Democracy and the Communist Party

14 03 2010

This paper, rather preliminary note towards a full paper, attempts to look at the troubled history of democracy (both as a concept as well as a practice) and parties claiming affiliation to Marxism-Leninism. It tries to understand the historical paradox of parties and movements influenced by Marxism being among the more important contributors to democratising our world, but States ruled by parties owing allegiance to Marxism denying democratic rights to their own citizens. It then tries to identify some of the reasons for this large democratic deficit.

But before I begin, two short points about the structure of the paper may be in order. First, I have been fairly hesitant to write on this topic. I can hardly lay any claim to expertise on theoretical debates among Marxists as well as on the details of the history of countries ruled by communist parties. That apart, I am also conscious of my weakness in political theory, specially that relating to democracy and related ideas of liberty and representation. Therefore, the stress will remain more on the historical experience rather than the theoretical arguments. Second, and following from my hesitation laid out above, this paper is basically structured around three writings by two Marxists: Karl Marx himself[1], and Rosa Luxemburg. You may say I am merely paraphrasing them, or you may say that they are the burqa I wear during this excursion into unfamiliar territory.

Democracy and its Constitutive Rights

The one right of man that bourgeois liberalism truly established was the right to property. Other rights were espoused and enacted, but remained weighted down with omissions and qualifications. Some, like civic rights were perhaps grounded deeper than political rights. Despite having raised the wonderful slogans of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity neither bourgeois theory nor political practice was able to institutionalise them. It would not be amiss to state that almost all the rights we assume fundamental for citizenship have been won by struggles waged by working class, peasant, women and other such radical movements against the order initially conceived by bourgeois liberalism. In almost all cases where liberal theory has adopted and extended rights to all human beings, whether it be liberty, equality, or right to association, representation or even to life and livelihood, it has been done after crucial political battles were won by the people to incorporate these rights into political practice and constitutions.

Let us take an illustration. The idea of equality of humans was proclaimed even before the French revolution and emblazoned on its banner. Its cousin in chronology, the American revolution, foregrounded the idea of representation (essential to the functioning of democracy as we know it). Yet both these pioneering revolutions not only tolerated, but crucially, justified slavery and other forms of unequal relations in society. And how can we forget that they only spoke of the equality of man; women, of course, being totally shut out. The theoretical position within liberal theory which argued that the idea of “equality of man” has to refer, unambiguously, to the equality of all human beings came to be dominant only after a century and more of struggles in all continents of the world. In that sense, it is clear that popular struggles came prior to the development of those rights and ideals which constitute democracy, both as a concept and as a practice, today.

More than merely popular struggles, it would be proper to classify them as struggles of the working class, or at least, of the working people. Whether it was equality, freedom of expression and association, freedom of movement, representation, women’s rights to social and political equality, right to livelihood, limits to State power, rule of law, and so on, it was the working class struggles which have, more often than not, been the spearhead which broke ruling class reaction. After the middle of the 19th century, it was the self-consciously Marxist working class movement which was this spearhead. This is now so clearly a part of historical record that I will not spend more time on it other than to reiterate the point I started off with: the working class movement in general, and the communists in particular, have played an important, if not central, role in building democracy as we know it today.

But when we look at the history of countries ruled by working class parties it is a very different picture we find. In polite academic language one could say that there was a significant democratic deficit in these polities, but to be blunt, and its always good to be blunt in such situations, the spectrum inhabited by them ranges from the totalitarian and authoritarian USSR and Eastern Europe, to the loony reactionary regimes of Pol Pot in Cambodia and the Kim dynasty in North Korea.

I will primarily take the example of the USSR here. For two reasons: one, it was the first socialist state in the world and second, despite all its shortcomings remained a progressive bulwark in the world while it existed.

Democracy and the Russian Revolution

In his famous book, The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn speaks of a function to praise Stalin where everyone got up and started clapping after the tribute was read out. The clapping went on, as no one wanted to be the first to stop. No one dared as the secret police was watching to see who would quit first. This was, according to Solzhenitsyn, their way of identifying who the independent minded people were. Finally, after more than 10 minutes of unceasing applause, the director of the factory where the function was being organized stopped clapping and sat down. As if on cue, the entire congregation stopped clapping and sat down. Solzhenitsyn goes on to say that the director was arrested that same night.

While Solzhenitsyn’s story may be apocryphal and he himself has been dismissed by supporters of the Soviet Union as a Western agent, this account appears so believable precisely because there is so much other, more objective, records of the lack of freedom of thought and expression in the Soviet Union and other communist states.

