Vladimir Lenin on democracy and dictatorship

Submitted by sm on 5 April, 2007 - 2:32

Lenin called for the "dictatorship of the proletariat" as a great expansion of democracy.

By "dictatorship" he meant the rule of a class, not of a Hitler or a Stalin. This is an abridged version of Lenin's "Theses on Bourgeois Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat", adopted by the founding congress of the Communist International in March 1919. Long-forgotten contemporary references and examples have been cut.

FACED WITH THE GROWTH of the revolutionary workers' movement in every country, the bourgeoisie and their agents in the workers' organisations are making desperate political arguments in defence of the rule of the exploiters. Condemnation of dictatorship and defence of democracy are particularly prominent among these arguments. The falsity and hypocrisy of this argument are obvious to all who refuse to betray the fundamental principles of socialism.

First, this argument employs the concepts of "democracy in general" and "dictatorship in general", without posing the question of the class concerned. This non-class or above class presentation, which supposedly is popular, is an outright travesty of the basic tenet of socialism, namely, its theory of class struggle. For in no civilised capitalist country does "democracy in general" exist. All that exists is bourgeois democracy, and it is not a question of "dictatorship in general", but of the dictatorship of the oppressed class, i.e. the proletariat, over its oppressors and exploiters, Inc. The bourgeoisie, in order to overcome the resistance offered by the exploiters in their fight to maintain their domination.

History teaches us that no oppressed class ever did, or could, achieve power without going through a period of dictatorship, i.e. the conquest of political power and forcible suppression of the resistance always offered by the exploiters a resistance that is most desperate, most furious, and that stops at nothing.

The bourgeoisie, whose domination is now defended by the Socialists who denounce "dictatorship in general" and extol "democracy in general", won power in the advanced countries through a series of insurrections, civil wars, and the forcible suppression of kings, feudal lords, slave owners, and their attempts at restoration.

In books, pamphlets, congress resolutions, and propaganda speeches socialists everywhere have thousands and millions of times explained to the people the class nature of the bourgeois revolution and this bourgeois dictatorship.

The most democratic bourgeois republic is no more than a machine for the suppression of the working class by the bourgeoisie, for the suppression of the
working people by a handful of capitalists.

It was Marx who best appraised the historical significance of the [Paris] Commune [of 1871]. In his analysis, he revealed the exploiting nature of bourgeois democracy and the bourgeois parliamentary system under which the oppressed classes enjoy the right to decide once in several years which representative of the propertied classes shall "represent and suppress" the people in parliament.

The significance of the Commune, furthermore, lies in the fact that it endeavoured to crush, to smash to its very foundations, the bourgeois state apparatus, the bureaucratic, judicial, military, and police machine, and to replace it why a self-governing, mass workers' organisation in which there was no division between legislative and executive power. All contemporary bourgeois-democracy republics, including the German republic, which the traitors to socialism, in mockery of the truth, describe as a proletarian republic, retain this state apparatus. We therefore again get quite clear confirmation of the point that shouting in defence of "democracy in general" is actually defence of the bourgeoisie and their privileges as exploiters.

"Freedom of the press" is another of the principal slogans of "pure democracy". And here, too, the workers know - and socialists everywhere have admitted it millions of times that this freedom is a deception while the best printing presses and the biggest stocks of paper are appropriated by the capitalists and while capitalist rule over the press remains, a rule that is manifested throughout the world all the more strikingly, sharply, and cynically, the more democracy and the republican system are developed, as in America for example. The first thing to do to win real equality and genuine democracy for the working people, for the workers and peasants, is to deprive capital of the possibility of hiring writers, buying up publishing houses, and hiring newspapers. And to do that the capitalists and exploiters have to be overthrown and their resistance suppressed.

The capitalists have always used the term "freedom" to mean freedom for the rich to get richer and for the workers to starve to death.

In capitalist usage, freedom of the press means freedom of the rich to bribe the press, freedom to use their wealth to shape and fabricate so-called public opinion.

In this respect. too, the defenders of "pure democracy" prove to be defenders of an utterly foul and venal system that gives the rich control over the mass media. They prove to be deceivers of the people who, with the aid of plausible, fine-sounding, but thoroughly false phrases, divert them from the concrete historical task of liberating the press from capitalist enslavement.

Genuine freedom and equality will be embodied in the system which the communists are building and in which there will be no opportunity for amassing wealth at the expense of others, no objective opportunities for putting the press under the direct or indirect power of money, and no impediments in the way of any workingman (or groups of workingmen, in any numbers) for enjoying and practising equal rights in the use of public printing presses and public stocks of paper.

