Petrograd soviet 1917. Lenin is clearly visible - for those with a sharp eye

Bourgeois or proletarian democracy?

Levi Rafael says his differences with Mike Macnair flow from two different conceptions of the dictatorship of the proletariat

Mike Macnair quotes Trotsky to the effect that soviets should not be fetishised against the role of the party and its other mass organisations (‘Against fetishising soviets’, August 6). Lenin made the same argument too, in his ‘Leftwing’ communism, against the council-communist types who thought that soviets could be a replacement for the party.

On these points, I am in complete agreement with comrade Macnair. ‘Soviets without Bolsheviks’, or workers’ councils without a communist party, will inevitably revert either to reformist organisations or to ultra-left adventurism. Without a communist party to lead the working people through the councils and other mass organisations, there can be no possibility of these soviets holding on to state power.

But Macnair is raising a straw man here, just as he raised the straw man about decentralisation and soviet power. While Lenin and Trotsky warned against making a fetish of soviets, they still maintained that there was a fundamental difference between bourgeois and proletarian democracy - a difference that is made most clear by the soviet form.

It is true that in my piece (originally titled ‘For a workers’ council republic’ and not the provocative ‘Ideal state’) I did not touch directly on the question of the role of the party. The first reason for this is because I think that this is a point of agreement that is shared between myself, comrade Macnair and the CPGB (PCC). We are all united on the need for the proletariat to have its own political party to act as the vanguard of the workers’ movement as a whole. If anything, I am used to being accused of being ‘too vanguardist’ by libertarian-left types, who tend to repeat the Rousseauian prejudice that the ‘majority is always right’.

Nowhere in my article do I advocate soviets, councils, etc as a replacement for the party. Rather, I argue that these bodies are the organisational link between the party and the masses of non-party workers, as well as the semi-proletarian and petty-bourgeois layers. For a further elaboration of my views on the relationship that a communist party should play in society, I would recommend that readers take a look at my article, ‘Working class, working people, vanguardist’ on the Marxist-Leninist Worldview blog.1 Hopefully this can put to rest the notion that I am a closet Bakuninite.

In the Draft programme of the CPGB (PCC), the party is defined thus:

The Communist Party is the highest form of class organisation of the proletariat. The Communist Party is a class party, the advanced part of the working class. The Communist Party is formed and built by the self-selection of the most dedicated, most courageous and most far-sighted workers. Because of this it can fulfil the role of the theoretical, political and organisational vanguard of the proletariat.2

I am in agreement with this definition. But, because the party must be built by the self-selection of the most dedicated, most courageous and most far-sighted of workers, only a minority of workers at any given period are going to fit this criteria. Comrade Dave Vincent seems to express the common concern found in left-libertarian circles that the party will “substitute” itself for the working class, resulting in an authoritarian relationship between a communist elite and a worker mass (Letters, August 6). Neither Macnair nor myself hold this view of the party and vanguardism, but an answer must be given to those who are (with legitimacy) concerned about how exactly the party of self-selected and dedicated communist workers will relate to the non-communist masses of workers and semi-proletarians. This is why it is so important to take seriously the question of soviets - or, if that sounds too fetishising, of the difference between proletarian and bourgeois democracy.


Macnair chastises me for only focusing on one article in a series. But my reason for focusing on the one article is because the fundamental difference between us on all programmatic points really flows from our differing conceptions of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Macnair puts forward the “democratic republic”, while I put forward the workers’ council republic. It is this point that really all other controversies can be boiled down to. In his article, “For a minimum programme’, Macnair says:

There is, however, an alternative. That is to recognise that - contrary to Bakunin and, in this case, to Marx’s and Engels’ appropriation of Bakunin’s arguments against the Eisenach programme - the democratic republic is not and never has been the political programme of the capitalist class ... rather the capitalist class fights for rule of law constitutionalism and ‘natural rights’, as opposed to democratic republicanism.3