There is a famous photograph of Lenin from 1920, where he stands on a wooden platform addressing the soldiers going to fight for the Bolsheviks in the civil war. Next to him stands Trotsky, the leader of the Red Army. But you will not be able to see Trotsky in the photos circulated by the Soviets since Trotsky’s photos was airbrushed on orders of Stalin. Generations of Soviet children, and other communists who read Soviet publications, saw this doctored photo of Lenin without Trotsky to accompany him. Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, among others, were members of the Bolshevik politbureau along with Lenin at the time of the Russian revolution. Not only were they airbrushed away from photos, but most of them were assassinated, often by kangaroo courts which ordered them shot when they fell afoul of Stalin.

Stalin may have been among the more egregious of the tyrants, but he was neither the first nor was he an exception. Trotsky, who’s followers today claim some form of victimhood for their prophet, himself railed against the “ponderous machinery of democratic institutions” and argued, “democratic institutions not only do not eliminate class struggle, but also give to class interests an utterly imperfect expression” [2]. In his search for perfection, Com. Trotsky ended up warning “political pedants” not to “…deliver futile lectures to the proletariat on the benefits and advantages of democracy for the cause of the class struggle”.

Trotsky had started his essay with the statement, “As Marxists, we have never been idol-worshipers of formal democracy.” Rosa Luxemburg retorted that if revolutionaries have not been idol worshippers of formal democracy, “Surely, we have never been idol worshippers of socialism or Marxism either. Does it follow from this that we may throw socialism on the scrap-heap, [...], if it becomes uncomfortable for us? Trotsky and Lenin are the living refutation of this answer.”[3] While they were surely refutations of this answer, or in other words they practiced a democracy which they debunked in their writings, in their polemics against Karl Kautsky over the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, Lenin and Trotsky seem to have erred. To quote Luxemburg (1918) again,

The basic error of the Lenin-Trotsky theory is that they too, just like Kautsky, oppose dictatorship to democracy. “Dictatorship or democracy” is the way the question is put by Bolsheviks and Kautsky alike. The latter naturally decides in favour of “democracy,” that is, of bourgeois democracy, precisely because he opposes it to the alternative of the socialist revolution. Lenin and Trotsky, on the other hand, decide in favor of dictatorship in contradistinction to democracy, and thereby, in favour of the dictatorship of a handful of persons, that is, in favour of dictatorship on the bourgeois model. They are two opposite poles, both alike being far removed from a genuine socialist policy. The proletariat, when it seizes power, can never follow the good advice of Kautsky, given on the pretext of the “unripeness of the country,” the advice being to renounce socialist revolution and devote itself to democracy. It cannot follow this advice without betraying thereby itself, the International, and the revolution. It should and must at once undertake socialist measures in the most energetic, unyielding and unhesitant fashion, in other words, exercise a dictatorship, but a dictatorship of the class, not of a party or of a clique – dictatorship of the class, that means in the broadest possible form on the basis of the most active, unlimited participation of the mass of the people, of unlimited democracy.

Luxemburg continues to engage with Trotsky’s assertion that communists have not been “idol-worshippers of formal democracy”, by arguing

All that that really means is: We have always distinguished the social kernel from the political form of bourgeois democracy; we have always revealed the hard kernel of social inequality and lack of freedom hidden under the sweet shell of formal equality and freedom – not in order to reject the latter but to spur the working class into not being satisfied with the shell, but rather, by conquering political power, to create a socialist democracy to replace bourgeois democracy – not to eliminate democracy altogether.

But socialist democracy is not something which begins only in the promised land after the foundations of socialist economy are created; it does not come as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy people who, in the interim, have loyally supported a handful of socialist dictators. Socialist democracy begins simultaneously with the beginnings of the destruction of class rule and of the construction of socialism. It begins at the very moment of the seizure of power by the socialist party. It is the same thing as the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Yes, dictatorship! But this dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy, not in its elimination, but in energetic, resolute attacks upon the well-entrenched rights and economic relationships of bourgeois society, without which a socialist transformation cannot be accomplished. But this dictatorship must be the work of the class and not of a little leading minority in the name of the class – that is, it must proceed step by step out of the active participation of the masses; it must be under their direct influence, subjected to the control of complete public activity; it must arise out of the growing political training of the mass of the people.

