Capitalist rule relies on the market, not democracy. Capitalist companies practice the democracy of ‘one share, one vote’

Continuing a conversation

‘Bourgeois democracy’ is democratic and also undemocratic. But the term correctly captures the class nature of a particular form of state, insists Steve Bloom

In response to Mike Macnair’s letter (April 25), I would like to first deal with the question of my “sloppy method”, then move on to more substantive matters.

I am ‘guilty’ (if that is the right word) of not being aware of Mike’s collected works and, therefore, failing to check them for a relevant quote about Rosa Luxemburg before I submitted my original article to Cosmonaut. I note, however, that Mike has raised no objection to my understanding of his views regarding Luxemburg, which I deduced (apparently accurately) from a comment I noted down, even if not verbatim, during the Q and A following his presentation to the 2023 convention of the Marxist Unity Group in the USA. It does, therefore, seem reasonable to conclude that, since I got the substance of Mike’s viewpoint right, my failure to locate a direct quote dealing with the question represents a relatively minor default.

Mike, for his part, is likewise ‘guilty’ of not being aware of my role in opposition to the “broad mass party” line, while I was part of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International leadership starting in the 1980s. Mike, too, could easily have discovered this. On my website I have posted three relevant items for public view: ‘Report on February 2004 meeting of the international committee of the Fourth International’, ‘Letter to the International Committee of the Fourth International’ (2009), ‘Comment on Italy: a failed refoundation by Salvatore Cannavò’ (2012).1 All Mike needed to do was ask me before making an assumption - just as easy as a web search, since he had my email address.

And in this case, unlike with my comments regarding Mike’s appreciation of Rosa Luxemburg, his understanding of my viewpoint regarding the Fourth International and its campaign against ‘schematism’ is clearly inaccurate. Mike defends what he wrote nonetheless, noting that it remains a correct appreciation of the organising strategy pursued by the FI leadership. But that is hardly the point. As accurate as Mike’s characterisation of the FI’s trajectory may be, it is essentially irrelevant to his conversation with me.

Part of our difficulty may well be another inaccurate assumption Mike offers us: “comrade Bloom’s argument for ‘anti-schematism’ was the common view of his and my own youth in the 1960s-70s USFI” (emphasis in original). Mike needs to remember that the trajectory of the US Socialist Workers Party during the 1960s and 70s, in which I got my training as a young activist, was not the same as what he lived through “in the 1960s-70s USFI”.

The US SWP confronted the same theoretical difficulty as the rest of the FI in the wake of the Chinese and Cuban revolutions. But it did not come to the same conclusion. Rather than deciding that their entire previous theory had been a schema, the response of the SWP leadership was to cling more tightly to the Bolshevik experience as the one and only true model. Party theorists insisted that China and Cuba reflected exceptions, aberrations. The world revolution, they explained, would soon return to the “classical” pattern with the “working class at centre stage” after a “detour” through these alternative experiences.

Thus the approach I presently pursue regarding the problem of schematism does not flow from my youthful training. It is, rather, a sharp break with that training, reflecting instead conclusions I have reached much later in life and as a result of some considerable theoretical struggle - grappling with ideas I once considered sacrosanct.

Veiled polemic?

I ask Mike, in future correspondence, to keep in mind that his original article was based on another incorrect assumption: that my initial engagement with this conversation represented some kind of veiled polemic with his viewpoint, as expressed in Revolutionary strategy.

My engagement with this conversation represents a polemic with MUG, however, not directly with Mike Macnair. I would not say that any similarity between MUG’s and Macnair’s theories is purely coincidental, because I do not think that is true. But I will say that the substantive discussion of what I have written about MUG’s approach needs to be rooted in the actual question I have raised: ‘Is MUG’s specific political orientation (as presented in the book titled Fight the constitution - for a democratic socialist republic and elsewhere) a schema or not?’

On this key problem Mike offers us not a single word. Instead of assessing MUG’s specific theory, he attempts to prohibit any and all discussion related to the topic of schematism. Based on his understanding of “scientific method”, he insists that “anti-schematism itself becomes an untestable or ‘unfalsifiable’ claim”.

I admit that I am perplexed by this assertion. It may be true if we consider ‘anti-schematism’ as some kind of generalised methodology, abstracted from any specific case study. But in any specific instance the assertion that a schema is at work can certainly be interrogated rigorously. Was a majority of the Bolshevik Party, at the start of the April 1917 congress, stuck (for the moment, at least) in the schema that the Russian Revolution must, inevitably, pass through the stage of a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” (by which the Bolsheviks meant a bourgeois-democratic dictatorship), yes or no? Was the international Trotskyist movement, when confronted with the Chinese and Cuban revolutions, stuck in a schema of the Russian model (soviet power) as the one and only true road to the dictatorship of the proletariat, yes or no?

These questions can be tested and evidence given to support one answer or the other, precisely because they are not abstract and ahistorical. They are specific and concrete. Likewise with the question I have posed regarding MUG’s orientation in the USA in the year 2024. It is reasonable for Mike and members of MUG to challenge my assessment, suggesting arguments that support a contrary conclusion. But to tell us that we are not even allowed to ask the question - in the name of following a “scientific method” - seems a bit strange. And, please keep in mind, we can answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to any and all such specific and concrete questions about schematism quite independently from whether we agree with a particular solution that may be proposed to alleged schematic thinking - such as the total overthrow of everything we ever knew about principled revolutionary politics by the USFI (probably not starting in the 1980s but certainly taking a qualitative leap at that point).

Mike continues:

Nor does [Steve’s] letter offer an answer to my argument that the mass-strike strategy or ‘strategy of dual power’, for which he relies on Rosa Luxemburg, and the insistence that it is wrong to make the political revolution the first step in the social revolution, are versions of Mikhail Bakunin’s critique of the ‘Marx party’ in 1869-71, and that this approach has been tested repeatedly by left groups and failed over and over again.

A couple of corrections are needed in order for Mike’s paraphrase to properly correspond with my viewpoint:

Firstly, my appreciation of the mass strike/dual power does not rely on Rosa Luxemburg. I do my best to base theoretical conclusions on the lived experience of working class and other mass movements rather than on previous theoretical expositions by historical figures. It is an approach that I will insist is, and must always remain, essential to the Marxist method (to the materialist method). Thus I would cite the Russian Revolution as living proof that the mass strike/dual power model is at least one viable historical development that can lead to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Luxemburg accurately theorises what life experience later tested and proved. It is that later test and proof which is decisive, not Luxemburg’s theory. The theory is simply what helps us to understand the lived experience - and to prepare for similar experiences in the future.

I will also argue that the mass strike/dual power phenomenon has, in fact, generated the potential for socialist revolution multiple times during the history of the 20th and even the 21st century, but without effectively leading to the dictatorship of the proletariat because a revolutionary leadership for the mass strike was lacking. Thus the absence of widespread success cannot reasonably be attributed to a flaw in the theory that this is one possible road to the dictatorship of the proletariat. The Russian experience proves that, when both elements - mass strike/dual power and revolutionary leadership - are present, revolution is indeed possible.

Secondly, I do not believe “that it is wrong to make the political revolution the first step in the social revolution”. It is certainly a possible first step, and it is probably the right first step when it is possible. What is wrong is to insist that this must be the first step, that no social revolution can take place if political revolution is not the first step. It is when the theory of a political revolution as the first step takes this turn - when we begin to treat it as an absolute requirement, without which nothing else is possible - that the theory of political revolution as the first step transforms itself into a schema. This is no less disorienting in my view than the theory/schema that a mass strike and the creation of soviets is the absolutely necessary first step.

In my judgment these two numbered points are a sufficient response to Macnair’s sentence quoted above. Whatever Bakunin’s critique of Marx might have been, I once again reject the notion that a process of historical excavation - trying to parse what was said by different historical figures in decades or centuries past - is the key to understanding theoretical matters. A comparison of contemporary theory to the actual historical struggle for socialist revolution, most of which unfolded long after Marx and Bakunin passed from the scene, is far more relevant.

The parsing of historical debates can certainly help us to understand the relationship of those old debates to present disputes, thereby shedding light on present disputes. This is often useful and sometimes even essential. But it is the relationship of theory to the actual class struggle which must remain decisive in resolving any and all disputes, old or new.


In conclusion a word about this: “I think that the idea of ‘bourgeois democracy’ is deeply misleading and prettifies the character of the capitalist rule-of-law regime, which is necessarily plutocratic-oligarchical.”

The problem is real enough and, I would say, parallel to the difficulty we have with the term, ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ - at least as popular expressions used to describe specific forms of state power. Both terms are equally misleading in ways that can and have been used against us. And yet both also have elements that contain sufficient truth to make them useful - even essential as scientific descriptions.

‘Bourgeois democracy’ is, indeed, ‘democratic’, if we are making a comparison to other forms of bourgeois rule - fascism or military dictatorship. The difference between a capitalist class that rules by ‘democratic’ means and one that relies on brute force is not trivial. It is worth fighting for in the streets, because things like the right to free speech, to assemble in mass demonstrations, to run candidates in elections, to create labour unions and other mass organisations - genuine democratic rights that characterise ‘bourgeois democracy’ (and only ‘bourgeois democracy’ as a form of bourgeois class rule) - are important for us, as we struggle to make the socialist revolution.

The term, ‘bourgeois democracy’, also correctly captures the class nature of this particular form of state - a reality that is essential, as we discuss issues related to making revolution against the capitalist state per se. This is especially important in our debate with those on the socialist left who fail to understand the ‘bourgeois’ aspects of ‘bourgeois democracy’, who emphasise the relatively democratic side of this duality, as compared to other forms of bourgeois rule to the point of making a fetish out of it.

This draws our attention to another problem that would arise if we, as a Marxist cadre, decide that the term, ‘bourgeois democracy’, should be discarded, reserving the word, ‘democracy’, henceforth strictly for the kind of political system we will usher in with the transition to a workers’ republic. Should we start to use the term in this way, we will probably sow even more confusion in 99.9% of the population than we do at present by our use of the term, ‘bourgeois democracy’ - because that 99.9% has been indoctrinated to believe that ‘democracy’ is what was ushered in with the Magna Carta, the first American revolution of 1776, and the French Revolution.

Without a long explanation (that many will not stop and listen to) they will assume that we are using the term, ‘democracy’, to mean the same thing. By emphasising that this is bourgeois democracy, and by focusing on how undemocratic it really is in substance (ie, a ‘democracy’ only for those who have money), we can help to educate at least a layer of the public which shares the prevailing appreciation/misappreciation of what ‘democracy’ is and where it comes from. By denying that this form of state is ‘democratic’ at all, on the other hand, insisting that the ‘bourgeois’ side of the duality is the only side we will recognise, we automatically create an additional obstacle to communication with that layer of the population.

Finally there is still another reason to maintain our historical understanding of ‘bourgeois democracy’ - even while remaining acutely aware of its limitations, as accurately enumerated by Macnair. Without it no-one can properly comprehend the previous history of the Marxist movement. It is a concept/term that underlies a great many of the discussions and debates that have taken place over the last century and a half. In this, too, the term, ‘bourgeois democracy’, has much in common with the term, ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. Both have made themselves indispensable to future theorising, as formulations with a previously established and precise scientific meaning. If we want to properly integrate the theorising we are doing today with the theorising that has been done in previous decades, we will be adding a considerable layer of difficulty, if we begin to introduce a brand new terminology, which actively denies the validity of the terminology that has been used up until this moment.

So my approach is to continue talking about ‘bourgeois democracy’, using these words in their scientific sense, while remaining aware (and working hard to educate others with regard to the fact) that ‘bourgeois democracy’ is a form of class dictatorship at least as much as it is a form of democracy. As dialecticians we ought to be able to keep that contradiction in mind without confusing ourselves. It is, after all, a contradiction that is present in our terminology precisely because it is also inherent in this specific form of class rule.

  1. All three are available at stevebloompoetry.net.↩︎