Marxism and democracy

Submitted by martin on 8 April, 2007 - 2:15

By James P Cannon. This is an extract from Cannon's reply to a criticism of his court evidence in 1941.

Comrade Munis [1] is dissatisfied with our assertions at the trial that “we submit to the majority”.

The Oehlerites also are scornful of this declaration and represent it as some kind of capitulatory repudiation of our principles in order to impress the jury. All these assumptions are without foundation. Our “submission to the majority” was not first revealed at the trial. We said it before the trial and continue to repeat it after the trial. It is a correct statement of our position because it conforms both to reality and necessity. Moreover, our Marxist teachers said it before us; we learned it from them.

What else can we do but “submit to the majority” if we are Marxists, and not Blanquists [3] or anarchist muddleheads? It is a timely occasion to probe into this question because we believe any ill-considered talk about some kind of mysterious “action”, presumed to be open to us while we remain not only a minority, but a very small, numerically insignificant minority, can lead only to a dangerous disorientation of the party. An exposition of the Marxist position on this question can also be useful as an antidote for any remnants of the half-Blanquist tradition of the early years of the Comintern in America.

The pioneer communists in the United States (and not only here) heard of the Bolshevik victory in Russia long before they learned about the political method and propaganda techniques whereby the Bolsheviks gained the mass support which made the seizure of power possible. Their first impressions were undoubtedly coloured by the capitalist press accounts which represented the revolution as a coup d’etat engineered by a small group. This distorted conception was epitomised by the title given to the American edition of Trotsky’s classic pamphlet Terrorism and Communism, which was published here by the party’s publishing house in 1922 under the completely misleading title: Dictatorship versus Democracy. We took the “dictatorship”, so to speak, and generously handed over to the bourgeoisie all claim to “democracy”.

This was far too big a concession, perhaps pardonable in a young movement lacking adequate knowledge about the democratic essence of the Bolshevik program, but by far out of date today. The bourgeoisie have always tried to picture communism as a “criminal conspiracy” in order to alienate the workers who are profoundly democratic in their sentiments. That was the aim once again in the Minneapolis trial. It was our task at the trial to go out of our way to refute this misrepresentation and emphasise the democratic basis of our program; not in order to placate our enemies and persecutors, as is assumed, but in order to reveal the truth to our friends, the American workers.

We cannot eat our cake and have it too. We must either “submit” to the majority and confine ourselves to propaganda designed to win over the majority—or, we must seize power, more correctly, try to seize power and break the neck of the party, by minority “action”.

Marxist authority is clear and conclusive in choosing between these alternatives. When we took our stand in court regarding “submission” to the majority we were not “folding our arms” and making “opportunistic” statements of “passivity in the face of the imperialist war”, as we are accused. Nothing of the sort. The testimony states, repeatedly, and with sufficient emphasis, that, while “submitting to the majority”—that is, making no minority insurrections or putsches—we are organising, speaking, writing, and “explaining”; in other words, carrying on propaganda with the object of winning over the majority to our program, which is the program of social revolution.

Neither were we simply trying to “make an honourable impression on the jury without taking into consideration that we should talk for the masses”. To be sure we did not stupidly disregard the jury which held the fate of twenty-eight comrades, not to mention the legality of the party, in its hands. But we were speaking also, and especially, “for the masses”. We testified primarily for publication. It was our deliberate aim to convince those who would read the testimony in printed form of the truth that the proletarian movement which we aspire to lead is a democratic movement, and not a “conspiracy”, as the prosecutor and the whole of the capitalist press would picture it, and as loose talkers would unconsciously aid them to so picture it; not a scheme to transfer power from one clique to another, but a movement of the majority in the interest of the majority.

In addition, it may as well be said candidly that this testimony was also deliberately designed as an educational shock to such members and sympathisers of our movement as may still, at this late day, be dabbling with the idea of a shorter cut to socialism by some mysterious prescription for “action”.

The Marxist authorities have all spoken in one voice on this question.

The Communist Manifesto, the first and the most fundamental statement of the principles of scientific socialism, defined the proletarian movement of emancipation, in contradistinction to all others in history, as follows:

All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.[27]

The communist political method and strategy follow ineluctably from this basic premise. Nowhere and never have the authoritative representatives of Marxism formulated the question otherwise. The Marxists aim to make the social transformation with the majority and not for the majority. The irreconcilable struggle of Marx and Engels against the Blanquists revolved around this pivot.

