Bolshevism and democracy

Submitted by Matthew on 16 March, 2011 - 5:29

The following report by Irving Howe of a debate on the record of Bolshevism is taken from the US Trotskyist Labor Action, the paper of the Workers’ Party. The debate between Max Shachtman of the Workers’ Party and Liston Oak, managing editor of the New Leader, took place in New York on 8 November 1946. The New Leader was a right-wing social-democratic journal. Liston Oak had been a member of the Communist Party of America.

This debate took place on the 29th anniversary of the Russian Revolution — the first in history in which the workers established their own government. The principles of the great October revolution remain the principles on which the Workers’ Party stands.

Liston Oak

Liston Oak, who spoke as a Social Democrat, began his speech with an admission that there were great differences between Leninism and Stalinism, but asserted that Lenin and Trotsky had used similar “dictatorial” methods as has Stalinism, and that the Stalinist regime was the “logical outgrowth” of the “one-party dictatorship established by the Bolsheviks.”

Oak saw Bolshevism as a kind of terroristic conspiracy on the part of a tiny, disciplined minority group, ruthless in its fanaticism and readiness to resort to violence, and unscrupulous in the means it used to reach its ends. Though Stalin is “cruder” than Lenin, he said, they are both in the Bolshevik tradition, Stalin continuing the amoral methods of Lenin. Stalinism is the result, in Oak’s view, of the unwillingness of the Bolshevik leaders to work with or unite with any of the other socialist group sin the Russia. Having established a minority dictatorship, Oak continued, the Bolsheviks could only resort to terror and thereby pave the way for Stalin.

To buttress his case, Oak quoted from Social-Democratics like Kautsky and Plekanov, who were opposed to the Bolshevik revolution; from Marxists like Luxemburg who support the Bolshevik revolution even though disagreeing with certain of Lenin’s tactics; and from Trotsky’s early writings at the turn of the century in which he polemicised against Lenin. Oak attacked Lenin’s conception of the party as leading to a conspiratorial clique of “professional revolutionists" who seek to manipulate the masses as if the generals of an army. The Social-Democratic or Menshevik conception of a party, on the other hand is, he said, a loosely-knit democratic organisation.

Oak supported the pre-Lenin policy of the Bolsheviks which called for a coalition government with the bourgeois parties. (What was amusing about this, though Oak didn’t seem to notice it, was that it was Stalin — who Oak now professes to hate so heartily — who favoured this policy which Lenin denounced upon arriving in Russia.)

Oak then denounced the Bolsheviks for illegalising the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries, though he did not mention why this was done. He denounced, further, the dissolution by the Bolsheviks of the Constituent Assembly which had been elected several months before the Bolshevik Revolution and represented the pre-revolutionary sentiments of the masses when they were still hesitant about supporting the Bolsheviks.

Turning to our day, Oak rejected the conception of revolution, which he believed would inevitably fall under Stalinist control, and came out in favour of gradual reforms since he considers that capitalism still has certain progressive functions to fulfil.

Max Shachtman

Max Shachtman emphasised the historical background against which the debate was being held: “Capitalism is bankrupt. To support it is equivalent to the suicide of society... What is Bolshevism? Bolshevism is the planned and organised attempt to mobilise the working class to take over state power in its own interests in order to sue its political supremacy for the purpose of establishing a classless society.”

“If,” continued Shachtman, “it can be proved that Stalinism is the natural and inevitable product of Bolshevism then you will have proved that the working class cannot take and hold socialist power and that any attempt to do so can lead only to its degradation under totalitarian dictatorship. I say this because Bolshevism is the only road to working-class power and socialism.”

Shachtman then proceeded to an historical examination of Bolshevism. The truth about it has been obscured first by the propaganda barrage by the bourgeoisie which would identify it with dictatorship, he pointed out, and secondly by the Stalinists... who would also identify it with dictatorship. He traced the origin of the Bolshevik movement in Russia, its struggle to overthrow the Tsarist autocracy, its demand for democratic rights for the Russian masses. He differentiated Bolshevism, which placed its faith in the working class and peasantry, from the Mensheviks who wanted a coalition with the liberal capitalists. And he further pointed out that the actual experiences of the Russian revolution confirmed the Bolshevik point of view, and showed it to be in harmony with the most profoundly democratic aspirations of the masses — for that is why the masses turned to Lenin.

The Bolshevik Party attacked by its enemies as dictatorial, was in reality a highly disciplined organisation for it was serious in its objective to destroy Tsarism and capitalism; but at the same time it was the most democratic organisation in history, for in no other party was there such freedom and fullness of discussion, such intellectual loyalty toward scrupulous regard for the rights of minorities. Only the Stalinist debasement has misled people to identify Bolshevism with internal party dictatorship.

“You will not find one party in modern times,” stressed Shachtman, “in which there was such free discussion, such rich and fruitful interchange of ideas... The whole internal history of Bolshevism is a history of free discussion and debate, not conducted in a dark corner, but openly, in the press of the party itself!” Shachtman laid particular stress on this last phrase.

