Ernest Mandel

Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Socialist Democracy

(Part 1)

I. What is the dictatorship of the proletariat?

The fundamental difference between reformists and centrists of all varieties on the one hand and revolutionary Marxists, i.e., Bolshevik-Leninists on the other hand, regarding the conquest of state power, the need for a socialist revolution, the nature of the proletarian state, and the meaning of the dictatorship of the proletariat consists of:

  1. The recognition by revolutionary Marxists of the class nature of all states and of the state apparatus as an instrument of maintaining class rule. In that sense, all states are dictatorships. Bourgeois democracy is also the dictatorship of a class.
  2. The illusion propagated by the reformists and many centrists that “democracy” or “democratic state institutions” stand above classes and the class struggle, and the rejection of that illusion by revolutionary Marxists.
  3. The recognition by revolutionary Marxists that the state institutions of even the most democratic bourgeois states serve to uphold the power and the rule of the capitalist class (and, in addition, in the imperialist countries, the exploitation of the people of the semi-colonial countries), and therefore cannot be instruments with which to overthrow that rule and transfer power from the capitalist class to the working class.
  4. The recognition by revolutionary Marxists that the destruction of the bourgeois state apparatus, in the first place destruction of its military/police repressive apparatus, is a necessary prerequisite for the conquest of political power by the working class.
  5. The recognition by revolutionary Marxists of the necessity for the development of the consciousness and mass organisation of the workers in order to carry through the expropriation of the bourgeoisie and consolidate the dictatorship of the proletariat.
  6. The necessary conclusion drawn by revolutionary Marxists as a consequence: that the working class by itself can exercise state power directly only within the framework of state institutions of a type different from those of the bourgeois state, state institutions arising out of sovereign and democratically elected and centralised workers councils (soviets), with the fundamental characteristics outlined by Lenin in State and Revolution – the election of all functionaries, judges, commanders of the workers or workers and peasants militias, and all delegates representing the toilers in state institutions; rotation of elected officials; restriction of their income to that of skilled workers; the right to recall them at all times; simultaneous exercise of legislative and executive power by soviet-type institutions; drastic reduction of the number of permanent functionaries and greater and greater transfer of administrative functions to bodies run by the mass of the concerned toilers themselves. In other words, a soviet type representative democracy, as opposed to the parliamentary type, with increasingly wide-ranging forms of direct democracy.

As Lenin stated, the workers’ state is the first state in human history that upholds the rule of the majority of the population against exploitative and oppressive minorities.

“Instead of the special institutions of a privileged minority (privileged officialdom, the chiefs of the standing army), the majority itself can directly fulfil all these functions, and the more the functions of a state power are performed by the people as a whole, the less need there is for the existence of this power.” (State and Revolution, Collected Works, Vol. 25, pp. 419–420.)

Thus, the dictatorship of the proletariat in the programmatic sense of the word is by no means contradictory with workers democracy:

“By its very essence, the dictatorship of the proletariat can and must be the utmost flowering of proletarian democracy” (L. Trotsky, Oeuvres, Vol. V, pp. 206–7.)

The concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which summarises all these points, is a basic part of the Marxist theory of the state, of the proletarian revolution, and of the process toward building a classless society. The word “dictatorship” has a concrete meaning in that context: it is a mechanism for the disarmament and expropriation of the bourgeois class and the exercise of state power by the working class, a mechanism to prevent any reestablishment of bourgeois state power or of private property in the means of production, and thus any re-introduction of the exploitation of wage-earners by capitalists.

But it in no way means dictatorial rule over the vast majority of people. The founding congress of the Communist International states explicitly that

“... proletarian dictatorship is the forcible oppression of the resistance of the exploiters, i.e., an insignificant minority of the population, the landowners and capitalists. It follows that proletarian dictatorship must inevitably entail not only a change in democratic forms and institutions, generally speaking, but precisely such a change as provides an unparalleled extension of the enjoyment of democracy by those oppressed by capitalism – the toiling classes ... all this implies and presents to the toiling classes, i.e., the vast majority of the population, greater practical opportunities for enjoying democratic rights and liberties than ever existed before, even approximately, in the best and the most democratic bourgeois republics.” (Theses and Report on Bourgeois Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 28, pp. 464–5.)

Such a state is only a state, in the traditional sense of the word, during the period when it is necessary to “violently repress the resistance of the class that has lost political power.” That is the period in which Marxist tradition has called the state dictatorship of the proletariat.

“From its inception, the regime of the dictatorship of the proletariat ceases therefore to be that of a state in the old meaning of the word that is a machine made to keep the majority of the people subservient. Along with weapons, material force passes directly, immediately, into the hands of workers organisations such as the soviets.”

And this state, “a bureaucratic apparatus, begins to wither away from the first day of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Thus speaks the programme, unchanged to this day” Trotsky wrote in Revolution Betrayed.

It is clear that if this sort of evolution towards the withering away of the state does not take place, when the resistance of the bourgeois class has been broken within the new workers’ state, and if, instead, a process of bureaucratisation develops, then we are not dealing with a “strengthening of the dictatorship of the proletariat” but with its degeneration towards bureaucratic state forms.

It follows that we reject the allegation by the reformists and many centrists – influenced on this point by bourgeois ideology, or apologists of the Stalinist dictatorship – that the basic difference between proponents and adversaries of the dictatorship of the proletariat lies either in the defence of a one-party system by the former and its rejection by the latter, or in defending the need to severely restrict or even suppress democratic freedoms on the part of the former and the staunch defence of those freedoms by the latter. The argument is all the more hypocritical in the light of historical evidence which shows the willingness of reformists to severely restrict the democratic freedom of the masses when they threaten to overthrow the bourgeois order, even using police and military repression to that end (Noske!), and their inability and unwillingness to effectively defend democratic freedom even within bourgeois society against ultra-right threats, inasmuch as such a defence involves mass mobilisation on the broadest scale, including arming of the masses.

