Russian means and the dictatorship of the minority

In the fourth of his series of articles Jack Conrad examines the background to Lenin's use of the word 'dictatorship' and the role played by the Mensheviks

Many Marxists regard the dictatorship of the proletariat as something of a touchstone. Certainly since the days of Eduard Bernstein it marks us out as revolutionaries from the reformist project of gradually transforming capitalism into socialism.

But what is meant by the term? Typically the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' is used not to refer to the rule of the working class. Unlike Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels what modern-day Marxists mean is violence, denial of rights and a disregard for democracy.

In my last article we showed that the origins of this failure, or stubborn unwillingness, by Marxists to understand Marx-Engels dates from the late 19th century. However, there can be no doubt that the sorry mess was compounded by revolutionaries in Russia. This was especially so after the 1917 October revolution.

The Bolsheviks, above all Lenin and Trotsky, were catapulted from exiled obscurity into a position of unequalled world historic authority by the events of 1917. Their every pronouncement was given an almost religious significance and treated as manna from heaven. Their practice - no matter how it had been forced upon them by dire circumstances - became the model which must be emulated. Inevitably the dictatorship of the proletariat featured prominently. Those who stood by the embattled Soviet republic - within and without - and defended the draconian measures enacted during the civil war justified themselves with reference to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

By the same measure those - like Karl Kautsky, the former pope of Marxism - who recoiled from the fundamental task of making revolution in their own country did so by counterpoising dictatorship to democracy. The title 'renegade' was apt. We shall fully discuss the contradictory impact of the Russian Revolution in the next article. Meantime here I want to simply set the scene by describing the background: ie, the different ways Marxists in Russia deployed the 'dictatorship of the proletariat', as handed down to them by history. There is a common myth that Lenin and Trotsky revived the Marx-Engels use of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat'.

This is doubly untrue. Georgi Plekhanov - founder of Marxism in Russia and later the foremost Menshevik thinker - had written and spoken of the dictatorship of the proletariat ever since he made the transition from Narodism to Marxism. Furthermore what he - and later Lenin and Trotsky - meant by the phrase bore only an occasional or passing resemblance to Marx-Engels. Whereas Marx-Engels consistently used the word 'dictatorship' simply to denote 'rule', Plekhanov understood special measures of repression and, if need be, minority rule by the party.

Put another way, Plekhanov held an outlook not dissimilar to the elitism of Auguste Blanqui and those who advocated an educative dictatorship. Plekhanov's contribution can be appreciated by considering the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party's 2nd Congress in 1903. He acted as rapporteur on the programme and this included a passage on the dictatorship of the proletariat: "To effect its social revolution, the proletariat must win political power (the class dictatorship), which makes it master of the situation and enables it to surmount all obstacles" (quoted in VI Lenin CW Vol 6, Moscow 1977, p68).

Only a single vote is recorded as being cast against the programme - and this had nothing to do with the inclusion of the dictatorship of the proletariat. What interests us is the brief debate. The minutes have Trotsky conventionally talking of the dictatorship of the proletariat as an act of the "overwhelming majority" and not a "little band of conspirators" (quoted in H Draper The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx to Lenin New York 1987, p69).

However, another delegate, VE Mandelberg (party name: Posadovsky) - a future Menshevik - threw the cat amongst the pigeons over what he said was not a "dispute over details", but general approach: "Should our future policy be governed by certain basic democratic principles, admitted to have absolute value, or are all democratic principles to be governed exclusively by what is profitable for our party? I definitely declare for the latter. There is no democratic principle that we should not make subservient to the interests of our party [interruption - Even inviolability of the person?] Yes! Inviolability of the person as well! As a revolutionary party striving towards its ultimate goal - that of a social revolution - we must regard democratic principles exclusively from the point of view of the speediest possible achievement of that goal, from the point of view of our party's interests. If one or another demand does not turn out to our advantage we shall not use it. Therefore I oppose any amendments that are likely in future to narrow our freedom of action" (quoted in ibid pp69-70).

Mandelburg was essentially saying what the majority thought but preferred not to say. Given time restraints, only one delegate rose to speak in support of him. His first name was not Vladimir but Georgi. Universal suffrage should be advocated, but not converted into a "fetish" said Plekhanov. He mused about the possibility of the party coming out against universal suffrage by, for example, depriving the bourgeoisie of basic rights, including the vote. Warming to his theme, Plekhanov told delegates that if on a wave of revolutionary enthusiasm the people elected a good parliament then the party would try and ensure that this proved to be a long parliament. Yet if the people elected an "unfavourable" parliament then the party would try and dismiss it - "not in two years, but if possible in two weeks".

