What did Lenin mean by "Dictatorship of the Proletariat? What was Soviet democracy? By What did Lenin mean by "Dictatorship of the Proletariat"? What was Soviet democracy? By Maurice Spector, who after reading Trotsky's critique of the Communist International at its 6th World Congress in 1928 became one of the founders of American Trotskyism.
IMMEDIATELY AFTER the accession of Hitler, Trotsky wrote that the issue presenting itself to the masses was no longer Bolshevism versus Fascism but Fascism versus Democracy. Our subsequent critique of the Popular Front might make it appear that we had perversely abandoned this view when Moscow adopted it. That would be a complete misunderstanding. We rejected the whole conception of the Popular Front precisely because it was impotent to combat fascism.
The struggle for the democracy vital to the workers could not be waged in a bourgeois alliance for the maintenance of a corrupt parliamentary regime and decaying capitalist social order. The Popular Front was a gigantic piece of political blackmail. The liberal bourgeoisie of France said to the workers: we shall collaborate with you and keep de la Roque and Doriot out, we shall let you have your unions and political parties, provided only that you quit the militant struggle against private property and the wage system, against militarism and imperialism. Otherwise we shall have to let the fascists restore order.
The sweep of Totalitarianism in Central Europe was appalling. At the stage of social development when humanity seemed to have reached the scientific mastery of nature, when the expansion of the productive powers seemed to have made possible the world state, a counter movement arose to set back the clock of civilization, a reaction against the ideals of humanitarianism and libertarianism, against the best traditions of the classical bourgeois revolutions. But especially was this counter revolution directed against the proletariat, as the social class which by its origins and position was the bearer of the internationalist, humanitarian, egalitarian society of the future which had been heralded by the Russian revolution.
Instinctively the workers rallied to the defence of their social conquests and their civil liberties. They felt that the immediate struggle must be for the preservation of democracy and they were right. But their true political instincts and aroused militancy were disgracefully aborted by their leaders. The revolutionary Marxist position has been that the struggle for democracy could only be successfully waged by methods of proletarian mass action that burst the confines of parliamentarism and the capitalist system. It was the class collaboration practised by the German Social Democrats that had paved the road for economic chaos and Hitler’s triumph. The parties of the Second and Third Internationals, impotent in the struggle against capitalism, were powerful enough to transform the great mass movement of France and Spain into adjuncts of “democratic” imperialism. The Social Democracy, despite its name, has nowhere been able to preserve democracy and everywhere succumbed miserably either to the demands of the bourgeois democracy or the blows of totalitarian dictatorship.
The urgency of the struggle for democracy as one of the central tasks of our epoch received striking reinforcement about this time from the totalitarian transformation of the Soviet regime under Stalin. After twenty years of the October revolution, the Russian proletariat and vanguard lay prone under the iron heel of a totalitarian bureaucracy. The Soviet superstructure became indistinguishable from the Fascist. The technique of oppression and tyranny was the same, purges and concentration camps. The workers and peasants were deprived of civil liberties, the rights of the various nationalities were violated, the Soviets were abolished, the trade unions were incorporated into the totalitarian state, Workers’ Democracy was replaced by the hollow demagogy of the plebiscite. The arts were stultified. The revolutionaries were killed. The ideas of Marxism were hounded and driven underground.
The critical elements of the working class are compelled to sum up the lessons not only of the failure of the Western Social Democracy but of the degeneration of the Russian revolution as well. If the experiences of the European Social Democracy prove that socialism cannot be achieved by the methods and within the framework of bourgeois democracy, the Russian experiences show that socialism cannot be established without Workers’ Democracy. It was Karl Radek who asserted that socialism would inevitably follow from the expansion of the Soviet productive forces. It was Trotsky who countered that genuine socialist construction was impossible without the democratic control and creative participation of the masses. The totalitarian development of the bureaucratic regime threatens to destroy completely the foundations of the October upheaval. What would emerge would be neither democracy nor socialism. The totalitarian regime in Moscow has reached the point where it is a prime obstacle to the further development of the revolution in the West.
The Russian proletariat could never have been rallied to the revolution in the name of this new despotism. Lenin justified the dictatorship of the proletariat as a higher form of democracy. Every cook would learn to govern. The Soviets would guarantee genuine liberty to the masses, truly reflect their will, assure genuine freedom of the press, of speech, of assembly. In an earlier generation Marx and Engels had learned from the Commune that the workers could not use a state apparatus subserving capitalist ends for entirely opposite socialist ends. The coercive machinery of the old sovereignty, police, army, judiciary, bureaucracy would have to be shattered first. The transition dictatorship of the proletariat would differ as radically from bourgeois democracy as parliamentarism from monarchical absolutism. The Commune would represent a higher stage of democracy based on social equality. The Russian development has been the very opposite.