Against the open programmatic revisionism of many communist parties and centrist formations, the Fourth International defends these classical concepts of Marx and Lenin. A socialist society is not possible without the collective ownership of the means of production and the social surplus product, economic planning and administration by the working class as a whole through democratically centralised workers councils, i.e., planned management by the toilers. No such socialisation is possible unless the capitalists are economically and politically expropriated and state power is wielded by the working class. No fully developed socialist society can emerge within the narrow boundaries of the nation state.

Especially after the tragic Chilean experience, which confirmed so many previous lessons of history, the reformist concept now shared by the communist parties of capitalist Europe, the Japanese CP, and several other CPs as well as centrist formations and the social democrats, according to which the labour movement can fully attain its goals within the framework of bourgeois parliamentary institutions, through reliance on parliamentary elections and gradual conquest of “positions of state power” within these institutions, must be energetically opposed and denounced for what it is: it is a cover-up for abandonment of the struggle for the conquest of state power by the proletariat; a cover-up for abandonment of the struggle for the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, for abandonment of a policy of consistent defence of the class interests of working class; a substitution of ever-more systematic class collaboration with the bourgeoisie for the policy of consistent class struggle; a disarming of the proletariat in the face of violence unleashed by the capitalist class; and, consequently, a growing tendency to capitulate to the class interests of the bourgeoisie at moments of decisive economic, political and social crisis. Far from reducing the “costs of social transformation” or from ensuring a peaceful, albeit slower, transition to socialism, this policy, if it should decisively determine the political attitude of the toilers in a period of unavoidable overall class confrontation, can only lead to bloody defeats and mass slaughters of the German, Spanish, Indonesian, and Chilean type (in the German case, additionally caused by the criminal ultra-left “social-fascism” theory and practice of the Comintern).


II. Workers-council power and the extension of
democratic rights for the toiling masses

The dictatorship of the proletariat in its complete form, workers’ democracy, means the exercise of state-power by democratically elected soviets, workers’ councils. Marx’s and Lenin’s whole critique of the limitations of bourgeois democracy is based on the fact that private property and capitalist exploitation (i.e., social and economic inequality), coupled with the specific class structure of bourgeois society (atomisation and alienation of the working class, legislation defending private property, function of the repressive apparatus, etc.) result in the violent restriction of the practical application of democratic rights and the practical enjoyment of democratic freedoms by the big majority of the toiling masses, even in the most democratic bourgeois regimes.

The logical conclusion flowing from this critique is that workers’ democracy must be superior to bourgeois democracy not only in the economic and social sphere – such as the right to work, a secure existence, free education, leisure time, etc. – but also because it increases the democratic rights enjoyed by the workers and all layers of toilers in the political and social sphere. To grant a single party or so-called “mass organisations” or “professional associations” (like writers’ associations) controlled by that single party, a monopoly of access to the printing presses, radio, television, and other mass media, to assembly halls, etc., would, in fact, restrict and not extend the democratic rights of the proletariat compared to those enjoyed under contemporary bourgeois democracy. The right of toilers, including those with dissenting views, to have access to the material means of exercising democratic freedoms (freedom of the press, of assembly, of demonstration, the right to strike, etc.) is essential, as is the independence of the trade unions from the state and from control by the ruling party or parties.

Therefore, an extension of democratic rights for the toilers beyond those already enjoyed under conditions of advanced bourgeois democracy is incompatible with the restriction of the right to form political groupings, tendencies, or parties on programmatic or ideological grounds.

Moreover, self-activity and self administration by the toiling masses under the dictatorship of the proletariat will take on many new facets and extend the concepts of “political activity”, “political parties”, “political programmes”, and “democratic rights” far beyond anything characteristic of political life under bourgeois democracy. This applies not only to the combined flowering of more advanced forms of council democracy (congress of councils, with growing manifestations of direct democracy, with political instruments like referendums on specific questions being used to enable the mass of the toilers to decide directly on a whole number of key questions of policy. It applies also and especially to the very content of “politics”.

Under capitalism and even beyond it, under pre-capitalist forms of commodity production, it is the law of value, i.e., objective economic laws operating independently of the will of men and women, which basically regulates economic life. The socialist revolution implies the possibility of a giant leap forward towards a conscious regulation of humanity’s economic and social destiny instead of a blind anarchic one. While this process can only come to full and harmonious completion in a worldwide socialist society, it starts with conscious planning of the socialised economy during the transition period between capitalism and socialism, in the epoch of the dictatorship of the proletariat. While the influence of the law of value cannot be completely eliminated during that period, its domination must be overcome or the economy cannot be planned.

But planning means allocation of economic resources according to socially established priorities instead of according to blind market forces and the rule of profit. Who will establish these priorities, which involve the well-being of tens and hundreds of millions of human beings and whose implications, consequences, and results in turn influence the behaviour of the mass of the producers and the toilers?

Basically, there are only two mechanisms which can be substituted for the rule of the law of value: either bureaucratic choices imposed upon the mass of the producers/consumers from the top (whatever their origin and character may be, from benign technocratic paternalism to extreme arbitrary despotism of Stalin’s type), or choices made by the mass of the producers themselves, through the mechanism of democratically centralised workers’ power, i.e., through the mechanism of socialist.

Basically, there are only two mechanisms which can be substituted for the rule of the law of value: either bureaucratic choices imposed upon the mass of the producers/consumers from the top (whatever their origin and character may be, from benign technocratic paternalism to extreme arbitrary despotism of Stalin’s type), or choices made by the mass of the producers themselves, through the mechanism of democratically centralised workers’ power, i.e., through the mechanism of socialist democracy. This will be the main content of political debate and struggle, of socialist democracy under the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Experience has shown that the first mechanism is extremely wasteful and inefficient. This is true not only because of direct waste of material resources and productive capacities and great dislocations in the plan, but also and especially because of the systematic stifling of the creative and productive potential of the working class. Theoretical and empirical analysis concurs in the conclusion that the second mechanism can and will greatly reduce these shortcomings. In any case, it is the only one permitting a gradual transition to that which is the goal of the dictatorship of the proletariat: a classless socialist community of self-administering producers and consumers.

