The democracy that exists in Britain today was not handed down from above; it was won by centuries of struggle. Marxists insist that this democracy is profoundly limited. We call it “bourgeois democracy”, by which we mean elements of popular self-rule intertwined with and limited by the domination of the distinct minority that owns the means of production.
Why do we defend this democracy against attempts to replace it with military or dictatorial rule? What is it we value in bourgeois democracy?
The refusal of some on the left to acknowledge the difference between, for instance, Qaddafi’s totalitarian state and the new regime in Libya suggests this question needs revisiting.
Leon Trotsky discussed it in his writings during and after the rise of Nazism.
There are no “class distinctions” between democracy and fascism [say the Stalinists]. Obviously this must mean that democracy as well as fascism is bourgeois in character. We guessed as much even prior to January 1932. The ruling class, however, does not inhabit a vacuum. It stands in definite relations to other classes...
Is there a difference in the “class content” of these two regimes [bourgeois democratic and fascist]? If the question is posed only as regards the ruling class, then there is no difference. If one takes into account the position and the interrelations of all classes, from the angle of the proletariat, then the difference appears to be quite enormous.
In the course of many decades, the workers have built up within the bourgeois democracy, by utilising it, by fighting against it, their own strongholds and bases of proletarian democracy: the trade unions, the political parties, the educational and sport clubs, the cooperatives, etc. The proletariat cannot attain power within the formal limits of bourgeois democracy, but can do so only by taking the road of revolution: this has been proved both by theory and experience.
And these bulwarks of workers’ democracy within the bourgeois state are absolutely essential for taking the revolutionary road. The work of the Second International consisted in creating just such bulwarks during the epoch when it was still fulfilling its progressive historic labour.
Fascism has for its basic and only task the razing to their foundations of all institutions of proletarian democracy. Has this any “class meaning” for the proletariat, or hasn’t it? The [Stalinist] theoreticians had better ponder over this… pronouncing the [existing Weimar Republic] regime to be bourgeois… overlooks a mere trifle: the position of the proletariat in this regime. In place of the historical process they substitute a bald sociological abstraction.
But the class war takes place on the soil of history, and not in the stratosphere of sociology. The point of departure in the struggle against fascism is not the abstraction of the democratic state, but the living organisations of the proletariat, in which is concentrated all its past experience and which prepare it for the future...
• From What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat (January 1932)
Assuming a defensive position means a policy of [the Communists] closing ranks with the majority of the German working class and forming a united front with the Social Democratic and nonparty workers against the fascist threat.
Denying this threat, belittling it, failing to take it seriously is the greatest crime that can be committed today against the proletarian revolution in Germany.
What will the Communist Party “defend”? The Weimar Constitution? No... The Communist Party must call for the defence of those material and moral positions which the working class has managed to win in the German state. This most directly concerns the fate of the workers’ political organisations, trade unions, newspapers, printing plants, clubs, libraries, etc.
Communist workers must say to their Social Democratic counterparts: “The policies of our parties are irreconcilably opposed; but if the fascists come tonight to wreck your organisation’s hall, we will come running, arms in hand, to help you. Will you promise us that if our organisation is threatened you will rush to our aid?” This is the quintessence of our policy in the present period. All agitation must be pitched in this key.
• From The Turn in the Communist International and the Situation in Germany (1930)
If the composition of the Reichstag [Parliament] proves to be hostile to the government; if Hitler takes it into his head to liquidate the Reichstag and if the Social Democracy shows a determination to fight for the latter, the Communists will [i.e. should] help the Social Democracy with all their strength.
We Communists cannot and do not want to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat [i.e. the rule of the working class] against you or without you, Social Democratic workers. We want to come to this dictatorship together with you. And we regard the common defence against fascism as the first step in this sense.
Obviously, in our eyes, the Reichstag is not a capital historical conquest which the proletariat must defend against the fascist vandals. There are more valuable things. Within the framework of bourgeois democracy and parallel to the incessant struggle against it, the elements of proletarian democracy have formed themselves in the course of many decades: political parties, labour press, trade unions, factory committees, clubs, cooperatives, sports societies, etc. The mission of fascism is not so much to complete the destruction of bourgeois democracy as to crush the first outlines of proletarian democracy. As for our mission, it consists in placing those elements of proletarian democracy, already created, at the foundation of the soviet system of the workers’ state.
To this end, it is necessary to break the husk of bourgeois democracy and free from it the kernel of workers’ democracy. Therein lies the essence of the proletarian revolution. Fascism threatens the vital kernel of workers’ democracy. This itself clearly dictates the program of the united front. We are ready to defend your printing plants and our own, but also the democratic principle of freedom of the press; your meeting halls and ours, but also the democratic principle of the freedom of assembly and association.
We are materialists and that is why we do not separate the soul from the body. So long as we do not yet have the strength to establish the soviet system, we place ourselves on the terrain of bourgeois democracy.
• From The United Front for Defence (February 1933)
As long as the majority of the working class continues on the basis of bourgeois democracy, we are ready to defend it with all our forces against violent attacks from the Bonapartist and fascist bourgeoisie.
However, we demand from our class brothers who adhere to “democratic” socialism that they be faithful to their ideas, that they draw inspiration from the ideas and methods not of the Third Republic but of the Convention of 1793.
Down with the Senate, which is elected by limited suffrage and which renders the power of universal suffrage a mere illusion!
Down with the presidency of the republic, which serves as a hidden point of concentration for the forces of militarism and reaction!
A single assembly must combine the legislative and executive powers. Members would be elected for two years, by universal suffrage at eighteen years of age, with no discrimination of sex or nationality. Deputies would be elected on the basis of local assemblies, constantly revocable by their constituents, and would receive the salary of a skilled worker.
This is the only measure that would lead the masses forward instead of pushing them backward. A more generous democracy would facilitate the struggle for workers’ power.
If, during the course of the implacable struggle against the enemy, the party of “democratic” socialism (SFIO) [Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière], from which we are separated by irreconcilable differences in doctrine and method, were to gain the confidence of the majority, we are and always will be ready to defend an SFIO government against the bourgeoisie.
We want to attain our objective not by armed conflicts between the various groups of toilers but by real workers’ democracy, by propaganda and loyal criticism, by the voluntary regrouping of the great majority of the proletariat under the flag of true communism.
Workers adhering to democratic socialism must further understand that it is not enough to defend democracy; democracy must be regained...
• From A Programme of Action for France (June 1934)
In the 1928 general election, the Nazis had won 2.6 percent of the vote. Two years later, on the back of the economic crisis, they leapt to 18.3 percent.
Alarmed not only at the growth of fascism, but at the response of Germany’s two great working-class parties, the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Communists (KPD), Trotsky attempted to sound the alarm. The KPD’s position, handed down from Moscow, was that “fascism” was already in power in Germany, and that the coming to power of Hitler would not be a decisive defeat.
After the September 1930 election, the Nazis grew fast, and the Trotskyists stepped up their agitation for a workers’ united front to beat them.
In January 1933, President Hindenburg, a former imperial general elected with the support of the Social Democrats as a supposed barrier against fascism, appointed Hitler as Chancellor. It took some months for the Nazis to destroy the working-class organisations and establish total power. Trotsky appealed urgently for a last-minute united front against Hitler.
The official Communist Parties, controlled by Stalin, insisted that their refusal of a united front with the Social Democrats had been correct even while the mighty KPD collapsed without a fight before Hitler. In February 1934, the French Communist Party was forced to change its line, calling a united counter-demonstration with the Socialist Party and the trade unions against a fascist upsurge in Paris.