Introduction to Lenin’s ‘Democracy & Revolution’

Written in 2001
By Doug Lorimer


The establishment in Russia of a revolutionary workers’ and peasants’ government by the second Congress of Soviets on November 8, 1917 (October 26, 1917 in the Julian calendar which remained in effect in Russia until January 1918) and the subsequent dissolving by the Soviet government of the first democratically-elected parliament in Russia (the Constituent Assembly) polarised the working-class movement around the world.

As Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the chairperson of the Soviet government and central leader of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks), noted, “working people all over the world have instinctively grasped the significance of the soviets as an instrument in the proletarian struggle and as a form of the proletarian state. But the ‘leaders’, corrupted by opportunism, still continue to worship bourgeois democracy, which they still call ‘democracy’ in general.”1

Foremost among the opportunist labour leaders who opposed the Bolshevik-led workers’ and peasants’ revolution was Karl Kautsky, widely regarded as the most prominent Marxist theorist after Frederick Engels’ death in 1895 and a leading figure in the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), the leading party within the Second (or Socialist) International.

In a series of articles that appeared in the German press in early 1918 and even more so in his pamphlet The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, published in Vienna later that year, Kautsky claimed that in dissolving the Constituent Assembly in favour of the dictatorial rule of the soviets (councils) of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ delegates the Bolsheviks had departed from Marxism. According to Kautsky, Marx had said that the transition to socialism “could be achieved only democratically and not by means of a dictatorship”.2

Kautsky’s criticisms of the Bolshevik-led October Revolution revealed that the opportunist distortion of Marx’s theory of the state and the tasks of the proletarian revolution that Kautsky had begun to develop from 1902 on (and which Lenin had exposed and refuted in his August 1917 pamphlet The State and Revolution) had degenerated into a full-blown liberal caricature of Marxism.

In October-November 1918 Lenin wrote a devastating reply to Kautsky’s pamphlet — The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. This pamphlet forms the central item reprinted in this collection. It is preceded by a lecture that Lenin gave in July 1919 on the Marxist theory of the state, and followed by two articles by Lenin on the Constituent Assembly elections, plus Lenin’s theses and report on “Bourgeois Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, presented to the founding congress of the Communist International in March 1919.

Appended to these writings by Lenin are chapters II and III of Leon Trotsky’s 1920 reply to Kautsky’s 1919 anti-Bolshevik pamphlet Terrorism and Communism (which was published under the same name), plus extracts on the subject of democracy and the proletarian dictatorship from the 1919 program of the RCP and from the extensive commentary on the program written by Bolshevik leaders Nikolai Bukharin and Evgeny Preobrazhensky.

Together, the items reprinted in this collection aim to acquaint the reader with the main Bolshevik documents defending the orthodox Marxist view on the state and democracy, as applied during the world’s first victorious working-class revolution.

At the heart of Kautsky’s criticism of the October Revolution was his acceptance of the liberal mystification of democracy and dictatorship as classless and polar opposite forms of the political organisation of society. This was already evident in Kautsky’s 1902 pamphlet The Social Revolution, wherein he had affirmed that “parliament is in need of a revolution in order to become viable again”.3 For Kautsky, the task of the proletarian revolution in relation to the state was to make the liberal form of democracy “viable”, i.e., to invest this form with real democratic content.

The unstated assumption behind Kautsky’s position — one which he shared in common with liberal political thinkers — was that parliament and the bureaucratic military machine that is subordinated to parliament in the “modern representative state” are supra-class institutions which could be filled with either a bourgeois or a proletarian-socialist content.

For Marx and Engels, however, the “modern representative state” is the vehicle through which the bourgeoisie had “conquered … exclusive political sway”, such that the “executive of the modern [i.e., parliamentary] state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”.4 This view was completely in accord with their conception of the state.

Whereas liberals view the state as an eternal set of institutions that maintained social order or that expressed the common interests of society, for Marx and Engels the state was a historical product of the division of society into exploiter and exploited classes, a special organisation of force, of coercion, divorced from the people as a whole by which the rule of one class was maintained over the rest of society.