It is this point that I am most emphatically arguing against. It is also very useful that Macnair admits that he is departing from Marx and Engels, who are also accused of being Bakuninites because they too criticised bourgeois democracy. This is not to say that we must be blind adherents to Marx and Engels, but on this point I must argue in defence of ‘orthodoxy’. Macnair’s argument is that the bourgeoisie is incapable of advocating a democratic republic, and that any truly democratic republic would automatically disarm the bourgeoisie politically because power would pass into the hands of the majority, and de facto into the workers’ hands. I remain wholly unconvinced by this argument, and it is on this point that I accuse Macnair and the CPGB of (unconsciously) falling back onto the Fukuyama consensus: ie, that the most advanced regime is a democratic republic, without specification of the class whom this democracy serves.

I agree with Macnair and the CPGB that the existing bourgeois states that call themselves ‘democracies’ are really playing a trick - a trick they themselves admit to when they delightedly correct teary-eyed, lefty liberals that they in fact live in a ‘republic’ and not a democracy. All of these ‘democracies’ remain beholden to either constitutionalist or monarchical forms of power that ‘check’ democracy for the benefit of a bourgeois aristocracy.

But this does not mean that there is no such thing as bourgeois democracy, or that a truly democratic republic would automatically be a dictatorship of the proletariat. For one thing, I do not think that a political movement can be defined as ‘bourgeois’ based on whether or not the bourgeoisie directly advocate it. For one thing, historically there has been such a thing as a democratic bourgeoisie that remained reactionary despite advocating a radical democracy without exceptions (the radical yet reactionary Giuseppe Mazzini, for example). Fascism was no doubt a bourgeois political movement, but only a minority of ruined and vulnerable industrial bourgeois (examples include Jacques Arthuys, Ernest Mercier, Gottfried Feder, etc) were true believers. Most of the impetus for fascism came from the petty bourgeoisie. But what made fascism bourgeois, despite its ‘anti-capitalist’ pretensions, was the fact that its political programme and practice maintained the bourgeois class and its private property.

I do not have access to a survey of the bourgeois class and its political opinions, but I do not think it would be impossible to find a section of the ruling class that would much rather maintain its property within a radical democracy, probably coupled with a welfare state, and thereby stave off the inconveniences of class struggle with ‘soft power’, as opposed to the iron repression exhibited by constitutionalist, monarchical and other anti-democratic forms of bourgeois rule. The bourgeoisie as a whole is agnostic about the type of political ideology and government that it rules through, so long as it rules and its property rights are maintained.

Much of my article was dedicated to elaborating on the aspects of soviet democracy that make it qualitatively different from even the most radical democratic republic. Such aspects include workplace and institutional democracy, representation according to occupation, as opposed to solely residence, restrictions on political rights for capitalists, unification of democracy with productive labour, etc. Perhaps one could argue, as comrade Vincent did, that all of this is purely speculative, and that we cannot know what organisational forms the proletariat will put up. But I think that such a line of thinking leads to exactly the sort of tailism that Macnair and the CPGB are worried about, and subsequently seem to think that I advocate as well. We are now two centuries or so deep into the movement for communism and a proletarian revolution and, while we should always maintain scientific objectivity and a flexibility to change, I think that it is now way overdue for us to take a ‘wait and see’ approach to how the dictatorship of the proletariat will be structured.

Macnair did not really address my concerns about this distinction between bourgeois and proletarian democracy, or my criticisms of representation based purely on residence and not workplace, or how the proletarian character of the democracy could be guaranteed. The argument here is not really about the fetishism of soviets. I have no illusions about the immediate prospects of soviets, let alone soviet power, but the possibility for their existence is significantly lower when no contemporary communist programmes seem to place them on the agenda. And this certainly is not an argument about whether or not we call the state we want to create using the Russian word, ‘soviet’. Call them councils, committees, congresses, assemblies, conferences, etc.

