Why do so many people assume that democracy and capitalism go hand in hand, and that democracy and socialism are incompatible?


The People, July 13, 1991, page 6

Why do so many people assume that democracy and capitalism go hand in hand, and that democracy and socialism are incompatible?

There is a historical basis for the association between capitalism and democracy. Two centuries ago, when the capitalist class was a revolutionary class, straggling against the autocratic rule of the feudal monarchies, it was in the material interest of the rising capitalist class (and of the independent farmers and craftsmen who owned their own tools of production), to raise the demands for representative government, freedom of expression and assembly, and other democratic rights.

Thus, property rights, and the freedom of property owners to start a business and engage in commercial activities without feudal restraints (i.e., "free enterprise"), are historically linked to the political democracy ushered in by the bourgeois revolutions, especially those in France and the United States.

Furthermore, historically, the capitalist class does prefer to exercise its political rule through democratic means, as long as its rule of the economy in secure and the government is effectively serving its interests. Autocratic or totalitarian political rule does not reflect the wishes and will of various competing capitalist interests as reliably as a representative government; it is more difficult to keep accountable and to replace when necessary, and it requires maintaining a larger and more expensive repressive apparatus.

Thus, so long as the working class can be successfully propagandized and otherwise "kept in line," indoctrinated and/or duped into voting for politicians and parties that uphold capitalism and capitalist-class interests, then the capitalist class will favor bourgeois democracy over autocracy. Indeed, the maintenance of political democracy -- however hollow it may become under a system of economic despotism -- is itself a useful means of propagandizing workers into believing that they have real power over their lives. It can serve "as a safety valve for the effervescing passions of the country," as Karl Marx once observed.

However, the union between capitalist social and economic rule and political democracy is inherently unstable -- because the capitalist system is inherently unstable. The class struggle, intensified during periods of economic crisis, has repeatedly driven the capitalist classes of various countries to embrace reaction, repression and autocracy, time and again, in order to preserve their social and economic rule.

As Marx well described it in explaining Louis Bonaparte's rise to power in France in 1850:

"The bourgeoisie admits that its own interest orders it to raise itself above the danger of governing hi its own name; that, in order to restore rest to the land, its own bourgeois parliament must, before all, be brought to rest; that, in order to preserve its own social power unhurt, its political power must be broken; that the private bourgeois can continue to exploit the other classes and rejoice in property, family, religion and order only under the condition that their own class be condemned to the political nullity of the other classes; that, in order to save their purse, the crown must be knocked off their heads, and the sword, which was to shield them, must at the same time be hung over their heads as a sword of Damocles."

Today the notion that capitalism and democracy go hand in hand (or worse, the notion that they mean the same thing) has been rendered ridiculous by decades of contradictory evidence. Nazi Germany and fascist Italy were political expressions of capitalist rule, as are the totalitarian regimes of dozens of lesser countries today. And as the capitalist system experiences deeper and deeper crises, on a global scale, the trend toward repressive, autocratic rule can be expected to accelerate.

As The People and the Socialist Labor Party have chronicled, there are plenty of disturbing signs of that trend in this country today -- from the growing consolidation of power in the executive branch, to the exclusion of minority parties from the ballot, to the ongoing attacks on the Bill of Rights-even without any significant working-class challenge to the capitalists' domination of the political process.

Accordingly, the fact that many people still associate capitalism with democracy today may be explained primarily by the ability of the capitalist propaganda machine to teach and reinforce that association in the face of contrary evidence. Firmly lodged in American culture by the weight of tradition, the association is regularly reinforced by our education system, the capitalist media and the nationalistic passions they help spread about the "American way of life."

Similarly, the notion that socialism is incompatible with democracy is partly the product of a historic fact -- namely, the emergence of class-ruled systems in the Soviet Union, China and other countries that have falsely described themselves as "socialist" -- and partly the product of capitalist propaganda that has reinforced the big lie that these countries are socialist.

The fact that Marx and Engels championed universal suffrage, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and a free press in the struggles of their time; the fact that their conception of socialism was a classless society administered by "associations of free and equal producers"; the fact that they hailed the workers' participatory democracy of the Paris Commune as a harbinger of socialism -- such inconvenient truths are simply ignored by the capitalist propaganda machine in its tireless efforts to steer workers away from socialism.

The important thing to bear in mind, however, is that, powerful as it is, the capitalist propaganda machine is not invincible. The class struggle continues, and the capitalist system continues to generate growing social problems, regardless of whether or not the capitalist media and other institutions choose to acknowledge them. Sooner or later, material conditions will push masses of workers to seek out alternatives to the present social system. That development, combined with the steadfast, energetic educational efforts of socialists, will ultimately permit the truth to prevail.