In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels had argued that “the first step in the revolution of the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy”. The proletariat would then “use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class …”5

“Political power”, Marx and Engels observed, “is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another.” However, if the working class “by means of a revolution” made “itself the ruling class” and abolished bourgeois “conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally”.6

On the basis of the experience of the popular uprising in Paris in 1871 (the “Paris Commune”), Marx had drawn the conclusion that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes”7 through the winning of a socialist majority in parliament; that in order to raise itself to the position of ruling class, the proletariat had to establish the supremacy of a representative institution which “was to be a working, not a parliamentary, body, executive and legislative at the same time”8 — a form of state organisation in which all civil and military officials would be elected, subject to recall at any time by their electors, and paid no more than “workmen’s wages”.

Marx attached particular importance to the concrete measures undertaken by the Paris Commune because they indicated the institutional forms through which the proletariat could raise itself to the position of ruling class, could “win the battle of democracy”. As Lenin observed in his 1917 work The State and Revolution, the Paris Commune “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; the state ( = a special force for the suppression of a particular class) into something which is no longer the state proper.”9


Continuing his exposition of the Marxist approach to the state and the tasks of the proletarian revolution, Lenin wrote:

It is still necessary to suppress the resistance of the bourgeoisie and crush their resistance. This was particularly necessary for the Commune; and one of the reasons for its defeat was that it did not do this with sufficient determination [by not launching a military-political offensive against the bourgeois republican government based in Versailles — DL]. The organ of suppression, however, is here the majority of the population, and not a minority, as was always the case under slavery, serfdom and wage slavery. And since the majority of people itself suppresses its oppressors, a “special force” for suppression is no longer necessary! In this sense, the state begins to wither away. Instead of the special institutions of a privileged minority (privileged officialdom, the chiefs of the standing army), the majority itself can directly fulfil all these functions, and the more the functions of state power are performed by the people as a whole, the less need there is for the existence of this power.

In this connection, the following measures of the Commune, emphasised by Marx, are particularly noteworthy: the abolition of all representation allowances, and of all monetary privileges of officials, the reduction of the remuneration of all servants of the state to the level of “workmen’s wages”. This shows more clearly than anything else the turn from bourgeois to proletarian democracy, from the democracy of the oppressors to that of the oppressed class, from the state as a “special force” for the suppression of a particular class to the suppression of the oppressors by the general force of the majority of the people — the workers and the peasants. And it is on this particularly striking point, perhaps the most important as far as the problem of the state is concerned, that the ideas of Marx have been most completely ignored!10

Here we come to the fundamental difference between Kautsky’s conception of the proletarian revolution and Marx’s and Lenin’s. Whereas Lenin, following Marx, envisages the first step of the proletarian revolution as the replacement of the existing (bourgeois) machinery of state power by new, proletarian institutions of state power, for Kautsky the political task of the revolution involved only the seizure of control of the existing state machinery by the proletariat, or rather by its parliamentary representatives. In an article printed in the SPD theoretical journal Neue Zeit in 1912, Kautsky explicitly argued that the political tasks of the “proletarian revolution” did not involve the destruction of the institutions of bourgeois state power (parliament and the bureaucratic-military machine) but only “a certain shifting of the balance of forces within the state power”. This was to be achieved through socialists “winning a majority in parliament and by raising parliament to the rank of master of the government”.11

In the preamble to the rules of the International Working Men’s Association (the “First International”) which he wrote in 1864, Marx expressed the essence of his political theory in one sentence: “The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”12

That one word in Marx’s formulation — “themselves” — highlights in the most striking manner the contrast between his conception of the first step of the proletarian revolution and Kautsky’s. Is there any doubt? Just try reading Marx’s formulation as modified by Kautsky: The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered not by the working classes themselves, but by their parliamentary representatives!

Whereas for Marx and Lenin the task of socialists was to organise the proletariat itself as the coercive power, as the state (“the proletariat organised as the ruling class”), for Kautsky the task of socialists was organise the proletariat so as to win a socialist majority in parliament and to make parliament “the master of the government”.

