On What Grounds Should We Defend Liberal Democracy?

by Andrew Kliman

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from a November 14, 2021 presentation by Kliman during a meeting of Marxist-Humanist Initiative (MHI).

I’m going to be reviewing and commenting on what MHI has said about liberal democracy in our existing Perspectives documents, with an eye toward their further development. I think we need further clarification on why Marxist-Humanists support liberal democracy, that is, to spell out the grounds on which we support it.

I think the task of clarification may be easier to accomplish if we keep our terms clear and distinct, especially democracy and liberal democracy. By keeping the terms clear and distinct, we can focus on the specific thing we want to focus on at a particular moment, rather than focusing on something related to it, or talking about two different things at once, or veering from one to the other, and so on.

What is Liberal Democracy?

Let’s start with dictionary definitions. The goal of dictionary definitions isn’t to specify the essence of things, but simply to say how terms are commonly used. According to Lexico, an Oxford dictionary, democracy is used to refer to “[a] system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives,” and sometimes it refers to majority rule: “[c]ontrol of an organization or group by the majority of its members.” But, according to Lexico, the term liberal democracy is used to refer to something different and more complex: “[a] democratic system of government in which individual rights and freedoms are officially recognized and protected, and the exercise of political power is limited by the rule of law.”

So all liberal democracies are democracies, but not all democracies are liberal democracies. To be a liberal democracy, the system of government has to protect individual rights and individual freedoms, and adhere to the rule of law. And, of course, when we use the term liberal democracy, we are especially (though not exclusively) concerned with these additional aspects. Otherwise, we would just refer to democracy.

Since individual freedoms and individual rights are key elements of liberal democracy, defense of liberal democracy is defense of these freedoms and rights. Failure to defend liberal democracy is failure to defend these freedoms and rights that are among its key elements.


Credit: Rise and Resist NY


Individual Rights and Freedoms are Ends in Themselves

I think MHI’s 2019 Perspectives document on liberal democracy did an excellent job of situating what it said about liberal democracy within the broader set of Perspectives we have put forward in Resisting Trumpist Reaction (and Left Accommodation).  It provides a very good critique of the “soft-on-authoritarianism” “left,” especially a critique of its insistence that “neoliberalism” rather than authoritarianism is the main enemy.

In my view, the main weakness of the 2019 document has to do with the manner in which it articulates why liberal democracy is important and why we need to defend it. Pragmatic reasons are provided: liberal democracies are more tolerant of dissent and freedom struggles than authoritarian regimes are, and this gives radical movements and independent working-class activity more space to self-develop. The 2019 document also argues that freedom struggles “have several aspects of genuine positive significance,” and much of what it is referring to here is also pragmatic––through these freedom struggles, contradictions get sharpened, masses get radicalized and self-develop, gains are won.

I agree with everything we said about this. But it isn’t all that needs to be said and worked out, in my opinion.

In another argument for liberal democracy in the 2019 document, we say that freedom struggles are “moments” in, or aspects of, the struggle for socialism. But I don’t think we got very far in terms of what that means or exactly how they are aspects of the struggle for socialism.

The pragmatic justifications of liberal democracy and the point about freedom struggles as moments in the struggle for socialism have something in common. They both focus on liberal democracy, individual rights, and individual freedom as means to an end. They do not show sufficient appreciation of what Marx (Capital, vol. 3, chap. 48, p. 959 of Penguin ed., emphasis added) called “[t]he true realm of freedom, the development of human powers as an end in itself.”

I suspect that, when we do appreciate this, we can transcend the whole problematic of attempting to justify liberal democracy, and individual rights and freedoms, exclusively in terms of what they are good for. Individual rights and freedoms are good in themselves, and liberal democracy is an incomplete but important realization of them. They aren’t just means to an end; they themselves are the end.

I’ve just said that liberal democracy is an incomplete but important realization of individual rights and freedoms. What I’m getting at is that there are matters of degree. First, there are degrees of liberal democracy. The US was, to some degree, a liberal democracy prior to 1973, when women won the right to abortion. But this individual right, and individual freedom to choose, increased the degree of liberal democracy in the US. Second, there are degrees of individual rights and freedoms, as I’ll discuss below.

For generations, if not longer, the meaning of the terms socialism and communism has all too often been reduced to an economic one; for instance, collective ownership and planning equals socialism. Without denigrating the importance of the economic structure of society in the least, I have to say that this reduction has nothing in common with Karl Marx’s Marxism or its re-creation for today, Marxist-Humanism. Transformation of the economic structure of society is hugely important for achieving our goal. But it is not the goal. I therefore urge that we reject the formulation that freedom struggles are “moments” in, or aspects of, the struggle for socialism.

The goal is the freedom of each individual, replacement of “the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, [with] an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (emphasis added). This was written 173 years ago, and not in some obscure unpublished notebook, but in the Manifesto of the Communist Party.

This goal can’t be fully realized in one fell swoop. At a given time, the rights and freedoms of individuals can be achieved only to a certain degree. We cannot achieve that which is not yet possible. Our struggle to achieve it is, in the first place, a struggle to make it possible.

The Materialist Conception of the Development of Rights

Marx’s materialist conception of history is grounded in the recognition that the so-called superstructure of a society depends on, and corresponds to, its material foundation, including its production relations. The development of the material foundation is what makes possible the development of the superstructure. The term “superstructure” refers to “legal and political” relations and to the “forms of social consciousness” (beliefs, attitudes, values, etc.) that correspond to those relations. So the whole realm of das Recht––law, rights, justice––is part of what Marx called the superstructure. In the Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx put forward the historical materialist principle that “das Recht can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.”

Marx drew this conclusion after briefly sketching out the historical trajectory culminating in the ultimate goal. He starts with current, bourgeois, society, where there is equal right under law, equal right in principle. But principle and practice are at loggerheads, because the equality under law rests on profound inequality of material conditions. For example, individuals have the right to be treated equally in their market transactions but, even in the best case, what we exchange is equal amounts of value. That’s entirely different from equal amounts of labor, because the amounts of value created by different people’s labor is profoundly unequal. So equal rights in the market lead to great inequality because they rest on a material basis of great inequality.

Next, Marx comes to the initial, lower phase of communist society. This new society is classless. It thus treats all labor as equal; the individual’s labor counts directly as social labor. So now, we will exchange equal amounts of labor. Equality in principle and equality in practice will no longer be at loggerheads. Classless social and material conditions now allow them not to be at loggerheads.

Yet despite this absolute, revolutionary, advance in terms of individual rights and equality, individual rights will still be limited––and thus defective in comparison to the ultimate goal. Producers will be entitled to receive back only as much as they contribute. And there will still be some economic inequality because, while all labor will be equal, different people’s abilities to do labor will still be unequal. Marx argues that “these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged,” because das Recht––rights, law, justice––“can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.”

The ultimate goal is a society in which an individual’s right to receive is no longer limited to what s/he contributes. One’s right to receive will depend only on one’s needs and one’s full, willing participation in society’s production: from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs. Marx cautions that this goal will remain impossible to achieve until we reach the higher phase of communist society. And reaching this higher phase will require much more than a classless society without value relations and markets. It will require enormous changes in society’s material foundation, including production relations: enormous technological progress and economic growth, elimination of all division of labor, and transformation of work–– from something we have to do into something we want to do.

I’ve gone into a lot of detail about this part of the Critique of the Gotha Program in order to draw out that:

(a) it is above all a discussion of individual rights and justice;

(b) Marx was arguing that the ever-greater achievement of individual rights is itself the goal;

(c) transformation of the economic structure of society, although hugely important for achieving the goal, is not itself the goal; and

(d) unless and until we reach the higher phase of communist society, the achievement of this goal will always be a matter of degree. The needed revolutions never end, as Raya Dunayevskaya put it.

The Struggle for Voting Rights

To prepare for today’s meeting, we read––in addition to MHI’s 2019 and 2020 documents on liberal democracy—a number of short texts by Marx, as well as texts by Frederick Engels, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and Amadeo Bordiga. These texts address a fairly wide variety of topics. I think the wide range is needed because of the multifaceted nature of the issues we confront today. To respond adequately to the threat to liberal democracy, and especially in order to defend it from the “soft on authoritarianism” “left,” including some followers of Bordiga and other so-called “left communists,” we need to draw on the whole of Marx’s Marxism and Marxist-Humanism. Or, at least, we need to avoid trying to make isolated bits of them do the work that only the whole of them can provide.

Marx’s Marxism is frequently distorted beyond recognition when people take bits of it and run with them. It sometimes seems that such people do this because they don’t know any better. In other words, they don’t know any more; their understanding is much too partial.

Some of our readings for today’s meeting deal with voting rights. I think it’s noteworthy that Engels equated “Communism among the French and Germans, [and] Chartism among the English” in his On the History of the Communist League. He was saying that communism and Chartism were both different manifestations of one and the same working-class struggle against the ruling classes. Engels also noted that he was the one who got his communist colleagues to recognize the importance of the Chartist movement. The reason it wasn’t obvious to them was that Chartism was about voting rights, not about anything directly economic!

In his August 10, 1852 New York Tribune article on “The Chartists,” Marx emphasized that the Chartists’ demands “contain nothing but the demand of universal suffrage and of the conditions without which universal suffrage would be illusory for the working class.” Yet in his view, “universal suffrage in England would … be a far more socialistic measure than anything which has been honoured with that name on the Continent.”

How could Marx say that universal suffrage would be “far more socialistic”? He said it because his goal was power for the immense majority of the population, not some particular economic content. How many of our “friends” on the anti-neoliberal “left” today would regard Marx’s perspective as “not being for something” or even as “shilling for neoliberalism”?


Jan. 6, 2022 “Day of Remembrance and Action” vigil, Verdi Square, Upper West Side of Manhattan. The large banner reads: “Garland Do Your Job / Indict the Coup Plotters.” Credit: Inwood Indivisible


Opposing Authoritarianism

Second, Marx’s fervent opposition to authoritarianism is brought out in several of the readings. This is what the excerpts on the freedom of the press are about. For Marx, the issue was: freedom for whom? Freedom as the special privilege of some, or as everyone’s universal right? Is it only the government that enjoys freedom of the press, or does civil society do so as well? [1]

And in the Critique of the Gotha Program, a third of a century later, he made a similar point about “freedom for whom?,” in response to drivel about a “free state.”

It is by no means the aim of the workers … to set the state free. In the German Empire, the “state” is almost as “free” as in Russia. Freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it; and today, too, the forms of state are more free or less free to the extent that they restrict the “freedom of the state.”

In the same section of the Critique, Marx showed that he was certainly not someone who drew false equivalences between democracy and autocratic rule. He distinguished a “democratic republic” from “a state which is nothing but a police-guarded military despotism,” and made clear which he preferred.

Much of what Marx said about the Paris Commune is about, and against, “the purely repressive character of the state power.” He argued that, “[a]t the same pace at which the progress of modern industry developed, widened, intensified the class antagonism between capital and labor, the state power assumed more and more the character of the national power of capital over labor, of a public force organized for social enslavement, of an engine of class despotism.” For this reason, he and Engels suggested in 1872 that the revolutionary measures put forward in the Communist Manifesto were no longer sufficiently anti-statist. “One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.’” The state machinery must be broken.

Thus Marx’s discussion of the achievements of the Paris Commune singles out the differences between its form of governement and “centralized state power, with its ubiquitous organs of standing army, police, bureaucracy, clergy, and [judiciary],” and the Commune’s elimination of all of the latter. It was, he said,

a thoroughly expansive political form, while all the previous forms of government had been emphatically repressive. … It was essentially a working class government, … the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic[ ] emancipation of labor.

All of the quotations from Marx in this section have been about the issue of freedom of the state vs. freedom from the state. This issue is extremely important when discussing individual freedoms and individual rights, because these rights and freedoms restrict the freedom of the state. They impose limits on state power, make individuals more free by making the state less free.[2]


[1] Marx wrote,

Freedom is so much the essence of man that even its opponents implement it while combating its reality; they want to appropriate, for themselves, as a most precious ornament, what they have rejected as an ornament of human nature. [punctuation corrected]

No man combats freedom; at most he combats the freedom of others. Hence every kind of freedom has always existed, only at one time as a special privilege, at another as a universal right.

The question has now for the first time been given a consistent meaning. It is not a question whether freedom of the press ought to exist, for it always exists. The question is whether freedom of the press is a privilege of particular individuals or whether it is a privilege of the human mind. The question is whether a right of one side ought to be a wrong for the other side. The question is whether “freedom of the mind” has more right than “freedom against the mind.”

[2] This is by no means a new insight. For example, making individuals more free by making the state less free was precisely what the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the US Constitution, were intended to do.


1 Comment

  1. Yes of course ‘freedom from the state’ is good, but there are all sorts of problems therein, and it is important not to conflate Marx with the position of anarcho-capitalism. Ideally a community would be self-regulating but so long as we have the state (and that is the basic presupposition of Liberal Democracy), then communities regulate themselves through the state as a matter of convenience. So in Britain we have bans on fox-hunting, smoking in pubs, and laws against abusive speech. All these things have been contentious and rigorously debated inside Parliament, the media, and broadly too.

    Chiefly an issue becomes contentious where there is a conflict of liberties (i.e., the growing number of hunt-saboteurs were clashing with ruling class hunters; non-smokers, armed with increasing evidence about the harms of passive smoking, wanted to restrict smokers; lots of people feel justifiably harmed by bad behaviour on the internet, etc.) Liberal democracy secures a balance between competing liberties and this just does include banning things. Absolute ‘freedom from the state’ is repulsed by such overtures, but majority will is supportive, generally. So, does liberal democracy include the right to ban, or not? If there is a right to ban some things, on what grounds can we oppose very harsh bans on, e.g. abortion, free press, etc. These are not easy questions, but they are important to answer if you want to have a distinctive position.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.