Klara Zetkin

Through Dictatorship to Democracy


First published in English as a pamphlet in Glasgow by Socialist Labour Press in about 1926.
Translated by Eden and Cedar Paul.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford. [1]
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In a recent article entitled Democracy versus Dictatorship, Comrade Kautsky opposed the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry as it has been established in Russia by the bolshevist overthrow of the state authority. He expressed his dissent from the views of those socialists who have contended that in existing circumstances this dictatorship is historically justified. Substantially Kautsky’s opinions are identical with those recently published by Martoff, a menshevik comrade, in his writing Marx and the Problem of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. My answer to Kautsky’s criticism of the bolsheviks runs as follows:

Bolshevism and the Strong Hand

The use of the strong hand is the essential characteristic of bolshevist activity. This is not ideal, but unavoidable. It may be contrary to the prescriptions of democracy, and yet it subserves the interests of democracy. If, for all who live in Russia, democracy is to become an energy-diffusing socialistic reality, the bolsheviks cannot escape the necessity of sacrificing, as a transient measure, the rights of certain individuals and of certain social groups. That this should happen is an inevitable feature of historic evolution. Democracy is of a twofold nature, being simultaneously means and end of historic evolution. As end or goal of historic evolution it may come into conflict with itself as means of historic evolution. The dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry in Russia bears the insignia of this contradiction. Plaintive voices from Russia, the criticisms uttered by the adversaries of “bolshevism” in other lands, assure us that since the bolsheviks attained to power they have everywhere infringed and sacrificed democratic principles. Democracy, we are told, has repeatedly been given the go-by: in the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly; in the deprivations of civil rights announced in the soviet constitution; and in the declaration of the mass terror. Doubtless! But without such infringements could the revolution have been saved, could it have been carried a stage further, could the revolutionists have continued to work for socialism, which alone guarantees democracy for all? This is the crucial question, and for me the answer is self-evident, considering the circumstances attendant upon the Russian revolution.

Dissolution of the Constituent Assembly

I hold that the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, far from involving a sacrifice of democracy, made democracy more effective. No doubt that assembly had been elected upon the basis of a democratic suffrage, but the elections had taken place before the bourgeois watchwords and the bourgeois-socialist programme of compromise had lost their allurements for the broad masses of the workers. They had taken place before the decisive historic moment in which the November revolution and the acceptance of the soviet government by the organised workers, peasants, and soldiers, had effectively “condemned as partial and inadequate” the programmes of the two opening phases of the revolution and of the parties that had put these programmes forward. It should be added that, during the opening periods, the economic and social power of the possessing classes was still sufficient to exercise considerable influence upon the electoral results. The Constituent Assembly could not possibly be regarded as an unfalsified expression of the opinions and the will of the workers. In so far as in Russia we can speak of a popular will, that will was indubitably incorporated in the decisions of the soviets. Was the provisional soviet government to abdicate its real power in favour of the will-o’-the-wisp democracy of the Constituent Assembly? Was the soviet government to entrust the work of revolution to bourgeois hands, to hands that were itching to fetter, nay to strangle, this unruly intruder? Or was power to be handed over to the social revolutionaries, who had proved too weak to protect the revolution? To take such a step would have been no less foolish than criminal.

Revolutionary Wine and Parliamentary Bottles

There is another point to consider. The revolution had not arrested its progress at the goal of a bourgeois revolution. Transcending any such aim, it had revealed the titanic figure of a proletarian revolution, of one aiming at socialistic reorganisation. Had they accepted parliamentarism, the bolsheviks would have accepted an institution which, however important, is of very limited value; an institution which even in times of peaceful evolution has proved obviously inadequate to the needs of the proletarian struggle for emancipation; an institution which, adapted to the requirements of the capitalist order, must necessarily fail to meet the necessities of those whose purpose it is to subvert that order. It is undeniable that the proletariat must derive all the advantage that can be derived from parliamentary institutions. But parliament is one of those state institutions which a victorious proletariat cannot simply take over and use for its own purposes. The new revolutionary wine must not be poured into old bottles. From this outlook, “bolshevism” was assuredly justified in replacing the Constituent Assembly by the soviets, in replacing the activity of a determinative and legislative assembly, by the activity of organisations upon the broadest possible democratic basis, and simultaneously legislative, administrative, and executive.

