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Leninism and Democracy

The question of Leninism and democracy has been placed on the agenda today [in 1990] by events in Eastern Europe.[1] The idea that Leninism is fundamentally authoritarian and fundamentally hostile to democracy is no longer found among bourgeois commentators alone. For tens of millions of ordinary workers, socialism has come to mean the knock on the door at four o’clock in the morning and the torture-chamber; the life of luxury and privilege led by the bureaucrats of the Communist Parties; the prime cuts of veal flown in each day from Switzerland to feed the fifteen poodles of the daughter of the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu, while workers queue for bread.

And if this is the image of socialism, then Lenin stands to be judged as the author of the most relentless, consistent and revolutionary pursuit of socialism—in theory and practice—that history has so far produced. It will come as no surprise, then, to read of the recent renaming of Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, Poland, for example, scene of many workers’ struggles against bureaucratic tyranny and birthplace of the Solidarity movement: “To shouts and cheers from a gathered crowd, welders at the weekend removed the name ‘Lenin’ from above the main gate of the famous shipyard as part of its transformation into a joint stock company.”[2]

In South Africa, the question of Leninism and democracy has been placed on the agenda by Joe Slovo, general secretary of the South African Communist Party, in his recent discussion paper, “Has Socialism Failed?” Slovo’s paper is surely the most extensive and authoritative response from within the liberation movement in South Africa to recent events in Eastern Europe. It will play a considerable role in determining the coherence of responses to the question of Leninism and democracy in South Africa.

The central argument of Slovo’s paper is that a “great divide” has developed “between socialism and political democracy”, and that now “the way forward is through thorough-going democratic socialism; a way which can only be charted by a party which wins its support through democratic persuasion and ideological contest and not, as has too often happened up to now, by claim of right.”[3] In explaining how this “great divide” between socialism and democracy came about, Slovo has nothing at all to say about the Stalinist doctrine of “socialism in a single country”, and next to nothing about the interests of the huge bureaucracies which developed in all Stalinist regimes. Instead, he turns his attention largely to the thought of Lenin, and the use made of it in justifying anti-democratic practices.

Thus, Slovo presents Lenin’s critique of bourgeois democracy as an “over-simplification,” which “tended to underestimate the historic achievements of working-class struggle in imposing and defending aspects of a real democratic culture on the capitalist state; a culture which should not disappear, but rather needs to be expanded under true socialism.” Slovo then argues that Lenin’s idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the period of transition was based on a conception of the eventual withering away of the state which was “a far cry from what happened in the decades that followed” (although it is not clear whether Lenin is to blame for this), and that “the choice of the word ‘dictatorship’ to describe this kind of [transitional] society certainly opens the way to ambiguities and distortions.” Finally, the idea of the vanguard party—central to Lenin’s thought—is made responsible for fundamental differences within the party being “either suppressed or silenced by the self­imposed discipline of so-called democratic centralism.“[4]

There is a certain amount of truth in all of these comments. But what is remarkable about Slovo’s argument is that, although he complains vigorously of the distortion, perversion and abuse of Lenin’s thought, and pays tribute to Lenin’s name, he never attempts to describe the original thrust of Lenin’s work. What were the real ideas beneath the distortions? At no stage does Slovo indicate that Marxism has produced any conception of democracy which is significantly different from bourgeois democracy. Lenin’s lifelong insistence on the need for the working class to lead the revolutionary struggle for socialism disappears from view. It is as if the distortions are stripped away from Leninism, and to all intents and purposes there is simply nothing left. Faced with this empty tomb, it is no surprise to find that Slovo’s own arguments for socialism are cast exclusively in moral terms, appealing to its “inherent moral superiority”.[5]

