The Ideology of “Sovietism”
First published in Mysl, Kharkov 1919.
Translated by Herman Jerson.
Originally published in English in International Review, New York 1938.
Republished in J. Martov, The State and the Socialist Revolution (limited edition), London 1977, pp.5-26.
Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
The revolutionary movement that is tinged with Bolshevism recognizes soviets as the form of political organization (even the sole form) by which the emancipation of the proletariat can be realized.
According to this viewpoint, the soviet State structure – said to be a phase in the progressive abolition of the State itself in its role as an instrument of social oppression – is the historically motivated product of a long evolution, arising in the midst of class antagonisms when these have reached great acuteness under imperialism. It is described as the perfect embodiment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Appearing at a time when “bourgeois” democracy is said to have lost all content, the soviet régime is pictured as the perfect expression of real democracy.
However, every perfection has this dangerous feature. Persons untroubled by critical reasoning, persons blind to the nuances of “idle” theory, are impatient to possess themselves of the perfection, without bothering to take note that the perfection in question is supposed to be based on particular historic conditions. Metaphysical reasoning refuses to accept the dialectical negation of the absolute. It ignores the relative. Having learned that the true, the genuine, the perfect mode of social life has at last been discovered, it insists on having this perfect mode applied to daily existence.
We therefore see that, contrary to its own theoretic claims, this perfect political form has become applicable to all peoples, to all social groups. All that is necessary is that the people concerned want to modify the structure of the State under which it is suffering. Soviets have become the slogan for the proletariat of the most advanced industrial countries the United States, England, Germany. They are also the slogan for agricultural Hungary, peasant Bulgaria and Russia, where agriculture is just issuing from primitive structures.
The universal efficacy of the soviet régime reaches even farther. Communist publicists seriously speak of soviet revolutions occurring, or about to occur, in Asiatic Turkey, among the Egyptian fellahin, in the pampas of South America. In Corea, the proclamation of a soviet republic is only a matter of time. In India, China and Persia the soviet idea is said to be advancing with the speed of an express train. And who dares to doubt that by now the soviet system has already been adapted to the primitive social conditions of the Bashkirs, Kirghizes, Turkomans and the mountaineers of Daghestan?
No matter what Marxist thought mat have to say on the subject, the soviet régime, as such, is not only said to solve the antagonism arising between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie under conditions of highly developed capitalism, but is also presented as the universal State form that cuts through the difficulties and antagonisms arising at any degree of social evolution. In theory, the lucky people bursting into soviets are expected to have passed – at least ideologically – the stage of bourgeois democracy. They are expected to have freed themselves from a number of noxious illusions – parliamentarism, the need for a universal, direct, equal and secret ballot, the need of liberty of the press, etc. Only then can they know the supreme perfection incorporated in the soviet State structure. In practice, however, nations here and there, possessed by the metaphysical negation of the course traced by soviet theory, jump over the prescribed stages. Soviets are the perfect form of the State. They are the magic wand by which all inequalities, all misery, may be suppressed. Having once learned about soviets, who would consent to suffer the yoke of less perfect systems of government? Having once tasted the sweet, who would choose to continue to live, on bitterness?
In February 1918, at Brest-Litovsk, Trotsky and Kamenev still defended with great obstinance the right of peoples to self-determination. They demanded from victorious Germany that this principle be applied, through the instrumentality of the equal and universal ballot, in Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. The historic value of democracy was still recognized at that time. But a year later, at the congress of the – Russian Communist Party, the intrepid Bukharine already insisted that the principle of “self-determination of peoples” had to be replaced with the principle of “self-determination of the laboring classes.” Lenin succeeded in obtaining the maintenance of the principle of self-determination – for backward peoples – paralleling in this respect certain philosophers who, not wanting to fall out with the Church, would limit the scope of their materialist teachings to animals deprived of the benefits of divine revelation. But it was not for doctrinal reasons that the Communist congress refused to fall in line with Bukharine. Lenin won out with arguments of a diplomatic order. It was said to be unwise to alienate from the Communist International the Hindoos, Persians and other peoples who, though still blind to the revelation, were in a situation of pan-national struggle against the foreign oppressor. Fundamentally, the Communists were in full agreement with Bukharine. Having tasted sweetness, who would offer bitterness to his neighbor?
So that when the Turkish consul at Odessa permitted himself to launch the hoax about the triumph of a soviet revolution in the Ottoman empire, not a single Russian newspaper refused to take the obvious hoax seriously. Not a single publication showed the slightest skepticism concerning the ability of the good Turks to jump over the stages of self-determination, universal franchise, bourgeois parliamentarism, etc. The mystification was quite successful. Mystifications find a favorable soil in mysticism. For no less than mystic is the concept of a political form that, by virtue of its particular character, can surmount all economic-social and national contradictions.
In the course of the congress of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany at Leipzig, good men racked their brains to discover bow to conciliate “all power to the soviets” with the traditional notions of the Social-Democracy concerning the political forms of the socialist revolutions, especially with the notion of democracy.
For here is a mystery that escapes the understanding of the true-believers of Sovietism with the same persistence that the mystery of the immaculate conception has ever escaped the understanding of the Christian faithful. Sometimes it escaped the understanding of its own creator.
Thus, we have the amusing example of the reception of the news that the soviet idea had triumphed in Hungary. It seemed, at first, that everything was performed according to the rites. But one essential detail was missing. It was reported that the Hungarian “soviet” did not come into being as a result of a fratricidal war of the Hungarian proletariat (we shall see later how important is this detail). it was, on the contrary, the product of the unity of the Hungarian proletariat. Lenin was troubled. In a telegram, the complete text of which appeared in the foreign press, he asked Bela Kun:
What guarantees have you that your revolution is really a Communist revolution, that it is not simply a socialist revolution, not a revolution by the social-traitors?
