Dictatorship of the proletariat: Bolshevism versus Kautskyism

In the sixth part of his series of articles Jack Conrad discusses the debate between Lenin, Trotsky and Kautsky

Unlike much of the left Karl Kautsky - former pope of Marxism - distinguished himself by his almost visceral hostility to the October Revolution. There is a whole post-1917 anti-Bolshevik literature coming from the poison pen of Kautsky.

Amongst the best known works are The dictatorship of the proletariat (1918), Terrorism and communism (1919), The proletarian revolution (1922) - thankfully all of them have been translated into English. Predictably every attack brought forth a swift counterattack. Top communist thinkers in Russia fired back in the battle for hearts and minds.

The most notable examples on this side being Lenin's Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky and Trotsky's Terrorism and communism and Between red and white - again all available in English translations. Let us briefly set the scene. Kautsky essentially lined up alongside the extreme right of social democracy when it came to Russia. In Germany that meant the Social Democratic Party. Kautsky was actually an ex-member of the SDP and had joined - albeit reluctantly - the Independent Social Democratic Party.

At a special conference of oppositionists in April 1917 a clear majority voted for a split from official social democracy over its fawning support for imperial Germany in World War I - in the name of always staying with the existing workers' party Kautsky cast his vote with the minority. The ISDP was the anti-war party. While war raged, the party grew - reaching a one-million-membership high.

But politically the ISDP occupied an unstable centrist position. Within its ranks were to be found not only Kautsky, but Eduard Bernstein on the far right and Rosa Luxemburg on the far left. The October Revolution in 1917 and the subsequent disintegration of kaiser Germany posed point blank the question of revolution or counterrevolution. Elemental forces were on the march and society violently polarised. The ISDP could not survive intact under such harsh conditions.

Luxemburg's Spartacus League broke away in December 1918 to establish the Communist Party of Germany. As for the SDP, it positively envisaged a whole period of capitalist stability and despicably connived with the army high command in order to eliminate the threat from the workers' and soldiers' councils. The ISDP had to choose what side it wanted to be on. Eventually at its October 1920 Halle congress the ISDP voted by 237 to 156 for affiliation to the Third International and negotiations towards forming a united Communist of Party in Germany.

There was a mammoth and world-historic debate. Gregori Zinoviev delivered a magnificent four-hour oration in German and won the day over his two main opponents: Jules Martov, the leader of the Mensheviks, who had just arrived from Russia to set up in exile; and Rudolph Hilferding, the renowned Austro-Marxist and author of Finance capital.

Zinoviev returned to Moscow in triumph. It was the pinnacle of his career as a revolutionary personality (see EH Carr The Bolshevik Revolution Vol 3, Harmondsworth 1977, pp220-26).

As for Kautsky, he and the rightwing ISDP rump meekly returned to the fold and reunited with the SDP. Yet, whatever his particular affiliation, Kautsky wrote polemics against the Bolsheviks and the October Revolution in the service of the anti-revolutionary programme of reformism.

Seven deadly sins

Of course, Kautsky's writings ranged over many questions - giving land to the peasants, nationalities policy, his conviction that the October Revolution was premature, etc. But our main concern and focus is that notorious phrase, the 'dictatorship of the proletariat'. What did Kautsky have to say?

In his The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx to Lenin Hal Draper lists seven specific headings which can usefully serve as our guide.

1. Marx-Engels references. Kautsky treated Marx-Engels is such a way that laid him open to charges of deliberate falsification. In The dictatorship of the proletariat he quotes Marx's Critique of the Gotha Programme - which is belittled as a mere "letter" - in such a way to make it appear that this was the only time the subject was treated by him.

But, as Draper comments, Kautsky could not hope to get away with it. The whole of the educated left had been fiercely debating the subject since 1917 and Lenin had already published his State and revolution. Here Lenin detailed how Marx-Engels had repeatedly used the phrase 'dictatorship of the proletariat'.

And Kautsky was supposed to be the foremost authority on Marxism. Was he less informed than Lenin? Surely he knew of Marx's The civil war in France? What about his letter to Weydemeyer? No one is suggesting that quotes from Marx or Engels settle everything. But to keep quiet on what they said can only but have been a deliberate attempt to suppress their views.