But the “moral superiority” of socialism is simply not an issue about which there is any real controversy. Even the most harshly exploitative of bosses could quite easily agree with Slovo at this level of abstraction. Such a boss could agree without difficulty, as long as socialism is to be brought about by the moral conversion of the capitalists, who can in the meanwhile continue to make profits until such time when they are satisfied that workers are “ready” for socialism. The question is not whether socialism is morally superior; the question is whether or not the working class should fight for it, should seek to overthrow capitalism in order to create socialism. Lenin put this clearly at the outset of his political career: “[Marxism] made clear the real task of a revolutionary socialist party: not to draw up plans for refashioning society, not to preach to the capitalists and their hangers-on about improving the lot of the workers, not to hatch conspiracies, but to organize the class struggle of the proletariat and to lead this struggle, the ultimate aim of which is the conquest of political power by the proletariat and the organization of a socialist society.”[6]

Is Leninism—the theory and practice of mobilizing the working class for socialist revolution, as developed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks—inherently undemocratic or not? This is the question which events in eastern Europe have placed on the agenda, and it is the one question which Slovo cannot answer. Indeed, his text suggests two totally opposed answers: on the one hand, by pointing out how Lenin’s ideas have been used to justify anti-democratic practices, and by failing to provide any alternative account of Leninism, Slovo’s text suggests that Leninism is inherently undemocratic; on the other, by praising Lenin’s name, and by affirming the very different proposition that socialism is democratic (even though this proposition is given an entirely moralistic form), the text suggests, perhaps more weakly, that Leninism is in fact compatible with democracy. What Slovo means by democracy, however, remains a mystery.

Whatever Slovo’s intentions, therefore, his discussion paper is intellectually confused and politically unstable. Its obfuscation of the fundamental questions it deals with, while suggesting agreement with all prevailing points of view, itself represents a mistaken conception of what is involved in democratic discussion, as we shall see. In the meanwhile, it is enough if this brief examination of Slovo’s paper shows the need for posing seriously the problem of Leninism and democracy, without indulging in hero-worship or being swept along by the opinions of the moment.

No more than a beginning can be made here in sketching out some elements of Lenin’s conception of democracy. I will try to show that there are two distinct conceptions of democracy to be found in Lenin’s work:

(i) a revolutionary conception of democracy, which is the dominant conception in his work, as a process through which the oppressed and exploited are more fully enabled to clarify their own aspirations, understand the obstacles standing in the way of these aspirations, and struggle for them; and

(ii) the embryo of what might be called a bureaucratic conception of democracy as a means for moving towards ends determined by a leadership, which often has the task of calling upon the masses to limit and curtail their aspirations in the interests of broader “democratic” unity.

It seems to me that the essential contribution of Lenin’s work to present-day struggles for democracy lies in the revolutionary conception of democracy which he put forward with unsurpassed power and precision. Accordingly, the bulk of this paper is devoted to an exposition—although necessarily incomplete—of this conception of democracy as it was worked out in Lenin’s treatment of the related questions of: (i) inner-party democracy; and (ii) the relationship between the vanguard party and the oppressed and exploited masses.

Initially, I intended also to deal with a third question: the character of the democratic revolution. That will have to be postponed until another occasion, however. All that can be done here—in the final section of the paper—is to indicate very briefly how certain elements of Lenin’s thought on the question of the democratic revolution provided a theoretical basis for the bureaucratic conception of democracy which came to be enshrined in the official dogmas of “Marxism-Leninism”— the dogmas which are being shed all over the world, after the fall of the high priests who upheld them in eastern Europe.

Inner-party Democracy

The question of inner-party democracy takes on a very different significance in capitalist societies in which the working class has basic civil and political rights, and those in which these rights are denied. In societies with universal franchise, for example, it becomes very difficult for Communist Parties to persuade voters that the CP offers society a greater degree of democracy than it has previously experienced, when it is clear to all that CP members have fewer democratic rights within their party (to dissent, to publish their viewpoints, to organize, etc.) than they would have in bourgeois parties, or in society at large. In such contexts, the question of inner-party democracy is all too often a question of marketing: the CP cannot win votes if it is seen to be undemocratic.

