Source: Socialist Standard, July 1920.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain.
HTML Markup: Michael Schauerte
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
In 1918 a sharp controversy took place between Karl Kautsky, of the German Social Democratic Party, and Nikolai Lenin, of the Russian Bolsheviks, on the question of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. The debate has lately been translated into English, Kautsky’s contribution by the ILP, under the title The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, and Lenin’s by the BSP, under the title The Proletarian Revolution.
Lenin’s pamphlet is the more lively, the more abusive and, on a superficial level, the more effective statement. One capitalist critic has been so carried away by the stream of denunciations that runs from one end to the other of the pamphlet that he declared that Lenin had practically pulverised Kautsky.
But denunciation, however justified, is not argument, and when the case is more closely examined one gains the impression that a good deal of the abuse is used to hide the lack of argument, that in some cases is painfully apparent.
How valueless is Lenin’s judgement of Kautsky is shown by one outstanding fact. In Lenin’s view Kautsky was a Marxist until the war broke out in 1914, when he became a “renegade”. Yet as every Socialist knows, apart from previous actions in Germany, 14 years before the war Kautsky had proclaimed his renunciation of Marxism when he drafted the well-known “Kautsky resolution” at the 1900 International Socialist Congress. That resolution stated that a Socialist could accept a gift of a seat in a capitalist cabinet in a national emergency, such as war. His support of the German capitalist class in the war was therefore only the logical outcome of his resolution in 1900.
Kautsky says the question is one of the “clashing of two fundamentally distinct methods, that of democracy and dictatorship” (p. 1). Lenin retorts by claiming that the question is one “of the relation between the proletarian State and the bourgeois State, between proletarian democracy and bourgeois democracy” (p. 10).
It is obvious that Lenin’s statement is a shuffle. For relations to exist between a proletarian State and a bourgeois State both these States must exist at the same moment. Are these two States existing in Russia to-day? If not there can be no question of such a relation there.
Again, what is “Democracy”? Kautsky says “Democracy signifies the rule of the majority, but not less the protection of minorities” (p. 30).Lenin pours scorn upon the latter part of this definition, and refers to the repression of strikers, internationalists, and others in democratic countries like America, Switzerland, and England. True as this retort is against the “protection of minorities”, it does not touch the question of what is democracy, and Lenin carefully evades any definition himself. His use of the terms “proletarian” and “bourgeois” democracy merely clouds the issue.
Democracy means “Rule by majority”, and the trimmings introduced by both Lenin and Kautsky are quite secondary to this main point. It is generally taken that the minority shall be allowed to express their views and may endeavour to convert the majority to their ideas, while accepting for the time being the majority decisions. This, however, depends upon circumstances and conditions, such as war, where this allowance would not be made. Kautsky himself supported the German Government in repressing minorities in Germany.
His grief at the capitalists being deprived of the vote under the Bolsheviks, receives an answer from Lenin that will hardly please the supporters of the latter here, who have proclaimed it as a necessary factor in working-class policy. He says: “One may say in this connection that the question about the suppression of the franchise of the exploiter is entirely a Russian question and not at all one of the dictatorship of the proletariat in general” (p. 38. Italics in original).
As a matter of fact, it is a question of the conditions existing at the time. If the capitalists were endeavouring to foment civil war—as they were doing at that time—they would be outlawed and thus deprived of most civil privileges.
But what is “bourgeois” democracy? Lenin points to modern capitalist countries as examples. Yet in all these countries the proletariat not only form the majority of the population, but also have the majority of the votes.
So a “bourgeois” democracy is one where the proletariat are in a majority. Then what is a “proletarian” democracy? We are told that it is “a democracy for the poor” (p. 31. Italics Lenin’s) while in a bourgeois democracy, even the best, “We are ruled, and our State is run by bourgeois bureaucrats, by capitalist parliaments, by capitalist judges” (Ibid.).
But if democracy is the rule of the majority, and in the capitalist countries mentioned the proletariat form the majority of the population and have the majority of the votes, it is clear that the proletariat must have voted the capitalists into Parliament and power. Why did they not vote themselves into power? Lenin’s statement on this point is such a stupid lie as to cause wonder that a man of his abilities should have written so glaring a contradiction of the facts. He says: “The labouring masses are kept away from bourgeois parliament (which never decides the most important questions in a bourgeois democracy as they are decided by the Stock Exchange and the banks) by a thousand and one barriers” (p. 29).
