Third (Communist) International
THESES ON BOURGEOIS DEMOCRACY AND THE DICTATORSHIP OF THE PROLETARIAT
4 March 1919
1. Faced with the growth of the revolutionary workers’ movement in every country, the bourgeoisie and their agents in the workers’ organizations are making desperate attempts to find ideological and political arguments in defence of the rule of the exploiters. Condemnation of dictatorship and defence of democracy are particularly prominent among these arguments. The falsity and hypocrisy of this argument, repeated in a thousand strains by the capitalist press and at the Berne yellow International Conference in February 1919, are obvious to all who refuse to betray the fundamental principles of socialism.
2. Firstly, this argument employs the concepts of ’democracy in general’ and ’dictatorship in general’, without posing the question of the class concerned. This non-class or above-class presentation, which supposedly is popular, is an outright travesty of the basic tenet of socialism, namely, its theory of class struggle, which socialists who have sided with the bourgeoisie recognize in words but disregard in practice. For in no civilized capitalist country does ’democracy in general’ exist; all that exists is bourgeois democracy, and it is not a question of ’dictatorship in general’, but of the dictatorship of the oppressed class, i.e., the proletariat, over its oppressors and exploiters, i.e., the bourgeoisie, in order to overcome the resistance offered by the exploiters in their fight to maintain their domination.
3. History teaches us that no oppressed class ever did, or could, achieve power without going through a period of dictatorship, i.e., the conquest of political power and forcible suppression of the resistance always offered by the exploiters – a resistance that is most desperate, most furious, and that stops at nothing. The bourgeoisie, whose domination is now defended by the socialists who denounce ’dictatorship in general’ and extol ’democracy in general’, won power in the advanced countries through a series of insurrections, civil wars, and the forcible suppression of kings, feudal lords, slaveowners and their attempts at restoration. In books, pamphlets, congress resolutions and propaganda speeches socialists everywhere have thousands and millions of times explained to the people the class nature of these bourgeois revolutions and this bourgeois dictatorship. That is why the present defence of bourgeois democracy under cover of talk about ’democracy in general’ and the present howls and shouts against proletarian dictatorship under cover of shouts about ’dictatorship in general’ are an outright betrayal of socialism. They are, in fact, desertion to the bourgeoisie, denial of the proletariat’s right to its own, proletarian, revolution, and defence of bourgeois reformism at the very historical juncture when bourgeois reformism throughout the world has collapsed and the war has created a revolutionary situation.
4. In explaining the class nature of bourgeois civilisation, bourgeois democracy and the bourgeois parliamentary system, all socialists have expressed the idea formulated with the greatest scientific precision by Marx and Engels, namely, that the most democratic bourgeois republic is no more than a machine for the suppression of the working class by the bourgeoisie, for the suppression of the working people by a handful of capitalists. There is not a single revolutionary, not a single Marxist among those now shouting against dictatorship and for democracy who has not sworn and vowed to the workers that he accepts this basic truth of socialism. But now, when the revolutionary proletariat is in a fighting mood and taking action to destroy this machine of oppression and to establish proletarian dictatorship, these traitors to socialism claim that the bourgeoisie have granted the working people ’pure democracy’, have abandoned resistance and are prepared to yield to the majority of the working people. They assert that in a democratic republic there is not, and never has been, any such thing as a state machine for the oppression of labour by capital.
5. The Paris Commune – to which all who parade as socialists pay lip service, for they know that the workers ardently and sincerely sympathize with the Commune – showed very clearly the historically conventional nature and limited value of the bourgeois parliamentary system and bourgeois democracy – institutions which, though highly progressive compared with medieval times, inevitably require a radical alteration in the era of proletarian revolution. It was Marx who best appraised the historical significance of the Commune. In his analysis, he revealed the exploiting nature of bourgeois democracy and the bourgeois parliamentary system under which the oppressed classes enjoy the right to decide once in several years which representative of the propertied classes shall ’represent and suppress’ (ver- und zertreten) the people in parliament. And it is now, when the Soviet movement is embracing the entire world and continuing the work of the Commune for all to see, that the traitors to socialism are forgetting the concrete experience and concrete lessons of the Paris Commune and repeating the old bourgeois rubbish about ’democracy in general’. The Commune was not a parliamentary institution.
6. The significance of the Commune, furthermore, lies in the fact that it endeavoured to crush, to smash to its very foundations, the bourgeois state apparatus, the bureaucratic, judicial, military and police machine, and to replace it by a self-governing, mass workers’ organization in which there was no division between legislative and executive power. All contemporary bourgeois democratic republics, including the German republic, which the traitors to socialism, in mockery of the truth, describe as a proletarian republic, retain this state apparatus. We therefore again get quite clear confirmation of the point that shouting in defence of ’democracy in general’ is actually defence of the bourgeoisie and their privileges as exploiters.