Bela Kun’s reply, published in the Russian press, betrayed some confusion and a lack of preciseness. The Hungarian revolutionary power, it appeared, rested in the hands of a group of five persons, two of whom were Communists, two social-democrats and the fifth “in the same category as your Lunacharsky.” The mystery had grown thicker.
As a result of the extreme class antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the proletariat overthrows the most complete embodiment of democratic statism, By this act, the proletariat creates itself a new political mode, which is also the specific expression of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Here is the starting point of the “soviet idea.”
The political mode thus created is universally applicable. It fits the needs and consequences of all kinds of social change. It can clothe the multiform substance of all the revolutionary acts of the twentieth century. That is the “soviet idea” at the close of its own evolution.
This dialectical contradiction summarizes the mystery of “sovietism,” which is a mystery beyond the dogmatic comprehension of thinkers, both on the Left and on the Right.
The mechanism of the popular revolutions of the preceding historic period had the following characteristics.
The role of active factor in the overturn belonged to minorities of the social classes in whose interest the revolution developed. These minorities exploited the confused discontent and the sporadic explosions of anger arising among scattered and socially inconsistent elements within the revolutionary class. They guided the latter in the destruction of the old social forms. In certain cases, the active leader minorities had to use the power of their concentrated energy in order to shatter the inertia of the elements they tried to wield for revolutionary purposes. Therefore, these active leader minorities sometimes made efforts – often successful efforts – to repress the passive resistance of the manipulated elements, when the latter refused to move forward toward the broadening and deepening of the revolution. The dictatorship of an active revolutionary minority, a dictatorship that tended to be terrorist, was the normal coming-to-a-head of the situation in which the old social order had confined the popular mass, now called on by the revolutionaries to forge their own destiny.
There where the active revolutionary minority was not able to organize such a dictatorship, or to maintain it for some time, as was the case in Germany, Austria, France in 1848 – we observed the miscarriage of the revolutionary process, a collapse of the revolution.
Engels said that the revolutions of the past historic period were the work of conscious minorities exploiting the spontaneous revolt of unconscious majorities.
It is understood that the word “conscious” should be taken here in a relative sense. It was a question of pursuing political and social aims that were quite definite, though at the same time quite contradictory and utopian. The ideology of the Jacobins of 1793-1794 was thoroughly utopian. It cannot be considered to have been the product of an objective conception of the process of historic evolution. But in relation to the mass of peasants, small producers and workers in whose name they demolished the old régime, the Jacobins represented a conscions vanguard whose destructive work was subordinated to positive problems.
In the last decade of the 19th century, Engels arrived at the conclusion that the epoch of revolutions effected by conscious minorities heading unknowing masses had closed for ever. From then on, he said, revolution would be prepared by long years of political propaganda, organization, education, and would be realized directly and consciously by the interested masses themselves.
To such a degree has this idea become the conception of the great majority of modern socialists that the slogan: "All power to the soviets!” was originally launched as an answer to the need of assuring, during the revolutionary period, the maximum of active and conscious participation and the maximum of initiative by the masses in the task of social creation.
Read again Lenin’s articles and speeches of 1917 and you will discover that their master thought, “all power to the soviets, “amounted then to the following: i. the direct and active participation of the masses in the management of production and public affairs; 2. the obliteration of all gaps between the directors and the directed, that is, the suppression of any social hierarchy; 3. the greatest possible unification of the legislative and executive powers, of the production am paratus and the administrative apparatus, of the State machinery and the machinery of local administration; 4. the maximum of activity by the mass and the minimum of liberty for its elected representatives; 5. the total suppression of all bureaucracy.
Parliamentarism was repudiated not only as the arena where two enemy classes collaborate politically and engage in pacific combats, but also as a mechanism of public administration. And this repudiation was motivated, above all, by the antagonism arising between this mechanism and the unbounded revolutionary activity of the mass, intervening directly in administration and production.
In August 1917, Lenin wrote:
Having conquered political power, the workers will break up the old bureaucratic apparatus; they will shatter it to its very foundations, until not one stone is left upon another: and they will replace it with a new one consisting of the same workers and employees, against whose transformation into bureaucrats will at once be undertaken, as pointed out in detail by Marx and Engels: 1. not only electiveness, but also instant recall; 2. payment no higher than that of ordinary workers; 3. immediate transition to a state of things when all fulfil the functions of control and superintendence, so that all become bureaucrats for a time, and no one, therefore can become a bureaucrat. (The State and Revolution, page 103, early Russian edition.)
He wrote of the “substitution of a universal popular militia for the police,” of the “electiveness and recall at any moment of all functionaries and commanding ranks,” of “workers’ control in its primitive sense, direct participation of the people at the courts, not only in the shape of a jury but also by the suppression of specializing prosecutors and defense counsels and by the vote of all present on the question of guilt.” That is how the replacement of the old bourgeois democracy with the soviet régime was interpreted in theory-and sometimes in practice.
It was this conception of “all power to the soviets” that was presented in the first Constitution – adopted at the third Soviet Congress on the initiative of V. Troutovsky. It recognized the complete power of the communal soviet within the limits of the “volost,” the power of the district soviet within the bounds of the “ouyezd,” that of the provincial soviet within the limits of the “gubernia,” while the unifying functions of each of the higher soviet organs expressed themselves in the levelling of the differences arising among the organs subordinated to it.
Anticipating the argument that such extreme federalism might undermine national unity, Lenin wrote in the same brochure:
Only people full of petty-bourgeois “superstitious faith” in the State can mistake the destruction of the bourgeois State for the destruction of centralism. But will it not be centralism if the proletariat and poorest peasantry take the power of the State in their own hands, organize themselves freely into communes, and unite the action of all the communes in striking at capital, in crushing the resistance of the capitalists, in the transfer of private property in railways, factories, land and so forth, to the entire nation, to the whole of society? Will that not be centralism ? (Page 50, early Russian edition.)
