The State and Revolution (n. d.)/Bourgeois Democracy and Proletarian Dictatorship

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The State and Revolution by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, translated by Anonymous
Bourgeois Democracy and Proletarian Dictatorship

Presented March 4, 1919 at the First Congress of the Communist International; thesis published March 6, 1919 in Pravda No. 51; resolution published in Pravda No. 54, March 11, 1919 and in the journal Communist International No. 1, May 1, 1919


By Nikolai Lenin.

(The following Theses by Comrade Lenin, which formulate the theory underlying the attitude of the Communist International with respect to the problem of Bourgeois Democracy and Proletarian Dictatorship, were transmitted to the Bureau of the International with instructions to procure for them the widest possible publicity.)


The development of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat in all countries has inspired the Bourgeoisie—and its agents in the labor organizations—to strenuous efforts in the discovery of idealistic political arguments in favor of the control now exercised by the exploiters. In these arguments special emphasis is laid upon the rejection of dictatorship and the safe-guarding of democracy. Yet the hypocritical and lying nature of such arguments, repeated in a thousand variations by the capitalist press, and by the Conference of the yellow International held in Berne during February 1919, must be obvious to anyone who does not contemplate the betrayal of the basic principles of Socialism.


These arguments depend primarily upon the concepts of "essential democracy" and "essential dictatorship," never raising the question of the class implicated. Such a formulation of the problem, from a point of view apart from and above the class viewpoint and ostensibly valid for the population as a whole, is a direct. mockery of the basic principle of Socialism, namely, the principle of the class-struggle, a principle which is acknowledged in words but forgotten in deeds by those Socialists who have gone over to the camp of the bourgeoisie. For in no civilized capitalist country does "essential democracy" exist, but only a bourgeois democracy, and the question does not turn on "essential dictatorship" but on dictatorship by the oppressed class, i. e., the proletariat, over the oppressors and exploiters, i. e., the bourgeoisie, for the purpose of overcoming the resistance of the exploiters, in their struggle to remain in control.


History teaches that an oppressed class never could acquire power without going through a period of dictatorship, i. e., a period of conquest of the political power and of forcible suppression of the desperate and frantic resistance, shrinking from no crime, that is always displayed by exploiters. The bourgeoisie, whose control is now defended by Socialists who prate of "essential dictatorship" and who are body and soul for "essential democracy," won its domination in the civilized countries by means of a series of revolutions and civil wars, by means of the forcible suppression of royal power, of feudal power, of slave-holders, and of their attempts to re-establish themselves. In books, in pamphlets, in the resolutions of their congresses, in their speeches, Socialists in all countries have explained to the people a thousand, nay, a million times, the class-nature of this bourgeois revolution. That is why the present defense of "bourgeois democracy" in speeches on "essential democracy," and the present denunciation of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the outcry against "essential dictatorship," constitutes a direct betrayal of Socialism, and actual defection into the camp of the bourgeoisie, a denial of the right of the.proletariat to its proletarian revolution, a defense of bourgeois reformism at an historical crisis when bourgeois reformism the world over has collapsed and the war has created a revolutionary situation.


In explaining the class-nature of bourgeois civilization, of bourgeois parliamentarism, all Socialists have uttered the thought set forth with the utmost scientific exactness by Marx and Engels: that the most democratic bourgeois republic is nothing but a machine for the oppression of the laboring class by the bourgeoisie, of the mass of workers by a handful of capitalists. There is not a single former revolutionary, not a single erstwhile Marxist among those who now declaim against dictatorship and in favor of democracy who did not at one time swear, by all that he held most holy, that he acknowledged this basic truth of Socialism. Now, however, when there is a ferment among the proletariat and a movement aimed at the destruction of this machine of oppression and at the conquest of a dictatorship for the proletariat, these traitors to Socialism place the matter in such a light as to make it seem that the bourgeoisie has actually made a gift of "pure democracy" to the workers, that the bourgeoisie are disposed to forego all resistance and to yield to ‘a majority of the workers, that a democratic republic is not a political instrument for the oppression of labor by capital.


