Theories of Democracy:  (Liberal and Marxist Democracy)


Arun Norge

Hidayattullah National Law University, Raipur




The research methodology used in this article was analytical and descriptive in nature, liberalism and Marxism are two schools of thought which have left deep imprints in political, sociological and economic theory. Both have been very fruitful in illuminating a wide range of common issues across these fields and yet are usually perceived as opposite, rival approaches contradicting each other in general.

The article is composed of three sections — a presentation of how the problem of democracy historically arose between liberalism and Marxism; the proposal of a beginning synthesis of the Marxist and liberal views via the creation of a joint index of democracy which incorporates insights from both camps; and an initial application of this index to the transition countries.




Liberals claim that the state is to promote the interests of the individual; the individual is the end, and the state is the means. According to them, the freedom of the individual should not be unduly restrained by the state. The essence of democracy for them lies in maximising the freedom of the individual. The better off an individual is, the more free he is. So to say, the interests of individuals are identical with their freedoms. Locke who said that the state had to ensure the safety of the life, liberty and property of the individual is generally regarded as the most influential and respected liberal philosopher.


The liberal theory of democracy has passed through three phases and in each phase it has got a different name. As a result, we have got the classical liberal theory of democracy, the elitist theory of democracy, and the pluralist theory of democracy.


Classical Liberalism

The main proponents of the classical liberal theory of democracy are John Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Bentham and J. S. Mill. Locke said that the individual had the right to resist the state and revolt against it if the latter failed to discharge its basic duty of safeguarding the life, liberty and property oflhe former. He emphasized that the government, based on the consent of the individual, was limited in its authority. Montesquieu who propounded the theory of separation of powers provided sufficient safeguards against the growth of dictatorship.


The utilitarians, in general, laid emphasis on the importance of people's participation in the political process. They held that the government whose main objective was to provide "greatest good of the greatest number" should encourage increased political participation on the part of individuals. Jeremy Bentham, the proponent of the "pleasure and pain" theory, advocated universal adult franchise while J .S. Mill, the son of his illustrious friend, James Mill, emphasized the need of enhancing the quality of democracy by increasing the quality of political participation. Mill, the "reluctant democrat", focussed on the moral aspect of democracy.

He believed that political participation would help the individual in fashioning his all-round development. Hence Mill has been described by Macpherson as the propounder of the "developmental theory of democracy".


Salient Features

1)            Man is at the centre of democracy. Democracy aims at defending and promoting the interests of man. The government is the instrument for this, the state is not a sanctified entity. It is neither endowed with any                supernatural quality nor invested with any supreme power unrelated to the realisation of its basic aim of serving the individuals belonging to it.


2)            The government is constitutional, limited and responsible. It is based upon the consent of the people expressed through periodic elections which are based upon the principle of universal adult suffrage. The man is                assumed to be rational; he makes rational choices while casting his vote. The government is not run whimsically according to the sweet desires of some persons in power. It functions in conformity with the                provisions of the constitution. Because of separation of powers and check and balance implicit in the constitution itself, the government is expected not to act illegally and arbitrarily.

               The executive is accountable to the legislature and the members of the latter, sooner or later, are responsible to the people who regularly elect them at regular intervals. In other words, the government, because of its                responsibility to the people, would seldom neglect and ignore them. Public opinion is thus highly respected in democracies.


3)            Democracy is the art of reaching compromise and consensus. It encourages debates, discussions, arguments and negotiations which help in narrowing down the difference between adversaries and enable them to                reach some compromise. Discussions and debates are potentially conflict reducers. These contribute towards lessening tensions, taking away a lot of heat and anger, and prepare the ground for effecting    compromises.


4)            Democracy respects fundamental rights; in particular, the freedom of expression is very highly valued. Any state which tries to dwarf its men would soon realise that it cannot accomplish any big things with such                dwarfed men, said J.S. Mill.


