January 7, 2013

The class question and the democratic question

This article is part of an seven-part series of short quotes Rebel Youth is issuing about class struggle, revolution, civil-war, and parliamentary democracy. See also: Lenin on elections; the Communist Party of Canada on a counter-offensive against capitalismEngels on voting and street fightingLenin on Democracy and Class struggleCommunist and Worker's parties on the struggle for socialism; and Lenin on tactics and guerilla war; theCommunist Party of Canada on force, and a peaceful transition to socialism.

The right to divorce, by Lenin
August-October, 1916

[...] This question of divorce is a striking illustration of the fact that one cannot be a democrat and a socialist without immediately demanding full freedom of divorce, for the absence of such freedom is an additional burden on the oppressed sex, woman--although it is not at all difficult to understand that the recognition of the right of women to leave their husbands is not an invitation to all wives to do so! [...] Under capitalism it is usually the case, and not the exception, that the oppressed classes cannot "exercise" their democratic rights. In most cases the right to divorce is not exercised under capitalism, because the oppressed sex is crushed economically; because, no matter how democratic the state may be, the woman remains a "domestic slave" under capitalism, a slave of the bedroom, nursery and kitchen. The right to elect "our" judges, public officials, teachers, jurors, etc., cannot be exercised under capitalism, in the majority of cases, because the workers and peasants are economically downtrodden. The same is true of a democratic republic. Our programme "proclaims" the republic as "the sovereignty of the people" although every Social-Democrat knows perfectly well that under capitalism the most democratic republic leads merely to the bribery of the officials by the bourgeoisie and to an alliance between the Stock Exchange and the government.

Only those who are totally incapable of thinking, or those who are entirely unfamiliar with Marxism, will conclude that, therefore, a republic is of no use, that freedom of divorce is of no use, that democracy is of no use, that self-determination of nations is of no use! Marxists know that democracy does not abolish class oppression, but only makes the class struggle clearer, broader, more open and sharper; and this is what we want. The more complete freedom of divorce is, the clearer will it be to the woman that the source of her "domestic slavery" is not the lack of rights, but capitalism. The more democratic the system of government is, the clearer it will be to the workers that the root of the evil is not the lack of rights, but capitalism. The more complete national equality is (and it is not complete without freedom of secession), the clearer will it be to the workers of the oppressed nation that it is not a question of lack of rights, but of capitalism. And so on. [...]

[T]he right to divorce, like all democratic rights under capitalism without exception, is difficult to exercise, is conventional, restricted, formal and narrow. Nevertheless, no respectable Social-Democrat would consider any one who repudiated this right a democrat, let alone a socialist. This is the whole point. "Democracy" is nothing but the proclaiming and exercising of "rights" that are very little and very conventionally exercised under capitalism. But unless these rights are proclaimed, unless a struggle for immediate rights is waged, unless the masses are educated in the spirit of such a struggle, socialism is impossible.

Discussion questions

1. What are Lenin's main point or points in this short quote? What do you think of the claim that just because we call for the right of something, does not mean we necessarily advocate for it?

2. In the past the Young Communist League has divided its educational work into two parts: the class question and the democratic question. What would be examples of "class questions"? what about "democratic questions"? How are they related and/or separate? Could they be opposites? Could they be connected?

3. Lenin claims that without a struggle for immediate rights and democracy being waged, socialism is impossible. Why do you think he makes this claim? What do you think? Is the argument correct or mistaken? How?

Reading more

You can find the original full statement by Lenin From A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism.

The topic of capitalist democracy is also discussed by Lenin in Chapter 7, "Should we participate in bourgeoisie parliaments?", of his book Left-wing Communism an Infantile disorder.

The connection between democracy and economic struggle, which can be read as a direct comparison with the above article on divorce is found in another short work by Lenin, "Reply to P. Kievsky," especially the section from paragraph 9 "Imperialism is highly developed..." to the end of paragraph 14 "...surrender to opportunism."

The YCL-LJC Canada, "Youth and the Trans-Canada fightback," in the 24th Central Convention Documents of the YCL uses this perspective and connects it with the struggle for reform and revolution. Another Rebel Youth article similar to this theme is Building broad and powerful youth struggles, which we ran back in 2011.

Another good read is State and Revolution by Lenin, particularly Chapter 1 and Chapter 4, section 5.

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