The Russian Revolution showed that even in relatively backward countries, the working class could seize power and begin to “construct the socialist order.” As the revolutionaries themselves understood, building a socialist society would require successful revolutions across the globe, particularly in the citadels of advanced capitalism in Western Europe and North America. The historic decline of the bourgeois mode of production placed proletarian socialist revolution on the agenda. Imperialism, the final phase of capitalist development, indicates the exhaustion of the progressive capacity of capitalism: non-capitalist or semi-capitalist societies are taken over by advanced “monopoly capitalist” finance, which deforms and constrains the growth of the productive forces in the weak countries, combining archaic institutions with modern production methods.
From a theoretical and political perspective, the Russian Revolution also clarified two fundamental aspects of proletarian revolution: the nature of the state and its relationship with “dual power”; and the role and form of political organization in revolutionary transformation. Both are essential lessons for successful revolutions in the future.
While in exile in July 1917, Lenin sent a message to Kamenev that read: “if they do me in, I ask you to publish my notebook: ‘Marxism on the State’ (it got left behind in Stockholm). It’s bound in a blue cover. It contains a collection of all the quotations from Marx and Engels.” Lenin explained that the project was “important, because not only Plekhanov but also Kautsky have bungled things.” By August/September 1917 Lenin had obtained his notes and used them to write what would become one of his most widely-read and important works: The State and Revolution: The Marxist Theory of the State and the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution.
The State and Revolution is a reconstruction and summary of what Marx and Engels wrote on the subject. Lenin argued that Kautskyist centrism had systematically rounded the revolutionary edges off Marxism as it made substantial theoretical concessions to overt reformism. From the very beginning the forerunners of the Second International had a confused understanding of the state and Marx and Engels had struggled in vain against that confusion. Initial theoretical disorientation had, over decades, hardened into a deeply opportunist view of the capitalist state, as a privileged layer of party functionaries and trade-union bureaucrats within the socialist movement gained a material interest in preserving the bourgeois status quo. Lenin’s pamphlet, written in the lead-up to the October Revolution, is a brilliant and highly polemical defense of the Marxist theory of the state, which Marx and Engels had developed through historical analysis of modern revolutions.
By the time the Communist Manifesto was written in late 1847, Marx and Engels understood the centrality of the working class in the socialist revolution and the need to wrest state power from the bourgeoisie before proceeding with the construction of communist society. In the Manifesto, they used the somewhat ambiguous formulation: “state, i.e., the proletariat organized as the ruling class.” It was not yet clear to Marx and Engels how the proletariat would seize power and make itself the ruling class. As Lenin noted, it was the 1848 Revolutions which clarified for Marx and Engels the essential class character of the bourgeois state and the need for the proletariat to destroy it. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), Marx observed that the “executive power [of the French state] with its enormous bureaucratic and military organisation … sprang up in the days of the absolute monarchy, with the decay of the feudal system, which it helped to hasten”:
“The first French Revolution, with its task of breaking all local, territorial, urban and provincial independent powers in order to create the bourgeois unity of the nation, was bound to develop what the absolute monarchy had begun – centralisation, but at the same time the extent, the attributes and the agents of governmental authority.”
The bourgeois revolution absorbed and developed the bureaucratic administration of the state power that had been called into existence in the era of feudal decline. All subsequent revolutionary and counterrevolutionary upheavals occurred within the context of an established bourgeois state power:
“Napoleon perfected this state machinery. The Legitimist monarchy and the July monarchy added nothing but a greater division of labour, growing in the same measure that the division of labour within bourgeois society created new groups of interests, and, therefore, new material for state administration.… The parliamentary republic, finally, in its struggle against the revolution, found itself compelled to strengthen, along with the repressive measures, the resources and centralisation of governmental power. All the revolutions perfected this machine instead of smashing it.”
With his coup d’état in 1851, Louis Bonaparte – basing himself on the peasant masses of France – had struck at the bourgeoisie, but in asserting the relative independence of the executive power from the ruling class, he was nonetheless compelled to govern on its behalf, strengthening the bourgeois state in the process. In the modern era, only two social classes have the capacity to rule: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. All intermediate classes will gravitate toward one or the other. Under capitalism, the state has a historically developed, organic connection to the bourgeoisie, and the logic of the class struggle generates a tendency for the bourgeois state to grow and increase its hold on society.
Lenin observed that the bourgeois state plays a key role in integrating intermediate classes (or their upper echelons) into a system of capitalist rule:
“The development, perfection and strengthening of the bureaucratic and military apparatus proceeded during all the numerous bourgeois revolutions which Europe has witnessed since the fall of feudalism. In particular, it is the petty bourgeoisie who are attracted to them through this apparatus, which provides the upper sections of the peasants, small artisans, tradesmen and the like with comparatively comfortable, quiet and respectable jobs raising their holders above the people.”
Marx and Engels’ important conclusion that the working class would have to smash the bourgeois state, not take it over, is only one side of the revolutionary seizure of power. The other is the creation of a new “state, i.e., the proletariat organized as the ruling class.” In a letter to Joseph Weydemeyer on 5 March 1852, Marx referred to this as “the dictatorship of the proletariat” on the road to a classless, stateless society.
The term was inspired by a practice of the republican period of Ancient Rome, in which the senate and consuls could, for a limited period, grant a “dictatorship” to a magistrate, so they could wield the full power of the state to deal with a military crisis or other specific governmental duty. In borrowing the term, Marx was suggesting that, after destroying the old bureaucratic state machinery of capitalism, the proletariat as a class would exercise complete governmental power over the rest of society. During this time, the working class would use its state power to consciously socialize the means of production and lay the basis for the dissolution of class divisions, which would itself entail the disappearance of the need for even proletarian state power. The move from capitalism to communism, then, involves a transitional phase overseen by the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” a peculiar form of state which would “wither away” as it progresses, as Engels later put it.
Lenin suggested in The State and Revolution that the dictatorship of the proletariat could take different forms:
“Bourgeois states are most varied in form, but their essence is the same: all these states, whatever their form, in the final analysis are inevitably the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The transition from capitalism to communism is certainly bound to yield a tremendous abundance and variety of political forms, but the essence will inevitably be the same: the dictatorship of the proletariat.”
