Muste Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Reply to Liberal Critics

A.J. Muste

A Reply to Liberal Critics of Bolshevism

The Position of the Workers Party on Proletarian Dictatorship
and Worker’s Democracy in Light of Recent Events

(13 July 1935)

From New Militant, Vol. I No. 29, 13 July 1935, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

(Continued from last issue)

First of all we may observe that while it is true that we do not have a Fascist regime in the U.S. and that it can only be misleading and silly to talk as if we did have, those who in these days are so vociferously proclaiming the joys of life under American democracy as contrasted with the repressions and horrors under “dictatorship whether Fascist or Communist,” are unquestionably unrealistic and sentimental in their view of the United States. We know that the ordinary worker and farmer does not have this sense of perfect liberty and profound happiness. Millions of them are free – free to spend their youthful powers in a few years on the chain-gang in the production line in a mass-production factory; free to eke out an existence “in the midst of plenty” by means of a public works job at the Rooseveltian “security wage” of four to twelve dollars per week; free to organize, strike, picket, vote the ticket of their choice and so on, provided they do not mind being kicked out of a job, seeing their families suffer privation, getting dubbed over the head, thrown into jail, possibly shot in the back. Consider that the economic crisis has not reached any such proportions here as in many other countries, that there is here no such daily and hourly peril of invading armies as many nations have to face, that at the moment there is no force which can remotely threaten the continuance of the existing government. Then recall that every edition of every paper brings fresh stories of clubbing, gassing, jailing, shooting, murdering of men and women trying to assert the right to organize and bargain collectively in conservative trade unions. Then ask to what extent civil liberties are a reality, and not merely a traditions or a myth in “democratic” United States. Consider the economic, political and social disabilities under which millions of Negroes labor. Consider the plight of the Jews and of “foreigners” in a nation where economic tension is as yet a far distance from the breaking point.

Freedom and Fascism

It is, furthermore, a fallacy to suppose that we can retain the measure of freedom we now possess, if only we can maintain our economic system based on free enterprise and our political democracy against both Fascism and Communism. It is precisely the attempt to maintain the capitalist system which leads under modern conditions with fatal precision to the resort to Fascism. Capitalism itself, the present ruling class, will – unless the workers and their allies prevent – in the effort to maintain itself destroy every vestige, every pretense of democracy and civil rights, will appeal to the basest racial and national prejudices, will establish an open and brutal dictatorship. Why? Simply because the time when capitalism can maintain profits and at the same time make concessions to the workers, better the standard of living, is past. Now it maintains itself only by taking away even such concessions as it once gave. It must drive the standard of living even lower. But obviously if the masses have any freedom at all, any means for protest and self-expression, any workers or farmers union, party, press, – then no matter how peaceful, legal, respectable, meek they may be, they will at some point offer resistance. They will try to fight for mere existence. But this threatens the existence of capitalism. Therefore it wipes out “democracy”, smashes every trade union, farmers’ organization and political party, degrades the intellectuals, and hounds and destroys minority groups. It is not by maintaining capitalism that we can maintain democracy and escape dictatorship.

Those who declaim against “red terror” and present imposing lists of its victims and catalogues of its social and psychological effects need also to be reminded over and over again not only of the numerous instances of “white terror” and the abominable excesses of Fascism, but of that most colossal and obscene terror of all – war. War which in its modern form is the natural and inevitable by-product of capitalist-imperialist rivalries, which kills millions of its victims, itself abrogates all civil liberties and makes the individual the puppet of an absolutist state if indeed it does not deprive him of his reason altogether.

This is, however, only the negative side of the case. If we could indeed offer the workers, farmers and the professional and technical groups only a choice of terrors in the future, they could hardly be blamed for emulating Hamlet and clinging desperately to those ills they have under so-called democracy rather than flying to evils which they have not yet experienced. The revolutionary internationalist does offer a positive alternative to the masses – an enhancement of well-being and of freedom.