Experience has, however, also shown that this mechanism of democratically centralised workers’ power through a system of workers’ councils cannot master all the social and economic contradictions of the building of socialism without the existence of instruments independent of the soviet state apparatus which act as a counterweight. Independent trade unions and a labour law guaranteeing the right to strike are essential in this sense to guarantee a defence of the needs of the workers and their standard of living against any decision taken by workers’ councils, particularly against any arbitrary and bureaucratic move of the management bodies. The Hungarian experience of 1956, the Czechoslovak experience of 1968 and the Polish experience since 1980 also confirm that this is a fundamental concern of the proletariat that has gone through the experience of bureaucratic dictatorship. Although in principle revolutionary Marxists recommend the organisation of the working class in a single democratic trade union, the right to trade union pluralism must not be challenged. Not simultaneously holding central leadership responsibilities in a trade union and a party is an element of trade union independence.

Building a classless socialist society also involves a gigantic process of remoulding all aspects of social life. It involves constant change in the relations of production, in the mode of distribution, in the labour process, in the forms of administration of the economy and society, and in the customs, habits, and ways of thinking of the great majority of people. It involves the fundamental reconstruction of all living conditions: reconstruction of cities, complete revolution in the education system, restoration and protection of the ecological equilibrium, technological innovations to conserve scarce natural resources, etc.

Previously the highest acquisitions of culture have been the property of the ruling class, with special prerogatives and privileges accruing to the intelligentsia. Members of this special grouping function as transmitters and developers of science, art, and the professions for the ruling class.

That intelligentsia will gradually disappear as the masses progressively appropriate for themselves the full cultural heritage of the past and begin to create the culture of the classless society. In this way the distinction between “manual” and “intellectual” labour will disappear, each individual being able to develop their own capacities and talents.

All these endeavours, for which humanity possesses no blueprints, will give rise to momentous ideological and political debates and struggles. Different platforms on these issues will play a very important role. Any restriction of these debates and movements, under the pretext that this or that platform “objectively” reflects bourgeois or petty-bourgeois pressure and interests and “if logically carried out to the end”, could “lead to the restoration of capitalism”, can only hinder the emergence of a consensus around the most effective solutions from the point of view of building socialism, i.e. from the point of view of the overall class interests of the proletariat, as opposed to sectoral interest.

It should be pointed out that important struggles will continue throughout the process of building a classless society, struggles that concern social evils that are rooted in class society but will not disappear immediately with the elimination of capitalist exploitation or wage labour. The oppression of women, the oppression of national and racial minorities, the oppression and alienation of youth, and discrimination against homosexuals are archetypes of such problems that are not reducible to “the class struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie” unless one challenges their Marxist and materialist definition, as various Maoist and ultra-left currents do.

Political freedom under socialist democracy therefore also implies freedom of organisation and action for independent women’s liberation, national liberation, and youth movements, i.e. movements broader than the working class in the scientific sense of the word.

The revolutionary party will be able to win political leadership in these movements and to ideologically defeat various reactionary ideological currents not through administrative or repressive measures but, on the contrary, only by promoting the broadest possible mass democracy and by uncompromisingly upholding the right of all tendencies to defend their opinions and platforms before society as a whole.

Furthermore it should be recognised that the specific form of the workers’ state implies a unique dialectical combination of centralisation and decentralisation. The withering away of the state, to be initiated from the inception of the dictatorship of the proletariat, expresses itself through a process of gradual devolution of the right of administration in broad sectors of social activity (health system, educational system, postal-railway-telecommunications systems, etc.) internationally, nationally, regionally, and locally (communes) to organs of self-management. The central congress of workers’ councils, i.e. the proletariat as a class, will only decide, by majority vote, what share of society’s overall material and human resources should be allocated to each of these sectors. This implies forms of debate and political struggle that cannot be reduced to simplistic and mechanical “class struggle criteria”.

Finally, in the building of a classless society, the participation of millions of people not only in a more or less passive way through their votes, but also in the actual administration of various levels, cannot be reduced to a workerist concept of considering only workers “at the point of production” or in the factories as such. Lenin said that in a workers’ state, the vast majority of the population would participate directly in the exercise of “state functions.” This means that the soviets on which the dictatorship of the proletariat will be based are not only factory councils, but bodies of self-organisation of the masses in many spheres of social life, including factories, commercial units, hospitals, schools, transport and telecommunication centres, and neighbourhoods (territorial units). This is indispensable in order to integrate into the conscious and active proletariat it’s most dispersed and often poorest and most oppressed layers, such as women, oppressed nationalities, youth, workers in small shops, old-age pensioners, etc. It is also indispensable to cementing the alliance between the working-class and the toiling petty bourgeoisie. This alliance is decisive in winning and holding state power and in reducing the social costs both of a victorious revolution and of the building of socialism.

One of the institutional guarantees of the development of socialist democracy is the establishment of correct relations between the organs of this democracy and the apparatuses of the state administration, at all levels and in all fields: political, cultural, educational, military, etc. Socialist democracy is impossible if the purview of these apparatuses is not strictly delineated, if their powers are not reduced to a strict and indispensable minimum and if they are not thoroughly subordinated to the organs of socialist democracy (the councils). The councils should have full sovereignty over the strategic and tactical decisions in their purview. The administrative apparatuses should be responsible for the implementation of these decisions and nothing more.

Administrative officers should be selected on the basis of technical competence and professional experience criteria. They should not be appointed by the higher echelons of the administration, but by the corresponding councils, and should remain subject to recall by these councils.


III. Class struggle under capitalism, the struggle
for democratic rights, and the emergence
of the dictatorship of the proletariat

The ruling class utilises all the ideological means at its disposal to identify bourgeois parliamentary institutions with the consolidation of democratic rights of the toilers. In Western Europe, North America, Japan, and Australia, for instance, the capitalist rulers seek to appear as champions of “democracy” in the eyes of the workers and plebeian masses, an outlook which has been strengthened by the negative experiences of fascism and Stalinism.