Proletarian Dictatorship Provisional

It is undeniable that the democracy created by the soviet constitution is incomplete; it is incontestable that thereby large groups of persons are excluded from the suffrage. But the critics seem to forget that these disqualifications are merely provisional, that they will be enforced solely for the period during which the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry persists and must persist. The constitution leaves no doubt upon this matter. The dissolution of Old Russia, the coming of New Russia, are not yet so far advanced as to enable the soviet government with one stroke of the pen or with a single mighty blow to abolish private ownership of the means of production. In Russia, the knell of private property has not yet sounded, the hour for the expropriation of all expropriators has not yet struck. Minorities still possess economic power and social power, can still use and misuse these powers against the overwhelming majority of the workers. Is political power to be superadded, to enable them to pursue their egoistic aims in defiance of the interests of the community at large? Let us clear our minds of phrases; let us cut loose from formalities; let us cease to reiterate the shibboleth that “the masses have the right and the power” to counteract the anti-social machinations of the possessing minorities. Is it not obvious that, in reality, things will be very different until economic freedom and economic equality shall have endowed the entire nation with spiritual freedom and maturity? Who would not laugh at a military commander so unwise as to send artillery and shells as a gift to the hostile army? Yet the Bolshevists are supposed to have committed a deadly sin in that they refused to arm and equip the reactionary minorities for the struggle against the revolution. This too at the very moment when revolution and counter-revolution were at life-and-death grips; when the counter-revolution was not merely supported by all the reactionary energies of Russia, but was being furnished by the Allied governments with troops, money, and moral support.

Measures of Military Necessity

The dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, the use of forcible measures against opponents, the declaration of the mass terror - these are bitter fruits of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. They must be regarded as measures of military necessity. “A la guerre comme la guerre.” (When you are making war, make war.) The bolshevist leaders of revolutionary Russia are engaged in a war of unparalleled significance. Here the moral and political standards of everyday life fail us. On this colossal stage, individual measures and individual phenomena are dwarfed into insignificance. The drama is one of overwhelming historic import, and it must be accepted or rejected as a whole. Who wills the ends must not shrink from the means. A proletarian revolution aiming at socialism cannot be effected without dictatorship. Above all is this true under existing conditions in Russia.

The Appeal to Marx

The, ungracious critics of our Russian friends do not, indeed, absolutely reject dictatorship on principle. What they take amiss is the character of the dictatorship in Russia. Karl Kautsky endeavours to prove that dictatorship and democracy must go hand in hand. The dictatorship must not sacrifice democratic principles but must realise them. The dictatorship must be an effluence of democracy. It most subserve the will of the majority and the interests of the majority. According to the critics, neither of these requirements is fulfilled in Russia. The small bolshevist minority, we are told, employing brutal and forcible measures. constrains the overwhelming majority of Russians to accept bolshevist policy. This policy, far from safe-guarding the revolution, endangers the revolution; far from advancing socialism, compromises socialism. This is the kernel of the critical onslaughts, which are directed at a mark beyond “bolshevism,” which aim at clarifying, at revising, the theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat. We are given chains of logical inferences, attempts at a new outline of the concept of dictatorship, as contrasted with the old theory, which is rejected as “blanquist” or “Jacobin” The arguments are, of course, peppered with appeals to Marx and Engels, and with quotations from these authors. I have carefully read the expositions, but my general outlook upon the question, upon the application of the doctrine to the special case of the Russian revolution, and upon the part played by the bolsheviks in that revolution, remains unchanged. As concerns the contentious questions of our own day, what does it matter whether the historic phenomena which Marx witnessed during his lifetime led him to codify his conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat; what does it matter if, having at first been inclined to a “Jacobin” outlook, he subsequently came rather to adopt an “evolutionist and parliamentarist” view. With all due deference to Comrade Martoff’s wide knowledge of Marxist theory, and to the indisputable acumen with which he applies that theory, we may none the less feel inclined to challenge his deductions, and the way in which he contrasts his interpretation of Marx with the dictatorship exercised by the bolsheviks. But even if we believe Martoff to be right concerning Marx’s opinions and concerning the applicability of those opinions to the Russian situation, there is one simple fact still to be remembered, and it is that historical evolution was not arrested when the pen fell from Marx’s hand.

The New Capitalism

Since that day, the capitalist economy has not merely grown, but has exhibited entirely new phenomena, phenomena of notable importance. To enumerate a few of these, we have: formation of rings, trusts, and syndicates; the assumption of the premier place in industry by iron and steel products in place of textiles; the revolutionary transformation effected by improvements in electrical technology; the interlacements of industrial capital, commercial capital, and banking capital to constitute financial capital, and the world-wide dominion of the latter, etc. In the home policy and the foreign policy of all the more highly evolved states can be traced the influence of a further developed and maturer capitalism. Although on the surface the amenities of life now seem to have improved, the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie has in reality been intensified. Among the struggling classes we see a medley and a confusion of impulses towards far-reaching settlements and dread of such settlements, of great schemes and little deeds. The dominant classes are increasingly inclined to cling to the fugitive political past. We note the decay of bourgeois parliamentarianism, and its more and more obvious incapacity to assist the proletarian struggle for freedom towards decisive issues. Above all we are impressed by the mighty expansion of imperialism, with its insatiable thirst for world dominion, with its overgrown armaments, its colonial undertakings and its wars, its extremist policy of exploitation and oppression alike at home and abroad.

Marxism a Progressive Doctrine

Who dares maintain that in face of the developments of the last decades, Marx, an out-and-out revolutionary thinker, would not have modified his conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat in accordance with the teaching of towering facts? If we assume Comrade Martoff to be right as to the theory Marx held more than forty years ago, can we not rest assured that Marx would have revised that theory had he been alive today. To Marx, theory was something greater than a means of elucidating the world; it was a means for transforming the world. But, for this very reason, he never regarded his theories as eternal and immutable truths to which reality must conform; for him, reality always remained the object of research, the thing to be conscientiously investigated, the thing from which his theories were acquired, and in accordance with which his theories must in case of need he modified. I am confident that at this juncture Marx’s conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat would display remarkably little similarity with the meek and lowly ideal, the ideal of those who aim only at harmony and at the co-operation of all persons of “good will,” the ideal which bashfully simpers at us from the expositions of the adversaries of bolshevism. Marx’s revolutionary intelligence was as keen as a sword; his heart glowed with revolutionary fire; his revolutionary will was hard as steel. Marx was ever a revolutionary fighter, a man of action, and I cannot believe that he would be found to-day among the critics of bolshevism.

On paper “the dictatorship of the proletariat” and “the ideal of complete democracy” may be linked with the simple copula. In the world of reality, it is otherwise. The historic essence of dictatorship is dominion - stark, coercive dominion. Without infringing the rights and interests of minorities, it is as impossible as the quadrature of the circle. The historic justification of the dictatorship of the proletariat lies in this, that the dictatorship is exercised in the interests of the enormous majority of the population, and that it is no more than a means of transition, for it aims at suspending itself, at rendering itself impossible, at realising the ideal of democracy - a free people, in a free land, living by free labour.

The Perdurability of Bolshevism

Our anti-bolsheviks deny that the extant dictatorship in Russia possesses these justifications. They declare that the bolshevik dictatorship is the work of an inconsiderable minority of dogmatists and fanatics who, in the interests of narrow-minded partisan conceptions and a narrow partisan policy, desire by the brutal exercise of force to constrain the enormous majority of the Russian people to swallow the bolshevist prescriptions now and for the future. Whence do those who hold such views derive the certainty that the bolshevist policy is that of an inconsiderable minority of Russian workers and peasants? In my opinion, the number, the loudness, and the passion of the attacks on the coercive rule of the Bolsheviks should not make us overestimate the extent or the importance of serious hostility to the policy of the soviet government. It is an old experience, and one readily explicable, that, in the struggles of faction, minorities which are greatly outnumbered are apt to display peculiar violence. It is for them a natural need to convince the world that in spite of defeat they have power and are in the right.

Who will deny that many of the workers, numbers of the peasants, and above all most of the intelligentsia, neither share the views nor endorse the policy of the bolsheviks? None the less, a very large proportion, if not the majority, of those proletarians and peasants who take an active interest in political matters, support the bolsheviks, and the same is true of the social revolutionaries of the left. This opinion is confirmed by the fact that those who are, it is alleged, in an infinitesimal minority, though reproached with errors, deeds of violence, breaches of principle, and so on, have retained power for a considerably longer period than that for which the provisional governments of the two opening phases of the revolution hold sway. Moreover, this has taken place under conditions of almost unprecedented difficulty, throughout the terrible ordeal of the peace of Brest-Litovsk, and in face of the ever-present menace of famine. The anti-bolsheviks may say what they please, but the mere use of force cannot account for the perdurability of the soviet government - which has lasted far longer than is usual in time of revolution. No minority whose power rested only upon force could continue in such circumstances and for so long a time to sit on bayonets.

Through Dictatorship to Democracy

The persistence of soviet rule, which, the confident prophets assured us, could not possibly last more than a few weeks, enables us to infer with certainty that this government is supported by the broad masses of the Russian people. The bolsheviks, and the left social revolutionaries who co-operate with them, constitute the stalwart framework of the Russian revolutionary army. Through their readiness for action, through their capacity, they inspire confidence in the masses and rally the masses to their support. The need for dictatorship shows us, indeed, that the number and importance of the opponents of the soviet government must by no means be underestimated. Power must he used to repress power. Our hope is that the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry will maintain itself long enough to abolish itself when it has fulfilled its function and reached its goal. For whereas during the two opening periods of the revolution the path of the governments led from the fine ideal of democracy to the harsh and cruel reality of dictatorship, the path of the soviet dominion will lead from the harsh and cruel reality of dictatorship to the beautiful and realised dream of democracy.


Transcriber’s Note

1. This short pamphlet was translated by Eden and Cedar Paul and published by the Socialist Labour Press, in Glasgow in about 1926 but the pamphlet is not dated and this seems to be the case from internal evidence since it contains a picture of Zetkin taken when she was 69.

The German text seems much earlier - 1919 has been suggested by Einde O’Callaghan


Last updated on 6.7.2004