The Workers’ State

The Workers’ State is a dictatorship. As Marxists we believe that and we do not attempt to conceal it. But it is important to understand the sense in which the term is here used, and Marxists have not always been too careful and accurate on this point. So long as there are classes, every government is in essence a dictatorship – of the ruling class over whatever other classes there may be. Whether at a given moment, however, this rule expesses itself as an open and avowed dictatorship, resorts to open and extensive terrorism, etc., depends upon whether this is necessary to the ruling class. The facts are clearly suggested in that sentence of our Declaration of Principles which says: “The political forms of capitalist society (monarchy, democracy, military dictatorship, fascism) are only the means by which the actual dictatorship of the controlling minority expresses itself.”

The political expression of the proletarian dictatorship is the Soviet or Workers’ State. Workers of all categories – industrial, agricultural, technical, clerical, professional – will be organized on a functional basis into Workers Councils. Through the Councils functioning in a democratic manner, under the control of their membership, the workers will have a much more direct and simple way of sharing in the determination of the policies which affect their well-being than they have under the farcical electoral system which exists in the U.S. today. Furthermore, in a country with the resources and the technical equipment of the U.S. an immediate improvement of the standard of living and relief from insecurity could be provided if the capitalist brakes upon production were released, and this too would have the psychological effect of liberation on the masses now haunted by the spectre of insecurity and enslaved to fear.

Dealing with Enemies

It is true that parasites will be disfranchised in the Workers’ State and that repressive measures will be used against those who conspire to overthrow the new regime and bring back the horrors of capitalism, unemployment, war – that is to say, those who want to abolish the dictatorship of the majority over the minority and bring back the dictatorship of the minority over the majority under which we now live. The extent and the character of these repressive measures, and the length of time during which they may be enforced, will depend primarily, as has been repeatedly demonstrated in revolutionary periods, upon the extent to which the new regime may be threatened with destruction from outside and upon the counter-revolutionary movements within. Life was not altogether peaceful and comfortable in the U.S. during and for some time after the Revolutionary War, nor in France during and after the Great French Revolution. It took four years of Civil War in these United States to smash the slave-holding aristocracy of the South, even after a president and congress representing a new class had been elected by parliamentary methods, and there was a considerable interruption of normal activities. It is thus that social change of a fundamental character is effected. The fact is not usually regarded as an argument for setting the clock back – if that could be done. And, in view of all that has been said, we are not among those who raise pious protests or shed crocodile tears when the Soviet Union takes whatever measures may be necessary against the class enemies, internal or external, of the Workers’ State, What causes us to protest and shudder – what constitutes indeed a tragic menace to the well-being of the masses in the modern world, to the entire future of humanity – is not the proletarian dictatorship, nor the mistakes and excesses which it may have committed, nor the dominant role of the revolutionary party in the Workers’ State. So long as classes exist, government will be in essence dictatorship. Human beings are nowhere infallible. Without a disciplined, devoted, heroic party of the vanguard elements the accomplishment of the modern revolutionary task is inconceivable.

The crime of the Stalin regime is that it has abandoned and destroyed the organization principle on which the revolutionary party must be built and thus has corrupted the party and transformed the proletarian dictatorship into a caricature of workers’ democracy. No greater crime than this can be committed for it means the corruption of those instrumentalities by which alone the masses can be liberated and a higher stage in human development achieved.

Democratic Centralism

Democratic centralism is the organization principle of the Leninist party. Precisely because there must be the severest discipline in action and because the Party takes upon itself the role of leadership of the workers in the greatest crises, its own inner life must be free, democratic, vigorous. The clearest, straightest Marxian thinking is required; but that involves the right of criticism; and that cannot exist where there is repression.

A healthy revolutionary party which is based on democratic centralism will seek to establish its leadership over the mass organizations of the workers whether before, during or after the revolution, not by cheap political trickery, not by forced and mechanical processes, not by clever yet futile attempts to “capture” organizations, but by what may be rightly characterized as democratic methods. It gains influence in the unions e.g. by the correctness of the policies which its members set forth, by the persuasiveness with which they argue for them, by their devotion to the day to day work of the organization, by the sacrificial and heroic role they are prepared to play in strikes and similar crises. It is in substantially the same manner that a revolutionary party with a democratic inner regime gains and maintains its influence over the mass organizations, the Soviets or Workers Councils, once the workers and their allies have taken power.