Luxemburg was surely not innocent to the dangers faced by the socialist revolution in Russia and the immense obstacles it had to surmount in order to survive. And she readily accepts that it is stupid to expect that the Bolsheviks will practice “the finest democracy” devoid of all shortcomings. She further, repeatedly, highlights the unparalleled achievements of the Bolsheviks in pursing the revolution and argues that the Russian revolution has demonstrated once and for all the “…capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act, the will to power of socialism as such. In this, Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world…”. I am quoting this merely to reiterate the well known fact of Luxemburg’s unqualified support for the Bolsheviks and to clarify, in case there is such need, that her attacks on Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership was not of the sort launched by other contemporary Marxists like Kautsky or Plekhanov[4] who have traditionally been accused of abandoning socialism.

Getting back to the question of democracy and dictatorship, Luxemburg argues,

The danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forced upon them by these fatal circumstances, and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics. When they get in there own light in this way, and hide their genuine, unquestionable historical service under the bushel of false steps forced on them by necessity, they render a poor service to international socialism for the sake of which they have fought and suffered; for they want to place in its storehouse as new discoveries all the distortions prescribed in Russia by necessity and compulsion…

But it is not merely necessity and compulsion which seem to be driving the purge of democracy right at the moment of the greatest revolutionary blossoming of freedom and proletarian agency. Luxemburg takes issue with Lenin over one of his central thesis in the landmark State and Revolution[5]. Lenin argued that the bourgeois State, despite its democratic pretentions, was merely the instrument for the class rule of the bourgeoisie, or the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie which denied all rights to the workers and peasants. Existing [bourgeois] democracy was for Lenin “Democracy for an insignificant minority, democracy for the rich–that is the democracy of capitalist society”.

Lenin goes on to add

But from this capitalist democracy–that is inevitably narrow and stealthily pushes aside the poor, and is therefore hypocritical and false through and through–forward development does not proceed simply, directly and smoothly, towards “greater and greater democracy”, as the liberal professors and petty-bourgeois opportunists would have us believe. No! Forward development, i.e., development towards communism, proceeds through the dictatorship of the proletariat, and cannot do otherwise, for the resistance of the capitalist exploiters cannot be broken by anyone else or in any other way.

Therefore, the socialist state would overturn this bourgeois democracy (a sham for dictatorship of the bourgeoisie) and institute a dictatorship of the proletariat, which would be

…the period of transition to communism, [it] will for the first time create democracy for the people, for the majority, along with the necessary suppression of the exploiters, of the minority.

And, adds Lenin, it is only when communism is achieved as a social reality that such dictatorship will cease and full freedoms will be available for all.

Luxemburg seems to argue that it is here that Lenin (and the Bolsheviks in general) are wrong in “raising virtue to a necessity”. She objected to the restrictions being imposed, in the name of dictatorship of the proletariat and defence of the socialist revolution, on freedom of speech, on democratic elections and political competition, on public contestation of ideas and politics. She says,

The tacit assumption underlying the Lenin-Trotsky theory of dictatorship is this: that the socialist transformation is something for which a ready-made formula lies completed in the pocket of the revolutionary party, which needs only to be carried out energetically in practice.


The socialist system of society should only be, and can only be, an historical product, born out of the school of its own experiences, born in the course of its realization, as a result of the developments of living history, which – just like organic nature of which, in the last analysis, it forms a part – has the fine habit of always producing along with any real social need the means to its satisfaction, along with the task simultaneously the solution. However, if such is the case, then it is clear that socialism by its very nature cannot be decreed or introduced by ukase [A proclamation of the Czar having the force of law in imperial Russia]. It has as its prerequisite a number of measures of force – against property, etc. The negative, the tearing down, can be decreed; the building up, the positive, cannot.

She ends by a dire warning, a warning which today sounds almost like prophesy.

In place of the representative bodies created by general, popular elections, Lenin and Trotsky have laid down the soviets as the only true representation of political life in the land as a whole, life in the soviets must also become more and more crippled. Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. Among them, in reality only a dozen outstanding heads do the leading and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where they are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously – at bottom, then, a clique affair – a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the proletariat but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians, that is a dictatorship in the bourgeois sense, in the sense of the rule of the Jacobins (the postponement of the Soviet Congress from three-month periods to six-month periods!) Yes, we can go even further: such conditions must inevitably cause a brutalization of public life: attempted assassinations, shooting of hostages, etc.

Luxemburg argues that Lenin’s understanding of dictatorship in the concept “dictatorship of the proletariat” was erroneous.

Lenin says [in The State and Revolution] the bourgeois state is an instrument of oppression of the working class; the socialist state, of the bourgeoisie. To a certain extent, he says, it is only the capitalist state stood on its head. This simplified view misses the most essential thing: bourgeois class rule has no need of the political training and education of the entire mass of the people, at least not beyond certain narrow limits. But for the proletarian dictatorship that is the life element, the very air without which it is not able to exist.

