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Mainstream, VOL XLV, No 32

Rethinking Marxism and Democracy

Sunday 29 July 2007, by Arup Kumar Sen


The relationship between Marxism and Democracy is a very complicated issue. A symposium on this relationship was held in New York City in 1964 and attended by about four hundred people. The proceedings of the symposium were published in the next year under the editorship of the noted political thinker, Herbert Aptheker. Robert S. Cohen, Professor in the Department of Physics, Boston University, concluded his deliberation with a pessimistic observation:

Marxism is one attempt to make democracy genuine, to make it fruitful of human goods, to take the inequalities from human existence. Thus far, practical Marxism has been beset by undemocratic forces and tendencies, by racism and prejudice among those who speak in its name, by arrogance and brutality among its own practitioners, by ignorance and narrowness in their vision…1

The recent state-sponsored atrocities on the people of Singur and Nandigram in West Bengal more or less substantiate the pessimistic observation made more than 40 years ago.

IN fact, Marx did not have to contend with the ‘great crux’ of the Marxist movement—the relationship of leaders or party to the class that they allegedly represent. The growth of mass political parties only got under way towards the end of Marx’s life. Lenin was without doubt pre-eminently a man of politics. His most enduring contribution to Marxist theory was to fill an evident gap in Marx by delineating the relationship of the party to the class it represents. Lenin was not against mass organisations, but he insisted that they must be quite separate from the party. What most distressed Lenin in his last years was the growth of bureaucracy. By early 1921, Lenin characterised the Soviet Union as ‘a workers’ state with bureaucratic distortion’.2 And a year later, at the last Party Congress he attended, Lenin admitted:

If we take that huge bureaucratic machine, that gigantic heap, we must ask: who is directing whom? I doubt very much whether it can truthfully be said that the Communists are directing that heap. To tell the truth they are not directing, they are being directed.3

In Marxist discourse, three distinct concepts of democracy can be discerned. These can be labelled as the participatory, the parliamentary and the vanguard models of democracy. After a thorough analysis of all the models of democracy, the eminent political thinker, Joseph V. Femia, concluded at the end of the 20th century:

Marxism has failed to produce a coherent and convincing theory of democracy…In pratice, Marxism has achieved nothing better than vanguard dictatorship, differing from one country to another only in its degree of brutality and cynicism.4

The prospect of Marxism in the 21st century will largely depend on whether it can provide a workable model of democracy with a human face.n


1. Robert S. Cohen, ‘Marxism and Democracy’ in Herbert Aptheker (ed.) Marxism and Democracy: A Symposium, Humanities Press, New York, 1965, pp. 15-16.

2. See David McLellan, ‘Politics’ in David McLellan (ed.), Marx: the First Hundred Years, Fontana Paperbacks, 1983, pp. 151, 160-71.

3. Quoted in ibid., pp. 171-72.

4. Jeseph V. Femia, Marxism and Democracy, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1993, pp. 69, 141-142.

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