Davis, to sum up, observes that the liberal theory of democracy assumes "the existence of rational and active citizens who seek to realise a generally recognized common good through collective initiation, discussion and decision of policy questions concerning public affairs, and who delegate authority to agents (elected government officials) to carry through the broad decisions reached by the people through majority vote. "He further says, "participation in the management of public affairs would serve as a vital means of intellectual, emotional, and moral education leading towards the full development of the capacities of individual human beings." According to Peter H. Merkel, the four principles of liberal democracy are: government by discussion, majority rule, recognition of minority rights, and constitutional government. The majority should form the government, but it-Should not ride roughshod over the minority. J. S. Mill evinced keen interest in the minority. He strongly argued that the views of the minority should be respected.



1)            The classical theory of democracy assumes that the man is rational. He is capable of determining his vital interests and the best strategy for promoting them. But the experience suggests that individuals are often                swayed by other considerations which hardly serve their interests best. They tend to be guided in their political behaviour by parochial factors like Casteism, Ethnicism, Communalism and Localism.


2)            Democracy is said to be reflecting the will of the people. A democratic government, in theory, is based upon the consent of the people. It claims legitimacy because it is formed by the people through their free                choice. "Free choice" of the people involves some difficulties. Are people really free in a society which is poor, backward and is characterised by inequality and domination? The political freedom of the people is                often seriously undermined and crippled by ignorance, poverty and fear. Elections are often won by money, muscle-power and parochialism. Even in developed countries the democratic process is not free of these                shortcomings and flaws. Thus it is criticised that the democratic legitimacy derived from "consent" and "free choice" is more of a myth than of a reality.


3)            Democracy is meant to serve the interests of all. But it is not so easy a game as can be played by all of them. Both the process and organisation of democracy are quite complex and complicated. Democracy                involves many laws and principles, and operates at several levels. An ordinary man would find it difficult to grasp all these things properly and successfully.


The excessive emphasis laid upon the unrestrained freedom of the individual by the classical liberals was apparently meant to prevent state intervention in the economic pursuits of the rich. Macpherson has observed: "Liberal democracy has typically been designed to fit a scheme of democratic government into a class-divided society; that this fit was not attempted, either in theory or in practice, until the nineteenth century; and that, therefore, earlier models and visions of democracy should not be counted as models of liberal democracy.


Elite Theory

The elite theory states that the society is always ruled by a minority who are "superior" to others. The earlier elite theorists like Mosca and Pareto said that the elites were superior to others in quality. On the other hand, the later elite theorists like C. W. Mills and Floyd Hunter stated that the so-called superiority of elites was derived from their family and social backgrounds and the hierarchical organization of the society.


The classical liberal theory truly reflected the needs of the new middle class of the 18th and 19th centuries during which it emerged. The new middle class was then fighting against the decaying monarchical and feudal orders. The bourgeoisie, through democratisation, sought to curb the feudal control over power structures. Hence the emphasis in classical liberal theory on the unrestrained freedom of the individual and political equality. By the 20th century the problems and priorities of the bourgeoisie had greatly changed. Having strongly entrenched itself in power by banishing the feudal lords from it, it wanted to monopolise it by preventing other elements of the society from competing with it for power. The elite theory, like its predecessor - the classical liberal theory - was developed to serve the interests of the dominant class, the bourgeoisie. It was designed to rationalise the existing political order prevailing in the early part of the 20th century -the domination of power-structures by elites.


"Lions" and "Foxes" Circulate

Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923), and Gaetano Mosca (1858-1941), two Italian sociologists were the first to systematically develop the elite theory. Pareto provided a broad as well as a narrow definition of elite. His broad definition of elite is: "By elite is meant a small number of individuals, who in each sphere of activity, have succeeded and arrived at a higher echelon in the professional hierarchy." According to this definition there are several elites in each sphere of activity. For example, there are military elites, political elites, business elites and academic elites.


In the narrow sense, by elite, he means only the "governing elite which is that small number of individuals who have succeeded and who exercise ruling functions politically and socially."


Pareto believes that elites possess superior psychological attributes than others in the society. Following Machiavelli, another Italian theorist of eminence, he says that the elites possess "lion" and/or "fox" qualities. "Lion" qualities include strength and courage while "fox" qualities comprise intelligence, shrewdness and cunning.