By blocking freedom of expression and association to those who are opposed to the Bolsheviks, by denying to the people at large those very democratic rights which the revolution fought for up till the moment of seizure of power, Luxemburg argued, that the Bolsheviks refuted their own assertion that the working class realises its consciousness in political struggle. Luxemburg asks whether we are to “…assume that experience and development were necessary up to the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, and then, having reached their highest peak, become superfluous thereafter”. She answers this question herself,

In reality, the opposite is true! It is the very giant tasks which the Bolsheviks have undertaken with courage and determination that demand the most intensive political training of the masses and the accumulation of experience.

Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of “justice” but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when “freedom” becomes a special privilege.

Universal? Suffrage

We here find a clear difference in the conception of freedom and democracy between Lenin and Luxemburg. It is a difference which, even if known among Marxists and communists, has been well hidden, neglected, in most debates. The two positions with regard to democracy, its constitutive freedoms and their role in the socialist revolution are clearly incompatible. Over the past century, it has been Lenin’s position, after it is made to fight a perfunctory battle with that strawman Kautsky, which has been held up as correct by (almost) all Marxists and communist parties. Luxemburg’s arguments have been met with a cold silence, a curious neglect, which appear inexplicable since she has remained a fully paid member of the cannon, whether Stalinist, Trotskist or any other. This deliberate historical neglect and debunking-by-silence of Luxemburg’s arguments is even more difficult to understand once we realise that her positions are closer to the historical reality of  democracy’s blossoming over the past century and therefore, provide a better template to the revolutionary movements to challenge bourgeois power in the age of democratic politics. Compare her nuanced arguments on how the constitutive freedoms of democracy relate to the revolutionary process and futher, compare her historically open positions on democracy with Lenin’s, unfortunately anachronistic, rant below,

In capitalist society, providing it develops under the most favourable conditions, we have a more or less complete democracy in the democratic republic. But this democracy is always hemmed in by the narrow limits set by capitalist exploitation, and consequently always remains, in effect, a democracy for the minority, only for the propertied classes, only for the rich. Freedom in capitalist society always remains about the same as it was in the ancient Greek republics: freedom for the slave-owners. Owing to the conditions of capitalist exploitation, the modern wage slaves are so crushed by want and poverty that “they cannot be bothered with democracy”, “cannot be bothered with politics”; in the ordinary, peaceful course of events, the majority of the population is debarred from participation in public and political life.

How can a statement which claims that the bourgeois democracies of 1917 (Britain? USA? France?) represented “more or less complete democracy in the democratic republic” be accepted as correct today? Lenin is so patently off the mark when he assumes a finality (end of history?) for the bourgeois republic. In 1917, most countries did not even have universal suffrage and the post-World War II extension of rights was not even on the horizon. While it is feasible to argue that political freedom under capitalism continues to remain “hemmed in” by wage slavery, argue that the freedoms of bourgeois democracy in our present world equal “freedom for the slave-owners” of Greece would be to put oneself outside the pale of reasoned debate. Most importantly for our discussion, Lenin’s words quoted here are totally innocent of the earth shattering consequences of some of the victories of the working class and common masses in the 20th century. The most important of them is universal suffrage.

In an earlier part of this same essay, Luxemburg raises this question which seems to have remained unanswered. Does the communist party support universal suffrage? If so, then it would be impermissible to restrict the franchise, whatever the reasons proffered. Not only would it be impermissible to restrict the franchise to any class (class both as a Marxian category and as a legal term) of people, it would also be impermissible to restrict the political rights of any class of people. If such a restriction of franchise and its related rights is proposed, then Lenin and all communists who accept this particular definition of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” (or the “the necessary suppression of the exploiters”), would have to accept that they are against universal suffrage. Luxemburg had already pointed to this contradiction but today, located as we are in a time after the global victory of universal suffrage, to deny universal suffrage and the concomitant universal and equal political rights to all citizens at all times would be to voluntarily closet ourselves with such edifying paragons of political virtue as the Saudi regime or Israel. Obviously that is not how communists – the legatees of Lenin’s politics – are placed in the real world. But then they still carry, almost a century after Lenin’s first formulations, this same contradiction in their theory and practice. Such festering contradictions have regularly proved themselves to be the source for fatal weakness for the communist movement as it tries to mobilise people on class lines in a democratic world.

