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Albert Goldman

Bolshevism and Democracy

Reply to A. Alper

(July 1939)

From New International, Vol.5 No.7, July 1939, pp.218-220.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Dear Comrade:

My negligence in failing to reply to your interesting letter is inexcusable. I can only plead that soon after I received it I was compelled to leave Chicago and not until comrade Burnham called my attention to the copy you sent to The New International did I remind myself that I had left your letter unanswered.

I shall deal first with the comment you make on the proposition stated in my pamphlet What is Socialism? to the effect that the use of force against farmers and other middle-class elements to compel them to adopt socialist methods is excluded. You think that, because the Russian Left Opposition criticized Stalin and Bukharin for turning their faces to the wealthier peasants, the conclusion can be drawn that we are not sincere in our protestations of peaceful intentions towards middle-class elements.

The questions of the attitude of the Russian Left Opposition to the peasants in the years 1923-1927 and of the use of force by the workers’ state to compel middle-class elements to adopt socialist methods are entirely distinct. Necessarily the workers in power will have to face the tremendously serious and difficult problem of obtaining food from the farmers. If the workers will be fortunate enough to have at their disposal industrial products with which to pay the farmers the problem will be easily solved. But if, because of lack of industrial development or because of the ruin caused by a prolonged civil war, the workers, temporarily at least, will be unable to give the farmers an adequate return for food products, then serious difficulties must ensue.

The workers’ state will then be faced with the practical question of how much pressure it is expedient to use against the farmers in order to obtain food for the urban population. Naturally in a backward country the problem will be a thousand times more difficult to solve than in an advanced country, so difficult indeed as to be insoluble without the extension of the revolution to industrially developed countries.

What the Left Opposition insisted on was the impossibility of permitting the peasants to grow rich and the workers at the same time to go without food. To permit such a state of affairs to continue for a long time is to grant the peasantry ever greater control of the destinies of the workers’ state and ultimately to assure the victory of the counter-revolution. It is not a question of using force to compel the peasants to adopt socialist methods but the use of the state power to prevent the peasants from choking the workers’ state.

When the Left Opposition opposed the forced collectivization methods of Stalin it did so on the ground that force should not be used to compel the peasants to adopt collectivization. They and other middle class sections should be convinced by example that they will be a thousand times better off if they use socialist methods than if they continue to own and operate their little plot of ground or their small business.

I shall not take up all the questions that you raise with reference to my article on Martov. One or two are really so insignificant that to deal with them would be a waste of time. Such is the point, for instance, that you make about my use of the word “occur” in the sentence where I expressed regret that the proletarian revolution first occurred in an economically backward country. Had I used the term “was made” I am afraid that you or some one else would have accused me of ignoring objective factors. I used the term “occur” in its broadest sense and did not intend to intimate that a revolution just happens without the intervention of the consciousness and will of human beings.

With reference to your accusation that I have misinterpreted Martov I can only say that after reading your letter I re-read Martov’s pamphlet and my article and I still cling to the inferences that I drew from the pamphlet. Please remember that I drew inferences and did not say that he said certain things. I still think that from his failure to discuss the policies of the Bolshevik party in relation to the specific conditions prevailing in Russia in the years 1919-1923 and for certain expressions in his pamphlet I am justified in concluding that Martov is “evidently of the opinion that, once having taken over state power, the Soviets are destined to function as instruments for the dictatorship of a minority”.

Let me repeat my central thought on the whole question of democracy and socialism. Socialism without democracy is inconceivable. Democracy is to be taken absolutely for granted when socialism has been achieved. The truest and widest democracy is also necessary during the transition period. But just as the Sabbath is not made for man but man for the Sabbath, so are democracy and democratic forms to be looked upon during the transition period as a means for achieving socialism. Just as good Christians and orthodox Jews violate the Sabbath under the pressure of circumstances so will democratic forms have to be violated by those who are sincerely devoted to the ideals of socialism and consequently understand the necessity for democracy. In other words, a Marxist cannot make a fetish of democracy. The degree of democracy, its limitations and extensions will be determined by conditions existing during and subsequent to the revolution. That is why I reject any arguments against the Bolsheviks when such arguments leave out of consideration the specific conditions of the Russian Revolution.

As I indicated in my article I am not at all ready to justify every single act of the Bolsheviks. It may be that they acted too arbitrarily in specific instances but he leaves the ground of Marxism who would demand that during a civil war in a predominantly peasant country all the forms of democracy should be strictly adhered to even for those who claim to be working-class opponents.

Suppose, you ask, workers’ democracy and public ownership clash? By that you mean to imply that a condition can arise where a majority of the workers, after having made the revolution, turn against it and hence against those who led the revolution. I can’t conceive of such a situation except when, due to tremendous suffering, the majority becomes weary and loses heart. Under such conditions it would become the duty of the vanguard to exert greater efforts to turn the tide in favor of the revolution and to lift the spirits of the apathetic majority. Those who have had any experience in strikes understand that at certain moments the majority becomes disheartened and the militant minority is able to change that mood by exerting superhuman efforts. Do you think that, rather than follow this method, we should immediately take a vote and give up the revolution? There is no question here of using force against the majority. That is excluded even from the point of view of effectiveness. What we are discussing now is a method of turning the tide going against the revolutionary forces.