Macnair and I agree on the need for republican bodies elected democratically. But my point is that not all democracies are equal in worth for the proletariat. Councils and assemblies that are based on ‘equal rights’ for capitalists, workers and petty bourgeois, and do not touch on the economic foundations of society, do not negate the ruling class status of the bourgeoisie. If a democracy does not explicitly place the proletariat as the de facto and de jure political ruling class, if it does not place explicit restrictions of some sort on the bourgeoisie as a class, and if it does not begin to transform relations of production in the direction of proletarian self-management and public ownership, then it is inadequate as a political form for the dictatorship of the proletariat. How the future state will do all of this is open for investigation, but what must be affirmed is the need for a proletarian dictatorship to ensure that its democracy will suppress the bourgeoisie, elevate the proletariat and begin the transformation of productive relations.

Yugoslavian model

I do not make secret my enthusiasm for the Yugoslavian model of a socialist republic. Such a topic would require an article of its own, if not a whole book. Macnair accuses me of having “illusions” in this model. I am not sure what specific illusions I am accused of having, but I will say for the record that, while I take great political inspiration from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, I am not blind to the obvious inadequacies that prevented it from existing to the present day. Such inadequacies include an over-emphasis on decentralisation, which led to fragmentation of the various republics, as well as to market-dependence and economic inequality between regions and enterprises that stimulated petty bourgeois elements to counterrevolution. The personality cult and concentration of authority around Tito is also something that does not need emulation.

I will not deny that the SFRJ self-management model did not completely overcome bureaucracy, as no proletarian state immediately will. Even the Yugoslav League of Communists themselves acknowledged that bureaucracy was something that the party and working class would have to continue to struggle against in the present period, and that proletarian democracy would have to be continually deepened. I will state (and this may cause a stir of controversy) that I do not consider the one-party model for Yugoslavia to have been incorrect. The only other parties that would have stood in opposition would have been ultra-nationalist, rightwing parties bent on some sort of fascist or reactionary state. Again, to put to rest the charges of being a ‘Bakuninite’, it was under the rule of the League of Communists that the Yugoslavian state maintained its self-management system of workers’ democracy (however imperfect) and it is in the absence of the communist rule that these councils no longer exist.

I would also want to state for the record that, while I consider myself to be a student of Trotsky and Ernest Mandel, I am obviously not a dogmatic supporter of this tendency - Mandel was generally critical of the Yugoslav model, while pointing out some merits in comparison with the traditional Stalinist model. But where I stand with Trotsky and Mandel against Macnair is in the assessment of the October Revolution and the Third International as a total failure. I stand with Macnair and Trotsky in condemning the Bonapartist rule of Stalin and the subsequent emulations of this Bonapartism. But I do not agree that the entire communist project, including the bureaucratic workers’ states, were a complete failure since 1917, as if we have nothing to learn from them. Despite the bureaucratic and Bonapartist distortions that these states exhibited, for their respective countries they nevertheless represented a step forward in history, just as Napoleon’s conquest of Europe was historically progressive despite the anti-democratic and anti-revolutionary character of his rule.

To reiterate, there must be a distinction between bourgeois and proletarian democracy in any communist programme. For that reason, we cannot reject a minimum programme that is designed to operate on the basis of bourgeois democracy, as bourgeois democracy (however radical or ‘extreme’) is better than constitutionalism, monarchy, fascism, etc. But it must be understood that the type of democracy that communists advocate must differ from bourgeois democracy in its system of representation, in how it guarantees proletarian participation, in the fact that it must suppress the bourgeoisie as a class, and that it must begin to change relations of production in the direction of a labour discipline, based on democratic principles.

  1. mlworldview.wordpress.com/2019/05/21/m-l-basics-working-class-working-people-vanguardism.↩︎

  2. communistparty.co.uk/6-the-communist-party.↩︎

  3. ‘For a minimum programme’ Weekly Worker August 30 2007.↩︎