U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Poking at the Obvious: Democracy and Communism

I suddenly realized a few years ago that vocalizing what seems obvious to me can help me bring analysis into my texts (this is something I tell students, though it works better for those with a strong foundation in reading who need a push to figure out how to write the analysis they are already doing in their head, rather than the students who need help analyzing at all). I’m learning this all over again as I edit my dissertation. I’m also realizing that analysis can sometimes begin when one pokes at something that seems obvious or taken for granted.

For example, consider the relationship between democracy and communism. What associations do those two words immediately conjure for you?

In W. E. B. Du Bois: Black Radical Democrat, Manning Marable writes

Even Du Bois’s costly decision to defend the Communist party during the period of McCarthyism was both a political and a moral act. He would affirm his basic faith in democratic principles, even if his government would not.

Anti-communists fought communism because they saw it as a threat to democracy (i.e. overthrowing the American government. The CP listening to dictates from the USSR). Many intellectuals fought for communism because they thought they were protecting democracy (either in an economic way or in the way of free speech). I’ve always wondered a bit how a Communist Party functions as a political party in a democracy. It seems like a group focused on socialism and gradual change would make more sense than a revolutionary party. But maybe that is because revolution is not in fact as important to Communists as I think it is. Or to some communists, at least.

What do you think? Is there a conflict here? What is the relationship of communism and democracy?

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “But maybe that is because revolution is not in fact as important to Communists as I think it is. Or to some communists, at least.”

    I believe the latter are called socialists. I’m no expert, but the whole point of revisionism was that since the revolution ain’t coming round the mountain anytime soon, those committed to socialist principles should work within the parliamentary/democratic process to achieve their ends. To wit, become a party, get elected, make coalitions, etc. In other words, compromise with the bourgeois capitalists and work with them. Not everyone took kindly to this. To wit, Lenin, who did not have many kind things to say about Eduard Bernstein, the architect of revisionism.

    Before that I don’t know, but that tension was already becoming calcified by the time Du Bois stumbled upon it.

  2. Great, I just finished the book “Anti-Communist manifestos” by John Flemming of Princeton, NJ. His book is actually a very impressive intellectual history guised in the form of four short biographies of Koestler,Krebbs, Krevchenco, and Chambers who wrote best selling books in the US about their experiences working in the Communist Party and ultimate disinchantment with the Soviet Government. Flemming is well to point out that “Communism” in the book’s sense is indistinguishable from the Soviet Government, and does not neccessarily implicate other Socialisms or Marxist ideologies.

    Flemming distinguishes between Communists and Liberals in that though they may be both working toward a better society where workers are not exploited and a safety net exists (i.e. health care, pensions,and welfare) the communists foolishly believed that all the ills of humanity could be cured simply by putting the power of producing goods into the hands of the worker.

  3. Under the tutelage of Stalinism, the German Communist Party refused to participate in parliamentary decision-making that ended up legitimizing Nazi dictatorship. All in the name of “heightening the contradictions” or some such nonsense, those self-same communists became the first inmates of the concentration camps.

    Under the tutelage of Stalinism, American Communists urged real neutrality in the face of the Nazi domination of north central Europe. Until, of course, 100 Divisions spilled into the Ukraine and the Baltic States, and suddenly all was forgiven, the Nazis were the enemies of civilization, on and on.

    While the CPUSA was diligent in its support of anti-lynching laws and, later, even the Civil Rights Movement, and they recruited numerous African-Americans of note, including DuBois and singer Paul Robeson, the American stain of racism could not be eradicated by dedication to revolutionary brotherhood.

    Communists, in practice, tend to disdain democracy precisely because they understand it to be part of the ideological superstructure designed by capitalists to keep the workers from obtaining what is theirs by right. In practice, Communist influence in democratic states, especially in western Europe, has been pretty pernicious.

  4. There are at least three sources of the troublesome relationship between Communist Parties and parliamentary democracies.

    First, to the extent that these parties were in the Third International or, after its dissolution, retained close ties to Moscow, they could often function more as extensions of Soviet foreign policy than domestic political parties. See, for example, the rapid changes in the CPUSA’s position on American participation in an (impending then actual) European war in August 1939, and then again in June 1941.

    Second, to the extent that these parties followed the principle of “democratic centralism,” they tended to lack internal democracy as most other democratic political parties would understand it.

    And finally, as Geoffrey Kruse-Stafford notes, to the extent that these parties disdained the practice of bourgeois democracy in principle, they often disdained it in practice.

    But even then, there are exceptions. For example, the Italian Communist Party distanced itself from Moscow in the late 1960s and early 1970s and pioneered what became known as “Eurocommunism.” Although I’m far from an expert on the subject, my sense is that the Eurocommunist-aligned parties of the ’70s and ’80s (e.g. the Italian and Spanish Communist Parties) were (and in some cases are) more “normal” participants in their countries’ democratic systems.

  5. A central question here, too, is what composes a democracy. Is economic equality, as far as it is possible, more or less “of the people” than a voting republic? Especially if that republic restricts access to voting either through controlling who can vote or through the extent that a democracy is controlled by those with money.

    It’s an interesting question, at any rate. As someone born at the very end of the Cold War, I guess I have never found Communists as threatening as prior generations of Americans, but then I realized a while ago that I also did not take them as seriously as I might.

  6. Right. As Marable, I think, probably argues, in a ‘democracy’ that rests on both formal and informal mechanisms for excluding large numbers of people from the franchise, economic democracy is going to seem a great deal more appealing than ‘pure’ political democracy. i think generally economic democracy is taken to mean a more egalitarian distribution of wealth and a strong voice for the collective in deciding on how public resources should be used–although no doubt there are classic definitions of the thing.

    but the CPUSA has its own long and very interesting history. the question of how ‘serious’ the threat of communism was in the US proper is…well, difficult to answer in a clear, concise, and non-partisan way.

  7. Many eons ago when I was studying political science, I read about democratization and democratic theory (in a seminar taught by Allen Weinstein, speaking of CPUSA). The literature was pretty much unanimous that democracy is defined by the suffrage (universal) and, most important, the prospect that in an election one set of bums can be thrown out and replaced by another. That’s it. It’s a functional, instrumental definition; rudimentary even. That is probably its main appeal; eschewing qualitative criteria means not having to fight over which to include. Whether that means such criteria have no place, I’m not sure. But I would agree that they are not essential.

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