Reality has cruelly shattered all these illusions. The “Soviet State” has not established in any instance electiveness and recall of public officials and the commanding staff. It has not suppressed the professional police. It has not assimilated the courts in direct jurisdiction by the masses. It has not done away with social hierarchy in production. It has not lessened the total subjection of the local community to the power of the State. On the contrary, in proportion to its evolution, the Soviet State shows a tendency in the opposite direction. It shows a tendency toward intensified centralism . of the State, a tendency toward the utmost possible strengthening of the principles of hierarchy and compulsion. It shows a tendency toward the development of a more specialized apparatus of repression than. before. It shows a tendency toward the greater independence of the usually elective functions and the annihilation of the control of these functions by the elector masses. It shows a tendency toward the total freedom of the executive organisms from the tutelage of the electors. In the crucible of reality, the “power of the soviets” has become the “soviet power,” a power that originally issued from the soviets but has steadily become independent from the soviets.
We must believe that the Russian ideologists of the soviet system have not renounced entirely their notion of a non-Statal social order, the aim of the revolution. But as they see matters now, the road to this non-Statal social order no longer lies in the progressive atrophy of the functions and institutions that have been forged by the bourgeois State, as they said they saw things in 1917. Now it appears that their way to a social order that would be free from the State lies in the hypertrophy – the excessive development – of these functions and in time resurrection, under an altered aspect, of most State institutions typicaI if the bourgeois era. The shrewd people continue to repudiate democratic parliamentarism. But they no longer repudiate, at the same time, those instruments of State power to which parliamentarism is a counterweight within bourgeois society: bureaucracy, police, a permanent army with commanding cadres that are independent of the soldiers, courts that are above control by the community, etc.
In contrast to the bourgeois State, the State of the transitional revolutionary period ought to be an apparatus for the “repression of the minority by the majority.” Theoretically, it should be a governmental apparatus resting in the hands of the majority. In reality, the Soviet State continues to be, as the State of the past, a government apparatus resting in the hands of a minority. (Of another minority, of course.)
Little by little, the “power of the soviets” is being replaced with the power of a certain party. Little by little, the party becomes the essential State institution, the framework and axis of the entire system of “soviet republics.”
The evolution traversed by the idea of the “Soviet State” in Russia ought to help us to understand the psychological basis of this idea in countries where the revolutionary process of today is yet in its initial phase.
The “soviet régime” becomes the means of bringing into power and maintaining in power a revolutionary minority which claims to defend the interests of a majority, though the latter has not recognized these interests as its own, though this majority has not attached itself sufficiently to these interests to defend them with all its energy and determination.
This is demonstrated by the fact that in many countries-it hap- petted also in Russia-the slogan “all power to the soviets” is launched in opposition to the already existing soviets, created during the first manifestations of the revolution. The slogan is directed, in the first place, against the majority of the working class, against the political tendencies which dominated the masses at the beginning of the revolution. The slogan “all power to the soviets” becomes a pseudonym for the dictatorship of a minority. So that when the failure of July 3, 1917, had brought to the surface the obstinate resistance of the soviets to Bolshevik pressure, Lenin tore off the disguise in his pamphlet: On the Subject of Slogans and proclaimed that the cry “All Power to the Soviets!” was thenceforward out of date and had to be replaced with the slogan: “All power to the Bolshevik Party!”
But this “materialization” of the symbol, this revelation of its true content, was only a moment in the development of the perfect political form, “finally discovered” and exclusively possessing the “capacity of bringing out the social substance of the proletarian revolution.”
The retention of political power by the minority of a class (or classes), by a minority organized as a party and exercising its power in the interests of the class (or classes), is a fact arising from antagonisms typical of the most recent phase of capitalism. It thus offers a difference between the old revolutions and the new, On the other hand, the fact that it is a dictatorship by a minority constitutes a bond of kinship between the present revolution and those of the preceding historic, period. If that is the basic principle of the governmental mechanism in question, it hardly matters if the exigency of given historic circumstances have made this principle assume the particular form of soviets.
The events of 1792-1794 in France offer an example of a revolution that was realized by means of a minority dictatorship set up as a party: the Jacobin dictatorship. The Jacobin party embraced the most active, the most “leftward,” elements of the petty-bourgeoisie, proletariat, and declassed intellectuals. It exercised its dictatorship through a network of multiple institutions: communes, sections, clubs, revolutionary committees. In this network producers’ organizations on the style of our workers’ soviets were completely absent. Otherwise, there is a striking similarity, and a number of perfect analogies, between the institutions used by the Jacobins and those serving the contemporary dictatorship. The party cells of today differ in no way from the Jacobin clubs. The revolutionary committees in 1794 and 1919 are entirely alike. The committees of poor peasants of today bear comparison with the committees and clubs, composed especially of poor elements, on which the Jacobin dictatorship based itself in ;the villages. Today, workers’ soviets, factory committees, trade union centers, mark the revolution with their stamp and give it its specific character. Here is where the influence of the proletariat in the large industries of today makes itself felt. Nevertheless, we see that such specifically class organisms, such specially proletarian formations, issuing from the milieu of modern industry, are as much reduced to the role of mechanical instruments of a party minority dictatorhip as were the auxiliaries of the Jacobin dictatorship in 1792-1794, though the social origins of the latter were entirely different.
