Nowadays it seems that many young people are embracing Marxism (or some sort of illusion of it. As Obie 2.0 commented below, many of them probably don't really know what the original Marxism really is). However, it is widely accepted in Western that there are no Marxism-based democratic regimes in the world. To avoid confusion, let us define a democratic regime to be the one that is at least labeled "flawed democracy" in the democracy index.

However, the original theory Marxism does not seems to be against democracy. It highly values the rights of working class, criticizes the super-wealthy capitalists, and aims to built a society of equity ("a classless society" in which the state would wither away). The idea of communism might looks very unrealistic, but as far as I remember Karl Marx himself never said how long it would take to establish communism ("all property is communally owned") and never imagined Mao should want to build communism in a couple of year with Big Leap Forward. Marx himself might imagine the communism to be achieved in thousands of years after the whole human sociality becomes highly wealthy through development.

My question only focuses on the original theory of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (not limited to The Communist Manifesto). Namely I am asking why the origin theory of socialism/communism invented by them failed to give birth to democracy till today.

To avoid confusion, let me emphasize that I am not asking why the variants of it, namely why Leninism, Stalinism or Maoism failed to establish democracies, because that were how Lenin, Starlin and Mao interpreted the original theory of Marx and Engels. Although they can be used as references to argue the issues with the original Marxism, i.e., what makes Marxism so easily abused by dictators? Or in other words, what nature of socialism/communism due to Marx and Engels makes it unlikely/impossible to become the foundation of democracy? (I believe basically all democracies today are based on the theory of capitalism. For example, the Wealth of Nations)

PS: By "socialism", I am also not asking about the modern Western socialism as shown in say North Europe.

  • I am unsure about the question, especially "give birth" and that the word "does" imply that we are talking about current times? Is your question why isn't there something today, that isn't a democracy, that then reads Marx, and becomes a democracy? Feb 10 at 18:22
  • @ThomasKoelle What about the current edited title? Or do you think you could suggest one?
    – No One
    Feb 10 at 18:27
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    The article that you linked suggests that young people are not in fact embracing Marxism, and have simply rebranded social democracy as socialism.
    – Obie 2.0
    Feb 10 at 18:37
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    Who says Marxism hasn't taken over a democratic regime? It has been exactly and completely implemented several times. The results have been as predicted every time: mass death.
    – Dan
    Feb 11 at 18:26
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    @usee24711 +1 you are questioning Marx, so it is unsurprising that some of his admirers/apologists downvote. My own answer was downvoted as well - although, as far as I can judge, it is the only one actually grounded un Marxist writings, rather than guesses. Feb 13 at 7:07

5 Answers 5


I think the answer is that history did not allow this middle ground narrative during the cold war.

E.g. look at Chile and Vietnam. They tried to do build some kind of democratic system based on communism but both got set in place by world politics. Vietnam with a war and Chile with the coup in 1973.

Other countries like Yugoslavia and Albania got associated with USSR and became more Soviet-style systems.

Then a few countries could maybe have gotten away with calling something communism, but it is just much more convenient to call it something else. India could be an example.

And then we have those countries that did something most would consider socialist, but their own narrative was free trade and democracy, and they prospered. A good example here it Botswana.

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    +1 on the possible corrosive influence of being caught up in a bipolar Cold War. But then you also have China that separated from the USSR, fought a minor war with them, had the benediction of the Nixon administration - no Cold War get-out-of-jail card here - and still was a totalitarian state, even before it switched to essentially capitalism for its economy. Feb 10 at 21:00
  • In what way was Yugoslavia associated with the USSR?
    – phoog
    Mar 29 at 2:01

Ok, let's do the history thing...

Throughout 19th century (and to a large extent up through the modern day) Liberalism was largely associated with two principles:

  1. Hyper-individualism, where the Rights, Liberties, and Privileges of individuals (which in that era meant 'male Caucasian property-owners' for cultural reasons) were paramount, and established through some form of representative governance.
  2. Adventure capitalism — from Colonial exploitation to industrial sweatshops — where rapid profit and expansion were were key.

Both of these principles were outgrowths of the struggles of Liberalism in the 17th and 18th centuries, which were primarily efforts to uproot the dominance of traditional (feudal) aristocracies. The ideal was to create a true 'Liberal' society of equals. The practical reality was the creation of a broad, economically anarchic oligarchy, one in which caucasian, property-owning men sought profit and power at the expense of social, political, and human concerns and passed it of as functional liberalism. By the beginning of the 19th century, though, there were broad social movements — pre-Marx socialism — that opposed that anarchic individualism, arguing that society as a whole is what provides inherent rights and liberties, and that every member of society (as well as society itself) should benefit from the profits and protections of liberalism, not just the industrialists, colonialists, capitalists, and other 'individualists' who worked for themselves against society.

The point is this: by the time Marx arrived on the scene, representative governance and adventure capitalism had become conjoined in an oddly rigid caste system. Whether we're talking about constitutional monarchies, genuine republics, or the various transitional and hybrid systems that might have occurred, the one constant factor was that wealth was represented disproportionately, and wealth was contingent on exploitation of labor forces. From Marx's perspective, the idea of 'Liberal Democracy' (like the idea of religion) was a kind of sop spread by the wealthy and powerful to lull the masses into quite servitude. You can still hear that kind of usage even today, if you listen (e.g., those who say that slavery was the best thing for US blacks because it brought them to the greatest and most free nation in the world).

Marx wouldn't have precluded the idea that workers might gain the rights and privileges of a free society through normal electoral processes, but he wasn't naïve enough to think that could happen without massive struggle. He'd have seen the Civil Rights protests (and the violence that surrounded it) as the best-case scenario for political change.

In most proper Marxist systems something akin to democracy (direct or representative) is implied, because on a strictly primal level the only ways to achieve social cohesion are through collective agreement (democracy in the raw) or force majeure (compulsion), and compulsion is not desirable. But for most post-Marx Marxists (particularly Lenin, Mao, and other prominent revolutionaries), ostensibly 'democratic' regimes were merely oligarchies that pretended to be democratic, but used coercive threats of poverty and legal sanction to keep the 'lower' people in line with economic agendas. Such revolutionaries held that compulsive force must be used against these political systems that called themselves democratic (but weren't) in order to establish a system that really was democratic (but didn't call itself such). A few marxist thinkers subscribed to things like social democracy and democratic socialism which explicitly invoked democratic principles, but for anyone in the 'socialist' camp the term 'democracy' was poisoned by its association with adventure capitalism.

  • When it comes to USA then I think the answer is missing the time from Glass-Steagall to Reagan where the government was well aware of the classes, and regulated the system giving a high distribution of wealth to America especially in the 1950s. I can't say that they were inspired by Marx, but back then Eisenhower was just as left wing as Bernie Sanders is today (on economic issues). Feb 11 at 9:10
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    Category error. Colonial exploitation is not capitalism.
    – Dan
    Feb 11 at 18:21
  • @Dan: Uhhh... That's just a silly statement. The entire Colonial project for most nations (Spain handled colonies somewhat differently) was the extraction of resources for commercial production by private companies. Sometimes these companies were state-subsidized (Like the British Tea Company). other times the state merely provided protection against native populations, but all in all it was perhaps the purest form of capitalism run amok that the world has ever seen. Feb 11 at 18:36
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    @Dan: a spade is a spade, even if the card doesn't think of itself as a spade. I'm not evaluating you, I"m recognizing (and dismissing) your expressed political philosophy. If you'd like to use logic and reason, you're going to have to get past the mindless repetition of your favorite phrase — and past the blithe assertion of nonsensical premises — and actually make (you know...) an argument. Until then, there is literally nothing in your comments for me to respond to. Except, that is, to point out that you're wrong. Feb 11 at 20:07
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    It is worth noting that Lenin did not rebel against a systems that described itself as democratic. The Russian revolution overthrew the Tsar, a monarch. Mao kind of did, but the situation was quite complicated. And of course, Mao did not end up setting a system that was actually democratic, whatever his initial intentions. Neither was the Soviet Union particularly democratic, but it might make more sense to blame Stalin for that than Lenin.
    – Obie 2.0
    Feb 11 at 20:48

This is my hypothesis based on looking at some of Communism's specific terminology and theory.

  • class warfare. If you have a Manichean worldview where it's the workers vs the bourgeois, any one who disagrees with you is an enemy, an enemy of the people to be more precise. Or a reactionary. Or many other such terms which were used to sentence people to jail.

  • intermediate stage vs Communist stage. If your system posits an intermediate, imperfect stage, then you could - but don't have to - reason that people should not hold your government accountable for any failures, since it has not - yet - reached the point at which its success or failure can be judged. "Let's reach the real stage, then we can hold elections".