Pareto observes that elites tend to decay. When one group of ruling elites, due to indulgence in power and luxury, neglect its primary duty or fails to cope with the changing times and situations, it is likely to be replaced by another group of elites. "Lion elites" may be replaced by "fox elites" and vice versa. Lion elites possess strength and bravery, but they lack in intelligence and manipulative skill. Fox elites are cunning and shrewd, but they lack in strength and courage. If both "lions" and "foxes" are not properly represented in the elite structure, there is danger to it and it is vulnerable to decadence and replacement. Pareto has succinctly observed that history is, and always will be, "a graveyard of aristocracies". He describes this process of power-shifting from one group to another as "circulation of elites."


Mosca says that in all societies it is the organised minority which rules over the unorganised majority. To quote him, "In all societies' two classes of people appear - a class that rules and a class that is ruled. The first class, always the less numerous, performs all political functions, monopolizes power and enjoys the advantages that power brings, whereas the second, the more numerous class, is directed and controlled by the first... The domination of an organized minority over the unorganized majority is inevitable". According to Mosca, elites are distinguished from the masses by qualities which give them material, intellectual or even moral superiority. Pareto argues that the qualities of elites are the same in all societies. On the other hand, Mosca claims that these qualities would differ from society to society.


Mosca does not have faith in the capacity of masses for self-government. He asserts that elite rule in any society is inevitable. To Mosca, democracy was government of the people; it might even be government for the people, but it could never be government by the people. He was opposed to the extension of franchise to all sections of people. He wanted it to be confined to the middle class only. He thus remained "elitist" to the last.


Some of the recent elite theorists have sought to explain the elite rule by arguing that though democracy is a government for the people, it is seldom a government by the people. The common man, being very much vulnerable to manipulation, is not expected to be rational in his thinking and action. As a result of his exposure to strong media campaigning and propaganda offensives by different agencies, he tends to develop a will which, in reality, is not his own; it is rather the reflection of the influencing agency. In other words, the so-called public will is the "manufactured will". In view of this development, it would not be a great loss, it is argued, if the common man does not have a voice in the day-to-day functioning of a democratic government. It is enough if he has some control over the ruling elites by holding them ultimately accountable through periodic elections. In a democracy, the voter is required only to elect the leaders, not to decide policies. It is the leaders who will decide issues and policies. Democracy is there so long as the leaders have fears that they can be removed from power in the next election if they do not serve the people. Thus, it is argued, the control by elite is not the negation of democracy. The elite domination of a democratic system has been characterised as "democratic elitism." It has been succinctly observed that the elite theorists regard democracy as "simply a market mechanism; the voters are the consumers; the politicians are the'entrepreneurs.


Elements of Elite Theory - All need not be equally active in democracy. It is enough that some are more active and involved in the political process than others. In other words, democracy, for its success, requires the gradation of the political involvement of citizens.


1.   Elites should be drawn from all sections of the people as much as possible.

2.   Elites should not neglect the common people to whom they are accountable at regular intervals.

3.   The elite structure should be open, and the deserving people from below should be encouraged and enabled to enter it. Otherwise, it will gradually lose its vitality, and decay.

4.   In democracy, there should not be too much stress on "ideology". It is better that the ideological polarisation among political elites/parties is reduced to the minimum. The "end of ideology" is a recent feature of democracies. The one ideology to which all of them should be committed is the maintenance and stability of the system. None of them should see radical change in it.

5.   The government is a mechanism of mediating between the competing elites and establishing compromise and consensus among them. It should aim at minimising conflict among them.


Classical Liberalism Vs Elite Theory

Some significant differences between classical liberal theory if democracy and the elite theory are stated below:

1. Classical liberalism is people-oriented. It has great faith in the capacity of the people to properly play their role in the social and political processes. It views the man as a rational actor capable enough of making right political choice. Elitists, on the other hand, are leader-oriented. They have a great deal of confidence in the ability of elites to deliver goods - to help maintain the system.


2. The classical liberal theory of democracy treats "common good" and "public opinion" as vital elements of democracy. But the elite theorists do not accord much importance to these objectives. According to them it is difficult to define common good, and worse still, public opinion can be invented and manipulated.


3. The elite theorists value democracy as an agency of making compromise and consensus by mediating among conflicting elites, and as an agency of system-maintaining. However, classical liberalist regarded democracy as an agency of building moral men. They believed that democracy helped in effecting the all-round development of the man. McPherson has rightly observed: “The traditional theory of Mill - gave democracy a moral dimension: it saw democracy as development, as a matter of the improvement of mankind. The Schumpeter-Dahl axis, on the contrary, treats democracy as a mechanism, the essential function of which is to maintain equilibrium.



1. The elite theory is anti-democratic in nature. It has little faith in the people. It pins its hopes on elites. The common man is devalued, while elites are overvalued.


2. Elitists are primarily concerned with the maintenance of the stability of the system. They have not much sympathy for any effort to reform or modify the system. They are thus highly conservative and even reactionary.


3. Moral man misses in the writings of elite theorists. For them the utility of the common man lies in its function as the voter, required to elect ruling elites at regular intervals. The all-round development of individual is of little concern to elitists.


The Pluralist Theory of Democracy

Both Marxists and elitists hold that powers rest in the hands of a minority; the majority of the members of the society are excluded from the power structure. The pluralists, on the other hand, maintain that powers are not concentrated; these are dispersed. These are shared among all sections of people primarily through different organizations formed to articulate their interests. These groups and associations make regular and intense efforts to influence government policies and decisions. Some of them are overtly political while many others are potentially so. The latter, though apparently meant to serve some socio-cultural/economic purposes, are, when need arises, politically mobilised and activised.


A closer look at the dynamics of political and semi-political associations would reveal that these are dominated by a small group of leaders who tend to monopolize powers. As Lipset has observed in relation to trade unions, leadership tends to be oligarchic. This means that to a great extent the competition among different organizations for power-sharing is the competition among the leaders of these organizations. It is thus apparent that there is a great deal of overlapping between the Dahl-Schumpeter version of the elite theory, and the pluralist theory of democracy. In the ultimate analysis it is the elites who dominate political parties and interest groups, and who seem to be having close links with the ruling elites controlling the governmental structure.


Elements of Pluralism

1. Powers are fragmented and dispersed. The state is required to share powers with several political parties, interest groups, private groups and individuals.


2. Because of the provision of separation of powers, and check and balance at several points, there is not much possibility of the rise of dictatorship. Neither any branch of the government nor any other organization is likely to emerge over-dominant for a long time. These actors through containing one another would prevent anyone of them having monopoly of power.


3. Sovereignty is not the exclusive possession of either the state or any other group or association. It is, in fact, distributed among them. The sovereignty of the state is limited by the powers of other actors to contain it.


4. Political organizations and other groups, seeking to articulate the demands of their members, help in establishing contact between them and he state. Through their mediation, they help in bridging the distance between the government and the people. Further, they contribute to improving the quality of governmental decisions by supplying their skill and interest.



1. Dahl claims to have discovered a plurality of elites competing with one another for power by examining the making of decisions on some issues. It is, however, argued by some critics that Dahl has examined only "safe decisions". In any power structure some crucial issues do not come for decision-making; these are settled outside the policy-making structure. The powerful elites bring only those issues to the decision-making structure on which they are sure of getting favorable decisions or if they are not to lose much even if the decisions are not up to their satisfaction. Thus the examination of safe decisions would fail to prove the existence of pluralist power structures.


2. Pluralists argue that the government is not decisively controlled by economic elites and it enjoys “autonomy”. The critics do not reject the contention that the government enjoys some amount of autonomy. But they argue that it is in the interests of ruling elites including economic elites that the government should have some amount of autonomy. Autonomy would help it in dealing effectively and flexibly, with the members of the subject lass. By making some token concessions it can dissuade them from making serious challenges to the dominance of ruling elites.


3. Pluralism is criticised on the ground that it encourages "pressure politics". The interest groups are hardly expected to rise above their narrow interests and perspectives. Further, in pursuance of their interests, they in indulge in illegal and unfair practices. They tend to pressurise the government to favor them even at the expense of the vital interests of the community/nation. Pressure politics has the potential to weaken and immobilise the government, and seriously damage the important interests of the nation.



The preceding discussion of different varieties of the liberal theory of democracy suggests that in the ultimate analysis it is primarily the interests of elites which this theory seeks to promote. While its classical version wanted to further the cause of the new middle class by containing the intervention of the state on behalf of fading feudalism, its pluralist version also sought to contain the state intervention and prevent statism so that the elites, in the name of respective 'organisations and groups, could prosper, and gain more powers and privileges. The elite theory is also an attempt to legitimise the rule of elites on the ground of their superior psychological attributes. Thus a close scrutiny of the liberal theory of democracy reveals that the common man whose interests it professes to serve is a great loser in democratic systems. He is used to help elites gain legitimacy and more powers.



Marxists, in principle, do not oppose democracy. On the other hand, they claim that their "democracy" is genuine whereas the bourgeois democracy is 'fake' and a 'sham'.

Marxists do not regard democracy as a political system. They view it as a system of values and a form of society. In the latter sense democracy does not have a final point of achievement. It is' a continuously growing process. Thus democracy goes on struggling to go beyond itself, in the process retaining its essence and improvising it further.


As a political system, democracy is a class organism. It is meant to serve the interests of a particular class. Lenin distinguishes working class democracy from bourgeois democracy. The latter serves the interests of the bourgeoisie -a small minority -whereas the former promotes the interests of the proletariat the vast majority of the society. When socialism - the transitional phase matures into communism, democracy as a political system will cease to exist, but democracy as a system of values will flourish. A communist society is a democratic society because it nourishes democratic values like socio-economic equality and the absence of exploitation of one class by another. According to Lefebvre, Marx regards democracy "not as a system but as a process which comes down essentially to a struggle for democracy. The latter is never completed because democracy can always be carried forward or forced back. The purpose of struggle is to go beyond democracy and beyond the democratic state, to build a society without state power". 16 According to Marxists, in bourgeois democracy, the state is controlled by the economic elites-the finance capital. The members of this class, by occupying key posts in different branches of the power structure, use the government to promote the interests of their class. Some other Marxists take a slightly different view. They do not think that the organs of the government are manned by the members of rich class. They believe that the latter, by preferring to stay outside the government, dominate policy-making process from behind the scene. They allow the state some autonomy so that the state can utilise that autonomy to better serve their interests. It is thus clear that both Marxist view-points - capitalists controlling the government machinery (a) from within, (b) from without-point to the same proposition that the government in capitalist countries is controlled by economic elites who use it to further their own interests.


Marxists reject the legitimacy of elections in bourgeois democracies. They argue that political parties in bourgeois states hardly differ from one another in respect of ideology. The ideologies of all of them are designed to buttress the interests of rich people. As a result, the poor people of capitalist countries have little choice. Whichever party they vote for would help the rich against them.


Marxists further argue that in bourgeois democracies justice is very expensive. It is only the rich who can get judgments in their favor. They gave the money to buy justice. By money power and political influence they can close the eyes of the court to their crimes and other misdeeds. The poor, even if innocent, would be punished by courts. They have little leverage vis-a-vis the judiciary. The judiciary, it is contended, is not impartial. It has got a class character. It is manned by the representatives of the rich class and, no wonder, derives its interests.


Before we make a critical examination of the Marxist theory of democracy, we may bring to an end the preceding discussion by quoting Lenin from his State and Revolution. He said:


The dictatorship of the proletariat - the organization of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling class for the purpose of suppressing the oppressors - for the first time becomes democracy for the poor, democracy for the people, and not democracy for the money-bags. The dictatorship of the proletariat imposes a series of restrictions on the freedom of the oppressors, the exploiters, the capitalists.



The Marxist theory of democracy has been criticised on the following grounds.

1. Negation of Democracy: The Liberals criticise that the socialist democracy is not democracy at all; it is the opposite of democracy. They argue that democracy is a government of the whole people of the society. Democracy is not a government of one group to be used by it against another. But the socialist democracy, which represents the interests of one class only - though it is the majority group fails to satisfy the main criterion of democracy mentioned above. The liberals charge that the dictatorship of proletariat, far from being the democracy for the proletariat, is a dictatorship over them. In socialist democracy the party bureaucracy becomes growingly powerful and the common man becomes increasingly alienated from the system. Sartori describes it as a "dictatorship pure and simple", while Popper paints it as a "closed society" in which there is neither freedom nor democracy.2° Benn and Peters have observed: Marxists can equate the "dictatorship of the proletariat" with" democracy" because they exclude any but the workers from the "people" But trtis is not what is meant by the "people" in the context we have in mind. We should say that a system was just as undemocratic if it denied people votes because they were rich, as if it denied them votes because they were poor.


2. Bloody and Heartless: Some minor differences among them notwithstanding, Marxists, in general, agree that the socialist revolutions as well as the socialist democracy are predominantly violent in nature. Lenin advocates the "bloody" overthrow of the bourgeois government. Excessive emphasis upon violence makes the working men democracy unacceptable to many. Many cultures in the world either hate violence or give very low place to it. No wonder, because of its open support to violence, the Marxist democracy is not welcome in these cultures.


3. Parliamentary Socialism: Many people believe that socialism, a good goal, can be achieved through parliamentary peace. One need not resort to violence and revolution for this. Important reforms with the objective of helping the mass can be pushed through legislations. The people can make use of elections, pressure groups and other democratic instruments at their disposal to influence -if necessary; force the government to adopt "welfare" measures. This is particularly the strong feeling of the Communist parties of Western Europe who have evolved "Euro-Communism" to represent their point of view. Some democratic countries of the third world are also of this opinion. It is important to note that this view has won support in Moscow at a few points of time. In 1956 Khrushchev, the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, declared that there are two roads to socialism: one is 'revolution', and the other is 'parliamentary road'. However, China bitterly attacked Khrushchev for this.


4. Not a Pure Democracy: Some revisionists like Bernstein and Kautsky have criticised socialist democracy on the ground that is not a "pure democracy." Kautsky charged that the dictatorship of proletariat, established in Russia after the 1917 revolution, did not grant liberties to citizens. While Bernstein criticised the socialist democracy of Russia for unnecessarily indulging in violence, Rosa Luxemburg, a German Marxist, attacked it for its failure to grant freedoms to the press and people. In her opinion, the dictatorship of proletariat of Russia has become the dictatorship of some politicians.



The Marxist democracies practised in Russia, China and other Communist countries, are showing little respect for political freedoms of individuals. The political choices, movements and expressions of the latter are severely constrained and limited. Political power is monopolised by a small minority ruling from above. The system is characterised by intense centralisation and bureaucratisation. Political democracy is conspicuous by its absence. However, it seems that in proletarian democracy there is much more of social and economic equality than in liberal democracies. In the former, the gap between rich and poor is not quite wide. It is apparent that in Marxist democracies, the individual initiative, a valuable factor of economic development, is largely absent. Of late, the leaders of these systems seem to have realised this deficiency and are trying to slowly rectify it. The "capitalist reforms" slowly introduced in China and Russia in recent times is a pointer in this direction. The atmosphere of freedom and relaxation created in the Soviet Union as a result of the "Gorbachev experiment" amply illustrates this. The encouragement given to the private sector and the high incidence of student activism in China in the post-Mao period are important developments effected in China's "People's democracy". These developments in Russia and China suggest that the model of Marxist democracy is likely to adopt and encourage some innovations which are not in conformity with orthodox Marxism. The countries concerned are aware of this. But they are perhaps thinking that the acceptance of small doses of "capitalist" innovations would, in the long run, make proletarian democracies more stable and secure.



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4.       Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought Vol-I and II, Cambridge  University Press, Cambridge, 2007.

5.       Arora Prem and Grover Brij, Selected Western and Indian Political Thinkers, Cosmos Bookhive (P) Ltd, New Delhi, 1998.

6.       Sukhbir Singh, History of Political Thought vol-I and II, Rastogi Publications, Meerut, 2003.

7.       Kangle, R.P, Arthashastra of Kautilya, 1960, Motilal Benarasidass, 1965.

8.       Chris Sparks and Stuart Isaacs, Political Theorists in Context, Routledge, 2004.

9.       Jha, Shefali, Western Political Thought: From Plato to Marx, Pearson Publications.

10.     Mukherjee, Subrata, A History Of Political Thought: Plato To Marx, Prentice-Hall Of India, 2009.



Received on 16.10.2011

Revised on   22.02.2012

Accepted on 23.03.2012

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