The first historical appearance of the dictatorship of the proletariat was the Paris Commune, which Marx described as “a Republic that was not only to supersede the monarchical form of class-rule, but class-rule itself” (The Civil War in France, 1871). Marx recalled the peculiar circumstances of the birth of the Commune, where the proletariat “had got rid of the [bourgeois] army, and replaced it by a National Guard, the bulk of which consisted of working men. This fact was now to be transformed into an institution. The first decree of the Commune, therefore, was the suppression of the standing army, and the substitution for it of the armed people.” The proletarianized National Guard was itself a democratic institution, and it formed the repressive apparatus of the new workers’ state (insofar as it is appropriate to refer to the administration of a single city as a “state”). Immediately, the repressive apparatus of the dictatorship of the proletariat put flesh on its bones by transferring authority to the democratically-elected Commune. As Lenin notes:
“The Commune, therefore, appears to have replaced the smashed state machine ‘only’ by fuller democracy: abolition of the standing army; all officials to be elected and subject to recall. But as a matter of fact this ‘only’ signifies a gigantic replacement of certain institutions by other institutions of a fundamentally different type. This is exactly a case of ‘quantity being transformed into quality’: democracy, introduced as fully and consistently as is at all conceivable, is transformed from bourgeois into proletarian democracy; from the state (= a special force for the suppression of a particular class) into something which is no longer the state proper.”
The Paris Commune involved mass working-class democracy and the control of elected officials subject to immediate recall; no financial privileges attached to participation in government (a worker’s wage and no more); fusion of legislative and executive functions; creation of a new administrative apparatus directly accountable to the working class; and, at the core of this commune state, the armed proletariat. These were the essential features of the dictatorship of the proletariat – realizing them in the context of the revolutionary situation in Russia is what guided Lenin in 1917.
The State and Revolution was the most thorough declaration of Lenin’s break with the preceding Kautskyist “orthodoxy” on the question of the state. Lenin had learned from and greatly admired Kautsky, who had challenged the most egregious expression within the Second International of reformist electoralism at the turn of the century: the “evolutionary” socialist current of Eduard Bernstein. Yet Kautsky’s books The Social Revolution (1902), and The Road to Power (1909), failed to articulate the need to smash the bourgeois state. By 1912, in a polemic against the Dutch Left socialist Anton Pannekoek, Kautsky not only omitted reference to the need to overthrow the bourgeois state but explicitly condemned that view in defense of a parliamentary road to socialism: “The aim of our political struggle remains, as in the past, the conquest of state power by winning a majority in parliament and by raising parliament to the rank of master of the government” (cited in The State and Revolution).
In the context of Tsarist Russia, where it was commonly agreed that a revolution would have to occur in order for a democratic parliament to even exist, the earlier Kautskyist approach could be presented as more revolutionary both before and after 1905. The disputes between the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and Trotsky over the perspectives of the coming bourgeois revolution took place within a shared framework of a “Marxist” understanding of the state that was at best a blunted version of the one actually held by Marx and Engels.
Against the Menshevik conception that the coming revolution would result in the political domination of the bourgeoisie, Lenin argued that an alliance of the proletariat and the peasantry would lead the bourgeois revolution to create a democratic republic and open the road to rapid capitalist development – and, after a compressed historical period of instability, the proletariat could seize power alone. He summed up this perspective of the revolutionary seizure of power by the two exploited classes of Russia as the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.”
This slogan was algebraic because the degree of participation of socialists and the fate of the “democratic dictatorship” could not be defined in advance. It was infinitely better than the Menshevik perspective, but suffered from major flaws, particularly the implication that the proletariat (and peasantry) would exercise power through a bourgeois state. Lenin insisted on the bourgeois character of the revolution, with the relegation of the socialist revolution to a subsequent overturn, and his “democratic dictatorship” of the proletariat and the peasantry was clearly distinct from the dictatorship of the proletariat. Although they shared the Kautskyist interpretation of Marx’s theory of the state, the Mensheviks seem to have touched on one of the weaknesses of Lenin’s formulation with their objection that a “dictatorship” requires a “single will,” i.e., class interest. This critique pointed to one of the ambiguities of the slogan: in a (bourgeois) republic that was not run by the bourgeoisie or even by a single class, whose interests would prevail?
In Two Tactics of Social Democracy, Lenin responded to this criticism by emphasizing the “transient, temporary” character of the democratic dictatorship (i.e., suggesting it would not be a stable state form at all) and arguing that the proletariat, in the first phase of the revolution, could limit its “will” to the tasks of the democratic revolution:
“One of the objections raised to the slogan of ‘the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’ is that dictatorship presupposes a ‘single will’ (Iskra, No. 95), and that there can be no single will of the proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie. This objection is unsound, for it is based on an abstract, ‘metaphysical’ interpretation of the term ‘single will.’ There can be a single will in one respect and not a single will in another. The absence of unity on questions of Socialism and in the struggle for Socialism does not preclude singleness of will on questions of democracy and in the struggle for a republic. To forget this would be tantamount to forgetting the logical and historical difference between a democratic and a socialist revolution.”
Yet this “transient” view of the republic contradicted the argument Lenin had made against Parvus (and Trotsky) to explain why a democratic dictatorship of two classes – and not a proletarian government – was necessary to make lasting revolutionary change:
“Equally incorrect, for the same reason, are Parvus’ statements that ‘the revolutionary provisional government in Russia will be a government of working-class democracy’, that ‘if the Social-Democrats are at the head of the revolutionary movement of the Russian proletariat, this government will be a Social-Democratic government’, that the Social-Democratic provisional government ‘will be an integral government with a Social-Democratic majority’. This is impossible, unless we speak of fortuitous, transient episodes, and not of a revolutionary dictatorship that will be at all durable and capable of leaving its mark in history. This is impossible, because only a revolutionary dictatorship supported by the vast majority of the people can be at all durable (not absolutely, of course, but relatively).”
—“Social-Democracy and the Provisional Revolutionary Government,” March-April 1905
Trotsky’s perspective of permanent revolution was not only a more realistic one in terms of the “growing over” of the bourgeois revolution into the socialist revolution, it came closer to the view of the state expounded by Marx. In Results and Prospects, Trotsky had argued that a revolutionary government may be described “as the dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, a dictatorship of the proletariat, peasantry and intelligentsia, or even a coalition government of the working class and the petty-bourgeoisie,” but for whatever diverse forms a revolutionary governmental alliance may take, the political-programmatic class essence would have to be proletarian or it would not be revolutionary. Trotsky’s position is thus consistent with the principle that only one class can dominate a state.