One of the key components of the struggle for winning the masses to socialist revolution, to the dictatorship of the proletariat, consists of responding to their democratic aspirations, of expressing them adequately, and thus counteracting the strenuous efforts of, the reformists to co-opt the struggle for democratic demands and divert it into the blind alley of bourgeois parliamentary institutions.

Whatever democratic rights the masses enjoy under capitalism – from the right to free speech, to the right to organise labour unions and workers’ parties, to the right to universal franchise and free abortion – have been won by them through struggle. Revolutionary Marxists fight for the broadest possible democratic rights under capitalism. The greater the degree of democratic rights, the greater the possibilities for the workers and their allies to struggle for their interests and to improve the relationship of class forces for the proletariat, in preparation for the showdown struggles with the capitalists for power.

It is in the class interests of the workers to fight to defend every conquest of the masses, including democratic rights, against capitalist reaction. History has shown that the working class is the only class that can consistently do so, and that the workers united front is the best instrument for successfully organising such a fight against the threat of fascist or military dictatorships. Likewise, in the fight against capitalist reaction, we place no confidence in the capitalist state or any of its institutions. Every restriction by the capitalist state on democratic rights will inevitably be used tenfold against the working class and especially its revolutionary wing. Fascism, like any other attempt to impose an authoritarian regime, can only be stopped by independent mass mobilisations by a united working class and its allies, in consciously-led united front mass struggles.

Capitalism in its decay breeds reaction. The extent of democratic rights and freedoms enjoyed by the masses at any particular time in a given country are determined by the relationship of class forces.

In the imperialist epoch, given the increased polarisation between the classes, the long-term tendency for capitalism in the imperialist epoch is to restrict democratic rights.

This is especially true the more a given capitalist class finds itself in economic and social crisis, and the smaller are its material bases and reserves. Today this can be seen most clearly in the many brutal dictatorships in semi-colonial countries.

The task of wresting leadership from the reformists as “representatives” of the democratic aspirations of the masses is thus crucial for revolutionary Marxists. Obviously, programmatic clarification and propaganda, especially the struggle against reformist and parliamentary illusions, important as they are, are insufficient to achieve this objective. The masses learn through their practical daily experience; hence the importance of going through this daily experience with them and drawing the correct lessons from it.

As the class struggle sharpens, the workers will increasingly challenge the authority and prerogatives of the ruling class on all levels. The workers themselves, through their own organisations – from union and factory committees and organs for workers’ control, to workers’ councils (soviets) – will begin to assert more and more economic and political decision-making authority, and thereby they will gain confidence in their power to overthrow the bourgeois state. In this same process, in order to carry out their struggles more effectively, with the broadest mass involvement, the workers will see the need for the most democratic forms of organisation.

Through this experience of struggle and participation in their own democratically run organisations, the masses will experience more freedom of action and more liberty in the broadest sense of the word than they ever exercised in the institutional framework of bourgeois parliamentary democracy. This is an indispensable link in the chain of events leading from capitalist rule to the conquest of power by the proletariat. It will also be a vital experience to draw upon in establishing the democratic norms of the workers’ state. Self-organisation of the proletariat in the course of the class struggle – from democratic strikers’ assemblies and democratically elected strike committees to a generalised system of dual power – therefore is the best school of proletarian democracy under the dictatorship of the proletariat.


IV. One-party and multi-party systems

Without full freedom to organise political groups, tendencies, and parties, no full flowering of democratic rights and freedoms for the toiling masses is possible under the dictatorship of the proletariat. By their free vote, the workers and poor peasants indicate themselves what parties they want to be part of the soviet system. In that sense, the freedom of organisation of different groups, tendencies, and parties is a precondition for the exercise of political power by the working class. “The democratisation of the soviets is impossible without legalisation of soviet parties.” (Transitional Programme of the Fourth International) Without such freedom, unrestrained by ideological restrictions, there can be no genuine, democratically elected workers’ councils, nor the exercise of real power by such workers’ councils.

Restrictions of that freedom would not be restrictions of the political rights of the class enemy but restrictions of the political rights of the proletariat. That freedom is likewise a precondition for the working class collectively as a class arriving at a common or at least a majority viewpoint on the innumerable problems of tactics, strategy, and even theory (programme) that are involved in the titanic task of building a classless society under the leadership of the traditionally oppressed, exploited, and downtrodden masses. Unless there is freedom to organise political groups, tendencies, and parties, there can be no real socialist democracy.

Revolutionary Marxists reject the substitutionist, paternalistic, elitist, and bureaucratic deviation from Marxism that sees the socialist revolution, the conquest of state power, and the wielding of state power under the dictatorship of the proletariat, as a task of the revolutionary party acting “in the name” of the class or, in the best of cases, “with the support of” the class.

If the dictatorship of the proletariat is to mean what the very words say, and what the theoretical tradition of both Marx and Lenin explicitly contain, i.e., the rule of the working class as a class (of the “associated producers”); if the emancipation of the proletariat can be achieved only through the activity of the proletariat itself and not through a passive proletariat being “educated” for emancipation by benevolent and enlightened revolutionary administrators, then it is obvious that the leading role of the revolutionary party both in the conquest of power and in the building of a classless society can only consist of leading the mass activity of the class politically, of winning political hegemony in a class that is increasingly engaged in independent activity, of struggling within the class for majority support for its proposals, through political and not administrative or repressive means.

Under the dictatorship of the proletariat in its complete form, state power is exercised by democratically elected workers’ councils. The revolutionary party fights for a correct political line and or political leadership within these workers’ councils, not to substitute itself to them. Party and state remain entirely separate and distinct entities. But genuinely representative, democratically elected workers’ councils can exist only if the masses have the right to elect whomever they want without distinction, and without restrictive preconditions as to the ideological or political convictions of the elected delegates. (This does not apply, of course, to parties engaged in armed struggle against the workers’ state, i.e., to conditions of civil war, or to conditions of the revolutionary crisis and armed insurrection itself, to which this resolution refers in a later point). Likewise, workers’ councils can function democratically only if all the elected delegates enjoy the right to form groups, tendencies, and parties, to have access to the mass media, to present their different platforms before the masses, and to have them debated and tested by experience. Any restriction of party affiliation restricts the freedom of the proletariat to exercise political power, i.e., restricts workers’ democracy, which would be contrary to the historical interests of the working class, to the need to consolidate workers’ power, to the interests of world revolution and of building socialism.