“You need only read the works of Lenin,” continued Shachtman, “to see reflected there the vigorous, rich and fertile intellectual life, the favourable atmosphere for the development of revolutionary thought, that always prevailed in the Bolshevik party. Read these words and see if so much as a seed of Stalinism can be found in them!”

Shachtman then pointed out that on three essential touchstones of democratic and socialist standards the Bolshevik party was unsurpassed; its attitude toward national minorities; its attitude toward imperialist wars; and its attitude toward revolutions. He noted how the Bolsheviks granted freedom to Finland as soon as they acquired power and then made a devastating contrast with the behaviour of the English Social Democrat, Arthur Henderson “who sat in the British Cabinet as Privy Councillor when the British bombed and shelled during Dublin the Easter uprising of 1916 and murdered the Irish socialist martyr James Connolly!”

Shachtman, by this time going full guns, launched into a contrast between the war records of the Bolsheviks — who denounced World War One as imperialist and spread no illusions about it among the masses — and the war record of the Social-Democrats, each section of which supported its own imperialist rulers. “There is your road to socialism,” he turned to Oak, “To the stars through Hohenzollern and Churchill!”

Shachtman contrasted the attitudes of the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks toward the Russian Revolution itself: how the former wanted to limit it to a democratic capitalist state unable to solve any basic problems, while the latter pushed through to state power. He challenged Oak to tell the audience what the Mensheviks and SRs did during the civil war, how they worked with international capitalism against the young workers’ state.

Shachtman proceeded to show how Bolshevism and Stalinism were mortal enemies and complete opposites; how Stalin had launched a campaign of extermination against the old Bolsheviks; how, in fact, many of Oak's Menshevik heroes had become belated supporters of Stalin; and how Oak himself had during the war supported an alliance with the Stalinist totalitarianism.

“We say,” concluded Shachtman, “Stalinism grew out of Bolshevism only because the social democracy destroyed the hopes of the isolated Russian Revolution by trying to keep capitalism alive in Europe. The central lesson in the rise of Stalinism is not the abandonment of Bolshevism but the abandonment of reformism and insistence on the struggle for international socialism.”


In his first rebuttal, Liston Oak stressed a few main points:

1. He argued that if the Bolsheviks had formed a coalition with the “other socialist parties” they would not “have had to resort to minority violence.”

2. He quoted from documents of early opposition groups in the Bolshevik Party in the early 1920s which stressed the danger of bureaucratism in Russia.

3. Any party, he asserted, which seizes political power and identifies itself with a class, “as did the Bolsheviks,” finds it necessary to suppress all opposition. “Totalitarian organization leads to totalitarian society.”

4. He cited the Kronstadt rebellion against, and its suppression by, the Bolshevik government “as evidence of the undemocratic nature of Bolshevism.”

5. He denied that the Social Democrats were responsible for the failure of the European revolution after the First World War, asserting rather that it was the Bolsheviks who split the working class movement and thereby helped perpetuate capitalism.

6. He asserted that capitalism still had a future in certain places, one of which is “the backward countries which need capital investments.”

Rebuttal lashes Menshevik activity

In turn, Shachtman drove home the following main points in his rebuttal:

1. The Bolsheviks were not responsible for splitting the socialist movement; it was split by the Social Democrats who supported their imperialist war machines and put such revolutionary socialists as Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in jail. It was this division which split the socialist movement — this division between support of and opposition to imperialist war.

2. The reasons no coalition was formed with the “other socialist parties” when the Bolsheviks assumed power are:

(a) the masses of workers abandoned the ineffectual Mensheviks and came to the Bolsheviks;

(b) the masses of followers of the Social Revolutionary Party followed its left wing which did participate in the Bolshevik government; and

(c) the Mensheviks and SRs were opposed to the workers taking power and when the civil war came they supported the foreign intervention against the workers’ state.

3. The Constituent Assembly was dissolved by the Bolsheviks because it no longer represented the sentiments of the masses, having been elected before the revolutionary wave which rose to its crest in the October revolution. It gave way to the more representative Soviet of Workers’ Deputies which supported the Bolshevik government, even though convened by Mensheviks.

4. There was only one party after a while in Russia, not because the Bolsheviks so desired it, but because every other party took up arms against the workers’ state. Shachtman cited detailed evidence of how the Social Democratic government in Georgia concluded an agreement with Germany on June 13, 1918 and a few months later with Britain to use their troops against the Bolsheviks.

5. He ridiculed Oak’s argument that capitalism still had some future and inquired whether his theory that it could help “backward countries” was what led to the British Labour Party government’s scandalous behaviour in Greece and Palestine.

6. He summed up by stressing the democratic and revolutionary character of Bolshevism, its loyalty to the idea of working class liberation and its lessons for our time.

In his final rebuttal Oak rephrased his point of view in more general terms, constructing an abstract argument about totalitarian means and ends.

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