Karl Marx Believed in Democracy

Right-wingers claim that Karl Marx was a totalitarian thinker who had little respect for democracy – but he was a vocal supporter of the movements for democracy in his own time, when the costs were often significant.

There’s a widespread recognition on the US and European left that our democratic institutions are failing. The problems are familiar: corporate and elite influence over decision-making and legislation, unchecked executive power, distant and unaccountable representatives. Our political systems alienate those subject to its decisions and threaten to stymie any socialist government that comes to power. Less clear, however, is what concrete changes might begin to address these problems.

One fruitful source of ideas is the political and constitutional writing of Karl Marx. That might come as a surprise, considering Marx is normally thought of as a purely economic thinker, with little to say about the design of constitutions and political institutions.

And it’s true that Marx never produced a fully fleshed out constitutional theory of his own. But the famed socialist was a committed democrat whose writings contain a nuanced critique of liberal constitutionalism and representative government, as well as a sketch of what popular institutions should replace it.

Many of these ideas — the necessity of holding representatives accountable, the importance of legislative supremacy over the executive, and the need for a broader popular transformation of the state’s organs, especially the civil service — were inspired by Marx’s experience of the Paris Commune, the working-class uprising that briefly controlled the city from March to May 1871. They were also in line with, and partly drawn from, an older radical tradition of political thought that encompassed British Chartists, French democrats, and US Anti-Federalists (a tradition that Karma Nabulsi, Stuart White, and I explore in our book, Radical Republicanism).

It would be wrong to treat Marx’s ideas as a blueprint to rigidly follow. His writings do not provide nearly enough detail for that (unsurprising for someone opposed to writing “recipes for the cookshops of the future”), and no thinker should be treated as a fixed repository of truth. But as we think about how to democratise our political institutions, Marx’s writing is an important resource from which to draw.

Crucially, it also provides us an opportunity to remind ourselves of the centrality of democracy to socialism. Not only is democracy an essential precondition for building socialism, our motivation to democratise the political system springs from the same source as our desire to democratise the economy: that people should have control over the structures and forces that shape their lives.