Ernest Mandel

Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Socialist Democracy

(Part 2)

IX. In response to dogmas of Stalinist origin

The ideology of the ruling bureaucracy has been and remains essentially pragmatic. But a certain number of theories and dogmas underpin this ideology and they have an internal coherence which is contradictory with revolutionary Marxist theory. This ideology of the bureaucracy – of which the key idea is the rule of the single party acting in the name of the working class – although not always explicitly formulated can be synthesised as follows:

  1. That the “leading party” or even its “leading nucleus” (the “Leninist Central Committee”) has a monopoly of political consciousness at the highest level, if not a monopoly of knowledge at least at the level of the social sciences, and is therefore guaranteed political infallibility (“the party is always right”).
  2. That the working class, and even more the toiling masses in general, are too backward politically, too much under the influence of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ideology and “imperialist propaganda,” too much inclined to prefer immediate material advantages as against long-term historical interests, for any direct exercise of state power by democratically elected workers’ councils to be tolerable from the point of view of “the interests of socialism.” Genuine workers’ democracy would entail the risk of an increasing series of, harmful, “objectively counter-revolutionary” decisions, which would open the road to the restoration of capitalism or at the very least gravely damage and retard the process of building socialism.
  3. That therefore the dictatorship of the proletariat can be exercised only by the “leading party of the proletariat,” i.e., that the dictatorship of the proletariat is the dictatorship of the party, either representing an essentially passive working class, or actively basing itself on the “class struggle of the masses,” who are nevertheless considered unworthy, unwilling, or incapable of directly exercising state power through institutionalised organs of power.
  4. That since the party, and that party alone, represents the interests of the working class, which are considered homogeneous in all situations and on all issues, the “leading party” itself must be essentially monolithic. Any opposition tendency necessarily reflects alien class pressures and alien class interests in one form or another (the struggle between “two lines” is always a “struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie inside the party,” the Maoists conclude). Monolithic control of all spheres of social life by the single party is the logical outcome of these concepts. Direct party control must be established overall sectors of “civil society.”
  5. A further underlying assumption is that of an intensification of the class struggle in the period of building socialism (although this assumption alone does not necessarily lead to the same conclusion, if it is not combined with the previous ones). From that assumption is deduced the increasing danger of restoration of bourgeois power even long after private property in the means of production has been abolished, and irrespective of the level of development of the productive forces. The threat of bourgeois restoration is often portrayed as a mechanical outcome of the victory of bourgeois ideology in this or that social, political, cultural, or even scientific field. In view of the extreme power thereby attributed to bourgeois ideas, the use of repression against those who are said to objectively represent these ideas becomes a corollary of the argument.

All these assumptions and dogmas are unscientific from a general Marxist point of view and are untenable in the light of real historical experience of the class struggle during and after the overthrow of capitalist rule in the USSR and other countries. Again and again, they have shown themselves to be harmful to the defence of the proletariat’s class interests and an obstacle to a successful struggle against the remnants of the bourgeoisie and of bourgeois ideology.

But inasmuch as they had become nearly universally accepted dogmas by the CPs in Stalin’s time and undoubtedly have an inner consistency – reflecting the material interests of the bureaucracy as a social layer and an apology for its dictatorial rule – they have never been explicitly and thoroughly criticised and rejected by a CP since then. These concepts continue to linger on, at least partially, in the ideology of many leaders and cadres of the CPs and SPs, i.e., of the bureaucracies of the labour movement. They continue to constitute a conceptual source for justification of various forms of curtailment of democratic rights of the toiling masses.

It should be noted that organisations ‘other than those inspired by Stalinism put forward similar conceptions in this regard, justifying at least partially similar practices in their own ranks. This makes it all the more necessary to stress that all this is absolutely contrary to the teaching of Lenin and Trotsky, not to mention Marx and Engels, and of our historical movement. A clear and coherent refutation of these conceptions and of the practices which they motivate, is therefore indispensable to the defence of our programme of socialist democracy.

First: the idea of a homogenous working class exclusively represented by a single party is contradicted by all historical experience and by any Marxist analysis of the concrete growth and development of the contemporary proletariat, both under capitalism and after the overthrow of capitalism. At most, one could defend the thesis that the revolutionary vanguard party alone programmatically defends the long-term historical interests of the proletariat, and its immediate overall class interests as opposed to sectoral interests of national, regional, local, special sectors or skill, over-privileged, etc., interests. But even in that case, a dialectical-materialist approach, as opposed to a mechanical-idealist one, would immediately add that only insofar as the party actually conquers political leadership over the majority of the workers can one speak of a real, as opposed to a simply ideal (literary) integration of immediate and long-term, of sectoral and class interests having been achieved in practice, with the possibilities for errors much reduced. Furthermore, this in no way excludes that on particular questions this party can be wrong.

In fact, there is a definite, objectively determined stratification of the working class and of the development of working class consciousness. There is likewise at the very least a tension between the struggle for immediate interests and the historical goals of the labour movement (for example the contradiction between immediate consumption and long-term investment in a workers’ state). Precisely these contradictions, rooted in the legacy of uneven development of bourgeois society, are among the main theoretical justifications for the need of a revolutionary vanguard workers’ party, as opposed to a simple “all-inclusive” union of all wage-earners in a single organisation. But this again implies that one cannot deny that different parties, with different orientations and different ways of approaching the class struggle between capital and labour and the relations between capital and labour and the relations between immediate demands and historical goals, can arise and have arisen within the working class and do genuinely represent sectors of the working class (be it purely sectoral interests, privileged sectors, results of ideological pressures of alien class forces, etc.).

Nor can it be excluded that several revolutionary parties might arise in a single country, whose differences might not be settled by a fusion before the revolution, a situation which would lead to the need to seek to form a more or less tightly knit front of these parties that would try to determine their political action in common.