This is not to say that Lenin was necessarily wrong in depicting the political conditions of his time, but to freeze that, to think that the reality he was presented with was frozen in time for ever, is so grossly a-historical and anti-Marxist in its essence as to astound us. It is here that one can see the massive underestimation of democracy and its revolutionary power by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. And it is here that Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin’s State and Revolution, and of Bolshevik practice during the Russian Revolution, provides crucial insights into what went wrong in the USSR and other socialist countries with regard to democracy and freedom.

This was not the first time that Luxemburg critiqued Lenin. In fact, her critique of Lenin and the Bolshevik’s erroneous understanding of democracy during the Revolution of 1917-18 can be traced back to her Organisational Questions of Russian Social Democracy (1904)[6]. She has written, in my estimation, the most radical critique of Lenin’s principles of organisation without abandoning a revolutionary politics. It may be appropriate to turn to that debate now.

Conservative Ultracentralism of the Leninist Party

Luxemburg termed Lenin’s organisational principles the “ultracentralist tendency” within Russain social-democracy and attacked it on two counts.

First, she argued, this ultracentralist organisation requires the “blind submission of all party organisation and their activity, down to the smallest detail, to the central committee that alone thinks, acts and decides for everyone”. In other words, “The Central Committee would be the only thinking element in the party. All other groupings would be its executive limbs.”

Second, it ensured “The rigorous separation of the organized nucleus of revolutionaries from its social-revolutionary surroundings”. The party works as a closed group, its agenda set by the central committee and the field units executing the will of the central authority under strict discipline. In this Leninist organisation, the revolutionary social-democrat party member is conceived as “the Jacobin joined to the organization of the proletariat, which has become conscious of its class interests.”

Luxemburg denounced such centralism as alien to working class movements, as “a mechanical transposition of the organisational principles of the Blanquist movement of conspiratorial circles to the social democratic movement of the working masses”. She argued that it is erroneous to think that social-democracy is “linked” to the organisation of the working class, rather it is the working class’s own movement.

Social democracy creates a completely different type of organisation from earlier socialist movements, e.g. those of the Jacobin-Blanquist type.

Luxemburg reminds us and adds,

Social democracy is the first movement to be premised on the organisation and independent direct action of the masses.

On the contrary, under Lenin’s organisation, Luxemburg argues that the active revolutionaries become mere instruments of “a will that has been predetermined outside their own field of activity”. This further cuts off the revolutionary as an individual and the party as an organisation, from the everyday life and struggle of the common mass of people, denies them the flexibility needed to organise and creates an “impenetrable wall” between the nucleus of class conscious workers who are already organised into the tightly knit party structure and those in their surrounding stratum who are already participating in the class struggle and are in the process of developing class consciousness.

It is significant that Luxemburg attacks Lenin’s assertion that only “certain intellectuals” waffle at his concept of organisational centralism and party discipline, whereas the workers are at ease with it as they are “schooled in the factory” and thus ripe for discipline and organisation. It is worthwhile letting Luxemburg speak at length here again.

Saying all this, Lenin seems to demonstrate again that his conception of socialist organization is quite mechanistic. The discipline Lenin has in mind is being implanted in the working class not only by the factory but also by the military and the existing state bureaucracy – by the entire mechanism of the centralized bourgeois state.

We misuse words and we practice self-deception when we apply the same term – discipline – to such dissimilar notions as: 1. the absence of thought and will in a body with a thousand automatically moving hands and legs, and 2. the spontaneous coordination of the conscious, political acts of a body of men. What is there in common between the regulated docility of an oppressed class and the self-discipline and organization of a class struggling for its emancipation?

The self-discipline of the Social Democracy is not merely the replacement of the authority of bourgeois rulers with the authority of a socialist central committee. The working class will acquire the sense of the new discipline, the freely assumed self-discipline of the Social Democracy, not as a result of the discipline imposed on it by the capitalist state, but by extirpating, to the last root, its old habits of obedience and servility.

Centralism in the socialist sense is not an absolute thing applicable to any phase whatsoever of the labour movement. It is a tendency, which becomes real in proportion to the development and political training acquired by the working masses in the course of their struggle.

In a later part of the essay, Luxemburg warns

But to grant the party leadership the kind of absolute powers of a negative character that Lenin does means to strengthen, artificially and to a very dangerous degree, the conservatism that springs inevitably from its very essence. If social democratic tactics are the creation, not of a Central Committee, but of the party as a whole – or, more accurately, of the movement as a whole – then individual party organisations will need the elbow room that alone gives them the opportunity to make full use of the means to further the struggle furnished by the particular situation and to develop revolutionary initiative. The ultra-centralism that Lenin advocates seems to us, in its whole essence, to be imbued, not with the positive creative spirit, but with the sterile spirit of the night-watchman [authoritarian] State. His line of thought is concerned principally with the control of party activity and not with its fertilisation, with narrowing and not with broadening, with tying the movement up and not with drawing it together.