Lenin eagerly fell upon this passage in 1918. It served to flay those Mensheviks who indignantly protested against the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly. For Plekhanov the highest principle is the "success of the revolution". Hal Draper comments that, translated into everyday language, this is a rather crude form of the "end determines the means" fallacy. Such an approach ignores the "dialectical consideration" that means condition ends and a given 'end' also points to the means that really lead to that end (ibid p70).

Lenin reports in One step forward, two steps back that Plekhanov's speech was greeted with applause and hisses. But he is quite clear that on the whole the Iskra delegation fully identified with the Mandelburg-Plekhanov viewpoint. It was the centre and right which objected - they prioritised economic struggles and dreamt of one day sitting in a tsar's duma as respectable and responsible legislators. So those who believe that advocacy of the dictatorship of the proletariat is a distinguishing feature of Bolshevism are mistaken.

Plekhanov took the initiative of including the phrase in the programme - the Russian party was the first to do so. Indeed after the split of the Iskra bloc at the 1903 London congress the Menshevik faction continued to regard the dictatorship of the proletariat as unproblematic. Under conditions of tsarist autocracy such language could be regarded as a measure of revolutionary élan. However, even at their 1922 congress the Mensheviks kept the term but were careful to distinguish themselves from Leninism. Their dictatorship was said to be "the violence organised by the state" against the capitalist minority, "to the extent that the latter tries to resist the social revolution".

It would never be imposed upon the working class or the majority. With hindsight the Menshevik leaders, Jules Martov and Theodore Dan, maintain that their wing of the party did not want to be associated with revisionists such as Bernstein and Jaurès. They certainly inhabited a political space on the far left in the Second International. But the fact of the matter is that they were a much looser and softer political trend than the Bolsheviks. They imagined themselves orthodox Marxists but, prone to conciliation, were repeatedly dragged to the right.

Effectively, in 1903 Plekhanov thought and acted like a Bolshevik. He and Lenin voted in unison on every key issue at the London congress. Only after the Bolshevik-Menshevik split was complete did he take fright and jump ships. Politics has a cruel logic. By 1914 Plekhanov had moved to the extreme right wing of Menshevism and advocated full-blown social chauvinism. The tsar's Russia was preferable to the kaiser's Germany because of its democratic French and British allies. Hal Draper touches upon the pre-1917 Trotsky and his dispute with the Bolsheviks.

Basically Trotsky argued for an anti-tsarist revolution in Russia which would put in power the proletariat supported by the peasantry. A minority regime - the workers made up no more than five percent of the population. His dictatorship of the proletariat refers to repressive measures to be meted out against reaction but is also an indication that the revolution would immediately have to proceed towards socialist tasks. Something which for Draper involves making "inroads on private property" (ibid p76).

However his main subject is Lenin. Leninism Lenin emerges into the revolutionary milieu when the term 'dictatorship' was already taking on many of its modern, anti-democratic, connotations. What Marx and Engels had written was widely known but more or less universally misunderstood. Nevertheless Lenin repeatedly stressed that socialism was inextricably bound up with the advance of democracy - political, social and economic.

Read his 1905 pamphlet Tactics of social democracy in the democratic revolution: "We are convinced that the emancipation of the working classes must be won by the working classes themselves; a socialist revolution is out of the question unless the masses become class-conscious and organised, trained and educated in an open class struggle against the entire bourgeoisie. Replying to the anarchists' objections that we are putting off the socialist revolution, we say: we are not putting off the socialist revolution; we are not putting it off, but are taking the first step towards it in the only possible way, along the only correct path of a democratic republic. Whoever wants to reach socialism by any other path than that of political democracy will inevitably arrive at conclusions that are absurd and reactionary both in the economic and the political sense" (VI Lenin CW Vol 9 p29, Moscow 1977, p29).

So, far from having an "equivocal" attitude towards democracy, Lenin was convinced that on the contrary socialism depends on the "fullest possible achievement of democratic transformations". Tsarism must be overthrown through a people's revolution and replaced by a democratic republic. Lenin had no aim of establishing a bourgeois republic along the lines of the USA, France or Switzerland, where the masses vote every four or five years for who will oppress them.

That though is how the Mensheviks increasingly defined themselves. Lenin had no wish to sanctify the bourgeois order. His minimum programme relies on a provisional government in which the workers' party would enthusiastically and vigorously participate in order to drive the revolution forward against the bourgeoisie and broaden its sweep to the maximum degree so that not a trace of tsarism remains. Yet, though we find in Lenin's writings, as in Rosa Luxemburg's, references to the dictatorship of the proletariat which simply equate it to the conquest of political power by the working class, his usual way of employing the term was no different from that of Plekhanov and his contemporaries.

