Louis C. Fraina

Revolutionary Socialism

The Death of Democracy

THE conditions of Imperialism and State Capitalism generate a reactionary trend, nationally and internationally. The reactionary and brutalizing character of Imperialism does not consist simply in the fact that it produces war and crushes the independence of peoples. Imperialism strikes equally at independence and democracy within the nation, at the paltry democracy of Capitalism: it means the end of the era of bourgeois democracy. [1]

The democracy of the bourgeoisie, historically, consists of political freedom and the recognition of the rights of the individual, – the ideology of the era of free competition, of laissez-faire. In this democracy, freedom of action is a cardinal social principal. That government is considered best which governs least. Bourgeois democracy is, on the one hand, a reaction against the hierarchical rigidity of Feudalism, and on the other, an expression of the economic individualism of free competition which is the distinguishing feature of Capitalism in its pre-imperialistic stages, – the democracy of the individual, independent production and exchange of commodities. But as industry concentrates and annihilates free competition, the ideolology of democracy and of individual independence is displaced by the ideology of domination. The fact may be disguised by prattle about the interests of the collectivity and social control; it is, nevertheless, a reaction against bourgeois democracy.

In this reaction against democracy, industrial facts are the compulsive force. The larger and more integrated the industrial units become, the more necessary is the subordination of the individual to the technological process. There is a lessening of the individuality of the worker in industry; the technological development progressively renders individual skill and independence less necessary, except in the case of a privileged group of skilled technicians and managers. An essential characteristic of concentrated industry is that it multiplies the mass of average, unskilled workers, and deadens their individuality and intelligence in so far as the technical process is concerned. Labor, in the measure that it is specialized and standardized, becomes mechanical. This circumstance develops contempt in the upper class, and a growing disregard of the “rights” of these workers. The general reactionary tendency in education and the campaign for technical education in the public schools are, largely, a more or less conscious appreciation of the fact that a general and increasing intelligence is no longer necessary in the mass of labor; mechanical aptitude for a particular kind of work takes its place. In its earlier period, the factory system required and developed the general intelligence of the workers: out of this fact arose compulsory education; today, the factory system negates intelligence in the mass of workers.

Moreover, as industry develops, internationalizes itself and Imperialism arises, the democracy of laissez-faire is considered as interfering with industrial efficiency and the mobilization of national power, and is incontinently discarded. Democracy, to the bourgeoisie, was a means to an end: the overthrow of Feudalism and the development of the supremacy of Capitalism. Arrived at maturity of development, Capitalism liberates itself from the ideology of democracy in the measure that it realizes autocracy may more effectively promote its interests. The state, accordingly, acquires new and widening powers; the ideology of free competition, that that government is best which governs least, is substituted by the concept that that government is best which governs most, which controls the forces of society rigidly and autocratically – in the interest, of course, of dominant Capitalism! But this tranformation in the state is not comprised simply in the widening of its functions, but in a radical alteration of its procedure. Parallel with the acquisition of new industrial functions, the state acquires a new procedure, the procedure of absolutism, and becomes an autocracy cloaked in the cloak of democratic forms. The Roman Republic was still democratic in appearance for decades after it had become autocratic in actuality.

Capitalism today subordinates everything to the success of its imperialistic adventures. Autocracy, not the autocracy of a Czaristic Russia, but the autocracy of an industrially organized, imperialistic Germany, is much more speedy and efficient in action than democracy, and, moreover, more tractable to the interests of a ruling caste. Government having engaged itself to promote finance-capital in its imperialistic projects, it becomes increasingly un-democratic. In the struggles of Imperialism, the resort to force is the ultimate deciding factor. A strong government is indispensable – which means an autocratically centralized government, a mighty militarism, and the intensive subordination of the general will to the requirements of the ruling class. The spirit of militarism becomes the animating spirit of the state, in its political and industrial action. There is this vital similarity between militarism and State Capitalism, that each depends upon a coerced sense of discipline, a moral and physical regimentation of the masses. The actual procedure of government becomes autocratic where formerly it was oligarchic. The power of the state is centralized in its administrative, and not its legislative, department. The Chief Executive of a nation, whether President, Prime Minister or Emperor, becomes vested with the functions of dictator. The Strong Man policy dominates throughout society [2], and particularly toward the activity of the industrial proletariat, the subjection of which becomes increasingly indispensable.