In the second part of her essay, Luxemburg argues that this “night-watchman spirit” advocated by Lenin, the ultra-centralism and authoritarian control of the central committee, is largely a result of his attempt to combat the entry of opportunism into the organisation of the working class party. She dismisses Lenin’s equation of decentralised party structure with opportunism and a centralised rigid structure with revolutionary spirit.

To attribute to opportunism, as Lenin does, general enthusiasm for any particular organisational form, such as decentralisation, is to misapprehend its inner nature. Opportunist as it is, opportunism has, even in questions of organisation, only one principle and that is lack of principle. It selects its methods in accordance with circumstances, as long as they suit its ends.

And adds,

…nothing will more easily and surely deliver up a still young proletarian movement to the power hungry intellectuals than forcing the movement into the straitjacket of a bureaucratic centralism that reduces the militant workers into docile instruments of a “committee”. On the other hand, nothing will more surely protect the workers from any opportunist abuse committed by an ambitious intelligentsia than the spontaneous revolutionary activity of the workers, the heightening of their sense of political responsibility.

In 1904, when this issue was being debated between Lenin and Luxemburg, the implications of either position were in the realm of hypothesis and prophesies. No one could definitively predict the political implications of the organisational principles being argued out. Today, it seems fairly evident that the dangers Luxemburg pointed out in Lenin’s organisational principles were actualised in almost all parties structured around the “Leninist” organisational principles. The owl of Minerva may have flown at dusk when the battle was already lost, but now that it has flown, why do we still deny and ignore Luxemburg’s perceptive critique.

Importing Bourgeois Ideas

It is obvious that Luxemburg had the greatest regard for Lenin and the Bolsheviks and supported their ideological positions and political actions on such important issues as opposition to World War I, the need to push for a socialist capture of power in 1917 in Russia, on the internationalism of the working class movement and the estimation of imperialism as its primary enemy. But she marked her clear and fundamental differences over the conception of freedom and democracy and the organisational principles of the working class movement.

If one carefully reads her criticisms, it appears fairly evident that she is warning Lenin that his under-estimation of democracy’s revolutionary potential and his push for ultra-centralism is nothing less than the import of bourgeois ideas and practices into the working class movement. Notice her repeated use of the term “Blanquist” to describe the Leninist organisation, and the great pains she takes to argue why this organisational form is similar to the much derided Blanquist one. Lenin himself has argued often that Blanquism is nothing but a form of bourgeois radicalism cut off from the working class. Fourteen years after she attacked Lenin’s ideas on organisation as Blanquist Luxemburg, when writing on the Russian Revolution, again warns that Lenin’s conception of the proletarian State and dictatorship of the proletariat was merely a mirror image of the bourgeois State and not its transcendence.

To highlight the Blanquist features of the Leninist organisation or to say that his conception of the socialist State mirrors the bourgeois State is only saying that even though the external form appears socialist, the consequences of that could be bourgeois. But Luxemburg goes further. When discussing Lenin’s organisational proposals, she uses the adjectives “ultra-centralism”, “perverse” “essentially conservative”, “negative character” and the most cutting “sterile spirit of the night-watchman State”. Apart from the sharpness of the critique these words represent, these are also an indication that she was suggesting that the proposed Leninist organisation would have directly anti-democratic and anti-socialist consequences in the near term. Finally, it may be relevant to repeat once again what Luxemburg says in her essay on the Russian Revolution about the nature of dictatorship which will emerge if democracy and its constitutive freedoms are not allowed,

…a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the proletariat but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians, that is a dictatorship in the bourgeois sense…

She repeatedly rails against what she terms “the destruction of the most important democratic guarantees of a healthy public life and of the political activity of the labouring masses: freedom of the press, the rights of association and assembly, which have been outlawed for all opponents of the Soviet regime”. She derisively dismisses Trotsky’s (and by implication Lenin’s) rejection of what they term “the cumbersome nature of democratic electoral bodies” and reminds them,

…it is a well-known and indisputable fact that without a free and untrammelled press, without the unlimited right of association and assemblage, the rule of the broad mass of the people is entirely unthinkable.

The Essence of Man

The history of communist States’ is a history of the absence of freedom of thought and expression, as well as of the freedom of association and representation. There has been no free press, nor independent political parties, trade unions, women’s organisations or civic organisations of any form in communist countries. This has led to an understandable popular equation of communism with totalitarianism and lack of freedom, if not worse. In fact, so deep has this association become that one often hears supporters of communism defend this lack of freedom by counter posing, “But the people had food, shelter and clothing!” As if this Faustian bargain is a necessity, as if people have to necessarily give up their freedom to achieve social equity and economic security.

