Who got it right?

Democratic dictatorship vs permanent revolution

Did Lenin and the Bolsheviks lack a credible strategy? Jim Creegan replies to Jack Conrad

Jack Conrad has now offered his contribution to the debate between Lars T Lih and myself concerning the Bolshevik Party in the run-up to the October revolution.1 While Lih and Conrad present significantly different arguments, their main point of convergence seems to be their determination to discredit Trotsky’s account of events and the widespread acknowledgement of Marxist historians that he had predicted the course of the revolution more accurately than Lenin. They would both like to deny that Lenin (and eventually through him the Bolshevik Party) abandoned their earlier concept of the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, and - in deed, if not in word - embraced the theory of permanent revolution elaborated by Trotsky in 1906.

I say ‘would like to deny’, because Lih, when pressed, admits Lenin’s earlier conception of the democratic dictatorship - a revolutionary interlude leading to a democratic republic and bourgeois economic rule - was replaced in 1917 by a call for soviet power, which Lenin envisaged as a permanent regime that would take initial steps toward socialism. But, undeterred in his Trotsky-debunking mission, Lih falls back on the argument that Trotsky, no less than Lenin, had to revise his prognosis for the Russian Revolution under the pressure of events. However, Lih’s argument rests upon the claim that Trotsky abandoned an earlier disregard for the peasantry and the agrarian question, which, as I tried to show,2 he was never guilty of in the first place.

Conrad repeats a version of Lih’s claim concerning the peasantry, to which I shall return. However, he also offers an argument of his own: that Lenin’s democratic dictatorship concept was actually an only slightly dissimilar version of permanent revolution. At one point, Conrad writes that Lenin’s idea of a provisional revolutionary government (synonymous in the latter’s usage with the democratic dictatorship) was conceived as lasting years and maybe even decades - a claim that would seem to be contradicted on its face by the adjective, “provisional”. At another point Conrad suggests that the economic tasks of Russian capitalist development could, in Lenin’s view, possibly be accomplished without any change “at the level of regime” - ie, under the democratic dictatorship, which would preside over both the transition from semi-feudalism to capitalism and the transition from capitalism to socialism.


The difficulty with the above argument involves more than the merely conceptual dissonance of a capitalist class achieving economic dominance under a plebeian dictatorship. It also rests upon nothing more substantial than bald assertion on Conrad’s part, and is not supported by a scintilla of textual evidence, at least not from Lenin’s main exposition of the democratic dictatorship concept, Two tactics of social democracy in the democratic revolution (which I have just reread). There is, on the other hand, copious textual evidence to the contrary.

Written in the midst of the 1905 revolution, Two tactics is a polemic against the Mensheviks, who had recently taken over Iskra, a paper of which Lenin was a founder. The ‘new Iskra’ advocates abstention by Social Democrats (as all Russian Marxists then called themselves) from any provisional government brought to power by the revolution on the grounds that it will be a bourgeois government, in which working class parties should not participate as a matter of principle; and, further, that a working class presence in such a government would make the bourgeoisie “recoil” from the leadership role assigned it by the Mensheviks.

But Lenin avers that such a government will not be one of the big bourgeoisie, like those in the west. The Russian bourgeoisie, which feared the masses more than the tsar, aimed at nothing more than a constitutional monarchy, and was therefore always looking for ways to betray the democratic aspirations of the workers and peasants in favour of a deal with the Romanovs. A truly revolutionary provisional government could only be the result of a ‘people’s revolution’: an armed uprising that would unite the workers and the peasants against the tsar. Social democrats should not only participate in such a government, but take the lead in enacting a series of radically democratic reforms: universal suffrage, an eight-hour day, workers’ inspection of factories, free public education, election of judges, setting up of peasant committees for land redistribution. The wider the scope of the revolution, and the more vigorously the masses swept out the Augean stables of feudal reaction, the shorter the phase of capitalist development would be, and the better prepared the workers would be to fight for power in the future.

The culmination of that fight, however, is clearly relegated to the future. Economically and socially backward Russia, with its huge peasant majority, was not, to Lenin’s mind, prepared for socialism. The outcome of the revolution could only be the social-economic dominance of the bourgeoisie and the political forms corresponding to it.The democratic dictatorship, far from lasting years or decades, as Conrad suggests, would pave the way for a constituent assembly, which would, in the best case, institute a democratic republic. Lenin’s pronouncements on this score are unambiguous and too numerous to reproduce here. A few quotations will have to suffice.