I must admit that I do not see how every problem can be settled beforehand by a resolution to cling to all the formalities of democracy regardless of conditions. One would be compelled to go around with a ballot box and be prepared to take a vote on all questions that may conceivably arise. If the vanguard has confidence in its program and in its integrity, if it has the closest connections with the masses, if it follows correct policies and is ready at all times to change its incorrect policies, if the masses are permitted freedom to express their views, if, in other words, there exists a Marxian leadership, there can be no conflict between the masses and the vanguard. And if unfavorable conditions create such a conflict then the revolution is doomed.

He is hopeless who, after the Spanish events, does not realize the correct relationship between majority, democracy and leadership. The vast majority of the workers of Catalonia were under the influence of the anarchists who could have led the workers to a glorious struggle for power. Perhaps they would not have succeeded, but a thousand times rather die fighting for the power of the working class than for the miserable democracy of the bourgeoisie. The miserable role played by the anarchist leaders should once and for all quiet those who babble about being opposed to all forms of dictatorship.

If a revolutionary Marxian party had existed in Spain and led the workers to power would it have hesitated to suppress the Stalinists, the right-wing socialists, the petty-bourgeois liberals had they continued to insist on fighting for the support of English and French imperialism? And would it not have welcomed the cooperation of all groups who were willing to fight for a socialist republic?

We will aim for the purest kind of democracy but the class struggle will at times prevent the attainment of such a heavenly state. Given favorable economic conditions plus a favorable world situation plus correct leadership of a revolutionary Marxian party, then a successful revolution, the highest type of democracy and ultimately socialism are assured. Take away any one of these factors for a long period of time and we cannot hope to attain any one of the three objectives. And unfortunately there is no way of guaranteeing the simultaneous existence of all factors necessary to give us a perfect revolution.

You certainly emphasize Martov’s alleged prophetic superiority. He did not have to pass through the Stalinist experience to know that the proletarian revolution would not bring the results fought for by the Bolsheviks! Martov based his woeful predictions of degeneration on the theory that you evidently accept, namely, that Russia was not ready for a socialist revolution and the attempt of the Bolsheviks to accelerate the tempo permitted by the degree of economic development could not but lead to a dictatorship of a minority. The corollary of that theory is that the proletariat should have permitted the liberal bourgeoisie to guide the destinies of the Russian people.

A great deal has been written on this point and I do not propose to repeat any of the Marxian arguments against this Menshevik position. However, I want to ask you one question. If the Bolsheviks could give no guarantee against the degeneration of the revolution, could Martov and all the Mensheviks furnish us with a guarantee for the continued existence of bourgeois democracy until conditions ripened so that a socialist revolution could be made without any danger of such a degeneration ? Don’t you realize that the Russian masses were in actuality compelled to choose between going on to the proletarian revolution or submitting to the worst kind of reaction, that bourgeois democracy as a possible choice was practically excluded? It was not a choice between Kerensky or Lenin but between Lenin or Kornilov. Subsequent events in Western Europe are a crushing refutation of the theory that the proletariat could afford to wait before making its own revolution. The Mensheviks and Stalinists of today are trying to fight fascism by urging the masses to struggle for bourgeois democracy instead of for socialism. And if they succeed in deceiving the masses in the future as they have succeeded up to now, the masses will get ... fascism.

Ah, you say, did not Lenin and Trotsky make the mistake of thinking that the revolution in the more developed countries of Western Europe would come to the aid of the Russian Revolution ? Yes, they did make that mistake.

Let us therefore put it very plainly. The Bolsheviks made the historic gamble on a successful world revolution. They lost because the social democrats were too strong and had the masses too much under their control. The result: Stalinism. The Mensheviks of Germany and Italy gambled on the continued existence of bourgeois democracy. The result: fascism. Taking every factor into consideration we are more than justified in concluding that had the Bolsheviks not done what they did, the Russian masses would now be under the heel of fascism instead of Stalinism. You see no difference? Very well! But had the social democrats led the workers of Germany and Italy to the seizure of power it is as certain as anything can be that we would have had neither fascism nor Stalinism. With the actual choices confronting them the Bolsheviks would have been justified in taking even greater chances than they did.

It is very easy to play the role of a prophet of doom. Such prophets make the doom more certain and are thereby in a position to claim justification by history.

Under the best of circumstances the revolutionary party will be taking historic chances whenever it will decide to call upon the proletariat to make an attempt to achieve its freedom. And we must take those chances for, if we don’t, the workers will get the whips and scorpions of the fascists.

Stalinism has been a tremendous set-back to the revolution but fascism is still worse. Looked at from any angle, considered from the worst possible aspect there is no choice for a revolutionary Marxist but to place the seal of approval upon the audacious attempt of the Bolsheviks to start the world revolution. Perhaps we shall be more careful about the formal aspects of democracy but essentially we must follow in their footsteps.


Fraternally yours,

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