Lenin's Theses on bourgeois democracy and proletarian dictatorship (reprint)

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The 20th century has drawn to a close to the sound of a vast concert celebrating the advance of democracy all over the world, and its supposed benefits. Throughout the century, its victories are celebrated over dictatorships both red and brown, and its heroes - Gandhi, Walesa, Mandela, Martin Luther King et.al. - are fêted for the application of its "great and generous principles". If we are to believe the propaganda, the situation since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the struggles which have taken place since to defend and develop democracy are cause for hope in a future of peace and harmony which should be thoroughly encouraging for mankind as a whole. We have been treated to regular crusades by the great democracies, to impose and defend "human rights" in countries which did not respect them, by force if necessary - in other words at the cost of the most barbaric massacres. We have been offered the sight of an International Court of Justice, set up to judge and punish those found guilty of "crimes against humanity". Let the dictators tremble! And for the years to come, we are promised the emergence of a "world-wide democracy" based on a "growing role for civil society". The recent demonstrations during the WTO negotia negotiations, with the Roquefort Revolutionary José Bové at their head, are supposedly forerunners of this "world-wide democracy" or even of a "People�s International" in struggle against the dictatorship of the market, unrestrained capitalism, and bad food. For today�s proletarians, the only worthwhile struggle seems to be for the creation of democratic regimes in every country in the world, which will bring with it equal rights for both sexes and all races, and which will defend an "attitude of good citizenship". The ideology-vendors of every description, and especially on the left, are more mobilised than ever to convince the workers that this is the good fight, and to push them into it. And for any who have doubts, or hesitate to take part, the message is: "Despite its faults, democracy is the only regime which can be reformed and perfected - and anyway there�s no hope of any other". Faced with the growing poverty and barbarism imposed on us by capitalism, there is supposedly no other possibility than to behave as a "good citizen", to accept the system because we are told there is no other choice.

We are reprinting the Theses on Bourgeois Democracy and the Proletarian Dictatorship presented by Lenin on 4th March 1919 to the First Congress of the Communist International, first and foremost to answer this deceitful ideological barrage, aimed especially at the working class, the only classss capable of putting into question and overthrowing the whole system. The Theses remind us in particular that democracy is only the most effective form of the dictatorship which oppresses the working class, and defends the bourgeoisie and its privileges as an exploiting class. They rightly declare that "the more �pure� democracy is (�) the more clearly does the oppression of capital and the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie come to light". Finally, the Theses remind us that the World War was fought "in the name of liberty and equality". The 20th century - the most bloody and barbaric in mankind�s history - has seen this lie repeated too many times, to justify World War II and innumerable local wars and massacres since then.

The publication of these Theses today is also justified by the need to give the lie to the bourgeois propaganda which pretends that real communism is the same thing as Stalinism - one of the worst dictatorships the world proletariat has ever suffered - and that Stalin was Lenin�s heir, when in fact he was Lenin�s antithesis. It was Lenin himself who wrote and presented the Theses, which show that communism is the real democracy, that bourgeois democracy is nothing but a sham designed to justify the survival of its system. It was Lenin, better than anyone, who defended the principle that "the dictatorship of the proletariat is the forcible suppppression of the resistance of the exploiters, that is, the minority of the population, the large landowners and capitalists", and that it is "an extension of actual democratic usages, on a scale never before known in the world, to the working classes whom capitalism enslaved".

The Stalinist dictatorship had nothing in common with the dictatorship of the proletariat put forward by Lenin, it was its gravedigger. Stalinist ideology has nothing in common with the proletarian principles defended by Lenin, it was their monstrous betrayal. As we wrote in International Review no.60, as Stalinism was beginning to collapse: "At first, this will be a difficult period for the proletariat. Apart from the increased weight of democratic mystifications, in the West as well as in the East, it will have to understand the new conditions in which it is fighting". We are publishing these Theses adopted by the Communist International�s First Congress, as a major political weapon for the proletariat to confront its difficulties, and resist the ruling class� present ideological offensive, which aims to poison the workers� consciousness by making them believe that bourgeois democracy is the only "viable and humane" regime.

Text of the Theses

1. The growth of the revolutionary movement of the proletariattariat in all countries has provoked the bourgeoisie and their agents in the workers� organisations to convulsive efforts to find theoretical arguments in defence of the rule of the exploiters. Among these, particular emphasis is placed on the rejection of dictatorship and the defence of democracy. The falseness and hypocrisy of this argument, repeated in a thousand forms in the capitalist press and at the February 1919 Bern conference of the Yellow International, is however clear to anyone who is unwilling to commit treachery to the principles of socialism.