2. What does the dictatorship of the proletariat mean? According to Kautsky, it was an unfortunate fact that Marx "omitted to specify more exactly" what he meant by the dictatorship of the proletariat. Taken "literally", he says, it signifies "the sovereignty of one person, who is bound by no law", a "passing phase", and not a "permanent institution of the state" (K Kautsky The dictatorship of the proletariat Michigan 1964, p43).

Later he dismissively writes of the Bolsheviks remembering the "little phrase". Clearly Kautsky is blissfully unaware that the term had shifted its meaning between the 1850s and the 20th century. He knows something of the Roman dictatura and the educative dictatorship advocated by Babeuf and Blanqui.

But he fails to recognise that Marx-Engels used the word simply and straightforwardly to denote 'rule' - in this case rule by the working class. It had nothing to do with "strong government" or any other special measures. Interestingly, while in The dictatorship of the proletariat (1918) he claims to stand by Marx's meaning of the phrase - whatever that may have been - by the time he got round to finishing The proletarian revolution four years later in 1922, he had obviously undergone a change of mind.

The dictatorship of the proletariat "must be rejected" because it would allow "every worker" to freely "plunder and mishandle" any bourgeois at will (quoted in H Draper The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx to Lenin New York 1987, p127).Draper comments caustically: this passage is the "best evidence I know for the opinion held by some that Kautsky's old age was dimmed by senility" (ibid).

3. Government forms and state types. Kautsky could have scored some telling polemical points against Lenin and the Bolsheviks. We have seen how there were two Lenins on this subject of the dictatorship of the proletariat (see Weekly Worker October 17). On the one hand Lenin argued that 'dictatorship' implied nothing but the rule of the proletariat and peasantry. Yet on the other hand he used the term as synonymous with blood-curdling violence, terror and the denial of basic democratic rights. Kautsky makes a hash of it. He distinguishes between form of government and type of government. He says - rightly - that Marx had implied in his Critique of the Gotha programme a "political condition" - presumably a workers' state, though Kautsky refuses to spell out the two short words. A significant silence. And an easily understood one. Suffice to say, in 1918 the ISDP lefts and the Spartacist League were loudly demanding just that. A workers' state.

How could Kautsky counterpose a workers' state to the party rule which was coming into existence in Russia? After all he had fatefully compromised himself with the ISDP right and the SDP. And this bloc stood for a bourgeois democratic state and was prepared to join together with blood-splattered generals so as to ensure such an outcome.

4. Abstract democracy. Kautsky is forced to resort to an abstract and ahistorical democracy. Democracy is good. Dictatorship is bad. Soon he will renounce all forms of class rule in favour of parliamentary democracy, which he crudely and universally equates with democracy itself. Hence his conclusion that the "description of the bourgeois state as the 'dictatorship of the bourgeoisie' is one of the most absurd fictions that our age has produced" (quoted in H Draper The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx to Lenin New York 1987, p128).

This just goes to show how far Kautsky's collapse had gone. Traditionally the socialist movement had denounced the bourgeois dictatorship far more readily than it had dared utter the phrase 'dictatorship of the proletariat'. Now for Kautsky the idea of bourgeois dictatorship was an "absurd" fiction. Whereas Lenin and his comrades showed an increasing tendency to dismiss democracy by equating it with bourgeois democracy and thus a sham, a trick perpetrated upon the working class by the ruling class, Kautsky shows the opposite pattern. He dismisses the October Revolution out of hand because of its lack of democracy and embraces parliamentary democracy with the enthusiasm of a neophyte.

5. General applicability. Kautsky was prepared to concede that Marx "had somewhere said that under certain circumstances things might come to a dictatorship of the proletariat" (K Kautsky The dictatorship of the proletariat Michigan 1964, pp140-41). Yet, as we already know, this is complete nonsense. Marx advocated the rule of the working class - not "under certain circumstances", but everywhere.