Placed in the concrete conditions of contemporary Russia, the Bolshevik party dictatorship reflects, in the first place, the interests and aspirations of the proletarian elements of the population. This would be truer in the case of soviets that might have arisen in advanced industrial countries. But the nature of the soviets, their adaptation to producers’ organizations, is not the decisive factor here. We saw that after the 3rd of July, 1917, Lenin envisaged the direct dictatorship of the Bolshevik party, outside of the soviets. We see now that in certain places such a dictatorship is fully realized through the channel of revolutionary committees and party cells. All of this does not stop the party dictatorship (direct or indirect) from preserving in its class policy a primordial lien with the proletariat and reflecting, above all, the interests and aspirations of the city laboring population.
On the other hand, as organizational cadres, the soviets may find themselves filled with elements that have a different class character. At the side of the workers’ soviets, rise soviets of soldiers and peasants. So that in countries that are even more backward economically than Russia, the power of the soviets may represent something other than a proletarian minority. It may represent there a peasant minority, or any other non-proletarian section of the population.
The mystery of the “soviet regime” is now deciphered. We see now how an organism that is supposedly created by the specific peculiarities of a labor movement corresponding to the highest development of capitalism is revealed to be, at the same time, suitable to the needs of countries knowing neither large capitalist production, nor a powerful bourgeoisie, nor a proletariat that has evolved through the experience of the class struggle.
In other words, in the advanced countries, the proletariat resorts, we are told, to the soviet form of the dictatorship as soon as its élan toward the social revolution strikes against the impossibility of realizing its power in any other way than through the dictatorship of a minority, a minority within the proletariat itself.
The thesis of the “finally discovered form,” the thesis of the political form that, belonging to the specific circumstances of the imperialist phase of capitalism, is said to be the only form that can realize the social enfranchisement of the proletariat, constitutes the historically necessary illusion by whose effect the revolutionary section of the proletariat renounces its belief in its ability to draw behind it the majority of the population of the country and resuscitates the idea of the minority dictatorship of the Jacobins in the very form used by the bourgeois revolution of the 18th century. Must we recall here that this revolutionary method has been repudiated by the working class to the extent that it has freed itself from its heritage of petty-bourgeois revolutionarism?
As soon as the slogan “soviet régime” begins to function as a pseudonym under the cover of which the Jacobin and Blanquist idea of a minority dictatorship is reborn in the ranks of the proletariat, then the soviet régime acquires a universal acceptation and is said to be adaptable to any kind of revolutionary overturn. In this new sense, the “soviet form” is necessarily devoid of the specific substance that bound it to a definite phase of capitalist development. It now becomes a universal form, which is supposed to be suitable to any revolution accomplished in a situation of political confusion, when the popular masses are not united, while the bases of the old régime have been eaten away in the process of historical evolution.
The revolutionary sectors of the population do not believe themselves able to draw along with them the majority of the country on the road to socialism. Here is the secret of the spread of the “soviet idea” in the confused consciousness of the European proletariat. [1*]
Now the majority opposing socialism, or backing parties that oppose socialism, may include numerous worker elements. To the extent that this is true, the principle of “soviet rule” implies not only the repudiation of democracy in the framework of the nation but also the suppression of democracy within the working class.
In theory, soviet rule does not annul democracy. In theory, soviet rule merely limits democracy to the workers and the “poorest peasantry.” But the essence of democracy is not expressed – either exclusively or in principle – by mathematically universal suffrage. The “universal suffrage” attained by the most advanced countries before the Russian Revolution excluded women, the military, and sometimes young people up to the age of 25. These exceptions did not deprive these countries of a democratic character, as long as inside the majority called on to exercise the sovereignty of the people there remained a degree of democracy consistent with the preservation of the capitalist basis of society. [2*]
For this reason, denying electoral rights to bourgeois and rentiers, and even to members of the liberal professions – an eventuality admitted by Plekhanov for the period of the dictatorship of the proletariat – does not of itself make the “soviet régime” something absolutely undemocratic. We may even suppose such a measure to be entirely compatible with the development of other features of democracy, which, in spite of the limitation of electoral rights, may really make of the régime “a democracy more perfect” than any previous political form based on the social domination of the bourgeoisie.
The exclusion of the bourgeois minority from participation in State power may not necessarily help to consolidate the power of the majority. It may even hinder this object by tending to impoverish the social value of the popular will expressed in the electoral struggle. That is not, however, sufficient to make the soviet system undemocratic.
What gives the soviet system this character is the suppression of democracy also in the relations among the privileged citizens who are called on to become the holders of State power.
The following are the inalienable tokens of a democratic régime, no matter how limited is the circle of citizens to whom they apply:
We find in history democratic republics that admitted slavery (Athens, for example). The theoreticians of sovietism have never rejected the democratic principles enumerated above. On the contrary, they have affirmed that on the reduced electoral base of the soviets these principles will develop as they never were able on the more extensive foundation of capitalist democracy. We must not forget Lenin’s promise that all the workers would participate directly in the administration of the State, all soldiers in the election of officers, that police and officialdom as such would be suppressed.
The absence of democracy within the soviet system presumes that the proletarian (revolutionary) elements building the régime recognize the existence of the following conditions:
In all the mentioned cases, the real reason for the popularity of the “soviet idea” is found in the desire to repress the will of all other groups of the population, including proletariat groups, in order to assure the triumph of a determined revolutionary minority.
Charles Naine, the well-known Swiss militant, writes:
At the beginning of 1918, we were in a panic. There was no time to delay. Soviets of workers, soldiers and peasants had to be formed in Switzerland immediately and a red guard constituted. The knowing minority had to impose its will on the majority, even by brute force. The great mass, the workers, are in economic slavery. They cannot accomplish their own liberation. Their minds are formed by their masters; they are incapable of understanding their true interests. It is left to the knowing minority to free the mass from the tutelage of its present masters. Only after this is done will the mass understand. Scientific socialism is the truth. The minority possessing the knowledge of the truth of scientific socialism has the right to impose it on the mass. Parliament is only an obstruction. It is an instrument of reaction. The bourgeois press poisons the minds of the people. It should be suppressed. Later, that is, after the social order will have been totally transformed by the socialist dictators, liberty and democracy will be reconstituted. Then the citizens will be in the position to form a real democracy; they will then be free from the economic régime which, oppressing them, keeps them at present from manifesting their true will. (Charles Name: Dictature du proletariat ou democratie, page 7).