The imperialist war of 1914-18 conclusively revealed even to backward workers the true nature of bourgeois democracy, even in the freest republics, as being a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Tens of millions were killed for the sake of enriching the German or the British group of millionaires and multimillionaires

The main thing that [Reformist] Socialists fail to understand and that constitutes their short-sightedness in matters of theory, their subservience to bourgeois prejudices, and their political betrayal of the proletariat is that in capitalist society, whenever there is any serious aggravation of the class struggle intrinsic to that society, there can be no alternative hut the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie or the dictatorship of the proletariat. Dreams of some third way are reactionary, petty-bourgeois lamentations. That is borne out by more than a century of development of bourgeois democracy and the working class movement in all the advanced countries and notably by the experience of the past five years.

This is also borne out by the whole science of political economy, by the entire content of Marxism, which reveals the economic inevitability, wherever commodity economy prevails, of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie that can be replaced only by the class which the very growth of capitalism develops, multiplies, welds together, and strengthens, that is, the proletarian class.

Proletarian dictatorship is similar to the dictatorship of other classes in that it arises out of the need, as every other dictatorship does. To suppress forcibly the resistance of the class that is losing its political sway. The fundamental distinction between the dictatorship of the proletariat and the dictatorship of other classes landlord dictatorship in the Middle Ages and bourgeois dictatorship in all the civilised capitalist countries consists in the fact that the dictatorship of the landowners and bourgeoisie was the forcible suppression of the resistance offered by the vast majority of the population, namely, the working people. In contrast, proletarian dictatorship is the forcible suppression of the resistance of the exploiters, i.e. an insignificant minority of the population, the landowners and capitalists.

It follows that proletarian dictatorship must inevitably entail not only a change in democratic forms and institutions, generally speaking, but precisely such a change as provides an unparalleled extension of the actual enjoyment of democracy by those oppressed by capitalism the toiling classes.

The substance of Soviet government is that the permanent and only foundations of state power, the entire machinery of state. is the mass-scale organisation of the classes oppressed by capitalism, i.e. the workers and semi-proletarians (peasants who do not exploit the labour of others and regularly resort to the sale of at least part of their own labour power). It is the people, who even in the most democratic bourgeois republics, while possessing equal rights by law, have in fact been debarred by thousands of devices and subterfuges from participation in political life and enjoyment of democratic rights and liberties, that are now drawn into constant and unfailing, moreover, decisive participation in the democratic administration of the state.

The old, i.e. bourgeois democracy and the parliamentary system were so organised that it was the mass of working people who were kept furthest away from the machinery of government. Soviet power, i.e. the dictatorship of the proletariat' on the other hand, is so organised as to bring the working people close to the machinery of government. That, too, is the purpose of combining the Legislative and executive authority under the soviet organisation of the state and to replacing territorial constituencies by production Units the factory.

The army was a machine of oppression under not only the monarchy. It remains as such in all bourgeois republics, even the most democratic ones. Only the soviets, the permanent organisations of government authority of the classes that were oppressed by capitalism, are in a position to destroy the army's subordination to bourgeois commanders and really merge the proletariat with the army; only the soviets can effectively arm the proletariat and disarm the bourgeoisie. Unless this is done, the victory of socialism is impossible.

Only the soviet organisation of the state can really effect the immediate break-up and total destruction of the old, i.e. bourgeois, bureaucratic and Judicial machinery. which has been, and has inevitably had to be, retained under capitalism even in the most democratic republics, and which is, in actual fact, the greatest obstacle to the practical implementation of democracy for the workers and the working people generally. The Paris Commune took the first epoch-making step along this path. The soviet system has taken the second.

Destruction of stale power is the aim set by all socialists, including Marx above all. Genuine democracy, i.e. liberty and equality, is unrealisable unless this aim is achieved. But its practical achievement is possible only through soviet, or proletarian democracy, for by enlisting the mass organisations of the working people in constant and unfailing participation in the administration of the state, it immediately begins to prepare the complete withering away of any state.

The ludicrous attempt to combine the soviet system, i.e. proletarian dictatorship, with the National Assembly, i.e. bourgeois dictatorship, utterly exposes the paucity of thought of the Yellow Socialists and Social Democrats, their reactionary petty-bourgeois political outlook, and their cowardly concessions to the irresistibly growing strength of the new, proletarian democracy.


Submitted by USRed on Wed, 26/02/2014 - 21:54

"The most democratic bourgeois republic is no more than a machine for the suppression of the working class by the bourgeoisie, for the suppression of the working people by a handful of capitalists."

This doesn't seem consistent with what the AWL usually says about bourgeois democracy. And it shouldn't be. Because the "no more than" part is simply false.

And in any event it was hypocritical for Lenin to write like this because the Soviet Union of 1919 was hardly a workers' democracy, a "state of the Paris Commune type." One could argue that under the circumstances it simply couldn't be anything other than an "authoritarian workers' state," but Lenin never acknowledged this.

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