Tony Cliff

Marxism at the Millennium

Chapter 12
Democratic revolution or socialist revolution?

In all countries that have no political democracy – i.e. countries which are dominated by an absolute monarchy, or the army, or fascism, or a foreign imperialist power-the need for democracy is obvious. And we, revolutionary socialists, fight hard to achieve this: free elections of national and local governments, freedom of the press, of assembly and organisation, the right of national self determination. But this is not enough for us.

First of all, inequality, exploitation and oppression still remain intact so long as the wealth is in the hands of a tiny minority of capitalists, Without the common ownership of the means of production, not only does inequality between rich and poor remain, but also, be cause of the competition between workers for jobs, housing, educational opportunities, the inequality inside the working class remains. This is a breeding ground for racism and sexism.

With the continued control of the wealth of society by the capitalists, political democracy is also unsafe, and the old political order threatens to return. A tiny minority of capitalists own not only the material means of production, but also the mental means of production – the press, TV and other instruments of propaganda. They are also bound to be supported by the capitalist state machine – the army, police and judiciary will continue to support the capitalist class.

Only when the working class holds state power can democratic rights be guaranteed.

In November 1918 the revolution in Germany got rid of the Kaiser and brought the First World War to an end. Alas, big employers like Krupps and Thyssen remained along with the generals and the reactionary army officers who set up right wing units called Freikorps. Dual power prevailed in Germany, for side by side with parliament were the workers’ councils. All revolutions do not break free from the shackles of the past at one go. Side by side with the new, representing the future, the old still survives. To use Marx’s words, “The tradition of the dead generations” still hangs over the living. The events in Germany completely confirm the prophetic words of St Just, a leader of the French Revolution of 1789: “Those who make half a revolution dig their own grave.” Under the umbrella of the Social Democratic government, Freikorps officers murdered revolutionary leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. The revolutionary events continued with ups and downs until 1923, but they ended with the victory of capitalism. The Nazi movement was born in 1919. In 1923 it organised a “failed” coup in Bavaria, but it was waiting in the wings. This was another lost opportunity for workers and they would pay for it dearly when Hitler came to power.

France in the 1930s saw a massive rise of working class struggle which started in February 1934 and culminated in 1936 in a decisive victory of the Popular Front – an alliance of the Communist Party, Socialist Party and Liberals (who were mistakenly called Radical Socialists – they were neither radical nor socialist). Millions of workers said to them selves, “Now we own the government, let’s take over the factories.” And in June 1936 a wave of factory occupations took place. The leaders of the Communist Party and Socialist Party; however, led a retreat following a compromise with the employers. After this the Communist Party was thrown out of the Popular Front. It was the Radical Socialist Daladier who signed the Munich agreement with Hitler in 1938, and it was the same parliament elected in the great Popular Front victory of 1936 which voted support for Marshal Pétain, head of the Vichy regime which collaborated with the Nazis from 1940 onwards.

When Indonesia won its independence from Holland in 1949 the country was led by the bourgeois nationalist Ahmed Sukarno. His ideology was based on the principles of Pancasila whose main planks were belief in god and national unity. Tragically the Indonesian Communist Party did not challenge Sukarno, but, on the contrary, agreed with him completely on the need for national unity. The result was that St Just’s words came true. The Communist Party of Indonesia had far more members than the Bolshevik Party had at the time of the revolution: 3 million as against a quarter of a million. The working class of Indonesia was larger than the working class of Russia on the eve of the revolution. The peasantry was larger in Indonesia than in Russia. In 1965 a general appointed by Sukarno, one Suharto, organised a coup with the backing of the United States, the British Labour government and Australia.

Somewhere between half a million and a million people were slaughtered.

The Middle East is another area which has seen great upheavals which shook the establishment but failed to win a fundamental break through. In Iraq, King Feisal was overthrown in 1951 by a mass movement. The Communist Party of Iraq was a very strong party, indeed the strongest CP in the Arab world. It entered into an alliance with the bourgeois nationalist party, the Ba’ath. The Communist Party, under Stalinist control, believed that the coming revolution would be a democratic one, which demanded an alliance between the working class and the bourgeois parties. Such an alliance means in practice the subordination of the former to the latter. The Communist Party members and the workers paid a heavy price for this alliance. The Ba’ath, headed by General Saddam Hussein, with the aid of the CIA, carried out a mass slaughter of Communists.