Lenin’s ambiguity on the class nature of the “democratic dictatorship” found expression in his perplexing treatment of the Paris Commune. In Two Tactics, he mentions the Commune as a “workers’ government that was unable to, and could not at that time, distinguish between elements of a democratic revolution and those of a socialist revolution, that confused the tasks of fighting for a republic with the tasks of fighting for Socialism.” This came in response to the Mensheviks, who had attempted to soften their refusal to participate in a revolutionary government by evoking the possibility of establishing “revolutionary communes in one or another city, in one or another district, exclusively for the purpose of helping to spread the insurrection and of disrupting the government” (cited in Two Tactics). Lenin highlights the obvious contradiction in the Mensheviks’ argument by noting that they were unable to specify the differences between a revolutionary commune and a provisional revolutionary government. He argues that the Mensheviks, in evoking the precedent of the Paris Commune (whose leaders confused “a democratic revolution with a socialist revolution”) had ironically made “the very mistake which they unsuccessfully accuse us of having committed.”
Lenin, like Marx, criticizes the leaders of the Commune for not seizing the Bank of France. But given that he was insisting on the bourgeois democratic character of the coming Russian revolution, Lenin’s criticism of the Commune for mixing up “the tasks of fighting for a republic with the tasks of fighting for Socialism” implied that the leaders of the Commune were guilty of going too far by attempting to initiate the transition to socialism – precisely his argument for rejecting Trotsky’s perspective. In contrast, Trotsky had brought up the example of the Paris Commune to explain that Marxists should not recoil from the idea that a proletarian-led government would have to “begin with those reforms which figure in what is known as the minimum programme; and directly from these the very logic of its position will compel it to pass over to collectivist measures.. ‘The Paris workers,’ Marx tells us, ‘did not demand miracles from their Commune.’ We, too, must not expect immediate miracles from proletarian dictatorship today” (Results and Prospects).
In July 1905, Lenin edited and provided the concluding paragraph of an article by an unknown author entitled, “The Paris Commune and the Tasks of the Democratic Dictatorship.” The purpose of the article was to defend the Bolshevik perspective of socialist participation in a revolutionary government, and it explicitly presents the Commune as a model for the coming bourgeois revolution in Russia. In this context, it poses the question: “Was the Commune a dictatorship of the proletariat?” Marx and Engels were clear that it was, but the article objects that “there are various dictatorships”:
“Perhaps it was a true, pure dictatorship of the proletariat in the sense of the pure Social-Democratic composition of its membership and the character of its practical tasks? By no means! The class-conscious proletariat (and only more or less class-conscious at that), i.e., the members of the International, were in the minority; the majority consisted of representatives of petty-bourgeois democracy.”
The author infers that “when Engels called the Commune a dictatorship of the proletariat, he had in mind only the participation, and ideologically leading participation at that, of representatives of the proletariat in the revolutionary government of Paris.” In the conclusion he wrote for the piece, Lenin argues that “the participation of representatives of the socialist proletariat with the petty bourgeoisie in a revolutionary government is in principle entirely permissible, and in certain conditions a direct obligation.” He then goes on to equate the Paris Commune, not with the dictatorship of the proletariat, but with his own theory of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry: “the real task which the Commune had to carry out was above all to put into effect a democratic, and not a socialist dictatorship, to carry out our minimum program.” In March 1908, Lenin gave a speech in Geneva on the “Lessons of the Commune” in which he described the Paris Commune as “a splendid example of the unanimity with which the proletariat was able to accomplish the democratic tasks which the bourgeoisie could only proclaim.” Three years later, however, he acknowledged that the Paris Commune was a “workers’ government” that “was bound to take on a socialist tinge, i.e., to strive to overthrow the rule of the bourgeoisie” (“In Memory of the Commune,” 1911).
Lenin’s eclectic assessment of the Paris Commune was conditioned not only by his perspective of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” but by the inheritance of Kautskyism, which muddled the qualitative distinction between bourgeois and proletarian states. As late as December 1916, Lenin wrote in a polemic against Bukharin:
“Socialists are in favour of utilising the present state and its institutions in the struggle for the emancipation of the working class, maintaining also that the state should be used for a specific form of transition from capitalism to socialism. This transitional form is the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is also a state.
“The anarchists want to ‘abolish’ the state, ‘blow it up’ (sprengen) as Comrade Nota-Bene [Bukharin] expresses it in one place, erroneously ascribing this view to the socialists.…
“… opportunist policy (i.e., the opportunist, reformist, bourgeois attitude towards the state) has clashed with revolutionary Social-Democratic policy (i.e., the revolutionary Social-Democratic attitude towards the bourgeois state and towards utilising it against the bourgeoisie to overthrow the bourgeoisie).”
—“The Youth International”
Within two months Lenin had changed his views completely, breaking with the Kautskyist interpretation on the eve of the February Revolution. Lenin’s revolutionary orientation in 1917, including his rejection of the “old Bolshevik” adherence to the “democratic dictatorship” concept, was shaped by his excavation of the orthodox Marxist view of the state in his “blue notebook” in January and February of 1917. In his third “Letter from Afar” (11 March 1917), Lenin argued:
“We need a state. But not the kind of state the bourgeoisie has created everywhere, from constitutional monarchies to the most democratic republics. And in this we differ from the opportunists and Kautskyites of the old, and decaying, socialist parties, who have distorted, or have forgotten, the lessons of the Paris Commune and the analysis of these lessons made by Marx and Engels.”
“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.”
A month later, in the “April Theses,” Lenin called for a “commune state” in Russia through the transfer of all political power to the soviets. In an article, “The Dual Power,” also published in April, he unequivocally insisted on the essential identity of the Paris Commune and the “incipient power” of the soviets: “This power is of the same type as the Paris Commune of 1871.” The article refers to the class composition of the “incipient” soviet government as consisting of “the proletariat and the peasants (in soldiers’ uniforms),” but this characterization was very different from his earlier call for the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. In fact, Lenin was advocating the socialist dictatorship of the proletariat. A few months later, in The State and Revolution, he explicitly accepted Marx’s argument that the Paris Commune was the “specific form” of the “proletarian, socialist republic.” Indeed, Lenin concludes the pamphlet by reiterating his call “for a democratic republic after the type of the Commune, or a republic of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, for the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” After the October Revolution, there is no ambiguity whatsoever in Lenin’s thinking on this matter – for instance, in January 1918 he referred to the Paris Commune as the “preceding dictatorship of the proletariat” and compared it to “the present one” (the Soviet republic).
