What is democracy, and where is it going?
Illustration from a 1986 edition of 'The Communist Manifesto' published in the Soviet Union. | S.A. Geta / Progress Publishers

This question has been hanging over American political discussion for the past three years. Certainly, it’s always been a contentious topic in this country, but the 2016 campaign season and election really brought it to the forefront of our collective political consciousness.

The dictionary defines democracy as “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation, usually involving periodically held free elections.” When taken seriously, democracy places heavy responsibility upon the citizen. Yet when citizens fail to uphold that responsibility, wealthy corporate and individual donors are more than happy to take their place—at least according to the conventional viewpoint.

From a Marxist perspective, however, democracy is one of the few ways in which the masses can exercise some control over the government—yet because of the bourgeois nature of the government, the voices and desires of the masses are often suppressed. Consider the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. Consider the massive sums of money spent by the super PACs, wealthy donors, corporations, and special interest groups that have undue influence over our elections. Consider the superficial media coverage of political issues and social media hacking. Consider the undemocratic Electoral College system, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and electronic fraud. These and countless other examples show the systematic exclusion of the masses from the political process.

We know that reforms alone cannot fundamentally change the system—this has been proved most acutely by the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision, which gutted key elements of the Voting Rights Act, further limiting the political participation of minorities. Hard-won gains cannot last forever in a system designed to counteract those gains.

In “Social Reform or Revolution?” Rosa Luxemburg accurately diagnoses the problem: “[T]he representative institutions, democratic in form, are in content the instruments of the ruling class.” These institutions are not truly democratic but are rather a form of bourgeois democracy for the wealthy.

Consider the reality of running for elected office. It is an opportunity that is only practically available to the rich—those who can afford to take a year or more off work to travel, raise funds, and campaign. Furthermore, the candidates who can attract the most money—typically from the donors with the deepest pockets—can afford better advertising and therefore have greater influence over potential voters.

Politics is a sport whose participants tend to be overwhelmingly rich, white, and male. To modern liberals, the lack of diversity in government institutions is a sign of failure on the part of the American democratic system. To Marxists, however, this is not a failure but rather the natural result of bourgeois democracy. A system is never built to exclude those who created it. Therefore, the only system that will include the people will be a system created by the people.

“Democracy,” as Lenin said, “is indispensable to socialism.” But is socialism not also indispensable to democracy?

Law can never be higher than its economic base. In a capitalist system, legal and political institutions were designed by the bourgeoisie to the benefit of—themselves! Is it any wonder that only property-owning white men were originally allowed to vote in this country? The law was based on the laws of property relations. Even today, such a disparity of political equality persists. Even though the legal right to vote has been greatly expanded, wealthy white men are still the ones who most benefit from this right. Need we remind ourselves that the current Congress—widely celebrated as the most diverse ever—is still 78% white and 76.3% male, with a median net worth more than five times higher than that of the average American?

Certainly, progress has been made in diversifying government. However, we must be prepared for the inevitable reaction. Reactionary forces opposed to the election of the first Black president, after all, were an undeniable factor in the subsequent election of Trump. Reaction against the diversity of Congress has already begun, with racist and xenophobic comments directed toward first-term congresswomen of color. Is it surprising that they, like Obama, have also been branded communists by some on the right? As the Communist Manifesto asks, “Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as communistic by its opponents in power?”

If one were not viewing the state of American democracy today from a Marxist viewpoint, it would seem like a failure of the democratic-republican system. Yet, armed with the knowledge that bourgeois democracy can never be raised above the bourgeois base of the economy, Marxists are able to truly diagnose the ills of the system. But diagnosis is not enough; we must cure. “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways,” Marx wrote; “the point, however, is to change it.”

Many today are wondering if change can be enacted from within a system designed to combat change. As we have seen, reforms are transient, and the system is naturally exclusive, but the power of the people is neither. A change in the base of economic relations—the end of the exploitative profit system—is the only way to change the superstructure of politics and government. And the only way to create that change is through the collective power of people, the power of the disenfranchised masses, the ones excluded by the system who are best able to see the ills of the old system and most capable of creating a new one. Socialism is, in fact, indispensable to democracy.