7. ’Freedom of assembly’ can be taken as a sample of the requisites
of ’pure democracy’. Every class-conscious worker who has not broken with
his class will readily appreciate the absurdity of promising freedom of
assembly to the exploiters at a time and in a situation when the exploiters
are resisting the overthrow of their rule and are fighting to retain their
privileges. When the bourgeoisie were revolutionary, they did not, either
in England in 1649 or in France in 1793, grant ’freedom of assembly’ to
the monarchists and nobles, who summoned foreign troops and ’assembled’
to organize attempts at restoration. If the present-day bourgeoisie, who
have long since become reactionary, demand from the proletariat advance
guarantees of ’freedom of assembly’ for the exploiters, whatever the resistance
offered by the capitalists to being expropriated, the workers will only
laugh at that hypocrisy.
The workers know perfectly well, too, that even in the most democratic bourgeois republic ’freedom of assembly’ is a hollow phrase, for the rich have the best public and private buildings at their disposal, and enough leisure to assemble at meetings, which are protected by the bourgeois machine of power. The rural and urban workers and the small peasants – the overwhelming majority of the population – are denied all these things. As long as that state of affairs prevails, ’equality’, i.e., ’pure democracy’, is a fraud. The first thing to do to win genuine equality and enable the working people to enjoy democracy in practice is to deprive the exploiters of all the public and sumptuous private buildings, to give the working people leisure and to see to it that their freedom of assembly is protected by armed workers, not by scions of the nobility or capitalist officers in command of downtrodden soldiers.
Only when that change is effected can we speak of freedom of assembly and of equality without mocking at the workers, at working people in general, at the poor. And this change can be effected only by the vanguard of the working people, the proletariat, which overthrows the exploiters, the bourgeoisie.
8. ’Freedom of the press’ is another of the principal slogans of ’pure democracy’. And here, too, the workers know – and socialists everywhere have admitted it millions of times – that this freedom is a deception while the printing-presses and the biggest stocks of paper are appropriated by the capitalists, and while capitalist rule over the press remains, a rule that is manifested throughout the world all the more strikingly, sharply and cynically the more democracy and the republican system are developed, as in America for example. The first thing to do to win real equality and genuine democracy for the working people, for the workers and peasants, is to deprive capital of the possibility of hiring writers, buying up publishing houses and bribing newspapers. And to do that the capitalists and exploiters have to be overthrown and their resistance suppressed. The capitalists have always used the term ’freedom’ to mean freedom for the rich to get richer and for the workers to starve to death. In capitalist usage, freedom of the press means freedom of the rich to bribe the press, freedom to use their wealth to shape and fabricate so-called public opinion. In this respect, too, the defenders of ’pure democracy’ prove to be defenders of an utterly foul and venal system that gives the rich control over the mass media. They prove to be deceivers of the people, who, with the aid of plausible, fine-sounding, but thoroughly false phrases, divert them from the concrete historical task of liberating the press from capitalist enslavement. Genuine freedom and equality will be embodied in the system which the Communists are building, and in which there will be no opportunity for amassing wealth at the expense of others, no objective opportunities for putting the press under the direct or indirect power of money, and no impediments in the way of any workingman (or groups of workingmen, in any numbers) for enjoying and practising equal rights in the use of public printing-presses and public stocks of paper.
9. The history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries demonstrated, even before the war, what this celebrated ’pure democracy’ really is under capitalism. Marxists have always maintained that the more developed, the ’purer’ democracy is, the more naked, acute and merciless the class struggle becomes, and the ’purer’ the capitalist oppression and bourgeois dictatorship. The Dreyfus case in republican France, the massacre of strikers by hired bands armed by the capitalists in the free and democratic American republic – these and thousands of similar facts illustrate the truth which the bourgeoisie are vainly seeking to conceal, namely, that actually terror and bourgeois dictatorship prevail in the most democratic of republics and are openly displayed every time the exploiters think the power of capital is being shaken.
10. The imperialist war of 1914-18 conclusively revealed even to backward workers the true nature of bourgeois democracy, even in the freest republics, as being a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Tens of millions were killed for the sake of enriching the German or the British group of millionaires and multimillionaires, and bourgeois military dictatorships were established in the freest republics. This military dictatorship continues to exist in the Allied countries even after Germany’s defeat. It was mostly the war that opened the eyes of the working people, that stripped bourgeois democracy of its camouflage and showed the people the abyss of speculation and profiteering that existed during and because of the war. It was in the name of ’freedom and equality’ that the bourgeoisie waged the war, and in the name of ’freedom and equality’ that the munition manufacturers piled up fabulous fortunes. Nothing that the yellow Berne International does can conceal from the people the now thoroughly exposed exploiting character of bourgeois freedom, bourgeois equality and bourgeois democracy.