Obviously such rights will not be recognised for parties, groups or individuals involved in a civil war or armed actions against the workers’ state. Neither do such freedoms include the right to organise actions or demonstrations of a racist character or in favour of national or ethnic oppression.

In no way does the Marxist theory of the state entail the concept that a one-party system is a necessary precondition or feature of workers’ power, a workers’ state, or the dictatorship of the proletariat. In no theoretical document of Marx, Engels, Lenin, or Trotsky, and in no programmatic document of the Third International under Lenin, did such a proposal of a one party system ever appear. The theories developed later on, such as the crude Stalinist theory that throughout history social classes have always been represented by a single party, are historically wrong and serve only as apologies for the monopoly of political power usurped by the Soviet bureaucracy and its ideological heirs in other bureaucratised workers’ states, a monopoly based upon the political expropriation of the working class.

History – including the convulsions in the People’s Republic of China, in Poland, Yugoslavia, Grenada and Nicaragua – has on the contrary confirmed the correctness of Trotsky’s position that

“... classes are heterogeneous; they are torn by inner antagonisms, and arrive at the solution of common problems no otherwise than through an inner struggle of tendencies, groups and parties ... An example of only one party corresponding to one class is not to be found in the whole course of political history – provided, of course, you do not take the police appearance for the reality.” (The Revolution Betrayed, p. 267.)

This was true for the bourgeoisie under feudalism. It is true for the working class under capitalism. It will remain true for the working class under the dictatorship of the proletariat and in the process of building socialism.

If one says that only parties and organisations that have no bourgeois (or petty-bourgeois?) programme or ideology, or are not “engaged in anti-socialist or anti-soviet propaganda and/or agitation” are to be legalised, how is one to determine the dividing line? Will parties with a majority of working-class members but with a bourgeois ideology be forbidden? How can such a position be reconciled with free elections for workers’ councils? What is the dividing line between “bourgeois programme” and “reformist ideology”? Must reformist parties then be forbidden as well? Will social democracy be suppressed?

It is unavoidable that on the basis of historical traditions, reformist influence will continue to survive in the working class of many countries for a long period. That survival will not be shortened by administrative repression; on the contrary, such repression will tend to strengthen it. The best way to fight against reformist illusions and ideas is through the combination of ideological struggle and the creation of the material conditions for the disappearance of these illusions. Such a struggle would lose much of its efficacy under conditions of administrative repression and lack of free debate and exchange of ideas.

If the revolutionary party agitates for the suppression of social democratic or other reformist formations, it will be a thousand times more difficult to maintain freedom of tendencies and toleration of factions within its own ranks. The political heterogeneity of the working class would then inevitably tend to reflect itself within the single party.

Thus, the real alternative is not either freedom for those with a genuine socialist programme (who ideologically and programmatically support the soviet system) or freedom for all political parties. The real choice is: either genuine workers’ democracy with the right of the toiling masses to elect whomever they want to the soviets and freedom of political organisation of all those who abide by the soviet constitution in practice (including those who do not ideologically support the soviet system), or a decisive restriction of these political rights of the working class itself, with all the consequences flowing there from. Systematic restriction of political parties leads to systematic restriction of freedom within the revolutionary vanguard party itself.

When we say that we are in favour of a legalisation of all soviet parties, i.e. of those that abide by the soviet constitution in practice, this does not imply that we in any case underestimate the political confusion, errors, and even partial defeats which the propagation of wrong programmes and alien class influences upon the toiling masses by such parties could and will provoke under conditions of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Even more obviously do we not call upon the workers to build parties upon the basis of what we consider wrong programmes, platforms, or policies, nor do we advocate the creation of such parties. We only state that the artificial administrative suppression of such parties – artificial inasmuch as they continue to reflect currents among the masses even if they are legally suppressed – far from reducing these dangers, increases them. The political, ideological, and cultural homogenisation of the working class, bringing the great majority of its members up to the point where they are capable of substituting a free community of self-administered citizens to the survival of a state machine (i.e., able to achieve the building of socialism and the withering away of the state) is a gigantic historical task. It is not only linked to obvious material preconditions. It involves also a specific political training:

“The existence of critically-minded people, opponents, dissidents, discontented and reactionary elements, gives the revolution life and strength. The confrontation of differences and polemics develop ‘the ideological and political muscles’ of the people. It is a permanent form of exercising, an antidote to paralysis and to passivity.” (Tomas Borge Speaks, Granma, weekly French edition, October 7, 1984)

Likewise, Fidel Castro had polemicised against Escalante, saying: the revolution must be a school of unfettered thought. Even if practice continuity of Marxism on the subject and must be defended tooth and nail against all who would deny them.

Historical experience confirms that outside of conditions of genuine workers’ democracy, this process of training the masses for self-administration can only be retarded or even reversed, as it obviously has been in the USSR. Historical experience has also confirmed that no genuine workers’ democracy is possible without political pluralism.


V. What do political parties represent?

Revolutionary Marxists reject all spontaneist illusions according to which the proletariat is capable of solving the tactical and strategic problems posed by the need to overthrow capitalism and the bourgeois state and to conquer state power and build socialism by spontaneous mass actions without a conscious vanguard and an organised revolutionary vanguard workers’ party, based upon a revolutionary programme confirmed by history, with cadres educated on the basis of that programme and tested through long experience in the living class struggle.