The fundamental objective of Marxist policy is the conquest of state power by the proletariat. The pseudo-“Marxist” who narrows that conception down to the conquest of the existing machinery of state power by the political representatives of the proletariat is in reality indistinguishable from the open liberal-reformist, who denies any need exists for the working class to suppress the existing bourgeois institutions of state power and therefore any need for the working class to constitute itself as a state power, as a coercive force. Both agree in thinking that all that is required can be done if only the right majority is elected to parliament! As between the two the more open reformists are (because they are such openly) less dangerous to the working class than the concealed reformists, who hide their real nature under a cloak of “leftist” and “revolutionary” phrases.

The contrast between a genuinely revolutionary perspective and a pseudo revolutionary, concealed reformist, one (such as presented by Kautsky) becomes clear when we examine the question of the relationship between democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat.


In The State and Revolution Lenin noted that the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat lay at the heart of Marx’s scientific theory of socialism, i.e., of his theory of how socialism — a classless society — could be brought into being. Lenin cited the following comments by Marx, written in 1852:

… no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economists, the economic anatomy of the classes. What I did that was new was to prove: (1) that the existence ofclasses is only bound up with particular, historical phases in the development of production;  (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of theproletariat; (3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.13

The dictatorship of the proletariat is in the first place the logical continuation of the proletarian class struggle. Since, however, it is the continuation of the class struggle beyond capitalist rule, it is a complete alteration of the struggle in the sense that what had been a revolutionary struggle against the ruling (capitalist) class and its state becomes under the dictatorship of the proletariat a struggle by a new form of state and ruling class to suppress all resistance to its establishment of a new system of production and a new form of society. In the third place, since the dictatorship of the proletariat will succeed in its aim only insofar as it abolishes the proletariat, by abolishing all class distinctions, it is its own negation — in that, obviously, its dictatorial function withers away with the withering away of all resistance to itself which, in turn, withers away with the disappearance of the objective class basis from which this resistance arose.

There is nothing peculiar or distinctive in the fact that the revolutionary rule of the working class will take on a dictatorial form. On the contrary, every revolutionary regime must during its period of revolutionising the old conditions of production rule dictatorially since its historical ground of existence is the need to forcibly suppress the resistance of the overthrown ruling class to the abolition of those conditions of production which made it possible for that class to rule. As Marx observed in September 1848: “Every provisional political setup following a revolution requires a dictatorship, and an energetic dictatorship at that.”14

In fact, every social revolution — and not just the proletarian-socialist revolution — is dictatorial by its very nature. As was well-illustrated by the bourgeois revolutions against the feudal ruling class, a social revolution is an event in which one section of a society forcibly imposes its will upon the other. Politics itself is the theory and practice of the use of state power — the coercive effect of organised armed force — to impose the will of a class or a coalition of classes upon the entire population of a given territory.

The only thing even relatively new about the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat is its name. That the Marxist concept of class struggle — that the great end to which all Marxist political practice must be subordinated as means is that of developing all proletarian struggles (local, national, and international; economic, political, and ideological) up to the point of conquest of political power by the working class — includes the dictatorship of the proletariat should be obvious to anyone capable of concretely envisaging the process.

A familiar “democratic” juggle from the liberal-reformist pseudo-“socialist” camp falls under notice here. “Since the proletariat constitutes the majority of the population in developed capitalist countries like the USA, Britain and Australia, why cannot it win power democratically?” Where is the need for dictatorship?, they ask.

The juggle is a transparent one. Firstly, it confuses the form of a “democratic” election with the reality of democracy — the rule of the common people. Secondly, it supposes (in the face of all historical evidence) that the winning of a parliamentary election, of itself, constitutes the “conquest of power”. Thirdly, it supposes that the capitalist class (including its military and police officials) will submit without a struggle to the verdict of a parliamentary election. Fourthly, it supposes that this “peaceful and democratic” procedure constitutes a real alternative to the revolutionary conquest, defeat, and immobilisation of the actual forces of resistance at the disposal of the bourgeoisie. Fifthly, it ignores the fact that all government in a class-divided society involves, of necessity, the dictatorial use of compulsion by one class at the expense of all other classes, and of the refractory members of its own class.

The reformist pseudo-“socialists” — like Kautsky — who counterpose “democracy” to all forms of “dictatorship” thereby reveal that they are as ignorant as any common, garden-variety liberal of what these political terms actually mean, i.e., that democracy is a form of state power, of the dictatorial use of compulsion by the majority of the people or their representatives against the minority. “Democracy”, even in the sense meant by liberals and liberal, pseudo-“socialists” — i.e., the bourgeois parliamentary state machine — is itself a form of dictatorship!

The problem of “democracy”, whether considered from the proletarian-socialist or the bourgeois standpoint, is in concrete reality, a problem of how to achieve and how to exercise the power to dictate! Governmental power is the power of one section of the population to dictate its will (though not necessarily arbitrarily) by means of a monopoly of armed force to the rest of the population.

In his criticism of the Bolshevik Revolution, Kautsky affirmed categorically that Marx only intended by the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” to describe a “political situation, not a form of government”.15 Whether this effort of Kautsky’s is valid and whether it reveals anything more than a distinction without a difference can be demonstrated by a few citations from Marx.

In 1881, Marx, when writing to the Christian-anarchist Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis, had emphasised the fact that “a socialist government does not come into power in a country unless conditions are so developed that it can immediately take the necessary measures for intimidating the mass of the bourgeoisie”. (Emphasis added)16

In his letter of May 1875 to the SPD leaders criticising their “Gotha” program, Marx wrote:

Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. There corresponds to this also a political transition period during which the state can be nothing else than the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat. Now the program does not deal with this nor with the future state of communist society. Its political demands contain nothing beyond the old democratic litany familiar to all: universal suffrage, direct legislation, popular rights, a people’s militia, etc. They are a mere echo of the bourgeois People’s Party, of the League of Peace and Freedom. They are all demands which, in so far as they are not exaggerated in fantastic presentation, have already been realised. Only the state to which they belong does not lie within the borders of the German Empire, but in Switzerland, the United States, etc... Even vulgar democracy, which sees the millennium in the democratic republic and has no suspicion that it is precisely in this last form of state of bourgeois society that the class struggle has to be fought out to a conclusion — even it towers mountains above this kind of democratism which keeps within the limits of what is permitted by the police and not permitted by logic.17

These passages are decisive both as regards the “dictatorship” and the “democracy”. Quite explicitly, the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is postulated as the only state form possible during the transition from capitalism to the future classless society. Equally definitely, the “democratic republic” is categorically indicated as the state form of bourgeois society in which “the class struggle has to be fought to a conclusion”, to the conquest of power by the proletariat.

Kautsky’s endeavour to draw a distinction as between a “form of government”and a “political situation” is here exposed for what it is — a wretched quibble.

Obviously, if the dictatorship of the proletariat is the conclusion of the proletariat’s class struggle against bourgeois rule which has taken place within the framework of a “democratic republic”, it is a “political situation” both so far as the proletarian “dictators” are concerned, and also for the bourgeois “subjects” dictated to. It is a form of government insofar as it is a state, and has specific functions as the agency of a revolutionary transition, which, precisely because it is a transition and revolutionary, is a continuation of the proletariat’s class struggle in altered form.


The real issue is one which Kautsky obscures under a cloud of pretentious sophistry, i.e., what is the difference between the fullest and most consistent democracy as Marx, Engels and Lenin understood it, and the “dictatorship of the proletariat” as Marx, Engels and Lenin used the term?

In essence: no difference at all. In fact, Lenin always argued that the fullest democracy was only possible through the dictatorship of the proletariat; while Marx and Engels quite often used the word “democracy” as synonymous with “proletarian dictatorship”; and never lost a chance to pour scorn on the petty-bourgeois democratic parliamentary charlatans who tried to fob off the workers with the parliamentary form of democracy instead of its revolutionary-proletarian substance.

There is, it is clear, democracy and “democracy” — the reality and the (liberal and pseudo-“socialist” parliamentarist) humbug. Let us see if we can discover how to distinguish between them.

At the core of the word “democracy” in its original meaning is a class demand — the demand for class equality: for the abolition of rule by privileged classes.

