Mass demonstrations around the world generally open a period of enormous possibilities for the mass movement. But also of enormous dangers. 

Along with the innumerous concussion grenades and tear gas thrown against political activists, leftists and social activists they always face a true ideological bombardment, which despite being invisible, tasteless and odorless, is so dangerous as the pepper gas and rubber bullets. In fact, throughout its history, the mass movement was defeated more times by lies and deceit than by gunfire, batons and guns. The ideological danger, therefore, should not be neglected.

We opine that one of the main issues raised today before the left activists is related, in one way or another, to the problem of bourgeois democracy: its nature and its mechanisms, its possibilities and impossibilities, its strength and weakness. Without a deep understanding of this issue, it is not possible to give a correct answer to such complex phenomena as the outcome of the 2014 general elections for the left parties in Brazil, the new social movements and their organizational forms, the endurance of class-collaborationist governments like the Workers Party (PT) in Brazil, or unexpected political actors in countries that have experienced a broad mass uprising, as Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece. The thread that binds all of these seemingly unconnected parts is bourgeois democracy. It is the case, therefore, to recover a Marxist understanding of this intricate phenomenon.

The essence of bourgeois democracy

It’s not frequently recalled among Marxists that bourgeois democracy was one of the first issues addressed by Marx in his reasoning on human emancipation. In his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843), the young German philosopher explains the difference between bourgeois democracy (or the modern era) and all previous political forms. He says:

“The abstraction of the state as such belongs only to modern times because the abstraction of private life belongs only to modern times. The abstraction of the political state is a modern product (…) In the Middle Ages property, trade, society, man was political; (…) In the Middle Ages popular life and state [i.e., political] life were identical.” (marxists.org)

And further:

“There [in the Middle Ages – author’s note], the classes of civil society in general and the Estates [strata, layers – author’s note], or classes given political significance, were identical. The spirit of the Middle Ages can be expressed thus: the classes of civil society and the political classes were identical because civil society was political society, because the organic principle of civil society was the principle of the state.” (marxists.org)

What does it mean? Essentially that, in the Middle Ages the private (family, economic and personal relationships) and public (political, State) spheres were not clearly divided.The servant was submitted to the feudal lord by numerous historical, religious, personal, military, legal, social and economic relations, without a clear differentiation of each of these aspects in the servant’s mind. Therefore, the economic submission was, for the servant, identical to political submission. He did not distinguish these two spheres. The servant was generally submissive. The consequence of this is that the class rule in feudal society was absolutely clear and uncontested. The feudal lord domination over the servant was given by his acceptance of the social hierarchy and hence the political hierarchy, the political rule: the lord’s “right of the first night”, the scourge, the lord’s right to decide questions of State, etc.

But such a system did not serve for the rising bourgeoisie, whose economic power was based on a free agreement (the buying and selling of labor power), which should be signed between legally free and equal parties. Thus, all the fight of the bourgeoisie during its revolutionary period was, ultimately, the struggle for the separation of these two spheres: making economic domination (civil society, purchase and sale of labor power) independent of political domination (State), ie the advent of democracy.

Again, Marx explains:

“Only the French Revolution completed the transformation of the political classes into social classes, in other words, made the class distinctions of civil society into merely social distinctions, pertaining to private life but meaningless in political life. With that, the separation of political life and civil society was completed.” (marxists.org)

In other words, according to Marx, in capitalist society, unlike the feudal society, there is a direct and clear relationship between economic domination and political domination. Economic and political domination appear to the citizens of the bourgeois world as spheres absolutely distinct. The worker, if minimally conscious, knows he is exploited by his boss, but he doesn’t conclude from this that the is politically dominated by his boss, as a class domination, making use of the bourgeois state. For him, they are two separate issues, unconnected. The bourgeois state is not presented to the workers as a direct supporter of the employer. The bourgeois state only defends the laws, voted by deputies elected by all “citizens”. The boss does not require the workers to vote for bourgeois candidates, nor does he have the power to prevent the workers from voting for labor parties. Both the worker and the bourgeois are “citizens” with the same rights and obligations. The “only” difference between them is economic. There is no capitalist law that officially restricts the worker’s political rights in relation to the bourgeois or formalize the political domination of the bourgeois over the worker. Everyone can organize parties and contest elections. The bourgeois state, unlike other states, is representative, not estamental. Therefore, it does not appear for the population as what it really is, as a class state, but appears as a neutral, impersonal state etc.