The argument of anarchist origin, also taken up by ultra-left “councilist” currents, according to which political parties by their very nature are “liberal-bourgeois” formations alien to the proletariat and have no place in workers’ councils because they tend to usurp political power from the working class, is theoretically incorrect and politically harmful and dangerous. It is not true that political groupings, tendencies, and parties come into existence only with the rise of the modern bourgeoisie. In the fundamental (not the formal) sense of the word, they are much older. They came into being with the emergence of forms of government in which relatively large numbers of people (as opposed to small village community or tribal assemblies) participated in the exercise of political power to some extent, while social and especially (but not only) class antagonisms had already arisen (e.g., under the urban democracies of antiquity and of the Middle Ages), i.e., they coincide with the existence of social conflicts based upon conflicting material interests. These are not necessarily limited to conflicting interests between antagonistic social classes. They can also express conflicting material interests within a given social class.

Political parties in that real (and not formal) sense of the word are a historical phenomenon the contents of which have obviously changed in different epochs, as occurred in the great bourgeois-democratic revolutions of the past (especially, but not only, in the great French revolution). The proletarian revolution will have a similar effect. They will survive as long as conflicts based on material interests or social orientation survive, i.e. until the final building of a fully developed classless socialist society. It can be predicted confidently that under genuine workers’ democracy parties will receive a much richer and much broader content and will conduct mass political struggles of a much broader scope and with much greater mass participation than anything that has occurred up to now under the most advanced forms of bourgeois democracy. Many of these parties will be new, i.e., not simple continuations or remnants of parties existing under bourgeois democracy.

In fact, as soon as political decisions go beyond a small number of routine questions that can be taken up and solved by a restricted number of people, any form of democracy implies the need for structured and coherent options of a great number of related questions, in other words a choice between alternative political lines, platforms, and programmes expressing in the last analysis conflicting interests of different social classes and layers. That is what parties represent.

The absence of such overall orientations, far from giving large numbers of people greater freedom of expression and choice, makes government by assemblies and workers’ councils practically impossible. Ten thousand people cannot vote on 500 alternatives. If power is not to be transferred to demagogues or secret pressure groups and cliques, there is need for free confrontation among a limited number of structured and coherent options, i.e., political programmes and parties, without monopolies or prohibitions. This is what will make workers’ democracy meaningful and operative.

Furthermore, the anarchist and “councilist” opposition to the formation of political parties under the dictatorship of the proletariat in the process of building socialism either:

  1. represents wishful thinking (i.e., the hope that the mass of the toilers will abstain from the formation or support of groups, tendencies, and parties with different political lines and programmes), in which case it is simply utopian, for that will not happen; or
  2. it represents an attempt to prevent and suppress the attempts by all those toilers who wish to engage in political action on a pluralistic basis to do so. In that case it can objectively favour only a process of bureaucratic monopolisation of power, i.e., the very opposite of what the libertarians want.

In many centrist and ultra-left groupings a similar argument is advanced, according to which the dispossession of the Soviet proletariat from the direct exercise of political power was rooted in the Leninist conception of a democratic centralist organisation itself. They hold that the Bolsheviks’ efforts to build a workers’ party to lead the working class in a revolution inevitably led to a paternalistic, manipulative, bureaucratic relationship between the party and the toiling masses, which in turn led to a one-party monopoly of the exercise of power after the victorious socialist revolution.

This argument is unhistoric and based on an idealist concept of history. It is also factually wrong. From a Marxist, i.e., historical-materialist point of view, the basic causes of the political expropriation of the Soviet proletariat were material and socio-economic, not ideological or programmatic. The general poverty and backwardness of Russia and the relative numerical and cultural weakness of the proletariat made the long-term exercise of power by the proletariat impossible if the Russian revolution remained isolated. That was the consensus not only among the Bolsheviks in 1917–18 but among all tendencies claiming to be Marxist. The catastrophic decline of the productive forces in Russia as a result of the civil war, foreign imperialist military intervention, sabotage by the general pro-bourgeois technicians, etc., led to conditions of extreme scarcity that fostered a growth of special privileges. The same factors led to a qualitative weakening of the already small proletariat. In addition, large portions of the political vanguard of the class, those best qualified to fight the capitalist class and the bureaucracy, died in the civil war or left the factories to be incorporated massively into the Red Army and the state apparatus.

After the beginning of the New Economic Policy an economic upturn began, but massive unemployment and continuous disappointment caused by the retreats and defeats of the world revolution nurtured political passivity and a general decline of mass political activity of the toilers, extending to the soviets. The working class was thus unable to stem the growth of a materially privileged layer, which, in order to maintain its rule, increasingly restricted democratic rights and destroyed the soviets and the Bolshevik Party itself (while using its name for its own purposes). These are the main causes of the usurpation by a bureaucracy of the exercise of direct power and of the gradual merger of the state apparatus, and the apparatus of economic managers into a privileged bureaucratic caste.

Lenin, Trotsky, other Bolsheviks, and later the Left Opposition, far from favouring it, tried to fight the rise of the bureaucracy. The weakening of the proletarian vanguard and not the “Leninist theory of the party” made that fight unsuccessful. One can argue that some measures taken by the Bolsheviks before Lenin’s death – like the temporary banning of factions at the Tenth Party Congress – might have contributed to that weakening.

“Banning opposition parties leads to banning factions; banning factions leads to a ban on thinking otherwise than the infallible leader. The police-like monolithism of the party was followed by bureaucratic impunity which in turn because the source of all kinds of demoralisation and corruption.” (Trotsky, Revolution Betrayed)

But we are dealing here with secondary causes.

The causes of the bureaucratisation process were objective, material, economic and social. They must be sought in the infrastructure of Soviet society at the time, not in its political superstructure and certainly not in a particular concept of the party. Far from being a product of Bolshevism, the Stalinist bureaucracy had to physically destroy the Bolshevik Party in order to establish its totalitarian rule. The Bolshevik Party was an instrument of the working class and an enemy of the bureaucracy. The political strangling of the party preceded the total expropriation of the working class.

On the other hand, historical experience has confirmed that where a leading or even highly influential revolutionary party is absent, workers’ councils last shorter and not longer than they did in Russia: Germany in 1918-19 and Spain in 1936-37 are the most conspicuous examples not to mention Hungary in 1956 or Chile in 1973.


VI. The need for a revolutionary vanguard party

The lack of homogeneity of the working class, the unevenness of consciousness of its different layers, the discontinuous character of political and social activity of many of its components, make the separate organisation of the most conscious and permanently active elements of the working class in a revolutionary vanguard party indispensable. This applies to the needs of the class struggle under capitalism as well as after the seizure of power by the working class. The irreplaceable role of such a revolutionary vanguard party increases in those conditions.

A strengthened mass Leninist party must lead the workers in running a state and building a new society, until capitalism has been uprooted on a world scale and a classless society has been fully achieved. The problems of options between various rhythms of economic growth, various allocations of scarce economic resources, various priorities to more rapid or slower increases of different forms of individual and social consumption; the problems of rhythms of reduction of social inequality; the problems of reduction of defence of the workers’ state against bourgeois powers; of building a mass revolutionary international to extend the socialist world revolution; the problems of combating prejudices, reactionary ideas and inequalities between sexes, age groups, nationalities, and races, etc., inherited from the past – all these problems essential to the transition period between capitalism and socialism cannot be solved spontaneously. They require the intervention of a party armed with the revolutionary Marxist programme.

The role of the revolutionary vanguard party during the dictatorship of the proletariat will be essential, moreover, in the struggle against the rise of material privileges and of bureaucratic layers inside the dictatorship of the proletariat. To implement a radical and revolutionary programme of socialist workers’ democracy such as the present one – a revolutionary vanguard party of the working class is especially indispensable. It must exercise its authority by free vote and political confidence gained among the masses and not by administrative means.

The dialectical combination of the free and democratic self organisation of the toiling masses and of the political and programmatic clarification and leadership by a revolutionary vanguard party creates more favourable conditions for the conquest and the continuous exercise of power by the working class itself.

In order to prevent any abuse of power by a vanguard party leading the working class under the dictatorship of the proletariat, the following principles are adhered to by the Fourth International:

  1. Fullest internal democracy of the party itself, with full rights for organising tendencies and a refusal to ban factions and possibilities of public debates between them before party congresses.
  2. Broadest possible links and interpenetration between the party and the working class itself. A revolutionary workers’ vanguard party can only efficiently lead the working class under the dictatorship of the proletariat if it simultaneously enjoys the political confidence of the majority of the workers and organises in its ranks the great majority of the vanguard workers.
  3. Strict suppression of any material privileges for party cadres or leaders. No party leader, full-timer or member elected in any leading position of the workers’ state, its economy or its other social institutions, should receive a higher wage than the average wage of a skilled worker.
  4. No political or ideological monopoly of the vanguard party in or control over political or cultural activities. Adherence to the multi-party principle.
  5. Strict separation of the party apparatus from the state apparatus.
  6. Real integration of the party in a revolutionary international and acceptance of international comradely criticism by revolutionary organisations of other countries. No control of the international by any party or parties in power in given workers’ state(s).


VII. A clear stand on socialist democracy
is necessary to win the proletariat
for the socialist revolution

The defence of a clear and unequivocal programme of workers’ democracy is today an indispensable part of the struggle against the reformist leaderships that seek to inculcate bourgeois democratic myths and illusions in the working class in the imperialist countries. It is likewise indispensable in the struggle against pro-capitalist illusions and anti-soviet prejudices among various layers of rebels and oppositionists in the bureaucratised workers’ states in the unfolding process of the struggle for political revolution in these countries.

The disastrous historical experiences of both fascism and other types of reactionary bourgeois dictatorships in the capitalist countries on the one hand, and the experience of the bureaucratic regimes in the USSR, China, Eastern Europe or elsewhere on the other, have aroused in the proletariat of both the capitalist countries and the bureaucratised workers’ states a deep distrust of any form of one-party system and of any restricting of democratic rights after the overthrow of capitalism.

If the revolutionary Marxists leave the slightest impression that under the dictatorship of the proletariat the political freedoms of the workers will be narrower than under bourgeois democracy – including the freedom to criticise the government, to have opposition parties and an opposition press – then the struggle to overcome the propagators of parliamentary illusions will be incommensurably more difficult, if not condemned to defeat. Any hesitation or equivocation in this field by the revolutionary vanguard will only help the reformist lackeys of the liberal bourgeoisie to divide the proletariat and divert an important sector of the class into the defence of bourgeois parliamentary state institutions, under the guise of assuring democratic rights,

It has been argued that all the above arguments apply only to those countries in which the wage-earning class already represents a clear majority of the active population. It is true that where a big majority of independent petty producers exists, the social relationship of forces creates objective obstacles on the road of a full flowering of socialist democracy and has objectively contributed to the phenomenon of bureaucratisation of the workers’ states. But it is necessary first to underline the exceptional character of these experiences, which will not be repeated even in most semi-colonial countries.

It is necessary, secondly, to stress that these extreme forms of bureaucratisation of workers’ states, even in backward countries, were not simply results of unfavourable objective circumstances, but also products of specific ideological and political deformations of the CPs which had led the process of building these states.

Inasmuch as a growing number of semi-colonial countries are at present undergoing processes of partial industrialisation, their proletariat today is often already of much greater weight relative to the active population than was the Russian proletariat in 1917 or the Chinese proletariat in 1949. This proletariat, through its own experience of struggle, will speedily rise toward levels of consciousness and self-organisation that will place the organisation of soviet-type organs on the agenda from the beginning of a revolutionary crisis (Chile was an illustration of this). In that sense, and inasmuch as it is particularly applicable to the political revolution in the bureaucratised workers’ states, the Fourth International’s programme of workers-council democracy as a basis for the dictatorship of the proletariat, in its basic features, is a universal programme for world revolution, which corresponds fundamentally to the social nature, historical needs, and way of thinking and mass activity of the working class itself. It is in no way a “luxury” reserved for the workers of the “richest countries,” while its concrete application might suffer certain limitations because of the excessively reduced weight of the working class in some countries.

In the same way it is necessary to make a clear conceptual and theoretical distinction between institutions of bourgeois democracy – which flourish essentially in imperialist countries, as a result of the imperialist super-exploitation of hundreds of millions of peasants and workers in colonial and semi-colonial countries and dependent countries and the vicious repression of their most elementary democratic rights – and institutions of proletarian democracy, including their nuclei within bourgeois society, which are the results of centuries-old struggles, sacrifices and successes in self-organisation and the conquest of various levels of class consciousness by the working class itself. The former are condemned by history and will disappear. The latter will grow and develop as never before during and after the struggle for socialist world revolution, and during the whole historical period of the building of world socialism.

It is obvious that the healthy functioning of workers’ democracy presupposes the generalisation of a minimum level of culture and industrialisation in society. When social conditions are such that a major part of the toiling population is illiterate, the bureaucratic degeneration of the forms of rule is made easier. This explains Lenin’s insistence, in his last writings, on the need to raise the cultural level of the masses. The literacy campaigns conducted in Cuba and Nicaragua are models that should be followed.

Moreover, in backward countries, during an initial phase, the dictatorship of the proletariat may not follow proportional representation of the different segments of the population. It may openly choose to give added weight to the representation of the working class, particularly in relation to the peasants, as the Soviet Constitution of 1918 did.


VIII. Why has this programme of
socialist democracy not been
widely realised up till now?

The definition of our ideas about the dictatorship of the proletariat is not “normative”. It is fundamentally programmatic. In that sense, as with all programmatic positions of Marxism, they are but the conscious expression of an objective historical tendency, of an instinctive thrust of the working class under conditions of revolutionary crisis. History strikingly confirms that from the Paris Commune to the revolutionary explosions of the recent years, through the experiences of the Russian and Finnish revolution of 1905, of the Russian revolution of 1917, of the German revolution of 1918–19, of the Austrian revolution of 1918–19, of the Hungarian revolution of 1919, of the Italian revolutionary upheaval of 1919–20, of the Spanish revolution of 1936, of the Chinese revolution of 1925–27, of numerous general strikes in innumerable countries of practically all continents including many colonial and semi-colonial countries, the working class did manifest its tendency to generalised self-organisation, to the setting up of workers’ councils or similar bodies. We are firmly convinced that this historical tendency – clearly understood and programmatically expressed by Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg – will unfold itself in revolutions of today and tomorrow even more than it did in revolutions of yesterday.

Critics counterpose to this general observation the fact that all victorious social revolutions up to now have led to political systems where power is exercised by minorities, by a single party, even by the leadership apparatus of this party and not by the toiling masses as a whole.

We do not accept the argument that the delay in firmly and durably establishing workers-council power – which did exist in Soviet Russia for several years, latter-day historical falsifications by both the bourgeoisie and the bureaucracy notwithstanding would be due in any way to a congenital incapacity of the proletariat to exercise political or (and) economic power as a class, to its inherent weakness or fatal trend to delegate the exercise of power to a privileged minority. The least one can say is that such a conclusion is historically premature at this stage – as it would have been premature to conclude, after the first experiences of bourgeois revolutions, that bourgeois rule was incompatible with universal franchise.

On the contrary, the basic reason why workers-council power has been up to now the exception and not the rule in the existing workers’ states is closely linked with the very limited weight which the proletariat has had in the establishment of these states – and the weakness and even more extreme successive weakening of the proletariat in Soviet Russia between 1917 and 1923.

The interaction of a whole series of historical factors – the backwardness of Russia, the isolation of the Russian revolution, the rise to absolute power of the Soviet bureaucracy, the victory of the Stalinist faction inside the Communist International, the cumulative effects of defeats to a great extent due to this “victory”, the absence of an alternative revolutionary leadership of the international proletariat, the possibility of the traditional bureaucratic apparatuses to keep control over the working class at the end of World War II, the fact that the rise of the revolution essentially took the form of prolonged rural guerrilla warfare, under leaderships influenced by Stalinist ideology – led to a period in which new workers’ states arose with a very reduced weight of the proletariat at their birth, without proletarian forms of struggle and organisation.

In addition, the low specific weight of the working class in countries like China and Vietnam, and the special nature of the problems with which the dictatorship of the proletariat was confronted in these countries – problems of initial industrialisation and initial increase of the agricultural productivity of labour, of even greater scarcity and backwardness than in Russia – created additional objective obstacles on the road to socialist democracy.

As a result of the interaction of all these factors, the dictatorship of the proletariat was bureaucratic in these countries from its inception. At no time did the working class directly exercise political power there. But in the present period, after the qualitative strengthening of the proletariat in a series of workers’ states and semi-industrialised dependent capitalist countries, the new rise of revolutionary struggles symbolised by May 1968 in France and by the Portuguese revolution from 1974–1976, the rise of the political revolution in the bureaucratised workers’ state (Czechoslovakia, Poland), the weight of the proletariat in the real process of world revolution is much larger today than it was in the period 1945–1968. And this is strikingly confirmed by the re-emergence of general strikes, urban mass insurrections, and soviet-type organs of self-organisation, in the main revolutionary upheavals of the recent years, not only in Chile and Portugal but also in Iran and Nicaragua.

Simultaneously, after the inevitable delay of mass consciousness upon reality, sectors of the world proletariat have now assimilated the real nature of Stalinism (which they didn’t either in 1936 or 1945), and firmly reject “patterns” of “dictatorship of the proletariat” similar to those of the USSR. They do this not only in certain imperialist countries but also in countries like Eastern Europe, China, Brazil etc.

Again, what our programme of dictatorship of the proletariat based upon workers-council democracy expresses is neither “abstract norms” nor utopian wishful thinking but a real basic historical trend, which, having been held down by the objective and subjective results of two decades of defeats of world revolution, now reasserts itself more and more powerfully.

We reject likewise any concept that the workers-council power would be in any way “impractical” as long as imperialism survives, i.e., as long as the problems of self-defence of the victorious proletarian revolution and of its international extension remain central under the dictatorship of the proletariat. On the contrary, we believe that workers-council democracy strengthens the capacity of self-defence of the workers’ state, and strengthens its power of attraction to the workers of the capitalist countries, i.e., favours the struggle against imperialism and for an international extension of the revolution.


Last updated on 23 April 2021