11. In Germany, the most developed capitalist country of continental
Europe, the very first months of full republican freedom, established as
a result of imperialist Germany’s defeat, have shown the German workers
and the whole world the true class substance of the bourgeois-democratic
republic. The murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg is an event
of epoch-making significance not only because of the tragic death of these
finest people and leaders of the truly proletarian, Communist International,
but also because the class nature of an advanced European state – it can
be said without exaggeration, of an advanced state on a world-wide scale
– has been conclusively exposed. If those arrested, i.e., those placed
under state protection, could be assassinated by officers and capitalists
with impunity, and this under a government headed by social-patriots, then
the democratic republic where such a thing was possible is a bourgeois
dictatorship. Those who voice their indignation at the murder of Karl Liebknecht
and Rosa Luxemburg but fail to understand this fact are only demonstrating
their stupidity, or hypocrisy. ’Freedom’ in the German republic, one of
the freest and advanced republics of the world, is freedom to murder arrested
leaders of the proletariat with impunity. Nor can it be otherwise as long
as capitalism remains, for the development of democracy sharpens rather
than dampens the class struggle which, by virtue of all the results and
influences of the war and of its consequences, has been brought to boiling
Throughout the civilized world we see Bolsheviks being exiled, persecuted and thrown into prison. This is the case, for example, in Switzerland, one of the freest bourgeois republics, and in America, where there have been anti-Bolshevik pogroms, etc. From the standpoint of ’democracy in general’ or ’pure democracy’, it is really ridiculous that advanced, civilized, and democratic countries, which are armed to the teeth, should fear the presence of a few score men from backward, famine-stricken and ruined Russia, which the bourgeois papers, in tens of millions of copies, describe as savage, criminal, etc. Clearly, the social situation that could produce this crying contradiction is in fact a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
12. In these circumstances, proletarian dictatorship is not only an
absolutely legitimate means of overthrowing the exploiters and suppressing
their resistance, but also absolutely necessary to the entire mass of working
people, being their only defence against the bourgeois dictatorship which
led to the war and is preparing new wars.
The main thing that socialists fail to understand and that constitutes their short-sightedness in matters of theory, their subservience to bourgeois prejudices and their political betrayal of the proletariat is that in capitalist society, whenever there is any serious aggravation of the class struggle intrinsic to that society, there can be no alternative but the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie or the dictatorship of the proletariat. Dreams of some third way are reactionary, petty-bourgeois lamentations. That is borne out by more than a century of development of bourgeois democracy and the working-class movement in all the advanced countries, and notably by the experience of the past five years. This is also borne out by the whole science of political economy, by the entire content of Marxism, which reveals the economic inevitability, wherever commodity economy prevails, of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie that can only be replaced by the class which the very growth of capitalism develops, multiplies, welds together and strengthens, that is, the proletarian class.
13. Another theoretical and political error of the socialists is their failure to understand that ever since the rudiments of democracy first appeared in antiquity, its forms inevitably changed over the centuries as one ruling class replaced another. Democracy assumed different forms and was applied in different degrees in the ancient republics of Greece, the medieval cities and the advanced capitalist countries. It would be sheer nonsense to think that the most profound revolution in human history, the first case in the world of power being transferred from the exploiting minority to the exploited majority, could take place within the time-worn framework of the old, bourgeois, parliamentary democracy, without drastic changes, without the creation of new forms of democracy, new institutions that embody the new conditions for applying democracy, etc.
14. Proletarian dictatorship is similar to the dictatorship of other
classes in that it arises out of the need, as every other dictatorship
does, to forcibly suppress the resistance of the class that is losing its
political sway. The fundamental distinction between the dictatorship of
the proletariat and the dictatorship of other classes – landlord dictatorship
in the Middle Ages and bourgeois dictatorship in all the civilized capitalist
countries – consists in the fact that the dictatorship of the landowners
and bourgeoisie was the forcible suppression of the resistance offered
by the vast majority of the population, namely, the working people. In
contrast, proletarian dictatorship is the forcible suppression of the resistance
of the exploiters, i.e., an insignificant minority of the population, the
landowners and capitalists.
It follows that proletarian dictatorship must inevitably entail not only a change in democratic forms and institutions, generally speaking, but precisely such a change as provides an unparalleled extension of the actual enjoyment of democracy by those oppressed by capitalism – the toiling classes.
And indeed, the form of proletarian dictatorship that has already taken shape, i.e., Soviet power in Russia, the Räte-System in Germany, the Shop Stewards Committees in Britain and similar Soviet institutions in other countries, all this implies and presents to the toiling classes, i.e., the vast majority of the population, greater practical opportunities for enjoying democratic rights and liberties than ever existed before, even approximately, in the best and the most democratic bourgeois republics.
