Leon Trotsky

Between Red and White

Democracy and the Soviet System

Now, having disposed of the historical review of the case, we may dwell upon some generalizations.

It happens that the history of Trans-Caucasia during the last five years provides a very instructive course of lessons on the subject of democracy during a revolutionary epoch. At the elections to the All-Russian Constituent Assembly not one of the Caucasian Parties came forward with a programme of secession from Russia. Some four or five months afterwards, in April, 1918, the Trans-Caucasian Diet, composed of the very same delegates that participated in the Constituent Assembly, resolved to secede and to form an independent State. Thus, upon the fundamental question of national existence – with Soviet Russia, or apart from and against her – nobody thought of consulting the wishes of the Trans-Caucasian population; there was no mention made of referendum, plebiscite, or new elections. The secession of Trans-Caucasia from Russia was resolved upon by the very same deputies that had been elected for the purpose of representing Trans-Caucasia at Petrograd, on the basis of the formless, vaguely democratic platforms of the first period of the Revolution.

At first the Trans-Caucasian Republic was proclaimed as a union of all the nationalities. But the situation that was created by the very fact of secession from Russia, and by the search for a new international orientation, led to the breaking up of Trans-Caucasia into three national parts: Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. As early as May 26, 1918, five weeks after the secession, the very same Diet, composed of members of the All-Russian Constituent Assembly, which created the Trans-Caucasian Republic, declared it dissolved. Again nobody consulted the masses of the people. No new elections, no other forms of consultation. First, without consulting the people it seceded from Russia – in the name of a closer union of the Tartars, Armenians and Georgians, as the leaders of the Diet explained. Next, at the first impetus from outside, the Tartars, Armenians and Georgians, were split up into three states, again without being consulted.

On the very same day the Georgian section of the Diet proclaimed the independence of the Georgian Republic. Nobody consulted the workers and peasants of Georgia; they were confronted with an accomplished fact.

In the course of the subsequent nine months, the Mensheviks were busy enforcing the ‘accomplished fact’: the Communists were driven underground, relations were opened with the Turks and Germans, peace treaties were negotiated, the Germans were replaced by the English and Americans, the Mensheviks carried out their fundamental reforms, and, above all, created their praetorian armed force in the shape of the National Guards. And only after this did they venture to convene the Constituent Assembly (in May, 1919) placing before the masses the necessity of electing representatives to the parliament of an independent Georgian Republic, of which they had previously neither heard nor dreamed.

But what does it all mean? If, let us say, Mac Donald were guilty of historical thinking, if, behind an historical movement, he were capable of seeing its living forces and interests, of distinguishing their real appearance from their disguise, their real motives from their pretexts, he would first of all have realized that the Menshevik politicians, these democrats par excellence, aimed at, and carried out, the most far-reaching measures in contravention of the methods of political democracy. It is true that they made use of the Trans-Caucasian fragment of the All-Russian Constituent Assembly. But they used it for purposes that were directly opposite to those for which it had been elected. Then they artificially bolstered up this remnant of the yesterday of the revolution, in order to counteract its tomorrow. They convened the Georgian Constituent Assembly only after they had deliberately driven Georgia into a situation where the people had no choice: Trans-Caucasia was torn away from Russia, Georgia from Trans-Caucasia, the British were in occupation of Batumi, unreliable White Guard friends were at the borders of the Republic, the Georgian Bolsheviks were outlawed. The Menshevik Party remained the only possible intermediary between Georgia and the Entente, upon whom its bread supply depended. Under these circumstances ‘democratic’ elections could mean nothing but the inevitable sanctioning of the whole chain of facts achieved by counter-revolutionary violence both by the Mensheviks themselves and by their foreign associates and protectors.

Compare this with the October Revolution, which we prepared openly, gathering the masses around the programme of ‘All Power to the Soviets’, building up the Soviets, struggling for the Soviets, and everywhere winning the majority of them against the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries, through persistent and uncompromising effort. On which side then was the real revolutionary democracy?

