Louis Proyect: The revolutionary democratic-dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry? Say what?
Louis Proyect responds here to analyses of the 1917 Russian revolution by Eric Blanc and Lars Lih that have appeared on this website. Louis’ article first appeared on his site, https://louisproyect.org/, on March 4, 2017, and is reposted with permission. For links to related material, see bottom of this post.
By Louis Proyect. When I first heard the term “revolutionary democratic-dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” not long after joining the SWP in 1967, I said to myself “What the fuck is that?” Democratic dictatorship, say what?
Soon, I learned that this was a term coined by V.I. Lenin to convey the goals of the Bolshevik Party in the coming Russian revolution. Basically, it meant that the workers would make a revolution against the feudal class in Russia that dominated the countryside and that was represented politically by the Czar. After that stage had been accomplished, Russia would go on to the next stage of capitalist development freed from feudal constraints. Under those conditions, the workers would take advantage of constitutional freedoms to build a socialist party modeled on the German social democracy that can overthrow the capitalist system.
When Lenin used the term “dictatorship”, he used it like Marx in “Critique of the Gotha Program”:
Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.
It did not mean rule by a dictator, but rule by a class. Under bourgeois democracy, there is a dictatorship of the capital class. Under workers democracy, there is a dictatorship of the working class. In my view, it was probably a mistake for Marx or Lenin to use the word dictatorship, since it can be so easily misunderstood especially when Stalin exercised personal rule over Russia in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
In the early 70s, American Maoists defended Lenin’s strategy as a way of establishing “revolutionary continuity” with the Bolshevik Party in the same way that the SWP carried the banner of Leon Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution. In 1973, Carl Davidson wrote a series of articles in the Guardian (a defunct radical newsweekly, not the British daily) titled “Left in Form, Right in Essence: A Critique of Contemporary Trotskyism” that many SDS’ers transitioning into “Marxism-Leninism-Maoism” found useful. The second in the series was titled “Two lines on ‘permanent revolution’” that basically recapitulates arguments made by Stalin and his flunkies in the 1920s:
Trotsky’s views on the course of the Russian revolution, like those of the Mensheviks, were refuted by history. The revolution was both uninterrupted and developed in stages. The revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants came into being during the first stage, during the period of the dual power and in the special form of the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.
In 1924, there was a heated debate in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union between Trotsky and his detractors, including Josef Stalin and Lev Kamenev, over the two opposing lines. Kamenev’s article, which was titled “Leninism or Trotskyism?” and written in wooden prose, is virtually indistinguishable from Davidson’s as this excerpt would indicate:
Lenin stood for the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry—Trotsky opposed it! Here, as Lenin pointed out, he caused great confusion with his left phrase on “permanent revolution.” In this last point Trotsky gave the impression of being more left than Lenin. He was not content with the mere dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, but demanded permanent revolution. Here we have merely a further example of what Lenin impressed upon us for so many years with regard to Trotsky: a right policy with regard to daily questions of actual practice, but skilfully disguised in the phraseology of the Left.
Davidson said, “Left in Form, Right in Essence” and Kamenev referred to a “right policy…skillfully disguised in the phraseology of the Left”. Pretty much the same thing.
By the time the Maoist sects began falling apart, two important Trotskyist groups had become convinced that Kamenev and Stalin were right. One was the SWP and the other was the Democratic Socialist Party in Australia, a group that tended to follow its lead. For the SWP, the turn against this theoretical foundation stone of the Fourth International was part and parcel of a turn to what they thought would be a new international based in Cuba and that included the FSLN in Nicaragua, the New Jewel Movement in Grenada and the ANC, et al. The SWP stopped theorizing about Permanent Revolution one way or another long ago, largely because of the loss of cadre who were up to such tasks while the Australians became much more engaged with less abstruse matters such as how to relate to the Kurdish struggle, etc. There are theoretical implications flowing from current struggles in the Middle East and Latin America but few activists or scholars invoke Lenin in Trotsky when trying to analyze them, with perhaps the exception of Steve Ellner who wrote an article in 2011 titled Does the process of change in Venezuela resemble a “Permanent Revolution”?
