Lenin and Democracy

by Gary Tedman



We can derive most of Lenin's theory of democracy (which is not really separate from his Marxist theory) from two main sources: "The State and Revolution" and "Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution", both of which adhere closely to Marx and Engels, but extrapolate certain concepts a little further based on new experiences. I will only refer here to the one, to "The State and Revolution": It is important to note first that Lenin regards the State to be a product of class antagonism, and a body standing above the people, chiefly for class repression; in this sense like Marx he saw it as in contradiction to democracy.


In capitalist society, Lenin says, if it develops under the most favorable conditions we see a more or less complete democracy. But this democracy, he says, is always hemmed in by the narrow limits set by the fact of capitalist economics and exploitation, and consequently it always remains a democracy for the minority, i.e. one only for the propertied classes, only for the rich. Freedom in capitalist society always remains, he says, about the same as it was in the ancient Greek republics: freedom for the slave-owners.


Because of exploitation, 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."


Lenin submits that if we look more closely into the machinery of capitalist democracy, we will see everywhere, in the petty details of suffrage, the residential qualifications, (the then) exclusion of women, etc., in the technique of the representative institutions, in the actual obstacles to the right of assembly (public buildings are not for “paupers”! he says), in the capitalist organization of the daily press, etc., etc.,--we see endless limits on democracy. These limits, exceptions, exclusions, and obstacles for the poor seem slight, he says, especially in the eyes of one who has never known want himself and has never been in close contact with the oppressed classes in their mass life

"(and nine out of 10, if not 99 out of 100, bourgeois publicists and politicians come under this category); but in their sum total these restrictions exclude and squeeze out the poor from politics, from active participation in democracy."


From this capitalist democracy he does not see any forward development capable of proceeding directly and smoothly towards greater and greater democracy by increments. Progressive development according to Lenin must proceed through the "dictatorship of the proletariat", and cannot do otherwise, because the inevitable resistance of the capitalist exploiters will not be broken by anyone else or in any other way.


However, this dictatorship of the proletariat cannot result merely in an expansion of democracy as hitherto understood. Simultaneously with the huge expansion of democracy that it would nevertheless achieve, and which for the first time here becomes democracy for the people, and not "democracy for the money-bags", the dictatorship of the proletariat, he says, imposes a series of restrictions on the freedom of the oppressors, the exploiters, the capitalists, to prevent them exploiting. Lenin argues, that socialists must suppress them in order to free humanity from wage slavery, that their resistance (to this working class suppression) must be crushed by force. That all this is necessary, is because there can be no freedom and democracy where there is suppression and where there is violence.


In 1847, the "Communist Manifesto", Marx, Lenin says, indicated the tasks of revolution, but did not explain the ways of accomplishing them. The answer given in the "Communist Manifesto" was that the State machine was to be replaced by the proletariat organized as the ruling class, by the "winning of the battle of democracy" (Marx). Marx, he explains, not being a Utopian, expected actual experience to provide the reply to the question as to the "specific forms" this new organization would assume.


He goes to the crux of the matter as stated by Marx:


"The question then arises: what transformation will the state undergo in communist society? In other words, what social functions will remain in existence there that are analogous to present state functions? This question can only be answered scientifically, and one does not get a flea-hop nearer to the problem by a thousandfold combination of the word people with the word state." 


There must be a special stage, or a special phase, of transition from capitalism to communism. The transition from capitalist society--which is developing towards communism--to communist society is impossible, according to Lenin, without a "political transition period", and the state in this period can only be the "revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat".


What, then, he asks, is the relation of this dictatorship to democracy?


The democracy of the "Paris Commune" (18 March until 28 May 1871) was analyzed by Marx as the given material world historic example, and Lenin adds this to his analysis. He first refers to a change made to the theory by Marx expressed in the "Communist Manifesto" as the newly recognized necessity for smashing the (old) State machine.


In the Commune, he says, the smashed State machine is replaced by fuller democracy: i.e. abolition of the standing army; all officials are to be elected and subject to recall, and this signifies a 'gigantic' replacement of certain institutions by other institutions of a fundamentally different type. For Lenin, this is precisely a case of "quantity being transformed into quality": democracy, introduced as fully and consistently as is conceivable, is transformed here from bourgeois into proletarian democracy; from the State (= a special force for the suppression of a particular class) into something which is no longer the State proper.


In this connection, the following measures of the Commune, already emphasized by Marx, are particularly noteworthy for Lenin: the abolition of all representation allowances, and of all monetary privileges to officials, and the reduction of the remuneration of all servants of the State to the level of "workmen's wages".


It is extremely instructive to note, he says, that, in speaking of the function of those officials who are necessary for the Commune and for proletarian democracy, Marx compares them to the workers of "every other employer", that is, of the ordinary capitalist enterprise, with its "workers, foremen, and accountants".


