Daring to be democratic

Issue 

Democracy and Revolution
V.I. Lenin
Resistance Books, 2001
222 pages, $18.95

REVIEW BY JONATHAN STRAUSS

Resistance Books' Democracy and Revolution represents a new effort by this publisher. Previous additions to its Resistance Marxist Library reprinted key individual texts of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. This book is a collection of writings which, according to the introduction by Doug Lorimer, "aims to acquaint the reader with the main Bolshevik documents defending the orthodox Marxist view on the state and democracy, as applied during the world's first victorious working class revolution".

While the book provides as appendices two chapters of Leon Trotsky's 1920 Terrorism and Communism and excerpts from the 1919 program of the Communist Party of Russia and The ABC of Communism by Nikolai Bukharin and Evgeny Preobrahensky, the main body of the book consists of several of Lenin's works. These are presented more or less in reverse chronological order to that in which they were written: the collection starts with a July 1919 lecture, "The State", followed by the October-November 1918 pamphlet The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, and then two articles on the Constituent Assembly elections of November 1917. Lenin's report to the March 1919 founding congress of the Communist International on "Bourgeois Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat" is also included.

To some readers the failure to include Lenin's State and Revolution (already reprinted for the Resistance Marxist Library) in a collection taking up his view of the state may seem unusual. In the postscript to that book, however, Lenin remarked, "It is more pleasant and useful to go through the 'experience of the revolution' than to write about it".

The writings contained in Democracy and Revolution are the product of that experience. In particular, they examine how, from the standpoint of the interests of working people, a workers' and peasants' democracy, organised through the soviets, was superior to a parliamentary democracy, as represented by the Constituent Assembly, dispersed by the Soviet regime in early 1918. This was in spite of the fact that the Constituent Assembly was elected by universal suffrage, while the soviets disenfranchised capitalist employers.

Lenin argues "the democratic republic and universal suffrage were an immense progressive advance as compared with feudalism: they have enabled the proletariat to achieve its present unity and solidarity... [but] as long as there is private property, your state, even if it is a democratic republic, is nothing but a machine used by the capitalists to suppress the workers, and the freer the state, the more clearly is this expressed".

He cited as examples of this Switzerland and the USA, where the standing army was small but the state mobilised to suppress the working class movement with "ruthless severity": "Nowhere does the influence of capital in parliament manifest itself as powerfully as in these countries. The power of capital is everything, the stock exchange is everything, while parliament and elections are marionettes, puppets."

The reason for this is, according to Lenin, "the crying contradiction between the formal equality proclaimed by the 'democracy' of the capitalists and the thousands of real limitations and subterfuges which turn the proletarians into wage-slaves". The "defects of the parliamentary system", the Bolsheviks' 1919 party program notes, are "especially the separation of the legislative and executive spheres characteristic of that system, the withdrawal of representative institutions from the masses, etc".

The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky is the pivotal work of the collection. No doubt this is one of the writings for which Lenin is accused of vitriol, but there also can be no doubt Karl Kautsky, once the "pope of Marxism", really was a renegade perfecting a talent for dishonest quotation of Marx. The pamphlet's role is to argue through what had been done in practice when the Bolsheviks, holding only a minority (about one-quarter) of the Constituent Assembly vote — concentrated, however, among the workers in the major cities, "were able with the aid of the central apparatus of state power to prove by deeds to the non-proletarian working people that the proletariat was their only reliable ally, friend and leader", since the votes only showed how the classes (at a particular time) wanted to solve their problems, whereas the class struggle, including the October Revolution, gave the peasants the opportunity to experience and compare the rule of the workers with that of the capitalists and the semi-feudal landlords.

Kautsky "misses the point", Lenin says: "He fails to see the class nature of the state apparatus, of the machinery of the state. Under bourgeois democracy the capitalists ... drive the people away from administrative work, from freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, etc."

In words that ring true today, Lenin writes of workers' perception that parliaments are institutions alien and hostile to them. He continued: "The Soviet government is the first in the world (or strictly speaking, the second, because the Paris Commune began to do the same thing) to enlist the people, specifically the exploited people, in the work of administration... The soviets are the direct organisation of the working and exploited people themselves, which helps them to organise and administer their own state in every possible way. And in this, it is the vanguard of the working and exploited people, the urban proletariat, that enjoys the advantage of being best united by the large enterprises; it is easier for it than for all others to elect and exercise control over those elected. The soviet form of organisation automatically helps to unite all the working and exploited people around their vanguard, the proletariat... Freedom of the press ceases to be hypocrisy, because the printing-plants and stocks of papers are taken away from the bourgeoisie. The same thing applies to the best buildings... Indirect elections to non-local soviets make it easier to hold congresses of soviets, they make the entire apparatus less costly, more flexible, more accessible to the workers and peasants at a time when life is seething and it is necessary to be able very quickly to recall one's local deputy or to delegate him to a general congress of soviets.

"Proletarian democracy is a million times more democratic than any bourgeois democracy; soviet power is a million times more democratic than the most democratic bourgeois republic."

Lorimer's introduction to Democracy and Revolution summarises the fundamental features of the Marxist theory of the state as a whole, providing the context for Lenin's works. In particular, it highlights the historical development of the use of the term "democracy", which, if it is not to be made abstract and restricted to one of its historically conditioned forms — parliamentarism — stands, as it originally did, as a demand for equality — for the abolition of class distinctions and the rule of privileged classes.

To the ancient Greeks who invented the term, democracy meant "the rule of the common people" and was the product of popular anti-aristocratic revolutions in such city states as ancient Athens. It had the same meaning when it was revived during the American and French revolutions at the end of the 18th century.

The liberal conception of "democracy" (defended by Kautsky, and sharply criticised by Marx and Lenin), on the other hand, reduces the idea of the abolition of rule by privileged classes to the abstract formality of ballot-box equality (one person, one vote). It thus ignores the enormous political privileges that private ownership of vast concentrations of socially-produced wealth gives capitalist families like the Murdochs and Packers.

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