2. In the first place, the argument uses abstract concepts of "democracy" and "dictatorship", without specifying what class is in question. Putting the question in this way, outside or above the class standpoint, as though it were valid as a standpoint of the entire people, is a downright mockery of the basic theory of socialism, namely the theory of the class struggle, which is still recognised in words, it is true, by the socialists who have gone over to the camp of the bourgeoisie, but judging by their deeds is forgotten. For in no civilised capitalist country is there "democracy in the abstract", there is only bourgeois democracy, and the question is not one of "dictatorship in the abstact" but of the dictatorship of the oppressed class, that is, of the proletariat, over the oppressers and exploiters, that is, the bourgeoisie, in order to ovovercome the resistance put up by the exploiters in the effort to maintain their rule.

3. History teaches us that an oppressed class has never and can never come to power without passing through a period of dictatorship, that is, without the conquest of political power and the forcible suppression of the most desperate and frenzied resistance, that shrinks from no crime, which is always put up by the exploiters. The bourgeoisie, whose rule is now defended by socialists who express hostility to "dictatorship in general" and stand up body and soul for "democracy in general", won their power in the civilized countries by a series of revolts, civil wars, the forcible suppression of monarchical rule, of the feudal lords and slave-owners, and of their attempts at restoration. Thousands and millions of times, in their books and pamphlets, their congress resolutions and speeches, socialists in every country have explained to the people the class character of these bourgeois revolutions. That is why the present defence of "bourgeois democracy" in speeches about "democracy", and the present outcry against the proletarian dictatorship in the clamour about "dictatorship", is an outright betrayal of socialism, objectively a going over to the camp of the bourgeoisie, a denial of the right of the proletariat to its political revolution, a defence of bourgeois reformism, and this precisely at the historical momoment when bourgeois reformism has gone to pieces throughout the world and when the war has created a revolutionary situation.

4. By recognising the class character of bourgeois democracy, of bourgeois parliamentarianism, all socialists have articulated the ideas expressed with the greatest scientific precision by Marx and Engels when they said that even the most democratic bourgeois republic is nothing but the instrument by which the bourgeoisie oppress the working class, by which a handful of capitalists keeps the working masses. There is not a single revolutionary or a single Marxist among those who now raise such an outcry against dictatorship and advocate democracy who has not loudly and solemnly sworn to the workers that he acknowledges this basic truth of socialism; but now, when ferment and movement have started among the revolutionary proletariat, aimed at breaking this and fighting for the dictatorship of the proletariat, these traitors to socialism present the case as though the bourgeoisie had made a gift of "pure democracy" to the workers, as though the bourgeoisie renounced resistance and were ready to submit to a workers� majority, as though in the democratic republic there were no State apparatus for the oppression of labour by capital.

5. The Paris Commune, which everyone who wanted to be considered a socialist extolled in words, for they knew tha that the working masses had a great and genuine sympathy with it, proved particularly clearly the historical conditioning and limited value of bourgeois parliamentarianism and bourgeois democracy, which are highly progressive institutions in comparison with the Middle Ages, but which in the epoch of proletarian revolution inevitably require to be changed from the ground up. It was Marx himself, who placed the highest value on the historical significance of the Commune, who in his analysis of it demonstrated the exploiting character of bourgeois democracy and bourgeois parliamentarianism, under which the oppressed class is given the right, once in several years, to decide which deputy of the possessing classes shall represent and betray the people in Parliament. It is now, when the Soviet movement which is seizing the entire world is carrying forward before all eyes the cause of the Commune, that the traitors to socialism forget the practical experience and the concrete lessons of the Paris Commune and repeat the old bourgeois rubbish about "democracy in general". The Commune was not a parliamentary institution.

6. The significance of the Commune consists further in this, that it made an attempt to destroy and utterly root out the bourgeois State machine, the apparatus of officials, court, army, and police, and to replace it by the self-governing mass organisation of workers without any separatioion of legislative and executive powers. All bourgeois democratic republics of our time, including the German, which the traitors to socialism, making a mockery of truth, call proletarian, retain this bourgeois State apparatus. That proves once more, clearly and unmistakably, that the outcry in defence of "democracy" is nothing but defence of the bourgeoisie and their privileges of exploitation.