Lenin is careful to distinguish this democracy from, but also show the connection with, 'primitive democracy': he says one of the 'founders' of modern opportunism, the ex-Social-Democrat Eduard Bernstein, had more than once repeated the vulgar bourgeois jeers at 'primitive' democracy. Like all opportunists, Lenin says, and like the Kautskyites, firstly he did not understand that the transition from capitalism to socialism is impossible without a certain 'reversion' to 'primitive' democracy, for how else can the majority, and then the whole population without exception, proceed to discharge State functions? And, that secondly, "primitive democracy" based on capitalism and capitalist culture is not the same as primitive democracy in prehistoric or pre-capitalist times.


Lenin maintains that Bernstein simply cannot conceive of the possibility of "voluntary centralism", of the voluntary fusion of the proletarian communes, for the sole purpose of destroying bourgeois rule and the bourgeois State machine. Like all philistines, he says, Bernstein pictures centralism as something which can be imposed and maintained solely from above, and solely by the bureaucracy and military clique.


Lenin's extrapolation also contains Marx's criticism of parliamentarian democracy: He repeats: "The Commune", Marx wrote, "was to be a working, not a parliamentary, body, executive and legislative at the same time...."Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to represent and repress [ver- and zertreten] the people in parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people constituted in communes, as individual suffrage serves every other employer in the search for workers, foremen and accountants for his business".


Owing to the prevalence of social-chauvinism and opportunism, Lenin says, this remarkable criticism of parliamentarism, made in 1871, also belongs now to the "forgotten words" of Marxism (this seems to be as true today as it was then). The professional Cabinet Ministers and parliamentarians, the "traitors to the proletariat" and the 'practical' socialists of our day, Lenin says, have left all criticism of parliamentarism to the anarchists, and, on this "wonderfully reasonable ground," they denounce all criticism of parliamentarism as 'anarchism'. Consequently, we cannot imagine democracy, even proletarian democracy, without representative institutions, but we can and must imagine democracy without parliamentarism, if, he says, criticism of bourgeois society is not to be mere words for us, if the desire to overthrow the rule of the bourgeoisie is our earnest and sincere desire, and not a mere 'election' cry for catching workers' votes. (It is important to note here that these principles in no way prevented Lenin from supporting various parliamentary struggles by various Left parties if the situation called for it, there is a big distinction between criticism of parliamentarism and being always and forever opposed to parliament).


According to Lenin, Social-Democratic literature in relation to Marxism always replaces dialectical materialist analysis with eclecticism, which he says, is the easiest way of deceiving the people. Eclecticism gives an illusory satisfaction: it seems to take into account all sides of the process, all trends of development, all the conflicting influences, and so on, whereas in reality it provides no integral and revolutionary conception of the process of social development at all, pointing out that this sort of substitution was nothing new; it was observed even in the history of classical Greek philosophy. He is most insistent on this in relation to the falsifying of Marxism in opportunist fashion on the question of the theory of Marx and Engels on the inevitability of a violent revolution, and how this revolution refers to the overthrow of the bourgeois state. The latter cannot, he says, be superseded by the proletarian State (the dictatorship of the proletariat) through the process of 'withering away", but, as a 'general rule', only through this violent revolution. Note that this is a 'general rule', not a hard and fast requirement that any and all revolutions need to follow a necessarily violent course.


In seizing State power, the proletariat thereby "abolishes the state as state".


These words for Lenin express the experience of the "Paris Commune", about which Engels speaks of the proletarian revolution 'abolishing' the bourgeois State, while he emphasizes that his words about the State withering away refer to the remnants of the proletarian State after the socialist revolution. Lenin emphasizes that in speaking of the State "withering away" or "dying down of itself", Engels refers quite definitely to the period after the State has taken possession of the means of production in the name of the whole of society, that is, after the socialist revolution.


The political form of the State at this time is considered the most complete democracy. Engels is, Lenin explains, consequently speaking here of democracy also "dying down of itself", or "withering away" which seems strange at first sight, but is explainable in that democracy is also a function of the State and, consequently, also disappears when the State withers away. According to Lenin revolution alone can abolish the bourgeois State, while the 'state in general', i.e., the most complete democracy, can only 'wither away'.


To elucidate this further Lenin explains how the "free people's state" was a catchphrase current among the German Social-Democrats in the seventies, and that this catchphrase was devoid of all political content except that it described the concept of democracy in a pompous philistine fashion. Insofar as it hinted in a legally permissible manner at a democratic republic, Engels, he says, was prepared to 'justify' its use 'for a time' from an agitational stance. But he is sure it was an opportunist catchphrase, for it amounted to something more than prettifying bourgeois democracy, and represented a failure to understand the socialist criticism of the State in general. He says that we (socialists) are in favor of a democratic republic as the best form of State for the working class under capitalism, but we have no right to forget that wage slavery is the lot of the people even in the most democratic bourgeois republic, and furthermore, he reminds us again, every State is a "special force" for the suppression of the oppressed class and consequently that every State is not "free" and not a "people's state".