This autocratic tendency is strengthened by the proConsul system of government that an imperialistic nation imposes upon its over-seas possessions and “protectorates.” The pro-Consul rules with an iron hand, exclusively in the interests of the ruling class of his own government; democracy, decency, honesty, all are complacently discarded, and a moral and physical reign of terror instituted to maintain “undeveloped” peoples in subjugation. A brutal and brutalizing mercenary soldiery becomes the guardian of the holy sanctuary of capitalist civilization and profits, – particularly profits. The Strong Man policy is necessary in these imperialistic possessions, and it reacts and stimulates a similar policy at home. Imperialism is international and its policy of repression is international. The rights of the individual, particularly the mythical rights of the workers, become a fetter upon the sway and development of capital, and are crushed. Efficiency, in the imperialistic sense, industrial and political, is the measure by which all things are tested. The reactionary trend becomes general and all-pervasive.

All layers of the ruling class acquiesce in this reaction, the petite bourgeoisie [3], and the new middle class. The bureaucratic system which is an expression of this reactionary trend in government draws its material largely from these groups. The export of bureaucrats to foreign possessions becomes an important source of employment and revenue for members of the middle class, and they sing hosannas to the new imperialistic dispensation. The opportunity of making a career is enlarged for the sons of the petite bourgeoisie through the military and civil service in colonial territory. In various ways, financial, industrial, social and political, the middle and the lower layers of the ruling class are seduced by the policy of Imperialism, become its most reactionary and brutal adherents.

The development of Capitalism, jointly with the widening of collegiate educational opportunity, has created an intellectual proletariat, workers of the brain. National Capitalism, for a time, absorbs these “intellectuals.” But a stage arrives when there is a real over-production of this class of workers. Temporarily, their imagination is intrigued by liberal social movements, and, occasionally, by Socialism. But inevitably, if gradually, their petty bourgeois souls scent the flesh-pots of Imperialism, and they become its prophets. These “workers of the brain,” the surplus which is not absorbed internally, are exported to colonial possessions and “spheres of influence,” where the growing industrial and social development provides opportunity for their services. As the production of these intellectuals increases, turned out by our institutions of learning as a factory turns out hats and shoes, and largely standardized, new fields must be conquered to absorb this particular commodity, and they proclaim the mission of their “superior race” to spread the blessings of civilization, and incidentally of the factory system and the intellectuals, among the backward races.

In every imperialistic country, it is precisely these “workers of the brain” who manufacture and carry into the ranks of the workers the ideology and the enthusiasm of Imperialism. These intellectuals, which the older Socialism expected would become a mighty ally of the proletarian revolution, are a corrupt and corrupting social force. They constitute an insidiously dangerous force, moreover, as they disguise the sordid schemes of Imperialism in the beauty of science, civilization, and progress generally. These intellectuals, like the plague, are a contamination everywhere; but they are particularly numerous and group-conscious in Germany, where they constitute the intellectual army of Imperialism. In Bismarck’s Erbe, Prof. Hans Delbrück frankly states the needs of this class: “What must give our colonies their specific character is the upper layer, the thousands of graduates of our higher and intermediate educational institutions which are being constantly produced by our fine school-system, for whose talents there is, however, no suitable employment at home ... These we must send into the world as engineers, merchants, planters, physicians, superintendents, officers, to rule the great masses of the inferior races, as the English are doing in India. Such a colonial-Germany will not only rise to the position of World Power, but will, at the same time, solve our most difficult social problem the finding of suitable employment for the rising sons of the people, the surplus of intelligence which finds no proper field of activity at home.” The “intellectuals” of Germany were intense and brutal adherents of the war; while the socially different intelligentsia of Russia was an active counter-revolutionary force in the proletarian revolution.

Incidentally, it is interesting to observe that a phase of these developments is an intellectual reaction. Pragmatism becomes the philosophy of “liberal” Imperialism, and Bergsonism the philosophy of State Capitalism. The one tests all things by the test of practice, of social efficiency, degraded by the miserable bourgeois soul into the degrading utilitarian philosophy of “results” ; the other expresses, in a philosophy in which reactionary and liberal ideas jostle each other, fusing into a system essentially of reaction, that unity of divergent class interests which characterizes the epoch of State Capitalism, camouflaging itself in the colors of radical and intellectual democracy. The philosopher enters the service of the imperialist.

In matters that directly concern Imperialism and State Capitalism, philosophy is reactionary; in other matters, and where necessary to deceive, it is radically liberal. It is this latter circumstance which produces the deception that the new era intellectually is progressive. The developments in science and philosophy of a progressive character, which are inevitable, are degraded to the purposes of the ruling class. Even in its progressive aspects the new philosophy serves reactionary purposes: the progressive concept that the child’s mental development is furthered by the use of the hands and of tools becomes transformed into a means of turning out good, average industrial operatives; the radical hypothesis, that the pragmatic test is the ultimate test of philosophy and of practice, becomes transformed into the doctrine that what is, is right, that results are the supreme consideration, and the creation of a new social god, the totem-god of Efficiency. It is this circumstance that explains the contradiction of a “liberal” social thinker promoting and justifying a brutal and brutalizing State Capitalism. Socially, within limits that are rigidly definite and that promote the interests of Capital, Imperialism and State Capitalism may be progressive; politically, economically and internationally, Imperialism and State Capitalism are compellingly reactionary.

Radical and liberal social movements merge and develop into a new “progressivism.” This progressivism is an ally of Imperialism, promotes and is itself promoted by Imperialism. The liberal ideas and social reform program of progressivism proceed within limits which not only do not hamper Imperialism, but directly promote its growth and ascendancy. The liberal Lloyd-George becomes the director and dictator of the war of an Imperialism that formerly considered him its worst enemy. The characteristics of this new progressivism are typical in the United States, where they have acquired definite expression. [4] The various progressive movements of the decaying middle class meet defeat after defeat, and then disaster. The social alignment changes. Where the old progressivism coalesced around the Democratic Party, historically the party of the small bourgeoisie, the new progressivism develops within the Republican Party, historically the party of Big Capital and Imperialism. The enunciation of the “New Nationalism” by Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 marked an epoch in American politics. It was a clear and consistent formulation of the requirements of the new era of concentrated industry and collectivistic Capitalism. It called for the extension of the functions of the Federal government, regulation equally of capital and labor, the Strong Man policy of administrative centralization of the powers of the state, and the necessity of co-ordinating and unifying all the forces of the capitalist class through the national administrative control of industry, – in all essentials, imperialistic State Capitalism. The “New Nationalism” included a series of social reforms and progressive measures typical of the social and political requirements of Imperialism. During the war, Roosevelt enunciated a new doctrine, the “Larger Americanism,” which, basing itself upon the program of the “New Nationalism,” developed and promoted an aggressive foreign policy as a necessary means of promoting the international imperialistic interests of the United States. This progressivism is rampantly militaristic and imperialistic: at the three major party conventions in 1916, the convention of the Progressive Party was most decidedly militaristic and aggressive, bitterly criticizing the “pacific” policy of President Wilson. This progressivism barters away its ideals and independence for a share in the spoils of Imperialism. [5] The reaction against democracy has been a characteristic feature of the United States for the past fifty years. The Civil War and its aftermath of industrial expansion marked the doom of the older democracy. The dictatorship of the Federal government during the administration of Lincoln persisted into the administration of Grant, and in latent or open form became thereafter a feature of the American government. The corruption in politics, and the miserable petty stature of the men elected to Congress, developed popular contempt of the national legislature, and correspondingly strengthened the powers of the Presidency. The actual functions of government were assumed by the executive, while the legislature dickered for partisan political advantages and waged royal fights over the “pork barrel.” President Roosevelt brutally and contemptuously terrorized Congress. President Wilson made Congress subservient to his will in all things. The despotism of the judiciary emphasized the despotism of the Presidency. The centralization and autocracy of industry expressed itself in the centralization and autocracy of government. By a process of terrorism and ingenious fraud the right to the franchise was extensively limited. Democracy was trampled upon mercilessly, particularly during strikes.

In government, as in industry, autocracy is dominant. All this proceeds simultaneously with the introduction of a sham democracy operating through a variety of schemes that temporarily deceives the masses. But only temporarily: the mailed fit too often smashes through this sham democracy and exposes the sinister autocracy and brutality that direct the nation.

The death of democracy, of bourgeois democracy, and the intensified struggle against the oncoming proletarian democracy of communist Socialism, are the necessary products of Imperialism and State Capitalism. Why is this particularly characteristic of the United States? There are three typically imperialistic nations, each emphasizing a particular phase of the new era. Great Britain, – which typifies Imperialism as developed upon the basis of an old established colonial dominion; Germany, – typifying the nation trying to establish its Imperialism by systematic aggression and rapine among a world of imperialistic rivals; and the United States, – typifying the nation within whose borders Imperialism has most actively established itself, drastically developing the internal conditions of Imperialism. The Imperialism of Great Britain and Germany is most highly developed in its international aspects; that of the United States in its national aspects. Considering the circumstance that the altering of class relations and institutions generally is the vital feature of Imperialism, the United States shows the typical features of an imperialistic nation. Its reaction against democracy and its imperialistic forms generally are, accordingly, particularly marked and typical in expression.

The early democracy of America, the ideology of Jeffersonian democracy, was the expression of the interests and commodity relations of the small farmers, traders and pioneers. The active flux of life among the people, the free lands out West which irresistibly attracted settlers and its resulting expansion, developed the conditions of social equality and political democracy. These conditions provided the necessary basis for the development of Capitalism, culminating in the great struggle of the Civil War between the system of capital and the system of slavery. In the Civil War the early democracy was immediately victorious, but the conditions produced by its victory swiftly brought its own defeat. The petty bourgeois ideology of democracy of the small traders and independent farmers was crushed under the onward tread of industrial concentration. The expansion westward was no longer independently agrarian, but industrial; it did not produce the conditions of an agrarian democracy, but of an industrial autocracy. The free lands not yet occupied were seized by Capital. The early democracy persisted ideologically and expressed itself in a series of revolts of the farmers and the middle class, but all to no avail: the domination of Capital was unshaken. And this reaction against democracy was emphasized by the appearance of Imperialism; for Imperialism in the United States appears as early as the close of the Civil War, and the construction of the great trans-continental railway systems.

The construction of the Bagdad railway, clearly, was an imperialistic enterprise; it is not so clear that the construction of the trans-continental railway systems of this country was equally an imperialistic enterprise. But it becomes clear when one considers that the purpose of the Bagdad railway was to develop and exploit undeveloped regions; and that was precisely the purpose of the great American railways. The building of a railway in an undeveloped country, generally, is financed in a measure by the government and valuable concessions of lands and mines are secured; and the identical procedure was pursued in this country. The new West played the role of colonies and undeveloped regions, the industrialized East the role of the developed country exporting capital and engaging in financial schemes of development. True enough, there was no mass of unskilled labor in these new regions, as in China and Turkey; but this labor was provided in the shape of immigrants, who were treated with the same brutality as “inferior races” in an undeveloped country. This “internal” Imperialism was in a measure actively promoted by the export of European capital to the United States.

The concentration of industry, based upon this new industrial expansion, proceeded more rapidly and on a larger scale than in any other country, and accelerated the rise of an external American Imperialism, which adventured in Central America and the Carribbeans, and waged an imperialistic war for the “liberation” of Cuba, – and the annexation of the Philippines! The typical conditions of Imperialism developed: the centralization of authority in the national government; intensive brutality toward labor; the appearance of the new forms of progressivism and State Capitalism; the decay of democracy; the altering of class groupings and relations, and the definite cleavage between skilled and unskilled labor, the unions of the aristocracy of labor abandoning the general class struggle and intriguing to become a part of the ruling system of things.

Under these conditions, the attitude of the state toward labor becomes one compounded of cajolery and brutality, and particularly brutality toward the unskilled. In no country in the world, except in a colony, is unskilled labor treated as brutally as in this country. Strikes are crushed ruthlessly by armed force, and even more ruthlessly by the terrorism and tyranny of the courts: strikers are refused the right to picket, are often denied the right of assemblage, their press is suppressed and their representatives thrown into jail, the injunction becomes a Cossack’s knout to lash the strikers into subjection. The great industrial revolts of recent years. – Coeur d’Alene, McKees Rocks, Lawrence, Paterson, Ludlow, the Mesaba Range – all these are historic mile-posts in the development of the ruthless policy of suppression adopted by imperialistic State Capitalism against the industrial proletariat of unskilled labor.

The sham democracy of Imperialism is the dominant democracy. The brutality of Imperialism is general. Formerly the carrier of democracy, the nation has become the carrier of Imperialism and reaction. All social groups, except the industrial proletariat of unskilled labor, have become reactionary, are in a status where their interests are promoted by Imperialism, and are counter-revolutionary. The industrial proletariat is determined by its class interests in a struggle against Imperialism and the ruling system of things. Non-proletarian groups can no longer be utilized in the struggle against dominant Capitalism: they are now an integral part of this Capitalism; the proletariat alone can carry on the struggle, independently and through revolutionary Socialism. The struggle for the revival of the old bourgeois democracy cannot in any way become a part of our activity; this activity is determined by the struggle for the new, the fundamental proletarian democracy of communist Socialism.


1. The place of the democratic ideal of equality has been usurped by an oligarchical ideal of domination. But if that ideal seemingly comprises the whole nation in foreign politics, in home politics it changes into an emphasizing of capitalist authority over the working class. The growing power of the workers strengthens at the same time the desire of capital to increase further the power of the state as a security against proletarian demands. Thus the ideology of Imperialism arises and conquers the old liberal ideals. – K. Hilferding, Das Finanzkapital.

2. This development it particularly strong and typical in the United States. Its peculiar form of government, and the fact that the Constitution does not specify which department of the government shall assume new functions as they develop – the “twilight zone,” which leaves it to circumstances to decide whether the legislature or the executive shall absorb new powers has lodged more and more authority in the Presidency, in the measure that the development of industry imposed new functions upon the government that the Constitution did not provide for. The President has become virtual dictator.

3. The source of the ideology of democracy, with all its traditions and illusions, is the petite bourgeoisie. In the second half of the nineteenth century, it suffered a complete internal transformation, but was by no means eliminated from political life. At the very moment that the development of capitalist technique was inexorably undermining its functions, the general suffrage right and universal military service were still giving to the petite bourgeoisie, thanks to its numerical strength, an appearance of political importance. Big capital, in so far as it did not completely wipe out this class, subordinated it to its own ends by means of the application of the credit system. All that remained for the political representatives of Big Capital to do was to subjugate the petite bourgeoisie, in the political arena, to their purposes, by opening a fictitious credit to the declared theories and prejudices of this class. It is for this reason that, in the decade preceding the war, we witnessed side by side with the gigantic efforts of a reacionary-imperialistic policy, a deceptive flowering of bourgeois democracy with its accompanying reformism and pacifism Capital was making use of the petite bourgeoisie for the prosecution of capital’s imperialistic purposes by exploiting the ideologic prejudices of the petite bourgeoisie. – Leon Trotzky, Pacifism in the Service of Imperialism, in The Class Struggle, November-December 1917.

4. Under the conditions of Imperialism, progressivism and a liberal ideology become the great means of developing and maintaining the war spirit of a people. The majority Socialism of Germany gives a brutal war a popular and democratic sanction; the imperialistic bourgeoisie of France pursues its sinister purposes through a “people’s ministry” consisting of radicals and “Socialists”; the conservative Asquith gives way to the radical Lloyd-George, who seduces labor with liberal slogans, while the Labor Party, through its color of “labor” and its progressivism promotes the war and becomes the last bulwark of defence of British Imperialism.

5. The reformist policy in the most diverse countries aims at an approach toward the progressive and reform-favoring part of the bourgeoisie and in exchange therefor is ready to take part in the administration, to vote budgets, and approve of colonial projects ... Twenty years ago in Germany the liberals and the Catholic Centre party were opponents of militarism and the colonial policy; but since the elections of 1907 all opposition of these petty bourgeois circles against policies of violence and force has disappeared. – Anton Pannekoek, Imperialism and Social Democracy, in the International Socialist Review, October 1914.


Last updated on 14.10.2007