Bolshevism and Democracy


Pannekoek wrote this text as an active part of the Bremer Linke in the middle of the November Revolution in Germany. Workers' councils had sprung up everywhere, and inside and outside the councils the question was whether the councils should hand over power, as Social Democracy wanted, or keep it in their own hands, following the example of Bolshevik October Revolution in Russia. The Bremer Linke, like the Bolsheviks, were convinced that the revolution could take a proletarian path only if an active minority of the working class within the councils radicalized the class as a whole. That is why they had been the first in Germany to form a communist party. On December 16th, 1918, two days after Pannekoek's article appeared, the councils' congress handed over power to the government. However, this did not end the German revolution; until 1923, an active minority continued to fight for all power to the workers' councils.

Bolshevism and Democracy

The question of democracy is now the big problem in the reorganization of Germany. The provisional government is doing its utmost to consolidate the old state power against the new revolutionary force of the working masses. In doing so, it benefits from the entire spiritual legacy of the old Social Democratic Party; with the 'attempted' slogans that had been pounded into the masses by the party and its agitation for many decades, it hopes to appease the less clearly farsighted workers. In contrast, the revolutionary spokesmen of the proletariat can draw on everything that experience of recent years has taught us. And these new insights mainly concern democracy.

What does that mean, what is democracy? Government of the people. The people must govern themselves, not be governed by others. It must manage its own affairs by itself, according to its own will. 

It is striking that this sentence, as it reads in the literal sense, is out of touch with reality and contains only meaningless terms. After all, a 'nation' that can manage its own affairs does not exist. The nation is divided into classes; exploiters and workers are sharply opposed, workers and exploiters have no or only extremely unimportant matters of common interest; they cannot have a common 'own' will. And if, according to the strictest, the most radical formal democracy, workers and bourgeoisie were properly represented numerically in a parliament, how could they govern together?

What could they do other than constantly argue and paralyze each other's work?

When we speak of the people, we mean the popular masses, as opposed to the possessing minority. These people, the poor, working people, the proletarian class must govern itself. The proletariat is the masses, the majority; its interest must therefore control everything that happens in society. It must not dominate in the sense that for about one per cent, the bourgeois interests also count a little - that is as impossible as the reformists' idea that in the past the workers' interest counted a little, when in reality the capital interest was all-powerful. The interest of the working masses alone must rule. Of two completely opposite political objectives, only one can be followed.

We have also criticized universal suffrage before. We have said, people are not equal to each other, therefore their votes should not be equal to each other. A man who lives only on his capital does not work, he lives like a parasite on the body of society. A leech should not have as much to say as a worker, who by his labor sustains society. This reason was to a certain extent an ethical one. Now it is better to say that the purpose of our politics, the now necessary work of socialist construction of society, is so completely opposed to the interests of the bourgeoisie that it wants to hinder and undermine this work as much as possible. In building a house, who will hire people who will do anything to hinder and destroy? Once it is established that the working masses want to use their political power to build socialism, then they must exclude the bourgeoisie from cooperation; capital interests will not get a say. This may not be formal democracy; but in practice it is a higher, better democracy, workers' democracy, representing the vital interests of the masses. It is the same thing Marx called the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is what used to be called communism and is now called Bolshevism. It has now been widely implemented in Russia, after the Paris Commune of 1871 showed its first beginnings.

One might now ask how you can practically exclude certain people from the right to vote because of their belonging to the bourgeoisie - apart from the fact that this will be seen from outside as an unjust act of arbitrariness. But then one forgets that the rule of the proletarian masses for the reorganization of society will not take the form of a parliamentary government at all. This was already clear in the Paris Commune. This body was soon divided into a number of working committees, which administered the various administrative areas: transport, labor supply, food supply, military organization, education, and so on. This could not all be done from above: these committees had to liaise with the self-formed administrative committees of the individual districts; and if the Commune had existed longer, it would certainly have done away with the diversions of electing a general parliamentary body, and let the central administrative committees emerge from the workers' organizations. From the traditional form of parliament, new organs of a proletarian government naturally formed in miniature.