For Lenin, in a context in which the working class was denied basic political rights, the question of inner-party democracy had a very different significance. Democracy was an instrument for deciding on a course of action, but it was crucial to Lenin that this action be based on appropriate theory, argument and analysis—which had to be developed through democratic debate and discussion. It is in the context of his arguments for the importance of theoretical struggle that Lenin first raises the question of inner-party democracy in What is to be Done? (1902): “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. This idea cannot be insisted upon too strongly at a time when the fashionable preaching of opportunism goes hand in hand with an infatuation for the narrowest forms of practical activity. . . What at first sight appears to be an ‘unimportant’ error may lead to most deplorable consequences and only short-sighted people can consider factional disputes and a strict differentiation between shades of opinion inopportune or superfluous. The fate of Russian Social-Democracy for very many years to come may depend on the strengthening of one or the other ‘shade’.”[7]

Perhaps the most graphic representation of the difference between the revolutionary and the bureaucratic concepts of democracy, as these concern the inner-party regime, is to be found in a footnote in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (1904), written shortly after the Congress in which the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions of the Russian Social Democratic Party first split: “I cannot help recalling a conversation I happened to have at the Congress with one of the ‘Centre’ delegates. ‘How oppressive the atmosphere is at our Congress!’ he complained. ‘This bitter fighting, this agitation of one against the other, this biting controversy, this uncomradely attitude!... ‘ ‘What a splendid thing our Congress is!’ I replied. ‘A free and open struggle. Opinions have been stated. The shades have been revealed. The groups have taken shape. Hands have been raised. A decision has been taken. A stage has been passed. Forward! That’s the stuff for me! That’s life! That’s not like the endless, tedious word-chopping of your intellectuals which stops not because the question has been settled, but because they are too tired to talk any more. The comrade of the ‘Centre’ stared at me in perplexity and shrugged his shoulders. We were talking different languages.” [8]

For Lenin, it is clear, democracy required fearlessly putting forward arguments and points of view, and even putting them in extreme form, rather than seeking unity by avoiding controversial questions, disguising differences and the like.

At the same time as upholding the right of criticism within the party, Lenin also pointed out the unavoidable limits of inner-party democracy in an illegal political organization. In such a context, he argued, “any attempt to practise ‘the broad democratic principle’ [of involving the widest number of supporters in elections, etc.] will simply facilitate the work of the police in carrying out large­scale raids, will perpetuate the prevailing primitiveness, and will divert the thoughts of the practical workers from the serious and pressing task of training themselves to become professional revolutionaries to that of drawing up detailed ‘paper’ rules for election systems.”[9] It is this position on the need for a compact party of professional revolutionaries that has led to the charge of Lenin’s hostility to inner-party democracy. This charge is based, however, on a misunderstanding of Lenin’s conception of democracy. As we have already seen, the essential aspect of democracy was the right to put forward sharply-defined positions, and seek support for them; Lenin had no patience with the rival conception of democracy as a search for compromises intended to accommodate as “broad” a constituency as possible. It is not difficult to see that, in conditions of illegality, a more compact and disciplined party organization would make it possible to put forward clearer and more definite positions, rather than the reverse.