6. Council system and parliament. Kautsky sets up soviets, the Rätesystem, against the parliamentary system. The Bolsheviks were increasingly prone to proclaim the soviet system as being of absolute universal significance. By contrast for Kautsky the only road to power is to be through parliament and winning a parliamentary majority. Soviets are organs of struggle and should remain content with that limited role and aspire to be nothing more. Marx-Engels had for their part called for the democratic republic - saying that this was the only form of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

As Draper suggests, what particular form this general form takes - ie, the democratic republic - is historically determined. In 1917 it was undoubtedly soviets in Russia. Likewise in 1918, if the German revolution were to have been successful, a Räterepublik would have come into being. But Marx and Engels had also talked of exceptional circumstances. They repeatedly speculated about the possibility of a peaceful road in Britain and the US, in which capturing a parliamentary majority would be the first act of the revolution. Draper therefore describes the crude counterposition of soviets to parliament as "petrified dogmatism" - whether it comes from the right or the left (H Draper The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx to Lenin New York 1987, p132).

As a footnote to this observation it should not be forgotten that the 1871 Paris Commune began as a cross-class city council, nor that the second act of the revolutionary majority was to call new elections. The ballot gave the revolutionaries an increased majority. There were 65 of them, compared with 21 oppositionists (15 of whom were out-and-out reactionaries).

7. Russian isolation. Kautsky attacked the Bolsheviks for banking on the European revolution coming to their rescue. He delights in detailing how Russia is a woefully backward country. The working class constitutes a small minority and the peasants a big majority. His conclusion is that any attempt by a working class party taking power in Russia in the expectation of triggering a wider, European, revolution, is to be condemned.

Kautsky hypocritically mourns the national isolation of the Russian Revolution in order to excuse himself and social democracy in Germany from any responsibility of overcoming it. Far from using the Russian example as an inspirational spur and fighting to win working class power in Germany, Kautsky irredeemably constitutes himself part of the problem. Lenin's counterattack Draper puts Lenin's 1918 The proletarian revolution and the renegade Kautsky into the catergory of expediency. Like Kautsky's attack on the October Revolution it was "less concerned with Marxist theory", more designed to vindicate existing politics.

Again we are concerned with the misuse of the term 'dictatorship of the proletariat' rather than the overall bigger picture. Nevertheless a tincture of historical flavouring serves to give the polemics context as well as light and shade. The revolutionary regime hung by a thread. The working class and the Communist Party were confronted not only by internal counterrevolution, but the intervention of 14 foreign armies. All available resources had to be put at the disposal of the Red Army. Hunger stalked the cities. Industrial production slumped. Meanwhile so-called fellow socialists, such as Kautsky in Germany, were lending their best efforts to stabilise capitalism and to rubbish the Bolsheviks for having dared to take power. Lenin burnt with anger. His comrade, Bonch-Bruyevich, recalls him "sitting up every day till late at night writing this remarkably hard-hitting work" (VI Lenin CW Vol 27, Moscow 1977, p512n).

No one can deny the aggression and fervour with which Lenin writes. His words and phrases glow, compared with Kautsky's dry-as-dust formulations. Those who were already on side would have been delighted by its vituperative tone. However, Draper is of the view that The proletarian revolution and the renegade Kautsky is "perhaps the worst book Lenin ever published" (H Draper The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx to Lenin New York 1987, p133).

It is not the invective. The proletarian revolution and the renegade Kautsky represents a new stage, argues Draper, in the post-1917 evolution of Leninism in respect to democracy. By force of circumstance Lenin was shifting away from the concept of majority revolution. He does not say so openly. Nonetheless the message is clear - even if only implicitly. Every time Kautsky insists upon a majority being essential for socialism, one finds Lenin smashing him down with accusations of "abstract democracy" and the insistence that Kautsky had substituted liberalism for Marxism.

A representative sample: "If we argue in a liberal way, we must say: the majority decides, the minority submits .... Nothing need be said about the class character of the state in general ... a majority is a majority and a minority is a minority ... And this is exactly how Kautsky argues" (VI Lenin CW Vol 28, Moscow 1977, p250).

