Rules for revolution and the use of force

Extracting some arguments from the critique of Marxism in the second volume of The Open Society and its Enemies. This is concerned with the Marx/Engels doctrine on the possible need for a violent revolution. Popper argued that the ambiguities of violence and of power-conquest make the working of democracy impossible if they are adopted by a major political party. He suggested that democracy can work only if the main parties adhere to a view along these lines (points 1-7 quoted from Chapter 19 of OSE):

(1) Democracy cannot be fully characterized as the rule of the majority, although the institution of general elections is most important. For a majority might rule in a tyrannical way. (The majority of those who are less than 6 ft. high may decide that the minority of those over 6 ft. shall pay all taxes.) In a democracy, the powers of the rulers must be limited; and the criterion of a democracy is this: In a democracy, the rulers—that is to say, the government—can be dismissed by the ruled without bloodshed. Thus if the men in power do not safeguard those institutions which secure to the minority the possibility of working for a peaceful change, then their rule is a tyranny.

(2) We need only distinguish between two forms of government, viz. such as possess institutions of this kind, and all others; i.e. democracies and tyrannies.

(3) A consistent democratic constitution should exclude only one type of change in the legal system, namely a change which would endanger its democratic character.

(4) In a democracy, the full protection of minorities should not extend to those who violate the law, and especially not to those who incite others to the violent overthrow of the democracy.

(5) A policy of framing institutions to safeguard democracy must always proceed on the assumption that there may be antidemocratic tendencies latent among the ruled as well as among the rulers.

(6) If democracy is destroyed, all rights are destroyed. Even if certain economic advantages enjoyed by the ruled should persist, they would persist only on sufferance.

(7) Democracy provides an invaluable battle-ground for any reasonable reform, since it permits reform without violence. But if the preservation of democracy is not made the first consideration in any particular battle fought out on this battle-ground, then the latent anti-democratic tendencies which are always present may bring about a breakdown of democracy.

It was Popper’s view that the Marxists too often pursued a course of making the workers suspicious of democracy. He quoted Engels “In reality the state is nothing more than a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and this holds for a democratic republic no less than for a monarchy.”

This view results in the policy of blaming democracy for problems and evils as though democracy is supposed to be a magic cure-all that automatically prevents bad things from happening (and so evils are blamed on democracy) instead of recognizing that  democracy is just a ramework for regime change and people have to fix things up either by direct (legal) action or by revising the legal and social system by piecemeal reform.

It also tends to result in the policy of teaching the people to consider the state not as theirs, but as belonging to the rulers, and to claim that the only one way to improve things is the complete conquest of power (winner take all).

Popper again “But this neglects the one really important thing about democracy, that it checks and balances power. Such a policy amounts to doing the work of the enemies of the open society; it provides them with an unwitting fifth column. And against the Manifesto which says ambiguously: ‘The first step in the revolution of the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of the ruling class—to win the battle of democracy’, I assert that if this is accepted as the first step, then the battle of democracy will be lost.”

In the previous chapter 18 on The Coming of Socialism he contempleted the question whether we can we assume that a classless society will emerge from a battle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, after these are the only two classes left and the increasing misery of the workers has driven them to desperation? In Popper’s view there was no assurance that the workers’ victory must lead to a classless society because classes are not like individuals and whatever unity they might manage to achieve during a “class war” would be most unlikely to survive the end of the conflct with the “class enemy”. 


“The most likely development is, of course, that those actually in power at the moment of victory — those of the revolutionary leaders who have survived the struggle for power and the various purges, together with their staff—will form a New Class: the new ruling class of the new society, a kind of new aristocracy or bureaucracy; and it is most likely that they will attempt to hide this fact. This they can do, most conveniently, by retaining as much as possible of the revolutionary ideology, taking advantage of these sentiments instead of wasting their time in efforts to destroy them (in accordance with Pareto’s advice to all rulers). And it seems likely enough that they will be able to make fullest use of the revolutionary ideology if at the same time they exploit the fear of counter-revolutionary developments. In this way, the revolutionary ideology will serve them for apologetic purposes: it will serve them both as a vindication of the use they make of their power, and as a means of stabilizing it; in short, as a new ‘opium for the people’.”

For more extensive extracts and commentary from Chapter 18 and 19, parts 1 and 2.

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John Passant
13 years ago

Actually Marxists are about the extension of democracy into all aspects of life, esecially the workplace and the production process.

13 years ago

“If democracy is destroyed, all rights are destroyed.”

Wow, “all rights”. So there are no rights where there is no democracy. Does that mean there never were any rights, until there was democracy? When do we consider democracy to have commenced? It can hardly have been before women’s suffrage. That would make rights a more recent innovation than radio.

13 years ago

I’m amazed at how many people still really care about Marxism or even take it seriously (perhaps that’s from hanging around universities too much — hopefully they’ll grow out of it). Even without any good arguments against it, surely a country full of East Germans that went from glum to happy when the wall fell is an existence proof against it being worth considering too hard. To me the interesting thing for Popper was that it lead to the investigation of interesting questions which he may not have arrived at otherwise.

13 years ago

He wrote the book while he was living in New Zealand and working at University of Canterbury. He may have found that, compared to Europe, there wasn’t much else to do.

13 years ago

Imagine if democracy was defined as rule by minority! Then you could vote for the politician you’d least like to get up, and the fellow with the least votes could win. Though rallies could get confusing, you’d have to enthusiastically cheer for the pollies you weren’t going to vote for.

Nicholas Gruen
13 years ago

Hi Rafe,

Here’s how you post without lots of formatting glitches. If you’re pasting from word or the net, paste into the html window, not the visual editor window and then go through and clean up by putting manual carriage returns and links in. It’s probably best to do that in the visual editor.

It’s not hard.