Moreover, for Lenin it was essential to defend the rights of opposing tendencies within the party to put forward their programmes, not only to ensure greater clarity of standpoint within the party itself, but also as part of the party’s task in enabling the masses to clarify their own positions. This is explained by Lenin in a reply to bourgeois “chuckling” over the split in the Social Democratic Party and its continuing controversies. Lenin rebuked the reformists who saw fit to “judge” socialists in this way: “No, gentlemen ‘judges’, we do not envy you your formal right to rejoice at the sharp struggle and splits within the ranks of Social­Democracy. No doubt, there is much in this struggle to be deplored. Without a doubt, there is much in these splits that is disastrous to the cause of socialism. Nevertheless, not for a single minute would we barter this heavy truth for your ‘light’ lie. Our Party’s serious illness is the growing pains of a mass party. For there can be no mass party, no party of a class, without full clarity of essential shadings, without an open struggle between various tendencies, without informing the masses as to which leaders and which organizations of the Party are pursuing this or that line. Without this, a party worthy of the name cannot be built, and we are building it. We have succeeded in putting the views of our two currents truthfully, clearly and distinctly before everyone. Personal bitterness, factional squabbles and strife, scandals and splits—all these are trivial in comparison with the fact that the experience of two tactics is actually teaching a lesson to the proletarian masses, is actually teaching a lesson to everyone who is capable of taking an intelligent interest in politics. Our quarrels and splits will be forgotten. Our tactical principles, sharpened and tempered, will go down as cornerstones in the history of the working-class movement and socialism in Russia.”[10]

Quotations from Lenin could be multiplied. Right through to 1920, we find him constantly defending the right to form factions within the Bolshevik Party and seek election to its congresses and committees on the basis of its programmes[11]. It is possible to cite one incident after another throughout Lenin’s career in which he made use of this right to oppose the Party, the most famous being the publication of his April theses in 1917—or encouraged others to do so when they opposed him—for example, authorising a printing in May 1918 of one million copies of a pamphlet in which Bukharin differed with him on a range of controversial issues. It would be possible to examine the other conditions, apart from recognition of the rights of tendencies and factions, which are necessary for real inner-party democracy. (Marcel Liebman provides the following list: “sovereignty of the Party congress as the body that decides Party policy, and the resolutions of which are actually put into effect; possibility for the Congress to check on the activities of the Central Committee; absence of interference by the central Party bodies in the election of local and regional committees and in the nomination of delegates to Congress; free confrontation of points of view, and information for the rank and file regarding the decisions made by the leadership, together with the facts on which these decisions are based.”[12] ) It would be possible also to discuss the difficulties of such full freedom of criticism for ensuring unity in action within the party—difficulties to which Lenin returned over and over again with varying degrees of success.[13]

But more important than any of these possible lines of enquiry, is to establish the basis on which Lenin’s commitment to the rights of tendencies to organize democratically within the party rested. It becomes clear that Lenin‘s confidence in the value of free and open mobilization of support for different points of view was based on confidence that the masses would learn from experience and could be guided in this by the party, provided the party itself had clear views, and on his belief that it was incumbent on the party to enable the masses to clarify its views by allowing open and democratic debate. We can see this from his thought on the relationship of party and masses, which is dealt with in the next section of this paper. And we can see this also in the conditions under which Lenin was to propose in 1921 a temporary ban on factions within the Bolshevik Party — when it became clear to him that the revolutionary energies of the masses had been exhausted by civil war, industrial collapse and famine.

This is not to justify the ban on factions within the Bolshevik Party, but rather to emphasize how much at variance it was with Lenin’s thought and practice until then, and how much it was a product unprecedented historical circumstance. Anyone who takes seriously the underlying aspiration of Lenin’s work—to wage the most determined struggle for the fullest possible liberation of oppressed people—will not take pleasure in the tragic choices forced upon it by historical circumstance, but will seek instead to locate its revolutionary foundations, and build upon them.

Party and Masses

Lenin’s best-known account of the role of the vanguard party in What is to be Done? stresses the need for socialist ideas to be brought to the working-class “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.”[14] This emphasis on the consciousness of the intelligentsia rather than that of the masses was to become increasingly less important as Lenin’s thought developed. Frequently, however, this emphasis in Lenin’s early text has been used to charge that Lenin was hostile to the spontaneous initiatives of the masses; that Lenin was dismissive of the ideas and aspirations of the masses.

