 2007 to only 62.8% in May 2014 despite the so-called “recovery” of the past years. [4]

Related to this increased unemployment it the continually growing need of the bourgeoisie to force down the cost of labor. In all imperialist countries, this has led to the creation of a growing layer of working poor in addition to an increasing numbers of migrant workers. At the same time, as we have shown in previous publications, migrants with origins in the semi-colonial world – including second and third generation migrants – form a significant sector of the urban working class in the imperialist metropolises. The migrants’ growing social weight makes it impossible for the ruling class to simply treat them as slaves without any rights (as was formerly the case e.g., in Germany and Austria at the beginning in the 1960s when they were so-called “guest workers”). Nevertheless, the migrants face massive racist oppression on an economic, social, and political level. On the other hand, the bourgeoisie whips up chauvinism in order to repress the migrants and to use them as scapegoats to divert the anger of the domestic working class. Migrants constitute – in their huge majority – an oppressed national minority of super-exploited workers who belong to the lower strata of the proletariat. They represent a bridgehead of the semi-colonial South in the imperialist societies and reflect the growing interrelationship between the two sectors of class struggle.

We refer readers to our detailed elaborations on the role and importance of migration. [5] Here, we content ourselves with pointing out that in the US the share of migrants amongst the population grew from 5.2% (1960) to 12.3% (2000) to more than 14% (2010). In Western Europe the migrant share of the population grew from about 4.6% (1960) to nearly 10% (2010). [6] And these are official figures which ignore migrants of the second and third generation as well as illegal migrants.

To illustrate the role of migrants and ethnic minorities in imperialist metropolises we will give a few examples. As early as the first years of the new millennium half of all resident workers in New York were black, Hispanic, or belonged to some other national minority. In inner and outer London, respectively 29% and 22% of residents were from ethnic minorities in 2000. In our study on racism and migrants we have shown how in Vienna (the capital city of Austria) migrants represent 44% of the population. Two thirds of them come from the former Yugoslavia, Turkey, or the Eastern European states belonging to the EU.

To sum up, the growing social strength of the migrant sector of the proletariat, the accelerating polarization of capitalist society, the spread of chauvinism – all this makes the oppression of migrants one of the key issues of the struggle for democracy in the imperialist societies.

Closely related to this is the issue of refugees from the South who in growing numbers are trying to enter the imperialist states. This phenomenon illustrates, in the most brutal way, the utter misery of people living in the South – super-exploited by the imperialist monopolies which have ruined their livelihoods – who try to flee to the “pockets of affluence” of the North and who are treated there as aliens and thieves. [7]

In addition, we see that in the period of historic crisis “old” national (including racial) questions have also intensified. The mass protests against the systematic killing of black people by US police and the emergence of the #Black Lives Matters movement in 2013 as well as the involvement of many migrants and ethnic minorities in the militant August Uprising in Britain in 2011 demonstrate this clearly. [8] Likewise, Catalan nationalism has risen dramatically and today the clear majority of the Catalans want to separate from Spain and form their own state.

From this it follows that in building a revolutionary party in imperialist countries, it is crucial that from the beginning revolutionaries orient themselves towards winning over militants from among the migrants and national and ethnic minorities. Likewise, revolutionaries must fight for a strong internationalist outlook, in particular towards building close ties with the struggles of the workers and oppressed in the semi-colonial world.


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Another crucial area in which imperialism increasingly nullifies democracy is the massive expansion of the state apparatus – the “New Leviathan” as Nikolai Bukharin rightly called it. [9] Below we show some figures which reflect the massive growth of the imperialist state apparatus since the beginning of the epoch of monopoly capitalism 120 years ago. While the range of state spending was the equivalent of only 8–18% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 1900, this figure grew to 40–57% by 2012. (See Table 1)


Table 1 State Spending of Selected Imperialist Countries, 1880–2012 (Percentage of GDP) [10]

                               1880                      1913                      1950                     1973                     1992                     2012