In a similar manner, but a much more advanced form, has developed in Russia. Workers' councils in the city, peasant councils in the countryside and the elements from which the government is built from the bottom up; they form the councils, which provide the various administrations. The municipal administration is elected by workers' councils of the city; and workers' councils of the factories of a particular industry elect the administration of this entire industry across the country. A general Soviet Congress, which meets from time to time, determines general policy; but for each particular branch of business: production, food, transport, health, education, special congresses meet, where the local Soviets send their most expert members to share experiences and decide on common measures (1).

This agile apparatus formed the Russian people out of the practical need to rebuild social life. It also constitutes the organ of proletarian dictatorship because the bourgeoisie cannot participate in it. The bourgeoisie is not artificially excluded from the government by deprivation of the right to vote, it simply has no place in this organization. For this administrative apparatus, which is at the same time also a government, is not based on persons, but on labor: whoever does not take his place in labor places himself outside the possibility of co-determining the fate of the country. The former director or factory owner who is willing to continue working together as a technical leader - under the control of the workers' council - can co-determine on an equal footing with the other workers in the factory. The intellectual professions, the doctors, the teachers, the artists form their own councils, which co-determine the issues that matter to them. All these councils always remain in close contact with the masses, because they have to be constantly re-delegated, and replaced by others. In this way it is ensured that no new bureaucracy forms; and this is possible because at the same time, through intensive activity of learning to and learning from, the necessary skills do not remain a monopoly of the few.

In the light of this real self-government of the people, it only becomes clear how little even the most democratic parliament can achieve a government by the people. It only achieves government approval by parliamentarians. Once every four years or annually, they have to win the confidence of the people; through fine speeches, promises and programmes, they win the votes, and then they are rulers. Removed from the direct influence of the masses, they only influence each other, rule throughout the term of office, make long speeches and pass laws. Yet only in appearance are they almighty: the entire administration is in the hands of the civil service, the bureaucracy that rules over the people as administration. This so-called separation of the legislative and executive powers is, in the democratic republics of the world, the means of controlling the masses, giving them the impression of ruling themselves; thus, the means of securing the rule of capital. The practice in France, America, Switzerland, shows that everywhere, in defiance of all democracy, the masses are controlled and exploited by capital. And in defiance of universal suffrage, the masses are powerless and unable to change that. They face an ingenious machinery of oppression formed by parliament, parliamentary government and the civil service. They can only exert a little influence in one place, occasionally, during elections: but in this, their will can only be expressed halfway during the roar of election speeches and the rustling of programmes. But when the elected parliamentarians try to satisfy the popular will, they soon get caught up in the parliamentary dirt: party discipline, backroom politics, intrigues, vain speech waterfalls; and the "parliamentary" government of the party leaders is already virtually independent of the popular will. And this government is again half powerless against the fixed structure of the state bureaucracy, the civil servants facing the masses like alien domination.

Parliamentary rule is the hobbyhorse of professional politicians, who want to prove their indispensability through long speeches in the "chatterbox". They abhor Bolshevism, because where does that leave them? If instead of long speeches practical work is to be done, they are indeed redundant.

Marx and Engels referred to the state as the organization of capital for keeping the exploited class oppressed. They could have added that democracy changes nothing about this, and only serves to instill in the masses the semblance that they themselves are the masters. They therefore set as the first task of the proletarian revolution the destruction of the state. This means wiping out this machine that dominates the masses and is beyond their reach, this administrative and parliamentary apparatus. This issue is now the main bone of contention between the revolutionary and bourgeois directions. It depends on the immediate future; because if the old state power is not put out of action, under later circumstances it may again become a tool for oppressing the now rebellious masses and restoring the rule of capital.

Fredo Corvo. 


(1) At the time, it was not yet clear that the Soviets had effectively placed all power in the hands of a government of People's Commissars that stood above them and selectively nationalized companies. This created a state capitalism that Lenin wrongly  claimed as socialism. See G.I.C., Marxism and State Communism: the Withering Away of the State - Groepen van Internationale Communisten (GIC) | 

Source: 'Left Wing' Communism - an infantile disorder? ; original edition: Bolschewismus und Demokratie / Anton Pannekoek. In: Arbeiterpolitik, 3. Jg., Nr. 50, 14. Dezember 1918, S. 303-304. Translation from German to Dutch: F.K. Translation from Dutch to English: S.M. Introduction from F.K