June 3, 2019

From Bonapartism to Post-Democracy

Tom Strohschneider

Marx and Luxemburg, Gramsci and Crouch: a brief history of crisis debates on the Left

The answer to the question of what shape democracy is in depends on at least two additional questions: what is meant by “democracy” and what does it have to do with capitalism?

The topic has fuelled left-wing debates for over 150 years, and in doing so continued to refer back to earlier attempts at explanation. Micha Brumlik, for example, sees Donald Trump as a kind of revenant Louis Bonaparte, referring back to the critique Karl Marx formulated in The Eighteenth Brumaire in 1852. Herbert Marcuse later spoke of an “exemplary analysis of plebiscitary dictatorship”. “Bonapartism”, sometimes known as “democratic Ceaserism”, is characterized by the bourgeoisie as “ruling class” dispensing with immediate rule or political representation in favour of an authoritarian rule that it supports.

The current rightward drift is also often embodied by leader figures who pursue an anti-democratic restructuring of the state on the basis of democratic legitimation through elections, and in doing so invoke an alleged “will of the people” and its claim to sole representation. The project is often tied to social-sounding slogans, the problem with which however is not only their nationalist, ethnocentric or racist exclusionary logic, but also that they in truth do not touch the private acquisition of socially produced wealth.

Marx’s writings raised the question of the dialectic between democracy and capitalism—a question that did not become obsolete with the assertion of parliamentary-democratic systems. On the contrary: to what extent are social and political rule drifting apart, and what does that mean for the Left’s position vis-à-vis bourgeois law and parliamentarism?

In the 1930s Jewish legal expert Hermann Heller saw in this “division of political and economic command” the point of departure for the “state of tension characteristic of the current situation of capitalist democracy”. The Marxist legal theoretician Franz Neumann pointed to the role of the working class as it emancipates itself, increasingly able to leverage its interests in parliament and leading “the bourgeoisie to abandon its belief in the rule of law”, as Sonja Buckel puts it in an overview worth reading.

August Thalheimer also analysed fascism with reference to Marx’s Bonapartism theory, and came to the conclusion to defend bourgeois democracy as “the best terrain of struggle for socialism” against its destruction. Rosa Luxemburg had argued several years prior not to view parliamentary struggles as the central axis of political life, and aimed for the overcoming of “bourgeois democracy”. Wolfgang Abendroth later put forward a different argument, pushing for a social democracy that would overcome the division of the “political and economic command”.

These deliberations were quite popular after World War II, but in principle the old model of capital valorisation persisted. State intervention was deployed to counter new economic crises, but this did not reduce the crises of legitimation.

Jürgen Habermas and Claus Offe took this as their point of departure and attempted to show that the administrative system “had grown sufficiently autonomous vis-à-vis the limiting will formation”, so that the question of legitimation was posed anew: in place of participation a diffuse mass loyalty emerged, which brought forth a passive citizen whose de-politicization was fueled by “system-conforming compensation”—that is to say, consumption, careers, free time, etc. were offered in return.

The work of Antonio Gramsci also acquired a growing role in the debates, arguing that the normal form of democratic institutions begins to crumble when bourgeois hegemony grows unstable—states of exception in this sense represent answers to crises of hegemony. Nicos Poulantzas and Bob Jessop also dealt with these crises. Where an authoritarian statism is brought into position as a reaction, on the one hand “state power” is strengthened “at the expense of liberal representative democracy”, argued Jessop, while on the other the ability to secure this bourgeois hegemony is additionally weakened.

In more recent times left-wing debates have revolved around, among others, Colin Crouch’s term “post-democracy”, which views democratic procedures as hollowed out, a mere spectacle, behind which technocratic elites exercise real power. The dominance of the economic imperative has also been discussed by Wolfgang Streeck. Lukas Oberndorfer pointed out the character of decisions during the financial crisis—austerity rules, fiscal pacts, the de facto disempowerment of the Greek government—as disabling elements of formal democracy.

A linear or even inevitable development of de-democratization is not, however, a given. People have continuously defended themselves against authoritarian conditions, for social democracy and personal freedom—and succeeded. “Capitalism appears to be separating itself from democracy”, it reads in an edited volume by Alex Demirović. One answer to the threats against democracy remains current: the search for new, deepened forms of participation and self-determination.  

Further Reading:
  • Wolfgang Abendroth, Gesammelte Schriften, edited and introduced by Michael Buckmiller, Joachim perels, and Uli Schöler, Hanover: Offizin, 2006
  • Martin Beck, Ingo Stützle (eds.), Die neuen Bonapartisten. Mit Marx den Aufstieg von Trump & Co. verstehen, Berlin: Dietz, 2018
  • Lia Becker, Mario Candeias, Janek Niggemann, Anne Steckner, Gramsci lesen – Einstiege in die Gefängnishefte, Hamburg: VSA, 2013
  • Sonja Buckel, “Dialektik von Kapitalismus und Demokratie heute”, Perspektiven sozialer Demokratie in der Postdemokratie, Staat – Souveränität – Nation, edited by Oliver Eberl und David Salomon, Wiesbaden; Springer, 2017
  • Alex Demirović (ed.), Transformation der Demokratie – demokratische Transformation, Münster: Westfällisches Dampfboot, 2016

This article first appeared in maldekstra #4.

Translation by Loren Balhorn