The problem of universal suffrage

From the late 19th century-early 20th century, it was formed within Marxism a reformist current, which came to see in universal suffrage an alternative to the revolutionary fight for power advocated by Marx and Engels. While the world and the very reformism have changed a lot since then, the discussion between Marxists and reformists remains essentially the same, because the philosophical basis of reformism remains the same, namely, the identification of the form of the state with its contents. In other words: as the democratic republican state appears to the eyes of the population as an “empty shell” (which can be filled with any content), the reformist Left believes that the State is truly that, “hollow”, and it is indeed possible conquer it in elections and fill it with a content different from its bourgeois content. The reformist Left believes that the bourgeois rule is, first of all, ideological. It believes that the bourgeoisie exert only a “hegemony” on civil society, and not a true political and arms domination. Therefore, the reformists primarily engage to build a “counter-hegemony”: their own media, influence on “public opinion,” dispute of “spaces,” parliamentary elections etc.

The victory, from time to time in “alternative” candidates fuels the belief of the reformist left. The reformist left believes that what prevents workers to vote for the “best” candidate is the “hegemony” exercised by the bourgeoisie within civil society. However, just the opposite occurs: the bourgeois ideology, the media and economic power only reproduce bourgeois domination. They do not create it. It is the very universal suffrage, free of any direct coercion by arms, which engenders the rule of the bourgeoisie over society. The reformist left wants to beat bourgeois domination by balloting, but the vote is the very fulcrum of this domination, its deepest root.

According to Perry Anderson in The antinomies of Antonio Gramsci:

“The general form of the representative State – bourgeois democracy – is itself the principal ideological lynchpin of Western capitalism. (… ) Capitalist relations of production allocate all men and women into different social classes, defined by their differential access to the means of production. These class divisions are the underlying reality of the wage-contract between juridically free and equal persons that is the hallmark of this mode of production. The political and economic orders are thereby formally separated under capitalism. The bourgeois State thus by definition ‘represents’ the totality of the population, abstracted from its distribution into social classes, as individual and equal citizens. In other words, it presents to men and women their unequal positions in civil society as if they were equal in the State. (…) The existence of the parliamentary State thus constitutes the formal framework of all other ideological mechanisms of the ruling class. It provides the general code in which every specific message elsewhere is transmitted.”

In other words, the fundamental difference between the feudal domination and capitalist domination is that while the feudal domination occurs, as we have said, by the acceptance of the political hierarchy as a result of economic and social hierarchy, capitalist domination is exerted by the denial of the existence of any political hierarchy. The political domination of the bourgeoisie appears as self-determination of all the people by voting (haven’t you ever heard a claim as “Put your protest in the ballot!” from the sidewalk when marching in any rally?). In bourgeois society, the differences between citizens appear as simple economic differences, irrelevant to politics. Because there is an equality among all citizens, the state politics would allow any kind of u-turn, even the most progressive changes. It would be the key arena of struggle, as soon as the demands of citizens find a correct expression in the ballot.

In this sense, the repressive character of the state, its armed forces, etc., are seen in the bourgeois democratic republic not as the very essence of the State but only as a sad consequence, but inevitable, of the social contract that all citizens are subject, including the bourgeois citizens, who are sometimes arrested and repressed. The bourgeois state thus appears as res publica (public affairs) and not as a private or estamental instrument. Its fundamental mechanism, the axis around which the whole system revolves, isuniversal suffrage. Let us consider, then, its nature a little more.

