Democracy is a question that will haunt humanity as long as the state is a factor of social existence. As long as there is need to provide social cohesion in world torn apart through class antagonism governance through the state will be inevitable. Under capitalist societies there is a tendency towards the democratic form of the state, while breaks from this form do often occur in periods of intense crisis. What is unique about the democratic state is that it aims to find a common unity between the rulers and the ruled through processes of formal elections. While the state is always an institution separate from the community as a whole that serves the interests of particular classes, the democratic state is formally designed to represent the interests of the entire national community. In the ideal democratic state all who are deemed citizens of the state are granted equal votes in determining the representatives that inhabit the executive bodies of the state. As a result the democratic state claims to derive its sovereignty from the entire people, not a particular class.
The vision of society beyond the state as some form of “pure democracy” where all humans have equal decision making power is a short-sighted vision to us. For us the abolition of the state means the abolition of democracy, as a classless society would have no need for formal processes to legitimate rule. When the proletariat seizes power its form of governance is ultimately that of dictatorship, for it has no intention of hiding its aims as a class ruling it its own interests by legitimating its actions to all other classes. While the proletariat as a ruling class will utilize egalitarian forms of decision making processes that are similar in spirit to democracy its class rule is nonetheless a dictatorship. It will use democratic forms, but ultimately must reject the democratic principle. In this regard Rosa Luxemburg is correct in stating that dictatorship of the proletariat extends democracy to the proletariat while exercising rule against the bourgeoisie.
But even proletarian democracy is wrapped up in the existence of a state sphere separate from civil society as whole (even if its tendency is to abolish this separation) and should only be seen as instruments in organizing the class dictatorship of the proletariat towards the abolition of all classes. Democratic forms are used because they allow for free political association and discussion that extends control of the political sphere to all proletarians, allowing for a political regime that can function to truly exercise the interests of the proletariat as an entire class. Their utilization is a radical step forward in ending the separation of state and civil society. But mere extension of democracy will not undermine class divisions and abolish the state, for this political power must be utilized in a way that transforms social relations of production on a communist basis. Communism must aim to transcended democracy rather than be realization of its principle of formal equality.
So if democracy is merely a form of the state this brings us to the question of the state and how one defines it. Much has been said about the adequacy of traditional Marxist definitions that the state is merely the “executive committee of the bourgeoisie” or “a body of armed men”. Despite being incomplete these definitions do have a certain strength because they emphasize the class nature of the state, as well as its basis in repressive force. Anarchists often fall back on a bourgeois/Weberian definition of the state that emphasizes centralization and monopoly of force over a territory in an attempt to debunk the Marxist definition of the state. The problem with this definition is that not all historical states are necessarily centralized and the decisive role of class division in the constitution of the state is ignored. Any understanding of the state of revolutionary value must take into account the role of state institutions in the reproduction of certain classes through enforcing corresponding social-property relations. Yet it should also take into account the role of the state in providing social cohesion in a world traditional forms of community are broken down by the domination of capitalist relations.
An adequate definition of “state” would be the set of institutions external from the entire community that provide social cohesion in a territory where production is mediated by antagonistic class interests. These institutions mediate between the different classes in society yet overwhelmingly tend to represent the interests of the dominant class (if not directly controlled by this class). The state acts to enforce a set of social-property relations that reinforce the power of this dominant class, establishing these property relations through a monopoly on repressive forces and legal institutions. Communists believe that the state can be abolished because the transcendence of class antagonisms would mean that society has no need for an external body to impose social cohesion through repressive force.
“The state” of course has different forms throughout the history of class societies. The impersonal administrative bureaucracy that strives to derive its authority through democratic means is unique to capitalist society. In all class societies were there is a division between the class of direct producers and the class which appropriates their surplus we see the existence of repressive institutions that maintain social cohesion and the power of the dominant class. Yet with pre-capitalist forms of the state we see more personalized, decentralized and localized forms of rule, such as the feudal state which consisted of a conglomerate of often competing lords which ruled over their own sovereignties. In Feudalism and most other pre-capitalist formations the ability to appropriate surplus from producers directly integrated with ones ability to hold some form of direct power over the producers. The peasant produced for the lord because they existed under their jurisdiction, with the lord exercising legal controls over the movement of the peasantry in order to tie them to the land. The lord on the other hand was granted ownership of this land through the higher power of the nobility which the lords owed military services to. In this system there is no integration of all different ruling bodies into one centralized body but rather networks of personalized obligations exercised through direct relations of force. This “parcellization of sovereignty” as described by Perry Anderson is notably different from the centralized bureaucracy of the capitalist state, for it does not have the same formal separation of the political and economic that we see under capitalism. The peasant (unlike the waged proletarian) requires political subjugation to exploit, and hence it is through a monopoly of coercive force enforced through social institutions (for example debts and limitations on movement) that the landlord is able to squeeze the surplus product from the peasant.
As Heide Gerstenberger explains in her work Impersonal Power the transition from the feudal state to bourgeois form of the state meant a “de-personalization” of power, where the monopoly on violent force held by the aristocracy is expropriated and centralized into administrative institutions formally separate from civil society/the economy. A patchwork of different relations of power exercised by the church, monarchy and nobility becomes increasing generalized and then de-personalized into the form of the bourgeois state. The appropriation of surplus is no longer dependent on one holding direct force over the producing classes, though these direct relations of force are not immediately abolished of course. Instead the material reproduction of society is increasinly governed through the laws of commodity exchange, where it is the ability to own private property and employ waged labor from the increasing proletarianized masses that gives the ruling class access to the social surplus. Rather than direct subjugating labor the state subjugates labor to the rule of market by divorcing labor from the means of production and enforcing the dominance of commodity relations. Bourgeois state power isn’t directly controlled by the capitalist employing waged labor but regardless of this acts to maintain property relations that reproduce the propertied bourgeoisie and the propertyless proletariat.
While the past class relations based on direct and personalized forms of domination are replaced by the economic class relation of capitalism there is still a need to reproduce this class relation through political power. In this sense the bourgeois state is unique in that it doesn’t directly enforce class domination but rather takes a position of formal “neutrality”. It presents itself as above the selfish interests of individual capitalists and instead as a stabile forum where the general social interest is determined and executed. It proclaims that all citizens are equal under law, that the whole community of the nation is represented through the democratic process. Yet the state is never independent from the class relation, from maintaining the social property relations that allow for the reproduction of the bourgeois and proletariat as classes. The bourgeois state presents itself as more than a protection racket for personal power interests, yet it is always the agent of reproducing the class dominant class relation. As a result this neutrality is ultimately a false neutrality, and this is revealed in times of heightened class conflict where the need to discipline the proletariat to the rule of capital takes on more repressive forms.
Democratic formality is the means of approaching this neutrality, of presenting the states decisions and laws as a true expression of the “general will” of the people. Yet it would be a vulgar liberal analysis to say that elections are just a mere formality to give legitimacy to a regime that is otherwise totalitarian, that the form of democracy is purely a symbolic way to entrance the masses into supporting the protection-racket state. The system of elections and party representation in parliaments allows for different factions of the capitalist class who otherwise compete at the economic level to have a common forum of representation in the state. It allows for competing capitalist interests to influence the state without directly holding control of it, so that when the interests of individual capitals collide with the needs of the reproduction of the system as a whole these individual capitals can be disciplined and the needs of the greater capitalist class addressed. The bourgeois form of the state is the most effective way for the bourgeoisie to execute its rule, and attempts to transcend the liberal-democratic form of the state while maintaining the capitalist economy (like various fascisms and such) have proven to be unstable social formations.