Once again, the charge rests on a misunderstanding of Lenin’s conception of democracy. For Lenin, the masses could not be drawn in active efforts to control the conditions of their own lives—which was the essence of democracy—by a party which reflected whatever confusions and prejudices existed among them, rather than proposing to them a definite goal and programme. Liebman explains: “A number of passages in What is to be Done? show that the author was above all concerned to make fully effective the spontaneous activity undertaken by the masses. Whenever he deals with action, far from condemning spontaneity, he urges the revolutionary movement to assume the leadership of such movements, even asserting that ‘the greater the spontaneous upsurge of the masses and the more widespread the movement, the more rapid, incomparably so, is the demand for greater consciousness in the theoretical, political and organizational work of Social Democracy.’ Surveying the historical achievements of the Russian labour movement, Lenin noted with satisfaction that ‘the upsurge of the masses proceeded and spread with uninterrupted continuity.’ He regretted only ‘the lag of leaders... behind the spontaneous upsurge of the masses’; ‘the spontaneous struggle of the proletariat will not become its genuine class struggle until this struggle is led by a strong organization of revolutionaries’. Here we see already an approach to a dialectical attempt to transcend the contradiction between the spontaneity and the organization of the proletariat.”[15]

Many problems with the theory and practice of the vanguard party need to be addressed; but we should rid ourselves of the misconception that Lenin’s idea of the party was premised on the inherent passivity of the masses.

Throughout his life, Lenin retained this faith in the masses—his faith, that is, not in the conclusions that the masses had drawn at a specific moment, but rather his faith in the capacity of the masses to draw the right conclusions when prompted by experience and guided by clear and definite explanation of that experience. “We don’t want the masses to take our word for it,” said Lenin in putting forward his April Theses. “We are not charlatans. We want the masses to overcome their mistakes through experience.”[16] And the theme of revolutionary leadership lagging behind the masses recurred in Lenin’s speeches and writings at every upsurge of mass activity: in 1905, Lenin held, “the proletariat sensed sooner than its leaders the change in the objective conditions of the struggle and the need for transition from the strike to an uprising”; in 1917, “’the country’ of the workers and poor peasants... is a thousand times more leftward than the Chernovs and Tseretelis [Menshevik leaders of the Soviets], and a hundred times more leftward than we are.”[17]

It was on this insistence on the need for the masses to become actively involved in deciding their own future, and to learn constantly from that experience, that Lenin’s critique of bourgeois democracy was based: “In capitalist society, providing it develops under the most favourable conditions, we have a more or less complete democracy in the democratic republic. But this democracy is always hemmed in by the narrow limits set by capitalist exploitation, and consequently always remains, in effect, a democracy for the minority, only for the propertied classes, only for the rich... Owing to the conditions of capitalist exploitation, the modem wage slaves are so crushed by want and poverty that ‘they cannot be bothered with democracy’, ‘cannot be bothered with politics’; in the ordinary, peaceful course of events, the majority of the population is debarred from participation in public and political life.”[18]

The point of this critique is perhaps best illustrated by the question freedom of the press, an essential condition for democracy in the sense that Lenin intended: “What do the advocates of the bourgeoisie mean by the freedom of the press?”, asked Trotsky, in presenting the Bolshevik position soon after October 1917. “The same as they mean by freedom of trade. Every man who has some capital has the right, because he has the means, to open a factory, a shop, a brothel, or a newspaper according to his personal tastes... But do the millions of peasants, workers and soldiers enjoy freedom of the press? They do not have the essential condition of freedom, the means, the actual and genuine means of publishing a newspaper.”[19] It was on this basis that the Bolsheviks proposed to nationalize the printing presses and the paper mills, and then allocate printing facilities and paper to all parties and groupings in proportion to their strength in elections.