Lenin’s expression of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry, and his previous equation of it with the Paris Commune, had been an attempt to capture, using a theoretical framework still marred by Kautskyist distortion of Marx’s theory of the state, the relation of class forces that would be necessary to make a revolution in a country predominated by the peasantry. As Lenin moved to calling for a dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia in 1917, he correctly specified the form it would have to take: an alliance of the proletariat and the poor peasantry in a soviet republic. It is hard to see any meaningful distinction between this conception and Trotsky’s advocacy of “the dictatorship of the proletariat, leaning on the peasantry.” Effectively abandoning the concept of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry, Lenin had come to a view that was basically the same as the one articulated years earlier by Trotsky in Results and Prospects. It was clear to Lenin that a socialist and not simply a bourgeois revolution was on the order of the day. In The State and Revolution, he spoke of “our immediate aim” as placing the “whole economy … under the control and leadership of the armed proletariat.” The soviet republic should, Lenin urged, build upon the experience of the Paris Commune by organizing large-scale production “backed up by the state power of the armed workers”: “This is our proletarian task, this is what we can and must start with in accomplishing the proletarian revolution.”
In The Lessons of October (1924), Trotsky notes that “Lenin occasionally remarked that the soviets of workers’, soldiers’, and peasants’ deputies in the first period of the February revolution did, to a certain degree, embody the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.” Although potentially confusing, Lenin’s point was that insofar as an alliance of the peasantry and the proletariat was possible on the basis of a “democratic” (i.e., bourgeois) program, it was an unstable dual power situation in which the soviets were led by reformist parties. It was no true dictatorship in the sense that the soviets dominated by the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries never constituted more than a proto-state – the elevation of the soviets to the level of the Paris Commune would require Bolshevik leadership. Indeed, Lenin now denied that the “democratic dictatorship” had ever implied a state form at all:
“‘The revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’ has already become a reality in the Russian revolution, for this ‘formula’ envisages only a relation of classes, and not a concrete political institution implementing this relation, this co-operation. ‘The Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies – there you have the ‘revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’ already accomplished in reality.
“This formula is already antiquated. Events have moved it from the realm of formulas into the realm of reality, clothed it with flesh and bone, concretised it and thereby modified it.”
—“Letters on Tactics,” April 1917
In these “Letters,” Lenin argued that the February Revolution had placed state power in the hands of the bourgeoisie, as the “democratic” alliance of the proletariat and the peasantry (the reformist-dominated workers’ and soldiers’ soviets) was “voluntarily ceding power to the bourgeoisie, voluntarily making itself an appendage of the bourgeoisie.” While he did not categorically exclude the hypothetical possibility of a democratic dictatorship (as an unstable governmental form) in the event of a collapse of bourgeois state power, Lenin believed that the old formula “is obsolete. It is no good at all. It is dead.”
From Lenin’s perspective, the bourgeois revolution was both accomplished and not accomplished. As the product of an aborted proletarian revolution (February 1917), a bourgeois provisional government was permitted by the reformist leaders of the soviets (the pseudo “democratic dictatorship”), but some of the key tasks of the bourgeois revolution, particularly land reform, would require a second, socialist revolution (October 1917). That was the only real form that the democratic dictatorship could assume: the bourgeois and socialist revolutions would intermingle, the latter growing out of the former, following the creation of a proletarian dictatorship.
In The Permanent Revolution (1929), Trotsky recalled that “Lenin refused for a number of years to prejudge the question of what the party-political and state organization of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry would look like.” Trotsky observed that the evolution of Lenin’s views largely depended on his changing assessment of the peasantry’s capacity to constitute itself into an independent political force. It became clear to Lenin, certainly after the February Revolution if not before, that there could be no independent role for the peasantry. It was also clear to him that if the Bolsheviks did not come to dominate the soviets, the latter would remain subordinate to the bourgeoisie and unable to carry out a democratic revolution. The logic of events mandated either the rule of the bourgeoisie or the rule of the proletariat. In demonstrating this binary choice, real-life events also revealed the related truth that state power must, in the modern era, either be in the hands of the capitalists (the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie) or the workers (the dictatorship of the proletariat) even in peasant-dominated countries like Russia. The only possible appearance of a sort of “democratic dictatorship” or revolutionary alliance of the proletariat and the peasantry was as a phase of development following the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Lenin’s appreciation of this fact was made possible by his new-found clarity on the singular class character of “state machinery” – a logically and historically demonstrated corollary to the need to “smash” the bourgeois state.
In April 1917 in his article on “The Dual Power,” Lenin wrote about the situation that had emerged in Russia:
“What is this dual power? Alongside the Provisional Government, the government of the bourgeoisie, another government has arisen, so far weak and incipient, but undoubtedly a government that actually exists and is growing – the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.”
Lenin’s perspective was to achieve a “second revolution” by transferring “all power to the soviets,” i.e., smashing the remnants of the bourgeois state and asserting the hegemony of the organs of workers’ rule. This is, of course, what actually happened in October 1917. The Bolshevik-led revolution transferred power to the proletariat, but the institutions that received that power had already been in existence for eight months. Trotsky elaborates in The History of the Russian Revolution:
“The political mechanism of revolution consists of the transfer of power from one class to another. The forcible overturn is usually accomplished in a brief time. But no historic class lifts itself from a subject position to a position of rulership suddenly in one night, even though a night of revolution. It must already on the eve of the revolution have assumed a very independent attitude towards the official ruling class; moreover, it must have focused upon itself the hopes of intermediate classes and layers, dissatisfied with the existing state of affairs, but not capable of playing an independent role. The historic preparation of a revolution brings about, in the pre-revolutionary period, a situation in which the class which is called to realise the new social system, although not yet master of the country, has actually concentrated in its hands a significant share of the state power, while the official apparatus of the government is still in the hands of the old lords. That is the initial dual power in every revolution.
“But that is not its only form. If the new class, placed in power by a revolution which it did not want, is in essence an already old, historically belated, class; if it was already worn out before it was officially crowned; if on coming to power it encounters an antagonist already sufficiently mature and reaching out its hand toward the helm of state; then instead of one unstable two-power equilibrium, the political revolution produces another, still less stable. To overcome the ‘anarchy’ of this twofold sovereignty becomes at every new step the task of the revolution – or the counter-revolution.”
In polarizing political struggle around the question of dual power, Lenin’s slogan of “All Power to the Soviets!” clarified the fundamental problem to be resolved: which class shall rule. The Russian Revolution presented the clearest example of what has in fact been a general phenomenon of every revolutionary situation (the emergence of dual power) and successful revolution (its resolution in favor of the new state form).
