Few problems have been more fiercely debated on the left than that of democracy in a socialist state—and few are so lacking in studies in depth. In a book that appeared in France last yearfootnote1 a group of dissident members of the French Communist Party under the pseudonym Jean Dru attempt to develop a Marxist approach to this problem that takes into account the experiences of the last 50 years. Though the authors do not claim originality and many socialists will find some of their conclusions extremely unsatisfactory, they do a worthwhile job in drawing attention to the many real problems that have so often been obscured for the major body of marxists by ritual language and formulas.

De l’Etat Socialiste attempts both to examine the historical development and present character of the Soviet state and also, against this background, to construct ‘a theoretical model of a socialist state applicable to modern capitalist society’. Such an approach is clearly a useful one provided that full weight is given to the enormous differences between the conditions in which Russia started to build socialism and those from which a modern western society would approach it. It is the latter case that will prove the real test of the marxist concept of working-class power, for Marx and Engels foresaw the establishment of socialism first in the most developed industrial countries and Lenin himself, in leading the Russian Revolution, banked on a rapidly ensuing revolution in the West.

Jean Dru shows clearly the contrast between the essentially democratic nature of the socialism of Marx and Engels and the various paternalistic theories and despotic practices under Stalin which have often passed as marxism. The authors of the Communist Manifesto were, of course, no liberal democrats. They believed in the need for a transitional period between capitalism and communism of what they called the dictatorship of the proletariat. Such a dictatorship would be, in their view, thoroughly democratic and would express the political and economic domination of the majority class, aiming at the speedy destruction of the economic basis of classes. Thus with its complete victory the proletariat’s own existence as a class and hence its class domination (dictatorship) would disappear and there would be ‘no more state in the present political sense’.footnote2 Though Marx and Engels believed in the need for a party to provide leadership and theoretical foresight for the working class, there is nowhere in their writings any concept of a party or group substituting itself for the working class in the exercise of its rule. On the contrary, such an idea directly contradicts their whole perspective of the Selbsttaetigkeit (self-activity) and developing Selbstbewusstsein (consciousness) of the working class. Jean Dru is undoubtedly at one with Marx’s views in writing that communist power must ‘emanate from the will of the people at its advent and continue to be its expression throughout the period in which the dictatorship of the proletariat is exercised’. The ‘Socialist Caesarism’ of the Stalin era carried out some of the tasks of a proletarian dictatorship, particularly in the economic and social spheres, but cannot be identified with it, for it violated its essence by subjecting the masses to a bureaucratic tutelage.

To understand how this happened Jean Dru examines the relations between the leadership, the revolutionary party and the masses in Russia, a backward country carrying through a revolution in the deteriorating material conditions of an imperialist war. Here the authors single out three phases of Soviet development which they allege (without offering any substantiating evidence) are inherent in one form or another in all revolutionary societies. By virtue of this they consider it ‘legitimate to accord to Soviet experience a sufficiently general significance to lend itself to the verification of the theoretical model of the dictatorship of the proletariat’. In fact their own description of Russia at the time of the revolution should have put them on their guard against such a generalization. Their three phases, which form a framework for their often very good analysis of some of the features of Soviet development, are (1) war communism (2) the crystallization of a bureaucratic state and (3) the rise of a stratum of professional administrators generated by the new social régime.

In the first phase, covering, in fact, a rather longer period than that of 1918–21 to which the term ‘war communism’ is normally applied, the Bolshevik Party is seen as the authentic interpreter of the wishes of the people. Its dictatorship, rendered necessary by the enemy counter-offensive, was, they write, the most democratic form of power ever known and constituted a genuine dictatorship of the proletariat. Although broadly true, this picture is over-simplified and ignores the elements of tension that have a considerable bearing on later developments. The Bolsheviks had succeeded by November 1917 in winning the support of the majority of the working class and considerable sections of the peasantry, but still only enough to win 25 per cent of the total votes for the Constituent Assembly in the elections of November 1917. (In his extremely important study, The Elections to the Constituent Assembly and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat,footnote3 Lenin accepts this figure as a valid indication of the support for the Bolsheviks at the time). When the Assembly gathered in January 1918 and showed a majority against them, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were faced with a terrible dilemma: either to accept the verdict of the majority of the Assembly and abandon the power that they had established on behalf of the Soviets on November 7th—or to disperse the Assembly and govern on their own or in coalition with the Left-Socialist-Revolutionaries. They chose the latter alternative, seeing themselves in a sense as acting on behalf of the international proletariat of whom they believed the most important contingents were about to join them in revolution. Their expectations were understandable though in the event, of course, overoptimistic. Nonetheless, history has, I think, vindicated their bold action. For the Bolsheviks were the only force in Russia far-sighted, organized and revolutionary enough to harness the forces of revolution throughout the country and lead them to carry through the worldshaking transformation that the Soviet Union has undergone in the past half century. To have handed over power to the divided, impractical, indecisive Social-revolutionary-Menshevik majority in the Constituent Assembly would very probably have resulted in confusion and anarchy throughout that vast land as the spontaneous revolt of the peasants spent itself in blind excesses. This chaos could have led to the break-up of Russia and the emergence of one or more military dictatorships based on foreign bayonets, pogroms and white terror.