Light and air of political freedom

North American scholar Lars T Lih explores the varying attitude of Marxists towards universal suffrage, freedom of the press and freedom of association

For me as a historian, one of the most important political facts about the history of Europe during the 19th century was that the most committed, the most orthodox and most dogmatic revolutionary Marxists were friends, in fact champions, of political freedom. But in the 20th century - especially if you see the 20th century as beginning in 1914 and ending in 1989 - one of the most important political facts was that the most committed, the most orthodox and most dogmatic revolutionary Marxists were not friends of political freedom, to put it mildly. There are all sorts of qualifications one can add here, but this is obviously the reputation that revolutionary Marxism has today.

It is even more striking that Vladimir Ilyich Lenin is, as I like to call him, the ‘poster boy’ for both these assertions. I am painting with broad brush-strokes here, so that you, the audience, can fill in the finer details, but what I am going to do is to draw out the contrast in Lenin himself.

This quote is from an article of his in Iskra (The Spark), the paper of Russian Social Democracy, in August 1903. He is laughing at the various attempts of the tsarist government to introduce worker reform and even representation: “... without political freedom, all forms of worker representation will remain pitiful frauds; the proletariat will remain as before in prison, without the light, air and space needed to conduct the struggle for its full liberation.”

(That metaphor of light, space and air is a big one in the history of Bolshevism, and I could point out numerous references to it in various Marxists writings, but we shall return to that later.)

In contrast to this, here is a quote from 1919, from the founding congress of the Communist International. Of course, this is at the height of the civil war. Lenin says: “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.”[1]

I like the rhetoric here! Even more striking is that in the same speech he also says: “Marxists have always maintained that, the more developed, the ‘purer’ democracy is, the more naked, acute and merciless the class struggle becomes, and the ‘purer’ the capitalist oppression and bourgeois dictatorship.”[2]

What this sounds like is that Lenin is saying, ‘Do not extend the institutions of the democratic republic or democracy, because you are just going to get more deceptions.’ I imagine you can work out a way in which these contrasting statements are logically or dialectically compatible. But there is certainly a change in emphasis.

What I am going to do now is to go through a brief history of the relationship between Marxism, revolutionary social democracy and political freedom. I love the following quotes and think that most of them should be better known than they actually are. They eloquently set out the reasons why Marxists thought political freedom to be so central to their political project, and why for them it was not simply something desirable, but was central to the whole logic of their political strategies. I also like them because they bring out another essential element - the emotional fervour behind political freedom.

In 1893, Karl Kautsky made the following claim: “Social democracy, the party of the class-aware proletariat, is by that very fact the most solid support of democratic aspirations. It is a much more reliable support than ... the non-socialist democrats themselves.” Here Kautsky is making a claim (and I think this is backed up by most historical research) that in 19th century Europe the biggest supporters of democracy were the socialist parties. There is a reason for that, which can be summed up by saying that for the most part this democracy was a means to an end for such forces. But it was an absolutely necessary means to a vital end. So you can be much more committed to something you need desperately than is the case for somebody who thinks that political freedom is an end in itself and as such is willing to compromise here and there.

What is the basic logic of all this? It is the fact that the proletariat can only liberate itself, that it has a historical mission to organise itself to overthrow the state and introduce socialism, and that in order to do that it needs to have the freedom to organise and enlighten itself.

I am now going to quote an English scholar called John Ray, who was interested in economic thought and, as far as I know, was an anti-Marxist. In 1884 he wrote an academic treatment of Marx which I actually think is quite a good one. Unlike some of the writings of Marxists themselves, I think his chapter on Marx brings out quite nicely the whole Marxist strategy and emphasis on political freedom of the press, assembly and so on.

But before I quote Ray, I quickly want to underline what I mean by ‘political freedom’. It is not a term that is frequently used in today’s language: we often talk of civil rights or democratic freedoms. ‘Political freedom’ was a term explicitly used at the time to mean freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom of association and so on - all the freedoms you would need to start Marxist campaigns, get the message out and get the project rolling.

Ray said the following about Marx’s view of what needed to be done: “Street insurrections, surprises, intrigues, pronunciamentos and so on might overturn a dynasty or oust a government ... but they are of no avail in a world attempting to introduce collective property or abolish wage labour - the next day people would just begin to work for hire or rent their farms as they did before. A social revolution needed other and larger preparation. It first needed the whole population thoroughly leavened with its principles.

