Democracy as Virtue and as Condition of Workers' Power

We should understand objective conditions of the early history of the International.

Arguments held between Marx and the anarchist Bakunin during the 1st International will be very instructive for us, in that they held the same aims but it was ultimately required and easily justified on rational grounds for Bakunin to be expelled from the International. It is usefully quoted in an Ann Robertson text1 from 2003:

“Bakunin, however, proceeds: “There are about forty million Germans. Are all forty million going to be members of the government?” And Marx responds: “Certainly, because the thing starts with the self-government of the commune.”"2

What was understood by Marx at that time in theory had to be realized in history to take effect throughout the whole of the International. Principles decided on by the 2nd International contributed to leading to war. This program involved the formation of an opposition force to the existing state, and waiting for capitalism to fail due to its own contradictions.

An opposition force that holds power like had been achieved then and unlike anything we see today will go to war, it was not clear to all of the workers collectively what form these wars should take. Capitalists were able to form the energy into nationalist wars that served the interests of the ruling bourgoisie in each of the major imperial empires.

The degeneration that followed across several decades led to the 2nd World War, in addition to the chauvinist decision for socialism in one country that was made at that time.

The principles that Kautsky adhered to before the start of the 1st world war were:

  • Pragmatism
  • Acquiescence to the terms of already existing democracy

We require an assessment of tactics in each context that may sometimes require a struggle within bourgeois democracy where we can field candidates that challenge power. One of the arguments the leadership of the Committee for a Workers’ International frequently made was that participation in the bourgeoisie parties was a failure of adhering to socialist principles, through a certain kind of participation that would already be allowed in the existing democracy.

I would argue this is a matter of a diversity of tactics that included some very obvious failures. While we may use pragmatics to decide on which tactics to use in certain cases, the overall principle must be one of revolution. There is only one state for us to struggle over and what is of importance is not that we show virtue by any particular kind of participation in its democracy.


  1. Robertson, Ann. “The Philosophical Roots of the Marx-Bakunin Conflict” in What’s Next. 2003. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/bakunin/bio/robertson-ann.htm ↩︎

  2. Marx, Karl. Conspectus of Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy. 1874. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1874/04/bakunin-notes.htm ↩︎