The relationship between society-State-ballot

But things would not be quiet for bourgeois democracy if the separation between civil society and state were its only defense mechanism. Now, although the bourgeoisie has separate the state from civil society, these two spheres are formally connected by voting (the society votes for representatives of the State). So what prevents civil society from “expressing itself” by voting and thus expressing itself in the state? Put another way: why there is not a huge workers representation in the Parliament? Why only a few black representatives? What do the bourgeoisie do to not just “separate” the state from civil society, but also (and especially!) make it impermeable to civil society? This is truly the magic wand of bourgeois democracy, its invisibility cloak, its Horcrux

Marx explains:

Civil society and the state are separated. Consequently the citizen of the state and the member of civil society are also separated. The individual must thus undertake an essential schism within himself [author’s highlight]. (…) Thus, in order to behave as actual citizen of the state, to acquire political significance and efficacy, he must abandon his civil actuality, abstract from it, and retire from this entire organisation into his individuality. He must do this because the only existence that he finds for his state-citizenship is his pure, bare individuality, (…) Only as an individual, can he be a citizen of the state. His existence as citizen is an existence lying outside the realm of his communal existences, and is hence purely individual. (marxists.org)

What does all this mean? Essentially, members of a certain social class (the proletariat, for example) can never participate in the political life of the state organized as a class. If they want to organize as a class, they must do so only within civil society: in trade unions, associations, clubs etc., as the bourgeoisie recognize the existence of social classes and their right to organization. What social classes should never do is to organize politically, to participate in politics as a class. If they want to participate in politics, that is, if they want to take power, they can only do so as  individual “citizens”. Therefore, any attempt made ​​by the working class parties to unite the real life of society with the political sphere is soon condemned by the bourgeoisie as “rigging”: “They are politicizing the problem!”, “There are parties involved!”, “Do not mix party and union!”, the advocates of the bourgeois yell whenever workers relate their real problems as a class with the problem of power and rulers. What is behind these phrases? It is not just to demoralize strikes or partial struggles. It is a deeper message. The rulers are saying, “Do not dare to participate in politics as a class”, “If you want to participate in politics, do it individually,” “Do not confuse your collective problems with your individual political condition of citizens.”

Thus, the individual political alienation is increasingly deepening, which is nothing more than a reflection of the alienation of the State in relation to civil society. That is, in bourgeois society, the worker lives a situation of duality of consciousness. He separates his economic life from his political life. In the economic life, he performs collectively (in his unions, associations etc.). In the political one, he acts individually. Only then he feels to be a “citizen”. So, on election days he jokes after voting: “I’ve done my citizen duty!”. What duty was that? To be alone, away from all eyes, all contradictory opinion, before a ballot box, and cast his ballot. What is the relationship between his balloting action and his membership of the working class? For him, none.

In this way, the strength of bourgeois democracy lies not, as many left people think, in the possibility that economic power has to influence the course of the elections. The left has used, in general, this kind of argument to explain the falsity of bourgeois democracy. It is not wrong, but it is an incomplete explanation, it is not the essence of the problem. As explained above, the economic power only operates on conditions established on an already fertile ground: the individual character of political participation, the vote. Economic power, despite its importance, is not essential. The essential strength of bourgeois democracy, its power of manipulation, lies in the fact that it transforms real men and women, with their complex relationships in simple “citizens”, all equal to each other, who appear as individuals before a ballot box to cast their ballot that is identical to all other ballots of all other citizens. Thus, universal suffrage, this great achievement of modernity, is also the main deceit of the society we live in. The strength of bourgeois democracy lies in the dispersion, in the atomization of the members of the exploited class in mere individual voters. In this way, across successive elections, almost without violence, individualism ends up overlapping the class determinations, which appear for the workers as secondary or even irrelevant at election time. After all, the myth of freedom and equality of all citizens is created around the universal suffrage: the myth of democracy. The bourgeoisie can then breathe relieved and promote without fear how many elections, referendums and plebiscites they want. The alienation is complete.

Soon you will be reading part II of this article.