The question of socialism and democracy, of the democratic road to socialism, is today posed with reference to two historical experiences, which in a way serve as examples of the twin limits or dangers to be avoided: the traditional social-democratic experience, as illustrated in a number of West European countries, and the Eastern example of what is called ‘real socialism’. Despite everything that distinguishes these cases, despite everything that opposes social democracy and Stalinism to each other as theoretico-political currents, they nevertheless exhibit a fundamental complicity: both are marked by statism and profound distrust of mass initiatives, in short by suspicion of democratic demands. In France, many now like to speak of two traditions of the working-class and popular movements: the statist and Jacobin one, running from Lenin and the October Revolution to the Third International and the Communist movement; and a second one characterized by notions of self-management and direct, rank-and-file democracy. It is then argued that the achievement of democratic socialism requires a break with the former and integration with the latter. In fact, however, this is a rather perfunctory way of posing the question. Although there are indeed two traditions, they do not coincide with the currents just mentioned. Moreover, it would be a fundamental error to imagine that mere integration with the current of self-management and direct democracy is sufficient to avoid statism.

First of all, then, we must take yet another look at Lenin and the October Revolution. Of course, Stalinism and the model of the transition to socialism bequeathed by the Third International differ from Lenin’s own thought and action. But they are not simply a deviation from the latter. Seeds of Stalinism were well and truly present in Lenin—and not only because of the peculiarities of Russia and the Tsarist state with which he had to grapple. The error of the Third International cannot be explained simply as an attempt to universalize in an aberrant manner a model of socialism that corresponded, in its original purety, to the concrete situation of Tsarist Russia. At the same time, these seeds are not to be found in Marx himself. Lenin was the first to tackle the problem of the transition to socialism and the withering away of the State, concerning which Marx left only a few general observations on the close relationship between socialism and democracy.

What then was the exact import of the October Revolution for the withering away of the State? Out of the several problems relating to the seeds of the Third International in Lenin, one seems here to occupy a dominant position. For all Lenin’s analyses and actions are traversed by the following leitmotif: the State must be entirely destroyed through frontal attack in a situation of dual power, to be replaced by a second power—soviets—which will no longer be a State in the proper sense of the term, since it will already have begun to wither away. What does Lenin mean by this destruction of the bourgeois State? Unlike Marx, he often reduces the institutions of representative democracy and political freedoms to a simple emanation of the bourgeoisie: representative democracy = bourgeois democracy = dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. They have to be completely uprooted and replaced by direct, rank-and-file democracy and mandated, recallable delegates—in other words, by the genuine proletarian democracy of soviets.

I am intentionally drawing a highly schematized picture: Lenin’s principal thrust was not at first towards a variant of authoritarian statism. I say this not in order to leap to Lenin’s defence, but to point up the simplistic and befogging character of that conception according to which developments in Soviet Russia resulted from Lenin’s ‘centralist’ opposition to direct democracy—from a Leninism which is supposed to have carried within it the crushing of the Kronstadt sailors’ revolt, in the way that a cloud carries the storm. Whether we like it or not, the original guiding thread of Lenin’s thought was, in opposition to the parliamentarianism and dread of workers’ councils characteristic of the social-democratic current, the sweeping replacement of ‘formal’ representative democracy by the ‘real’, direct democracy of workers’ councils. (The term ‘self-management’ was not yet used in Lenin’s time.) This leads me on to the real question. Was it not this very line (sweeping substitution of rank-and-file democracy for representative democracy) which principally accounted for what happened in Lenin’s lifetime in the Soviet Union, and which gave rise to the centralizing and statist Lenin whose posterity is well enough known.

I said that I am posing the question. But as a matter of fact, it was already posed in Lenin’s time and answered in a way that now seems dramatically premonitory. I am referring, of course, to Rosa Luxemburg, whom Lenin called an eagle of revolution. She also had the eye of an eagle. For it was she who made the first correct and fundamental critique of Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution. It is decisive because it issues not from the ranks of social democracy, which did not want even to hear of direct democracy and workers’ councils, but precisely from a convinced fighter who gave her life for council democracy, being executed at the moment when the German workers’ councils were crushed by social democracy.

Now, Luxemburg reproaches Lenin not with neglect or contempt of direct, rank-and-file democracy, but rather with the exact opposite—that is to say, exclusive reliance on council democracy and complete elimination of representative democracy (through, among other things, dissolution of the Constituent Assembly—which had been elected under the Bolshevik government—in favour of the soviets alone). It is necessary to re-read The Russian Revolution, from which I shall quote just one passage. ‘In place of the representative bodies created by general, popular elections, Lenin and Trotsky have laid down the soviets as the only true representation of the labouring masses. But with the repression of political life in the land as a whole, life in the soviets must also become more and more crippled. Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element.’footnote1

This is certainly not the only question to be asked concerning Lenin. An important role in subsequent developments was played by the conception of the Party contained in What is to be Done?; by the notion of theory being brought to the working class from outside by professional revolutionaries, and so on. But the fundamental question is the one posed by Luxemburg. Even if we take into account Lenin’s positions on a series of other problems, as well as the historical peculiarities of Russia, what ensued in Lenin’s own lifetime and above all after his death (the single Party, bureaucratization of the Party, confusion of Party and State, statism, the end of the soviets themselves, etc.) was already inscribed in the situation criticized by Luxemburg.