Theses on the Transformation of Democracy and on the Extra-Parliamentary Opposition

"It is the duty of every democrat to fight the Emergency Laws." (March against the Notstandsgesetze in Bon, May 11, 1968.)
“It is the duty of every democrat to fight the Emergency Laws.” (March against the Notstandsgesetze in Bön, May 11, 1968.)

These theses serve as a supplement to my book Transformation of Democracy and a correction to some misquotations made at the remarkable delegates conference of the SDS [Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund, or Socialist German Student Union]. I am generally of the opinion that rather than interpret texts, revolutionaries should change relations [Verhältnisse].

As measured by the state’s actual power relations and by the actual relations of domination in society, the familiar expression for the modern bourgeois state – “parliamentary democracy” – represents a paradox. Some time ago, William Borm asked the board of the Republican Club1 whether the club still stood on the basis of “classical parliamentary democracy.” To that, the club’s board could only give a vague and uncertain, although politically clever answer (“We do, of course, but the parliamentary parties don’t anymore”). For classical parliamentary democracy has long since disappeared. It is not just the case that its social function and its institutional structure correspond to a past period in history. The liberal state was the public and legal organizational form of rule in a society that indeed produced in a capitalist way (thus some of its institutions are extant), yet relied on the power of the steam engine. Our society, which produces and will produce with atomic power, has no use for such a state. Moreover, the classical parliamentary quality of the earlier bourgeois state – the supremacy of parliament, with its political as well as legislative decision-making authority – has been overcome by constitutional law itself. The Basic Law [Grundgesetz]2 posits the supremacy of the executive over the legislative, be it in the question of policy-setting authority or government control over parliament.

Our society, however, still can do very little with the conventional forms and conventional institutions of the parliamentary system of government. In 1922 Pareto3 had advised Mussolini, for the sake of stabilizing power, to let parliament continue to exist in a changed form; masses that lean towards democratic feelings can best be neutralized through an organ that gives them the illusion of participating in state power. It is not the complete abolition of parliament that makes the new state strong, rather the transfer of decision-making authorities from parliament to the closed inner circle of “elites.”

Therein also lay, following Pareto, the historical meaning and bourgeois class contract of the fascistic transformation of the state.

I

After the defeat of fascism, the restoration of the parliamentary governmental system in West European countries faced the same problem that historical fascism could not successfully solve: how to hold the dependent masses – that have nonetheless been set in motion – in a condition of dependence, to prevent their emancipation that would begin as the revolution of production relations.

The difficulty lay – and continues to lie – in the ambivalent character parliament can assume under certain circumstances. In an increasingly dynamic bourgeois society characterized as much by the antagonism of production as it is by the plurality of distribution interests, the representative body can offer itself as an instrument that expresses antagonism through the state and so elevates (social) class struggle to a political conflict of rule.

Viewed this way, the parliamentary governmental system can only guarantee bourgeois rule and protect capitalism so long as it succeeds in pushing back its ambivalence. It must function as a mechanism that makes antagonistic conflicts politically irrelevant as much as possible, and monitors and pacifies conflicts of interest. In this, the perspective developed by Friedrich Engels inverts itself; the “bourgeois republic” – which according to Engels was the best form for the open, and, under certain circumstances, even peaceful unfolding of class struggle and conflicts of rule – tries to remain bourgeois and transform itself into the best form for integrating the dependent classes into the capitalist system of production and the bourgeois system of rule. The “people” are degraded into mere bargaining chips in the rivalry of leading political groups. For other countries under “parliamentary” government, the way this transformation was accomplished in the Federal Republic [West Germany] is exemplary.

II

Among the most important aspects of this attempt to stabilize and secure capitalism politically include:

The dissolution of the class of dependents into a pluralist system of job categories. Already in its fascist form, this proved itself suited to countering the objective polarization of society from the subjective, organizational, and consciousness-manipulating side. Here, more effective means are at the disposal of organized capitalism than earlier competitive capitalism. And from the errors of fascist pluralism it has also finally learned to call itself democratic.

With this, the reproduction of society through the state turns into the articulation of a plurality of parties. This means that while several parties – although, from the point of view of the ruling tendencies, two are best – compete for a share of power, individual parties come to resemble each other to a large extent. They forego representing concrete groups or class-tied interests, and become part of a general equilibrium. They superficially roll all real groups and all ideal positions into a single indiscriminate exchange relationship – and exclude any group with revolutionary ideas or interests in transforming structures. Such parties separate themselves from their own social basis and become part of political state associations; they become officials charged with upholding the equilibrium of the state.

The parties, having become part of the state, develop a novel social quality that is connected to their own material interests: they are interested in maintaining relations that make it possible for them to hold power as part of the state and establishment. They thereby couple themselves – whether they are mass parties or not – to the interests of those social groups that are likewise committed to conserving given structures. In this respect, the old question whether the ruling political groups are stooges of the ruling classes or whether they represent an independent social class (the political class) is otiose. They are themselves a part of the political ruling class. More specifically, they are a function of the state. In this way, social antagonism is not reflected in the party system. All that takes place in the state ruling apparatus is the reproduction of one pole of society, which would otherwise be called into question antagonistically. That means the separation of parties from the social basis does not affect all classes and groups in the same way. Only groups that would potentially want to transform relations are shut out from representation at the level of the state: the dependent masses. They have no say in fundamental policy decisions, even though they may fare better with one or another party in marginal problems of political pragmatics.

These same parties, which have alienated the broad masses, self-identify ideologically as Volksparteien [people’s parties].4 The efforts of their own leadership lead Volksparteien to develop a novel mechanism of rule, in which reified and authoritarian concentrations of power enter into a cycle of competition with one another. Only this competitive relationship is oligarchically organized, and has as little to do with the political principle of free competition as the organized market sharing of modern oligarchic capitalism has to do with free competition in economics. The open-rivalry cycle of ruling groups that fight against and exclude one another will be supplanted by an assimilative cycle that ultimately leads to self-liquidation: with regard to the constant assimilation of (seemingly) competitive parties and their mutual participation in state violence – be it in the coöperation of majority and minority factions and the mechanism by which they swap power, or in the form of the grand coalition. In this way parties fight amongst themselves for the power to govern but nevertheless form a symbiotic unity, in whose sphere an abstract conflict of leadership can be fought out. They form the pluralist version of a unified party [Einheitspartei].5

III

The transformation in the party system is connected to the structural and functional changes that parliament itself has experienced in recent decades. Of these changes, there is one that  should not be forgotten, lest one run the danger of mystifying parliament’s “loss of functionality” relative to earlier forms of parliamentarianism: as a factor of social power, parliament has historically always represented for bourgeois society the fiction of popular freedom through the implementation of popular representation. “Of all the specific elements… in the idea of freedom and thus of democracy, the most important is parliamentarianism… It would seem as if the idea of democratic freedom finds unbroken expression in parliamentarianism. This purpose serves the fiction of representation” (Kelsen).6

As a matter of fact, the principle of parliamentary representation (free mandate – free from the will of voters, but not from the directives and orders of the party leadership – unimpeachability during the legislative period, etc.) turns out to be an effective means of keeping the masses out of the state’s centers of power and – through state and legal mediation – society’s centers of decision. Certainly no individual representatives, provided they do not belong to the inner circle of leadership, accrue any power of their own from the principle of representation. To the parliamentary fiction also belongs the Leibhholz-ian7 ideologization that the representative is the master, and not the servant of the people. If, however (and here Pareto is in agreement), partly due to the political monopoly of parliamentary parties, the population orients itself on the one hand towards parliamentary politics and coöperation between government and parliament, and on the other hand towards the confrontation between government and opposition that sees the light of day in parliament, a real element of domination emerges from this fiction. The West German parliament [Bundestag] is neither master of the people nor a legislator representing the people.

Rather, parliament is active as a constitutionally indispensable instrument for publicizing decisions made through coöperation between the state apparatus and social pressure groups [Machtgruppen]. It thus acts as the transmission belt for the decisions of oligarchical groups. These groups (the leading groups of the sphere of production – oligopoly – but also of the cultural spheres - eg. churches) find themselves thoroughly and concretely represented in parliament, provided that parliament acts and functions as the representation of domination. Only as such is parliament rewarding and acceptable to bourgeois-capitalist society. When it provides for the incursion of an emancipatory countervailing power, that is, when the transformation does not succeed, the ruling class grasps for the more severe means of its own self-representation. See, for example, Greece.8

IV

This means that the perspective of a “system-immanent” evolution of parliamentarianism fails due to its own tendency towards involution, which is systematically determined by its function of domination. Developments in still-unintegrated societies show how over the long run this tendency towards involution is more effective than the potential to exploit parliament for its representative function. The fundamentally oppositional parties which play the parliamentary game, rather than taking part in extra-parliamentary struggle as the essential means for contesting domination, are threatened with losing their emancipatory quality and of transforming into bureaucratic apparatuses of integration. In other words, the political as well as (why not?) the moral downfall of social democracy (a historical betrayal of humanity’s liberation) is a warning sign for the socialist and communist parties in the capitalist countries.