  • dictatorship of the proletariat. Words do matter and dictatorship has a particular, widely recognized, meaning. If your core tenets recognize a use for dictatorship, then why not use it, for the people's own good?

  • vanguard party. These are basically enlightened people, who know better than anyone else. They can be a minority, in fact they are expected to be, but they will show the way.

You also have a situation where Communist-run countries tend to be vilified by the larger world. That could - arguably - have led to them not being able to succeed on their own terms. And it - certainly - has led many to denounce any opposition to their rule as base conspiracies caused by outside influence.

Still, those 4 items can be rephrased as "You're either with us or against us. Good things come to those who wait. We rule for your own good. We know what's good for you.".

Add to it that Marx's words are discussed and interpreted, ad nauseam, with a fervor and intentness usually reserved for the Koran, Bible or US Constitution.

Is it any wonder that this theoretical underpinning instills a tendency to ignore dissenting opinions?

Modern Communism, even if the question expressly requests that that not be taken into account, was brought into being under the particular circumstances of the 1917 revolution, in Russia against a system based on hereditary feudalism, under Lenin and then later on Stalin. Under extreme opposition by the WW1 Allies, who wanted to keep Russia in the war and landed expeditionary forces afterwards to punish them for not doing so.

Given different historical antecedents, maybe Marx-inspired governance would have developed differently, interpreted Marx in a more tolerant fashion and adopted different customs and attitudes. But that's not really knowable, not when Lenin and his successors have been so much part of the picture.

Still, none of this imposition of will over the wider electorate has to happen.

You could, in theory, have an elected Communist government that runs the economy on Marxist principles but submits to the will of the wider electorate every 4-5 years, without rigging the votes, without unduly limiting who gets to vote, etc... Fair elections, or at least about as fair as every one else runs their elections.

But this very rarely happens in practice with governments that expressly look to Marxism for their ideology. Nepal (from Obie's comment). Guyana, Moldova, Nicaragua, from a question I asked on SE.History.

That's about it: half a dozen times in 100 years. If it became more frequent and it was a custom, then yes, we might get Democratic Communism. For now, not so much.

p.s. Let's preempt some arguments.

  • "But what about the other "democratic" governments? Are they all democratic?"

No, not necessarily. But if they claim to be democratic, they run multi party elections and occasionally lose them. Losing elections, and transitioning power, is a sign of a democratic government. One Communist governments have exceedingly rarely shown (but it has happened).

  • "But what about the US and "outlawing" Communism?"

True, but most countries do not anything particular against Communism and despite that Communists have rarely won country-level elections. The Parti Communiste Francais, PCF, peaked at 21% and I'd wager that's been a pretty good outcome in rich democracies.

And, as much as the US goes out of its way to throttle Communism, this stricture is only aimed at one party and the other parties are allowed to compete just fine. Contrast that to a government run under Communism, where the general tendency has been to ban all parties not approved.

And, BTW, "people who vote for Sanders" are not "voting for Communism", not in any meaningful sense of the word. No matter what the Washington Post or they themselves think about it.

  • With regard to the United States, communist parties were kind of illegal, but not as much as people think. There was a Communist Party of the United States (that even received funding from the Soviet Union???) that put up candidates for election until 1984 or so. Then they kind of stopped for a while, but in 2021 they announced that they will start fielding candidates again. It's definitely not clear that there is anything illegal about communist parties in 2022.
    – Obie 2.0
    Feb 11 at 4:29
  • @Obie2.0 indeed, it is not illegal in the US to be a communist nor to form nor join a communist party. It is, however, illegal for foreign entities to give campaign donations to US politicians.
    – phoog
    Mar 29 at 2:07

Marxism, or any -ISM that has a specific ideology, cannot be the basis for a democratic society because it is possible for people to vote for non-Marxist policy.

A democracy can enact policies consistent with Marxism but can just as easily enact other policies.

The best one can do to have both democracy and Marxism together is similar to what Iran does with Islam - have a supreme council that holds veto power whenever something violates the religion but have an elected parliament (or have referenda for every proposal)

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    That would require a very strict definition of democracy. Many democratic countries have constitutions, for instance, that require supermajority votes to modify and have clear ideological bases.
    – Obie 2.0
    Feb 10 at 22:10
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    Democracy itself is an “ism;” how does democracy survive if the people could vote for a nondemocratic regime?
    – H Huang
    Feb 10 at 23:44
  • @HHuang: Because (in the US) the Supreme Court functions as a judicial veto for non-democratic policies, exactly as described here.
    – Kevin
    Feb 11 at 0:07
  • @Kevin Yes, of course, but the internal logic of the answer clearly seems to suggest that democracy is incompatible with undemocratic measures like the Supreme Court that are ostensibly designed to protect democracy
    – H Huang
    Feb 11 at 0:51
  • @HHuang: Well, it depends who you ask. The cynical view is that SCOTUS is what makes the US a non-democratic system. The more idealistic view would appeal to a variation of the paradox of tolerance to explain it.
    – Kevin
    Feb 11 at 0:57

TL; DR: The original Marxist theory is literally against liberal democracy

However, the original theory Marxism does not seems to be against democracy. It highly values the rights of working class, criticizes the super-wealthy capitalists, and aims to built a society of equity ("a classless society" in which the state would wither away). The idea of communism might looks very unrealistic, but as far as I remember Karl Marx himself never said how long it would take to establish communism ("all property is communally owned") and never imagined Mao should want to build communism in a couple of year with Big Leap Forward. Marx himself might imagine the communism to be achieved in thousands of years after the whole human sociality becomes highly wealthy through development.

One has to distinguish democracy in the sense of domination of majority achieved via the elections/voting and liberal democracy with its emphasis on individual rights - which is how it is understood today in most western societies. This is also how Marx understands it: for him liberal democracy is the extension of capitalism, i.e., extension of the individual property rights into the social and political sphere as asserting individual rights as the top priority (in fact, according to Marx the political system is determined by the economic system). In particular, "super-wealthy capitalists" [sic] are an inherent part of the democratic society.

On the other hand, communism is characterized by subjugation of the individual rights to the rights of the proletariat (although some more refined versions also include peasantry). Transition to communism means complete destruction of the of the existing social, economic and political order, that is again - the destruction of the liberal democracy.


  • This destruction implies much more than most well-wishing western admirers of Marx can imagine: for example, imagine that population growth is desirable in the interest of the community (e.g., to sustain the pension benefits) - the community could then prohibit abortion and homosexuality as individual choices that are contrary to the interests of the community. In general, woman in a communist society is unseparable from her function of giving birth.

  • Socialism vs. Social democracy

PS: By "socialism", I am also not asking about the modern Western socialism as shown in say North Europe.

It is necessary to point out that none of the "socialist" states in western Europe is actually called "socialist" or officially uses this term anywhere. They are "social democracies". The term "socialist" was officially used only by states built on Marxist principles.

  • I’m calling BS on this based on the “remark”. In terms of legal protections and opportunities for education and work outside the home, the USSR was clearly ahead of the west until the women’s liberation movement of the 70s. Homosexuality was illegal in the West for much of the 20th century and Abortion was legalized in the USSR in 1920 vs 1973 in the us (and of course it’s likely to be banned again soon). Unless you consider the GOP to be communist, it seems to argue against your point
    – divibisan
    Feb 11 at 16:31
  • @divibisan I flagged it for offensive language. Russian women had to work, since a family could not sustain itself by the man's salary alone. They often had to do unqualified work or "women's" professions, that men were not interested in. There was virtually no promotion to position of respoinsibility for women. The propaganda prased as "hero mothers" those with 5+ children, and one could be called to local party or KGBheadquarters to explain one's personal life. Homosexuality was a criminal offense in the USSR. Feb 11 at 17:27
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    And, again, women were forced "to do unqualified work or "women's" professions, that men were not interested in" in the West as well. Your claim that women's equality and gay rights are an essential feature of democratic countries and inherently opposed by communist countries is simply blatantly false. There are plenty of good things about the West and bad things about Communism: you don't need to make stuff up.
    – divibisan
    Feb 11 at 17:35
  • @RogerVadim Pointing out that what you wrote is wrong is neither rude nor offensive.
    – Philipp
    Feb 12 at 9:58
  • @Philipp I quote: I’m calling BS on this based on the “remark", [Y]ou don't need to make stuff up. What does BS stand here for?This is not what I qualify as academic discourse. Furthermore, the comments were logically unrelated to my post, which was discussing Marxist doctrine (as requested in the OP) - neither its realization in the USSR, nor its comparison with history of female and gay rights in western democracies - obviously their analytical skills and knowledge are insufficient to pass a judgement about right and wrong here. Feb 12 at 12:13

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