The Paris Commune, which is applauded by all who wish to be recognized as Socialists, since they know that the mass of the workers have a great and sincere sympathy with it,—the Paris Commune revealed most clearly the historical relativity and the limited value of bourgeois parliamentarism and bourgeois democracy which, in comparison with the Middle Ages, constitute very progressive institutions, to be sure, but which in this Age of Proletarian Revolution call inevitably for radical changes. Marx himself, who set the greatest store on the historical significance of the Commune, laid bare in his analysis of the movement the exploiting nature of bourgeois democracy and bourgeois parliamentarism, a system. which gives the oppressed class the right to decide, once in so many years, which ambassador of the owning classes is to stand for and upon the people in parliament. And it is at this time, when the soviet-movement is taking hold all over the world, carrying on the cause of the Commune everywhere, that the betrayers of Socialism forget both practical experience and the concrete lessons of the Paris Commune and repeat the ancient bourgeois nonsense about "essential democracy." The Commune was a non-parliamentary institution.


The importance of the Commune lay in the further fact that it made an attempt to destroy and uproot the bourgeois state-machinery, the bureaucratic, judicial, military, and police-machinery, and to replace it by the self-governing mass-organization of workers, rid of the separation of legislative and administrative power. All the bourgeois-democratic republics of our time, among them the German, which, by a mockery of the truth, is designated as a proletarian republic by the betrayers of Socialism, have retained this bourgeois state-machinery. All of which proves, again and again, most plainly and clearly, that the outcry raised in defense of "essential democracy" represents nothing but the defense of the bourgeoisie and its exploitation-privileges.


"Freedom of assembly" may be taken as an example of the requirements of "pure democracy." Every conscious worker who has not deserted his class sees without further ado that it would be nonsense to promise his exploiters freedom of assembly during the period and under the circumstances when the latter are resisting their downfall and defending their privileges. At a period when the bourgeoisie itself was still revolutionary, it did not allow freedom of assembly, either in England in 1649, or in France in 1793, to the royalists and nobility (when the latter brought foreign troops into the country and "assembled" in order to organize an attempt at restoration). Should the contemporary bourgeoisie, long since become reactionary, demand that the proletariat guarantee in advance "freedom of assembly" to their exploiters regardless of what opposition the capitalists may set up against their dispossession, then the proletariat will merely be moved to laughter at such a display of bourgeois hypocrisy.

On the other hand, workers know very well that "freedom of assembly," even in the most democratic bourgeois republics, is an empty phrase, for the wealthy classes have the disposal of the best public and private buildings, and also have enough leisure for assemblage. They enjoy the protection of the bourgeois machinery of force. The city and the village proletariat, as well as the peasants, i. e., the overwhelming majority of the population, have neither the first, nor the second, nor the third. So long as this state of affairs continues, "equality," i. e., "pure democracy," will remain a fraud. In order to establish a real equality, in order actually to realize democracy for the workers, it would be necessary first to take all the magnificent private and public structures away from the exploiters, to provide leisure for the workers, and to see to it that the freedom of their assemblies is safeguarded by armed workers, not by scions of the nobility or by officers drawn from capitalistic circles and placed in command of intimidated troops.

Not until such a change has taken place will it be possible to speak of freedom of assembly, of equality, without making mock of the working people, of the poor. But this change can be brought about only by the vanguard of the working people, the proletariat, which dethrones the exploiters, the bourgeoisie.


