The concept of democracy in young Marx



In his critical comments on Hegelian reflections, Marx, when considering democracy, adopts, as a starting point, popular sovereignty

The theme of democracy appears in the young Karl Marx based on an intense critical dialogue with Hegel's ideas about the State, in terms, however, of an inseparable reflection of the concrete struggle of the social and political movements that assume democracy as a word of mouth. order. On the basis of this double relationship, theoretical and practical, Marx will express himself on the multiple conceptions of democracy, such as found in the various contexts and at different moments of political struggle: with regard, for example, to the German or French reality, Marx he will oppose those designated by him as “democratic (petty) bourgeois”; he will, on the contrary, judge English (radical) democrats more favorably and will offer an even different assessment of democratic thinking as developed in America.

In the perspective, finally, of a theory of social transformation, democracy will be able to show itself as the result, even if temporary, of a revolutionary process. Universal, active and passive suffrage, and the end of the State with the establishment of a communist society are the two main parameters that guide Marx's reflection on democracy, according to a precise periodization and the more or less programmatic purposes of his publications.

With Marx's critique of “bourgeois” democracy, humanity's experience in the infancy of its historical process can take on a more democratic aspect. However, with a view to overcoming the state form, procedures perceived as “democratic” assume a provisional character, even when included in the programs of progressive and revolutionary forces. In the future of communist society, the destruction of the state (and the end of the distinction between civil and political spheres) will maintain some values ​​of democracy, despite the fact that it is, in principle, a political form.

Ancient democracy occupies an apparently secondary position within this reflection. Overcoming the gap between civil society and the State – an element of reflection already present in the young Marx's critique of Hegel – relates, in a certain way, the ancient Greek world to the future political situation. Accepting, in part, Hegel's considerations, Marx underlines, throughout his intellectual journey, the intimate relationship between ancient democracy and slavery, as well as the vision of Antiquity as a historical moment overcome, even if situated in an ideal position: a ambiguity that materializes in the conception of the ancient world as the childhood of humanity.

And yet, in the wake of Hegel, Marx reaffirms the (“modern”) relationship between economy and politics, taking up from his predecessor the distinction between civil society and the State: a process that distances the democracy of the ancients from the modern political horizon. But the key to reading “true democracy” is not given by the Hegelian interpretation of state reality, and must be sought in another moment, not in classical antiquity.

Marx's criticisms of the Hegelian conception of democracy date back to 1843 and were published posthumously. In this, his first contribution to the democratic problem, one of the longest discussions he devoted to this argument, Marx rehabilitates democracy as a condition of political discourse. Hegel sought to reformulate his own criteria for evaluating types of government according to the vision of a historical process in which the democratic form of social and political organization is restricted to a distant and outdated past.

The argument developed by Hegel in the Philosophy of law is reversed by its young reader: not only does the problem of democracy not fit into an outdated reflection on forms of government, but it is democracy that makes political reflection itself possible. The argument is central in a text that, in turn, proves to be decisive for the interpretations of Marx's thought: if for some, we find ourselves here facing a youthful view that will then be abandoned by the author (and can, therefore, offer the measure of the evolution of his thought), for others, the discussion of Hegel's theses anticipates the political ideas of the mature period. In one case as in the other, the theme of democracy is inserted in the center of Marx's intellectual journey, seen according to continuity or rupture.

Marx's critique of Hegel develops from two central themes: on the one hand, the difference between civil society and the State; on the other hand, the opposition between monarchy and republic-democracy. The Greek city, according to Marx, does not know an effective separation between the social and political spheres. Its unitary form is an element of distinction between ancient and modern. Political modernity is based on the rupture between the civil and state spheres. The theory of types of government, which appears in the modern world as an ancient heritage, must be adapted to its new framework, in order not to be abandoned. Unlike the monarchy in Hegel, democracy represents the overcoming of a division that is proper to the moderns and that was not known to the ancients.

Marx's text takes the form of a critical commentary on Hegel's reflections. When considering democracy, the starting point is popular sovereignty. Hegel, quoted by Marx, says that this notion cannot be accepted as equivalent to the notion of republic, or more specifically, to that of democracy. The identification between popular sovereignty and republic, as we have seen, was Kantian, since its democratic interpretation referred to Rousseau and his legacy in the revolutionary period. To the removal of democracy as something of the past, Marx responds by affirming the precedence of democracy over other political forms. If Hegel excludes democracy in view of a “developed idea”, Marx sees democracy itself in this idea: “Democracy is the truth of monarchy, monarchy is not the truth of democracy. Monarchy is necessarily democracy as an inconsistency against itself, the monarchical moment is not an inconsistency in democracy. Unlike monarchy, democracy cannot be explained in terms of itself.