I hadn’t thought much about these matters for a few years until an article by Eric Blanc appeared in the new Historical Materialism blog titled “Before Lenin: Bolshevik Theory and Practice in February 1917 Revisited” that questions those accounts of Lenin’s April Theses as a rejection of the “old Bolshevik” strategy of the democratic dictatorship and a virtual embrace of Permanent Revolution. Blanc writes:
Seeking to push back against the increasingly bureaucratised party apparatus, Trotsky initiated the polemic in his famous 1924 The Lessons of October. In this pamphlet he argued, among other things, that the Bolshevik party under the leadership of Stalin and Lev Kamenev was mired in de-facto Menshevism before Lenin arrived in April 1917 and re-armed the party with an entirely new political strategy.
But for Blanc, this version of history “obscures more than it clarifies”. After reading Lars Lih, he became convinced that the Bolsheviks did aim to seize power before Lenin’s return in April, 1917 and only differed with Lenin on the details. That does not seem to square with Lenin’s combative words with the old guard in “Letters on Tactics”, however:
The person who now speaks only of a “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” is behind the times, consequently, he has in effect gone over to the petty bourgeoisie against the proletarian class struggle; that person should be consigned to the archive of “Bolshevik” pre-revolutionary antiques (it may be called the archive of “old Bolsheviks”).
Keep in mind that the overthrow of the Czar took place in February. So, the period of the “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” lasted exactly two months according to Lenin’s timeline, not twenty years. This does not correspond to the schema in which workers would gather up their resources and move toward confronting the capitalist class as a powerful, well-organized party after the fashion of Kautsky’s social democracy that had millions of members. Some scholars believe that the Bolsheviks had 16,000 members in 1917. That’s not exactly a mass party although its influence was wide and deep enough to catapult it into the leadership of the 20th century’s most important proletarian revolution.
Blanc seems to straddle the fence between the “old Bolsheviks” like Stalin and Kamenev on one side and Trotsky on the other. In a footnote, he states:
Challenging Trotsky’s interpretation of early 1917 neither requires rejecting the strategy of permanent revolution, nor accepting Stalinist accounts of 1917. In subsequent articles, I will show that despite the limitations in his interpretation of pre-Lenin Bolshevism, on the whole the politics of the party in 1917, and the course of the revolution, confirm the fundamental political tenets of permanent revolution.
I look forward to reading those articles but for now want to concentrate on Lars Lih’s 43-page article titled “The Ironic Triumph of Old Bolshevism: The Debates of April 1917 in Context” that appeared in Russian History, Vol. 38, No. 2 (2011) and that Blanc credits as his framework for understanding this period.
Unlike most people who get involved in these controversies, including me, Lars Lih does not try to connect these debates to anything going on in the world today. In fact, outside of writing articles about Bolshevik history, his main interest seems to be music. He has performed in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and is a lecturer on music history and musicology at McGill University. He worked in the office of Democratic Party House of Representative Ron Dellums for six years but I wouldn’t make too much of that. It might have been just a job.
Before I discuss the article, I’d make a summary analysis of Lih’s approach, which is to create a revolutionary continuity between Karl Kautsky’s Social Democratic Party in Germany and Lenin’s Bolshevik Party—and more particularly the continuity between “old Bolshevism” and the party that took power in October 1917. According to this narrative, there was no basis for claiming that Lenin and Trotsky’s ideas about the Russian revolution converged with the April Theses. Everything that happened in 1917 was a vindication of the revolutionary democratic-dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. You might even conclude that if Lenin had become convinced of Trotsky’s theory after 1905 and acted on that belief, the Russian Revolution would have not happened.
Lih spends nearly 10 pages recapitulating Stalin and Kamenev’s support for a bourgeois-democratic revolution to acquaint his readers with “old Bolshevik” thinking. In a nutshell, this meant that the Russian workers rather than the bourgeoisie would overthrow the feudal aristocracy after the fashion of France 1789. This is consistent with Trotsky’s analysis except that he argued that if the workers held political power, they would move rapidly toward socialism as he put it in the 1906 “Results and Prospects”:
The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement. No matter under what political flag the proletariat has come to power, it is obliged to take the path of socialist policy. It would be the greatest utopianism to think that the proletariat, having been raised to political domination by the internal mechanism of a bourgeois revolution, can, even if it so desires, limit its mission to the creation of republican-democratic conditions for the social domination of the bourgeoisie. The political domination of the proletariat, even if it is only temporary, will weaken to an extreme degree the resistance of capital, which always stands in need of the support of the state, and will give the economic struggle of the proletariat tremendous scope.