In 1895, summing up the experience of fifty years, Engels wrote, in his Introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France:

The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of the unconscious masses, is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organisations, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for, body and soul. The history of the last fifty years has taught us that.

The successors of Marx and Engels followed in their footsteps. The experiences of the Russian Revolution confirmed in life the basic premise of the founders of scientific socialism. It was precisely because Lenin and Trotsky had assimilated this concept into their flesh and blood that they knew how to concentrate their whole activity on propaganda to win over the majority, biding their time till they gained the majority, and resorting to “action” only when they felt assured of the support of the majority.

What did they do in the meantime? They “submitted to the majority”. What else could they do? Lenin explained it a hundred times, precisely In those months and days when the Bolsheviks were consciously preparing the struggle for power. In his April Theses on The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution, published in Pravda on April 20, 1917, a few days after his return to Russia, Lenin wrote:

As long as we are in the minority we carry on the work of criticising and exposing errors and at the same time we preach the necessity of transferring the entire state power to the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies, so that the people may overcome their mistakes by experience.

A few days later, he returned to this question, explaining the reason for this attitude, the reason being that “we are not Blanquists, we are Marxists”. On April 22 he wrote:

To become a power the class conscious workers must win the majority to their side. As long as no violence is used against the people there is no other road to power. We are not Blanquists, we do not stand for the seizure of power by a minority. We are Marxists, we stand for proletarian class struggle against petty-bougeois intoxication, against chauvinist-defencism, phrase-mongering, and dependence on the bourgeoisie.

Not once or twice, but repeatedly and almost continually, so that neither friend nor foe could possibly misunderstand him, in the months directly preceding the October Revolution, Lenin limited the Bolshevik task to the propaganda work of “criticising”, “exposing errors” and “advocating” in order to “win the majority to their side”. This was not camouflage for the enemy but education for the workers’ vanguard. He explained it theoretically as we, following him, tried to explain it in popular language at the trial.

Again, in April 1917, refuting the accusations of Plekhanov and others who accused the Bolsheviks of “anarchism, Blanquism, and so forth”, Lenin once again explained the question, for the benefit, as he said, of “those who really want to think and learn”. Into a few paragraphs he compresses a profound thesis which every member of the workers’ vanguard ought to learn by heart. He wrote:

In my theses, I absolutely insured myself against skipping over the peasant movement, which has not outlived itself, or the petty-bourgeois movement in general, against and playing at “seizure of power” by a workers’ government, against any kind of Blanquist adventurism; for I pointedly referred to the experience of the Paris Commune. And this experience, as we know, and as Marx proved at length in 1871 and Engels in 1891, absolutely excludes Blanquism, absolutely ensures the direct, immediate and unquestionable rule of the majority and the activity of the masses only to the extent that the majority itself acts consciously.

In the theses, I very definitely reduced the question to one of a struggle for influence within the Soviets of Workers’, Agricultural Laborers’, Peasants’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. To leave no shadow of doubt on this score, I twice emphasised in the theses the need for patient and persistent “explanatory” work “adapted to the practical needs of the masses”.

Ignorant persons or renegades from Marxism, like Mr. Plekhanov, may shout about anarchism, Blanquism, and so forth. But those who want to think and learn cannot fail to understand that Blanquism means the seizure of power by a minority, whereas the Soviets are admittedly the direct and immediate organisation of the majority of the people. Work confined to a struggle for influence within these Soviets cannot, simply cannot, stray into the swamp of Blanquism. Nor can it blunder into the swamp of anarchism, for anarchism denies the need for a state and for state power in the period of transition from the rule of the bourgeoisie to the rule of the proletariat, whereas I, with a precision that precludes any possibility of misinterpretation, advocate the need for a state in this period, although, in accordance with Marx and the lessons of the Paris Commune, I advocate not the usual parliamentary bourgeois state, but a state without a standing army, without a police opposed to the people, without an officialdom placed above the people.

Again explaining wherein “Marxism [differs] from Blanquism”—he obviously considered it absolutely necessary for the advanced workers to understand this so as to be sure of their ground at every step—he wrote in a letter to the Central Committee of the party on September 26-27, 1917:

To be successful, insurrection must rely not upon conspiracy and not upon a party, but upon the advanced class. That is the first point. Insurrection must rely upon a revolutionary upsurge of the people. That is the second point. Insurrection must rely upon that turning-point in the history of the growing revolution when the activity of the advanced ranks of the people is at its height, and when the vacillations in the ranks of the enemy, and in the ranks of the weak, half-hearted and irresolute friends of the revolution are strongest. That is the third point. And these three conditions for raising the question of insurrection distinguish Marxism from Blanquism.