Only the blind and the hypocritical will fail to recognize that Charles Name has presented here, divested of its usual phraseologic ornamentation, the ideology of Bolshevism. It is in this shape that the latter has been assimilated by the masses in Russia, Germany, Hungary, and wherever Bolshevism has made its appearance.
This phraseological ornamentation does not always succeed in hiding. There is, for example, the important statement by P. Orlovsky (V. Vorovsky, later Soviet representative at Rome, killed in Lausanne, May 1923 – ed.), entitled The Communist International and the World Soviet Republic. The author proposes to deal with the “crux” of the question of the soviet system.
The soviet system – he writes – merely implies participation of the popular masses in the administration of the State: but it does not assure them either mastery or even a predominant influence (in the administration of the State).
If we substitute the words “parliamentary democracy” for the term “soviet system,” we get as elementary a “truth” as the one expressed by Orlovsky. Indeed, developed democratic parliamentarism assures the masses of the opportunity to participate in State administration. It does not, however, guarantee their political domination.
Here is Orlovsky’s conclusion:
Only when the soviet system has put the effective State power in the hands of the Communists, that is to say in the party of the working class, may the workers and other exploited elements obtain access to the exercise of State power as well as the possibility of reconstructing the State on a new basis, conforming to their needs, etc.
In other words, the soviet system is good as long as it is in the hands of the Communists. For “as soon as the bourgeoisie succeeds in possessing itself of the soviets (as was the case in Russia under Kerensky and now – in 1919 – in Germany), it utilizes them against the revolutionary workers and peasants, just as the Tsars used the soldiery, sprung from the people, to oppress the people. Therefore, soviets can fulfill a revolutionary role, and free the working masses, only when they are dominated by the Communists. And for the same reason, the growth of soviet organizations in other countries is a revolutionary phenomenon in the proletarian sense – not merely in the petty-bourgeois sense – only when this growth is paralleled by the triumph of communism.”
There could be no clearer statement. The “soviet system” as an instrument which permits State power to slip into the hands of the Communists. The instrument is put aside as soon as it has fulfilled its historic function. That is never said, of course.
“The Communist Party, that is to say, the party of the working class ...” The principle is always posed in these words. Not one of the parties – nor even “the most advanced party,” nor the “party most representative of the interests of the proletarian class.” No, but the “only real worker party.”
Orlovsky’s idea is excellently illustrated in the resolutions adopted by the Communist conference at Kashine, published in Pravda, No.3, 1919:
The middle peasant may be admitted to power, even when he does not belong to the party, if he accepts the soviet platform – with the reservation that the preponderant role of direction in the soviets must remain with the party of the proletariat. It is absolutely inadmissible to leave the soviets entirely into the hands of the non-party middle peasants. That would expose all the conquests of the proletarian revolution to the danger of complete destruction, at a moment when the last and decisive battle against international reaction is taking place.
The Communists at Kashine contented themselves with baring the real meaning of the “dictatorship” only in so far as it applied to the peasantry. But everybody knows that the same solution also disposes of the “middle” worker. We are dealing here with a “worker and peasant” power and not merely with a “worker” power.
What originally made the “soviet idea” so attractive to socialists was, no doubt, their unlimited confidence in the collective intelligence of the working class, their confidence in the workers’ ability to attain, by means of the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” a condition of complete self-administration, excluding the shadow of tutelage by a minority. The first enthusiasm for the soviet system was an enthusiasm springing from the desire to escape the framework of the hierarchically organized State.
Ernest Dæumig (Left Independent) stated in his eloquent report, at the first Pan-German Congress of Soviets, held from the 16th to the 21st of December, 1918:
The present German revolution is distinguished by its possession of deucedly little confidence in its own forces. We are still suffering from the spirit of military subservience and passive obedience, our heritage from the past centuries. This spirit cannot be killed by mere electoral struggles, by election tracts passed out among the masses every two or three years. It can only be destroyed by a sincere and powerful effort to maintain the German people in a condition of permanent political activity. This cannot be realized outside of the soviet system. We ought to finish, once for always, with the entire old administrative machinery of the Reich, of the independent (German) States, of the municipalities. To substitute self-administration for administration from above should become more and more the aim of the German people.
And at the same congress, the Spartacist Heckert declared:
The Constituent Assembly (Parliament) will be a reactionary institution even if it has a socialist majority. The reason for this is that the German people is completely apolitical. It asks to be led. It has not as yet made the smallest act that might be evidence of its desire to become master of its own destiny. Here in Germany people wait to have liberty brought to them by leaders. Liberty is not created at the base.
The soviet system – he continued – is an organization confiding to the large masses the direct task of constructing the social edifice. The Constitutional Assembly (Parliament), on the other band, leaves this function to leaders.
We have struck here against something especially interesting. In the same report that glorifies the soviets as a guarantee of the self-administration of the working class, Dæumig gives a rather dark picture of the real German soviets, personified in their congress of 1918:
No revolutionary parliament in history has revealed itself more timorous, more commonplace, meaner, than the revolutionary parliament here congregated.
Where is the great breath of idealism that dominated and moved the French National Convention? Where is the youthful enthusiasm of March 1848? There is not a trace of either.
And though he finds the German “soviets” timorous, limited and mean, Dæumig seeks the key to all the problems raised by the social revolution in the delivery of “all power to the soviets.” All power to the timorous as a means of throwing ourselves boldly beyond the easy formula of universal suffrage! A bizarre paradox? Oh, no! The paradox hides a very precise significance, which if it still remains in the “subconscious” for Dæumig attains conscious expression in P. Orlovsky’s formula: “With the aid of the soviet system, State power passes into the hands of the Communists.” Put another way – through the intermediary of the soviets, the revolutionary minority secures its domination over the "timorous majority.”
Dæumig’s observation was in complete agreement with the facts. In the first Pan-German Congress of Soviets, Scheidemann’s partisans and the soldiers held an overwhelming majority. The congress smelled of timidity and meanness of viewpoint. Four and a half years of “class collaboration” and “brotherhood of the trenches” have not failed to leave marks both on the worker in overalls and the worker in military drab.
And just as correct as Dæumig were the Bolsheviks in June, 1917, when they threw up their hands in indignation at the despairing narrow-mindedness that dominated the first Pan-Russian Congress of Soviets, though at its head was a politician like Tseretelli, an individual who had, to an exceptional degree, the ability to raise the mass above its every-day level. We, the Internationalists, who had the pleasure of being a tiny minority at this Congress, also despaired at the timidity and lack of understanding shown again and again, by the immense “flow-bog” of the Menshevik and Social-Revolutionary majority in the face of stupendous world events and the most weighty political and social problems. We could not understand why the Bolsheviks, who showed such great indignation at the spirit dominating the Congress, should nevertheless call for “All power to the soviets!” We refused to understand them even when, in view of the existing situation, they organized a demonstration the object of which was to force an assembly of this character to possess itself fully of State power.
I have already mentioned that the fear of making possible the triumph of the “timorous” majority pushed Lenin, after the 3rd of July, 1917, to repudiate, as outdated, the slogan: “All power to the soviets!” We find a German analogy to this in the Spartacist decision to boycott the election to the second (April) Pan-German Congress of Soviets.
The consequent course of the Russian revolution cured. Lenin of his passing “lack of faith.” The soviets fulfilled the role expected of them. The rising tide of bourgeois revolutionary enthusiasm set in motion the worker and peasant masses, washing away their “meanness.” Lifted by the wave, the Bolsheviks possessed themselves of the government apparatus. Then the role of the insurrectionary element came to an end. The Moor had accomplished his task. The State that came into being with the aid of the “Power of the Soviets” became the “Soviet Power.” The Communist minority incorporated in this State made itself secure, once for always, against a possible return of the spirit of “meanness.” The idea slowly engendered in the subconscious reached its full development in the theory of P. Orlovsky and the practice of the Kashine Communists.
Dictatorship as a means of protecting the people against the reactionary narrowness of the people – such is the historic point of departure of (19th century) revolutionary communism at the time when the worker class, which it claims to represent, begins to see through the lies and hypocrisy of the liberty proclaimed by capitalism.
Buonarotti, the theoretician of Babeuf’s plot of 1796, concluded that as soon as State power was taken over by the communists they would find it necessary to isolate France from other countries by an insuperable barrier – in order to preserve the masses from bad influences. No publication, he declared, might appear in France without the authorization of the communist government.
All socialists, excepting the Fourierists – wrote Weitling in 1840 – subscribe unanimously to the belief that the form of government called democracy does not suit, and is even prejudicial to, the social organization whose principles are being shaped at this moment.
Etienne Cabet wrote that socialist society could allow, in each city, a single newspaper, which would of course be issued by the government. The people were to be protected against the temptation of seeking the truth in the clash of opinions.
In 1839, at the political trial devoted to the insurrection led by Blanqui and Barbes, much was made of a communist catechism found on the accused. This catechism dealt among other things with the problem of dictatorship:
It is unquestionable that after a revolution accomplished in behalf of our ideas, there will be created a dictatorial power whose mission it will be to direct the revolutionary movement. This dictatorial power will of necessity base itself on the assent of the armed population, which, acting in the general interest, will evidently represent the enlightened will of the great majority of the nation.
To be strong, to act quickly, the dictatorial power will have to be concentrated in as small a number of persons as possible ... To undermine the old society, to destroy it at its base, to overthrow the foreign and domestic enemies of the Republic, to prepare the new foundations of social organization and, finally, to lead the people from the revolutionary government to a regular republican government-such are the functions of the dictatorial power and the limits of its duration. (Bourguin, Le socialisme français de 1789 à 1848, Paris 1912.)
One may ask if the doctrine of those that stand for “power to the soviets,” in the manner of P. Orlovsky and the Kashine Communists, is much different from that of the Parisian communists of 1839.
The working class is a product of capitalist society. Its mind is subjected to the influence of capitalist society. Its consciousness is developed under the pressure of the bourgeois masters. The school, the church, the barracks, the factory, the press, social life, all contribute to form the consciousness of the proletarian masses. They are all, potent factors in the service of bourgeois ideas and tendencies. According to Charles Naine, it was on this observation of fact that the revolutionary socialists, at least in Switzerland, based their belief in the necessity of a dictatorship by a minority of conscious proletarians over the nation and even over the majority of the proletariat itself.
Emile Pouget, the prominent syndicalist leader, wrote:
If democratic mechanism were applied in the labor organizations, the lack of will on the part of the unconscious majority would paralyze all action. The minority is not disposed to abdicate its claim and aspirations before the inertia of a mass that has not yet been quickened by the spirit of revolt. Therefore, the conscious minority has an obligation to act without considering the outlook of the refractory mass ...
The amorphous mass ... numerous and compact though it be, has little reason to complain. It is the first to benefit by the action of the minority ...
Who could complain against the disinterested initiative of the minority? Certainly not the unconscious folk to whom the militants barely attribute the role of human zeros – and who acquire the numerical value of a zero only when added to the right of a number.
Here is the enormous difference of method distinguishing syndicalism from democratism. Through its machinery of universal suffrage, the latter puts the function of guidance in the hands of the unconscious, the backward, or worse, their representatives. Democratism stifles the minorities that bear in them the future. The syndicalist method gives diametrically opposite results. The impetus is given by the conscious ones, by the rebels. All good wills are called on to act, to participate in the movement. 
The recognition of the inevitable mental enslavement of the proletarian masses by the capitalist class forms also one of the premises of P. Orlovsky’s conclusions, given in the preceding chapter.
This idea flows, without doubt, from a materialist viewpoint. It is based on the observation that the thought of man depends on the material environment.
This idea characterized many socialists and communists, utopian and revolutionary, at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th.
We can discover its traces in Robert Owen, Cabet, Weitling, Blanqui. All recognized that the mental enslavement of the masses came, from the material circumstances of their existence in the present society. And all deduced from this condition that only a radical modification of the material circumstances of their existence, only a radical transformation of society, would render the masses capable of directing their own destiny.
But by whom will this transformation be realized?
“The wise educators of humanity sprung from the privileged classes, that is to say, individuals freed from the material pressure weighing on the mind of the masses – they will do it!” That was the answer of the social utopians.
“A revolutionary minority composed. of men whom a more or less accidental combination of circumstances has enabled to save their brains and will from this pressure, persons who constitute in our society an exception that proves the rule – they will do it!” This was the answer of revolutionary communists like Weitling and Blanqui, and the conception of their epigones of the anarcho-syndicalist type, as Pouget and the late Gustave Hervé.
A benevolent dictatorship for some, a violent dictatorship for the others, such is the deus ex machina that was going to throw up a bridge between the social environment producing the mental enslavement of the masses and the social environment that would render possible their full development as human beings. [3*]
Man’s character – wrote Robert Owen – is formed by environment and education ... The problem flowing from this is the following: to transform these two factors of character in such a manner that man will become virtuous.  (The New Conception of Society).
According to Owen, the task of operating this transformation fell to the legislators, to the philanthropists, to the pedagogues.
Whether pacifist or revolutionary, the utopians were only half materialist. They understood only in a metaphysical manner the thesis according to which human psychology depends on the material environment. They were hardly aware of the dynamics of the social process. Their materialism was not dialectical.
The state of correlation binding a given aspect of the social consciousness to a given aspect of social life, which is the determining cause of the former, presented itself in the minds of those people as something congealed, as something immovable. That is why they stopped being materialists and became idealists of the first water as soon as they tried to find out how it was necessary to act practically in order to modify the social milieu and render possible the regeneration of the masses.
Quite a good while ago, in his Theses on Feuerbach, Marx observed:
The materialist doctrine that men are the products of conditions and education, different men therefore the products of other conditions and changed education, forgets that circumstances may be altered by men and that the educator has himself to be educated. This doctrine leads inevitably to the ideas of a society composed of two distinct portions, one of which is elevated above society (Robert Owen for example).
Applied to the class struggle of the propertyless, this means the following. Impelled by the same “circumstances” of capitalist society that determine their character as an enslaved class, the workers enter into a struggle against the society that enslaves them. The process of this struggle modifies the social “circumstances.” It modifies the environment in which the working class moves. This way the working class modifies its own character. From a class reflecting passively the mental servitude to which they are subjected, the propertyless become a class which frees itself actively from all enslavement, including that of the mind.
This process is not at all rectilinear. It does not take in homogeneously nil the layers of the proletariats, nor all phases of their consciousness. It will be far from attaining its full development when the combination of historic circumstances permits, or obliges, the working class to tear from the hands of the bourgeoisie the apparatus of political power. The workers are condemned to penetrate into the realm of socialism when they still bear a good share of those “vices of the oppressed,” the yoke which Lassalle had so eloquently urged them to throw off. As a result of the struggle against capitalism, the proletariat modifies the material milieu surrounding it. It modifies this way its own character and emancipates itself culturally. Exercising its conquered power, the proletariat frees itself completely from the intellectual influence of the old society – in the degree that it realizes a radical transformation of the material milieu, which in the last place determines its character.
But only “finally!” Only at the end of a long, painful, contradictory process, which is analogous to all preceding historic processes in this respect. The social creation assumes its form on the anvil of necessity, under the imperious pressure of immediate needs.
The conscious will of the revolutionary vanguard can appreciably accelerate and facilitate this process. It can never avoid it.
Some people presume that if a compact revolutionary minority, animated by the desire to establish socialism, seizes the machinery of government, and concentrates in its own hands the means of production and distribution and the control of the organization of the masses and their education , it may – in pursuance of its socialist ideal – create an environment in which the popular mind will little by little be purged of its old heritage and filled with a new content. Only then, it is averred, can the people stand erect and move by their own strength on the road to socialism.
If this utopia could be followed to the end, it would lead to a diametrically opposite result, though we considered it only from the angle of Marx’s observation that the “educator has himself to be educated.” For the practice of such a dictatorship, and the relations established between the dictatorial minority and the mass, “educate” the dictators, who may be everything we want them to be but cannot direct social evolution toward the construction of a new society. We do not need to demonstrate that such an education can only corrupt the masses, that it can only debase them.