“What was first to be done, therefore, was to educate and move public opinion, and in this the ordinary secret society [remember most socialists before Marx had organised in secret societies] went a little way. A secret propaganda might still be carried on [this is my main point about the Bolshevik underground during the Iskra period], but a public and open propaganda was more effectual and more suitable to the times. There never existed greater facilities for such a movement, and today revolutionaries ought to make use of all means of communication and intercommunication which modern society allowed. No more secret societies and holes in corners. No more small risings and petty plots. But a great, broad organisation working in open day, and working restlessly with tongue and pen to stir the masses of all European countries to a common international revolution. In short, Marx sought to introduce the large system of production into the small art of conspiracies.”

According to Ray, then, Marx believed that in order to move forward on a national and hopefully on an international scale wide-ranging political freedoms are needed. To underline this point, let us take a quote from Marx himself in 1847, at a time when he is probably drafting the Communist manifesto, which appeared in early 1848. A lot of people, especially on the left, were saying ‘to hell with political freedom’ and saw no point in arguing for it - they viewed it as a way for the bourgeoisie to solve its own problems and something that would do nothing for the workers. Some conservatives also threw similar arguments at the liberal movement in Germany. One conservative critic at the time accused the liberal movement of “using the people as cannon-fodder” in order to achieve the freedoms that they, the liberals, wanted and needed, but did not benefit the workers.

Marx responded to this in the following way: “Does the Herr Consistorial Counsellor then believe that the proletariat, which is more and more adhering to the Communist Party, that the proletariat will be incapable of utilising the freedom of the press and the freedom of association? Let him read the English and French working men’s newspapers, let him just attend some time a single Chartist meeting!”[3]

This is very eloquent from Marx, who at this time becomes increasingly interested in the means of communication and interaction, which can spread the message as far and wide as possible.

Now let us move onto the 1860s with a quote from Engels in his ‘The Prussian military question and the German workers’ party’. What he had to say here centred first of all on political freedom:

“Universal suffrage, freedom of the press, association and assembly, suspension of all special laws - there is nothing else that the proletariat needs to demand from the bourgeoisie. They cannot require that the bourgeoisie cease to be a bourgeoisie, but they certainly can require that it practise its own principles consistently [We could, of course, dispute whether these are the bourgeoisie’s own principles]. But the proletariat will thereby acquire all the weapons it needs for its ultimate victory. With freedom of the press, the right of assembly and association, it will win universal suffrage. And with universal direct suffrage, in conjunction with the above tools of agitation, it will win everything else.”[4]

So note here that the key thing - more important than universal suffrage or the democratic republic - is political freedom. That will allow you to push to get universal suffrage, which in turn is a con game unless you have the political freedom to utilise it.

There is a second interesting point that Engels makes at this time. Remember, in 1905 the Russian movement was debating whether it was right for them to be carrying out a bourgeois revolution or not - and what kind of bourgeois revolution if we are carrying it out? This is what Engels had to say on this:

“Even if the worst came to the worst and the bourgeoisie was to scurry under the skirts of reaction for fear of the workers, and appeal to the power of those elements hostile to itself for protection against them - even then the workers’ party would have no choice but, notwithstanding the bourgeoisie, to continue its campaign for bourgeois freedom, freedom of the press and rights of assembly and association which the bourgeoisie had betrayed. Without these freedoms it will be unable to move freely itself; in this struggle it is fighting to establish the environment necessary for its existence, for the air it needs to breathe.”[5] This is the earliest reference I have found to the ‘light and air’ metaphor I referred to earlier on.


I will now move on to the approach of Kautsky, as outlined in his seminal commentary on the Erfurt programme of German social democracy in 1891. I must apologise to those who feel I am quoting a fatalistic, mechanistic, non-dialectical guy like Kautsky! But Kautsky was important and this text in particular was of great importance to the Russian social democrats. This is from his commentary on programme, which became a textbook, or even a definitional charter of social democracy across Europe, especially Russia. He repeats here the logic of Marx and Engels:

“To bring these masses in contact with one other, to awaken their consciousness of the broad community of interests, to win them over for organisations protecting their interests [ie, it is not just about persuading people or changing their minds] this implies the possibility of speaking clearly to the broad masses. This implies freedom of the press. These freedoms have the greatest significance for the proletariat. They are among the conditions which make its life possible and to which it unconditionally owes its development. They are light and air for the proletariat. He who lets them wither or withholds them, he who keeps the proletariat from the struggle to win these freedoms and to extend them, that person is one of the proletariat’s worst enemies”.[6]

From this you can understand why being an economist was a mortal sin in Russian social democracy. Essentially it was to be labelled “one of the proletariat’s worst enemies”, who ignores one of the main factors that is essential to its development. As a matter of fact, the classical economists (not the ones Lenin was polemicising with in What is to be done?) were actually saying this. They were sceptical and pessimistic about the chances of political revolution - especially the worker leadership of it - and found it a rather utopian perspective. Additionally though, they did not actually think that such a revolution would be a good thing or worthwhile. YD Kuskova, who wrote The credo (a text battered by Lenin and indeed most others in the underground), writes: “It is utopian to think that the overthrow of the autocracy would cause the bourgeoisie to change the position of the workers. One must not expect anything from a constitution in Russia.” Other economists made similar arguments along these lines.