What can be conceived by itself is obviously prior, preceding what is, on the contrary, conceived through something else. Monarchy is not only successive to democracy, but is one of its degenerate forms. Every democratic element is equal to itself and does not assume, politically, a meaning “other than that which fits it”, being “just a moment of the whole demos”. In monarchy, "a part determines the character of the whole". In this relationship between the whole and the part, democracy can be seen as the genus of the constitution, while monarchy appears as one of its species. Being degenerate, monarchy is the “bad” species of the constitutional genus which is, on the whole, democratic.

Marx does not mention an original democracy when he defines such a democratic genre from which degenerate particular constitutions derive, such as monarchy, even because, in this context, one does not necessarily speak of a genealogical or historical relationship. The reference, however, is always to something precedent, as is implicit in theories of primitive democracy. All other forms of government are understandable only from the democratic point of view. Democracy can thus offer the human foundation of the political world: “Democracy is the solved riddle of all constitutions. Here, the constitution is not only in itself, in terms of essence, but in terms of existence, in terms of reality, in its real foundation, the real man, the real people, and posited as the work proper to the latter. The constitution appears for what it is, the free product of man.

May democracy be for all other political forms “as for its Old testment” reconfirms the assumption of a democratic precedence that can take on a historical form. The correct understanding of this enigma of politics is not to be found in any moment of antiquity, but among the moderns. The French understood the true nature of democracy, which implies the disappearance of the political State: in itself, the State “is no longer worth the whole”, and therefore cannot fully assume the democratic ideal.

However, it becomes evident that, in such a context, in which the republican form also appears as a political abstraction in relation to democracy (one could say: Rome in relation to Athens), the primacy of politics confers on the ancients a paradigmatic position. Among the ancients, the political state “constitutes the content of the state to the exclusion of other spheres”; the same is not seen in the modern State, which represents, on the contrary, a “compromise between the political and the non-political State”.

Overcoming this commitment does not, however, reintroduce the previous unitary reality. The Greek world is remembered by Marx, in this commentary, only after the medieval world, and the truth represented by democracy – the riddle solved – is weakened by the presence, in that world, of slavery. But slavery also becomes the metaphor with which Marx describes the relationship between the citizens of ancient cities and the State, before the modern separation between these spheres: in Greece, “the private man is a slave, the political State as such being the true, unique content of his life and will; or, as in Asiatic despotism, the political state is only the private will of a single individual, that is, the political state, like the material state, is a slave”.

Marx adds that, among the Greeks, civil society was the slave of political society. The concrete institution of slavery is then evoked as an image of submission from the civil sphere to the political sphere. The exclusion of Greece as a democratic ideal is determined by the fact that the political state must perish (in the modern world), instead of imposing itself as a despot (as among the ancients). The modern divide between civil society and political society must be resolved in the opposite direction to the predominance of polis greek.

The position of democracy as a genre is re-elaborated by Marx in his successive writings with the introduction of the theme of communism. The notion of primitive communism reinforces the view of the marginal role of the Greeks in the ideal representation of civil and political relations. Communism, on the one hand, and dialectics, on the other, are the terms of the Marxist vocabulary that then define the limits of the historical and programmatic interpretation of democracy. […]

We Economic-philosophical manuscripts therefore, the aim is to clarify the relationship between communism and political forms. As long as it retains its political nature, communism is “democratic or despotic”. This occurs, however, in an imperfect moment, in which private property is present and, at the same time, one becomes aware of the “reintegration or return of man to himself”. The democratic – or, alternatively, despotic – nature of communism, that is, the conservation of the political sphere, as well as its coexistence with private property are elements of progress, but incomplete in the face of a human nature that does not distinguish between the civil spheres and politics. Reworking the expression with which, in the critique of Hegel, he indicated democracy, Marx can now define communism as “the solved riddle of history”.

* Paulo Butti de Lima is a professor at the University of Bari, Italy. Author, among other books, of Plato: A Poetics for Philosophy (Perspective).

Book excerpt Democracy: the invention of the ancients and the uses of the moderns (EdUFF).


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