The ancient Greeks, who invented the word “democracy”, always gave it a class meaning. To them it meant the rule of the demos (the common people), which meant the loss of power by a privileged minority. “A democracy”, Aristotle wrote in his Politics, “exists whenever those who are free and are not well-off, being in the majority, are in control of government”. He contrasted “democracy” to “oligarchy”, wherein “control lies with the rich and well-born, there being few”.18

Only the barest minimum of reflection is required to see that all arguments as to “democracy” or “dictatorship” in the abstract are worthless. Only when we ask “democracy for whom” or “dictatorship, over whom by whom?” — only when the question is thus concretised and it is made possible for us to examine it in its actual practical connections with the class structure of a society, does the problem become capable of rational solution.

For instance, to a Greek of the era of city-states, in which the term “democracy” was first coined, it had, as we can see from Aristotle’s comments above, a concrete social meaning, and not at all an abstract one. Either the function of making and administering laws was a birth-right of the “rich and well-born, these being few” in which case we do not have a democracy, or the functions were exercised by the demos, by those who are “not well-off” these being “the majority”, in which case we do.

To an aristocratic Greek (like Aristotle) a state in which the demos exercised absolute sovereignty, in which as Aristotle put it “the people becomes monarchical” and “lord it over the better class of citizen”19, meant exactly what the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat would mean in practice to the bourgeoisie of today. Indeed, it is a historical fact the first “tyrants” to be so called (the ancient Greeks again were the inventors of the word) were the dictators set up by the victorious democracy to rule as their agents in place of the aristocratic rulers who had been chased away. To an ancient Greek, “democracy” was inseparable from “dictatorship” of the common people.

That was also the sense which the word bore when it was revived by the Great French Revolution of 1789-93. Edmund Burke, who is regarded by liberal academics as one of the most profound political philosophers that Britain has ever produced (despite the fact that he was Irish!), fought the French Revolution precisely because it was upsetting the “proper subordination of classes” and giving power to “the swinish multitude”. He called the revolutionary democratic republic established by the Jacobins in 1793 “Cannibal Castle”, a “republic of assassins”; it was governed by “the dirtiest, lowest, most fraudulent, most knavish of chicaners”, its people were “an allied army of Amazonian and male cannibal Parisians”, “the basest of mankind”, “murderous atheists”, “a gang of robbers”, “a desperate gang of plunderers, murderers, tyrants, and atheists”, the “scum of the earth”.

There is no difficulty in detecting the class feeling here, or the identification of “democracy” with the rule of the common people. Nor can one fail to note that many an opponent of Bolshevism at a loss for terms of abuse seems to have turned to Burke for the loan of a vocabulary of denunciation.

While Burke was raving at the French Republic, the Jacobin writer Jean Paul Marat, described the essential fact about the forces which terrified Burke and his like out of their wits:

… the revolution has been made and sustained only by the lowest orders of society, by the workers, artisans, the retailers, the farmers, by the plebians, by those unfortunates whom the rich impudently call the rabble, and whom the insolent Romans call their proletarians.20

This passage is notable as giving what is probably the first modern usage of the term proletarians in its revolutionary sense. It endorses the fact that all the “democrats” of the period from 1792 to 1848 were revolutionaries who fought for the abolition of the subjection of the “people” — who fought for the destruction of class privileges in order that the unprivileged mass might rule instead of the rich. Mere formal ballot-box “equality”, which left the machinery of state in the actual hands of the rich, would have seemed to them no democracy at all — nothing but a mockery of the term.

Marat, for example, is famous both for his championing of the cause of the Parisian proletariat and for his share in achieving the Parisian revolt which brought into being the famous Constitution of 1793, under which all government officials were to be elected and subject to immediate recall by their electors and in which the central legislature was to consist of delegates from primary assemblies.


Out of the fights of the Parisian proletariat for the recovery of this truly democratic constitution, which virtually established the dictatorship of the Parisian proletariat, (and was overthrown by the well-to-do bourgeoisie precisely because it did so) — out of these fights came the first definite beginning of the revolutionary socialist movement. This was made by the “Conspiracy of the Equals” of 1796-97 headed by Gracchus Babeuf, editor of the left-Jacobin journal, Tribune du Peuple.