On the social character of the revolution:

Marxists are absolutely convinced of the bourgeois character of the Russian Revolution. What does it mean? It means that the democratic reforms in the political system, and the social and economic reforms that have become a necessity for Russia, do not in themselves imply the undermining of capitalism, the undermining of bourgeois rule; on the contrary, they will, for the first time, really clear the ground for a wide and rapid, European, and not Asiatic, development of capitalism; they will, for the first time, make it possible for the bourgeoisie to rule as a class.3

On what the democratic dictatorship can and cannot hope to achieve:

But, of course, it will be a democratic, not a socialist dictatorship. It will be unable (without a series of intermediary stages of development) to affect the foundations of capitalism. At best, it may bring about a radical redistribution of landed property in favour of the peasantry, establish consistent and full democracy, including the formation of a republic, eradicate all oppressive features of Asiatic bondage, not only in rural but also in factory life, lay the foundation for a thorough improvement in the conditions of the workers and for a rise in their standard of living, and - last but not least - carry the revolutionary conflagration into Europe. Such a victory will not yet by any means transform our bourgeois revolution into a socialist revolution; the democratic revolution will not immediately overstep the bounds of bourgeois social and economic relationships … (emphases added).4

Lenin also distinguishes among: (1) the democratic dictatorship; (2) the republic to which the dictatorship will lead; and (3) the commune-state, or the dictatorship of the proletariat. He is, first of all, clear that the democratic dictatorship will be no more than temporary: its “formal purpose must be to serve as an instrument for convening a national constituent assembly”.5 And further, “… a provisional revolutionary government … that will be the organ of a victorious popular insurrection can secure full freedom to conduct an election campaign and convene an assembly that will really express the will of the people”.6 The constituent assembly will then proceed to institute the democratic republic that Lenin speaks of above. The greater the sweep of the people’s uprising, the more democratic the republic that would emerge from it. Lenin insists that there are degrees of bourgeois democracy:

There are bourgeois democratic regimes like the one in Germany, and also like the one in England; like the one in Austria and also like those in America and Switzerland. He would be a fine Marxist indeed, who in a period of democratic revolution failed to see the difference between the degrees of democratism and the difference between its forms …7

The dictatorship is thus no more than a transitional political form, leading to an elected parliamentary government, which Lenin considers the most democratic type of government compatible with bourgeois social and economic rule. He is also careful to distinguish the democratic dictatorship from what he calls the commune state, the revolutionary commune or the proletarian dictatorship: “… the slogan of ‘revolutionary communes’ is erroneous, because the very mistake made by the communes known to history was that of confusing the democratic revolution with the socialist revolution”.8 Thus the political sequence Lenin envisions is clear: democratic dictatorship, followed by a republic, followed by a socialist revolution and proletarian dictatorship.

Trotsky’s critique

Trotsky regarded Lenin’s prognosis as overly formulaic. His critique had two prongs. First, Lenin thought that the peasantry as a whole would act as a unified bloc in pursuit of its class interests; that it would both join the workers in a fight against the tsar, but provide a solid basis for a bourgeois regime further down the road. Trotsky, on the other hand, argued that the peasantry was too amorphous and multi-layered to figure as an independent revolutionary actor. It would either follow the lead of the proletariat or the bourgeoisie, or, rather, different strata would follow one or the other. Trotsky further held that it would be impossible for the working class to restrict itself to purely democratic demands, despite whatever difficulties its inability to do so may involve. His 1907 article, ‘Our differences’,is worth quoting at length:

Because Russia’s social conditions are not ripe for a socialist revolution, political power would be the greatest misfortune for the proletariat. So say the Mensheviks. They would be right, says Lenin, if the proletariat were not aware that the point at issue is only a democratic revolution. In other words, Lenin believes that the contradiction between the proletariat’s class interests and objective conditions will be resolved by the proletariat imposing a political limitation upon itself, and that this self-limitation will be the result of the proletariat’s theoretical awareness that the revolution in which it is playing a leading role is a bourgeois revolution. Lenin transfers the objective contradiction into the proletariat’s consciousness and resolves it by means of a class asceticism, which is rooted not in religious faith, but in a ‘scientific’ schema. It is enough to see this intellectual construct clearly to realise how hopelessly idealistic it is.9