Each parliamentary reform that is realized within states oriented towards involution serves not to expand the possibility for the masses to take part in decision-making processes, but rather to contain that possibility by intensifying parliament’s function of domination. Even where there exists a political articulation of a free public sphere, it cannot use parliament as a tool to implement itself practically.

This applies not only to the antagonistic public sphere but also at times even to the critical public sphere. Both must seek their political mediation in extra- and, in the wider course of the refunctioning of parliament, anti-capitalist organizations and organizational forms. It is up for debate whether the transformation of democracy can still be reversed. Today most groups of the extra-parliamentary opposition tend towards this position.

However, two things must be considered here:

1. A detailed analysis of the Basic Law must first of all clarify whether and to what extent the de-democratization of the Federal Republic was already intended in its constitution.

2. Neither the will to power and corruptibility of the politicians nor the depoliticization of the masses are the causes of the transformation. It is, rather, a necessity for a capitalism that seeks its own salvation by organizing itself through means of the state. The return to the purity of the Basic Law would be a return to the initial conditions of the transformation itself. It may be that the restoration or the defense of basic rights constitutes an essential prerequisite for the struggle against domination and exploitation. Basic rights, however, do not emancipate the masses so long as we have a bourgeois society and a capitalist mode of production whose state precisely does not provide for the emancipatory use of these rights.

Under the conditions of organized capitalism, as pacified and integrated by the state, it is rather the political recovery of antagonism – and this means the actualization of the class struggle and the disintegration of society – that is the first step towards the realization of democracy.

V

The political recovery of antagonism is the current task of the extra-parliamentary opposition. A few clarifications are necessary here:

1. Extra-parliamentary opposition is not fundamentally – in either practical or conceptual terms – anti-parliamentary. It is rather the normal form of participation for groups dissatisfied by the political life of parliamentary democracy, and indeed a support for and an extension of the politics of oppositional parliamentary parties. It therefore represents the social power of the parliamentary fronts – insofar as they can be said to exist, that is to say, insofar as the parliamentary fronts, for their part, effectively mirror social fronts.

2. Because social oppositional groups and parliamentary representation do not thoroughly coincide, conflicts can arise at any time between the extra-parliamentary and parliamentary opposition (just as much, incidentally, as they can between ruling groups and majorities and a given parliamentary majority, in practical terms with a given government). Such a conflict can extend across the entire parliament when it leads to confrontations between the public sphere and state organs. In such rare cases, the public sphere, as complete opposition to the constitutional organs (to which the parties also belong), exerts a pressure that indeed can function as “parliamentary coercion.” For example: in the Spiegel Affair it was not the Bundestag that forced Minister Strauß to resign, but rather the mobilized public sphere that forced the minister’s recusal and in the end his inglorious departure. A further example of “parliamentary coercion” was the Telephone Charge Affair, when the Bild-Zeitung effectively recalled the Bundestag from the parliamentary holiday.

3. In the course of certain political processes, however, a transition in the extra-parliamentary struggle can occur. That the opposition, which has in this way become anti-parliamentary, gets labeled anti-democratic is due partly to the unjustified identification of democracy with parliamentary formalism, and partly to the method by which parliamentary parties name themselves the sole foundations of the democratic state. Rather, insofar as parliaments function anti-democratically, despite democratic elections, the struggle for democracy must be pushed into anti-parliamentary praxis. This may sometimes be directed towards partial aspects of the parliamentary parties: a parliament must be criticized as a whole, attacked in case of passivity, when for example its president lies publicly without being held accountable in parliament. Here it is evident, incidentally, that the transition to an anti-parliamentary position is tightly connected to the failure of parliamentary opposition parties.

4. If the involution of the parliamentary system of government towards the authoritarian form of domination has already extended very far (as it has in the Federal Republic), so too does the extra-parliamentary opposition gain a new quality that results from the conflict with the new quality of parliament. This consists – negatively – in the lack of a constitutional provision for popular representation and in the lack of oversight and a public sphere. Positively, the new quality consists in the transformation of parliament into a representational organ of domination. The people, who are no longer represented, or at the very least the groups and classes that are no longer represented, must take matters into their own hands for the sake of democracy. It is their right to participate in political decision-making processes. If parliament becomes an instrument for curtailing this right, the extra-parliamentary opposition, as the byproduct of a parliamentarism that is still capable of being democratic, thus constitutes the counterweight to a parliamentarism that has become anti-democratic.