The economists, then, were the ones who were most sceptical about political freedom. Historically we often think of them as those who wanted the workers to have more freedom to express themselves and so forth, or as the ones who were the most optimistic about the working class gaining consciousness and so on. But actually they were the most pessimistic about the possibility of the workers carrying out this great action.

Before we finally move on to Lenin I want to quote Julius Martov from a book he wrote in 1894. This is basically a statement of the Iskra editorial board when Martov and Lenin were on the same team together - ie, before the Bolshevik-Menshevik split. This particular book is also cited by Lenin as a must-read. I like this quote again because it brings out the logic most clearly - it gets across the idea that all of these people were saying the same thing over and over again:

“The liberation of the workers can only be the job of the workers themselves. In order to attain the final goal of the worker movement, which is socialism, it is necessary beforehand to enjoy broad political freedom, which is the one thing which will allow the proletariat to develop its strength and self-awareness to the extent needed to take social production into its own hands. Therefore, the task of the Russian worker party is to develop in the worker masses, in spite of all political constraints, an awareness of the necessity of attaining political struggle and to organise them for the struggle with the Russian autocracy.”

You may recall that I describe Lenin’s strategy in the early 1900s as “organising a party as much like the German SPD as possible under the Russian conditions of autocracy”. This is an accurate summation of that approach - ie, overthrow the autocracy and enjoy the broad political freedoms to create such a party. We need these tools, this space, and when we do we will move ahead quickly.

In a text called To the rural poor (1903), Lenin neatly summarises his approach to the peasantry in a rather accessible manner. On top of this he explains why Marxists are for political freedom. I challenge you to find another book in the Marxist tradition that is so enthusiastic and table-pounding about the necessity of political freedom. The book’s audience, as I have pointed out, is the peasantry and others in the narod (the people), who had not yet heard of the social democrats and their message. He says:

“Nobody will free the working man from poverty if he does not free himself. And to free themselves the workers of the whole country, the whole of Russia, must unite in one association, in one party. But millions of workers cannot unite if the autocratic police government bans all meetings, all workers’ newspapers, and the election of workers’ deputies. To unite they must have the right to form unions of every kind, must have freedom to associate; they must enjoy political freedom.”[7]

He then highlights the international dimensions of social democracy and how the Russians wish to be a part of it, which is why they must overthrow the tsar. He says: “Workers of all countries, unite! - during the past 50 years these words have circled the whole globe, are repeated at tens and hundreds of thousands of workers’ meetings, and can be read in millions of social democratic pamphlets and newspapers in every language.”

Further, he talks about Germany as an example (which he always does, of course), highlighting how in Germany the political freedoms there have enabled the SPD to become a real force and to develop strong links with the rural workers and poor.

I particularly like this quote too: “Of course, the bureaucrats suppress every book, every utterance that tells the truth about the people’s poverty. The present pamphlet, too, has to be printed by the social democratic party secretly and circulated secretly: anyone who is found in possession of this pamphlet will make the acquaintance of courts and prisons. But the social democratic workers are not afraid of this: they print more and more, and give the people more and more truthful books to read. And no prisons, no persecution can halt the fight for the people’s freedom!”[8]

This just about sums up Lenin and his approach back then. Indeed, he is not only looking to emulate the German model, but argues that, with political freedom, the Russian masses could actually proceed much more quickly and successfully towards socialism than the Germans: “When the Russian people have won political freedom, the work of uniting the working class, the cause of socialism, will advance much more rapidly, more rapidly than it is advancing among the German workers.”[9]

I think I have hammered home the point here. Right up to 1914 you find Lenin making these basic points time and time again - and other Bolsheviks too. If you wanted to give a ‘political freedom man of the year’ award in this time then it could certainly go to Lenin.

We all see 1905 as a failed revolution, and, of course, it was. But it produced one of the biggest changes of that decade, in that it brought about a situation where people could get up and criticise the government and work in legal parties. This change simply would not have happened if the workers had not been involved in the struggle for political freedom. This in turn would not have happened if there had not been activists around who had been trying to convince them of the need for this struggle for over a decade.

Lenin saw that if he could get the party to get the workers to get the rest of the Russian people to overthrow the tsar then this could create a space, and this certainly happened.

Renegade Lenin

That is the one side of Lenin. We are now going to jump ahead to the other side of Lenin, which I have provocatively entitled ‘Renegade Lenin’ - you could argue that what he says later is some sort of betrayal of his own principles. He himself did not think so, but it is at least an argument.

What I want to do now is look at his statements after the revolution. We all know that there is a problem with political freedom after the revolution and I myself think that the objective reasons were enough to explain why political freedom was shut down. They are enough to explain the three processes that were going on at this time. The first one was the shutting down of the bourgeois parties and press - that happened right away. The second was more ad hoc, more unexpected and more improvised - the putting down of the socialist opposition. That went on for several years, and people such as Martov and other socialist critics were still standing up in national soviet congresses after the civil war and making criticisms. The third process concerned democracy within the party, and that was the least expected, the most protracted and the one the Bolsheviks did not want to admit to.

I am sure we are all aware that within a few years arguments in favour of anything like the 19th century concept of political freedom were no longer to be heard in Russia. As I say, the objective reasons of the civil war, the intervention, the economic crisis, etc meant that there was not going to be any flourishing of political freedom. And indeed, right across eastern Europe there was nowhere where democracy was flourishing - it was all falling apart.

But that is not what we are discussing here. The Bolsheviks talked about this and came up with reasons, so it was doctrinal. It has not been thoroughly examined as of yet, and I am only going to scratch the surface in terms of some of the things they said. As we will see, some of what they said makes a certain amount of sense, but some of it we would certainly like to challenge.

Let us begin with a remarkable 1918 quotation from Nikolai Bukharin. People were challenging the Bolsheviks because back then they still remembered that the Bolsheviks had fought for the freedom of the press and so on. Now they were in power, were the Bolsheviks not being slightly hypocritical? Here is Bukharin’s answer:

“The reason is very simple. The working class at that time was not yet powerful enough to storm the bourgeois fortress. It needed time to prepare, to gather strength, to enlighten the masses, to organise. It lacked, for instance, a press of its own uninfluenced by the capitalist class. But it could not come to the capitalists and their government and demand, ‘Close your newspapers, messrs capitalists, and start newspapers for us workers.’ They would be laughed at; it would be ridiculous to put such demands to capitalists. It would be equivalent to expecting the latter to cut their hands off with their own knife. Such demands are only made when a position is being taken by storm. Previously there was no such time. And that is why the working class (and our party) said: ‘Long live freedom of the press’ (the whole press, the bourgeois press included)!”[10]

What he is basically saying here then is that they had lied! It reminds me of a lyric from a song I know: “How could you believe me when I told you that I love you, and you know I’ve been a liar all my life?” Great song!

Hal Draper commented on this one too: “Bukharin claimed that the movement had lied in the past and that he was telling the truth now. But, of course, such an absurd conspiracy had never existed. Bukharin was lying now - to cover up a 180-degree turn on his part. A movement that printed this drivel was discredited as much for the future as for the past.”

Of course, I agree with Draper that Bukharin was talking into his hat here. However, there is something to it. As I have said before, the reason that people wanted freedom of the press was to get the message out to the people and carry out campaigns and strike action. But if that is what you need political freedom for, then maybe you no longer need it when you get to be in charge - maybe you do not want the competition from the bourgeoisie! It is as if somebody came to you with a whole lot of money and a police force, urging you to go out and run a series of campaigns. You might be tempted to take advantage of it.

The quote undercuts any later attempt of the communists to say, ‘We want political freedom for ourselves and for you too!’ He is telling everybody, ahead of time, that if you ever hear a communist party say that, then they are lying. I think Bukharin soon twigged that this was not a good thing to be saying, so he stopped saying it. However, I think he still believed it.

At one of the Comintern congresses, Grigory Zinoviev - one of Lenin’s closest comrades - picked up on this. He says: “As long as the bourgeoisie holds power, as long as it controls the press, education, parliament and art, a large part of the working class will be corrupted by the propaganda of the bourgeoisie and its agents and driven into the bourgeois camp.” This is all quite reasonable. “But, as soon as there is freedom of the press for the working class, as soon as we gain control of the schools and the press, the day will come (and it is coming gradually) when large groups of the working class will come over to us until we have won a majority.”[11]

In one sense this is quite an optimistic outlook, and Zinoviev certainly thought that minority, vanguard rule by the party would be temporary and a majority would gradually be won over through campaigns and education. But what you see here is what I call ‘state monopoly campaignism’ - you are now in a position to run the sort of campaigns that the SPD were running, but without interference. Here the Bolsheviks are being what the SPD might have been if all restraints had been taken off.

What did the constitution of 1918 say on political freedom? It said there would be a temporary restriction on political rights, “until the disappearance of the objective possibilities of the exploitation of man by man” - so this is framed in a rather long-term perspective. The constitution also says that we will fight against “deep-rooted ideas, in accordance with which bourgeois rights and freedoms are regarded as inviolable”. The temporary nature of these measures were stressed, but it does appear that the temporary period was perceived as being actually quite long.

Here is Bukharin again, writing in The ABC of communism (1920), a programmatic commentary written with Yevgeni Preobrazhensky: “The bourgeoisie has masses of newspapers and can cheat the workers to its heart’s content day after day; whereas the workers, notwithstanding their legal ‘rights’, have practically no press of their own.” And then: “Essentially there is no freedom at all because it is impossible to put into practice.”[12] This begs the question then: why were the Bolsheviks fighting so hard for political freedom over a long period of time if it was this useless?

One of Bukharin’s contributions to this view in particular was the notion that revolution itself involves a vast crisis throughout the whole society: a period of breakdown before relative stability, and only then can you start to move forward. During this period of conflict and breakdown you can simply not afford political freedoms.

Because of this, often when the left talks about these problems they focus in on a particular episode. Often they focus on the banning of factions at the 10th Congress in 1921, where Lenin was panicked by the fact that the party was putting its own disunity on display, particularly around the trade union question. That is certainly a historic landmark, but I do not think you should put too much explanatory weight on it. We have a vast crisis going on anyway, and this step only concerned democracy inside the party. As far as I am concerned, you cannot have democracy in the party if you do not have political freedom outside it. The party will not allow it. It simply cannot work.

It is important to understand the significance of the anti-factions resolution, but I do think that people overstate it. Indeed, if you actually read those resolutions then they make a good argument. They state that we are under siege, facing all sorts of problems, and there are a lot of people who will come into the party who oppose our project of socialism. After all, as we are the only party, where else can they go? We cannot simply dismiss this as a mistake - there were serious problems the Bolsheviks had to face.

I do not think they meant it or they had thought it through, but when they were looking back to the struggle for political freedom in bourgeois society they dismissed it as worthless. Then in the socialist society they looked at it and said that they simply could not afford it.

But what about the future? It was not so much the case of saying that they could not afford it, but that they saw no particular role or need for it. So if you look for where Lenin mentions political freedom in State and revolution, you will actually find nothing about it - except in two places. One where Lenin talks of public buildings not being for beggars, and in this following quote: “The commune substitutes for the venal and rotten parliamentarism of bourgeois society institutions in which freedom of opinion and discussion does not degenerate into deception.”[13]

Given the importance of political freedom in Lenin, this is something that needs explaining. It is always a problem when people say they are for freedom of speech, but not for the freedom to deceive, etc.

I am not trying to blame the Bolsheviks: I merely want to point out the clear change in outlook. However, in the longer term, this incoherence about political freedom was extremely damaging, perhaps fatal, to the project as a whole - not merely in the Soviet Union (where we all know what happened), but in western countries where the communist parties were perceived as hypocritical in the Bukharin sense. That is, they wanted political freedom for themselves, but as soon as they would get it then political freedom for others would cease.

The Bolsheviks never claimed that democracy and political freedom were undesirable - they are certainly in the Stalinist constitution of 1936. They did not mean anything then, of course, but they were there. And because they were there, because they were officially of value and because there was always access to Lenin’s writings, they had the capacity to revive. And they did revive in various oppositional or reform movements.

So, although the picture is pretty bleak, you cannot say that the Bolsheviks ever said that they did not care for political freedom or that it was a bourgeois value. They claim close to it, but they never actually said it, and that was a good thing l

This is an edited version of the opening made by Lars T Lih at Communist University 2010.


  1. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1919/mar/comintern.htm
  2. Ibid.
  3. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/09/12.htm
  4. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1865/02/12.htm
  5. Ibid.
  6. K Kautsky The Erfurt programme Stanford 1970.
  7. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1903/rp/2.htm#v06zz99h-367
  8. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1903/rp/5.htm#v06zz99h-398
  9. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1903/rp/2.htm#v06zz99h-367
  10. www.marxists.org/archive/bukharin/works/1918/worldrev/ch07.html
  11. Quoted in J Riddell (ed) Workers of the world and oppressed peoples, unite! Proceedings and documents of the 2nd Congress, 1920 Vol 1, New York 1991, p153.
  12. www.marxists.org/archive/bukharin/works/1920/abc/06.htm#049
  13. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/ch03.htm