'Dictatorship' is used in the context of overcoming class resistance - and not only of the bourgeoisie and landed aristocracy, but the peasant masses too. The whole thing is in danger of descending into a hopeless muddle. Marxists support the maximum extension of democracy because only such means lead to the socialist goal. At the same time they threaten to cut across these necessary means if resistance arises to socialism from amongst the peasant masses.

Plekhanov solved the dilemma by recourse to a vulgar evolutionism. Capitalism and the growth of bourgeois social relations is said to go hand in hand with democracy .A contention supported with empirical references to France, Britain, Belgium, the US and other advanced capitalist states. The fact that democracy in these countries owes everything to the lower orders - crucially the working class - and nothing to the capitalists is completely ignored. Armed with such a schematic theory, the Menshevik right naturally gravitated towards bourgeois liberalism.

The coming revolution in Russia was to be bourgeois. By which they meant a revolution supported by the working class that would place the bourgeoisie firmly in political power and thereby enhance capitalism's economic dominance. That alone provides conditions for democracy and allows the productive forces to expand in an unfettered manner. The subsequent rapid growth of the working class finally puts socialism onto the agenda. Lenin presented another solution. In the 1905 year of revolution he came out with the famous algebraic formula: the 'revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry'.

What did this long sequence of words mean? 'Revolutionary' is easy. Overthrow tsarism and act in a bold, energetic way that ensures that the revolutionary conflagration spreads into Europe. 'Democratic' refers to the revolution and the subsequent government representing the mass of the common people, not least the peasantry. The revolution is a genuine people's revolution, not a Blanquist minority coup. Democracy carries the immediate programmatic pledge to introduce extensive rights and measures of popular control from below. Eg, national self-determination, women's equality, workers' militia, land redistribution.

But the implication is also there that the revolution cannot yet proceed to directly socialist tasks such as the abolition of the wages system and money. 'Dictatorship' is more problematic, as we have already seen. Lenin often used the term 'revolutionary government of the workers and peasants', so we can take the word 'dictatorship' to mean 'rule'. On the other hand it is clear that, following in the footsteps of Plekhanov, he envisaged 'dictatorial' violence crushing opponents of the revolution.

What of 'proletariat' and 'peasantry'? That is straightforward. The revolution has two distinct prongs. One urban, working class and anti-capitalist. The other rural, peasant and anti-landlord. This two-pronged revolution must find a united expression in the post-revolutionary regime. For those sentimentally attached to what passes for Trotskyite profundity this formulation of Lenin's presents two big problems.

Though something of a detour from the main trust of our discussion, I think they are worth reproducing and rebutting. Firstly, Draper has already told us by implication that one of the flaws with Lenin's strategy is that it did not involve making the inroads into private property that Trotsky posited as a necessity. But this contention is simply wrong.

Lenin did indeed envisage making radical inroads into private property. He insisted that all land must be nationalised by the revolutionary government. The landlords, for their part, were to be completely expropriated. Their great estates were not be broken up into numerous peasant smallholdings, but maintained as model farms which employed the latest technology and latest techniques. That way cooperation amongst the peasantry could be encouraged and petty individualism combated.

Needless to say, Lenin never proposed anything like the forced collectivisation brutally carried out by Stalin and his clique after the 1928 counterrevolution within the revolution. True, Lenin believed that the development of capitalism would, under Russian conditions, be progressive. But this capitalism was to be strictly controlled. Standing guard over capitalist relations of production was to be the workers' and peasants' state with its popular militia and all manner of other restrictions on capitalist exploitation - the eight-hour day, powerful trade unions, broad political freedoms, etc.

Crucially the Russian revolution was never pictured as an isolated national event. The overthrow of tsarism is understood by Lenin as initiating, and being an integral part of, the European socialist revolution. Extreme democracy and the leading, or hegemonic, role of the working class in Russia is dependant on the working class coming to power over advanced capitalism in the west. In step with the forward march of the world revolution, workers in Russia uninterruptedly move from the tasks of the minimum programme to those of the maximum programme. Secondly, how can there be a dictatorship, or rule, of two classes? Apparently such a proposition runs counter to Marxist theory.

I humbly beg to differ. Life is complex and Marxism constantly strives to reflect and fully grasp that complexity through developing its theoretical categories. History reveals many examples of two classes - often riven with conflicting interests - ruling society for relatively long periods.

Take Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was ruled by a bloc of two classes: the landed aristocracy and the industrial bourgeoisie. That found expression in the existence and institutional rivalry of the Tory and Liberal parties. The Tories were led by aristocrats and traditionally represented landed interests. The Liberals were likewise led by aristocrats. However, this party acted in the main on behalf of the industrial bourgeoisie.