5. The possibilities of political praxis for the extra-parliamentary opposition differ from society to society. Consider the weight and significance of the political clubs in France, which by now have established themselves as recognized opponents of the official organs. Or the Republican Club in West Berlin, which representatives for the official bodies (and the semi-official power of the press) sometimes label as an organizer of “terror” and – most recently – as a center for spying. In many western countries it has become a working principle for the extra-parliamentary opposition to pursue central campaigns representing political aims and ideas that either find no hearing in parliaments, or which parliaments fight against. One central campaign in the future may have to do with gaining official recognition for the German Democratic Republic.9 

Such central campaigns have a weakness, however: they propagate general ideas and can only speak to and mobilize general political interests. They will thus only be successful and constitute a concrete counter-power against anti-democratic involution tendencies if they bind themselves to the representation of the particular material interests of the dependent masses. Here too the way of ideas initially goes the way of needs. Here too the Idea disgraces itself if it shies away from alliance with material interests. Those who rule seem to understand this relation better than the “rebels” of West Berlin. While some groups of the extra-parliamentary opposition still orient themselves to Marcuse’s theses on marginalized groups and have written off the working class, the Federal Board of German Industry [Bundesvorstand der Deutschen Industrie, or BDI] demands, as a condition for investing, that the Senate of West Berlin impede solidarity between workers and students.

6. And lastly a note on the methods of the extra-parliamentary opposition. If it succeeds in setting the masses in motion and in this way partially and temporarily paralyzes or irritates the state apparatus, it will be accused of wanting to mobilize “the street.” It is generally accepted that “pressure from the street” directed at freely elected parliaments is a severe offense against the constitution and democracy. The question is simply when pressure is permissible and appears acceptable. Every segment of the population must seek to use its own means to be heard. If the extra-parliamentary opposition writes a letter to the mayor of West Berlin no attention will be paid to it. No attention is paid to students who demand parliamentary action and educational reforms through petitions. A letter from Mr. Fritz Berg10 or a report of the BDI, however, always receives attention and response. Politically, though, the pressure of a BDI report (fundamentally, a “go-in” by mail) on the West Berlin Parliament is disproportionately stronger and more incisive than a go-in of a few dozen students and assorted “agitators” [“Drahtziehern”]. Part of the ruling mechanism’s perfidy is that it presents pressure from the upper class as noble recommendation, and pressure from below as mob-like coercion.

“Pressure from the street” is the legitimate means of an extra-parliamentary opposition whose petitions that play by the rules of social order always end up in the wastebasket of parliament and the government.

– Translated by Michael Shane Boyle and Daniel Spaulding


  1. Translators’ note: Founded in 1967 in West Berlin by Agnoli and other figures such as Hans Magnus Enzensberger and William Borm, the Republican Club was a key space for discussion and debate in the West German student movement and the broader extra-parliamentary Left. All further footnotes are by the translators. 

  2. The Grundgesetz or Basic Law is the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany that came into effect on May 23, 1949. It established West Germany as a sovereign nation independent from both the Allied occupying powers and the socialist German Democratic Republic. 

  3. Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923), Italian economist whose theories influenced fascist policies. 

  4. In Germany the term Volkspartei describes a type of political party whose membership transcends social lines such as class or religion. The SPD’s transformation with the 1959 Godesborg Program from a worker’s party into a Volkspartei was still a fresh memory for the West German Left when Agnoli wrote this essay. 

  5. The ruling party in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was known as the Sozialistische Einheitspartei, or Socialist Unity Party. It was created in the country’s Soviet-occupied zone in 1946 as a merger of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) with the German Communist Party (KPD). 

  6. This quote from Hans Kelsen is not cited in Agnoli’s original essay. It comes from Hans Kelsen, Vom Wesen und Wert der Demokratie (Tübingen: Mohr, 1929), 25; 30. The translation from German is our own. 

  7. Agnoli is speaking of Gerhard Leibholz (1901-1982), an influential German legal scholar and jurist who served on West Germany’s constitutional court from 1951 to 1971.  

  8. This refers to the Greek military junta that began on 21 April 1967 and which would last until 24 July 1974. 

  9. The German Democratic Republic had no official status in the Federal Republic of Germany at the time Agnoli was writing. Normalization of relations with East Germany would take place under the aegis of the so-called Ostpolitik (Eastern Policy) of Chancellor Willy Brandt, in office 1969-1974. 

  10. Fritz Berg was a prominent German industrialist and the first president of the BDI. 

Author of the article

was a militant and theorist whose book Die Transformation der Demokratie, co-authored with Peter Brückner, played a fundamental role in the German New Left.