Letter: Schaeffer Answers Père Duchesne’s Questions About the Relationship Between Liberalism and Democracy

Date: 2022-05-08T20:02:50+00:00

Location: cosmonautmag.com

My 2/5/2022 response to Renzo Lorente’s article of 12/19/2021 has prompted a reply by Llorente himself and letters from Abner Dalrymple, R. A., and Le Père Duchesne.  Llorente, R. A., and Dalrymple all reject my central assertion that socialism should be conceived of as the extension and realization of liberal-democratic rights and do not discuss at all what relation the democratic republic has to socialism in the history and theory of Marxism.  Père Duchesne, on the other hand, does see Marxism and socialism as a continuation at least to some degree of the radical democratic republican tradition of the French Revolution.  However, he balks at the idea that democratic republicanism is or can be based on liberal-democratic rights or that liberal-democratic rights are capable of forming an adequate political guide for coping with the challenges that a revolutionary government would face in expropriating the expropriators.  Because Père Duchesne and I share at least some common ground regarding democratic republicanism, that is where I’ll begin my effort to explain more systematically how democratic republicanism and socialism can be based on liberal-democratic rights. In a second letter, I’ll answer the criticisms of Dalrymple, R. A., and Llorente.

Père Duchesne states his core objection to my position as follows:

Schaeffer…is right to emphasize the fact that Lenin’s overriding political goal for the greater portion of his political career was the achievement in Russia of a democratic republic.  But he is strangely reticent on the fact that Lenin frequently juxtaposes ‘liberal-monarchists’ and ‘revolutionary-democrats.’  ‘Liberalism’ for Lenin is not synonymous with ’democracy,’ it is the ideology of the bourgeoisie which has a fundamentally ambiguous and unreliable attitude toward the democratic revolution.

First, Père Duchesne is simply mistaken that I have been reluctant to discuss Lenin’s juxtaposition of liberalism and democracy.  That was a central subject of my first article for Cosmonaut, “Lenin and the ‘Class Point of View’,” which was posted on 12/02/2020 and which the Marxist Unity Group later added to its list of foundational readings.  In that article, I quoted extensively from Lenin’s “Political Agitation and ‘The Class Point of View’” to illustrate his attitude toward both liberal values and the political vacillation of liberals in upholding those values. There is no need to repeat the entire argument of that article here, but I do think it is necessary to repeat most of the selections from Lenin’s article.  It contains the material required to determine Lenin’s attitude toward liberalism and democracy both as political philosophies and political movements:

Thus, the authors of the letter published in No. 12 of Iskra, who accuse us of departing from the ‘class point of view’ for striving in our newspaper to follow all manifestations of liberal discontent and protest [such as demanding religious freedom], suffer from this complaint [i.e., the inability to discuss and explain the source and nature of liberal discontent]….

All these socialists forget that the interests of the autocracy coincide only with certain interests of the propertied classes….  The interests of other bourgeois strata and the more widely understood interests of the entire bourgeoisie…necessarily gives rise to a liberal opposition to the autocracy….  It is precisely the ‘class point of view’ that makes it impermissible for a Social-Democrat to remain indifferent to the discontent and protests of the [liberals]….

Let us recall also the words [of the Communist Manifesto] that the Communists support every revolutionary movement against the existing system.  Those words are often interpreted too narrowly, and are not taken to imply support for the liberal opposition.  It must not be forgotten, however, that there are periods when every conflict with the government arising out of progressive social interests, however small, may under certain conditions (of which our support is one) flare into a general conflagration.  Suffice it to recall the great social movement which developed in Russia out of the struggle between the students and the government over academic demands, or the conflict that arose in France between all the progressive elements and the militarists over a trial [the Dreyfuss Affair] in which the verdict had been rendered on the basis of forged evidence.  Hence, it is our bounden duty to explain to the proletariat every liberal and democratic protest….  Those who refrain from concerning themselves in this way (whatever their intentions) in actuality leave the liberals in command, place in their hands the political education of the workers, and concede hegemony in the political struggle to elements which, in the final analysis, are leaders of bourgeois democracy….