Here we must once more revert to some questions of the mechanics of revolution as we know it from the whole experience of modern history.

Up to the present, experience had shown that a revolution was possible only when the interests of the majority of the people and consequently of different classes, came into conflict with the existing system of property and state relations. The revolution, therefore, commenced with elementary ‘national’ demands which expressed the self-interest of the propertied classes, the short-sightedness of the middle class and the political backwardness of the proletariat. It was only in the process of the actual realization of this programme that the clashing interests manifested themselves in the camp of the revolution. Its propertied, conservative elements were gradually or at one blow thrown into the counter-revolutionary camp, while ever-increasing numbers from among the oppressed masses came out into the fray. Demands became more decisive, methods more implacable. The revolution here reached its culminating point. For further upward march it lacked either material prerequisites (the conditions of production) or a conscious political force (a party). The revolution then took a downward trend, for a short period or for a long historical epoch. The extreme party of the revolution was either driven from power, or it voluntarily curtailed its programme of action, pending a more favourable turn of events.

[We are giving here an algebraic formula of revolution without exact class outlines, but it suffices for our present purpose, since we are dealing with the correlation between the struggle of the living forces and the forms of democracy].

A representative institution inherited from the past (the Etats Generaux in France, the Imperial Duma in Russia), can at a certain moment give an impetus to the revolution and at the next moment become an obstacle.

A representative institution elected during the first period of the revolution inevitably reflects all its political primitiveness, naivete, benevolence and indecision. It is for this very reason that it soon becomes a brake on revolutionary development. If no revolutionary force that can overcome this obstacle is forthcoming, the revolution comes to a standstill and then recedes. The Constituent Assembly is swept away by a counter-revolution. Thus it happened in the revolution of 1848. General Wrangel [1] liquidated the Prussian Constituent Assembly, which proved unable to liquidate General Wrangel, and had not been itself liquidated in time by the revolutionary party. We also had our General Wrangel, of identical and obviously inherited proclivities. Yet we have liquidated him. We could do this because we had liquidated the Constituent Assembly in time. The Samara Constituent Assembly, for instance, repeated the Prussian experiment, finding its grave-digger in the person of Kolchak.

The French Revolution could for a time afford to operate by the side of unwieldy and laggard representative institutions, only because Germany at that time was a nonentity, while England, then as now, could hardly tackle a Continental country. Thus, the French Revolution, unlike our own, from the very outset enjoyed a prolonged external ‘respite’, which for a time allowed it to go on experimenting and adapting successive democratic representative forms to the requirements of the revolution. But, when the situation grew menacing, the leading revolutionary party did not squeeze itself into the mould of formal democracy, but, with the aid of the guillotine, hastily shaped the democracy to suit its political requirements. The Jacobins exterminated the right-wing members of the Convention and intimidated the centrists. The course of the revolution flowed not along the channel of democracy, but through the defiles and rapids of terrorist dictatorship.

History on the whole knows of no revolution that was accomplished in a democratic way. For revolution is a very serious contest, which is always settled, not according to form, but according to content. It happens quite frequently that individuals lose their fortunes and even their ‘honour’ when playing cards according to the rules of the game; but classes never consent to lose possessions, power and ‘honour’ by observing the rules of the game of ‘democratic’ parliamentarism. They always decide this question in grim earnest, i.e., in accordance with the real correlation of the material forces, and not with the phantom shadows of these forces.

No doubt even in countries like Britain with an absolute majority of proletarians, the representative institution called into being by a working class revolution will reflect, not only the first needs of the revolution, but also the monstrous conservative traditions of this country. The mentality of a present-day British trade union leader is a mixture of the religious and social prejudices of the period of the restoration of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the practical skill of a trade union official at the height of capitalist development, the snobbishness of a petty bourgeois fighting to be respectable, and the uneasy conscience of a labour politician who has repeatedly betrayed the workers. To this must be added the influences of intellectuals, of professors and Fabians; of the Socialist moralizings of Sunday preachers, the rationalist schemes of pacifists, the dilettantism of ‘Guild Socialists’, and the stubborn and haughty Fabian narrow-mindedness. Although the present social relations in Britain are quite revolutionary, yet her mighty historic past has deposited a conservative crust on the consciousness of not only the labour bureaucracy but also the upper strata of the more skilled engineers. The obstacles to social revolution in Russia are objective: the predominance of petty peasant farming, and technical backwardness in industry; in England these obstacles are subjective: the ossified consciousness of a collective Henderson and a hydra-headed Mrs. Snowden. The proletarian revolution will dispose of these obstacles by methods of elimination and self-purification. But it cannot hope to dispose of them in a democratic way. Mr. MacDonald himself will prevent such a consummation; not by his programme but by the mere fact of his conservative existence.

If the Russian Revolution – with the unsettled social relations existing within, and the ever present menace from without – had tied itself with the bonds of bourgeois democracy, it long since would have been found lying prostrate upon the highway with a knife in its throat. Kautsky has replied that the collapse of the Soviet Republic would not be a serious blow to the international revolution. But this has nothing to do with the case. We have no doubt whatever that the fall of the Republic of the Russian proletariat would lift a heavy stone from many a burdened heart. Everyone of them would triumphantly say: ‘I told you so!’ Kautsky could write his pamphlet No.1,001, wherein he would not explain why he himself is doomed to become a nonentity. We over here continue to think that the very fact that the Soviet Republic has not fallen during the most difficult years serves as the best testimony in favour of the Soviet system. Of course, it contains no miraculous power. But it proved sufficiently flexible to bring about the closest union between the Communist Party and the masses, and at the same time it enabled the Party to conduct the necessary manoeuvring, to retain the initiative and prevent the jeopardizing of the fundamental tasks of the revolution by yielding to the second-rate and third-rate chances of the parliamentary game. As regards the opposite danger – of becoming detached from the changes in the moods and the correlations of forces – the Soviet system has also demonstrated the highest vitality during the past year. The Mensheviks of the whole world have seized upon the phrase of the ‘Thermidor Stage’ [2] of the Russian Revolution. Yet it was not they, but we ourselves, who formulated this diagnosis. And, what is more important, the concessions to the Thermidor mood and tendencies of the petty bourgeois, necessary for the purpose of maintaining the power of the proletariat, were made by the Communist Party without effecting a break in the system and without quitting the helm. A thinking Russian professor, whom the revolution has taught something, has wittily described our new economic policy as ‘going down the hill with the brakes on.’ It is quite likely that this professor, in common with many others, considers this descent, of which we do not care to minimize the extent or significance, as something final and decisive. He will have to learn again, that however important the incidental deviations may be, our policy always regains and maintains its main course. In order to understand this it is necessary to measure our tactics, not with the measure of newspaper sensation-mongers, but on the scale of an epoch. At any rate, ‘going down the hill with the brakes on,’ from the point of view of the proletariat in power, has the same advantages as those which the bourgeois regime obtains by granting modern reforms which weaken the force of the revolutionary onslaught – a comparison which should appeal very much to Henderson, for the whole of his party is merely a safety brake for bourgeois society.

But what about the ‘decay’ of the Soviet system, so much spoken and written about by the Mensheviks of all nations for months and even years? Well, what they call ‘decay’ is closely associated with what has been described above as going down with the brakes on. The international revolution is passing through a process of molecular concentration of forces under the outward appearance of stagnation and even retreat. One phase of this process is our new economic policy. This difficult period of international relapse naturally affects the conditions and needs of the Russian toiling masses, and consequently the work of the Soviet system. Its administrative and economic apparatus has registered big successes during this period. But as mass representative institutions the Soviets could not, of course, maintain that high tension which characterized them during the first period of internal struggles or at moments of acute danger from outside. The humdrum activities of parliamentary parties, their combinations and intrigues, may achieve the highest ‘drama’ even amid the greatest oppression of the masses. The Soviet is not so independent of time and space. It reflects much more directly the life and sentiments of the masses. It is therefore monstrous to put down as a defect that which is its main virtue. Only the development of the revolution in Europe will again give a mighty impetus to the Soviet system.

Or perhaps one can ‘raise the spirits’ of the masses by means of the Menshevik opposition and the rest of the mysteries of parliamentarism? There is no lack of countries possessing parliamentary democracy. And yet, what do we see? It would take the dullest-witted professor of constitutional law or the most brazen renegade from socialism to deny the fact that the Russian toiling masses right now, even amidst the so-called ‘decay’ of the Soviet system, participate in directing all aspects of social life in a manner which is a hundred times more active, more direct, continuous and decisive than is the case in any parliamentary republic.

* * *

In all the countries that maintain the old parliamentary culture, quite a number of intricate mechanical contrivances have been evolved whereby the will of Capital is transmitted through a parliament based upon universal suffrage. In young and culturally more backward countries, democracy, reposing upon a peasant foundation, assumes a much more frank, and therefore instructive character. Just as one begins the study of animal organisms from the amoeba, so the study of the intricacies of British parliamentarism must be commenced by examining the practices of the Balkan constitutions.

The parties which have been dominant in Bulgaria, and have ruled the country ever since the commencement of its independent existence, were all the time engaged in a relentless struggle against each other, although their programmes were indistinguishable from each other. Every party, whether Russophile or Germanophile, on being called to power by the Prince, immediately dissolved the National Assembly and held new elections, which invariably gave the ruling party the overwhelming majority, leaving to the rival parties two or three seats. One of the parties that had been rendered almost extinct by the democratic elections was invited by the Prince two or three years afterwards to take office; it dissolved the National Assembly and held new elections which gave it, this time, the majority of the seats. The Bulgarian peasantry, who, by their cultural standard, and political experience, cannot be placed lower than the Georgians, invariably expressed their political will by voting for the party in power. And in a revolution, the peasantry support only that party which shows in practice that it can or does hold the power. This was the case with the Socialist-Revolutionaries after the March revolution of 1917. This was the case with the Bolsheviks after October. The ‘democratic’ domination of the Mensheviks in Georgia was substantially of a ‘Balkan’ character, although cloaked in the garb of a revolutionary epoch: that is, it relied upon the historically demonstrated inability of the peasantry, under the bourgeois system, to form their own party to guide the destinies of the state. Throughout modern history the programme and the lead were always given by the cities. The decisive character of a revolution depended upon the extent to which the peasant masses threw in their lot with the extreme Left parties of the cities. Thus it happened at Munster in Germany at the close of the Reformation. Thus it happened in the great French revolution, where the Jacobin clubs of the city could rely upon the village. The revolution of 1848 was defeated at its very beginning for the very reason that its weak left wing could not gain the support of the village, and the peasantry, in the person of the army, remained on the side of law and order. The present Russian revolution owes its success mainly to the fact that the workers managed politically to capture the peasantry by demonstrating to the latter their ability to govern.

In Georgia the small numbers and the backwardness of the proletariat, coupled with its isolation from the centres of the revolution, allowed an incomparably longer lease of power to the political alliance of the middle class intelligentsia and the more conservative groups among the workers. The Georgian peasants tried by unrest and rebellions to force their radical demands upon the government, but, as always, proved themselves incapable of taking power into their own hands. Their isolated rebellions were crushed. In the meantime, the parliamentary swindle went on.

The relative stability of the Menshevik regime was due to the political impotence of the unorganized peasant masses, which the Mensheviks artfully maintained. In this they succeeded, particularly by solving the question of actual authority, independently of the principle of government by the people, by organizing an independent armed force owing absolutely no allegiance to the democratic institutions. We mean the National Guard, of whom we have so far spoken only en passant. Yet this is the most important clue to the mysteries of a Menshevik democracy. The National Guard was under the direct authority of the President of the Republic, and was composed of carefully picked and well-armed adherents of the regime. Kautsky knows it: ‘only tried, organized comrades could obtain arms.’ (page 61) As a tried and organized Menshevik, Kautsky himself was enlisted as an honorary soldier of the Georgian National Guard. This is very touching, but National Guards do not go very well with democracy. Attacking the Bolsheviks, Kautsky writes in the same pamphlet: ‘If the proletariat or the proletarian army does not possess the monopoly of arms, it can retain power, in an agrarian country, only by winning the sympathy of the peasantry.’ (p.48) But what is the National Guard if not a monopoly of arms in the hands of the Menshevik Party? To be sure, along with the National Guard of the Menshevik dictatorship there sprang up in Georgia a regular army based on conscription. But the significance of this army amounted to almost nil. At the time of the overthrow of the Mensheviks, in February-March, 1921, the National Army took almost no part in the fighting, and, as a general rule, either went over to the Bolsheviks or surrendered without fighting. Perhaps Kautsky has different information upon this score? Let him divulge it. But first of all let him explain why was there need for a strictly picked and purely praetorian armed force if Georgian ‘democracy’ was maintained by the sympathy of the toiling masses? On this Kautsky utters not a word. MacDonald, as we know, does not deem it necessary to ‘bother over questions of revolution,’ especially since in Great Britain he has become accustomed to the sight of mercenary reactionary troops preserving ‘democracy.’

Yet, upon that little matter of the armed force of the regime, the apologists of Menshevik democracy keep silent. But in the hands of the National Guard was concentrated practically the entire authority of the State. Hand in hand with the Special Detachment, they dealt out executions and pardons, arrests, shootings and exiles. Without asking the Constituent talking-shop, they imposed conscription of labour by their own decree. Ferdinand Lassalle explained quite lucidly that cannon is the essential part of any constitution. The Georgian ‘Constitution’, as we see, was crowned by a National Guard armed to the teeth (according to Kautsky of 30,000 [3] Mensheviks), equipped, not with the programmes of the Second International, but with rifles and cannon, this most serious part of the constitution.

We remember, moreover, that in Georgia there were always foreign troops, invited by the Mensheviks for the express purpose of preserving the regime.

The Entente intelligence services, together with those of Denikin and Wrangel and the Menshevik Special Detachment, were active on a wide front, being always ready to oblige the National Guard or the troops of occupation in the ‘struggle with anarchy’, and thereby representing the most carefully worked out section of the Georgian Menshevik ‘Constitution’.

Under these circumstances the 82 percent majority of Mensheviks in the Constituent Assembly was merely the parliamentary reflection of the cannon of the National Guard, the Special Detachment, the British military expedition, and the Tbilisi solitary confinement prison. Such are the mysteries of democracy.

’And what about yourselves?’ we hear the angry rejoinder of Mrs. Snowden

About ourselves, Madam? First of all, Madam, comparing the number of institutions with the area of the country and the vastness of the population, the means adopted by the dictatorship of Georgian Menshevism were several times in excess of the governmental machinery of the Soviets. If you know the four rules of arithmetic, you can easily convince yourself of this. Furthermore, Madam, against us all the time was arrayed the entire capitalist world, whereas Georgia invariably enjoyed the protection of the same victorious imperialist countries that fought against us. And finally, Madam – and this is not unimportant – we have never and nowhere denied that our regime is one of class revolutionary dictatorship, and not a democracy, standing above class, relying upon itself for stability. We did not lie like the Georgian Mensheviks and their apologists. We are accustomed to call a spade a spade. When we take away political rights from the bourgeoisie and its political servants, we do not resort to democratic disguises, we act openly. We enforce the revolutionary right of the victorious proletariat. When we shoot our enemies we do not say it is the sound of the Aeolian harps of democracy. An honest revolutionary policy above all avoids throwing dust into the eyes of the masses.


1. A Prussian general of 1848, not the more famous White general.

2. From the date of 9th Thermidor when the Jacobin dictatorship was overturned in the great French Revolution.

3. This figure is much exaggerated. The Mensheviks even here did not miss an opportunity to deceive the esteemed admirer of the National Guard.

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Last updated on: 3.1.2007