Now a vanguard party of this character is constantly subject to check by the mass organizations. It must essentially and most of the time actually serve their needs or it will be rejected. On the other hand, it can afford, indeed it will ordinarily encourage a democratic life in, will seek to educate, the mass organizations because it is well aware that in the long run it is precisely as they are enlightened that the masses will follow them. Exploiters of the masses such as the capitalists today, will do all in their power to keep them ignorant and confused. A Leninist revolutionary party will do just the opposite. Thus our Declaration of Principles can assure the masses in the U.S. that the workers’ state does not mean repression, the curtailment of democratic rights for them but, while it functions as a dictatorship against enemies who may want to restore capitalism, will assure and continually extend far more democratic rights to the masses than ever accorded to them under capitalism.

Bureaucratic Regime

By the same token, it is when bureaucracy gets the upper hand in the revolutionary party itself, when a reign of repression is established there, that corruption enters into the whole of the proletarian dictatorship: it becomes a caricature of the workers’ democracy. This is the crime which the present Stalin regime has perpetrated. Party democracy was crushed. The utterly un-Marxian conception of an absolutist party, a mystical something, standing above the working class, which could do no wrong, which needed no checks upon itself whatever, arose. In the final analysis this can only end in a personal dictatorship. That is what exists in the Third International and its parties today. But such a party, resting now upon an insecure and artificial basis, serving essentially not the working class but a bureaucracy, will crush out democracy also in the Soviets, the unions, etc.

The Stalin regime has been forced to an ever more vicious suppression of party democracy and workers’ democracy, because its basic aim of building Socialism in one country is anti-Marxian and wrong. It had to attempt to crush all opposition among revolutionists both inside and outside the Soviet Union, because if the opposition had had any means of expression the emasculation of the Communist Parties thru-out the world which was the inevitable result of this policy would not have been tolerated. On this, however, space does not permit us to dwell here.

We of the Workers Party who raised and raise no protest against necessary repressive acts of the Workers’ State against its class enemies, within and without, do raise our voices with all our might against the terrorism now being exercised’ in an intensified degree against revolutionists, against those who are for the Workers’ State in the Soviet Union but who are political opponents of of Stalin and his henchmen. We protest against these persecutions because this policy corrupts the revolutionary party itself and so undermines the Workers’ State, which has been the beacon light of inspiration to the workers of the entire world. It, further, more, casts discredit upon and corrupts the entire revolutionary movement throughout the world.

From our Leninist point of view we can also criticize, not the principle of repressive measures against class enemies, but the manner in which the principle is applied in the Soviet Union under the Stalin regime. A bureaucracy resting on an insecure foundation, maintaining itself more and more, therefore, on a basis of fear and physical force, cannot carry out such measures as the collectivization of agriculture, for example, and numerous other policies in a sound manner. It falls into entirely unnecessary excesses which give both the workers and their enemies a false conception of what the proletarian dictatorship really means.

Our Position

We of the Workers Party thus have the answer, as neither the hypocritical reactionary defenders of “American constitutional liberties,” nor the liberals of various shades, nor the social-democrats, nor the Stalinists have, to the question of freedom in the modern world. The alternatives before the workers and farmers and before those artists and professionals who are concerned about freedom to create and express are not limited to Fascism and the corrupt version of the proletarian dictatorship which Stalin offers, and the sham democracy which obtains in some countries today under capitalism, but which cannot be maintained if capitalism remains. There is the other alternative of an uncorrupted and genuine workers’ democracy under the leadership of a revolutionary party organized under the principle of democratic centralism and based upon revolutionary internationalism.

The road to genuine democracy is not away from, but back to Marxism and Leninism; not away from but back to revolutionary internationalism; not away from but through the proletarian dictatorship, i.e. workers’ democracy. This is the road to which the masses oppressed in varying degrees under Fascism and capitalist “democracy” are directed by the parties of the Fourth International.

In pursuing this course we are also the sole effective champions of humanity, of any idealism worthy of the name in the modern world, and of world peace. For a social order in which human dignity can be maintained and not constantly trampled in the mire, in which the creative energies of mankind can express themselves and not be endlessly suppressed and thwarted, is possible only if capitalism is destroyed, and this deliverance can come only as the result of victory of the workers in a revolutionary struggle.

Muste Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 23 February 2016