Second: a revolutionary party with a democratic internal life does have a tremendous advantage in the field of correct analysis of socio-economic and political developments and of correct elaboration of tactical and strategic answers to such developments, for it can base itself on the body of scientific socialism, Marxism, which synthesises and generalises all past experiences of the class struggle as a whole. This programmatic framework for its current political elaboration makes it much less likely than any other tendency of the labour movement, or any unorganised sector of the working class, to reach wrong conclusions, premature generalisations, and one-sided and impressionistic reactions to unforeseen developments, to make concessions to ideological and political pressures of alien class forces, to engage in unprincipled political compromises, etc.

However there are no infallible parties. There are no infallible party leaderships, or individual party leaders, party majorities, “Leninist central committees,” etc. The Marxist programme is never a definitely achieved one. No new situation can be comprehensively analysed in reference to historical precedents. Social reality is constantly undergoing changes. New and unforeseen developments regularly occur at historical turning points. The phenomenon of imperialism after Engels’s death was not analysed by Marx and Engels. The delay of the proletarian revolution in the advanced imperialist countries was not foreseen by the Bolsheviks. The bureaucratic degeneration of the first workers’ state was not incorporated in Lenin’s theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The emergence after World War II of many workers’ states (albeit with bureaucratic deformations from the start) following revolutionary mass struggles not led by revolutionary Marxist leaderships (Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam) was not foreseen by Trotsky, etc. No complete, ready-made answer for new phenomena can be found in the works of the classics or in the existing programme.

Furthermore, new problems will arise in the course of the building of socialism, problems for which the revolutionary Marxist programme provides only a general framework of reference but no automatic source of correct answers. The struggle for correct answers to such new problems implies a constant interaction between theoretical-political analysis and discussions and revolutionary class practice, the final word being spoken by practical experience. Under such circumstances, any restriction of free political and theoretical debate spilling over to a restriction of free political mass activity of the proletariat, i.e., any restriction of socialist democracy, will constitute an obstacle to the revolutionary party itself arriving at correct policies. It is therefore not only theoretically wrong but practically ineffective and harmful from the point of view of successfully advancing on the road of building socialism.

One of the gravest consequences of a monolithic one-party system, of the absence of a plurality of political groups, tendencies, and parties, and of administrative restrictions being imposed on free political and ideological debate, is the impediments such a system erects on the road to rapidly correcting mistakes which can be committed by the government of a workers’ state. Mistakes committed by such a government, like mistakes committed by the majority of the working class, its various layers, and different political groupings, are by and large unavoidable in the process of building a classless, socialist society. A rapid correction of these mistakes, however, is possible in a climate of free political debate, free access of opposition groupings to mass media, large-scale political awareness and involvement in political life by the masses, and control by the masses over government and state activity at all levels.

The absence of all these correctives under a system of monolithic one-party government makes the rectification of grave mistakes all the more difficult. The very dogma of party infallibility on which the Stalinist system rests puts a heavy premium both on the denial of mistakes in party policies (search for self-justification and for scapegoats) and on the attempt to postpone even implicit corrections as long as possible. The objective costs of such a system in terms of economic losses, of unnecessary, i.e., objectively avoidable sacrifices imposed upon the toiling masses, of political defeats in relation to class enemies, and of political disorientation and demoralisation of the proletariat, are indeed staggering, as is shown by the history of the Soviet Union since 1928. To give just one example: the obstinate clinging to erroneous agricultural policies even on detailed questions such as purchasing prices for certain agricultural products by Stalin and his henchmen after the catastrophe caused by the forced collectivisation of agriculture – which can of course be explained in terms of the specific social interests of the Soviet bureaucracy at that time – has wreaked havoc with the food supply of the Soviet people for more than a generation. Its negative consequences have not been eliminated to this day, nearly fifty years later. Such a catastrophe would have been impossible had there been free political debate over alternative economic and agricultural policies in the USSR.

Third: the idea that restricting the democratic rights of the proletariat is in any way conducive to a gradual “education” of an allegedly “backward” mass of toilers is blatantly absurd. One cannot learn to swim except by going into the water. There is no way masses can learn to raise the level of their political awareness other than by engaging in political activity and learning from the experience of such activity. There is no way they can learn from mistakes other than by having the right to commit them. Paternalistic prejudices about the alleged “backwardness” of the masses generally hide a conservative petty-bourgeois fear of mass activity, which has nothing in common with revolutionary Marxism. The bureaucracy is in deadly fear of socialist democracy, not for “programmatic” reasons, but because that form of government is incompatible with its material privileges, not to say its power. Marxists favour the fullest possible flowering of socialist democracy because they are convinced that any restriction of political mass activity, on the pretext that the masses would make too many mistakes, can only lead to increasing political apathy among the workers, i.e., to paradoxically reinforcing the very situation which is said to be the problem.

Fourth: under conditions of full-scale socialisation of the means of production and the social surplus product, any long-term monopoly of the exercise of political power in the hands of a minority – even if it is a revolutionary party beginning with the purest of revolutionary motivations – runs a strong risk of stimulating objective tendencies toward bureaucratisation. Under such socio-economic conditions whoever controls the state administration thereby controls the social surplus product and its distribution. Given the fact that economic inequalities will still exist at the outset, particularly but not only in the economically backward workers’ states, this can become a source of corruption and of the growth of material privileges and social differentiation.

“The conquest of power changes not only the relations of the proletariat to other classes, but also its own inner structure. The wielding of power becomes the speciality of a definite social group, which is the more impatient to solve its own ‘social problem’ the higher its opinion of its own mission.” (Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p.102.)