For Trotsky it is not a question of whether the working class should or should not pull back at the threshold of socialist measures, but of its inability to do so under the circumstances that its initiatives would create. A workers’ government would immediately be confronted with such problems as mass unemployment and strikes for the eight-hour day. The creation of public works and the shortening of the working day would encounter furious resistance by the bourgeoisie, leading to massive lockouts. The new revolutionary power could not side with the employers without undermining its own base of support. Siding with the workers, on the other hand, would imply resuming production under state auspices: ie, nationalisations. If the peasant party in the democratic dictatorship were to balk at such measures, the revolutionary coalition would fall apart.

Trotsky did not, pace Lih and Conrad, advocate a minority working class government, but, basing himself on the twin premises that the government would be forced to adopt socialist methods and that the peasantry was a petty bourgeois and not a collectivist class - a premise shared by all Russian Social Democrats - he concluded that the uninterrupted passage of the revolution from bourgeois to socialist tasks would inevitably give rise to a conflict with the peasantry, from which the triumph of the international revolution would be the only way out. Trotsky never promoted such a conflict. His theory of permanent revolution was a prognosis based upon the class interests of the revolution’s major protagonists, and the political course he thought those interests would dictate. It involved a prediction, not a prescription.

Who was right?

It goes without saying that no historical prediction is ever fulfilled in every particular. But it is useful to inquire, apart from the question of who adopted whose programme on the eve of October, which prognosis - the democratic dictatorship or the permanent revolution - proved more accurate in the actual events of the revolution and the life of the state that resulted from it.

First, it is clear that the peasantry did not follow an independent political course during the revolution. Its most representative party, the Socialist Revolutionaries, split - a minority (the Left SRs) supporting soviet power, and a majority (the Right SRs) going over to the side of the counterrevolution.

Secondly, there can be no doubt that the revolution itself embodied an alliance between the proletariat and peasantry - smychka, in Russian - based upon a certain compromise between the two. Although the peasantry pursued no independent political policy of its own, peasants on the ground conducted massive seizures of big estates and rich peasant holdings, creating a much larger class of smallholders. The Bolsheviks could not have come to power without pledging to support these spontaneous seizures with the force of state authority. This meant the abandonment of the long-established Social Democratic agrarian programme - which called for communal farming - in favour of the individual proprietorship advocated by the SRs. It was on the basis of the smychka that the Bolsheviks managed to maintain the - at times reluctant - support of the majority of the peasantry during the civil war. Most peasants, however bitterly they resented soviet grain procurements to feed the army and the cities, knew that a victory for the whites would mean a return of the big landlords.

Did not the redistribution of the land represent a bourgeois task, accomplished under the soviet regime? And did not the worker-peasant alliance, as Jack Conrad argues, therefore represent the realisation of the democratic dictatorship? Not when we consider that the Bolsheviks, immediately upon assuming power, could not avoid transgressing the limits of private property - something not provided for in the democratic dictatorship schema. They were forced to intervene in the distribution of foodstuffs, both by instituting a system of rations and carrying out grain procurements in the countryside. They could only house the urban population by expropriating large swathes of private real estate. And, although they did not intend to nationalise industry in one stroke, they initially championed workers’ control of production. This was simply a recognition of what workers were already doing spontaneously. The aggressive intervention of workers in the management of industry led many employers to abandon their factories, leaving the soviet government, willy-nilly, in charge of the economy’s ‘commanding heights’.

Thus from the very outset the soviet regime presided over two distinct modes of production - private in the countryside, collectivist in the cities and towns. That it based itself first and foremost upon the latter is inscribed in the first Soviet constitution of 1918, which allotted one deputy to the All-Russian Congress of Soviets per 25,000 city electors, and one to every 125,000 in rural districts. While the conflict between town and country was suppressed in the interests of defeating the common civil-war enemy, it broke out into the open almost as soon as the guns went silent. The Kronstadt rising , at least in part, reflected peasant dissatisfaction with the rigours of war communism, and was followed by the retreat before rural market forces known as the New Economic Policy, characterised at the time as an internal Brest-Litovsk. Perhaps Bukharin, who advocated the indefinite continuation of the NEP, regarded it as the fulfilment of the democratic dictatorship. His erstwhile ally, Stalin, was disabused of this notion, when, in 1928, he found that the government did not have sufficient grain reserves to feed the cities for even a few months. Not getting what they considered adequate prices for their produce, the peasants were either hoarding their grain or refusing to plant it. Stalin’s ‘solution’ to this dilemma, at the cost of millions of peasant lives and the consolidation of a bureaucratic leviathan-state, is only too well known.