In The English Revolution 1640 Christopher Hill described a parallel process within that bourgeois revolution:
“The destruction of the royal bureaucracy had left a void which was ultimately to be filled by a new middle-class civil service. But meanwhile, pressure, of revolutionary necessity had led to the creation of a series of revolutionary committees in the localities. ‘We had a thing here called a Committee,’ wrote a despondent gentleman in the Isle of Wight, ‘which overruled Deputy-Lieutenants and also Justices of the Peace, and of this we had brave men: Ringwood of Newport, the pedlar: Maynard, the apothecary: Matthews, the baker: Wavell and Legge, farmers; and poor Baxter of Hurst Castle. These ruled the whole Island, and did whatsoever they thought good in their own eyes.’ (Sir John Oglander probably exaggerated the social inferiority of his enemies: over the country as a whole the county committees were run by the gentry and the upper bourgeoisie). These committees were now organised and centralised and all brought under the unifying control of the great committees of Parliament, which really ran the Civil War – the committee of both kingdoms, the committee for advance of money, the committee for compounding, etc. The old State system was not wholly but partially destroyed and modified; new institutions were being built up under pressure of events.”
In The History of the Russian Revolution Trotsky elaborated at length on the complicated role of dual power in the English Revolution:
“Civil war gives to this double sovereignty its most visible, because territorial, expression. Each of the powers, having created its own fortified drill ground, fights for possession of the rest of the territory, which often has to endure the double sovereignty in the form of successive invasions by the two fighting powers, until one of them decisively installs itself.
“The English revolution of the seventeenth century, exactly because it was a great revolution shattering the nation to the bottom, affords a clear example of this alternating dual power, with sharp transitions in the form of civil war.
“At first the royal power, resting upon the privileged classes or the upper circles of these classes – the aristocrats and bishops – is opposed by the bourgeoisie and the circles of the squirearchy that are close to it. The government of the bourgeoisie is the Presbyterian Parliament supported by the City of London. The protracted conflict between these two régimes is finally settled in open civil war. The two governmental centres – London and Oxford – create their own armies. Here the dual power takes territorial form, although, as always in civil war, the boundaries are very shifting. Parliament conquers. The king is captured and awaits his fate.
“It would seem that the conditions are now created for the single rule of the Presbyterian bourgeoisie. But before the royal power could be broken, the parliamentary army has converted itself into an independent political force. It has concentrated in its ranks the Independents, the pious and resolute petty bourgeoisie, the craftsmen and farmers. This army powerfully interferes in the social life, not merely as an armed force, but as a Praetorian Guard, and as the political representative of a new class opposing the prosperous and rich bourgeoisie. Correspondingly the army creates a new state organ rising above the military command: a council of soldiers’ and officers’ deputies (‘agitators’). A new period of double sovereignty has thus arrived: that of the Presbyterian Parliament and the Independents’ army. This leads to open conflicts. The bourgeoisie proves powerless to oppose with its own army the ‘model army’ of Cromwell – that is, the armed plebeians. The conflict ends with a purgation of the Presbyterian Parliament by the sword of the Independents. There remains but the rump of a parliament; the dictatorship of Cromwell is established. The lower ranks of the army, under the leadership of the Levellers, the extreme left wing of the revolution, try to oppose to the rule of the upper military levels, the patricians of the army, their own veritably plebeian régime. But this new two-power system does not succeed in developing: the Levellers, the lowest depths of the petty bourgeoisie, have not yet, nor can have, their own historic path. Cromwell soon settles accounts with his enemies. A new political equilibrium, and still by no means a stable one, is established for a period of years.”
The American Revolution also developed its own institutions of power as a sorting out process took place. With the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress in 1776, that body – backed up by the Continental Army and militias – competed with the existing institutions of colonial rule (Westminster, the local bodies loyal to it and the British army and navy) during the course of the war. As with the English Civil War, the dual power situation was expressed in the form of territorial division, as power shifted from one side to the other based on the outcomes of the military conflict.
Trotsky argued that dual power was also a feature of the French Revolution:
“In the great French revolution, the Constituent Assembly, the backbone of which was the upper levels of the Third Estate, concentrated the power in its hands – without however fully annulling the prerogatives of the king. The period of the Constituent Assembly is a clearly-marked period of dual power, which ends with the flight of the king to Varennes, and is formally liquidated with the founding of the Republic.”
Even the founding of the republic did not resolve the revolutionary situation, and dual power re-emerged in different forms, including during the onset of counterrevolution:
“by the steps of the dual power the French revolution rises in the course of four years to its culmination. After the 9th Thermidor it begins – again by the steps of the dual power – to descend. And again civil war precedes every downward step, just as before it had accompanied every rise. In this way the new society seeks a new equilibrium of forces.”
In Russia, the period separating the February Revolution from the October Revolution was one marked by a situation of revolutionary instability in which the bourgeoisie was kept in power by the reformist leaders of what was potentially a competing state on the territory of the Tsarist Empire. This rather peculiar manifestation of dual power is described in The History of the Russian Revolution:
“In the revolution of 1917, we see the official democracy consciously and intentionally creating a two-power system, dodging with all its might the transfer of power into its own hands. The double sovereignty is created, or so it seems at a glance, not as a result of a struggle of classes for power, but as the result of a voluntary ‘yielding’ of power by one class to another. In so far as the Russian ‘democracy’ sought for an escape from the two-power régime, it could find one only in its own removal from power. It is just this that we have called the paradox of the February revolution.”
All subsequent revolutionary situations – i.e., those situations in which the transfer of state power to the working class was posed as an immediate historical possibility – have been marked by the existence of dual power, and often by the presence of soviets as a particular manifestation of proletarian rule. Trotsky observed:
“the soviets of 1905 developed gigantically in 1917. That the soviets, we may remark here, are not a mere child of the historical backwardness of Russia, but a product of her combined development, is indicated by the fact that the proletariat of the most industrial country, Germany, at the time of its revolutionary high point – 1918 to 1919 – could find no other form of organisation.”
While other forms of proletarian authority can and have appeared in revolutionary situations – for example, the National Guard and city council of the Paris Commune and the workers’ militias of the Spanish Civil War – the creation of soviets/councils by the working class as it seeks to meet its needs during a crisis is the typical marker of a revolutionary situation of dual power. It is difficult to conceive of a better device.
Trotsky, the theorist of dual power, noted that the phenomenon reveals a deeper truth about the state and what constitutes a revolution:
“Does this Phenomenon of the dual power – heretofore not sufficiently appreciated – contradict the Marxian theory of the state, which regards government as an executive committee of the ruling class? This is just the same as asking: Does the fluctuation of prices under the influence of supply and demand contradict the labour theory of value? Does the self-sacrifice of a female protecting her offspring refute the theory of a struggle for existence? No, in these phenomena we have a more complicated combination of the same laws. If the state is an organisation of class rule, and a revolution is the overthrow of the ruling class, then the transfer of power from the one class to the other must necessarily create self-contradictory state conditions, and first of all in the form of the dual power. The relation of class forces is not a mathematical quantity permitting a priori computations. When the old régime is thrown out of equilibrium, a new correlation of forces can be established only as the result of a trial by battle. That is revolution.”
The dual power of 1917 was initially based on the underdeveloped political consciousness of the masses as expressed in the dominance of the soviets by reformist parties. In the crucible of revolution, however, the wants and needs of the working class underwent rapid change. Combined with the political bankruptcy of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, this provided the framework in which the Bolsheviks’ ideological work amongst the masses took place. It is an important characteristic of proletarian revolution that the process of transferring power from the bourgeoisie to the proletariat relies decisively on conscious human intervention. In The Lessons of October (1924), Trotsky summed up the “principal lesson of the past decade”: “Without a party, apart from a party, over the head of a party, or with a substitute for a party, the proletarian revolution cannot conquer.”
This reliance on the subjective factor is a unique feature of the transition to a new mode of production in our epoch. The rise of feudalism was a gradual process of economic evolution in the framework of the collapse of the Roman slave mode of production, almost an “unconscious” development in the sense that its beneficiaries were unaware of their role in establishing a new mode of production. By contrast, the rise of capitalism was accompanied by revolutions with increasingly calibrated forms of consciousness. In the shift from bourgeois to proletarian revolution, the role of ideas and political organization rises by further degrees of magnitude as the consciousness of the revolutionary class must become very closely aligned to the embryonic mode of production in order for that mode of production to be born. In contrast to the rise of the bourgeoisie, the proletariat’s mode of production is governed by collectivism of the highest order, and it is only through state planning that it begins to truly exist. In other words, the mode of production must be brought into existence as a conscious effort. The forms of consciousness necessary for this process are at times encouraged and at others hindered by objective forces under capitalism, and therefore rely on the active intervention of political organization.
The historical school of thought that dismisses the notion of bourgeois revolution does so partly on the basis that the revolutionaries of the day largely did not understand themselves as laying the basis for unfettered capitalist expansion. This analysis fails to appreciate the historical development of the role of consciousness. In The History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky observed that “Each of the great revolutions marked off a new stage of the bourgeois society, and new forms of consciousness for its classes”:
“In the middle of the seventeenth century the bourgeois revolution in England developed under the guise of a religious reformation. A struggle for the right to pray according to one’s own prayer book was identified with the struggle against the king, the aristocracy, the princes of the church, and Rome. The Presbyterians and Puritans were deeply convinced that they were placing their earthly interests under the unshakeable protection of the divine Providence. The goals for which the new classes were struggling commingled inseparably in their consciousness with texts from the Bible and the forms of churchly ritual.…
“In France, which stepped across the Reformation, the Catholic Church survived as a state institution until the revolution, which found its expression and justification for the tasks of the bourgeois society, not in texts from the Bible, but in the abstractions of democracy. Whatever the hatred of the present rulers of France for Jacobinism, the fact is that only thanks to the austere labour of Robespierre are they still able to cover their conservative rulership with those formulas with the help of which the old society was exploded.”
The advent of “abstractions of democracy” in bourgeois revolution predated the French Revolution. In the American Revolution, they played an important role in consolidating the alliance of the colonial ruling class with the petty bourgeoisie and plebeian layers that carried out the revolution. These ideas were associated with particular institutions and representatives: ideological leadership was provided by bodies such as the Sons of Liberty and the Committees of Correspondence, in which figures like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry, Tom Paine and others exercised influence. It was only after the revolution that the distinct ideological tendencies of the revolutionary movement crystallized into more organized political parties (Federalists and Democratic-Republicans), though there were “factional” divisions before and during the revolution. In the English tradition, there had been “parties” – Whigs and Tories – for a century in the sense that like-minded men of power grouped together and conspired with each other to shape political outcomes.
The outbreak and subsequent development of the French Revolution was shaped by proto-parties called “clubs,” which had their immediate antecedents in the salons – gatherings of intellectuals, artists and dissident aristocrats inspired by Enlightenment thinking. The first significant club of the French Revolution was the “Breton Club,” soon known as the Jacobins – initially made up of Third Estate representatives from Brittany but quickly extended to co-thinkers from other provinces. Beginning with the practice of conferring with each other to determine tactics before attending meetings of the Estates General, the Jacobin Club evolved into something approximating a political party, adopting policies, rules and an organizational structure and expanding beyond elected officials. Other clubs emerged to the right (Society of 1789) and to the left (Cordeliers), and the Jacobin Club itself produced a rightwing split (Feuillants). The Jacobins remained internally divided between two factions, a radical wing that would come to be known as The Mountain, and the more moderate Girondins. Under the leadership of Maximilien Robespierre, the radical Jacobins purged the Girondins and pushed in a more revolutionary direction (instituting the Reign of Terror under the Committee for Public Safety). The clubs most in touch with the sans-culotte masses were the Jacobins and the Cordeliers, which included the supporters of Jacques Hébert (organized around the newspaper, Le Père Duchesne). By the end of the Reign of Terror, the Jacobins had not only chopped off the head of the royalist counterrevolution but also crushed threats to their left as well, executing both Hébert and former Cordeliers leader Georges Danton. Following the political counterrevolution of 9 Thermidor Year II that led to the guillotining of Robespierre himself, the Jacobins went into decline. Out of this decomposition grew a radical, proto-communist tendency called the Society of Equals led by François-Noël “Gracchus” Babeuf, though it was quickly suppressed following an aborted uprising.
The European revolutions of the 1830s and 1840s saw the participation and ideological intervention of militants and organizations that identified with the Jacobin tradition or one of its more socialistic offshoots. In many cases the ideological ground for revolution was prepared in part by the propaganda of clandestine “societies” associated with these tendencies, which looked back to various episodes of the French Revolution for political inspiration. Yet the vision of these forces was at best limited to socialist concepts predating the dawn of the modern proletariat, and at worst defined by radical liberal hostility not only to aristocracy but to the working class as well. Their political bankruptcy was exposed as the reality of mid-19th century socio-economic life asserted itself. The only lasting contribution from this tradition came from the extreme left wing inspired by Babeuf, which influenced Marx and Engels and the modern socialist movement.
When the Paris Commune was created in March 1871, it was not a conscious effort by the leadership of the working class to initiate the transition to socialism. Power fell into their hands, and they were not equal to the task. Fifty years after the Commune was defeated, Trotsky argued:
“The Paris proletariat had no such [revolutionary] party. The bourgeois socialists who abounded in the Commune looked up to Heaven as if they awaited a miracle or an oracle. And while they were thus hesitating, the people groped and despaired because of the vacillation of some and the fantasies of others.…
“…If in September 1870 the French proletariat had been led by a centralized party of revolutionary action, the history not only of France, but of all mankind, would have taken a different direction.”
—Preface to La Commune de 1871 by C. Talès
It is, in fact, impossible to know whether resolute revolutionary leadership in September 1870 or March 1871 would merely have bought the working class more time or triggered successful socialist revolutions elsewhere. Marx offered a clear-sighted vision that was qualitatively superior to the mistakes of the petty-bourgeois leaders of the Commune. Yet the sort of party described by Trotsky was not at the time envisioned even by Marx. It would later emerge as the logical development of Marxist organizing under the conditions of a more mature working class and a mode of production that had entered its terminal phase. Once again it was Lenin who offered critical clarification on this essential feature of proletarian revolution.
Shortly after the defeat of the Paris Commune, the International Workingmen’s Association fell apart in the course of factional struggle between its Marxist and anarchist wings. In 1889, the Second (Socialist) International was founded, unlike its predecessor excluding anarchists and dominated by nominally Marxist elements – the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) was the most influential member organization. Kautsky, the leading figure of the SPD, believed that the presence of pro-socialist yet non-Marxist currents inside a social-democratic party did not inherently pose an existential challenge to the party’s revolutionary capacity. Often, somewhat inaccurately, called the “party of the whole class”, this broad-party conception was based on the view that Marxism would inevitably win out if the proletarian foundations of the party remained intact. As an organizational framework, the Kautskyist conception was shared by most leading theorists of the Socialist International, including Lenin at the time, who nonetheless emphasized – as did Kautsky – the importance of ideological struggle against non-Marxist currents inside the party and for revolutionary socialist ideas beyond the party.
In 1902, Lenin wrote What is to be Done?, in which he argued against the objectivist notion that the proletariat would “spontaneously,” simply as a byproduct of its trade-union or “economic” struggles, develop the political consciousness required to make a socialist revolution:
“We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals. By their social status the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia. In the very same way, in Russia, the theoretical doctrine of Social-Democracy arose altogether independently of the spontaneous growth of the working-class movement; it arose as a natural and inevitable outcome of the development of thought among the revolutionary socialist intelligentsia.”
While highlighting the role of bourgeois intellectuals who had broken from their class to the side of the proletariat, Lenin’s main point was that a Marxist workers’ party, as repository and defender of revolutionary ideas, had to impart revolutionary consciousness to the proletariat. In a later footnote, Lenin clarifies that he does not mean that workers must be led by bourgeois intellectuals per se: “[Workers] take part, however, not as workers, but as socialist theoreticians.” At the time, the leading figures of the Russian party and the Second International did not object to Lenin’s arguments, but in the aftermath of the split between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks in 1903, Lenin’s opponents jumped on this passage to assert that it revealed a tendency toward “substitutionalism” and “Blanquism,” i.e., a perspective of a revolutionary minority imposing its will on a backward working class. Trotsky was perhaps the most venomous critic, accusing Lenin of anti-proletarian sentiments that betrayed a perhaps unconscious striving to become the Russian Robespierre (i.e., a bourgeois dictator):
“In the internal politics of the Party these methods lead, as we shall see below, to the Party organisation ‘substituting’ itself for the Party, the Central Committee substituting itself for the Party organisation, and finally the dictator substituting himself for the Central Committee.”
—Our Political Tasks (1904)
Lenin had likened the revolutionary Marxist to the revolutionary Jacobin, but Trotsky rejected the analogy. Basing himself on Lenin’s notion of bringing socialist consciousness to the working class “from without,” he suggested that the Bolsheviks were the reactionary wing of the party and that Lenin was setting himself up to “become a leader of the revolutionary bourgeois democracy. Marxism may appear to be an ideological cover for the revolutionary intelligentsia to carry out its limited, bourgeois revolutionary role.” In fact, Lenin’s advocacy of a centralized yet democratic workers’ party based on the Marxist program had not, at that time, explicitly contradicted Kautsky’s conception. Trotsky – who came to deeply regret this polemic after he whole-heartedly joined Lenin’s party in 1917 – and other Mensheviks were motivated more by their rejection of Lenin’s particular application of this perspective in the Russian context.
The following decade would see the gradual and uneven development of a distinct organizational form that had emerged in embryo in 1903, when the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks split, ostensibly over the commitment required for membership. The development of the Bolshevik wing foreshadowed the theoretical elaboration of the Leninist vanguard party, which includes only those elements who agree with, and are under organizational discipline to carry out, the Marxist program (see Lenin and the Vanguard Party). It was only after the historic betrayal of 4 August 1914, when the majority of the leaderships of the different national sections of the Second International supported their own imperialist governments in World War I, that Lenin openly advocated a “party of a new type” and finally understood that the Bolsheviks’ trajectory had already been moving in that direction.
In breaking from the old organizational conception once and for all, Lenin sought to provide a materialist explanation for the origins of chauvinism and opportunism within the workers’ movement – not as mere imports from insufficiently proletarianized interlopers:
“Opportunism was engendered in the course of decades by the special features in the period of the development of capitalism, when the comparatively peaceful and cultured life of a stratum of privileged workingmen ‘bourgeoisified’ them, gave them crumbs from the table of their national capitalists, and isolated them from the suffering, misery and revolutionary temper of the impoverished and ruined masses. The imperialist war is the direct continuation and culmination of this state of affairs, because this is a war for the privileges of the Great-Power nations, for the repartition of colonies, and domination over other nations. To defend and strengthen their privileged position as a petty-bourgeois ‘upper stratum’ or aristocracy (and bureaucracy) of the working class – such is the natural wartime continuation of petty bourgeois opportunist hopes and the corresponding tactics, such is the economic foundation of present-day social imperialism.”
“An entire social stratum, consisting of parliamentarians, journalists, labour officials, privileged office personnel, and certain strata of the proletariat, has sprung up and has become amalgamated with its own national bourgeoisie, which has proved fully capable of appreciating and ‘adapting’ it.”
—“The Collapse of the Second International” (1915)
In pointing to the “labor aristocracy” and its associated bureaucracies in the trade unions and mass social-democratic parties as products of the phase of capitalist decline, Lenin was drawing on earlier analyses from Marx and Engels about the labor movement in Britain. In an article entitled “England in 1845 and in 1885,” which he included in toto in the preface to the 1892 English edition of The Condition of the Working Class in England, Engels explained that the “Trades’ Unions, hitherto considered inventions of the devil himself, were now petted and patronized as perfectly legitimate institutions, and as useful means of spreading sound economical doctrines amongst the workers.” The British bourgeoisie, Engels argued, had encouraged the development of what he called “an aristocracy of labour among the working class.” Lenin’s argument was that the decline of capitalism into its monopoly phase of development had generalized this phenomenon to all imperialist countries – and that meant that proletarian revolution would require an ideologically communist party to break the influence of the reformists within the workers’ movement.
The parties of the Second International, together with the mass trade unions, had become bureaucratized, their leaderships essentially integrated into the governing coalition of the ruling class. The process was gradual, and for a period of time the Second International was still an indispensable tool in the political development of the working class. Lenin argued:
“The Second International did its share of useful preparatory work in preliminarily organising the proletarian masses during the long, ‘peaceful’ period of the most brutal capitalist slavery and most rapid capitalist progress in the last third of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. To the Third International falls the task of organising the proletarian forces for a revolutionary onslaught against the capitalist governments, for civil war against the bourgeoisie of all countries for the capture of political power, for the triumph of socialism!”
—“The Position and Tasks of the Socialist International” (1914)
In “The Collapse of the Second International,” Lenin provided a succinct summary of his new orientation:
“The crisis created by the great war has torn away all coverings, swept away conventions, exposed an abscess that has long come to a head, and revealed opportunism in its true role of ally of the bourgeoisie. The complete organisational severance of this element from the workers’ parties has become imperative. The epoch of imperialism cannot permit the existence, in a single party, of the revolutionary proletariat’s vanguard and the semi-petty-bourgeois aristocracy of the working class, who enjoy morsels of the privileges of their ‘own nation’s ‘Great-Power’ status. The old theory that opportunism is a ‘legitimate shade’ in a single party that knows no ‘extremes’ has now turned into a tremendous deception of the workers and a tremendous hindrance to the working-class movement. Undisguised opportunism, which immediately repels the working masses, is not so frightful and injurious as this theory of the golden mean, which uses Marxist catchwords to justify opportunist practice, and tries to prove, with a series of sophisms, that revolutionary action is premature, etc. Kautsky, the most outstanding spokesman of this theory, and also the leading authority in the Second International, has shown himself a consummate hypocrite and a past master in the art of prostituting Marxism.”
Lenin and Zinoviev, in a joint pamphlet entitled “Socialism and War” (1915), explained that the unity of the working class – and turning the imperialist war that divided it along national lines into a revolutionary class war against the bourgeoisie – required a political split:
“In the past epoch, before the war, although opportunism was often regarded as a ‘deviationist’, ‘extremist’ part of the Social-Democratic Party, it was nevertheless regarded as a legitimate part. The war has shown that this cannot be so in future.… Unity with the opportunists actually means today, subordinating the working class to ‘its’ national bourgeoisie, alliance with it for the purpose of oppressing other nations and of fighting for great-power privileges, it means splitting the revolutionary proletariat in all countries.
“Hard as the struggle may be, in individual cases, against the opportunists who predominate in many organisations, peculiar as the process of purging the workers’ parties of opportunists may be in individual countries, this process is inevitable and fruitful.”
If the Bolsheviks had still been unified with the Mensheviks in 1917 and placed that unity above the need for revolutionary programmatic clarity, there would have been no October Revolution. This political lesson was so obvious that the Bolsheviks, in collaboration with co-thinkers in several other countries, were able to win millions of workers to the project of the Communist (Third) International in the hopes of replicating the victory of the October Revolution.
Between 1917 and 1923, there were proletarian uprisings across Europe, and workers around the world were inspired by the October Revolution. The failure of this revolutionary wave was a product of the relative immaturity of the communist movement. Revolutionary opportunities in China in the late 1920s and in Western Europe in the 1930s were, by contrast, derailed by the forces of the Stalinist political counterrevolution in the Soviet Union. In both instances, the problem lay in the subjective conditions for proletarian revolution. The objective conditions, as Trotsky noted in 1938, were not only “ripe” but beginning to grow “rotten.” A century after the Russian Revolution, failure to reinitiate the transition to communism due to working class misleadership has allowed capitalism to descend into a phase of decomposition that threatens to take humanity down with it.
In announcing the “End of History” as the social counterrevolution finally liquidated the Soviet degenerated workers’ state and the Eastern European deformed workers’ states that were modeled on it, Francis Fukuyama argued that “the contradictions that drive history exist first of all in the realm of human consciousness, i.e., on the level of ideas.” Rejecting Marx’s materialism, Fukuyama asserted:
“But surely, the class issue has actually been successfully resolved in the West. As Kojève (among others) noted, the egalitarianism of modern America represents the essential achievement of the classless society envisioned by Marx. This is not to say that there are not rich people and poor people in the United States, or that the gap between them has not grown in recent years. But the root causes of economic inequality do not have to do with the underlying legal and social structure of our society, which remains fundamentally egalitarian and moderately redistributionist, so much as with the cultural and social characteristics of the groups that make it up, which are in turn the historical legacy of premodern conditions.”
The “root causes of economic inequality” and other forms of oppression lie not in the shortcomings of individuals or groups (however conditioned by past injustices) but in the fundamentals of the bourgeois mode of production. It is estimated that just eight men now own as much wealth as the bottom half of the entire global population (more than 3.6 billion people), who barely manage to live on less than $2.50 per day. Thousands of people die every day from starvation or complications related to malnutrition – despite the fact that humanity can produce enough food to feed everyone. Imperialist military interventions across the globe since the fall of the Soviet Union have resulted in millions of deaths. Increasing tensions among the most powerful states – along with threats against some of the weaker ones – risk triggering nuclear annihilation. On top of all of this, production-for-profit and market competition have led to devastating climate change and other ongoing environmental disasters. The response of the capitalists to the economic, social and political crises their system generates with increasing severity is to reinforce its irrational features. Only a globally planned, socialist economy can lift our species out of the depths to which capitalism has plunged us.
Revolutionary situations can and will arise in the future. Revolutionary organizations will undoubtedly play a role in the emergence of these “objective” opportunities. What is certain is the necessity for Marxist leadership to turn these revolutionary situations into proletarian seizures of power. That is the fundamental lesson of the October Revolution. As Trotsky observed in The Transitional Program: “The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.”