Thus, there is an objective need for real control over decision making to rest in the hands of the proletariat as a class, with unlimited possibilities to denounce pilferage, waste, and illegal appropriation and misuse of resources at all levels, including the highest ones. No such democratic mass control is possible without opposition tendencies, groups, and parties having full freedom of action, propaganda, and agitation, as well as full access to the mass media, as long as they are not engaged in armed struggle to overthrow workers’ power.

Likewise, during the transition period between capitalism and socialism, and even in the first phase of communism, it is unavoidable that forms of social division of labour will survive, as well as forms of labour organisation and labour processes totally or partially inherited from capitalism, that do not enable a full development of all the creative talents of the producers. These handicaps cannot be neutralised by indoctrination, moral exhortation, or periodic “mass criticism campaigns” as the Maoists contend, and still less by mystifying expedients like having cadres or leaders work a few days a month or a week as manual labourers. These objective obstacles on the road to the gradual emergence of truly socialist relations of production can be prevented from becoming powerful sources of material privileges only if the mass of the producers (in the first place those likely to be the most exploited, the manual workers) are placed in conditions such that they can exercise real political and social power over any functionally privileged layer. The radical reduction of the work day, the fullest soviet democracy, and full educational opportunities for rapidly raising the cultural level of all workers are the key conditions for attaining this goal.

To protect itself against the professional risks of power, the revolutionary party will have to reject its members accumulating positions in the state apparatus and positions in the leadership of the party.

The present conditions in the bureaucratised workers’ states, which make the problem of advancing proletarian democracy difficult, would of course be altered qualitatively if (or when) either of the two following developments occur, or even more if they occur together:

  1. A socialist revolution in one or more industrially advanced capitalist countries. Such a revolution would itself give enormous impulsion to the struggle for democratic rights throughout the world and would immediately open the possibility of increasing productivity on an immense scale, eliminating the scarcities that are the root cause of the entrenchment of a parasitic bureaucracy, as explained above.
  2. A political revolution in the bureaucratically deformed or degenerated workers’ states, particularly in the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China. This would likewise signify an upsurge of proletarian democracy with colossal repercussions internationally, besides putting an end to the bureaucratic caste and its concept of building “socialism in one country”.

Following a political revolution, common economic planning among all the workers’ states would become realisable, thus assuring a leap forward in productivity that would help remove the economic basis of parasitic bureaucratism.

Finally, it is true that there is no automatic correlation or simultaneity between the abolition of capitalist state power and private property in the means of production and the disappearance of privileges in the field of personal wealth, cultural heritage, and ideological influence, not to speak of the disappearance of all elements of commodity production. Long after bourgeois state power has been overthrown and capitalist property abolished, remnants of petty commodity production and the survival of elements of a money economy will continue to create a framework in which primitive accumulation of capital can still reappear, especially if the level of development of the productive forces is still insufficient to guarantee the automatic appearance and consolidation of genuine socialist relations of production. Likewise, elements of social and economic inequality survive under such circumstances long after the bourgeoisie has lost its positions as a ruling class politically and economically; the influence of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ideologies, customs, habits, cultural values, etc., will linger on in relatively large spheres of social life and broad layers of society.

But it is completely wrong to draw from this undeniable fact (which is, incidentally, one of the main reasons why state power of the working class is indispensable in order to prevent these “islands of bourgeois influence” from becoming bases for the restoration of capitalism) the conclusion that administrative repression of bourgeois ideology is a necessary condition for the building of a socialist society. On the contrary, historical experience confirms the total ineffectiveness of administrative struggles against reactionary and petty-bourgeois ideologies. In fact, in the long run, such methods even strengthen the hold of these ideologies and place the great mass of the proletariat in the position of being ideologically disarmed before them, because of lack of experience with genuine political struggles and ideological debates and the lack of credibility of official “state doctrines”.

The only effective way to eliminate the influence of these ideologies upon the mass of the toilers lies in:

  1. The expropriation, along with all major means of production, of printing shops, radios, television channels, that is, the liberation of the media that is capable of massively spreading ideas from the material grip of big business;
  2. The creation of objective conditions under which these ideologies lose the material roots of their reproduction.
  3. The waging of a relentless struggle against these ideologies in the field of ideology and politics itself, which can however attain its full success only under conditions of open debate and open confrontation, i.e. freedom for the defenders of reactionary ideologies to defend their ideas, freedom of ideological and cultural pluralism, as long as they do not go over to acts of violence against workers’ power.

Only those who have neither confidence in the superiority of Marxist and materialist ideas nor confidence in the proletariat and the toiling masses, can shrink from open ideological confrontation with bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ideologies under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Once the capitalist class is disarmed and expropriated, once their members have access to the mass media only in relation to their numbers, there is no reason to fear a constant, free and frank exchange of ideas. This confrontation is the only means through which the working class can educate itself ideologically and successfully free itself from the influence of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ideas. The validity of Marxism will fully assert itself.

Any monopoly position accorded to Marxism (not to speak of a particular interpretation of Marxism) in the ideological-cultural field through administrative and repressive measures by the state can lead only to debasing Marxism itself from a critical and revolutionary science, as a weapon for the emancipation of the proletariat and the building of a classless society, into a sterile and repulsive state doctrine or state religion, with a constantly declining attractive power among the toiling masses and especially the youth. This is apparent today in the USSR, where the monopoly position accorded to “official Marxism” masks a real poverty of creative Marxist thought in all areas. Marxism, which is critical thought par excellence, can flourish only in an atmosphere of full freedom of discussion and constant confrontation with other currents of thought, i.e. in an atmosphere of full ideological and cultural pluralism.