If the workers are to be organized for militant resistance to world fascism they must be completely convinced that they are fighting for the genuine democracy that Marx and Lenin held out. The Russian revolution was the beacon light in the struggle for liberation. The Russian Bolsheviks once spoke with unparalleled authority. They had, as Rosa Luxemburg said, “saved the honor of the working class”. Latter-day developments have raised grave questions in the minds of militants most thoroughly convinced of the bankruptcy of social reformism. What brought about the Russian degeneration? In this and subsequent articles we hope to analyze the various elements of this question.
For the Soviet Union the year 1923 was big with fate. Lenin was stricken down. A creeping economic crisis threatened to paralyze the ties of city and countryside. The hopes of a revolution abroad were dimmed when the German communists rehearsed their subsequent capitulation to Hitler. The arrogant encroachments of the party and government bureaucracy were provoking widespread discontent in the masses. It was at this crucial period that the first of the great “discussions” between Trotsky, and the bureaucracy broke out. In a series of articles entitled The New Course, Trotsky opened fire on the bureaucracy as a menace to the aims and future of the proletarian revolution. The New Course is necessarily less graphic and more oblique than the analysis given in The Revolution Betrayed many years later. But even so brilliant a Marxist as Trotsky could not anticipate the full ravages of the coming Totalitarianism. The main question, however, is clearly defined: could the proletarian dictatorship survive to achieve the socialist society in the absence of Workers Democracy, economic planning and the international revolution.
Adopted under the pressure of strikes, peasant uprisings, and the Kronstadt Rebellion, the New Economic Policy  was a frankly acknowledged retreat. War communism, imposed as a military necessity had not proven an economic success. It was “systematic regimentation of consumption in a besieged fortress”. Only the material aid of a victorious German revolution could have facilitated the direct transition to planned socialist economy. The Soviet power had otherwise to change its policy or invite destruction. “It was the first and I hope the last time in the history of Soviet Russia,” Lenin reported, “that we had the great masses of the peasantry arrayed against us.” The peasants had come to associate the gift of the soil with the “Bolsheviks” but the confiscation of its fruits with the “Communists”. With no tangible industrial goods in exchange for grain surrendered to the bayonet, the peasantry declared a virtual sit-down strike. In 1920 Trotsky had submitted a project, then unacceptable to the Central Committee, for replacing the food-levy by a grain tax. The economic deadlock continued until a year later Lenin himself sought a way out by introducing the NEP. Forcible requisitioning of grain gave way to a fixed tax and free trading. The area under cultivation rose by several million desiatins, and industry received a marked impetus.
But in the summer of 1923 the NEP revealed its limitations. At first the farm surplus was small, the city was hungry, and to obtain working capital, the state trusts sold available stocks at bargain prices. The peasants consequently netted a profit of some 200,000,000 gold rubles. The abundant harvest of 1922 forced agricultural prices down, thus reversing the situation. Aided by the State bank and the stable chervonetz, industry had freed itself from immediate dependence on the sales market. The brightly-colored paper ruble fell rapidly and the peasant was left holding the bag. In Trotsky’s metaphor, the prices of industrial and of farm products, like the blades of an extended pair of scissors, tended to draw ever more widely apart. The reaction on the city was inevitable. Trade began to dry up. The banks shut off further credits. Industry slowed down and paid out wages irregularly. Strikes broke out and unemployment increased.
Since only thirty per cent of the pre-war level of industrial output had been reached, the crisis could scarcely be ascribed to overproduction. The contrary was indeed the fact. Should industrial development continue to lag, there was every indication that a better harvest might spell a more acute crisis. So decisive for the stability of the Soviet power, the “link” between the workers and peasants depended upon the capacity of state industry to produce machinery and consumers’ goods of good quality and at low prices. But the problem of prices was bound up with the productive efficiency not of the individual factory alone, but of industry as a whole. Slashing prices and extending the benefits of the stable currency to the village would relieve the immediate tension. Unless however, there was far-sighted industrial coordination and planning, the costs of production would again be driven upwards, the chervonetz undermined, and agriculture retarded. An inadequate state industry would throw the peasant mass into the hands of the kulak (big peasant) and the Nepman (private trader). Twenty-five million small farms would constitute too fertile a breeding ground of capitalist relations. The socialist revolution must justify itself in terms of superior productivity. A socialist economy was only possible on the basis of large-scale machine industry and modern technique capable of collectivizing agriculture. But without long-term economic planning this perspective would be impossible of achievement.
This substantially was Trotsky’s analysis of the crisis to the Twelfth Party Congress (April 1923), which officially adopted his proposals in the form of a resolution. But like the concurrent resolution on Workers’ Democracy, it was destined to remain a dead letter. With Lenin’s approaching death, the party bureaucrats were mainly pre-occupied with conspiring for power. Planning was all very well but they did not want Trotsky in charge of industrialization. Lip-service to Workers Democracy was unavoidable but they did not want their grip on the party machinery shaken.
With its limited outlook the party bureaucracy more naturally preferred to muddle along. Summing up the “discussion” as spokesman Zinoviev jeered at
“the obstinate persistence in clinging to a beautiful plan ... We want transport affairs managed by Dzerzhinsky, economics by Rykov, finance by Sokolnikov; Trotsky on the other hand wants to carry out everything with the aid of a ‘state plan’.”
Lenin had sharply rebuked those who attacked Trotsky’s methodical restoration in 1920 of the transport system.
“We have before us a real plan,” declared Lenin, “worked out for a number of years. Decree No.1042 looks five years ahead ... This is also how to work in other spheres of industry.”
The bureaucracy, however, continued to underestimate the resources of planned economy. When Trotsky wrote  in 1925 that even with an independent reproduction based on socialist accumulation an annual coefficient of 20 per cent was possible, this was greeted with ridicule. As late as 1928 Commissar of Agriculture Yakovlev contended that collectives would for years to come remain “little islets in the sea of private peasant farms”. The prevailing outlook was Bukharin’s “socialism at a snail’s pace”. Trotsky was stigmatized as a “super-industrialist”. Pravda urged that “the economic possibilities of the well-to-do peasant ... of the kulak must be unfettered”. Bukharin exhorted the peasants to “enrich yourselves”. Under the dictatorship of the proletariat, the theory held, there was nothing to fear from the kulak; he could peacefully be fitted into the framework of socialism. The bureaucrats were equally hostile to the Opposition’s demand for a swifter pace of industrialization. The 1927 Five Year Plan provided for a growth of industrial production annually declining from the first year’s coefficient of 9 to 4 in the last; consumption to rise 12 per cent over the whole period. A year later the “general line” was patched up to provide for an annual average increase of 9 per cent. Only the third project of the plan approximated the platform of the Opposition.
It took the “grain strike” of 1928 to demonstrate that the kulak danger was no figment of Trotsky’s imagination. The catastrophically low grain collections necessitated rationing and encroaching on the “untouchable reserves”. Unemployment in the cities reached the two million mark. With the aid of the Right element, Stalin had crushed the Left Opposition. The force of the crisis now drove him to appropriate its economic platform. Socialism at a snail’s pace gave way to socialism at a frenzied gallop.
Suppose that Stalin did “steal” Trotsky’s program would it not be more principled to swallow mere pride of authorship? This more or less was the argument of every former Oppositionist who took the road of capitulation. Thus did Karl Radek write in 1929,
“We may be dissatisfied with the tempo, we may suggest this or that often very important amendment but we have no distinct general line; consequently Trotsky must either take a step towards the party or think up a new platform. ... In returning to the party we do not surrender a single Leninist principle for which we fought.”
The fate that befell Kamenev, Zinoviev and Radek is itself an eloquent answer. What separated Trotsky from Stalin was not a matter of tempo but principle. The economics of state planning could be properly and creatively applied only under conditions of Soviet democracy and revolutionary internationalism. For this reason the question of the party regime was crucial.
That the issue of Workers’ Democracy should have been linked up in 1923 with the question of planned economy was therefore inevitable. The economic crisis stirred widespread political discontent. While war communism had been abandoned as an economic policy, it survived in the party regime. Lenin had grown acutely conscious that “we have bureaucratism not only in the state but in the party”. To check this menace, he had sponsored the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection. This organ of control, in turn, succumbed to the dead hand of bureaucracy. Of Stalin who was at its head, Lenin was writing in his famous Testament that “he has concentrated an immense power in his hands” and was urging that he be replaced in the post of General Secretary of the party by somebody wiser, less rude, more loyal. “Above all,” Lenin had been stressing, “freedom of criticism in the party. We have always stood for that in theory, we must now put it into practise.” But instead the party regime met criticism by the rigid enforcement of an emergency resolution of the Tenth Congress adopted in the emergency of the Kronstadt uprising, which proscribed factions. Nevertheless secret groups began to form. The “Workers’ Truth” demanded freedom of working class press and association and attacked the privileges of the “new bourgeoisie”. The “Workers’ Group” criticised the dictatorship of the Triumvirate (Kamenev, Zinoviev, Stalin) and called upon the workers to strike. Actual dissatisfaction extended far beyond the limits of these semi-menshevik or anarchist circles. Anxious to preserve the authority of the party and to achieve all necessary reforms through its channels, Trotsky was not satisfied however that the way to stop factions was to call in the police. In 1922 the Twelfth Congress had passed a resolution in favor of Workers’ Democracy; unfortunately it had never taken on the least semblance of reality. Trotsky’s letter of October 8, 1923 to the Central Committee begins with a reference to Dzerzhinsky’s proposal that all party members having knowledge of groupings in the party must communicate the fact to the GPU, the Control Commission and the Central Committee
“In the fiercest moment of war communism the system of appointment within the party did not have one tenth of the extent it has now. Appointments of the secretaries of provincial committees is now the rule. That creates for the secretary a position essentially independent of the local organization ... This present regime which began to form itself before the Twelfth Congress ... is much further from workers’ democracy than the regime of the fiercest period of war communism ... A very broad strata of party workers has been created, entering into the governing apparatus of the party who completely renounce their own party opinion, before whom every decision stands in the form of a summons or command.”
Why did Trotsky not protest sooner?
“It is known to the members of the Central Committee that while fighting with all decisiveness within the Central Committee against a false policy I decidedly declined to bring the struggle within the Central Committee to the judgment of even a very limited circle of (outside) comrades ... I must state that my efforts of a year and a half have given no results. This threatens us with the danger that the party may be taken unawares by a crisis of exceptional severity ... In view of the situation created I consider it not only my right but my duty to make known the state of affairs to every member of the party whom I consider sufficiently prepared, mature and self-restrained, consequently able to help the party out of this blind alley without factional convulsions.”
Under pressure, the ruling group now operating as a tightly-bound caucus drafted a new resolution for workers’ democracy. It warned of the danger of a “loss of perspective of socialist construction and of the world revolution” and degeneration of the party workers as a result of their activities in close contact with a bourgeois milieu. Workers’ Democracy was defined as a regime of “free discussion and the election of governing officials from top to bottom”. The governing organs were not to treat every criticism as a manifestation of factionalism. Momentarily it looked like a triumph for Trotsky, but these concessions proved purely formal. The bureaucracy embraced democracy the better to strangle it. Seizing on Trotsky’s comment on the resolution as some sort of breach of cabinet solidarity, the Triumvirate launched a savage attack. Trotsky was accused of attempting to pit the youth against the Old Guard, of wanting to shatter the party apparatus, and encouraging factionalism. The carefully oiled machinery of calumny and repression was set in motion. The Central Conference of party officials meeting in January 1924 formally condemned the Opposition “with Comrade Trotsky at the head of it”. Stalin’s control of the secretarial hierarchy now made itself fully felt. Trotsky’s supporters were removed from every position of influence, and subjected to intimidation in office and factory. Students were expelled from the universities. The Red Army was “purged”. Rakovsky was sent to London, Krestinsky to Berlin. A couple of hundred thousand raw recruits, watchfully shepherded by the bureaucracy, were immediately given the vote. The Thirteenth Party Congress of May 1924 was a foregone conclusion, packed by the apparatus men. A few days before, Krupskaya had transmitted to the Central Committee the Testament in which Lenin proposes Stalin’s removal from the position of General Secretary. It was a culmination of a sharpening struggle with Stalin covering the last half year of Lenin’s life. He had successively attacked Stalin’s national policy, his tampering with the foreign trade monopoly, his bureaucratic stultification of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection. This did not prevent the cynical bureaucrats from setting themselves up as Lenin’s only true disciples. The handpicked delegates would not hear of Stalin’s resignation – though the latter made the hypocritical gesture. Unscrupulously exploiting the reverence of the masses for Lenin, the bureaucracy conjured up the spectre of Trotskyism. There began that unparalleled falsification of history that has continued without let-up and has been reinforced by the monstrous technique of frame-ups, “confessions”, and bloody executions. Every effort was strained to make the masses forget the political accord which united Lenin and Trotsky – their cooperation in the October insurrection, the years of civil war, the organization of the Red Army, the development of the Communist International. Instead they were served with a steady diet of polemical quotations torn from their context of time and circumstance.
“You must understand,” Zinoviev later confessed, “that it was a struggle for power. The whole art of the thing was to combine old disagreements with new questions.”
Zinoviev was later to rue his part in the conspiracy, to state that the struggle against Trotsky had been the greatest mistake of my life, more dangerous than the mistake of 1917. Amid the menacing outcries of Stalin’s henchmen, Kamenev was to exclaim:
“We are against the elevation of a ‘Leader’ ... We are opposed to the Secretariat setting itself up above the party organization.”
Bukharin was to cry out
“What can we do, what can we do in the face of an adversary of this kind, a debased Genghis-Khan of the Central Committee.”
For the defeat of the 1923 Opposition platform of Workers’ Democracy eventually led to the complete political despotism of Stalin. The old Bolsheviks were mercilessly exterminated. But first, as the price of membership in the party they were compelled to disarm not only organizationally but ideologically.
The Soviets and Democracy, New International, October 1938