Naturally, when Lenin, or any other Marxist, spoke of the necessity of the revolutionary party having the support of the majority he meant the real majority whose sentiments are ascertainable in various ways besides the ballot box of the bourgeois state. On the eve of the insurrection he wrote his devastating attack on Zinoviev and Kamenev, who opposed the insurrection on the ground, among other things, that “we do not enjoy a majority among the people, and in the absence of that condition insurrection is hopeless”.

Lenin, in A Letter to the Comrades, written on October 29-30, scornfully dismissed the authors of this statement as “either distorters of the truth or pedants who want an advance guarantee that throughout the whole country the Bolshevik Party has received exactly one-half of the votes plus one, this they want at all events, without taking the least account of the real circumstances of the revolution”. Nevertheless, he took pains to prove the Bolsheviks had the majority by “facts”: “the August 20 elections in Petrograd” ... “the district council elections in Moscow in September” ... “the new elections to the Soviets” ... “a majority of the peasant Soviets” who had “expressed itself against the coalition” ... “the soldiers are passing en masse over to the side of the Soviets” ... “Last, but not least ... the revolt of the peasantry”. He concluded his argument on this point by saying: “To doubt now that the majority of the people are following and will follow the Bolsheviks is shameful vacillation.”

Once again disavowing Blanquism, he wrote in his polemic against Zinoviev and Kamenev:

Military conspiracy is Blanquism, if it is organised not by a party of a definite class, if its organisers have not analysed the political moment in general and the international situation in particular, if the party has not on its side the sympathy of the majority of the people, as proved by objective facts …

On September 25-27 Lenin called upon the Bolshevik Party to take power. In this famous letter, addressed “to the Central Committee, the Petrograd and Moscow Committees of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party”, Lenin, with the logic and directness which characterised him, states his premise and his conclusion in the first sentence:

The Bolsheviks, having obtained a majority in the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies of both capitals, can and must take state power into their own hands.

He was not worried about a “formal” majority; “No revolution ever waits for that”. But he was sure of the real majority. He insisted upon the revolution “at this very moment”, as he expressed it, not sooner and not later, because:

The majority of the people are on our side. This was proved by the long and painful course of events from May 6 to August 31 and to September 12.: The majority gained in the Soviets of the metropolitan cities resulted from the people coming over to our side. The wavering of the Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, and the increase in the number of internationalists within their ranks prove the same thing.

The prosecution at the Minneapolis trial attempted to convict us, as charged in the indictment of an actual “conspiracy to overthrow the government by force and violence”. We successfully refuted this accusation, and the indictment covering this point was rejected by the jury. The most effective element of our refutation of this absurd charge against our small party was our exposition of the democratic basis of the proletarian program, of the party’s reliance on the majority to realise its program, and its corresponding obligation, while it remains in the minority, to “submit to the majority”. In making this exposition we had a legal purpose, but not only a legal purpose, in mind. As with all the testimony, it was designed primarily to explain and simplify our views and aims to the workers who would be future readers of the published court record.

We also thought a restatement of the Marxist position in this respect would not be wasted on the members of our own movement and might even be needed. The discussion which has arisen on this question only proves that we were more correct in this latter assumption than we realised at the time. Socialism is a democratic movement and its program, the program of the vanguard party, can be realised only with the support of the majority. The party’s basic task, while it remains in the minority, is “propaganda to win over the majority”. To state this was not capitulation to the prejudices of the jury; it is the teaching of Marx and Lenin, as has been shown in the foregoing references.

[1] Grandizo Munis was a Spanish Trotskyist who later become a spokesperson for the ultra-left group that calls itself the International Communist Current. They consider the existing labour movement as bourgeois, rejecting trade unionism, etc. They publish World Revolution in English.

[2] The "Oehlerites" were an ex-Trotskyist faction in the US led by Hugo Oehler. They made a principle of proclaiming "the revolutionary party" no matter how small its numbers or support, and of counterposing it as a supposedly finished institution to everything else. Essentially they were "Trotskyists" who were extremely formalistic and rigid in their thinking on general political questions as well as on the party, and thus parted company with Trotsky. They are the unacknowledged political ancestors of organisations like the WRP and SWP.

[3] Blanquism was an early form of revolutionary communism in France. The term used here means the politics of armed insurrection by a conspiratorial minority who would seize power for the workers.