For Lenin, the petty-bourgeois democrats, such as the Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks in the then Russia, and also their twin brothers, as he calls them, the social-chauvinists and opportunists of Western Europe, expect 'more' from democratic universal suffrage than can actually be achieved. Lenin sees them as sharing and promulgating the false notion that universal suffrage is capable of revealing the will of the majority of the working people and of securing its realization. He notes that Engels is explicit in calling universal suffrage an instrument specifically of bourgeois rule.


Universal suffrage, Engels says, obviously taking account of the long experience of German Social-Democracy, is

"the gauge of the maturity of the working class. It cannot and never will be anything more in the present-day state."

In a section on a late text by Engels Lenin re-emphasizes that, in the usual argument about the State, the mistake is constantly made, namely, it is constantly forgotten that the abolition of the State also means the abolition of democracy; and that the withering away of the State means the withering away of democracy. He admits that at first sight this seems incomprehensible, that indeed, someone might even suspect us (he says), of expecting the advent of a system of society in which even the principle of subordination of the minority to the majority will not be observed--for democracy means the recognition of this very principle.


But no, democracy is not identical (this non-identical aspect must be emphasized) with the subordination of the minority to the majority. Democracy, he explains, is a State which recognizes (it takes it as a principle) the subordination of the minority to the majority, i.e., it is an organization for the systematic use of force by one class against another, by one section of the population against another; but, although we set ourselves the ultimate aim of abolishing the State, he says, i.e., abolishing all organized and systematic violence against people in general, we do not expect the advent of a system of society in which the principle of subordination of the minority to the majority will not be observed, nevertheless, in striving for socialism "we are convinced", he maintains, that it will develop into communism and, therefore, that the need for violence against people in general, and of one section of the population on another, will vanish, since people will become accustomed to observing the elementary conditions of social life without subordination and so without violence (the subordination is itself a form and source of violence).


In what I think is an interesting usage of terms, Lenin refers to Engels saying that in order to emphasize this element of "habit", Engels speaks of a new generation, "reared in new, free social conditions", which will "be able to discard the entire lumber of the state"--e.g. of any State, including the democratic-republican State.


We must note in passing, that of course these comments cannot take into account the enormous opposition to this process of "habituation" that have come into effect and that have been developed since these words, which are stated before World War II, and which I will remark on later. Nevertheless Lenin says:


"Clearly, there can be no question of specifying the moment of the future "withering away", the more so since it will obviously be a lengthy process."


But this (withering away socialist State) for Lenin is no longer a State in the proper sense of the word: for the suppression of the minority of exploiters by the majority of the wage slaves is, he suggests, "comparatively easy", a simple and natural task, one that will entail "far less bloodshed" than the suppression of the risings of slaves, serfs or wage-laborers, and he thinks it will cost mankind far less, chiefly because it is compatible with the extension of democracy to such a huge majority of the population, and that the need for a special machine of suppression will thus begin to, in his words, disappear. He clearly does not envisage the highly complex State machine that the bourgeoisie uses today as being necessary for performing this task, because, the people, he says, can suppress the exploiters even with a very simple "machine", almost without a special apparatus, by the basic organization of the armed people (such as the Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies).


It is here that it seems to me (keeping things in proportion) Lenin is being a little naive about the role of what we now call the media, in terms of understanding the role of art (what we might call since Roosevelt and Adorno the 'media-industrial complex'), and especially for our time and with our knowledge of world events since (note that when he famously met some enthusiastic revolutionary art students Lenin was not embarrassed to admit a certain lack of knowledge in this context). We can see how what Lenin assumes (here) might be possible if a single nation were allowed to remain in peace to fight its internal battles, but with globalized capitalism and imperialism rampant, and by applying Lenin's own theory of imperialism, it seems unlikely that this stage of 'withering' could even begin today anywhere on Earth, or that a special State machine for suppression would not be needed in socialism to prevent the reverse procedure.


In other words: this State suppression of the exploiting class is no easy task, and certainly impossible only with an army, untrained and educated in the ways of the fourth estate, the media. And, if the task is alloted only to armed forces, the characteristic of such a social formation would be bound to be highly militaristic, of course, and thus not so attractive in and of itself (is militarism attractive?--a lot could be said on this subject, because of course to some it is precisely that, a desirable end in itself).


What is missing here, then, is I suggest a theory of the media, of mediation between the superstructure and base, which relies (in its turn) on a materialist theory of aesthetics, so a theory of the 'aesthetic level' of practice. I have argued elsewhere that this exists in Marx, but is, in a manner of speaking, dormant and has not been brought out properly.