The trick is easy to detect. The whole question of a majority is simply hidden under the charge of liberalism. The Soviet Republic presumably has no need to win a majority because it is already defined as the dictatorship of the proletariat. Why does the working class need a dictatorship? Lenin answers: to suppress the minority of exploiters. Those who raise the need for a majority revolution are presumably automatically guilty of siding with the exploitative minority. Leave aside the logic-chopping: Draper says this is the first time Lenin had "counterposed" the revolutionary need to suppress reactionaries to the "concept of majority revolution" (H Draper The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx to Lenin New York 1987, p134).

Lenin draws an analogy. Ancient Athens was "essentially a dictatorship of the slave-owners. Did this dictatorship abolish democracy among, and for, the slave-owners? Everybody knows that it did not" (VI Lenin CW Vol 28, Moscow 1977, p253). We can ignore the actual socio-political realities of Athens (Ellen Meiksins Wood persuasively suggests that it was a peasant-citizen republic - after all every male citizen in Attica had the right to vote and take an active part in government).

The problem with Lenin is obvious. One can readily admit that within highly restricted ruling class circles history reveals examples of circumstances where some kind of minority 'democracy' prevails - the mercantile republic of Venice, the pre-1832 aristocratic landowners' parliament in Britain. But this is the 'democracy' of the few over and against the great majority. A better description therefore would be an exploiters' collectivism or something of the kind. Democracy was democratic in Athens only because it involved those below - the demos, the citizen majority (minus women).

Likewise for Marxism our revolution, our state is democratic, because it is the act of the majority and the rule of the majority. At least that is what Marx-Engels emphasise time and time again. So did Lenin at his best, when he thought he could still afford to be orthodox and was not making a theoretical sow's ear out of the Soviet republic's dire necessity. By taking a slave-owners' 'democracy' as his model Lenin was breaking with Marx-Engels.

The reason is not hard to fathom. Russia's proletariat was tiny and getting smaller with civil war and trade embargo. Russia was terribly and suffocatingly isolated and, to make matters worse, 'socialists' such as Kautsky were siding with those who would ensure that that isolation continued till the point where capitalism was restored. The result would in all likelihood not be Kautsky's bourgeois democracy, but a military terror that would see Nazi-type pogroms against reds, jews and militant workers. Clearly Lenin was under enormous pressure and was willing to hit back with anything that came to hand.

Instead of consistently admitting the parlous situation faced by the Soviet republic and how far it had strayed from being a healthy socialist state, he began with one theoretical improvisation following another to concoct a new doctrine in which "talk about majority and minority" and democracy are dismissed as mere liberal cant. Lenin is fitfully evolving towards enshrining the minority dictatorship of the working class over the peasant masses and, as the situation continued to deteriorate, the revolutionary part of that class over society as a whole.

True, Lenin did write with searing honesty about the workers' state suffering bureaucratic deformations and its class character relying on the party's old guard alone. It is also true that till the end of his life one can find references to the necessity of democracy and the rule of the majority. Nevertheless a new theory emerges from all the improvisation. It is a theory which invents a whole intermediate, or transitional, period between capitalism and socialism called the dictatorship of the proletariat.

During this period law is suspended, the party rules, democratic rights are denied and the ends always justify means. Between capitalism and socialism there lies a global civil war. Orders from above are therefore necessary, votes from below dangerous madness.

That way Kautsky and other critics need not be answered. They - and more importantly their arguments - could simply be condemned out of hand and treated with sneering contempt. Trotsky Draper - a former follower - is scathing about Trotsky. Lenin habitually asked himself, 'What did Marx think?'

He also tried logically and sometimes painfully to square the circle. Trotsky not only eschewed "Lenin's pattern" of approaching problems. Trotsky did not even bother to inquire about what Marx thought (H Draper The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx to Lenin New York 1987, p138).

His works - sparkling as they are in terms of exqusite style and arresting metaphor - are usually 'quote-mongering'-free because he neither cared about Marx's thought nor knew about it. Draper says that such ignorance might have been forgivable if he had not attempted to make pronouncements on what he is ignorant about. Eg, in Terrorism and communism Trotsky lays claim to Engels. Apparently he "stubbornly defended" the dictatorship of the proletariat and "the idea that the political autocracy of the proletariat" was "the sole form in which it can realise its control of the state" (L Trotsky Terrorism and communism London 1975, p44).