In Iran a general strike led to the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. Shoras (workers’ councils) mushroomed throughout the country. Tragically the leadership of these shoras, largely the pro-Moscow Tudeh Party and the Fedayeen, saw the revolution as a bourgeois democratic revolution instead of a proletarian one, and so gave support to the establishment of the Islamic republic. Ayatollah Khomeini thus came to power without showing any gratitude to the Tudeh or Fedayeen, and the left was subjected to bloody repression.

I can mention a few other failed revolutions, such as Hungary 1919 and 1956, Germany 1923, China 1925-27, Spain 1936, France 1968, Portugal 1974-75.

The juxtaposition of the democratic revolution to the socialist revolution and the preference for the first is not the property of the Social Democratic leaders alone, but became the guiding line of Stalinist leaderships throughout the world.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was an exception to the series of half-made revolutions.

The February 1917 revolution created an exciting new situation: the Tsar abdicated, centuries of the monarchy ended, The police were disbanded. In every factory workers’ committees were established. In many army units soldiers committees came into being. Soviets of workers and soldiers arose everywhere.

But after the revolution in February 1917, parallel to the soviets, the old institutions continued. In the factories the old owners and the old managers continued to hold to their positions. In the army the generals were still in command: the commander-in-chief of the army was General Kornilov who was appointed by the Tsar. Parallel to soviet power was a bourgeois government headed by a liberal politician from Tsarist times. This situation, which Lenin and Trotsky called “dual power”, was full of contradictions.

Not withstanding the nature of the soviet, its leaders begged the bourgeoisie to retain power. The majority of the soviet delegates were right wing socialists, Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. This was not an accident. It was the inevitable outcome of a situation in which millions of people moved to the left but still carried a lot of the ideological baggage of a Tsarist past. For millions who had hitherto sup ported the Tsar and the war, a move to the left did not mean straight away joining the most extreme of the parties, the Bolsheviks. The strong man of the Mensheviks, J.G. Tseretelli, who became minister of the interior in the bourgeois Provisional Government, explained the necessity of a compromise with the bourgeoisie: “There can be no other road for the revolution. It’s true we have all the power, and that the government would go if we lifted a finger, but that would mean disaster for the revolution.”

When, on 3 April, Lenin returned to Russia from Switzerland, he was welcomed by thousands of workers and soldiers at the Finland Station in Petrograd. Chkheidze, president of the Petrograd Soviet, welcomed him with these words: “Comrade Lenin, in the name of the Petrograd Soviet and of the whole revolution we welcome you to Russia ... But we think that the principal task of the revolutionary democracy is now the defence of the revolution from any encroachments either from within or from without. We consider that what this goal requires is not disunity, but the closing of the democratic ranks. We hope you will pursue these goals together with us.” Lenin in reply called for the continuation of the revolution as the Russian Revolution was part and parcel of the international, world revolution. The reaction of the Mensheviks to Lenin’s speech was extremely hostile. Thus, I.P. Goldenberg, a former member of the Bolshevik Central Committee, declared, “Lenin has now made himself a candidate for one European throne that has been vacant for 30 years-the throne of Bakunin! Lenin’s new words echo something old-the superannuated truths of primitive anarchism.”

Lenin did not adapt himself to the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, who were the embodiment of petty-bourgeois democracy. He followed consistently the call of Marx at the time of the 1848 revolution in France and Germany, to be completely independent of the petty-bourgeois democratic camp. Marx wrote, “The German workers ... must contribute most to their final victory, by informing themselves of their own class interests, by taking up their independent political position as soon as possible, by not allowing themselves to be misled by the hypocritical phrases of the democratic petty bourgeoisie into doubting for one minute the necessity of an independently organised party of the proletariat. Their battle cry must be: ‘The permanent revolution.’”

After days, weeks and months of stormy events the Bolsheviks managed to win over the majority of workers. On 9 September the Petrograd soviet went over to Bolshevism and Trotsky was elected as its president. On the same day the Bolsheviks won the majority of the Moscow soviet. From this point it was only a small stride towards the attainment of workers’ power on 7 November 1917.

The working class, not the party, makes the revolution, but the party guides the working class. As Trotsky aptly wrote, “Without a guiding organisation the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not endorsed in a piston box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.”

The difference between success and failure, between Russia in October 1917 and the other workers’ revolutions, was that in the former case there was a mass revolutionary party providing effective leader ship. While socialists cannot determine the moment when the revolutionary crisis breaks, they do determine the eventual outcome by the degree to which they build a strong revolutionary party.

Cato the Elder, a member of the Roman Senate, used to end all his speeches with the following words: “Cartago delenda est” – Carthage must be destroyed. And, finally, Rome did destroy Carthage. We have to end with the words, “The revolutionary party must be built.”


Last updated on 12.12.2002