Leon Trotsky

The Principles of
Democracy and
Proletarian Dictatorship


Written: 1918.
First Published: The Class Struggle [United States], Vol. III, No. 1, February, 1919.
Translated: Unknown.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Sally Ryan, July 2002.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2002. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

As Marxists, we have never been idol-worshipers of formal democracy. In a society of classes, democratic institutions not only do not eliminate class struggle, but also give to class interests an utterly imperfect expression. The propertied classes always have at their disposal tens and hundreds of means for falsifying, subverting and violating the will of the toilers. And democratic institutions become a still less perfect medium for the expression of the class struggle under revolutionary circumstances. Marx called revolutions “the locomotives of history.” Owing to the open and direct struggle for power, the working people acquire much political experience in a short time and pass rapidly from one stage to the next in their development. The ponderous machinery of democratic institutions lags behind this evolution all the more, the bigger the country and the less perfect its technical apparatus.

The majority in the Constituent Assembly proved to be Social Revolutionists, and, according to parliamentary rules of procedure, the control of the government belonged to them. But the party of Right Social Revolutionists had a chance to acquire control during the entire pre-October period of the revolution. Yet, they avoided the responsibilities of government leaving the lion's share of it to the liberal bourgeoisie. By this very course the Right Social Revolutionists lost the last vestiges of their influence with the revolutionary elements by the time the numerical composition of the Constituent Assembly formally obliged them to form a government. The workings class, as well as the Red Guards, were very hostile to the party of Right Social Revolutionists. The vast majority of soldiers supported the Bolsheviki. The revolutionary element in the provinces divided their sympathies between the Left Social Revolutionists and the Bolsheviki. The sailors, who had played such an important role in revolutionary events, were almost unanimously on our side. The Right Social Revolutionists, moreover, had to leave the Soviets, which in October – that is, before the convocation of the Constituent Assembly – had taken the government into their own hands. On whom, then, could a ministry formed by the Constituent Assembly's majority depend for support? It would be backed by the upper classes in the provinces, the intellectuals, the government officials, and temporarily by the bourgeoisie on the Right. But such a government would lack all the material means of administration. At such a political center as Petrograd, it would encounter irresistible opposition from the very start. If under these circumstances the Soviets, submitting to the formal logic of democratic conventions, had turned the government over to the party of Kerensky and Chernov, such a government, compromised and debilitated as it was, would only introduce temporary confusion into the political life of the country, and would be overthrown by a n ew uprising in a few weeks. The Soviets decided to reduce this belated historical experiment to its lowest terms, and dissolved the Constituent Assembly the very first day it met.

For this, our party has been most severely censured. The dispersal of the Constituent Assembly has also created a decidedly unfavorable impression among the leading circles of the European Socialist parties. Kautsky has explained, in a series of articles written with his characteristic pedantry, the interrelation existing between the Social-Revolutionary problems of the proletariat and the regime of political democracy. He tries to prove that for the working class it is always expedient, in the long run, to preserve the essential elements of the democratic order. This is, of course, true as a general rule. But Kautsky has reduced this historical truth to professorial banality. If, in the final analysis, it is to the advantage of the proletariat to introduce its class struggle and even its dictatorship, through the channels of democratic institutions, it does not at all follow that history always affords it the opportunity for attaining this happy consummation. There is nothing in the Marxian theory to warrant the deduction that history always creates such conditions as are most “favorable” to the proletariat.

It is difficult to tell now how the course of the Revolution would have run if the Constituent Assembly had been convoked in its second or third month. It is quite probable that the then dominant Social Revolutionary and Menshevik parties would have compromised themselves, together with the Constituent Assembly, in the eyes of not only the more active elements supporting the Soviets, but also of the more backward democratic masses, who might have been attached, through their expectations not to the side of the Soviets, but to that of the Constituent Assembly. Under such circumstances the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly might have led to new elections, in which the party of the Left could have secured a majority. But the course of events has been different. The elections for the Constituent Assembly occurred in the ninth month of the Revolution. By that time the class struggle had assumed such intensity that it broke the formal frames of democracy by sheer internal force.

The proletariat drew the army and the peasantry after it. These classes were in a state of direct and bitter war with the Right Social Revolutionists. This party, owing to the clumsy electoral democratic machinery, received a majority in the Constituent Assembly, reflecting the pre-October epoch of the revolution. The result was a contradiction which was absolutely irreducible within the limits of formal democracy. And only political pedants who do not take into account the revolutionary logic of class relations, can, in the face of the post-October situation, deliver futile lectures to the proletariat on the benefits and advantages of democracy for the cause of the class struggle.

The question was put by history far more concretely and sharply. The Constituent Assembly, owing to the character of its majority, was bound to turn over the government to the Chernov, Kerensky and Tseretelli group. Could this group have guided the destinies of the Revolution? Could it have found support in that class which constitutes the backbone of the Revolution? No. The real kernel of the class revolution has come into irreconcilable conflict with its democratic shell. By this situation the fate of the Constituent Assembly had been sealed. Its dissolution became the only possible surgical remedy for the contradiction, which had been created, not by us, but by all the preceding course of events.

return return return return return

Last updated on: 17.12.2006