X. The self-defence of the workers’ state

Obviously, any workers’ state must defend itself against attempts at being overthrown and open violation of its basic laws. In a workers’ democracy of a stable workers’ state, emerging after the disarming of the bourgeoisie and the end of civil war, the constitution and the penal code will forbid private appropriation of the means of production or private hiring of labour, just as constitutions and penal codes under bourgeois rule forbid individual infringements on the rights of private property. Likewise, as long as we are not yet in a classless society, as long as the proletarian class rule survives and the restoration of capitalism remains possible, the constitution and the penal code of the dictatorship of the proletariat will forbid and punish acts of armed insurrection, attempts at overthrowing working-class power through violence, terrorist attacks on individual representatives of workers’ power, sabotage, espionage in the service of foreign capitalist states, etc. But only proven acts of that kind or active preparation of them should be punishable, not general propaganda explicitly or implicitly favourable to a restoration of capitalism. This means that freedom of political organisation should be granted to all those, including pro-bourgeois elements, who in actual practice respect the constitution of the workers’ state and operate within the legal framework of its institutions, the soviets, i.e. are not engaged in direct action to overthrow workers’ power and collective property.

The workers have no need to fear as a mortal danger propaganda that “incites” them to give the factories and banks back to private owners. There is little chance that a majority of them will be “persuaded” by propaganda of that type. The working class in the imperialist countries, the bureaucratised workers’ states, and an increasing number of semi-colonial countries, are strong enough not to have to introduce the concept of “crimes of opinion or anti-soviet agitation” either in their penal codes or in the daily practice of the workers’ state.

What is important is to strictly distinguish between activities instigating violence against workers’ power and political activities, ideologies, positions, or programmatic statements that can be interpreted as favouring a restoration of capitalism. Against terror, the workers’ state defends itself by repression. Against reactionary policies and ideas, it defends itself by political and ideological struggles. This is not a question of “morality” or “softness”. It is essentially a question of practical long-term efficiency.

The disastrous experience of Stalinism, which has systematically misused slanderous accusations of “collusion with imperialism”, “espionage for foreign powers”, “objectively acting in favour of imperialism”, “anti-soviet” or “anti-socialist agitation”, “sabotage and diversionist activities”, to condemn and suppress any form of political criticism, opposition or non-conformism in the countries under the rule of parasitic bureaucratic castes, and which has organised barbaric repression on a mass scale under these pretexts, has created a profound (and essentially healthy) distrust of the abuse of penal, juridical, police or psychiatric institutions for purposes of political repression. It is therefore necessary to stress that the use of repressive self-defence by the proletariat and its state against attempts to overthrow workers’ power by violence should be circumscribed to proven acts and crimes, strictly separated from the realm of ideological, political, and cultural activities.

The Fourth International stands for the defence and extension of the most progressive conquests of the bourgeois-democratic revolutions in the field of penal codes and justice and fights for their incorporation into the socialist constitutions and penal codes. These include such rights as:

  1. The necessity of written law and the avoidance of retroactive delinquency. The burden of proof to be on the accuser, the assumption of innocence until proof of guilt.
  2. The full right of all individuals to freely determine the nature of their defence; full immunity for legal defenders from prosecution for any statements or lines of defence used in such trials.
  3. Rejection of any concept of collective responsibility of social groups, families, etc., for individual crimes.
  4. Strict prohibition of any form of torture or forceful extortion of confessions.
  5. Suppression of the death penalty outside of civil war and war situations.
  6. Extension and generalisation of public trial by juries of peers.
  7. Democratic election of all judges, and the right for the mass of the toilers to recall elected judges.

The workers’ state can gradually eliminate a professional judiciary by drawing the masses more and more into the judicial functions beginning at the local level and for less serious crimes.

Obviously, the last word in all these matters, as well as regarding the final draft of the penal code and functioning of the penal system of the proletarian dictatorship after armed resistance by the bourgeoisie has ceased, will rest with the workers’ councils themselves, to which we submit our programmatic proposals and in which framework we fight for them by political means. The fundamental guarantee against all abuses of state repression lies in the fullest participation in political activity of the toiling masses, the broadest possible socialist democracy, and the abolition of any monopoly of access to weapons for privileged minorities, i.e. the general arming of the proletariat.

However, as Lenin pointed out, “the fact that the proletariat has accomplished the social revolution will not be sufficient to turn it into a saint and will not shelter it from errors and weaknesses”. This is why the vigilance of revolutionary communists should not let up during the period of transition towards communist society. It will be necessary for the communist vanguard to smoke out the slightest evidence of “bureaucratism”, to denounce and fight all misuses of power in the proletarian state, to make sure egalitarian and democratic principles are respected, to defend the rights of women and racial, national or ethnic minorities; in a word, to play its role of communist vanguard also in relation to the proletarian state.

* * *

This is our programmatic and principled position: unfettered political freedom for all those who in practice respect collective property and the workers’ state’s constitution. This does not mean that these norms can be fully implemented irrespective of concrete circumstances. In the process of establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat, a revolutionary crisis culminating in an insurrection is unavoidable. During the period leading to that insurrection and the insurrection itself, when power passes from one social class to another, violent convulsions and the absence of the rule of law which accompany them occur. They will bring victory to the proletariat only if insurrection enjoys the support of the majority of the population – the large majority of wage-earners – at least in all those countries where the wage-earners are already the largest social class. The broader the mass mobilisation of millions accompanying this insurrection, the lesser will be the unavoidable violence and arbitrariness accompanying that giant social transformation.

Likewise, the consolidation of the dictatorship of the proletariat can be preceded by civil war or foreign military intervention, i.e. attempts by the former ruling classes and their international allies to overthrow workers’ power by force. Under such conditions, the rules of war apply. Restrictions on the political activities of the bourgeoisie may well be called for. No social class, no state, has ever granted full rights to those actively engaged in violence to overthrow them. The dictatorship of the proletariat cannot act otherwise in that respect.

