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’.footnote1 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?

Before going any further, we should make absolutely clear what we understand by ‘democracy’. The term is here used to denote a form of state with all the following characteristics. It has 1. a representative government elected by 2. an electorate consisting of the entire adult population, 3. whose votes carry equal weight, and 4. who are allowed to vote for any opinion without intimidation by the state apparatus. Such a state is a bourgeois democracy in so far as the state apparatus has a bourgeois class composition and the state power operates in such a way as to maintain and promote capitalist relations of production and the class character of the state apparatus.footnote2

It is notoriously difficult to delimit precisely the democratic form of government, but the above definition seems adequate to locate the crucial variables: popular representation and free, universal and equal suffrage. It further includes, as necessary prerequisites, the important legal freedoms of speech, assembly, organization and the press.footnote3 The definition is intentionally formal, since the problem here is not to expose the ‘seamy side’ of bourgeois democracyfootnote4 but to elucidate how a democratic form of government has arisen in a society where a tiny minority determine whether, where, how and for how much the majority of the population work, as well as how and where they live.

Democracy is one of the key words of contemporary ideological discourse, despite—or perhaps precisely because of—the fact that so little serious research has been devoted to it. It is hardly surprising that the classical Marxist writers produced almost nothing of substance on the question, for none of them had personal experience of a fully-fledged bourgeois democracy.footnote5 Subsequently, the preponderant role of the Soviet Union and the acute threat of Fascism were not conducive to deeper study of the problem within the international labour movement. What is more remarkable is the lack of fundamental analysis following the Western Communist Parties’ reappraisal of bourgeois democracy and the rise of a new Marxist intelligentsia in the capitalist countries since the mid-sixties. Discussion has instead centred either on the capitalist state in general, usually treated at a very high level of abstraction (e.g. the work of Poulantzas, or West German authors like Platow-Huisken, Hirsch or the Projekt-Klassenanalyse), or on non-democratic state forms (Fascism and other dictatorships—Poulantzas; Absolutism—Anderson). If general theories of the capitalist state stop short of the specific problems of bourgeois democracy, the tradition of analysis of power elites (Mills, Domhoff, Miliband), which sets out to demystify the actual practice of bourgeois democracy, for its part leaves those problems, so to speak, behind it. Both refrain from asking why it was established and how it is maintained. However, these questions cannot be avoided by the labour movement in its current strategic discussion of the relationship between democracy and socialist revolution. In the developed capitalist countries, all major sections of the revolutionary labour movement have now openly acknowledged that bourgeois democracy cannot be dismissed as a mere sham. It is now seen as an important popular conquest, which lays the basis for further advance. This in turn poses a challenge for historical study and analytical research.

It is even more striking that the problematic relationship between democracy and the rule of capital has attracted so little attention from bourgeois social scientists, historians and constitutional theorists. Here one may speak of a real regression in analytical courage and perceptiveness. As is shown by the struggles for constitutional reform that broke out in all countries, the issue was very seriously and heatedly debated by bourgeois thinkers and politicians in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is tempting to regard the present lack of interest in the way in which the contradiction between democracy and minority privilege was eventually resolved as, at least in part, determined by repressed and inconsolable memories—memories of an unexpected escape, which is best forgotten lest it reawaken the old spectre: the working masses.