7. "Freedom of assembly" can be used as an example of the demand for "pure democracy". Every class-conscious worker who has not broken with his class grasps immediately that it would be monstrous to promise the exploiters freedom of assembly in times and situations in which they are resisting their overthrow and defending their privileges. Neither in England in 1649, nor in France in 1793, did the revolutionary bourgeoisie guarantee freedom of assembly to the royalists and nobility when these summoned alien troops to the country and "assembled" to organise an attempt at restoration. If the bourgeoisie of today, who have long since become reactionary, demand that the proletariat shall guarantee in advance that "freedom of assembly" shall be assured to the exploiters regardless of the resistance the capitalists put up to their expropriation, the workers will only laugh at such bourgeois hypocrisy. On the other hand the workers know very well that even in the most democratic bourgeois republic "freedom of a assembly" is an empty phrase, for the rich have the best public and private buildings at their disposal, have also enough leisure for meetings, and enjoy the protection of the bourgeois apparatus of power. The proletariat of town and country, as well as the small peasants, that is the overwhelming majority of the population, have neither the first nor the second nor the third. So long as this is true, "equality", that is, "pure democracy", is a deception. To win real equality, to make a reality of democracy for the workers, the exploiters must first be deprived of all public and private mansions, the workers must be given leisure and their freedom of assembly defended by armed workers and not by the offspring of the nobility or officers from capitalist circles in command of an intimidated rank and file.

Only after such changes is it possible to speak of "freedom of assembly", of equality, without mocking the workers, the labouring people, the poor. But nobody can bring these changes about except the vanguard of the working people, the proletariat, by overthrowing the exploiters, the bourgeoisie.

8. "Freedom of the press" is another leading watchword of "pure democracy". But the workers know, and the socialists of all countries have admitted it a million times, that this freedom is deceptive so long as the best printing works and the biggest paper supplies are in capitalitalist hands, and so long as capital retains its power over the press, a power which throughout the world is expressed more clearly, sharply, and cynically, the more developed the democracy and the republican regime, as for example in America. To win real equality and real democracy for the working masses, for the workers and peasants, the capitalists must first be deprived of the possibility of getting writers in their service, of buying up publishing houses and bribing newspapers. And for that it is necessary to throw off the yoke of capital, to overthrow the exploiters and to crush their resistance. The capitalists have always given the name of freedom to the freedom of the rich to make profits and the freedom of the poor to die of hunger. The capitalists give the name of freedom of the press to the freedom of the rich to bribe the press, the freedom to use wealth to create and distort so-called public opinion. The defenders of "pure democracy" reveal themselves once more as defenders of the dirty and corrupt system of the rule of the rich over the means of mass education, as deceivers of the people who with fine sounding but thoroughly false phrases divert them from the concrete historical task of liberating the press from capital. Real freedom and equality will be found in the system the communists establish, in which there will be no opportunity to get rich at the expense of others, no objective possibility of subjecting the press, directly or indirectly, to the power of money, where nothing will prevent the workers (or any large group of workers) from having and employing equal rights to use the presses and paper belonging to society.

9. The history of the 19th and 20th centuries showed us, even before the war, what this much-praised "pure democracy" really means under capitalism. Marxists have always maintained that the more developed, the more "pure" democracy is, the more openly, sharply, and ruthlessly does the class struggle proceed, the more clearly does the oppression of capital and the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie come to light. The Dreyfus affair in republican France, the bloody collisions between striking workers and the mercenaries armed by the capitalists in the free and democratic republic of America, these and a thousand similar facts disclose the truth which the bourgeoisie try in vain to conceal, namely that in reality terror and a bourgeois dictatorship rule the most democratic republic, and come openly to the surface whenever it seems to the exploiters that the power of capital is endangered.

10. The imperialist war of 1914-18 exposed the true character of bourgeois democracy, once and for all, even to the backward workers, even in the freest republics, as the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. To enrich a group of German and English mil millionaires and billionaires, dozens of millions of men were killed and the military dictatorship of the bourgeoisie established in the freest republics. This military dictatorship still exists in the Entente countries even after the defeat of Germany. It was the war, more than anything else, that opened the eyes of working people, tore the false tinsel from bourgeois democracy, and revealed to the people the whole pit of speculation and greed for profits during the war and in connection with the war. The bourgeoisie waged this war in the name of freedom and equality; in the name of freedom and equality the war contractors enormously increased their wealth. No efforts of the yellow Bern international will succeed in concealing from the masses the exploiting character of bourgeois freedom, bourgeois equality, and bourgeois democracy, now fully exposed.