After presenting the background to the revolutionary democratic-dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry strategy, Lih then turns his attention to how Stalin and Kamenev deployed it to great success in 1917 after some initial turmoil over Lenin’s new-found opposition to “old Bolshevik” strategy.
He dismisses the idea that Kamenev and Stalin were adapting to the provisional government led by Alexander Kerensky, using quotes such as this one from Stalin to establish their revolutionary credentials:
Many comrades, coming in from the provinces, ask whether we should pose the question of the seizure of the vlast right now. But to pose this question now is premature … We must wait until the Provisional Government exhausts itself, when, in the process of carrying out the revolutionary program, it discredits itself. The only organ that is able to take the vlast is the Soviet of Worker and Peasant Deputies on an all-Russian scale. [Lih has the disconcerting tendency to use Russian words when the English translation would suffice. Vlast means power.]
Far be it for me to cast doubt on Stalin’s revolutionary credentials, but the idea of waiting for the Provisional Government to exhaust itself sounds exactly the sort of thing that got Lenin’s dander up. Contrast Stalin’s cautiousness with Lenin’s characterization of the provisional government in “Letters from Afar” written within days of Stalin’s remarks:
The whole of the new government is monarchist, for Kerensky’s verbal republicanism simply cannot be taken seriously, is not worthy of a statesman and, objectively, is political chicanery. The new government, which has not dealt the tsarist monarchy the final blow, has already begun to strike a bargain with the landlord Romanov Dynasty. The bourgeoisie of the Octobrist-Cadet type needs a monarchy to serve as the head of the bureaucracy and the army in order to protect the privileges of capital against the working people.
For Lih, the “Letters from Afar” were not a breach with “old Bolshevism” but its continuation. He quotes Lenin’s first letter to prove that: “Ours is a bourgeois revolution, we Marxists say, therefore the workers must open of the eyes of the narod to the deception practiced by the bourgeois politicians, teach them to put no faith in words, to depend entirely on their own strength, their own organization, their own unity, and their own weapons.”
However, this must be weighed against what Lenin wrote in the fourth letter:
The proletariat, on the other hand, if it wants to uphold the gains of the present revolution and proceed further, to win peace, bread and freedom, must “smash”, to use Marx’s expression, this “ready-made” state machine and substitute a new one for it by merging the police force, the army and the bureaucracy with the entire armed people. Following the path indicated by the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian Revolution of 1905, the proletariat, must organise and arm all the poor, exploited sections of the population in order that they themselves should take the organs of state power directly into their own hands, in order that they themselves should constitute these organs of state power.
This, of course, is what Lenin would elaborate on in “State and Revolution”. The real breach between Lenin and Kamenev/Stalin was over whether proletarian revolution was on the agenda. Nobody could possibly mistake the Paris Commune as a “bourgeois revolution” even if Lenin referred to one in the first letter. For Marx, the Commune was a breach with the revolutions of the past, as surely would have been obvious to Lenin. If October 1917 was a “bourgeois revolution” based on old Bolshevik formulas, so then was the Paris Commune.
In March, Stalin and Kamenev were the editors of Pravda. When they received the first letter from afar, they published it but only after deleting healthy chunks of it. For Lih, there’s nothing political about the excisions that according to Russian historian by Eduard Burdzhalov were criticisms of the Provisional Government, the SRs and the Mensheviks with “particular sharpness”.
Now I ask you why Kamenev and Stalin would decide to delete any attacks on Kerensky and the Mensheviks. I hate to sound suspicious but it might have something to do with them considering the seizure of power to be “premature”, as Stalin put it.
What’s missing from Lars Lih’s narrative is the most compelling issue of all that divided Lenin from the “old Bolsheviks”, namely Kerensky’s continued support for the imperialist war that was arguably the straw that broke the back of the Russian workers and peasantry.