France                    11.2                          8.9                       27.6                       38.8                       51.0                       56.8

Germany                10.0                         17.7                       30.4                       42.0                       46.1                       44.2

Britain                     9.9                          13.3                       34.2                       41.5                       51.2                       47.0

Japan                      9.0                          14.2                       19.8                       22.9                       33.5                       41.8

USA                          -                              8.0                       21.4                       31.1                       38.5                        40.1


If we also take into account the rapid growth of public debt during recent decades, the increasing power and role of the imperialist state becomes even more pronounced. (See Table 2)


Table 2  Public Debt of Selected Imperialist States, 1980 - 2014 (Percentage of GDP) [11]

                                             1980                     1990                     2000                      2014

France                                   21.0                      35.4                        58.7                       95.0

Germany                               30.3                       41.3                       59.0                       74.7

Britain                                   51.4                       31.4                       39.1                       89.4

Japan                                    52.5                       69.4                      143.8                     247.0

USA                                       41.2                       62.0                       53.1                      104.8


From these figures we see just how powerful the imperialist New Leviathan has become in the epoch of monopoly capitalism, making as valid as ever Lenin’s observation in State and Revolution:

Imperialism—the era of bank capital, the era of gigantic capitalist monopolies, of the development of monopoly capitalism into state-monopoly capitalism—has clearly shown an extraordinary strengthening of the “state machine” and an unprecedented growth in its bureaucratic and military apparatus in connection with the intensification of repressive measures against the proletariat both in the monarchical and in the freest, republican countries.[12]

Today this “imperialist robber state” – to use another useful characterization of Bukharin [13] – becomes an increasingly aggressive tool of the ruling class both domestically as well as abroad. The never-ending increase of surveillance of the population by the imperialist state, the growing violation of democratic rights, the increasing numbers of imperialist wars (Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, Syria, etc.) in the past one and a half decades underline this thesis.


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Hence, we see that in the present historical period which opened in 2008/09, Lenin’s statement “imperialism is the negation of democracy” is of particular relevance. Monopoly capital in all imperialist states becomes increasingly anti-democratic in light of the advancing decay of capitalism. The acceleration of the capitalist crisis leads to an acceleration of anti-democratic reaction. To put it another way, the law of uneven and combined development in the period of capitalist decay provokes inevitable social regression and increasing anti-democratism.

Naturally, the struggle for a democratic program is posed in imperialist countries differently than it is in the semi-colonial world. At the time of Lenin and Trotsky, to a certain degree there still existed in imperialist societies semi-feudal modes of production and well as the remnants of the nobility which continued to exploit the oppressed classes in this arrangement (e.g. the Junkers in East Germany, the Tennō in Japan). Today, this is still the case in the semi-colonial world where a number of fundamental tasks of the democratic revolution remain unresolved, just a few important examples being: the semi-colonial world’s dependence on and super-exploitation by the imperialist monopolies and states; the huge class of landless or nearly landless peasants in face of a small band of large land owners; and the dominant role of the military which often results in Bonapartist or semi-Bonapartist dictatorships.

Clearly, semi-feudal modes of production no longer exist in the today’s imperialist societies. Nearly all features of the semi-feudal social formation have been eliminated, if we leave aside some social and political remnants like the monarchies in Western Europe (there are currently 12 monarchies in Western Europe, including the Vatican; 7 of them are members of the EU).

In this sense it would be wrong for Bolshevik-Communists in the imperialist countries to speak about the need for a “democratic revolution” as we do regarding the semi-colonial world. Trotsky once characterized the difference between the democratic questions between the two sectors of the world quite well when he wrote:

While destroying democracy in the old mother countries of capital, imperialism at the same time hinders the rise of democracy in the backward countries. [14]

Thus while during the 19th century democracy was still suppressed or threatened by the pre-capitalist nobility, the absolutist bureaucracy and the opportunist bourgeoisie, today it is threatened by imperialist monopoly capital and its lackeys in the semi-colonial countries. Yes, today there are no semi-feudal modes of production within the imperialist countries, but this does not at all imply that capitalism has become “pure.” What we are facing instead is decaying, rotten imperialist capitalism. Such a system creates new contradictions and exacerbates long-existing ones. As the reactionary offensive of the imperialist bourgeoisie accelerates, it makes immediate and democratic demands an increasingly more important part of the program for permanent revolution within the imperialist countries.