Nowhere in Lenin ‘s writings—or perhaps in all the writings of socialism—is the sense of the awakening of the possibilities of oppressed people through revolutionary struggle more clearly and resoundingly articulated than in a text written on the eve of the October revolution, “Can the Bolsheviks retain State Power”. This is Lenin’s authentic voice: “We have already seen the strength of the capitalists’ resistance; the entire people have seen it, for the capitalists are more class conscious than the other classes and at once realized the significance of the Soviets, at once exerted all their efforts to the utmost, resorted to everything, went to all lengths, resorted to the most incredible lies and slander, to military plots in order to frustrate the Soviets, to reduce them to nought, to prostitute them, to transform them into talking-shops, to wear down the peasants and workers by months and months of empty talk and playing at revolution.

We have not yet seen, however, the strength of resistance of the proletarians and poor peasants, for this strength will become fully apparent only when power is in the hands of the proletariat, when tens of millions of people who have been crushed by want and capitalist slavery see from experience and feel that state power has passed into the hands of the oppressed classes, that the state is helping the poor to fight the landowners and capitalists, is breaking their resistance. Only then shall we see what untapped forces of resistance to the capitalists are latent among the people; only then will what Engels called ‘latent socialism’ manifest itself. Only then, for every ten thousand overt and concealed enemies of working-class rule, manifesting themselves actively or by passive resistance, there will arise a million new fighters who had been politically dormant, writhing in the torments of poverty and despair, having ceased to believe that they were human, that they had the right to live, that they too could be served by the entire might of the modern centralised state, that contingents of the proletarian militia could, with the fullest confidence, also call upon them to take a direct, immediate, daily part in state administration.

“The capitalists and landowners . . . have done everything in their power to defile the democratic republic, to defile it by servility to wealth to such a degree that the people are being overcome by apathy, indifference ; it is all the same to them, because the hungry man cannot see the difference between the republic and the monarchy; the freezing, barefooted, worn-out soldier sacrificing his life for alien interests is not inclined to love the republic.

“But when every labourer, every unemployed worker, every cook, every ruined peasant sees, not from the newspapers, but with his own eyes, that the proletarian state is not cringing to wealth but is helping the poor, that this state does not hesitate to adopt revolutionary measures, that it confiscates surplus stocks of provisions from the parasites and distributes them to the hungry, that it forcibly installs the homeless in the houses of the rich, that it compels the rich to pay for milk but does not give them a drop until the children of all poor families are sufficiently supplied, that the land is being transferred to the working people and the factories and the banks are being placed under the control of the workers, and that immediate and severe punishment is meted out to the millionaires who conceal their wealth—when the poor see and feel this, no capitalist or kulak forces, no forces of world finance capital which manipulates thousands of millions, will vanquish the people’s revolution; on the contrary, the socialist revolution will triumph all over the world for it is maturing in all countries.

“Our revolution will be invincible if it is not afraid of itself, if it transfers all power to the proletariat, for behind us stand the immeasurably larger, more developed, more organised world forces of the proletariat which are temporarily held down by the war but not destroyed; on the contrary, the war has multiplied them.”[20]

The revolution which Lenin foresaw in the advanced capitalist societies of western Europe did not happen. Before socialist revolution will be “invincible,” in the way that Lenin hoped to make the revolution in Russia, it will be necessary to recover this sense of the tense and living relationship of party and masses, constituted in revolutionary struggle and through it.

The Democratic Revolution and the Bureaucratic Concept of Democracy

The failure of revolution in the West led to the consolidation of bureaucratic power in the Soviet Union under Stalin, and the crushing of democracy within the party and the society at large. Immediately after his death in 1924, the process of distorting Lenin ‘s thought into the dogma that would justify the rule of the bureaucracy began.

Lenin—who had fought for a party and a society in which cringing and superstition would be banished, and all would put forward their ideas and arguments freely and fearlessly—was made into a religious symbol before which all were required to bow down. It was Stalin who first gave Leninism this form, soon after his death: “In leaving us, Comrade Lenin ordained us to hold high and keep pure the great title of member of the party. We vow to thee, Comrade Lenin, that we shall honourably fulfil this thy commandment . . . . In leaving us, Comrade Lenin ordained us to guard the unity of our party like the apple of our eye. We vow to thee, Comrade Lenin, that we shall fulfil honourably this thy commandment, too. . . . In leaving us, Comrade Lenin ordained us to guard and strengthen the dictatorship of the proletariat. We vow to thee, Comrade Lenin, that without sparing our strength we shall honourably fulfil this thy commandment, too.”[21]

Here Marxism is turned into religious litany. But it is not enough to point to the distortions and falsifications of Lenin’s thought and his writings and the constant revision of Bolshevik history. Lenin’s ideas were indeed dismembered, but they could not be left like that; they had to be re-assembled in the form of the official dogma of “Marxism- Leninism”. The distortions and abuses of Lenin’s thought—of which Joe Slovo has recently complained, as we saw at the beginning of this paper—had to be given a firm theoretical basis. Only then could these distortions have made sense—no matter how alien this sense might have been to the original thrust of Lenin’s work—to large numbers of Stalinists.

What provided this theoretical basis was, first of all, the doctrine of “socialism in one country”: the doctrine, that is, that socialism could be built in the Soviet Union alone if socialists in other parts of the world put their energies into support for Soviet international policy, agreeing to serve as bargaining chips in the strategy of protecting Soviet interests from imperialist threats, rather than pursuing socialist revolution in their own countries and on a world­ scale. For this doctrine to serve as the basis for the distortion of Leninism into an anti-democratic form of authoritarianism, a further plank was needed: the doctrine of the two-stage revolution, which committed socialists to the pursuit of “national-democratic revolution” before the question of socialism could be put on the agenda. And this idea of the democratic revolution was taken from the work of Lenin—above all, from his Two Tactics of Social Democracy written in 1905.

This is not the occasion for examination of Lenin‘s conception of democratic revolution, and the subsequent development of this notion in Soviet Marxism[22]. Let us say simply that it was a conception given particular emphasis by that generation of Russian Marxists—above all, Plekhanov—who opposed the voluntarism of Russian populism and its aspiration to “skip the capitalist stage” with a rigid and mechanical historical stagism: a belief in the necessity for all countries to pass through a series of pre­determined historical stages. Scientific socialists, Plekhanov held, are striving for socialism not because it is desirable, but because it is the next stage in the “magnificent and irresistible forward march of History,“ while the causes of historical development, according to him, “ had nothing to do with human will or consciousness “.[23]

Lenin’s treatment of the democratic revolution had none of the passivity of Plekhanov and the Mensheviks. Above all, he always insisted on the need for the working-class to put forward its own democratic demands boldly, without seeking compromise with the liberal bourgeoisie.[24] By the time of Lenin’s return to Russia in 1917, the idea of the “democratic stage” of the revolution had all but disappeared from his thought, as he sensed the coming of world socialist revolution.

This conception of democratic revolution provided the theoretical basis for the subsequent distortion of Lenin’s conceptions of inner-party democracy and the relationship of party and masses, outlined in the previous sections of this paper. If we begin from the premise that it is necessary for a society to pass through its own democratic revolution before seeking the overthrow of capitalism, then it follows that the aspirations of the working class must be suppressed in order to avoid frightening the bourgeoisie by raising prematurely the spectre of socialism.

Once that necessity is recognized, the function of the Leninist vanguard party changes into the opposite of what Lenin supposed: no longer does it seek to make possible the fullest expression of the aspirations of the oppressed, no longer does it seek to show the oppressed quite how revolutionary the implications of their aspirations are; instead, the party’s relationship to the masses is designed to limit and curtail the full expression of their demands, and to channel their militancy towards tactically appropriate targets.

And once this has happened, we can see also that Lenin’s conception of inner-party democracy would have to be abandoned. Rather than encouraging full freedom of tendencies to put forward positions within the party, in order to ensure a sharper definition of its goals, such a party would need to smother debate under a blanket of calls of unity, in order to ensure that their programme does not threaten to go beyond the democratic stage too soon.

We should not think that the distortion of Lenin’s ideas on inner­ party democracy and the relationship of party and masses was primarily a theoretical matter. Some ten years after Lenin’s death, the Stalinist terror began in earnest. Of the 140 members of the Central Committee elected at the 1934 Congress of the CPSU, by the outbreak of the Second World War 110 had been executed. Of 1 827 rank and file delegates to the 1934 Congress, 1 108 had met a similar fate. Up to a million executions took place in the Great Purge trials of 1936-38, and some six million are estimated to have died in the labour camps in those years. Such was the state of inner­party democracy in Lenin’s party; such was the relationship of party and masses. [25]

It can be argued, as Joe Slovo has said, that Lenin’s critique of bourgeois democracy was an “oversimplification”. It is certain that his vision was “a far cry from what happened in the decades that followed.”[26] It might be possible to continue the struggle for democracy without that sense—articulated by Lenin—of how the oppressed and exploited and might awaken from their impotence, once given a clear and definite lead by a party with a revolutionary programme based on free and open struggle, rather than on the compromises which ensure the broadest possible unity. But if we are to do without that Leninist conception of the role of the masses, and the vision of democracy on which it is based, then we need to know what will be put in its place.


[1] Paper presented to the Marxist Theory Seminar, University of the Western Cape, on 8 March 1990, and subsequently published in Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory 76 (October 1990), pp. 19–32.

[2] Cape Times, 29 January 1990.

[3] Joe Slovo, “Has Socialism Failed?”, South African Labour Bulletin 14: 6 (February 1990), pp. 16, 25.

[4] Slovo, “Has Socialism Failed?”, pp. 17, 19, 20,21.

[5] Slovo, “Has Socialism Failed?”, p. 11; cf. pp. 16, 28.

[6] Lenin, “Our Programme” in Collected Works (Moscow, 1960), vol. 4, p. 211.

[7] Lenin, What is to be Done? in Selected Works (Moscow, 1977), vol. 1, p. 109.

[8] Lenin, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back in Selected Works, vol. 1. p. 357.

[9] Lenin, What is to be Done?, p. 200.

[10] Lenin, “But Who are the Judges?” (1907) in Collected Works, vol. 13, p. 159.

[11] For example, Lenin, “Speech delivered at the Moscow Guberma Conference of the RCP(B) on Elections to the Moscow Committee, November 21, 1920” in Collected Works, vol. 31, pp. 427-8.

[12] Marcel Liebman, Leninism under Lenin (London, 1975) p. 295.

[13] Cf. Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, pp. 49-61.

[14] Lenin, What is to be Done?, p. 114.

[15] Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, p. 31.

[16] Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 36, p. 439, quoted by Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, p. 190.

[17] Lenin, Collected Works, vol.11, p. 173, vol. 24, p 364, quoted by Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, pp 92-3, 190.

[18] Lenin, State and Revolution, in Selected Works, vol. 2, p. 301.

[19] Quoted in Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed : Trotsky 1879-1921 (Oxford, 1954), p. 337.

[20] Lenin, “Can the Bolsheviks retain State Power?” in Selected Works, vol. 2, pp. 382-3.

[21] Isaac Deutscher, Stalin (Harmondsworth, 1966), pp. 272-3.

[22] A valuable overview is to be found in Peter Hudson, “The Freedom Charter and the Theory of National Democratic Revolution,” Transformation, no. 1 (1986), pp. 6-38.

[23] Quoted in A. Walicki, A History of Russian Thought: From the Enlightenment to Marxism (Oxford, 1980), p. 417.

[24] Lenin, Two Tactics of Social Democracy in Selected Works, vol. 1, pp. 450-455.

[25] Ronald Aronson, The Dialectics of Disaster (London, 1983) pp. 70, 127.

[26] Slovo, “Has Socialism Failed?”, pp. 17, 19.


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