Before Stalin and Kamenev took over as Pravda editors in March 1917, the newspaper had adhered to the Bolshevik Party’s antiwar line. Historian Alexander Rabinowitch, who does not have a reputation as a defender of Trotsky’s reputation, describes the first issue under their control in his “Prelude to Revolution”:
But all this changed in the middle of March with the return from Siberia of Kamenev, Stalin, and M. K. Muranov and their subsequent seizure of control of Pravda. Beginning with the March 14 issue the central Bolshevik organ swung sharply to the right. Henceforth articles by Kamenev and Stalin advocated limited support for the Provisional Government, rejection of the slogan, “Down with the war,” and an end to disorganizing activities at the front. “While there is no peace,” wrote Kamenev in Pravda on March 15, “the people must remain steadfastly at their posts, answering bullet with bullet and shell with shell.” “The slogan, ‘Down with the war,’ is useless,” echoed Stalin the next day. Kamenev explained the mild attitude of the new Pravda editorial hoard to a meeting of the Petersburg Committee on March 18, where it met with approval. Obviously, this position contrasted sharply with the views expressed by Lenin in his “Letters from Afar,” and it is not surprising that Pravda published only the first of these and with numerous deletions at that. Among crucial phrases censored out was Lenin’s accusation that “those who advocate that the workers support the new government in the interests of the struggle against Tsarist reaction (as do the Potresovs, Gvozdevs, Chkhenkelis, and in spite of all his inclinations, even Chkheidze [all Mensheviks]) are traitors to the workers, traitors to the cause of the proletariat, [and] the cause of freedom.” Lenin might have applied this accusation to Kamenev and Stalin as well.
None of this is mentioned in Lars Lih’s article, who would obviously have too big a job on his hands trying to treat it as a friendly disagreement over petty matters. He blithely assures us that “Even as a tactical debate, the clash at the April meetings seems based more on mutual misunderstandings than on substance.” Right. With Kamenev writing that “the people must remain steadfastly at their posts, answering bullet with bullet and shell with shell”, why would the author of the Zimmerwald Manifesto be troubled?
Furthermore, Lih’s article stops rather prematurely with the supposed Kumbaya convergence between Lenin and those who he took issue with after returning to Russia in April 1917. It is best to look at what happened when Lenin and the leftwing of the Bolshevik Party decided to seize power.
Kamenev and Zinoviev, two of the “old Bolsheviks” extolled by Lars Lih for their consistently revolutionary outlook, not only voted against the proposal but literally scabbed on the party. Their statement included this: “It is a profound historic error to pose the question of the transfer of power to the proletarian party – either now or at any time. No, the party of the proletariat will grow, its programme will become clear to broader and broader masses.” This, of course, is consistent with Stalin’s warning in March that the seizure of power was “premature”. They submitted an article to Maxim Gorky’s newspaper in a clear violation of party norms. When the question of insurrection is being posed inside the party, it is treacherous to reveal it to the reading public, including the cops.
Although Stalin did not join his “old Bolshevik” comrades in going public with their opposition to the seizure of power, he “supported Kamenev and Zinoviev at the most critical moment, four days before the beginning of the insurrection, with a sympathetic declaration”, according to minutes taken at a Pravda editorial board meeting.
Lenin was so incensed by the two “old Bolsheviks” that he demanded their expulsion in November, 1917:
You must recall, comrades, that two of the deserters, Kamenev and Zinoviev, acted as deserters and blacklegs even before the Petrograd uprising; for they not only voted against the uprising at the decisive meeting of the Central Committee on October 10, 1917, but, even after the decision had been taken by the Central Committee, agitated among the Party workers against the uprising. It is common knowledge that newspapers which fear to take the side of the workers and are more inclined to side with the bourgeoisie (e.g., Novaya Zhizn ), raised at that time, in common with the whole bourgeois press, a hue and cry about the “disintegration’ of our Party, about “the collapse of the uprising” and so on.
It should be noted that Lenin never followed through. The two men remained loyal party members afterwards and served the revolution until Stalin had them executed for opposing his bureaucratic rule.