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Another difference between the early 20th century and today is that, at the time of Lenin and Trotsky, there were bourgeois parties like the liberal party of the Russian bourgeoisie – the Kadets. However, despite their calls for freedom and legal rights, these bourgeois parties were afraid of waging any serious struggle for democratic rights against the Tsarist regime. The Marxists of then rightly denounced them not only as counter-revolutionary vis-à-vis the interests of the proletariat but also with regard to the consistent democratic interests of the popular masses (questions of national liberation, republicanism, etc.)

However, the liberals of today, like the Green Party or the so-called Pirate Parties, are much more cowardly and impotent that even the Kadets were a century ago! Today, the Green Party even openly joins imperialist governments which the Kadets did not dare to do so until the February Revolution of 1917. While at that time petty-bourgeois parties like the Social-Revolutionary Party had a mass following among the rural population and partial support among the urban proletarian masses, nothing like this can be said today about such caricatures of radical protest like the so-called Pirate Parties.


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To summarize, the struggle for democratic demands within the imperialist countries during the period of capitalist decay becomes increasingly relevant given the unrelenting attacks of the ruling class. However, this struggle can only be fought by the working class – in alliance with the proletariat and the huge popular masses of the South – and as such it must be integrated into a transitional program which directs the masses towards the socialist revolution.

Therefore, in the RCIT’s program we have raised the following demands which we consider as crucial for the democratic program of permanent revolution in the imperialist countries:

“* Down with the monarchies and dictatorships! For the elimination of Bonapartist institutions such as a Military Council or National Security Council, a second parliamentary chambers, the presidency, etc.

* In the struggle against dictatorships, and also against the corrupt “democracies” we advocate a radical purge of the state apparatus! For the complete screening of all state officials and their actions - especially police, army, intelligence, administration, legal, enterprise directors, etc. - under the control of councils!

* Defence of the right to strike, freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of political and union organising, as well as the freedom to make use of all communication and information media!

* Radical democratisation of the administration and jurisdiction: election and possibility to recall the entire administrative apparatus by the people! Trial by jury for all crimes and misdemeanours! Abolition of judicial office and replacement by jurisdiction by a jury under the advice of legally qualified experts!

* For the extension of local self-government!

* No to police and the surveillance state! Against expanding the powers of police and courts! For the replacement of the apparatus of repression by workers’ and people’s militia![15]

[1] See on this e.g. Keith Hassel: Revolutionary Theory and Imperialism, in: Permanent Revolution (Journal of Workers Power Britain), No. 8 (1989)

[2] See on this RCIT: Perspectives for the Class Struggle in Light of the Deepening Crisis in the Imperialist World Economy and Politics, January 2015, http://www.thecommunists.net/theory/world-situation-january-2015/; RCIT: The World Situation and the Tasks of the Bolshevik-Communists, March 2013, http://www.thecommunists.net/theory/world-situation-march-2013/; Michael Pröbsting: The Great Robbery of the South, RCIT, Vienna 2013, see in particular chapter 3 and 5, http://www.great-robbery-of-the-south.net/great-robbery-of-south-online/download-chapters-1/chapter3/ and http://www.great-robbery-of-the-south.net/great-robbery-of-south-online/download-chapters-1/chapter5/; Michael Pröbsting: World economy – heading to a new upswing? (2009), in: Fifth International Vol.3, No. 3, http://www.thecommunists.net/theory/world-economy-crisis-2009/

[3] Lori Montgomery and Griff Witte: Japan recession, Europe stagnation cast pall over global economic outlook, Washington Post, Nov. 18 2014

[4] James Sherk: Not Looking for Work: Why Labor Force Participation Has Fallen During the Recovery, The Heritage Foundation, Backgrounder No. 2722, September 4, 2014, p. 4

[5] See on this e.g. Michael Pröbsting: The Great Robbery of the South, see in particular pp. 112-117 and pp. 179-188; Michael Pröbsting: Marxismus, Migration und revolutionäre Integration (2010); in: Der Weg des Revolutionären Kommunismus, Nr. 7, pp. 38-41, http://www.thecommunists.net/publications/werk-7. We have published a summary of this study in English-language: Michael Pröbsting: Marxism, Migration and revolutionary Integration, in: Revolutionary Communism, No. 1 (English-language Journal of the RCIT), http://www.thecommunists.net/oppressed/revolutionary-integration/

[6] See Rainer Münz/Heinz Fassmann: Migrants in Europe and their Economic Position: Evidence from the European Labour Force Survey and from Other Sources (2004), pp. 5-6 and Carlos Vargas-Silva: Global International Migrant Stock: The UK in International Comparison (2011), www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk, p. 5

[7] The character of the oppression and discrimination of migrants have been presented well on an artistic field in the film District 9.

[8] See on this e.g. Adam Beltz and Nina Gunić: US: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin — For a Revolutionary Black Liberation Movement! 13.12.2014, http://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/north-america/ferguson/

Nina Gunić and Michael Pröbsting: These are not "riots" – this is an uprising of the poor in the cities of Britain! The strategic task: From the uprising to the revolution!, 10.8.2011, http://www.rkob.net/new-english-language-site-1/uprising-of-the-poor-in-britain/; Michael Pröbsting: The August uprising of the poor and nationally and racially oppressed in Britain: What would a revolutionary organisation have done?, 18.8.2011, http://www.rkob.net/new-english-language-site-1/august-uprising-what-should-have-been-done/; Bericht der RKOB-Delegation über ihren Aufenthalt in London 2011, http://www.rkob.net/international/berichte-uprising-in-gb/; Michael Pröbsting: Five days that shook Britain but didn’t wake up the left. The bankruptcy of the left during the August uprising of the oppressed in Britain: Its features, its roots and the way forward; in: RCIT: Revolutionary Communism No. 1, (September 2011), http://www.thecommunists.net/theory/britain-left-and-the-uprising/

[9] Nikolai Bukharin: Toward a Theory of the Imperialist State (1915); in: Nikolai Bukharin: Selected Writings on the State and the Transition to Socialism (Edited and Translated by Richard B. Day), M. E. Sharpe, Armonk 1982, pp. 6-37, https://www.marxists.org/archive/bukharin/works/1915/state.htm

[10] The figures (except for the year 2012) are taken from: Robert Pollin: Globalization, Inequality and Financial Instability: Confronting the Marx, Keynes and Polanyi Problems in Advanced Capitalist Economies (2000); Political Economy Research Institute Working Papers No. 8, p. 30. The figures for 2012 are taken from: European Commission: Statistical Annex of European Economy, Spring 2015, Table “General government Total expenditure (% of GDP at market prices)”, pp. 158-159

[11] European Commission: Statistical Annex of European Economy, Spring 2015, Table “General government consolidated gross debt”, pp. 164-165

[12] V. I. Lenin: State and Revolution. The Marxist Theory of the State and the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution (1917); in: LCW 25, p. 415

[13] Nikolai Bukharin and Evgenji Preobrashensky: A. B. C. of Communism, Vol. I, The Marxian Educational Society, Detroit 1921, p. 124

[14] Leon Trotsky: Marxism In Our Time (1939), https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1939/04/marxism.htm

[15] RCIT: The Revolutionary Communist Manifesto (2012), p. 46, http://www.thecommunists.net/rcit-manifesto/revolutionary-struggle-for-democracy/