But, as Rosa Luxemburg would well have exclaimed, this is not what communism or Marxism is about! Marxism and its political programme called communism is about maximizing human freedom, of un-chaining the potential of human beings crushed under the burdens of economic deprivation and social discrimination.  Marx’s critique of bourgeois society was precisely that the political freedoms it enshrines remain hollow without a complimentary unshackling of human productive powers and creativity. For Marx, socialism if unthinkable without self-activity of free agents.

In an essay on Press Freedom[7], written as far back as 1841, Marx argues,

…freedom includes not only what my life is, but equally how I live, not only that I do what is free, but also that I do it freely. Otherwise what difference would there be between an architect and a beaver except that the beaver would be an architect with fur and the architect a beaver without fur?

And further,

Freedom is so much the essence of man that even its opponents implement it while combating its reality; they want to appropriate for themselves as a most precious ornament what they have rejected as an ornament of human nature. No man combats freedom; at most he combats the freedom of others. Hence every kind of freedom has always existed, only at one time as a special privilege, at another as a universal right.

It may sound strange to counterpose these words with the lived history of freedom in the communist party ruled countries, but it is an inconsistency we need to address frontally and honestly. Marx himself was very clear that, “…The mortal danger for every being lies in losing itself. Hence lack of freedom is the real mortal danger for mankind.”

Significantly, Marx defends the free press as a founding pillar of human freedom. He writes,

The essence of the free press is the characterful, rational, moral essence of freedom. The character of the censored press is the characterless monster of unfreedom; it is a civilised monster, a perfumed abortion.

Further he adds,

The free press is the ubiquitous vigilant eye of a people’s soul, the embodiment of a people’s faith in itself, the eloquent link that connects the individual with the state and the world, the embodied culture that transforms material struggles into intellectual struggles and idealises their crude material form.

A journalist for much of his life, Marx well anticipated the argument of those who want to censor the press and deny its freedom in the name of protecting public morality, political stability or social harmony. He accepted that a free press was liable to abuseits freedoms but he was clear that,

The free press remains good even when it produces bad products, for the latter are deviations from the essential nature of the free press.

On the contrary,

The censored press remains bad even when it turns out good products, for these products are good only insofar as they represent the free press within the censored press, and insofar as it is not in their character to be products of the censored press.

But Marx’s opposition to censorship and denial of freedom is not merely premised on moral and philosophical principles; he argues that even as a practical policy of State, denial of freedom is fated to failure.

If the censorship law wants to prevent freedom as something objectionable, the result is precisely the opposite. In a country of censorship, every forbidden piece of printed matter, i.e., printed without being censored, is an event. It is considered a martyr, and there is no martyr without a halo and without believers.

Thus censorship and thought control make every forbidden work, whether good or bad, into “haloed martyrs” and thus provide them with public support. Solzhenitsyn’s writings, by this logic, becomes heroic by its very act of writing outside the control of the censor. The act of declaring his personal freedom gives Solzhenitsyn’s work a certain gravity, which otherwise it may not have acquired if it had been produced in the context of general freedom and a free press. A free press, along with general political freedoms, provides the citizen with the scope for criticism and public scrutiny, which, Marx says, is “true censorship”. Free criticism and public scrutiny is “the tribunal which freedom of the press gives to itself” since it operates with the “sharp knife of reason” and not with “the blunt scissors of arbitrariness”.

This was no flash in the pan, writing of Marx. It is only in this context can one really understand what Marx and Engels mean when, in the Communist Manifesto, they declare that in a communist society

In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

It leaves one quite perplexed as to how people and movements, which claim an almost literal affiliation to the words of Karl Marx could deviate so radically from his own ideas and positions. Unless the key to this mystery is found, it would be difficult to rescue Marxism and the communist movement from the dustbin of history.

What explains the fact that every communist party ruled state ended on the wrong side of freedom and democracy. One powerful argument, which we have seen above laid out in great detail and rigour by Rosa Luxemburg, claims that it was the Leninist organisation which is to blame. There is perhaps much to commend this critique and even if we do not accept all its claims, this critique does make it near impossible for us to unquestioningly accept the Leninist organisation, as all communist parties have done till now.