More concretely, all individuals, organisations, and parties that participate in, or can be proven to actively support or prepare counter-revolutionary violence, will be repressed and submitted to conditions in which they cannot pursue these activities. The extent and concrete forms of that repression will depend upon the circumstances and relationship of forces existing at the moment in a given country or group of countries.

During the first phase of establishing a victorious workers’ state against armed resistance of the bourgeoisie or attempts by that bourgeoisie to overthrow it, the existence of written penal law – socialist legality – can lag in comparison with the need for the revolution to solve crisis situations, which cannot wait until that legality is finally established. Historical experience has confirmed again and again that the more swiftly and more radically the armed resistance of the bourgeoisie is broken, the shorter will be the period of actual civil war, the lesser will be the costs in human life of the social transformation.

The criteria which determine the general framework of revolutionary long-term efficiency are those which relate measures of immediate expediency with the question of social consolidation of the new socialist order on the basis of the largest possible mass adhesion and mass participation. Only those measures of expediency against the class enemy are really efficient, even under conditions of civil war, which raise and do not lower the class consciousness and self-confidence of the working class, its faith in its capacity to build a workers’ state and a classless society, its active support of and participation in the administration of its own state, its capacity for mobilisation and self-organisation. Even under conditions of civil war, that basic criterion should never be forgotten, particularly since future revolutions will develop within a relationship of forces a lot more favourable than they were in Russia in 1919 or 1920-21.

In that respect, Trotsky expressed himself most clearly in 1940. What he said then applied even more to present conditions:

“By anticipation it is possible to establish the following law: The more countries in which the capitalist system is broken, the weaker will be the resistance offered by the ruling classes in other countries, the less sharp a character the socialist revolution will assume, the less violent forms the proletarian dictatorship will have, the shorter it will be, the sooner the society will be reborn on the basis of a new, more full, more perfect and humane democracy ... Socialism would have no value if it should not bring with it, not only the juridical inviolability but also the full safeguarding of all the interests of the human personality.” (Leon Trotsky, The World Situation and Perspectives, February 14, 1940, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1939-40, pp.155-156.)

It is likewise necessary to stress the direct political and material responsibility of bourgeois counter-revolution and international imperialism for any restriction of socialist democracy under civil war or war conditions. This means to indicate clearly to society in its totality, and to the remnants of the former ruling classes themselves, that they way they will be dealt with depends in the last analysis on themselves, i.e. on their practical behaviour.


XI. International revolution and international counter-revolution

As long as imperialism survives at least in major countries – and certainly in the United States of America – it will never give up its attempts to top any further extension of the socialist revolution by economic pressure and military force. Nor will it give up its attempts to reconquer, first part and then all, of the territories lost for direct exploitation by capital. Such a restoration is not possible in a gradual and peaceful way, any more than the overthrow of capitalism can occur in a peaceful and gradual way.

Hence the conclusion that any workers’ state arising out of a victorious socialist revolution, and any group of workers’ states, whatever the degree of bureaucratisation or socialist democracy which characterises it, will find itself in conditions of armed truce with international capital, which could, under certain circumstances, lead to open war. Therefore, one of the central responsibilities of the dictatorship of the proletariat is to maintain and advance permanent military preparedness (from a material as well as from a human point of view) to meet such a challenge when it arises.

While we reject the idea that nuclear war is inevitable, we likewise reject the idea that propaganda, agitation, and class organisation of the toilers in the capitalist countries alone is sufficient to prevent wars of aggression by imperialism against new and old revolutions. As long as the working class of the main capitalist countries has not actually overthrown bourgeois class rule at home, the danger of counter-revolutionary wars remains. The proletariat in power must prepare against that danger, as it has to be ready to help the insurgent masses of other countries facing armed intervention of national and international counterrevolution.

To maintain military preparedness against wars of aggression by imperialism means to deviate resources toward arms production which otherwise would speed up the evolution towards socialism. It is a reason the more to reject the reactionary utopia of finally achieving the building of socialism in one or in a few countries.

The workers’ and people’s militias constitute the basis of the armed self-defence of the workers’ state. But the latter also requires the maintenance of an army specialised in the use of sophisticated weaponry, etc. The workers’ army will be an army of a new type, reflecting its new class basis. Just as the Red Army created by the Soviet Republic initially did, it will abolish the officer caste and replace it with councils of soldiers and democratically elected commanders. In general “the correlation between regular troops and militia can serve as a fair indication of the actual movement toward socialism.” (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p.218.)

But it by no means implies the inevitability of bureaucratic degeneration, or of serious restrictions of socialist democracy because of the outside pressure of imperialism upon the workers’ states.

In the first place, the rise and victory of the Stalinist bureaucracy was not a direct and automatic result of the capitalist encirclement of the USSR. It came about as the result of a unique combination of factors: relative backwardness of Russia; relative weakness of the Russian proletariat; first defeats of world revolution, capitalist encirclement; political unpreparedness by the proletarian vanguard towards the problem of bureaucracy; repercussions of the gradual rise of bureaucratic power upon the outcome of successive waves of revolutionary struggles throughout the world; the absence of an alternative revolutionary leadership of the proletariat outside the Moscow-controlled CPs; factors which were all exacerbated by the cumulative failure of the revolution to extend internationally. It is extremely unlikely that that combination will ever repeat itself again, especially in the case of new victorious socialist revolutions in countries industrially much more advanced than were Russia in 1917 or China in 1949.

Even today, the degree of backwardness of Russia compared to international capitalism is much more limited and the objective strength of the Russian proletariat incommensurably bigger than they were in 1923 or 1927. If to the relative power of the present workers’ states would be added that of victorious socialist revolutions in Western Europe, in Japan, or in the biggest Latin American countries – not to speak of the USA – the relationship of forces with international capital would witness a new dramatic deterioration for capitalism of such a depth that the pressure of the capitalist environment and the necessity to keep up military preparedness would not be an objective source for serious restrictions of socialist democracy.