It is particularly in regard to the political struggle that the ‘class point of view’ demands that the proletariat give an impetus to every democratic movement.  The political demands of working-class democracy do not differ in principle from those of bourgeois democracy, they differ only in degree….  But while our allies in the bourgeois-democratic camp, in struggling for liberal reforms, will always glance back and seek to adjust matters…at other people’s expense, the proletariat will march forward to the…struggle for the democratic republic….  The party of the proletariat must learn to catch every liberal just at that moment when he is prepared to move forward an inch, and make him move forward a yard.  If he is obdurate, we will go forward without him and over him.

As I said in my “Class Point of View” article, Lenin’s debate with the Economists over the content of working-class political consciousness is the most important ideological debate in the history of Marxism, and “Political Agitation and the ‘Class Point of View’” contains Lenin’s definitive formulation of the content of that consciousness.  When I first read Lenin’s article in early 1972, it transformed my entire understanding of the political aims of Marxism and of my own previous involvement in SDS.  Regarding SDS, reading Lenin’s article made me see that SDS’s commitment to the values of participatory democracy was only half-formed and incomplete because it didn’t explicitly recognize that the US political system was not a democratic republic, the only kind of political system that deserves the name democracy.  Regarding Marxism, Lenin’s article made me see that most Marxists didn’t have the slightest inkling of what Lenin meant by “class” or “socialist” consciousness.  Since then, I have been living inside the conceptual bubble of Lenin’s theory of political consciousness, looking out at the political world and judging how it measures up to Lenin’s standards.  After many years of trying, by May 2018 I was finally able to put my thoughts into a relatively coherent form and began circulating the first draft of an essay on the history of SDS, the New Communist Movement, and the place of the democratic republic in the history and theory of Marxism.  In a happy historical and political convergence, I soon discovered that Cosmonaut from its first postings in September 2018 also saw the democratic republic as central to Marxist theory and history.  That convergence led me to submit “Lenin and the ‘Class Point of View’” to Cosmonaut in late 2020.  However, even though there was substantial overlap in our political and historical views, there were also areas where we apparently diverged.  For example, in my original submission of the Lenin article, I had written:

If anyone thinks that Lenin’s emphasis on liberal and democratic questions can be dismissed as a peculiarity attributable to living under an absolute monarchy without civil or political rights, think again.  The Dreyfuss Affair in France, a thoroughly modern bourgeois republic, is one of the two examples he gives of a seemingly minor conflict that flared into a general political conflagration.  Lenin thought the Dreyfuss Affair was so important as an illustration of why it was necessary to pay attention to even minor political conflicts, he pointed to it again in ‘Left-Wing’ Communism as a lesson for doctrinaires.  

The editor of the article didn’t like that I had written “liberal and democratic questions” rather than just “democratic questions” and suggested I delete “liberal.”  I accepted the change because all the references to liberal discontent and protest in Lenin’s article remained.  I figured readers could work out for themselves what Lenin was getting at.  Nevertheless, the change suggested by the editor was an indication that Cosmonaut had reservations about using the term “liberal,” reservations held by Père Duchesne as well.  I’ll address these reservations now by explaining more fully what Lenin meant by liberalism, why the difference between working-class democracy and bourgeois democracy is only a matter of degree, and how the democratic republic both incorporates liberal rights and at the same time differs politically from bourgeois liberalism.

The Meaning of Liberal and Democratic in Lenin’s “Political Agitation and the ‘Class Point of View’”

Lenin’s first objective in his article is to explain why a liberal opposition to the Tsarist autocracy should arise at all.  On one hand, “the autocracy guarantees the bourgeoisie opportunities to employ the crudest forms of exploitation, but, on the other hand, places a thousand obstacles in the way of the extensive development of the productive forces and the spread of education; in this way it arouses against itself, not only the petty bourgeoisie, but at times even the big bourgeoisie.”  This conflict between a royal absolutism blessed as divine by a state church and an ambitious bourgeoisie is a process that played itself out across Europe over more than three centuries.  Arising first in England, the roughly fifty-year conflict between Parliament and the Crown for supremacy ended in 1689 with the enactment of a Bill of Rights that secured rights to voting, speech, religion, political petition, trial by jury, and forbade the king to tax or declare war or maintain a standing army without Parliament’s approval.  Philosophically justified by Locke’s theory of natural individual rights to life, liberty, and property, “liberalism” is the name that eventually came to be used for both this system of government and its justifying philosophy.  Lenin is using liberalism in this classic sense.