Thus Trotsky’s two central predictions - that a workers’ government would overstep the bounds of private property, and that, if the revolution failed to spread, this overstepping would sow the seeds of a conflict between workers and peasants - were borne out by Soviet history. Trotsky’s major failure of foresight came later, when the Left Opposition he led - by his admission over-influenced by the precedent of the French Revolution - perceived the main danger of a soviet Thermidor as coming from the NEP-emboldened kulak, who was thought in the late 1920s to be on the verge of capturing the state and restoring capitalism. Stalin’s ‘left turn’ toward forced collectivisation took the entire opposition by surprise. Trotsky had not underestimated the revolutionary capacity of the peasantry, as his opponents never tired of repeating, but rather overestimated its counterrevolutionary capacity, and gave too little weight to the growing power of the state and party bureaucracy. It was to the riddle presented by this historically new social stratum - was it a class, a caste or a ‘parasitic excrescence’ on the workers’ state? - that was to occupy a good part the theoretical efforts of Marxists from then until the collapse of the USSR, and, with much less contemporary relevance, even to this day.

Different purposes

Lars T Lih and Jack Conrad have very different political profiles. The one does not profess to be a Marxist; the other is a communist militant of long standing. Yet both take aim at the reputation of the second-ranking leader, and greatest Marxist chronicler and interpreter of the revolution of 1917. They examine the revolution’s history and documents with a magnifying glass for any detail that might disprove that the pre-1917 Lenin had not completely broken with the Menshevik theory of stages, and to deny Trotsky his rightful claim to being the Russian Marxist who came closer than anyone else to capturing the class dynamics of the revolution to come. As I have tried to show, neither Lih nor Conrad succeed in making their case on the basis of the historical evidence, and their arguments are so tortured that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that their animus against Trotsky is linked to unstated political motives. Lih seems to want to blur the dividing line between reformism and revolutionary Marxism. Conrad, on the other hand, appears not to have broken completely with his Stalinist past - a suspicion from which his habitual use of the term ‘Trotskyite’, and his caricature of Trotsky’s transitional method as ‘economism’, do not detract.

Lenin may have been a little less protective of his historical reputation than those who deem him to have been right in all things. While Lenin explicitly repudiated the ‘old Bolshevism’ and the democratic dictatorship formula, he never made any public admission that Trotsky’s prognosis of the revolution had been more accurate than his own. Yet there is one suggestive bit of anecdotal evidence. In 1927, Adolf Yoffe, one of Trotsky’s closest associates and stalwart of the Left Opposition, penned a suicide letter to Trotsky. Ill and in excruciating pain, Yoffe had been denied permission by the ruling Stalin-Bukharin faction to travel abroad for medical treatment. He wrote that, while he had always considered Trotsky to be in the right politically, the latter lacked the political self-confidence and intransigence of Lenin. One purpose of the letter was to help Trotsky overcome this defect by boosting his self-confidence.. “… I have often told you,” he wrote, “that with my own ears I have heard Lenin admit that in 1905 it was not he, but you, who was right. In the face of death one does not lie, and I repeat this to you now”10


1. ‘Lenin’s programme found vindication’ Weekly Worker April 23 2015.

2. ‘April in Petrograd’ Weekly Worker April 16 2015.

3. VI Lenin CW Vol 9,Moscow 1972, p48.

4. Ibid pp56-57.

5. Ibid p28.

6. Ibid p26.

7. Ibid p52.

8. Ibid p87.

9. L Trotsky 1905 New York 1972, pp314-15.

10. ‘The last words of Adolf Yoffe’. reproduced by In defence of Marxism, September 3 2012: www.marxist.com/last-words-of-adolf-joffe.htm.