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New Left Review I/103, May-June 1977


Göran Therborn

The Rule of Capital and the Rise of Democracy

The relationship between advanced capitalism and democracy contains two paradoxes—one Marxist and one bourgeois. Any serious Marxist analysis has to confront the following question: How has it come about that, in the major and most advanced capitalist countries, a tiny majority class—the bourgeoisie—rules by means of democratic forms? The bitter experiences of Fascism and Stalinism, and the enduring legacy of the latter, have taught the firmest revolutionary opponents of capitalism that bourgeois democracy cannot be dismissed as a mere sham. Does contemporary reality then not vitiate Marxist class analysis? Presentday capitalist democracy is no less paradoxical from a bourgeois point of view. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as both political practice and constitutional debate clearly demonstrate, prevailing bourgeois opinion held that democracy and capitalism (or private property) were incompatible. Even such a broad-minded liberal as John Stuart Mill remained a considered opponent of democracy for this very reason. He advocated the introduction of plural votes for entrepreneurs, merchants and bankers, as well as their foremen-lieutenants and professional hangers-on, in order to forestall proletarian ‘class legislation’. [1] J. S. Mill, ‘Considerations on Representative Government’, in On Liberty and Considerations on Representative Government, Oxford 1946, pp. 217ff. In modern times, however, since at least the outbreak of the Cold War, bourgeois ideologists have maintained that only capitalism is compatible with democracy. What has happened? Is this perhaps just a post hoc rationalization of a historical accident?

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