Concluding Thoughts

There is another argument which I would like to lay out here for consideration. Even if we assume that the Leninist organisation does not suffer from the disabilities Luxemburg’s critique points out, one other problem still remains unanswered. How is it possible for one particular organisational form to remain appropriate for all times and all societies, unless of course the organisational form is raised to, what classical Marxists would term, an idealist essence? The organisation is merely a form in which the working class movement is expressed, organised and politicised. Such a form has to be historically grounded. Forget dialectics, forget any form of materialist based understanding of reality, the only movement, other than the communist movement which claims that its organisational form remains immune to history is the Roman Catholic Church! Even if the Leninist organisation was appropriate for the conditions in Russia in the early decades of the 20th century, it would be a gross violation of the most basic ideas of dialectical and materialist thinking to argue that it remains the only valid organisational form for over a century in all countries, under all conditions.

Lenin may or may not have erred in formulating his organisational principles, but communist parties have surely erred, and erred in the most anti-Marxist manner possible, by blindly copying – irrespective of their social, political and legal conditions – the organisational form built by Lenin and the Bolsheviks to pursue the socialist revolution in Czarist Russia. That simple, self-validating, truth, “the Marxist conception of socialism cannot be fitted into rigid formulas in any field, not even in the field of organisational principles” (Luxemburg 1904) seems to have been blithely forgotten by communists.

At its conclusion, this paper, even if it has managed to partially answer one question it began with, has raised another. What explains this universal folly, if it was so, of the communist movement globally? What explains the fact that every communist movement, willingly or willy nilly, gave itself that same Leninist organisational form without any critique. The communist movement, in almost all countries where it existed, grew out of a radical critique of existing conditions by its own people. Yet, what explains this uncritical adoption of an organisational form and a blindness to evalutate it against its own historical experience. Maybe another paper at another time!

– — –


[1] Despite Marx having written “Ce qu’il y a de certain c’est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste.”
[If anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a Marxist]” Karl Marx to Paul Lafargue, quoted by Fredrick Engels in a letter to Eduard Bernstien in 1882.

[2] Leon Trotsky (1918), Proletarian Dictatorship. Available at accessed on 20 June 2009.

[3] Rosa Luxemburg (1918), The Russian Revolution, available at accessed on 20 June 2009. Like Luxemburg, who uses the hyphenated Lenin-Trotsky to refer to the “Leninist” position during the period of the Russian Revolution in 1917-18, I too find that at this period there is little to distinguish Lenin and Trotsky on both political and organisational positions.

[4] In fact, she goes on to add, “Let the German Government Socialists cry that the rule of the Bolsheviks in Russia is a distorted expression of the dictatorship of the proletariat. If it was or is such, that is only because it is a product of the behavior of the German proletariat, in itself a distorted expression of the socialist class struggle.”

[5] V.I. Lenin (1917), The State and Revolution: The Marxist Theory of the State and the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution. Available at accessed on 20 June 2009.

[6] Available at and accessed on 20 June 2009. This was written by Luxemburg in response to Lenin’s What is to be Done? [1901-02, available at] and One Step Forward, Two Steps Back [1904, available at] .

[7] On the Freedom of the Press (1842), available at accessed on 20 June 2009.



5 responses

31 05 2010

In discussing the demerits of ‘democratic centralism’ as you seemed to be doing, it would be more fruitful if you can go in to the practicalities of organizational structures (of communist parties) based on ‘democratic centralism’. Due to it’s very direct link to day to day functioning of communist parties, especially in India, any arguments against democratic centralism will be vague and unconvincing unless you can go in to the reality of how these parties have been functioning and what went wrong.

I think you should make you arguments while distinguishing the practice of democratic centralism post revolution and its practice in communist parties working in capitalist societies, as in the present times. Much of your argument and what you quoted from Luxemburg seem to be directed towards democratic centralism in post revolution Russia.

While, I may not subscribe to your views, I am looking forward to a more detailed and comprehensive argument from your coming paper. I hope it will have a detailed study of the practice of democratic centralism in Indian communist parties.

22 07 2010

Did Luxemburg write about what exactly her version of democracy would be like? Where can I read about it?

30 06 2012
John gray

We know what kind of democracy we like.

13 01 2013
Democracy and the Communist Party By Aniket Alam « William

[...] above, this paper is basically structured around three writings by two Marxists: Karl Marx himself[1], and Rosa Luxemburg. You may say I am merely paraphrasing them, or you may say that they are the [...]

14 01 2013
Democracy and the Communist Party By Aniket Alam « William

[...] leadership was not of the sort launched by other contemporary Marxists like Kautsky or Plekhanov[4] who have traditionally been accused of abandoning [...]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 43 other followers

%d bloggers like this: