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The New International, July 1939


A. Alper

Bolshevism and Democracy

[Query to Albert Goldman]


From New International, Vol.5 No.7, July 1939, pp.216-218.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Dear Comrade,

I apologize for encroaching upon your valuable time.

Permit me to express my appreciation of your most beneficial pamphlet What Is Socialism, its clarity and precision. There are however one or two points upon which I would esteem some further enlightment. For instance: on p.30 on the question of middle-class collaboration with the workers for the achievement of socialism you conclude by saying,

“Force against the farmers and other middle-class elements to make them adopt socialist methods is absolutely excluded.”

“This sounds very well,” some will tell you, particularly those who happen to know the fate that befell those classes in Soviet Russia after the workers took power under the direction of Lenin and comrade Trotsky themselves and not under Stalin. “You are cooing like a dove now, but can we trust you after you will have assumed power, judging by past experience?” By your deeds and not by your words ye shall be known. During the NEP period when those classes obtained a bit of a respite it was just the left opposition under the leadership of comrade Trotsky himself which raised the hue and cry “What did we fight for”? and that the Revolution was lost or surrendered. What is one to answer to this? False denials would not be in accordance with your ideas surely ? Shall we then adopt the attitude that it was all a mistake or that Bolshevism in a civilized country will not be as crude as it was in Russia?

On p.41, dealing with the question of democracy “When the workers take over political power”, you assert that

“It would include the right to organize groups and parties with a program opposed to the ruling party and which the members of the group believe to be in the interest of the working class.”

Now this again did not prove in practise. The communist party monopoly, the prohibition of other working-class parties or even actions within the communist party itself again took place under Lenin and Trotsky. Stalin inherited the practise and turned it to his own use.

On the question of democracy and Russia again. It is clear that there are two essentials in a state entitled to be designated as socialistic and these are: State or public ownership of the means of production and exchange and workers’ democracy; in other words, ownership and control cannot be separated for any length of time with immunity. Either one or the other must in time be eliminated. What however is the position when the two, workers’ democracy and public ownership, are likely to clash?

Assuming as a case in point, Stalin or the Politbureau or whoever lays down the policy in the USSR, honestly believe that permitting real workers’ democracy the latter is likely to sacrifice or encroach upon the principle of public ownership; what then? which of the two ends of the axis is it their duty to uphold?

I will be greatly obliged to receive your reply to these points. If you consider it a waste of your good time to write to me individually you might deal with these points in The New International. Commenting further upon the last question. Comrade Trotsky in his polemics in one of the recent New Internationals asserts that it would be too much to expect the majority of the workers to wish socialism without being first educated to it by the vanguard, which is the same thing as saying that the vanguard, otherwise the party, even though in a minority, once it gets hold of power is entitled to force socialism upon the people. Is this your view? And is this the view of the Fourth International? It is not so much the moral aspect of it that I am questioning as the expediency of judging by USSR results. It is obvious that a minority can enforce its will only through a bureaucracy and such, once created, refuses to be dissolved and creates the antithesis to the very idea of socialism. “No devil eats his own claws,” to quote comrade Trotsky. After having written the above The New International of December reached me. I find in this issue your article entitled Martov’s Mysticism. I also received by the same mail that booklet you endeavor to analyze so diligently. [1] As it touches on those very questions dealt with in my letter, I made a thorough study both of the publication and your criticism. Without any desire to give the impression of impoliteness I regret to have to state that your criticism convinced me more of the correctness and soundness of Martov’s reasoning than the publication itself. With your permission and offering a further apology for encroaching upon your time I propose therefore to go through the former in some considerable detail.

The main question at issue seems to be whether Stalinism was or was not a natural and logical outcome of “October”. You claim that it was an “unexpected and disappointing result”, and that “not having had any experience with Stalinism the proponents of Soviets in the early days of the revolution did not discuss the problem of their possible or probable degeneration and the course for such degeneration.” Now, unexpectation and lack of experience are merely signs of laxity and lack of expertness in the actors but surely this is not an answer to and a criticism of those who have shown a better comprehension of the situation, and a foresight of what was coming.

In the immediate paragraph though you proceed to upset your own argument by telling your readers of “the constant attempts by Lenin and other prominent Bolsheviks to rid the Soviets of bureaucratic distortion”, so that it was not so unexpected after all.

What is more important however is that you do not refute the allegations in the postscripts to the pamphlet on page 31 where Lenin and the Central Executive Committee of the party approved of “one person dictatorship” or on page 10 where Lenin in his note to Kursky called for the execution by shooting of Mensheviks and Social Revolutionists.

“If any one is guilty of mysticism it is Martov who evidently is of the opinion that, once having taken over state power, the Soviets are destined to function as the instrument for the dictatorship of a minority.”

I regret to say that I could not find such evidence in Martov’s publication.

“Martov’s criticism of the functioning of the Soviets in the days of Lenin may or may not be justified” – I am glad to notice the partial admission – “but it remains an intricate puzzle why any one should consider that the manner in which the Russian Soviets functioned is something inherent in Soviets as such, regardless of time, place and conditions. It is difficult to see how Martov in criticizing the practises of the Russian Soviets should have failed to discuss the problem whether the Soviets functioned as they did because of specific Russian conditions or because Soviets by their very nature are incapable of functioning in a democratic manner.”

I find it incomprehensible how one who read the pamphlet in question can make such assertions. The weight and center of the whole publication is a criticism of the assumption that Soviets were a kind of talisman and a panacea for all ills, irrespective of whether the people to whom it is applied are in a fit state educationally, economically and technically to benefit by and utilize them. I am glad to see in the paragraph following the one quoted yourself admitting that “the mere existence of Soviets” does not absolutely guarantee the victory of the proletariat; you however are in the position of the one who is wise after the occurrence. Why then assail the one who could foresee and foretell? To continue quoting:

“Assume for a moment that the Soviets, immediately after the October Revolution could and would have functioned in the most democratic manner imaginable, it still remains true that the continued existence of Soviet democracy and of the Soviets themselves would be determined, in the last instance, by social and economic factors, and not by the mere existence of democracy.”

Are we then to understand that democracy by itself has no influence at all on the social and economic factors? Such being the case, of course, democracy resolves itself into a hollow and useless shell. But such is not apparently the view held by comrade Trotsky, as one gathers again from the following paragraph.

“As pointed out by Trotsky in his Revolution Betrayed, the political safeguards described by Marx, Engels and Lenin as essential to a workers’ state are not sufficient to prevent its degeneration ... Under favorable conditions democracy within the Soviets is absolutely essential to assure the building of a socialist society. But it cannot prevail over unfavorable conditions.”

Exactly. The question only which calls for an answer is: Why introduce Soviets under unfavorable conditions? and this is exactly what Martov criticized.

Your answer to it seems to be that “unfortunately the proletarian revolution first occurred in economically and culturally backward Russia.”

To repeat, there are no occurrences in nature. An “occurrence” is merely a symptom of a subjective absence of understanding of the laws of nature, physical or social. To interpret the October Revolution as an occurrence is to throw a slur on the creators of that revolution; is a contradiction of the foundation of the teaching of the Bolsheviks who claim that it is up to them to direct history consciously and not to remain merely, as hitherto, blind objects of historical forces; and is above all not true to historical facts.

Surely a revolution planned and timed premeditatively, such as the October Revolution was, cannot be styled an “occurrence”

“It cannot be too frequently repeated, and the fate of the Soviets under Stalin makes it obligatory upon us to do so, that socialism cannot be achieved without the completest Soviet democracy.”

Too true. No one would appreciate your admission more than Martov himself were he with us. But again one must point to the difference between the expert and the layman. It was not necessary for Martov to live through the epoch of Stalin and his purges before he could realize this obvious truth.

“But he leaves the firm ground of Marxism who would make a fetish of democracy, something more than to achieve socialism.”

I expect that you can take a horse to the water but you cannot make it drink. To the extent that democracy does not appreciate and desire the bringing about of socialism, it cannot be achieved successfully. The people do not see the difference between Stalin’s and Hitler’s socialisms.

“We can and must enunciate general rules of democratic procedure but not to recognize that there may possibly arise situations (necessarily, they must be extraordinary) when it would be justifiable to deprive a minority group of its rights is to forget that there is such a thing as a class struggle.”

Now if this is meant to refer to Martov’s publication by one who read it I cannot even style it a misquotation,; falsification would be the more appropriate term. Not only does Martov nowhere in this pamphlet cavil at the deprivation of a minority of its suffrage, he rather makes it clear more than once that such an action would not, in his opinion, clash with the principles of democracy. What Martov takes objection to is the system of depriving the majority of the elementary rights of democracy such as described very clearly by yourself.

“Together with universal suffrage there must exist under a Soviet regime that right of groups to organize and adhere to their own parties in opposition to the dominant party; freedom of press and of assembly; the protection of the individual against arbitrary acts of government officials; a fair and impartial trial for everyone accused of a violation of any law. In other words, all democratic rights which a bourgeois-democratic republic boasts about but limits in actual practise should prevail in a Soviet republic. And not only for workers but also for members of the former ruling class. A proletarian government under normal conditions has nothing to fear from any bourgeois group.”

Agreed. You do not suggest that so it worked out in practise under the Soviets headed by Lenin and Trotsky at the time Martov wrote this article in exile. One wonders then where is the cause for your attack at present on the latter ? More so when you seem to be driven by your own logic to admit that Martov was right practically on every point. Martov never suggested that Soviets of a kind might have suited or will suit one day to the USA. You claim:

“It is senseless to think that the workers can achieve victory without a leadership formulating correct tactics and strategy.”

Perfectly correct. But immediately the leader wields the knout he ceases to be a leader and becomes a satrap and that is what Martov and I with him object to again, it is not a case of an emotional reaction; it is not the moral aspect that agitates me – bad as it is – but rather the one of expediency. Satrapy never did and never will bring socialism.

Now I will endeavor to offer a resume analysis of the situation to the best of my ability ... I posit that the Russian 1917 Revolution was historically merely a continuation and a completion in Europe of the French bourgeois revolution, finally dispensing with feudalism. That the Bolshevik Party Russian program up to February 1917 consisting of the three piers – land td the peasants, democratic republic and an eight hour day – was the correct line, leaving for the workers of the more advanced countries in Western Europe to strike out for the achievement of socialism. That Lenin’s conversion to comrade Trotsky’s viewpoint that the Russian Revolution once started will be transformed into a world socialist revolution, which conversion took place as a result of his (Lenin’s) being carried away with enthusiasm following February and which resulted in his April theses, was a miscalculation on his part and to the extent that great men influence the course of history was a historical misfortune. True, it was calculated to set the ball rolling; to start and wait for the workers of the world to complete the socialist revolution. This as we know now, to our regret and sorrow, did not materialize. The premature Russian start unfortunately acted not, as expected, as an infection to the world body politic but rather as an inoculation. It acted thus in several ways. It put the world bourgeoisie on its guard. Prior to the Russian revolution its more practically-minded section did not take the Marxist propaganda seriously; it was thought to be an illusion without

possibility of execution.

The desolation and havoc again created by this untimely attempt repelled the more sedate section of the workers, hence the refusal of the German and Italian workers at the time to tread the Russian thorny path and hence Bolshevism was transformed into a scarecrow. The forcing of the Third International’s inauguration – by Tammany methods (see Balabanov, My Life as a Rebel) – divided the workers of the world into two hostile camps and thus played into the hands of the ruling classes.

The suppression of every vestige of freedom of expression for the masses necessitated by their immaturity and technical unpreparedness for socialism called for its justification and thus brought forward a spate of propaganda deprecating what was termed “bourgeois democracy”. The result was that the importance of democratic rights and forms was minimized and annulled in the eyes of the more revolutionary-minded workers who were naturally followers of the Third International. Obedience and discipline became the motto; reason and logic were scorned.

The creation of such a state of mind among the workers suited the aspiring ambitious demagogues in the opposite camp very much indeed. They learned a lesson. They realised the frailty and futility of the masses. They learned, or they thought they did, that once you allow the people to hear one side only you can easily convince them that black is white; words lost meaning in consequence. The drawing by the subsequent dictators upon the experience of the Bolsheviks in method and technique can hardly be denied or disputed, in fact it is questionable whether they managed to improve; rather did they take it over holus-bolus. It is a clear case of unity of opposites.

If and to the extent that there is any method and sincerity in the Stalinist line, conscious or subconscious, it is a realization of the error and an attempt to retreat and to rectify it, except that Stalin is apparently too vain and cowardly to admit it. The prosecution then of the old Bolsheviks, accusing them of Trotskyism, is quite justifiable, except that Stalin ought to be man enough to put himself in the dock alongside the others.

Sir, I hope you will not interpret the above as an attack or criticism on comrade Trotsky. There is not a person alive or dead for whose intellectual capacities or for whose uprightness I have greater admiration. Still this is how the situation appears to me and nothing would give me greater happiness than to have my errors – if any – rectified. Hoping you will find it worth your while to analyze and criticize it either privately or in the press, I remain, thanking you, with comradely greetings.


A. Alper
Jan. 19, 1939


Footnote by ETOL

1. This refers to the Martov collection, The State and the Socialist Revolution, published in 1938 by International Review, New York. It contained 3 essays by Martov: Marx and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, The Ideology of “Sovietism” and Decomposition or Conquest of the State which are all available in the Julius Martov Internet Archive.

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