To sum up, and present one significant consequence of this which I think is important, but only in a descriptive way (for the moment), I would suggest that the phenomenon of Stalinism, apart from the effects of the external aggression against Soviet socialism (which cannot be stressed enough or with enough justice here), was also a result of this Leninist concept or the lack of it, probably taken too seriously and to its extreme. The most obvious result was the tendency to an over-reliance on the penal system of exile and camp colonies, i.e. the Gulag etc, as methods for punishment and rehabilitation of deviants from the dominant socialist ideology. To be (very) schematic: It would be inevitable that without expertise on the aesthetic level of practice this would become the 'practical-pragmatic' but superficial answer to the problem of consolidating the base and superstructure. In this way Stalinism (a kind of militarism) would have tended to characterize the whole society, especially as it continued after the war, which had given it justification. Such Stalinism also had the effect of generating its socialist 'opposite', Trotskyism, the kind of inverse but equally in error 'doppelganger'. I have no doubt because of the repercussions of these errors in practice this question of art is the most important one to solve for current radical left politics.





I have used the term 'errors' here as a kind of shorthand, I am not myself convinced that these are actual errors, or could have ever been avoided in practice. And there is of course also the question: when is an error in fact simply the operation of bourgeois ideology in a context that was mistakenly thought of as immune? Perhaps the mistake therefore boils down to the assumption, at certain points, of immunity to ideology; but from where does this false notion of immunity stem? Possibly from the same source, the relative lack of attention to the role of media; both Gramsci and more recently Althusser have approached these questions, because, presumably, they saw theoretical work that needed to be done (note, it is always a common attitude of the philistine rightists to discard art as if it were flim flam, even though it is a huge industry, why? Probably because they perceive something, irrespective of its content and as such, dangerous to them here).


But a 'lack of attention' is not a simple neutrality, it is also the effect of something; let us say: it is the effect of leaving a vacuum into which one may know, feel or sense that something will rush in to fill it, and what will always rush in to fill this vacuum? --Bourgeois ideology would be the obvious answer, but in one sense this answer also avoids the main issue. One can, in a militaristic fashion, always inculcate 'correct' ideology to counteract 'incorrect' ideology, and feel safe that you have done so, one can repeat Marxism like a mantra, etc. This apparently ensures the 'consciousness' will be the proper 'class consciousness'; however, this obviously leaves out of the account the whole of Freud, the role of the unconscious, it does not address feelings, or aesthetics (technical and formal expertise of the media, etc), and so is likely to fail on many levels in practice. So, in short, I would say that even in this 'answer' we find the same 'lack of attention' arising, it not being dealt with, and the ground is left open to the enemy, so to speak.


Note: this is a revised version of a text previously published.


The State and Revolution

V. I. Lenin

Written: August - September, 1917

Source: Collected Works, Volume 25, p. 381-492

First Published: 1918

Transcription\Markup: Zodiac and Brian Baggins

Online Version: Lenin Internet Archive (marxists.org) 1993, 1999 -




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  • Some Problems with the Dictatorship of the Proletariat:
    The author points out a number of problems with Lenin’s theory of democracy that need to be addressed either by revising the theory or modernizing it, taking into account the global and powerful position of neoliberalism. Without any doubt, Lenin was a democrat. He believed in real democracy for the proletariat and the peasants. It outraged him that the Russian revolution of 1905 did not result in a real democracy. Instead the big bourgeoisie and Tsar made a deal to share powers and exclude the laboring classes in the process. But the big bourgeoisie received only a consultative not a powerful legislative assembly. I think Lenin then concluded the bourgeoisie state had to be violently overthrown and will not just ‘wither away’ via incremental reforms if the under classes are to have immediate, direct, and full political participation. Lenin envisioned a workers state that is both democratic for the workers but authoritarian for the exploiting classes. The workers state would still hold elections for representative institutions but without all the bourgeoisie limits to exclude workers participation: poll taxes, education, property, wealth requirements. Lenin also seems to underestimate the amount of force needed to suppress the exploiting classes. He thinks less force than to contain violent slave, serf, or proletarian uprisings. How long can this ‘subordination of the minority by the majority’ be necessary? Can the workers state really ever ‘wither away’ in an era of globalized capitalism and violent imperialism? Then there are the unintended consequences of a working class democracy. The problem is how to maintain a proper balance between democracy and authoritarianism so the system does not tip over into full authoritarianism. There is also the danger of a highly militarized socialism that attempts to keep control over the exploiting classes by creating a Spartan like society. Unlike the Athenians, the Spartans paid a price in terms of culture and freedom by expending all of their energies into keeping their state slaves the helots under constant control and surveillance. These are but some interesting questions of modern socialism that provoke thought. NT

    Posted by Nat Turner, 09/30/2014 8:32am (4 years ago)

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