Yet, as we have seen elsewhere, Engels would have done no such thing. For him, as with Marx, the dictatorship of the proletariat meant 'rule' of the working class. It was not a form of control over the state. Kautsky repeatedly hit the Soviet republic using the example of the Paris Commune and how it embodied consistent democracy.

In reply Trotsky fell into the trap of 'refuting' Kautsky by showing how the Commune resorted to anti-democratic measures. His evidence is erroneous, fanciful or simply embarrassing - the heroes in his account being the Blanquists. Nevertheless the next step is easy. The Commune was anti-democratic, so is the Soviet republic; ergo there exists no problem. Along with Kautsky's 'formal democracy', Trotsky dismisses democracy itself.

He goes far further than Lenin at his worse. What matters for him is the revolutionary will and determination of the minority. With sufficient single-mindedness all obstacles can be overcome. The results are well known. The militarisation of labour, the statisation of the trade unions, lauding terror and command over democratic norms. Draper offers the opinion that such incidents are not momentary slips on Trotsky's part. Rather they form the beginning of Trotsky's "deep-going and systematic break with Marx on the nature of a workers' state" (H Draper The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx to Lenin New York 1987, p139).

I must state my agreement with this sad assessment. Admire Trotsky, the selfless revolutionary, yes. Wonder at his brilliance as a writer and organiser. Respect his steadfast opposition to Stalin and the wholesale destruction of the Bolshevik old guard. But do not be afraid to criticise Trotsky when it comes to his disgraceful and regressive attitude towards democracy.

That is certainly one of the many reasons why I refuse to call myself a Trotskyite or Trotskyist. Unless, that is, I happen to be debating with out-and-out Stalinites. When, as is their wont, they brand me a 'Trotskyite', it would be churlish not to take this 'insult' as an unintended compliment. Trotsky's anti-democratic positions are well known and I presume that those who do describe themselves as disciples - 'ites' or 'ists' - must in some way defend his anti-democratic ideas. Eg, till the end of his life Trotsky insisted upon describing the bureaucratic socialism of Stalin as an example of a workers' state. Albeit a degenerated one.

Why? Simply because of the statisation of the means of production. Such a lamentable conclusion inextricably flows from his separation of the workers' state (socialism) from democracy. For Marxists socialism cannot be separated from democracy without it ceasing to be socialism. As our 'What we fight for' column says, "Socialism represents victory in the battle for democracy."

Socialism entails no denial, or abolition, of democracy, but extending the practice of democracy to its extreme limits and giving what is often hollow under capitalism a definite social content. Old forms are thereby given a new purpose and direction and new, complementary, forms spring into existence alongside them. Socialism that way breaks out of capitalism as a huge democratic upsurge, whereby the masses take control over their everyday lives and society in general. Socialism, or a workers' state, must stay being democratic or "it turns into its opposite" - a case in point being, of course, Stalin's Soviet Union.

Let our critics ponder. Trotsky is against everything Kautsky is for. Not a good method. He duly hits rock bottom theoretically when, standing in the position of Kautsky's polar opposite, he argues against the possibility of majority rule. An old chestnut unconsciously inherited from Jacobin-communism, Blanqui, etc. The masses are held down with "compulsory general education", kept "on the verge of complete ignorance", exist in "spiritual slavery" and are terrorised to such a degree that the minority must seize power on their behalf. Then, and only then, can the "most ignorant, most terrorised sections of the nation" be slowly educated in the "meaning of socialist production" (L Trotsky Terrorism and communism London 1975, pp58-59).

Draper damns Trotsky for taking the "theoretical lead in gutting socialism of its organic enrootment in the mass of people". Hence, when in his turn Stalin took the lead in organising the socio-economic counterrevolution within the revolution, the "judicial" basis in theory had already been laid. Yet despite the horrors of the 1930s Trotsky was neither able nor willing to set himself the task of thoroughgoing self-criticism.

With the advantage of the 20-20 vision that hindsight gives us we cannot afford to make a similar mistake. Democracy and socialism must be reunited. In the first place that requires a fearless criticism of all past efforts ... and failures. Without that nothing of any seriousness can ever be achieved.