Lenin does not give one, let alone a thousand and one of these barriers, for the simple reason that they are non-existent outside his imagination.
This is one of the points on which Kautsky scores heavily and Lenin is reduced to evasion.
On page 12 of his pamphlet Kautsky says:
Every conscious action presupposes a will. The Will to Socialism is the first condition for its accomplishment. This Will is created by great industry...Small production always creates the Will to uphold or to obtain private property in the means of production which are in vogue, not the Will to social property, to Socialism.
This is the situation. While the workers agree with capitalism, they will vote capitalists into Parliament. When they agree with Socialism—or “Will to Socialism” —they will send Socialists there.
And—how short is Lenin’s memory! —both he and his colleagues were voted into a “bourgeois” Parliament by the “labouring masses”.
Lenin on p. 30 of his book says: “the Soviet regime is a million times more democratic than the most democratic regime in a bourgeois republic”.
What is the Soviet Regime?
The word “Soviet” is used by many supporters of the Bolsheviks as though it denoted some newly discovered magical power. When one is told that it merely means “Council” the magic vanishes.
At the base of this system are the Urban and Rural Councils, directly elected by the sections qualified to vote. The delegates are elected in the proportion of one delegate to every 1,000 members in the towns (up to a maximum of 1,000 councillors), and one delegate to every 100 in the country.
Above this comes the Volost Congress. A Volost is a group of villages, and the Congress is composed of delegates from the Councils of these village groups.
Next above in the order is the District Congress composed of representatives from the Village Councils.
Still higher is the County Congress consisting of representatives from the Urban Councils and the Volost Congresses.
Overriding all these bodies is the Regional Congress made up of delegates from the Urban Councils and Congresses of the County Districts.
At the apex of the system is the All Russia Congress of Councils which is the supreme authority of the Russian Republic. This is formed of delegates from the Urban Councils and the Congresses of County Councils.
We have, then, six grades of authority in the Russian system. But note how they are elected.
The “labouring masses” vote once—namely, at the local councils, urban and village. This is their one and only vote. All the other grades are elected by the delegates of the Congress immediately below it.
This the Volost Congress is elected by the Village Group Councils; the District Congress by the general Village Councils; the County Congress by the Urban Councils and Volost Congresses; the Regional Congress by the Urban Councils and Congresses of County Districts; and the All Russia Congress by Urban Councils and Congresses of County Councils.
We see, then, that “the supreme authority of the Russian Council Republic” is removed five stages beyond the vote, reach, or control of the workers.
Another interesting point is the ratio between the urban and country representatives. Thus for the All Russia Congress of Councils the Urban Councils send one representative for every 25,000, while the County Council Congresses send one delegate for every 125,000, or to put it another way, the Urban Councils have five times the representation of the County Councils. The same ratio applies to Regional and County Congresses. These figures have a peculiar significance.
The Bolsheviks, naturally, find their chief support in the urban centres. By this basis of representation they are able to ensure the practical certainty of a majority in “the supreme authority of the Russian Republic”. “And that’s how it’s done”, as the stage conjurer says.
This method may be suitable to Russian conditions, but to claim for such a system that it is “a million times more democratic than the most democratic regime in a bourgeois republic” —where the workers have a direct, and overwhelming, vote for the very centre of power—is the wildest nonsense.
But what of the Recall? we may be asked. Let us see what the clause says.
The electors have at any time the right to recall the delegates whom they have sent to the Council and to proceed to new elections.
Two interpretations may be given to this clause. First—if as the words state—the recall is limited to the Councils, all the Congresses are free from this control. Secondly, if the clause is intended to apply to all the grades, then the workers can only use it for Local Councils as they are not voters in any other grade.
Marx, of course, is freely quoted by both writers. On p. 140 Kautsky, while stating that the Bolsheviks are Marxists, asks how they find a Marxist foundation for their proceedings.
They remembered opportunely the expression ethe dictatorship of the proletariat’, which Marx used in a letter written in 1875.”
Kautsky states that this is the only place in the whole of Marx’s writings where this phrase occurs, though Engels used it in his preface to the 3rd edition of Marx’s Civil War in France.
Lenin’s reply to this is to call the passage a “celebrated” one, and to call Kautsky several names. He then makes the following statement:
Kautsky cannot but know that both Marx and Engels, both in their letters and public writings, spoke repeatedly about the dictatorship of the proletariat, both before and after the Commune” (p. 12. Italics in original).