In general, I am opposed to building cults around revolutionary figures including Lenin or Trotsky. Lenin’s democratic-dictatorship strategy was flawed as was Trotsky’s attempt to build a new international. Lih’s attempt to create a red ribbon pedigree from Marx to Kautsky to Lenin reminds me of what I used to get in the Trotskyist movement even though the line of succession was different. At least you can credit Lih for sticking to Lenin scholarship, even if he errs at times. Unlike some cult figures in the academy I ran into 40 years ago trying to build a Leninist vanguard like Frank Furedi or Alex Callinicos, Lih is content to publish in Historical Materialism and speak at their conferences, bless his heart.
I hope that someday Lars Lih will give Trotsky’s writings the attention they deserve. To reduce the theory of Permanent Revolution to its essentials, it boils down to the need for a proletarian revolution to achieve the historical goals of the bourgeois revolution such as the breakup of feudal estates, the elimination of clerical domination over society, constitutional rights such as a free press and the right of assembly, and the assumption of “Enlightenment values” in general. These are the obvious gains of the British and French bourgeois revolutions that were emulated to one degree or another in Western Europe in the 19th century.
If February 1917 was supposed to be the inauguration of such profound social and political changes, it was lost on Lenin who pushed immediately for a new revolution that could displace Kerensky’s capitalist-Czarist state with its feudal estates and imperial warmongering. The slogan “Peace, Bread and Land”, after all, was directed against Kerensky as an ultimatum, not as an obsequious request.
It was only after the capitalist state had been smashed and a new one based on the Paris Commune that such changes began to take place. In a speech given on the fourth anniversary of the revolution, Lenin made this clear:
What were the chief manifestations, survivals, remnants of serfdom in Russia up to 1917? The monarchy, the system of social estates, landed proprietorship and land tenure, the status of women, religion, and national oppression. Take any one of these Augean stables, which, incidentally, were left largely uncleansed by all the more advanced states when they accomplished their bourgeois-democratic revolutions one hundred and twenty-five, two hundred and fifty and more years ago (1649 in England); take any of these Augean stables, and you will see that we have cleansed them thoroughly. In a matter of ten weeks, from October 25 (November 7), 1917 to January 5, 1918, when the Constituent Assembly was dissolved, we accomplished a thousand times more in this respect than was accomplished by the bourgeois democrats and liberals (the Cadets) and by the petty-bourgeois democrats (the Mensheviks and the Socialist-Revolutionaries) during the eight months they were in power.
Those poltroons, gas-bags, vainglorious Narcissuses and petty Hamlets brandished their wooden swords—but did not even destroy the monarchy! We cleansed out all that monarchist muck as nobody had ever done before. We left not a stone, not a brick of that ancient edifice, the social-estate system even the most advanced countries, such as Britain, France and Germany, have not completely eliminated the survivals of that system to this day!), standing. We tore out the deep-seated roots of the social-estate system, namely, the remnants of feudalism and serfdom in the system of landownership, to the last. “One may argue” (there are plenty of quill-drivers, Cadets, Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries abroad to indulge in such arguments) as to what “in the long run” will be the outcome of the agrarian reform effected by the Great October Revolution.
So, the beginning of the new era was on October 25th, at the very moment the proletarian dictatorship had begun. There is no evidence that Lenin came to this conclusion after reading Leon Trotsky. He followed his own political instincts to break with the “old Bolshevik” orthodoxy that Lars Lih wants to reestablish.
I have no idea whether Lih is familiar with how the debate over the dynamics of the proletarian revolution would reemerge with events in China in the 1920s but given time I might turn to them to make the uselessness of the revolutionary democratic-dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry more obvious.
Articles by Eric Blanc and Lars Lih discussed in this post:
- Eric Blanc, “Before Lenin: Bolshevik Theory and Practice in February 1917 Revisited.” Also posted on Historical Materialism Blog.
- See also the index of Blanc’s writings on this website.
- Lars Lih, “The Ironic Triumph of Old Bolshevism: The Debates of April 1917 in Context.” A condensed version of this article appears on this website.
- See also the index of Lih’s writings on this website.