Marx and Engels commented upon the phenomenon on countless occasions. Eg, Marx predicted the demise of the Tory (aristocratic) party and the rise of a Labour (workers') party that would challenge the Liberal (capitalists') party. What is possible for two exploiting classes is surely not impossible for two exploited classes whose interests are complementary in the short term and certainly not antagonistic in the long term. Marxism stands for universal suffrage and the rule of the majority. We are for representative institutions that embody executive as well as legislative powers.

As a sure concomitant of that principle we expect at some future date to see the rivalry - including those of opposition and coalition - of various political parties which base themselves programmatically and practically upon different sections of the popular masses: eg, the working and middle classes.

Class and party are, however, never a simple given. Suggestions to the contrary are ahistorical and mechanical. The unity between a particular party and a particular class is a process and is established over time and, once established, has to be renewed at every major political turning point. Therefore in all probability there will be all manner of different governmental combinations and oppositional coalitions of socialist parties at various stages of any genuinely revolutionary overthrow of capitalism from below.

Only under communism - the final or higher phase of socialism - would we expect political parties to finally die out, as the democratic semi-state gives way to general freedom. Lenin's abstract formulation was given flesh and bones in 1917. The popular masses created soviets of workers, peasants and soldiers. And within the soviets there was a profusion of rival socialist parties - the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, Right Socialist Revolutionaries, Populist Socialists, the Bund, Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, etc.

The coalition government of soviet parties proposed by Lenin over the months April-June and in September 1917 would have been a concrete expression of the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. As it was, a peaceful road proved impossible. Nonetheless the first soviet government was a coalition between the Bolsheviks - whose support base was overwhelmingly urban and working class - and the Left Socialist Revolutionary Party, which predominantly rested upon the poorer peasants.

Two Lenins

However, Lenin's use of the term 'dictatorship' remains full of ambiguities that were to bear bitter fruit under the weight of counterrevolution and isolation imposed upon Russia after October 1917. It is almost as if there were two Lenins. There is the democratic Lenin and his dictatorship (rule) of the workers and peasants.

Then there is the Blanquist Lenin. This, the other Lenin, admits that there is a problem with the common understanding of the word 'dictatorship'. In 1906 he readily agrees that people who hear Marxists using the term 'dictatorship' for the first time are often perplexed. They are accustomed to dictatorship to mean "only a police dictatorship" and the idea that a government without any police "seems strange to them" (VI Lenin CW Vol 10, Moscow 1977, p245).

But his explanation can only have added to the confusion. The dictatorship this Lenin has in mind recognises "no laws, no standards, no matter by whom they are established". Dictatorship is authority that is "unlimited, outside the law, and based on force in the most direct sense of the word". He then defines dictatorship 'scientifically' as meaning nothing more nor less than "authority untrammelled by any laws, absolutely unrestricted by any rules whatsoever, and based directly on force".

This Lenin confidently rounds off by declaring that the term 'dictatorship' "has no other meaning but this". And ominously he stresses that the dictatorship will be the "dictatorship of the revolutionary people" - as distinct from those who are "physically cowed and terrified", those who are prevented from fighting by "prejudice, habit, routine", those inclined to hold aloof "from intense struggle", those who hide themselves away from getting mixed up in the fight because they are afraid of getting hurt (ibid p246-47).

This kind of restricted, narrow, definition was going to be repeated again and again. Leave aside the Marx-Engels "other meaning" of 'dictatorship': Lenin's definition is far from satisfactory even in its own so-called scientific terms. In the midst of a pitched battle our forces surly recognise authority, a line of command, and apply moral standards. We are not anarchists or mindless thugs. And what about after the revolution? Do our elected representatives not enact binding laws and rules which the entire population is expected to obey?

As to the dictatorship of the "revolutionary" people and the exclusion of those deemed non-revolutionary, the implication is clear. Lenin is dispensing with the concept of class dictatorship and opens the door to a minority dictatorship wielded by revolutionary activists - that is, the revolutionary party. Naturally the party wants to "explain" things to the people. It seeks to "enlist" them and would never think about "shunning" the "whole people" (ibid p247).

But this Lenin's dictatorship is in reality a Russian echo of Jacobin communism. As Draper is at pains to point out, there is nothing characteristically Leninist here. Plekhanov and his attitude to democracy has already been cited. Lenin's virtue lay in honestly spelling out what others simply assumed. Substituting the revolutionary rule of the people for the revolutionary rule of the party was "not his invention" (H Draper The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx to Lenin New York 1987, p93).