The proletarian class considered as a whole – we are using the word in its broadest sense, including intellectual workers whose collaboration in the direction of the State and the administration of the social economy is indispensable till the contrary becomes true – is the only possible builder of the new society, and it must consequently be the only successor to the classes that formerly dominated the functions of government. The propertyless will also find it indispensable to benefit by the active aid, or at least, friendly neutrality of the non-proletarian producers, who are still numerous in the city and countryside. This flows from the nature of the social overturn that is the historic mission of the proletariat. This change must manifest itself in every part of the life of society. The proletariat will be able to take in hand the huge heritage of capitalism, without dilapidating it – it will be able to set in motion the gigantic productive forces of capitalism so that the result is real social equality based on the increase of the general wellbeing – only by giving proof of the maximum of moral energy it can generate. That, we repeat, is an unavoidable condition, which is, in its turn, subordinated to the greatest possible development of organized initiative On the part of all the elements composing the working class. The latter presupposes an atmosphere that is absolutely incompatible with the dictatorship of a minority or with the permanent satellites of such a dictatorship: terror and bureaucracy.
In the course of the free construction of the new society, the proletariat will reeducate itself and eliminate from its character those traits that are in contradiction with the great problems it will have to solve. This will be true about the working class taken as a whole as well as about each of its component elements. It is evident that the duration of this process will vary for each of these elements. To remain on the firm ground of political reality, the political action of the socialists will have to reckon with this fact. It will have to take into account the slow pace of the necessarily progressive adaptation of the entire class to its new milieu. Every attempt at forcing this process artificially is certain to yield the opposite results. Many compromises will be found absolutely inevitable in order to suit the march of history to the intellectual level attained by the different elements within the working class at the moment of the fall of capitalism.
But the final goal justifies only those compromises that do not lead to results that are in opposition to this goal. Only those compromises are justified which do not bar the road to the goal. For that reason, it is impossible to consider too pronounced compromises made either with the destructive tendency or with the conservative inertia that are typical of one or another section of the working class.
A compromise made with the enemy class is nearly always fatal to the revolution. A compromise that guarantees the unity of the class in its struggle against the enemy can only advance the revolution-in the sense that it opens up wide possibilities for the spontaneous, direct action of the mass.
True, this result will be obtained at the price of a movement that is slower, more sinuous, than the straight line which a minority dictatorship can trace in the task of revolution. But here as in mechanics what is lost in distance is made up in speed. The gain is made here by overcoming rapidly the inner psychological obstacles that arise in the way of the revolutionary class and hamper it in its attempt to achieve its aims. On the other hand, the straight line, preferred by the doctrinaires of the violent revolution because it is shorter, leads in practice to the maximum of psychological resistance and that way to the minimum creative yield of the social revolution.
1. From an article by Pouget: L’organization et l’action de la Confédération Générale du Travail (The Organization and Action of the General Confederation of Labor) published in the collection of Le mouvement social dans la France contemporaine, pages 34-36.
2. The quotation is translated from Martov.
3. The suppression of the entire press outside of the official has its partisans and has even ken partially tried in Europe under the euphonious label of “socialization of the press.”
1*. Thus Karl Radek, the apostle, to the benighted West, of the neo-Communist “dialectical” credo, justified the Russian sort of dictatorship:
In no country can the revolution begin as an action of the majority. Capitalism implies not merely a physical mastership over the means of production, but also a spiritual dominion over the masses of the people; and in the most developed capitalist countries, under the stress of misery and dire need, under the burden of such consequences of capitalism, as this war, the whole body of the oppressed arises. The most active are always the first to rise. It is a minority which carries out the revolution, the success of which depends on the fact whether this revolution corresponds with the historical development, with the interests of the masses of the people, who can shake off the rule of the class hitherto governing them. But first the creative and impulsive force of the revolution is required to rouse the great body of the people to liberate them from their intellectual and spiritual slavishness under capitalism, and to lead them into a position where a defence of their interests can be made. It might fairly be said that every revolution is undertaken by the minority; the majority only joins in during the course of the revolution and decides the victorious issue ... " (Socialism from Science to Practice, page 17, Socialist Labor Press, Glasgow.)
This is, indeed, leading socialism from science to practice. And what “practice!”
Here is the whole of the “art of revolution,” presented as revolutionary Marxism in the adventurous first years of the Communist International, and still practiced, in the cafés and tea houses of New York and Paris, by the latter-day exponents of “Bolshevism-Leninism,” those theoretically ferocious Trotskyites, who in spite of the alarms broadcast by official Communism are really gentle and harmless in practice.
2*. Does Martov suggest that the capitalist class, or rather its political servants, can do away with democracy, with popular representation, as soon as the latter threatens the existing order?
Under capitalism, observed Engels, “the possessing class rules directly through universal franchise” (Origin of the Family) – that is, by virtue of the interested, motivated, support of the great majority of the population. Even the master-minds superintending the Fascist, Nazi and Soviet-Communist political superstructures of modern capitalism realize that they do not and cannot rule for any length of time against the will of the overwhelming majority of the population. The working slaves of capitalism cannot, in great numbers, be whipped into performing their tasks, as were the slaves who built the pyramids. There is a mighty difference of technology. So that even the State machinery manipulated by the latter-day “dictatorships” rests on a “democratic,” mass basis, which is lovingly cared for by the “dictators.”
3*. Thus Lenin in his speech on Economic Construction, March 31, 1920:
On the 29th of April, 1918 the Central Executive Committee accepted a resolution expressing full approval of the basic ideas given in this report and instructed the praesidium to draft, in the form of theses, these basic problems of the Soviet Power. Now we are repeating what was approved by the Central Executive Committee two years ago in an official resolution! Now we are drawn back to a question that was decided long ago, in a manner approved of and made clear by the Central Executive Committee – namely, that the Soviet Socialist Democracy is in no way inconsistent with the rule and dictatorship of one person; that the will of a class is at times best realized by a dictator, who sometimes will accomplish more by himself and is frequently more needcd. At any rate, the principal relation toward one person rule was not only explained a long time ago but was also decided by the Central Executive Committee ...” (Collected Works, volume 17, page 89, 1st Russian edition).
Last updated on 2.7.2008