The most common slogan of the “Conspiracy of the Equals” was “Bread and the Constitution of 1793!” In this slogan they linked together the issue of social and political equality: democracy had meaning to the proletarian class only insofar as it secured their right to “Bread”. The line of their thinking is illustrated by this extract from a manuscript pamphlet found in Babeuf’s possession at the time of his arrest in 1797:

We claim to live and die, as we are born, equals: we want true equality or death; that is what we must have. And we will have equality whatever the price. Woe to those who stand between it and us! Woe to whoever would resist a wish so pronounced! The French Revolution is only the forerunner of another revolution far greater, far more solemn, which will be the last!21


In this document we have what was probably the very earliest formulation of that democracy which in substance is also the dictatorship of the proletariat, and aimed at establishing socialist equality.

The logical one-sidedness of the argument is seen in the fact that it ignores the inequality of using equal rights to enforce the demands of one class only — the proletariat. That was the “logical” bourgeois reply to the demand of the “Equals”.

Democracy, they said, meant that each individual should be deemed “equal” to every other individual in the eyes of the state. To raise questions of class inequality is logically impermissible. In fact, bourgeois “democracy” demands that individuals shall be, by law, reduced to their common denominator as abstract independent unitsof the compound, humanity.

No one has explained the material-social source of this core component of bourgeois ideology more probingly than Karl Marx. In Capital he pointed out that the process of capitalist appropriation of the surplus value created by the working class starts with the sale and purchase of labour-power (of the individual’s capacity to perform labour activities). He then showed how capitalism’s commodification of labour-power gives rise to the bourgeois conception of the abstract equality of all individuals:

The sphere of circulation or commodity exchange, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. It is the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, let us say of labour-power, are determined only by their own free will. They contract as free persons, who are equal before the law. Their contract is the final result in which their joint will finds a common legal expression. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to his own advantage. The only force bringing them together, and putting them into relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interest of each. Each pays heed to himself only, and no one worries about the others. And precisely for that reason, either in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an omniscient providence, they all work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal, and in the common interest.22

On the surface, in the sphere of the circulation of commodities, there appears to be equality between the individual capitalist purchaser of labour-power and the individual wage-worker. In the process of production, however, the workers must give more than they get by virtue of the workers’ capacity to produce commodities embodying more exchange-value than the wages they are paid for the time spend in the capitalist’s employment. The production of surplus value is the motor of the capitalist system of production.

The economic relations established in the sphere of circulation of commodities — in the market, particularly the labour market — are reflected in the legal and political superstructure of bourgeois society by the presumption that all individuals are by nature equal, and have an equal right to a say — as atomised individual voters — in deciding public affairs.

To the “logical” bourgeois argument about the abstract equality of each individual “before the law” the class-conscious proletarian had no “logical” reply — only the practical one: that at meal-times it was anything but satisfactory to be an abstract unit of humanity; at meal-times a person has a concrete need for specific and concrete food. Therefore, argued the proletarian, the “democratic equality” which recognises my equality with the bourgeois only in the abstract, and refuses to recognise it in the concrete because it has already “recognised” it “in law” — this “democratic equality” is a bourgeois humbug. As Anatole France expressed it: “The Law in its majestic equality forbids rich and poor alike — to sleep under arches; to beg in the streets; and to steal bread!”

The assumptions of bourgeois “democracy” are based not on human, but on private-property, relations. It is only when one refuses to be persuaded that it is all sufficient to endow a person with a “property right” in his or her own person, regardless of whether he or she possesses any means for maintaining that person in being, that the sophistry of bourgeois equality-before-the-law and its “democratic” political expression, “equality before the parliamentary ballot-box”, is revealed as the sham that it is.

In bourgeois “democracies” such as Britain and Australia, all are equally “free” to stand as parliamentary candidates (provided they have the money to pay for the requisite deposit!). All are equally “free” to persuade the voters to elect them (provided they have the money to hire meeting halls, print and circulate campaign literature, and purchase advertising space in the daily newspapers and advertising time on the radio and television!). All are equally “free” to publish daily newspapers with a mass circulation (provided they have the odd few hundreds of millions of pounds or dollars required to purchase large printing presses, delivery trucks, etc.). All are equally “free” to vote for the “best” candidate or political party (provided they possess the means of knowing which and who is the “best” for them!).


It was the pressure of the historically experience of the disparity between the legal and political form of equality under bourgeois “democracy” and its substantial reality in the actual life-conditions of the proletariat which caused the slogans of the workingclass democrats to change abruptly from the demand for “real democracy” (that of the “Constitution of 1793” in France, that of the “People’s Charter” in England) into one for the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. It was made about the middle of 1848, when in the course of the democratic revolutions that broke out all over Europe that year it was revealed that it was the bourgeois and the petty-bourgeois democrats who at every crisis surrendered to the anti-democratic counter-revolution even such “democratic equality” as they themselves enjoyed rather than yield a grain of “real democracy” to the proletariat.

In that “Year of Revolution” the very words “democrat” and “democracy” became a reproach in the ears of the proletarian masses. The “democrats”, in the light of the experience of that year, were poseurs, pretenders, demagogic charlatans, generous only in promises, egalitarian only in equal baseness revealed in every comparison between their words and their deeds.

It was in the heat of the actual revolutionary practice of that same year that the slogan “dictatorship of the proletariat” was born. Marx himself, in fact, seems to credit the coining of the phrase to the Parisian proletariat during its premature, and therefore ill-fated, revolutionary uprising of June 1848 against the “democratic republic” established by its own uprising in February 1848:

The Paris proletariat was forced into the June insurrection by the bourgeoisie. This sufficed to mark its doom. Its immediate, avowed needs did not drive it to engage in a fight for the forcible overthrow of the bourgeoisie, nor was it equal to this task. The Moniteur had to inform it officially that the time was past when the republic saw any occasion to bow and scrape to its illusions, and only its defeat convinced it of the truth that the slightest improvement in its position remains a utopia within the bourgeois republic, a utopia that becomes a crime as soon as it want to become a reality. In place of its demands, exuberant in form, but petty and even bourgeois still in content, the concession of which it wanted to wring from the February republic, there appeared the bold slogan of revolutionary struggle: Overthrow of the bourgeoisie! Dictatorship of the working class!23

What conclusions follow from this examination of the historical dialectic of the term “democracy” and the revolutionary proletarian demand for it?

Firstly, that the essence of the demand for “democracy” was a demand for equality, which in the case of the proletariat took increasingly (and that necessarily) the practical significance of a demand for the abolition of class distinctions — which (and likewise necessarily) became under the pressure of historical development a demand for the overthrow of bourgeois rule, for the dictatorship of the proletariat, and for socialism.

Secondly, that Marx and Engels understood, and so interpreted, the term “democracy”. This was made most explicit by Engels in his critique of Kautsky’s 1891 draft program for the Social-democratic Party of Germany, wherein he observed that:

If one thing is certain it is that our Party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the Great French Revolution [i.e., the 1871 Paris Commune] has already shown.24

Thirdly, that Kautsky’s restriction of the significance of the term “democracy” to only one of its historically conditioned forms — that of parliamentarism — would have been and was scornfully repudiated by Marx and Engels as totally contrary to the plain sense of their whole political doctrine.


Fourthly, that the attempt by Kautsky to contrapose “democracy” (in the abstract) as an alternative to the dictatorship of the proletariat represented an endeavour to cover up his desertion of the revolutionary proletarian struggle in favour of an attempt to drive a huckster’s political bargain with bourgeois reaction against this struggle.

Finally, that the contraposition of “democracy” to any sort of dictatorship means, in practice, what all pseudo-“socialist” opportunism ends in — an objective cooperation with the bourgeoisie in its class struggle against the proletariat. The denial that the proletariat’s class struggle against the bourgeoisie necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat is a waging of class struggle against the proletarian revolution in practice. Kautsky’s own political evolution in Germany in the year after he wrote his polemic against the Bolshevik Revolution — during which he became an official in a government that used the bureaucratic-military machine of the bourgeois state to bloodily suppress the German workers’ revolution of November 1918-March 1919 — provided abundant proof of the truth of this conclusion.