11. In the country of Europe where capitalism has been most highly developed, that is, in Germany, the first months of full republican freedom which followed the downfall of imperialist Germany, showed the German workers and the entire world the real class-content of the bourgeois democratic republic. The murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg is an event of world-historical significance not only because the best people and leaders of the truly proletarian communist international perished tragically, but also because it finally showed up thehe class character of the leading European state, of, it can be said without exaggeration, the leading state in the world. If prisoners, that is, people who have been taken under protection by the State power, can be murdered with impunity by officers and capitalists under a government of social-patriots, the democratic republic in which this can happen is a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Those who express indignation over the murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg but do not understand this truth only demonstrate their obtuseness or their hypocrisy. In one of the freest and most advanced republics of the world, in the German republic, there is freedom to kill the imprisoned leaders of the proletariat and to go unpunished. It cannot be otherwise as long as capitalism remains, for the development of democracy does not blunt but sharpens the class struggle, which has now, as a result of the war and its consequences, reached boiling-point.

All over the civilised world Bolsheviks are being deported, persecuted, imprisoned; in Switzerland, one of the freest bourgeois republics, and in America, there are pogroms against the Bolsheviks. From the standpoint of "democracy in general", or "pure democracy", it is simply ludicrous that progressive, civilised, democratic countries, armed to the teeth, should fear the presence of a few dozen people from backwards, hungry, ruined Russia, described as savages s and criminals in millions of copies of bourgeois newspapers. It is obvious that a social system that can give rise to such glaring contradictions is in reality a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

12. In such a state of affairs the dictatorship of the proletariat is not merely wholly justified, as a means of overwhelming the exploiters and overcoming their resistance, but quite essential for the mass of workers as their only protection against the bourgeois dictatorship which led to the war and is getting ready for new wars.

The chief thing that socialists don�t understand, a failure which reflects their intellectual short-sightedness, their dependence on bourgeois prejudices, their political treachery to the proletariat, is that when, in capitalist society, the class struggle on which it rests becomes more acute, there is nothing between dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and dictatorship of the proletariat. The dream of another, third way is the reactionary lament of the petty bourgeoisie. Proof of this can be found in the experience of more than a hundred years of bourgeois democracy and the workers� movement in all advanced countries, and particularly the experience of the last five years. The same proof is furnished by economic theory, by the entire content of Marxism, which analyses the economic necessity of bourgeois dictatorship in very commodity economy, a dictatoratorship which can be abolished by none other than the class which through the development of capitalism itself develops and grows, becomes more organised and powerful, that is, by the class of proletarians.

13. The second theoretical and political mistake of the socialists is their failure to understand that the forms of democracy have inevitably changed in the centuries since it first appeared in the Ancient World, as one ruling class gave way to another. In the republics of Ancient Greece, in the medieval cities, in advanced capitalist States, democracy has different forms and varying scope. It would be the greatest nonsense to assume that the most profound revolution in mankind�s history, the first transference of power from the hands of the exploiting minority to the hands of the exploited majority, could take place within the framework of the old bourgeois parliamentary democracy, without the greatest changes, without the creation of new forms of democracy, new institutions, new conditions for their use, etc.

14. The dictatorship of the proletariat is like the dictatorship of other classes in that, like any dictatorship, it originates in the necessity of suppressing by force the resistance of the class which is losing its political power. The fundamental difference between the dictatorship of the proletariat and the dictatorship of other classes, that of the lhe large landowners in the Middle Ages and that of the bourgeoisie in all civilised capitalist countries, consists in this, that while the dictatorship of the large landowners and the bourgeoisie forcibly suppresses the resistance of the overwhelming majority of the population, namely the working masses, the dictatorship of the proletariat is the forcible suppression of the resistance of the exploiters, that is, the minority of the population, the large landowners and capitalists.

From this it follows further that the dictatorship of the proletariat must inevitably involve not only a change in the forms and institutions of democracy, but change of a kind which results in an extension of actual democratic usages, on a scale never before known in the world, to the working classes whom capitalism enslaved.

And in fact the forms taken by the dictatorship of the proletariat, which have already been worked out, that is, the Soviet power in Russia, the workers� councils in Germany, the shop stewards" committees in Britain and similar Soviet institutions in other countries, all these make a reality of democratic rights and privileges for the working classes, that is, for the overwhelming majority of the population; they mean that it becomes really possible to use these rights and privileges in a way and on a scale that was never even approximately possible in the best democratic bourgeoigeois republics.

The essence of Soviet power lies in this, that the permanent and sole foundation of the entire State power, of the entire State apparatus, is the mass organisation of those very classes which were oppressed by the capitalists, that is, the workers and semi-proletarians (peasants who do not exploit labour and who are always forced to sell at least part of their labour). The masses, who even in the most democratic bourgeois republics, where in law they had equal rights, but in fact were prevented by a thousand ways and tricks from taking part in political life and making use of democratic rights and liberties, are now drawn into continuous, unhampered, and decisive participation in the democratic administration of the State.

