Th. Rothstein 1918

Democracy and the Proletarian Revolution

Pseudonym: W.A.M.M.
Source: The Call, 5 December 1918, p. 4 (1,429 words)
Transcribed: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

When the Russian Bolsheviks, without much ceremony, sent home the members of the Constituent Assembly, there was a great outcry in this and other countries, the reactionaries vying with the Socialists in denouncing such a gross outrage upon Democracy. That, of course, was regarded as a specific emanation of that “Asiatic Socialism,” as it was recently called by M. Camille Huysmans, the Secretary of the Second International, which, we are assured, is the essence of Russian Bolshevism.

But alas! educated and well-disciplined Germany seems now to be inclined to walk in the footsteps of semi-Asiatic Russia. At any rate, the question whether a constituent assembly ought to be summoned or the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is to be established straightaway is now being debated there—with passion, it is true—as if it were a most workaday question. The Junkers and the bourgeoisie down to the Scheidemann Socialists make a gallant fight for Democracy, and the Extreme Left, followed, it is evident, by the bulk of the working class, together with a section of the Independent Socialists under Ledebour, are opposed to the summoning of a constituent assembly and advocate “all power to the Soviets.” Obviously, Asiatic Socialism has infected already the central portion of the European Continent, and it may well be that when the Revolution spreads further west the question will not be debated at all, but will be settled in the Bolshevik sense without further ado.

What a strange world we are living in! Everything seems to be turning topsy-turvy after the Bolshevik Revolution. Have we Socialists been swearing by Democracy only to betray it on the very first occasion we get into power? Are we traitors, are we no better than the political parties which have preceded us in power? Let us see.

What is Democracy? It is the rule of the people, by the people, and for the people. It was an excellent battlecry in the fight of the capitalist middle classes against the aristocracy, against the powers of birth and privilege. Make room for the people—that was the watchword with which the bourgeoisie was everywhere fighting for power. It was a good battlecry, because it attracted the masses of the people groaning under the yoke of feudalism and privilege, and because it cost the bourgeoisie—just nothing. The bourgeoisie was perfectly sure that it was the people itself, and at any rate it was conscious of its material and moral power over the heterogeneous masses of small men, peasants, and proletarians which then made up the “lower orders.” As a matter of fact, no sooner did it find itself installed in the seat of power than it saw its mistake and at once began “hedging round” and equivocating in a most provoking manner. In some cases it compromised with the dispossessed aristocracy and monarchy in order to entrench itself behind their well-tried battlements; in others it introduced a system of “checks and balances” which reduced the newly acquired rights of the popular masses to nought. In no country, after generations of bourgeois rule, has Democracy been carried to the full. In this country we have had a highly restricted franchise which gave the vote practically to one only in every three of the adult population; and in addition, a hereditary chamber, a hereditary monarchy, and an irremovable judiciary, appointed by the bourgeoisie from among the bourgeoisie, to interpret and to enforce the laws, the whole forming a system of frustrating the people’s will which acted in a most effective manner. In France we have had for the space of nearly fifty years a so-called democratic Republic. The franchise has been universal, but side by side with the democratically elected Chamber there stood an undemocratically and plutocratically elected Senate, a President with nearly royal powers, and the administration, centralised in a way which only autocratical Germany could rival, was invested with a plenitude of powers which reduced, French democracy almost to a mockery. Need we quote the example of the other “great” democratic Republic in America with enormous powers placed in the hands of its executive organs from the President downwards, and with its famous, or infamous, Supreme Court as the supreme maker of the laws? If to all this we add the fact that in all cases the “sovereignty” of the people was and is still exhausted in the dropping of a piece of paper into a box every four or five or seven years, after which it had no more to do with the affairs of the country than the Mandarins at the old Peking Court, we shall perhaps realise that the Democracy of which the bourgeoisie has boasted for generations has been and still is to-day a colossal and impudent sham. Under its cover we had all along nothing else than the dictatorship of the capitalist middle classes.

But we Socialists have been sincere advocates and champions of Democracy, have we not? Of course, we have. Our opportunist wing, the Fabians, the Reformists, the Revisionists, in the crude and naive belief that by the establishment of a genuine democracy the working classes would be, enabled painlessly to do away with capitalism; and the radical wing, in its endeavour to eliminate all outside factors and issues so that the proletariat might confront nobody else but the capitalist bourgeoisie and have a straight fight With it—we, the Socialists, have all been in favour of a genuine democracy. We have been fighting for universal adult suffrage, for the abolition of the monarchies and second chambers and even presidents, for short parliaments, for elected judges, for the initiative and referendum, etc. We wanted to accelerate the advent of Socialism, and we saw in the establishment of a full and unrestricted democracy the best means of achieving it.

Have we abandoned our creed? Not at all. But when, through the accident of the world war, the working class has succeeded in obtaining possession of power, is it to withdraw from the conquered positions in order to conquer them again by means of Democracy as a means? That would be pure and stupid doctrinarianism. Democracy, that is, bourgeois democracy, was never regarded by us as anything more than a means to an end, and only our opportunists, like Bernstein in Germany or Jaures in France, were inclined to make a sort of fetish of it. But those who were at Amsterdam in 1904 will remember the scathing criticism of such an attitude and of bourgeois democracy as a whole by August Bebel, and the manner in which the International—the Second International, at that, the International of crypto-Opportunism—endorsed Bebel shows how little we Socialists were inclined to worship it even then. Since then, but especially since the war and the two Russian Revolutions, much water has flowed in the Neva and in the Spree and, perhaps, also in the Seine and the Thames, and we have seen that the road to Socialism lies not only through bourgeois Democracy, but also through direct revolutionary action. Must we give up the success of the latter, method in order to revert to the problematic method of Democracy? The war has utterly discredited not only Tsarism and Kaiserdom, but all the capitalist parties, including the “patriotic” Socialists in every country, and the proletarian revolutions have been revolutions against the entire bourgeois society, the real authors and abettors of the war. When the North crushed the South in the American Civil War, did the North in a “democratic” fashion proceed to call a constituent assembly with the South jointly to decide upon the question of slavery? It would have been absurd. But equally absurd would it be for the proletariat which has revolted against capitalist society—because, as we said, the entire capitalist society is responsible for the imperialist war and its horrors—and gained a decisive victory, now to invite the representatives and the champions of that very society to come to an assembly in order jointly to decide upon the question whether the capitalist society is to continue to exist or not. The victorious proletariat has only one logical way to fructify its victory: to assume complete power and to proclaim the dictatorship of the proletariat just as the capitalist classes have exercised such a dictatorship till now. Only after the complete establishment of Socialism and the consequent disappearance of classes will Democracy come back, then without any checks or balances, but as a full and unrestricted Social Democracy.

W. A. M. M.