"Freedom of the press" is another of the chief watchwords of "pure democracy." But workers all know, and the Socialists of all countries have admitted millions of times, that this freedom must remain a fraud as long as the best presses and the most abundant supplies of paper remain in the hands of the capitalists, as long as capital retains its power over the press,—a control which manifests itself most clearly and sharply, most cynically, wherever democracy and a republican regime are most highly developed as, for example, in America. In order to win a real equality and a real democracy for the working masses, for the workers and peasants, it will be necessary first to deprive the capitalists of the possibility of hiring writers, of buying publishing plants, of bribing newspapers. And to accomplish this it will be necessary to shake off the yoke of capitalism, to dethrone the exploiters, and to break their resistance. Capitalists have always meant by "freedom" the freedom of profits for the rich and the freedom of the poor to perish of starvation. Capitalists mean by freedom of the press the freedom of the rich to bribe the press, the freedom to employ wealth in the manufacture and the falsification of so-called public opinion. Once again, the defenders of "pure democracy" reveal themselves as in reality the defenders of this most vile and purchasable system of control by the rich over the means of enlightening the poor, as betrayers of the people seeking with fair but lying phrases to divert them from their concrete historical task of freeing the press from the control of capital. Real freedom and real equality will exist in the order which the Communists are creating, an order which will provide no possibility, direct or indirect, for subjecting the press to the might of money; an order in which nothing will prevent the worker (or group of workers of any size) from possessing and exercising an equal right to the presses and the paper supplies belonging to society.


Even before the war, the history of the 19th and 20th century showed us what becomes of the boasted "pure democracy" under Capitalism. The Marxists have always maintained that the more highly developed, the more "pure" a democracy is, the more open, keen, and merciless will be the nature of the class-struggle, the more obvious will be the pressure of capital and the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The Dreyfus affair in republican France, the bloody conflicts between mercenaries armed by capital and striking laborers in the free and democratic republic of America, these and a thousand other facts reveal the truth which the bourgeoisie has sought in vain to conceal, namely, that in the most democratic countries the Terror and the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie are really in control and come out openly into the light of day whenever it seems to exploiters that the power of capital is tottering.


The imperialistic war, 1914–1918, has once and for all time proven even to the most backward workers, that the true nature, of bourgeois democracy even in the most free republics is dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. For the sake of enriching German and English groups of millionaires, millions of human beings were murdered, and in the most free republics the military dictatorship of the bourgeoisie was established. This military dictatorship continues in the Entente nations even. after the defeat of Germany. The war, more than anything else, has served to open the eyes of the workers, to tear the false veil from bourgeois democracy, and to reveal to the people the whole abyss of war-time speculation and profiteering. In the name of freedom and equality the bourgeoisie has conducted this war; in the name of freedom and equality the purveyors of war-munitions have become incredibly rich. All the efforts of the Yellow International at Berne to conceal from the masses the now completely unmasked exploiting character of bourgeois freedom, of bourgeois equality, and of bourgeois democracy, are doomed to futility.


In the most highly developed capitalist country on the European continent, in Germany, the first months of complete republican freedom, brought by the overturn of imperialistic Germany, have shown German workers and the whole world the real class-content of the bourgeois-democratic republic. The murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg is an event of world-historical significance not only because the best leaders of the true proletariat Communist International came to tragic deaths, but also because the class-character of the first State in Europe—without exaggeration, the first State in the world—has defnitely revealed itself. If those under arrest, i. e., individually taken under the protection of the power of the State, can safely be murdered by officers and capitalists under a social-patriotic regime, it follows that the democratic republic in which such things can transpire is a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Individuals who express their indignation at the murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg but who cannot perceive this truth demonstrate nothing but their stupidity or their hypocrisy. In one of the most free and advanced republics of the world, in the German Republic, "freedom" consists in the freedom to kill, unpunished, the arrested leaders of the proletariat. Nor can things be otherwise so long as capitalism maintains itself, for the development of democracy does not diminish but heightens the war of the classes, which as a result and under the influence of the world war has now reached the boiling point.

Throughout the whole civilized world the deportation, persecution, and imprisonment of the Bolsheviki is the order of the day, as, e. g., in one of the most free bourgeois republics, Switzerland. Note also the Bolsheviki-pogroms in America, and the like. From the standpoint of "essential democracy," it is simply ridiculous that progressive, civilized, democratic countries, armed to the teeth, should be afraid of a few dozen individuals coming from backward, hungry, ruined Russia, which is denounced as savage, and criminal in millions of copies of bourgeois newspapers. It is clear that the social condition which can produce so clamorous a contradiction is in reality a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.


Under circumstances such as these the dictatorship of the proletariat is not only fully justified as a means toward dispossessing the exploiters and toward suppressing their resistance, but it is also absolutely necessary for the whole mass of workers as their only protection against the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie which has led to the war and is preparing for new wars.

The chief point which Socialists do not understand and which constitutes their shortsightedness in matters of theory, explains their dependence upon bourgeois prejudice, accounts for their political betrayal of the proletariat, is this, that in capitalist society, in the event of a sharpening of the class-struggle which is its foundation, there can be no middle way between the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Dreams of a third possibility are but the reactionary lamentations of the petit bourgeois. The experience of more than a century of evolution of bourgeois democracy and of the labor-movement in all advanced countries, and especially the experience of the last five years, bears witness to this fact. The entire theory of political economy bears on this subject-matter; it is the whole content of Marxism, which demonstrates the necessity of a bourgeois dictatorship in every factory, the dictatorship which can be terminated only by the class which through the development of capitalism itself undergoes a constant development of its own, a growth in size, unification, and strength, namely, the class of the proletariat.


The second theoretical and political error of the Socialists consists in the fact that they do not- understand that forms of democracy have undergone inevitable changes in the course of thousands of years, beginning with their germs in antiquity and the succession of one ruling class upon another. In the republics of ancient Greece, in the city-states of the Middle Ages, in advanced capitalistic states, democracy has had a variety of forms and varying degrees of inclusiveness. It would be gross stupidity, indeed, to assume that the most profound revolution in the history of mankind, the first transfer of power from the hands of the minority, the exploiters, to the hands of the majority, the exploited, can be accomplished within the structure of the old bourgeois parliamentary democracy, without great upheavals and the creation of new forms of democracy, new institutions, new conditions for their functioning, etc.


The dictatorship of the proletariat resembles the dictatorship of the other classes in that, like every other dictatorship, it is called into being by the necessity of suppressing with force the resistance of the class that is losing its political power. The fundamental difference between the dictatorship of the proletariat and the dictatorship of the other classes, the dictatorship of the mediaeval holders of great estates, of the bourgeoisie in all capitalist countries, consists in the fact that the dictatorship of the great landlords and of the bourgeoisie was a suppression by force of the resistance of the overwhelming majority of the population, i. e., the working masses. In contrast to this, the dictatorship of the proletariat is a suppression by force of the resistance of the exploiters, i. e., of the decided minority of the population—the great landlords and the capitalists.

From this it follows that, in general, the dictatorship of the proletariat must bring with it not only an inevitable alteration of democratic forms, and institutions, but such an alteration as will yield a hitherto unknown extension of the actual application of democracy among those who are enslaved by capitalism, among the working classes.

And, as a matter of fact, the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which has already been worked out in practice, i. e., the Soviet Government in Russia, the Raete-system in Germany, the Shop Stewards' Committees and other analogous institutions in other countries, all these realize and signify for the working classes, i. e., for the overwhelming majority of the population, a practicable possibility of this sort for the achievement of democratic rights and privileges such as has never before existed in even approximately equal measure.

The nature of soviet-rule consists in the fact that the mass-organization of precisely those classes which have been oppressed by capital, i. e., the workers and the semi-proletariat (peasants who do not exploit the labor of others and who are compelled regularly to sell at least a part of their own labor power), constitute the permament and only basis of the whole state-power. Precisely those masses, which even in the most democratic bourgeois republics have equal rights under the law, but as a matter of fact are prevented by a thousand means and devices from participation in the political life and from enjoyment of democratic rights and liberties, are now enlisted in a permanent, unconditioned, and decisive participation in the democratic rule of the state.


The equality of citizens without regard to sex, religion, race, nationality, which has always and everywhere been the promise of bourgeois democracy, but which has nowhere been fulfilled and could nowhere be fulfilled because of the domination of capital, has been realized suddenly and completely by the soviet government, since only the power of the workers, who have no interests at stake in private property in the means of production, and in the struggle for their distribution and redistribution, can realize this ideal.


Bourgeois democracy and parliamentarism are so organized that it is precisely the working classes who have least to do with the administrative apparatus. The Soviet Power, i. e., the dictatorship of the proletariat, on the other hand, is so organized that it brings the working classes closer to the administrative apparatus, The same end is-also served by the union of the legislative and executive functions in the soviet organization of the state, and by the replacement of geographical voting districts by production-units, such as shops and factories.


The army was an. instrument of oppression not only under the monarchy; it retained this character in all the bourgeois republics, even in the most democratic. Only the Soviet Power, as the sole established state-organization of the classes oppressed by capital, is in a position to release the military from its subjection to bourgeois leadership, and to bring about a real identification of the army with the proletariat.


The soviet organization of the state is designed to place the leadership of the state in the hands of the proletariat as the class which has undergone the greatest concentration and enlightenment under Capitalism. The experiences of all revolutions and of all movements of enslaved classes, the experiences of the international Socialist movement teach that only the proletariat is capable of carrying along and uniting the scattered and backward levels of the working and exploited population.


Only the soviet organization of the state is capable of destroying suddenly and completely the bourgeois bureau-and-court machinery which remained intact, and had to remain intact, under Capitalism, even in the most democratic republics, since it developed into the greatest bulwark against the laboring classes in their attempt to realize democracy. The Paris Commune took the first world-historical step in this direction; the Soviet Power has taken the second.


All Socialists, and among them their leader Marx, have set up as their goal the destruction of the power of the State. If this goal is not achieved, true democracy, i. e., equality and freedom, are not attainable. But the only practicable means to this goal is the soviet or proletarian democracy, for it sets out forthwith to prepare the complete atrophy of all State machinery by enlisting the mass-organizations of the working-people in permanent and unconditioned participation in the state-administration.


The complete bankruptcy of the Socialists who assembled in Berne, the utter lack of comprehension of proletarian democracy which they revealed, is especially patent in the. following. On February 10, 1919, Branting dismissed the conference of the Yellow International at Berne. On February 11, 1919, their colleagues in Berlin published in "Die Freiheit" an appeal to the proletariat by the Independents. In this appeal the bourgeois character of the Scheidemann government is admitted, it is accused of the intention of abolishing the "Raete" (soviets) which it designates as the "defenders and the agents of the revolution," and the proposition is advanced that the "Raete" be legitimized, entrusted with certain rights in the State.

A proposal of this sort indicates the complete spiritual bankruptey of the theoreticians who defend democracy and do not understand its bourgeois character. The laughable attempt to combine the Raete-system, i. e., the dictatorship of the proletariat, with the National Assembly, i. e., the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, reveals conclusively the intellectual poverty of the yellow Socialists and Social-Democrats, and the reactionary policies of the petit bourgeois, as well as their cowardly concessions to the irresistibly increasing strength of the new proletarian democracy.


The majority of the Yellow International at Berne, which condemned Bolshevism, but did not dare enter a formal vote on a resolution condemning Bolshevism, since it feared the working masses, behaved quite. correctly from the class-viewpoint. The majority is completely in tune with the Russian Mensheviki and Social-Revolutionaries and with the Scheidemann-group in Germany. The Russian Mensheviki and Social-Revolutionaries who complain of Bolshevik persecution, take pains to conceal the fact that this persecution was the result of the participation of the Mensheviki and of the Social-Revolutionaries in the civil war on the side of the bourgeoisie and against the proletariat. Much as in Germany, the Scheidemann party revealed its sympathy in the civil war for the bourgeoisie as against the proletariat.

It is therefore quite natural that the majority at the Berne Yellow International came out in condemnation of the Bolsheviki. This action was not, however, in the nature of a defense of "pure democracy" but rather in the nature of a self-defense of individuals who realize that in the civil war they stand with the bourgeoisie as against the proletariat.

On the basis of these theses and after due consideration of the reports of delegates from various countries the Congress of the Communist International proclaims the chief task of the Communist parties in those countries where the soviet system has not yet been established to be as follows:

1. The enlightenment of the broad masses of workers with regard to the historical-political significance, and the practical necessity of the new proletarian democracy which must be established in place of bourgeois democracy and parliamentarism;

2. The propagation and creation of soviets in all branches of industry, in the army, the fleet, as well as among agricultural workers and small farmers, and

3. The gaining of a reliable, conscious, Communist majority within the soviets.