The bourgeois form of the state is not only the most effective way for various factions of the capitalist class within a nation to reproduce themselves as a class. As shown in the various “state-derivation debates” in the late 70’s/80’s the bourgeois form of the state also can be logically derived from the value-form. What this essentially means is the ideal democracy of formal equality (one citizen = one vote, all are equal under rule of law, ect) mirrors the ideal capitalist economy of equal exchange between values. What this basically means politically is that the very principles of democracy that most leftists equate with the very content of socialism are really the ideals of capitalism. This is very similar to the critique of democracy Italian Marxist Amadeo Bordiga, whose critique of democracy have been taken as crypto-Blanquism by his critics. For Bordiga the democratic principle meant that one could mystically equate the “peoples will” through counting votes and that this peoples will was somehow then legitimate. Programme was everything for Bordiga, and in place of “democratic centralism” Bordiga offered a conception of “organic centralism” where intransigent adherence to the communist programme was to always be upheld above majority vote. Central to Bordiga’s view was a critique of privileging certain democratic forms of organization (like councils) over content the actual political content these forms expressed: “There are therefore no bodies which are revolutionary because of their form; there are only social forces that are revolutionary through the direction in which they act, and these forces are organized in a party that fights with a program.”
This critique of democratic principles was in many ways inspired by the betrayal of the 2nd International over WWI. While the programme of the 2nd International claimed to uphold opposition to any imperialist war and militarism all but two the social-democratic parties of the 2nd International voted for war credits. This amounted to an embrace of militarism and nationalism by the ostensibly internationalist social-democratic movement and to Bordiga was perfect example of the flaws of the democratic principle. It was the formal rules of the democratic process (majority rule) winning out over the content of the communist programme, an example of how counting heads is not a correct to determine the correct political course of action. Also influential on Bordiga’s rejection of the democratic principle was the Bienno Rosso in Italy from 1919-1921, where a wave of general strikes saw factory occupations and the formation of rank-and-file factory councils. While many Marxists like Antonio Gramsci saw these councils as inherently revolutionary the movement ended up under the leadership of reformist socialists and syndicalists and was unable to unite the entire proletariat to seize power. Bordiga saw Gramsci as fetishizing the form of the factory councils as an appearance of socialism and ignoring the possibility that they could become a tool of reformism, arguing instead that a revolutionary party independent from the reformists was needed to unify the proletariat around a specifically communist programme.
Bordiga’s critique of democracy is convincing in many ways yet it also can be taken too far. For example in his 1965 text When the Party’s General Situation is Historically Unfavorable Bordiga suggests that all voting mechanisms should be done away with. While the voting mechanism shouldn’t be treated as some sacred principle it does seem quite idealistic to believe that a political organization could effectively make decisions without ever voting. When one thinks of attempts to replace the voting mechanism the experiences of general assemblies Occupy Wall Street come up, which used goofy hand signals instead as a means to somehow come to a complete consensus of the group as opposed to majority rule voting. Generally this approach just led to unaccountable informal leadership, co-option from liberals and political incoherence. Ironically something like Occupy seems tailor made to demonstrate the validity of Bordiga’s critique of the democratic principle, as Occupy generally viewed the formal rules of “consensus organization” and “horizontalism” as being radical as such, regardless of their actual political content. In many ways the council communists have similar mentality, where the form of workers councils rooted in production is inherently communist because they expand democracy to the working class while (supposably) excluding the bourgeoisie.
On this question I admittedly fall closer to Bordiga. We cannot wait for 51% of the population to vote for revolution, to allow the principle of democracy to take precedence over communist politics. Democracy is an instrument of class rule, not an ideal to be realized. Egalitarian forms of decision making can’t be completely dismissed as a tool of the proletariat in organizing as a class and exercising a class dictatorship. In fact such forms of association (Soviets being a historical example) are vital to the success of such a class dictatorship in allowing for the proletariat to take political control of society into its own hands and govern as a class. It is clear that the form of the state under a dictatorship of the proletariat must be (and has been) radically different from the alienating military-bureaucratic machine of the bourgeois state. Yet we do not kid ourselves that these forms are somehow the content of communism itself or immune to being utilized for reformist or reactionary ends. Councils/Soviets are ultimately proletarian parliaments, they are a state institution and are therefore transitory forms. The dissolution of classes means the dissolution of class rule, and hence any kind of “democracy” be it proletarian or bourgeois. Communism will be a society beyond equality – for what meaning would equality have in a world without class divisions or value?