Here was a grand opportunity for Lenin to get in a powerful blow by giving some of these “letters and public writings”, but, to the chagrin, no doubt, of his followers, he does not give a single case outside those mentioned above. There are endeavours to twist some of Marx’s statements on the Commune of Paris (1871) into a support of this claim, but they are all dismals failures. Only in the Communist Manifesto is found a phrase—“the proletariat organised as a ruling class” —that bears any resemblance.
But a more important point remains. Every student of Marx knows how he laid bare the laws of social evolution and claimed that, in broad outline, all nations must follow these laws in their development.
Kautsky uses this fact with great effect, and it forms the strongest argument in the whole of his pamphlet. On page 98 he gives the well-known phrase from the preface to the 1st Volume of Capital.
One nation can and should learn from others. And even when a society has got upon the right track for the discovery of the natural laws of its movement—it can neither clear by bold leaps, nor remove by legal enactments the obstacles offered by the successive phases of its normal development. But it can shorten and lessen the birth pangs.
How does Lenin deal with this famous phrase of Marx’s? By entirely ignoring it. There is not a single reference to it in the whole of his reply. More than this, the quotation given above from page 140 of Kautsky’s pamphlet is printed by Lenin on page 11-12 of his reply. Immediately preceding the sentence quoted Kautsky says:
The Bolshevists are Marxists, and have inspired the proletarian sections coming under their influence with great enthusiasm for Marxism. Their dictatorship, however, is in contradiction to the Marxist teaching that no people can overcome the obstacles offered by the successive phases of their development by a jump or by legal enactment.
This ignoring of one part of a paragraph while quoting the other part is full proof Lenin deliberately avoided this important question.
Kautsky’s analysis of the conditions prevailing in Russia, with the danger to the Russian Republic from American and even more from German capital, is well done, but is entirely ignored by Lenin.
This controversy, along with the events that have taken place since it occurred, adds considerable evidence to the correctness of the deduction we drew from the situation in 1918.
In the midst of the special conditions and chaos caused by the war, when the old exploiting regime had broken down and the new exploiting class were too weak to take hold of power, a small but resolute minority seized the political machinery and took control of affairs. The mass of the workers in Russia are not Socialists, neither do they understand the principles of Socialism nor desire to see Socialism established.
The new ruling minority promised peace and—to their highest credit—established it. That this peace has been broken and they have been compelled to take up war again is due entirely to the Imperialist aims of the capitalist class of Europe. Despite this great burden and the appalling chaos in which they found Russia, they have, according to the accounts of various witnesses who have visited Russia since the Bolsheviks came to power, done wonders in the way of reconstruction and reorganisation. Their success in these matters has caused large numbers of Russians who are opponents of Socialism to give their support to the Bolsheviks as the only party in the country who can get things done.
But rule by a minority—even a Marxist minority—is not Socialism. Not until the instruments and methods of production have reached the stage of large machinery and mass organisation is it possible for social production to develop. When the workers, organised and trained in this social production, reach an understanding of their slave position, and decide to supplement social production by social ownership, through the seizure of political power, then, and not till then, will Socialism be established.
The Bolsheviks based their hopes on a rising of the proletariat of Western Europe to make their position secure. But the Western proletariat did not rise, nor do they show any signs of doing so up to the present. This failure of their basic hope leaves the Bolsheviks in conditions that make inevitable the entry into, and development of capitalism in, Russia.
The Bolsheviks may try to save as much of their system as possible, but the events will prove the correctness of Marx’s view on the failure of attempts to jump the stages in social evolution. Their failure, however, will not be all disaster.
They will have shown the workers of the world that the capitalist class is a useless and parasitic class in modern society. They will have shown that men holding Socialist views and of the working class could take charge of huge affairs and manage them with great success, in the midst of the wildest chaos, and while hampered by enemies within and without. Already the lesson is beginning to be learnt, and though only affecting a few relatively at present, it is spreading with steady persistence.
When the workers awaken to an understanding of the position in which they exist, and begin to fight the class war consciously in numbers that seriously count, the rule of the Russian Bolsheviks will be a splendid lesson, not on the value of “Soviet” or “Dictatorship”, but on the ability of the working class to manage its own affairs. It will have done its share in “shortening and lessening the birth pangs” of Socialism.