Furthermore, if the survival for the time being of powerful imperialist states and rich bourgeois classes in the world imposes a situation of more or less permanent potential armed confrontation and potential international war upon existing workers’ states for a whole period, the obvious need for the workers’ states to protect themselves against the threat of foreign imperialist intervention does not at all imply the identification of conditions of potential war with those of actual war, an argument that Stalinists and pro-bureaucratic elements of all shades have continually used to justify the strangling of workers’ democracy in the countries under the rule of parasitic bureaucracies.

Moreover, the main problem today in the Soviet Union, the Eastern European workers’ states, and China is not the danger of immediate capitalist restoration under conditions of war or civil war. The main problem facing the working class in these countries is the dictatorial control over the economic, political, and social life by a privileged bureaucratic caste. The tremendous abuses that control has led to have deeply undermined the identification of the masses of these countries with the existing states – thereby, in the long run, weakening their capacity to victoriously withstand a possible future onslaught by imperialist armies.

The defence of democratic rights of all against the restrictions imposed by the bureaucracy, and the struggle for the political revolution is even more necessary. These processes will strengthen and not weaken the workers’ states’ capacity to withstand any imperialist aggression, including their capacity to actively assist the process of world revolution.

Finally, the whole argument should be turned the other way around. We deny that restrictions of socialist democracy – not to speak about a bureaucratic dictatorship – are a necessary price to be paid in order to successfully defend victorious revolutions and extend them internationally against the military power of imperialism. On the contrary, we contend that such restrictions weaken the dictatorship of the proletariat politically and militarily against imperialism.

A high level of political consciousness and socialist conviction on the part of the toiling masses; a high level of political activity, mobilisation and alertness; an internationalist education and activity of the proletariat, all help to strengthen the capacity of self-defence and the armed strength of a workers’ state in general.

History has proven that in the last analysis the superior capacity of self-defence of any state depends upon two key factors: a higher degree of social cohesion and political identification of the mass of the people with the given state; and a higher level of average productivity of labour and of productive capacity. The broader and less restricted socialist democracy is, the higher the identification of the overwhelming majority of the people with the workers’ state and the quicker will be the growth of productivity of labour, including the greater the chance of achieving decisive technological advances compared with imperialism. From that point of view, far from being a “luxury” in a world situation characterised by potential wars of aggression of imperialism against the workers’ states or against ongoing socialist revolutions, socialist democracy is a major weapon in the hands of the workers’ state even in the purely military field.

This is true from a defensive point of view, as already indicated. It is also true from an offensive point of view. Inasmuch as imperialism cannot embark upon military adventures against past and current revolutions without provoking massive opposition at home and inasmuch as it would have to try to weaken such opposition by increasingly having recourse to repression and restrictions of democratic freedoms of the masses, a high level of socialist democracy existing in the workers’ states would at the same time exercise an increasing power of attraction upon the restive and oppressed masses of the capitalist countries, thereby undermining the military strength of imperialism and favouring international expansion of the revolution.

Military preparedness of the workers’ states against threats of imperialist aggression must include special measures against espionage, saboteurs sent in from abroad, and other forms of anti-working class military action that could persist for years if not decades. But special technical measures for self-defence by the workers’ state should in no way restrict workers’ democracy, by calling citizens who are exerting their right of criticism and opposition “spies” or “saboteurs”. In fact the higher the political activity, awareness, and social cohesion of the broad masses which can be realised only through a full flowering of socialist democracy – the more difficult does it become for real spies and saboteurs to operate in a resolutely hostile milieu and the stronger becomes the capacity of self-defence of the workers’ state.


XII. The bureaucratised workers’ states, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the rise of political anti-bureaucratic revolution

From a theoretical point of view, the USSR and the other bureaucratised workers’ states are extremely distorted and degenerated forms of the dictatorship of the proletariat, inasmuch as the economic foundations created by the socialist October revolution have not been destroyed by the bureaucracy. In that sense, the necessity of the defence of the Soviet Union and the workers’ states against any attempt to restore capitalism which would represent a giant historical step backward – flows from the fact that these are still degenerated or deformed workers’ states, i.e. degenerated forms of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

But it does not flow from this that there are various historical forms of dictatorship of the proletariat which we consider all more or less equivalent, socialist workers’ democracy as described by our programme being only the “ideal norm”, from which reality has deviated and will still strongly deviate in the future.

The dictatorship of the proletariat is not a goal in and of itself. It is only a means to realise the goal, which is the emancipation of labour, of all exploited and oppressed, by the creation of a worldwide classless society, the only way to solve all burning problems facing humanity, the only way to avoid its relapse into barbarism. But under its extremely degenerated form of the dictatorship of the bureaucracy, the “bureaucratic” dictatorship of the proletariat not only does not allow workers to advance towards that goal, it holds back the transition between capitalism and socialism. It becomes a major obstacle on the road toward socialism, an obstacle which has to be removed by the proletariat through a political revolution. So it follows that far from being only one among different variants of the dictatorship of the proletariat, socialist democracy, the rule by the toiling masses through democratically elected workers’ and people’s councils, is the only form of the dictatorship of the proletariat compatible with our socialist goal, the only form which will make it an efficient weapon for advancing toward world revolution and world socialism. We fight for that form of the dictatorship of the proletariat and for that form alone, not for reasons of morality, humanitarianism, or historical idealism (the attempt to “impose” certain “ideal” patterns upon the historical process), but for reasons of political efficiency and realism, for reasons of programmatic principles, for reasons of immediate and historical necessity from the point of view of the interests of the world proletariat and of world socialism.

Furthermore, the “bureaucratic” dictatorship of the proletariat can only arise – as it did in the Soviet Union – as the result of a disastrous and lasting political defeat of the working class at the hands of the bureaucracy. It is not accidental that Trotsky uses in that context the formula “political expropriation of the proletariat by the bureaucracy”. As proletarian revolutionists we are not neutral or indifferent in front of the question of political victory or defeat of our class. We try to assure its victory. We try to avoid its defeat by all means possible. Again it follows that we can only fight for that form of the dictatorship of the proletariat which enables such a victory and avoids such a defeat. Only the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat exercised through political power in the hands of democratically elected workers’ councils assures that.

Politically, the question is by no means purely academic. It is a burning issue in all those countries – not only the imperialist ones – where the working class has by and large assimilated the crimes and the real nature of Stalinism and of labour bureaucracies in general. Any identification of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” with nationalised property only, irrespective of concrete conditions of exercise of power by the working class in the state and the economy, becomes in all these countries a formidable obstacle on the road toward a victorious socialist revolution and the realisation of the dictatorship of the proletariat. It objectively helps the bourgeoisie, the petty-bourgeoisie, the social democrats, and the CPs to maintain the working class in the straitjacket of the bourgeois-democratic state.

It is an even more burning question in all the bureaucratised workers’ states themselves, where the political revolution is on the agenda. In these countries, any attempt to present variants other than workers’ democracy as goals for that revolution, would condemn those who make such attempts to extreme isolation from the rising masses. Indeed it would risk involving them in the same hatred with which the proletariat views the bureaucracy, “the new masters”.

The concrete experiences of the Hungarian revolution of October-November 1956 and of the Polish revolution of August 1980-December 1981, which went furthest on the road to a full blown anti-bureaucratic political revolution, as well as of the “Prague Spring” of 1968-69 has already permitted the drawing of highly significant lessons on the dynamic of the political revolution. The “Prague Spring” and the political revolution in Poland also benefited from taking place in the social, economic and political conditions of countries where the working class represented the vast majority of the active population and could base itself on an old tradition of socialist, communist and trade union mass organisations, as well as, in Poland, on a rich experience of anti-bureaucratic workers’ revolts and struggles for workers’ self-management.

These three experiences of the beginning of political revolutions confirm that the contents of socialist democracy as set forth in our programme and further explained in these theses are but the conscious expression of what millions of workers and toilers fight for when they rise against the totalitarian rule of the bureaucracy.

The struggle against its secret police, for the liberation of political prisoners, against repression of political and trade union activities which undermines the power monopoly of the ruling bureaucracy, against press censorship, against juridical arbitrariness (i.e. for written law and the right of defendants to be judged and defended in line with the law), against the one-party system, against the bureaucracy’s control over the economic system, against the exorbitant material privileges of the bureaucracy and in favour of substantial progress in socio-economic equality – all these planks were the key motives which brought the Hungarian and the Czechoslovak masses onto the streets against the bureaucracy. It will be the same tomorrow in the USSR and the People’s Republic of China too.

They have nothing to do with the restoration of private property, or the restoration of capitalism, as the Stalinist slanders falsely alleged in order to justify the counter-revolutionary suppression of these anti-bureaucratic mass uprisings with the use of the Soviet army in Hungary or Czechoslovakia or the imposition of martial law in Poland. In that sense, they have nothing to do with the overthrow of the dictatorship of the proletariat either.

In Hungary in 1965, the workers’ councils and the Central Workers Council of Budapest, after long debates, declared themselves in favour of a defence of nationalised property and of the freedom for all political parties except the fascists. In Czechoslovakia, during the Prague Spring, the demands for unrestricted freedom of political organisation, of political clubs, tendencies, and parties, first defended by the most radical protagonists of the movement, was taken up by large tendencies inside the Communist Party itself and supported by the great majority of the trade unions and workers’ councils that sprang up in the final part of our movement. The working class was energetically in favour of a free press – while, significantly, the Stalinist spokesmen of the bureaucracy, those who prepared, facilitated and collaborated with the Soviet bureaucracy’s counter-revolutionary military intervention, concentrated their fire on the so-called “irresponsible” “pro-bourgeois” writers whose freedom to express themselves they wanted to crush at all costs – with the working class, in its overwhelming majority, supporting the freedom of the writers.

In Poland in 1980-81, the working class drove forward the broadest experience of struggle for political democracy in a workers’ state, for sixteen months. The internal democracy which the ten million organised Polish workers adopted within the Solidarnosc union demonstrated the attachment of the working class to the principles of proletarian democracy. The slogans of socialisation of the means of production and of planning”, and of “construction of a self-managed republic”, put forward by the mass movement, clearly expressed its aspiration to wrest the control of the economy as well as of the state from the bureaucracy, and to subject them to the collective democratic management of the workers, an aspiration which materialised in the struggle for workers’ self-management and in the building of workers’ councils and their co-ordination. The programme adopted by the national congress of Solidarnosc, stating that “ideological, social, political and cultural pluralism must constitute the basis of democracy in the self-managed republic”, also added that:

“Public life in Poland requires a deep reform that should lead to the final institution of self-management, democracy and pluralism. That is why we struggle both for a change in the structures of the state and for the creation and development of independent self-managed institutions in all walks of social life.”

In defence of the “the citizens’ total freedom of association”, the programme said:

“We believe that the principles of pluralism must apply to political life. Our union will aid and protect initiatives that aim to propose different social-political and economic programmes to society.”

It is most likely that similar confrontations will occur during every future political revolution, especially in the USSR and the People’s Republic of China. Revolutionary Marxists cannot hesitate or sit on the fence. Neither can they present them as purely tactical choices. They must align with the overwhelming majority of the toiling masses in defence of unrestricted democratic freedoms, against the censorship and repression of the bureaucracy.