The substance of Soviet government is that the permanent and only foundation of state power, the entire machinery of state, is the mass-scale organization of the classes oppressed by capitalism, i.e., the workers and the semi-proletarians (peasants who do not exploit the labour of others and regularly resort to the sale of at least a part of their own labour-power). It is the people who even in the most democratic bourgeois republics, while possessing equal rights by law, have in fact been debarred by thousands of devices and subterfuges from participation in political life and enjoyment of democratic rights and liberties, that are now drawn into constant and unfailing, moreover, decisive, participation in the democratic administration of the state.
15. The equality of citizens, irrespective of sex, religion, race, or nationality, which bourgeois democracy everywhere has always promised but never effected, and never could effect because of the domination of capital, is given immediate and full effect by the Soviet system, or dictatorship of the proletariat. The fact is that this can only be done by a government of the workers, who are not interested in the means of production being privately owned and in the fight for their division and redivision.
16. The old, i.e., bourgeois, democracy and the parliamentary system were so organized that it was the mass of working people who were kept farthest away from the machinery of government. Soviet power, i.e., the dictatorship of the proletariat, on the other hand, is so organized as to bring the working people close to the machinery of government. That, too, is the purpose of combining the legislative and executive authority under the Soviet organization of the state and of replacing territorial constituencies by production units – the factory.
17. The army was a machine of oppression not only under the monarchy. It remains as such in all bourgeois republics, even the most democratic ones. Only the Soviets, the permanent organizations of government authority of the classes that were oppressed by capitalism, are in a position to destroy the army’s subordination to bourgeois commanders and really merge the proletariat with the army, only the Soviets can effectively arm the proletariat and disarm the bourgeoisie. Unless this is done, the victory of socialism is impossible.
18. The Soviet organization of the state is suited to the leading role of the proletariat as a class most concentrated and enlightened by capitalism. The experience of all revolutions and all movements of the oppressed classes, the experience of the world socialist movement teaches us that only the proletariat is in a position to unite and lead the scattered and backward sections of the working and exploited population.
19. Only the Soviet organization of the state can really effect the immediate break-up and total destruction of the old, i.e., bourgeois, bureaucratic and judicial machinery, which has been, and has inevitably had to be, retained under capitalism even in the most democratic republics, and which is, in actual fact, the greatest obstacle to the practical implementation of democracy for the workers and working people generally. The Paris Commune took the first epoch-making step along this path. The Soviet system has taken the second.
20. Destruction of state power is the aim set by all socialists, including Marx above all. Genuine democracy, i.e., liberty and equality, is unrealizable unless this aim is achieved. But its practical achievement is possible only through Soviet, or proletarian, democracy, for by enlisting the mass organizations of the working people in constant and unfailing participation in the administration of the state, it immediately begins to prepare the complete withering away of any state.
21. The complete bankruptcy of the socialists who assembled in Berne,
their complete failure to understand the new, i.e., proletarian, democracy,
is especially apparent from the following. On February 10, 1919, Branting
delivered the concluding speech at the international Conference of the
yellow International in Berne. In Berlin, on 11 February, 1919, Die Freiheit,
the paper of the International’s affiliates published an appeal from the
Party of ’lndependents’ to the proletariat. The appeal acknowledged the
bourgeois character of the Scheidemann government, rebuked it for wanting
to abolish the Soviets, which it described as Träger und Schützer
der Revolution – vehicles and guardians of the revolution – and proposed
that the Soviets be legalized, invested with government authority and given
the right to suspend the operation of National Assembly decisions pending
That proposal indicates the complete ideological bankruptcy of the theorists who defended democracy and failed to see its bourgeois character. This ludicrous attempt to combine the Soviet system, i.e., proletarian dictatorship, with the National Assembly, i.e., bourgeois dictatorship, utterly exposes the paucity of thought of the yellow socialists and Social-Democrats, their reactionary petty-bourgeois political outlook, and their cowardly concessions to the irresistibly growing strength of the new, proletarian democracy.
22. From the class standpoint, the Berne yellow International majority,
which did not dare to adopt a formal resolution out of fear of the mass
of workers, was right in condemning Bolshevism. This majority is in full
agreement with the Russian Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries, and
the Scheidemanns in Germany. In complaining of persecution by the Bolsheviks,
the Russian Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries try to conceal the
fact that they are persecuted for participating in the civil war on the
side of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat. Similarly, the Scheidemanns
and their party have already demonstrated in Germany that they, too, are
participating in the civil war on the side of the bourgeoisie against the
It is therefore quite natural that the Berne yellow International majority should be in favour of condemning the Bolsheviks. This was not an expression of the defence of ’pure democracy’, but of the self-defence of people who know and feel that in the civil war they stand with the bourgeoisie against the proletariat.
That is why, from the class point of view, the decision of the yellow International majority must be considered correct. The proletariat must not fear the truth, it must face it squarely and draw all the necessary political conclusions.