Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

J. Reed

Dogmatism and Democracy. Marxist-Leninists must lead the fight for democratic rights

First Published: The Organizer, Vol. 3, No. 3, April-May 1977.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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To develop democracy to the utmost, to find the forms for this development, to test them by practice, and so forth -all this is one of the component tasks of the struggle for the social revolution. Taken separately, no kind of democracy will bring socialism. But in actual life, democracy will never be “taken separately”; it will be “taken together” with, other things, it will exert its influence on economic life as well, will stimulate its transformation; and in its turn it will be influenced by economic development, and so on. This is the dialectics of living history. – Lenin: Wks. Vol. 25, p. 452-3

The history of the United States is a history of mass struggles for democracy. The working class, the oppressed nationalities, women and farmers, have all spawned great democratic movements which have sought to expand – and in part, have succeeded in expanding – the rights of our people.

It would be difficult to find any political movements which have done more to shake the foundations of imperialist rule in the US than the workers’ battle for the right to organize and the 400-year struggle of the Black people for equality and freedom.

But democracy is to socialism what reform is to revolution. No amount of democracy by itself, can possibly end the class exploitation which is the foundation of the world’s foremost system of oppression. Only socialism can do that.

Does this mean that the struggle for democracy is without political significance?

On the contrary, the struggle for democracy is a vital part of the proletariat’s program. And thus, for Marxist-Leninists defining how to link the struggle for democracy to the struggle for socialism is a central question facing our movement.

It is also a question on which Modern Dogmatism has been able to shed little light. But before we turn to a critique of the Dogmatist position on the struggle for democracy – or the lack of it – it is necessary to briefly review the essential principles of Marxism on the question.


Democracy, as a form of state, is the best political shell for capitalism. It hides the real dictatorship of capital behind a screen of ’rights’ and ’democratic institutions.’ From a purely formal standpoint, these rights and institutions guarantee the freedom of the individual and allow him or her to collectively determine the course of government.

However, capitalism makes democracy unachievable for the masses. Behind the facade of formal democratic institutions, the real power is exercised by and for the capitalist class. The capitalists, through their powerful lobbies and campaign funding, dominate the political process, insuring that candidates favorable to their interests are elected.

A huge, powerful and permanent civil and military bureaucracy, which is both materially and ideologically tied to the capitalist class, forms the core of the state. This bureaucracy remains wedded to the capitalist class, regardless of what political party is in power – which is why the capitalist class cannot be ousted from state power by ordinary parliamentary means.

Finally, the fundamental legal framework, embodied in the constitution and interpreted by the courts, is hopelessly weighted in the interests of the capitalist class, hobbling and crippling the movement for genuine democracy at every turn.


All this is doubly true in the present period, the epoch of imperialism. In its infancy, the capitalist class championed democracy in its fight to displace feudalism. But now, bloated and senile, it is democracy’s implacable enemy. While democracy corresponds to the free competition of pre-monopoly capitalism, political reaction corresponds to the monopoly character of imperialism. The power of capital, welded into huge banks and trusts, all controlled by a few institutions of capitalist finance, is greatly expanded. And along with it, the state is rendered even more subservient to this power.

Thus, while capitalism engenders democratic illusions, it makes their realization impossible; it creates a contradiction between the democratic tendencies of the masses and the bourgeoisie’s need to curtail their rights. It is this contradiction which has been the motivation of the democratic struggles in our history.

While the working class recognizes that no amount of democracy can abolish class oppression, it also recognizes that the greater the democracy, the more direct, the more open and the broader the class struggle. The more the Black people make progress in their struggle for equality, the more they will see that the source of their oppression is imperialism, not the lack of rights. And the more the working class has the freedom to organize and struggle, the more it will see that its oppression stems from capitalism, not insufficient democracy.


And while the proletariat’s struggle for democracy must be subordinated to the higher interests of the struggle for socialism, the struggle for democracy is bound up with the struggle for socialism. As Lenin wrote: “It would be a radical mistake to think that the struggle for democracy was capable of diverting the proletariat from socialist revolution or hiding it, etc. On the contrary, in the same way as there can be no victorious socialism that does not practice full democracy, so the proletariat cannot prepare for its victory over the bourgeoisie without an all-round, consistent and revolutionary struggle for democracy.” (Wks., Vol. 22, p. 144)

It is important to recognize that the line between democracy and socialism, like the line between reform and revolution, is not fixed. It changes along with concrete conditions. Just as the accentuating crisis of imperialism has brought about a merger of the struggle for reforms with the struggle for revolution, so it has induced a developing merger of the struggle for democracy and the struggle for socialism.

While it would be a complete departure from Marxism to forget that as long as capitalism exists, the struggle for socialism is primary, it would be equally erroneous to fail to recognize that the basic democratic aspirations of the masses tend to drive them more into contradiction with imperialism with each passing decade.

To sum up briefly: for the proletariat in the US, schooling in the struggle for democracy is essential and, in fact, grows more essential with the advancing crisis of imperialism.


The struggle for democracy in the United States today can be divided into four interrelated thrusts. First is the struggle of the oppressed nationalities for democratic rights; this is undoubtedly the central democratic question facing the working class today. Second, the struggle of women for full equality. While secondary in importance to the struggle against racism, this question ranks high on the working class’ democratic agenda.

The third thrust of the struggle for democracy is the effort to democratize the institutional structure of bourgeois democracy; here, we mean such questions as the election of all public officials and the right to recall them, free access for all candidates to the ballot, impediments to bribery of officials, etc. And the fourth thrust is the struggle against militarism and fascism; this encompasses both the effort to curtail the CIA, the FBI, to outlaw the KKK and the Nazi Party, and the effort to curtail the power of the Pentagon.

Any Marxist-Leninist organization, any vanguard party in the US, must speak to each of these four areas if it hopes to use the struggle for democracy as a preparatory class for socialism. It is not enough to speak to one aspect alone; for each is tied to all the others by the very nature of imperialism.

For example, there is a direct relationship between the struggle of oppressed nationalities and the struggle against militarism. It is no accident that the military brass – owing largely to its direct role in the suppression of national liberation struggles – is the most fascist and racist-minded section of the ruling class. Nor is it a matter of chance that the most racist civilian sections of the bourgeoisie – the Reagans, Buckleys, and Stennises – strive for the greatest possible expansion of the Pentagon. Thus it would be an absolute contradiction to advocate, on the one hand, an end to the racist attacks on the Black people, but on the other, to fail to call for substantial cuts in the defense budget.


Given the particular importance of the democratic struggle in the US historically, one would expect that Marxist-Leninists would recognize that a central theoretical question facing our movement is the question of the concrete relationship of the struggle for democracy to the struggle for socialism.

However, in the party-building movement this has not been the case. Dogmatism has reared its head on this question as well as others. In reaction to revisionism, which liquidates the struggle for socialism in the name of the struggle for democracy, the dogmatists liquidate the struggle for democracy in the name of the struggle for socialism.

Our dogmatists have even refused to address the question in any depth. Nowhere in the program of the charlatan RCP, nor in the pages of the Call, will you see even any significant, let alone correct, discussion of the relationship of the struggle for democracy to the struggle for socialism.

The RCP did make one attempt to address the question of “Bourgeois Democracy and the US Working Class.” In an article published in the first issue of the Communist, their ’theoretical’ journal, the author confines the discussion to the necessity of the “battle in the sphere of ideology against the bourgeois democratic deception,” i.e., the need to expose the democratic illusions fostered by capitalism among the masses.

While it is certainly necessary for communists to carry out a consistent policy of political exposures of the inherent limitations of democracy under capitalism, the masses will not lose their illusions from such exposures alone, as this article implies. It is only through the consistent involvement of the workers in the struggle for democracy that can, when coupled with political exposures, provide the proper foundation for a revolutionary struggle for socialism.

To fail to provide consistent leadership to the workers’ struggle for democracy, to fail to be the foremost champions of an “all round, consistent and revolutionary struggle for democracy” is precisely to confine the proletariat to such illusions.

And it is this failure to champion the workers’ struggle for democracy which is characteristic of the dogmatist organizations. A brief examination of the practice of either OL or RCP, the leading exponents of dogmatism, will demonstrate this fact.


While both organizations give lip service to the struggle of the oppressed nationalities for equality, both underestimate the democratic significance of this struggle. For example, a central focus of the Black people’s struggle, today, is the battle for desegregation in education. Their struggle for desegregation through forced busing is, in essence, a demand for the right to equal education.

The RCP has objectively opposed this demand with the chauvinist argument that forced busing is a “bourgeois trick to divide the working class.” The OL, on the other hand, has tried to reduce the question to one of “the right of the Black people to go to the school of their choice” which they argue has nothing to do with “quality education.”

While the RCP position is obviously the more treacherous, both organizations underestimate the real democratic question involved. The RCP opposes desegregation; the OL defends the ’right’ of the oppressed nationalities to go to any school, but tells them that an improvement in the quality of education is not involved. This latter position is similar to defending the ’right’ of workers to organize by arguing that they have no real advantage to gain by doing so.

Both organizations have also underplayed the importance of women’s struggle for democracy. The RCP, by opposing the ERA, again assumes the chauvinist position, while the OL has failed to develop a consistent and integrated program for the struggle against sexism.

But for both organizations, their real failure to understand the struggle for democracy appears in greatest relief in the struggle to democratize the institutional structure of bourgeois democracy. In the name of opposing opportunism they have both tended to boycott democratic institutions created by the bourgeoisie.


The 1976 elections afford a particularly important example of this. Both the RCP and the OL were united in calling for a boycott of the elections and neither tried to use the electoral machinery to advocate a program of struggle against the bourgeoisie. The best way to oppose the monopoly capitalists, they argued, was by boycotting the elections and leaving them to the reformists; the workers should just continue their program of militant struggle.

The real tragedy, however, was not that that OL and the RCP boycotted the elections; it is highly doubtful that, given their dogmatism, any participation on their part would have had a favorable impact on the working class. No, the real tragedy lies in that they pursued this incorrect policy in the name of fighting opportunism in general and revisionism in particular. However, in reality, they surrendered to revisionism. As Lenin wrote:

Marxism teaches us that to ’fight opportunism’ by renouncing utilization of the democratic institutions created and distorted by the bourgeoisie of the given, capitalist society is to completely surrender to opportunism.” (Italics in original; Wks., Vol. 23, p. 26)

And finally, the failings of dogmatism in the struggle against militarism and fascism are also marked. Neither the OL or RCP have taken a strong stand for cuts in the defense budget nor against the alliance of the fascist minded civilian wing of the bourgeoisie and the military. In fact, the OL’s flunkeyism on the International question has placed it in the embarrassing position of accusing the Pentagon of underestimating the war danger from the USSR.

Thus once again, dogmatism, whose characteristic feature is an inability to develop an independent elaboration of Marxism-Leninism for the specific conditions in the US, fails miserably.

Given the clear relationship between the struggle for democracy and the socialist revolution in the US, Marxist-Leninists who fail to address this question have a sure ticket for the ride to isolation and irrelevance.