In the beginning of the actual political revolution, the toiling masses make the distinction between those sectors of the bureaucracy which strenuously, including by the use of violence, try to oppose mass mobilisations and organisation, and those sectors which, for whatever motivation, yield to and seem to go along with the mass movement. The former they will pitilessly exclude from all renascent genuine organs of workers’ and popular power. The latter they will tolerate and even conclude tactical alliances with, especially when they are under attack by the most hated representatives of the bureaucratic dictatorship.

In the final institutionalisation of workers-council power, the toiling masses will most probably, however, take all appropriate measures to ensure their numerical, social, and political preponderance inside the reborn soviets, in order to prevent them from falling under the sway of technocrats and “liberal” bureaucrats.

This is also possible by specific electoral rules, and does not require any banning of specific parties or ideological tendencies considered representative of sectors of the bureaucracy having temporarily allied themselves with the revolutionary masses.

Throughout the rise and the struggle for victory of the political anti-bureaucratic revolution, a tremendous handicap which revolutionary Marxists and proletarian revolutionists will have to overcome is the discredit which Stalin, Stalinism and its heirs have thrown upon Marxism, socialism, communism and Leninism, by identifying their hated oppressive rule with these great emancipatory ideas. The Fourth International can successfully overcome this handicap by basing itself on the record of the relentless and uncompromising struggle by its founders and militants against that oppressive rule for more than half a century. But to this record must be added an audacious programme of concrete demands which embody, in the eyes of the masses, the overthrow of the rule of the bureaucracy, its replacement by the rule of the workers themselves, and the necessary guarantees requested by them that we shall never see workers’ political and economic power expropriated again by a privileged layer of society. Our programme of socialist democracy synthesizes all these demands which express the socialist goal as a worthy one in the eyes of hundreds of millions of proletarians in the bureaucratised workers’ states.


XIII. The programme of socialist democracy – an integral part of the programme of world revolution

The balance sheet of sixty years of bureaucratic power, since the rise of the Stalin regime in the Soviet Union and of 30 years of crisis of world Stalinism can be summarised as follows:

  1. In spite of all differences between the various European and Asian workers’ states and in spite of all the changes that have occurred there, all remain characterised by the absence of institutionalised and constitutionally guaranteed dfrect workers’ power (i.e., democratically elected workers’ councils, or councils of workers and toiling peasants exercising direct state power). Everywhere de facto one-party systems exist as expressions of the complete monopoly of real power in all spheres of social life by the privileged bureaucracies. The absence of tendency rights within the single party, the negation of real democratic centralism in the Leninist sense of the word, reinforce that monopoly in the exercise of state power. The parasitic nature of the materially privileged bureaucracies furthermore implies that to various degrees momentous obstacles are placed on the road to advancing the world socialist revolution and building a socialist society; the transition from capitalism to socialism becomes bogged down, creativity is stifled, and tremendous amounts of social wealth are misused and wasted.
  2. In spite of many partial criticisms of the existing political and economic system in the USSR by various ideological currents that have developed since the crisis of Stalinism (Titoism, Maoism, “Eurocommunism”, and left centrism of the Italian, Spanish and West German types, etc.) none of these currents has put forward a fundamental alternative to the Stalinist model in the USSR. Against that bureaucratic power structure none propose directly democratic working class power. No real understanding of the problem of Stalinism is possible without a Marxist analysis of the bureaucracy as a specific social phenomenon. No real alternative to rule by the bureaucracy (or in relation to the restoration of capitalism) is possible without institutionalising direct workers’ power through democratically elected workers’ councils (workers’ and toiling peasants’ councils) with a multi-party system and full democratic rights for all toilers, within a system of planned and democratically centralised self-management of the economy by the associated producers.

Most West European CPs, while accentuating their criticism of the dogmas and practices of the Soviet and East European bureaucracies, and while broadening polemics with the Kremlin, propose at the most a reform of the worst excesses of Stalinist rule rather than a revolutionary change. These parties have not cut their umbilical cords which link them to the Kremlin, and continue to provide justifications and make an “objectivist” apology for the past crimes of the bureaucracy and many aspects of the present forms of bureaucratic rule. Furthermore, in the imperialist countries, their general policy of class collaboration and upholding bourgeois order even during big explosions of mass struggle, of necessity limits their credibility regarding their respect for democracy inside the labour movement, particularly within the mass organisations that they control and within their own parties. In their critiques they have systematically obscured the differences between bourgeois and workers’ democracy and, under the guise of combating the one-party system in the USSR, Eastern Europe and China. In reality, they defend the concept that the only alternative to the bureaucracy’s rule through a single-party system is to accept bourgeois parliamentary institutions. In this way they reintroduce in the labour movement today the general theses of classical social democracy with regard to the “peaceful” and “gradual” transition to socialism.

In the light of all these failures, the programme of the Fourth International is in favour of the dictatorship of the proletariat, direct working class rule through democratically elected councils, and recognises the plurality of soviet parties as the only coherent and serious alternative to the twin revisions of Marxism advanced by social-democratic reformism and Stalinist codification of rule by a usurping bureaucratic caste.

This programme, which represents in its main lines the continuity of the writings of Marx and Engels on the Paris Commune, of Lenin’s State and Revolution, of the documents of the first congresses of the Communist International on the dictatorship of the proletariat, has been further enriched in the light of the successive analyses of proletarian revolutions and bureaucratic degeneration or deformation of workers’ states, first by Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed and in the founding programmatic documents of the Fourth International, and later by documents of the Fourth International after World War II. This document summarizes the present thinking of the revolutionary Marxists on this key aspect of the programme for socialist revolution.


Last updated on 31.12.2005