The next question is why Lenin thinks the working class needs to pay such close attention to liberal discontent and protest.  Like the word liberalism itself, Lenin’s answer has both political and ideological components.  Politically, Lenin cites the observation in the Communist Manifesto that in its struggle for power the bourgeoisie provides political material to the working class.  It does this, first, by bringing political issues out into the open through books, newspapers, and public meetings, thereby awakening in the working class the realization that the existing order of things can be challenged.  A second way is that the bourgeoisie’s demand for civil rights, control over taxes and war, and freedom from arbitrary police and church authority also coincide with many of the grievances of the working class itself, and the bourgeoisie therefore naturally seeks to enlist the support of the workers on its side in the struggle against autocracy.  However, the bourgeoisie’s enlistment of the workers’ support against absolutism has its limits.  The bourgeoisie seeks working class support in order to break down the barriers to capitalist development, but it wants to prevent the working class from developing any independent power of its own capable of challenging the bourgeoisie itself.  Ideologically, Lenin wants the workers to be able to see exactly where and why working class interests diverge from bourgeois interests.

However, drawing the line between bourgeois and working class interests isn’t easy, because, as Lenin says in the most shocking sentence in the article and perhaps in all of Marxism, “The political demands of working-class democracy do not differ in principle from those of bourgeois democracy, they differ only in degree.”  It took me some time to think through this statement after I first read it, but it finally began to make sense when I realized that by “the principle of democracy” Lenin actually meant the principle of popular elections to a legislature.  Historically, this bourgeois republican principle stood in contradiction to the divine right of kings, but it was not fully democratic in itself because the bourgeoisie always strove to restrict voting rights in order to protect its property.  Working-class democracy, in Lenin’s conception, is just the extension of the original bourgeois republican principle of a citizen-elected legislature to include equal and universal suffrage for the entire adult population.

Lenin does not in this article, or anywhere else to my knowledge, formally derive the working-class’ right to vote from the philosophy of natural individual rights that originated in the English revolution; so, in making this connection, I will be drawing out implications that Lenin does not make explicit.  Nevertheless, the logic is there.  The only change I make to Lenin’s account is terminological.  Lenin, like most Marxists, tended to use “liberalism,” “constitutional monarchy,” and “bourgeois democracy” almost interchangeably without explaining why “democracy” should be used at all to describe a political system in which voting and representation is neither universal nor equal.  At the time, maybe these terms were clear enough in context to allay confusion, but they are not now.  So, I call the bourgeoisie’s historical demands for a Bill of Rights and legislative supremacy over monarchy liberal or bourgeois or republican rights but not democratic rights because, even though the rights of free speech, religion, assembly, jury trials, etc., were incorporated into Social-Democratic programs because they were thought to be integral aspects of a future democratic republican society, they were not sufficient by themselves to constitute a democratic republic.  Only universal and equal representation could do that.  Hence, I reserve the concept of democratic right exclusively for universal and equal suffrage.  With this distinction between liberal rights and full democratic voting rights in place, it is now possible to explain how the democratic republic can be ideologically founded on liberal-democratic rights at the same time the political movement for a democratic republic will be opposed by a previously liberal republican bourgeoisie.  The basic story goes like this:  The rising bourgeoisie created an ideology of individual natural rights to justify its challenge to the divine right of kings, but those rights included a right to private property.  It was not so much the claim to a right to property itself that sowed the seeds of conflict within liberalism, but the claim to a right of unlimited property.  The Levellers’ dispute with Cromwell during the English Civil War was over the amount of property required to qualify as a voter in parliamentary elections.  The Levellers weren’t democrats themselves, only small-property republicans, but the language they used was later adopted by democrats to justify universal suffrage.  The Leveller John Wildman, for example, argued that “Every person in England [excluding wage-workers] hath as clear a right to elect his Representative as the greatest person in England.  I conceive that’s the undeniable maxim of government: that all government is in the free consent of the people.”  Unfortunately, the Levellers were suppressed and a small minority of large property owners gained control of the state.  This political arrangement was justified by Locke’s theory of property.  Beginning with equal natural rights, Locke initially reasoned that land distribution would be roughly equal if each Man could appropriate only so much as he could farm on his own.  But how, then, had land ownership become concentrated and propertyless men forced to sell their labor to other men in order to live?  Locke said it was because of society’s free, unforced adoption of the institution of money; Levellers and democrats said it was because of military conquest, usurpation, and the wealthy wielding political power for their own benefit. (C. B. Macpherson is the historian and political theorist best known for exploring these contradictions in liberal political and property theory going back to the English Civil War.)  Fast forward a century to the French Revolution when the proponents of liberal property and political theory clashed head on with a revolutionary democratic movement that sought to subordinate the laws of property to a greater common good.  With their property endangered, the bourgeoisie quickly abandoned its support of civil rights and popular government and sided with authoritarianism, leaving the poor and working classes as the only true defenders of the original liberal, bourgeois rights of free speech, assembly, voting, etc.  When Père Duchesne refers to the conflict between the liberal-monarchists and the revolutionary democrats during the Russian Revolution of 1905, he is referring only to the political side of this conflict.  The philosophical side saw the democrats absorb and expand the original liberal theory of universal and equal natural rights into a complete theory of a liberal-democratic republic, while the liberal-monarchists sided with authoritarianism to protect their property interests.  

The Relevance of Lenin’s Liberal-Democratic Republicanism

Assuming my account of Lenin’s theory of liberal-democratic republicanism in “Political Agitation and the ‘Class Point of View’” is accurate, the question remains whether it is still politically relevant, or whether it was ever relevant.  Père Duchesne and the other commentators seem to think that even if a coherent theory of liberal-democratic republicanism and socialism based on individual rights can be constructed, it will fail in practice because of the need to impose a revolutionary dictatorship to suppress counter-revolution.  They all conceive of this dictatorship as involving, in Père Duchesne’s words, “curtailing the rights of those who oppose democracy,” thereby contradicting and undermining the principles and workings of the system of liberal democracy itself.  I will address this problem more fully in a second letter, but let me indicate in advance the direction that discussion will take.  First, Père Duchesne is mistaken that Marx and Engels adopted the concept of a revolutionary dictatorship from Babeuf, Buonarroti, and Blanqui.  They explicitly rejected Blanqui’s concept of a conspiratorial dictatorship of an enlightened few in favor of their concept of a dictatorship of the entire working class, dictatorship in Marx’s and Engels’ sense simply meaning rule or regime in the form of a democratic republic.  Hal Draper’s two articles, “Marx and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat” and “Marx on Democratic Forms of Government,” are essential background for any discussion of this issue.  Second, Rosa Luxemburg also argues in her essay on the Russian Revolution that dictatorship and democracy in Marxist theory are not opposites and don’t cancel one another.  Her discussion is also essential.  Lastly, it is also a mistake to say that the punishment of counter-revolutionaries for violating the laws of a new political regime should be described as curtailing or taking away their rights.  All rights entail reciprocal mutual obligations to respect the same rights of others.  If counter-revolutionaries choose to violate the rights of others, they are thereby breaking an obligation and forfeit by their own actions any legitimate claim to the exercise of those rights.  The breaking of a law and punishment for that violation neither invalidates the law nor constitutes a violation of the offender’s rights.  To think otherwise, it seems to me, leads to a downward conceptual spiral in which there are no rules or laws or institution-building, only the invocation of on-the-spot military, revolutionary decisions.  I could be wrong about that, but the comments on my article contain precious little positive to say about the content of the political agitation they propose for current activity or the shape of post-revolutionary political institutions.  Lenin’s theory of political agitation, on the other hand, was tightly integrated with his primary political goal of the establishment of a democratic constituent assembly.  We should be aiming for the same kind of integration in our political work.  

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