15.The equality of citizens, regardless of sex, religious belief, race, nationality, which bourgeois democracy always promised everywhere but in fact never carried out, and could not carry out because of the role of capitalism, has been made a complete reality at one stroke by the Soviet regime, or the proletarian dictatorship, for only the power of the workers, who are not interested in private property in the means of production and in the struggle for their distribution and redistribution, is able to do this.

16. The old democracy, that is, bourgeois democracy and parliamentarianism, was so organized thzed that it was the working classes who were most alien to the administrative machine. The Soviet power, the proletarian dictatorship, on the other hand, is so organized that it brings the working masses close to the administrative machine. The merging of legislative and executive power in the Soviet organization of the State serves the same purpose, as does the substitution of the production unit, the workshop or factory, for the territorial constituency.

17. The army was an instrument of oppression not only under the monarchy; it is still that in all bourgeois republics, even the most democratic. Only the Soviet power, as the only established State organisation of the very classes oppressed by the capitalists, is in a position to abolish the dependence of the military on the bourgeois command and really fuse the proletariat with the military, to arm the proletariat and disarm the bourgeoisie, without which the victory of socialism is impossible.

18. The Soviet organisation of the State is designed to give the proletariat, as the class which was most concentrated and educated by capitalism, the leading role in the State. The experience of all revolutions and all movements of enslaved classes, the experience of the world socialist movement, teaches us that only the proletariat is in a position to unite the scattered and backward strata of the working and exploited pop population and carry them along.

19. Only the Soviet organisation of the state is able to destroy, at one stroke and completely, the old, that is, the bourgeois apparatus of bureaucracy and judiciary, which under capitalism, even in the most democratic republic, remained and had to remain, being in fact for the workers and the working masses the greatest obstacle to making democracy effective. The Paris Commune took the first world historical step in this direction, the Soviet regime the second.

20. The abolition of State power is the goal of all socialists, including and above all Marx. Unless this goal is reached true democracy, that is, equality and freedom, is not attainable. But only Soviet and proletarian democracy leads in fact to that goal, for it begins at once to prepare for the complete withering away of any kind of State by drawing the mass organisations of the working people into constant and unrestricted participation in State administration.

21. The complete bankruptcy of the socialists who met in Berne, the complete absence of understanding which they showed of the new, that is, proletarian democracy, can be seen very clearly from the following. On 10th February 1919 Branting declared the international conference of the Yellow International in Berne closed. On 11th February 1919 its members in Be in Berlin published an appeal of the "Independents" to the proletariat in Freiheit. In this appeal the bourgeois character of Scheidemann"s government was admitted. It was reproached for wanting to abolish the workers� councils, which were called "bearers and defenders" of the revolution, and the proposal was made to legalize the councils, to give them statutory rights, to give them the right to veto the decisions of the National Assembly and refer the question at issue to a national referendum.

Such a proposal reflects the complete intellectual bankruptcy of the theoreticians who defend democracy and have not understood its bourgeois character. This ridiculous attempt to unite the system of councils, that is, the proletarian dictatorship, with the National Assembly, that is, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, finally exposes the mental poverty of the yellow socialists and social-democrats, and their reactionary petty-bourgeois policy, as well as their cowardly concessions to the irresistibly growing forces of the new proletarian democracy.

The majority of the Yellow International in Berne, who condemned Bolshevism but did not dare, for fear of the working masses, to vote formally for a resolution on these lines, acted correctly from the class standpoint. This majority is completely at one with the Russian Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionaries and with the Scheidemanns ins in Germany. The Russian Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionaries, who complain of persecution by the Bolsheviks, try to conceal the fact that this persecution was provoked by their participation in the civil war on the side of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat. In precisely the same way the Scheidemanns and their party in Germany took part in the civil war on the side of the bourgeoisie against the workers.

It is therefore quite natural that the majority of those attending the Yellow International in Berne should come out in favour of condemning the Bolsheviks. But that did not represent a defence of "pure democracy"; it was the self-defence of people who feel that in the civil war they are on the side of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat.

For these reasons the decision of the majority of the Yellow International must be described as correct from the class point of view. But the proletariat should not fear the truth, but look it straight in the face and draw the political conclusions which follow.

On the basis of these theses and having heard the reports of the delegates from various countries, the congress of the Communist International declares that the chief task of the Communist Parties in countries where Soviet power is not established are:

1.To explain to the broad masses of the working class the historical meaning of the political and practical necessity of a new proletarian democracy which must replace bourgeois democracy and parliamentarianism.

2. To extend and build up workers� councils in all branches of industry, in the army and navy, and amongst agricultural workers and small peasants

3. To win an assured, conscious communist majority in the councils

History of the workers' movement: 

Heritage of the Communist Left: 

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: