From "Democracy: More Than Ever We Can and Must Do Better Than That"

The Paris Commune in Perspective: The Bolshevik and Chinese Revolutions as Its Continuation and Deepening

The Leading Role of the Party and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

by Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #1242, May 30, 2004, posted at

The RW/OR presents an important series based on a major 1991 article by Bob Avakian, "Democracy: More Than Ever We Can and Must Do Better Than That."

RCP Chairman Avakian's polemical essay takes head on key arguments and questions that have been raised in opposition to the overall historical experience of socialist states in the world. He defends the crucial essence of that historic experience from attack, and, in doing so, brings new insights into learning from the achievements of the proletariat in power, as well as the mistakes, to carry forward with communist revolution in today's world.

In various excerpts that will appear in this series, he examines the experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin and in China under Mao and draws out lessons for the future. He discusses why the proletariat needs a vanguard party and a specific kind of state, the dictatorship of the proletariat, in order to carry out this rule and carry forward the all-around transformation of society and the world. He examines how the masses rule, and the complexities and contradictions involved in that -- all of which has origins in underlying economic and social factors in socialist societies and in the world as a whole, which only the continuing proletarian revolution can uproot and transform. He also explains how the proletarian concept of freedom is different from bourgeois notions of electoral democracy.

Chairman Avakian's article originally appeared in the international journal A World To Win in 1992. It is a critique of the document "On Proletarian Democracy" by the CRC--a Marxist-Leninist formation in India whose main leader, K. Venu, launched an attack in 1990-91 on Leninism, Maoism, and the dictatorship of the proletariat and later abandoned revolution. What is at stake in this argument over the dictatorship of the proletariat is nothing less than the right of the proletariat to rise up in revolution and establish their own rule, and carry through the long revolutionary transformation of society until the abolition of classes, communism, is achieved. Without the hope of that path-- and the leadership to take it--the masses would be left, as Bob Avakian wrote in his article "under the domination of an economic system of capitalist exploitation and a corresponding political system where, as Marx put it, they have the opportunity to choose, every so many years, which set of exploiters will rule over and oppress them."

The entire article by Bob Avakian will soon be available on line at, along with the CRC article it is criticizing.


This series begins with several segments of Bob Avakian's article which discuss the Paris Commune of 1871.1 Marx hailed the Commune as the first historical experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Here Bob Avakian takes on the argument of the CRC, which upholds only the Commune as a legitimate exercise of the dictatorship of the proletariat and pits the Commune's experience--which was very important, but brief and initial--against the entire historical experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat in socialist society beginning with the October 1917 Soviet Revolution. 2


Let's turn to more particular points on this.

The [CRC] document says: "This overall programme for seizure of power was implemented by the second All-Russia Congress of Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies held on October 25-26, 1917." (par. 5.2)3

But, it is important to note, the Bolsheviks did not wait for this Congress to seize power--they initiated the armed insurrection before this Congress. As is recounted in the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks), this All-Russia Congress of Soviets opened "when the uprising in Petrograd was already in the full flush of victory and the power in the capital [Petrograd] had actually passed into the hands of the Petrograd Soviet". ( HCPSU , Moscow, 1939, Chapter Seven, part 6) Trotsky, among others, opposed this, standing on the formality that the armed insurrection should be declared by this All-Russia Congress of Soviets. All this is linked with the point made earlier (in the summary of general conclusions) about how the insistence on formal democracy that marks the CRC document would lead logically to declaring the Bolshevik-led armed insurrection to be a violation of democracy and a failure to rely on the masses, through their representative institutions, to carry out the seizure of power. This is very much in line with the arguments Trotsky made at the time; and if such arguments had been listened to, that would very probably have killed the armed insurrection, and then there never would have been an October Revolution to argue about.

The CRC document allows that the Bolshevik decision to withdraw from the Constituent Assembly "was justifiable in the sense that the power of the Soviets which had emerged through revolution was really representing the political will of the vast majority of the people". And the document seems to say it was justified for the Constituent Assembly to then be dissolved, through an act of the Central Committee of the All-Russia Soviet--an act taken on the initiative of the Bolsheviks (see par. 5.4).

Note well: "was really representing the political will of the vast majority of the people". This is correct--and, as stressed before, this also applied to the carrying out of the armed insurrection, even though that was not strictly done through the decision of the All-Russia Congress of Soviets or with the formal approval of the majority of the masses, through their elected organs. In fact this criterion--whether or not something conforms to the basic interests but also to the "political will" of the masses of people--is the essence of the matter and far more decisive than questions of formal democracy. But it is precisely this criterion that this document "forgets"--abandons and replaces with criteria of formal democracy--in its "re-examination" of the historical experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat--no, more, of "the whole history of the communist movement and the basic concepts we had held aloft so far."

Then the document says: "But, what was developing...[was that] the new political system was gradually coming under the control of the communist party." (par. 5.7) Here is where the argument about "the dictatorship of the party" begins to become more full-blown. The document goes on to assert that:

"Lenin categorically declared the role of the communist party thus: `After two and a half years of the Soviet power we came out in the Communist International and told the world that the dictatorship of the proletariat would not work except through the Communist Party.' (p. 199, vol. 32, Collected Works ) Now the circle is complete. The practical programme for establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat which started with the attractive slogan, `All power to the Soviets' ended with the reality that the dictatorship of the proletariat was exercised through the Communist Party, where the Soviets became mere cogwheels in the machine. Even though Kautsky's criticism was coming from the angle of bourgeois parliamentarism, the fact remains that in the present day world situation, when a qualitatively new political system as envisaged in a genuine dictatorship of the proletariat has not emerged as a historical reality, it is not the class, but its party that actually governs." (par. 5.8)

Quite a few assertions, and distortions, are made here, touching on fundamental questions, so it is necessary to go into them in some depth. First, we cannot let pass the seemingly innocent clause "Even though Kautsky's criticism was coming from the angle of bourgeois parliamentarism". In fact the "even though" here is just the point--Kautsky's objection to the dictatorship of the proletariat as practised under the leadership of the Bolsheviks, from the time of Lenin on, was completely bound up with "bourgeois parliamentarism"--it was precisely the standpoint of such "parliamentarism" that caused Kautsky to distort what this dictatorship of the proletariat was and to oppose it. And it is fundamentally the same standpoint that informs (or misinforms) the distortion and repudiation of the whole historical experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat in this document. In fact, this document is marked by Kautskyite logic throughout, "even though" it does not openly, fully, embrace Kautsky.

This is reflected in the distorted and tortured use of the quotes from Lenin and Stalin in this section of the CRC document. First, let's look at this document's treatment of the statements by Lenin on the essential point that, as Lenin plainly puts it, the dictatorship of the proletariat will not work without the leading role of the communist party.

In the very same work of Lenin's (and on the very same page) from which the CRC document quotes, Lenin makes clear that this does not mean that the party exercises dictatorship instead of the proletariat, or that the party is somehow separated from the proletariat in the exercise of this dictatorship. He makes clear that it is the proletariat that exercises dictatorship, but that it cannot do this without the leadership of the party. Again, on the very page cited, and throughout this work (Lenin's speeches at the 10th Party Congress in March 1921), Lenin stresses that it is an anarchist and syndicalist tendency which cannot see the unity between the leadership of the party and the exercise of dictatorship by the masses of proletarians; and that accusations about party dictatorship are arising in the context of and to a considerable degree because of the influence of the atmosphere of petit-bourgeois disintegration that then existed in the Soviet Republic as a result of the long civil war and the massive dislocations and economic ruin that resulted from that war and in its wake (the class position and outlook of many workers was being undermined in these conditions; masses of peasants were being ruined; and the economic links between workers and peasants, city and countryside, had not yet been firmly re- established and recast along new lines). This reply of Lenin to his critics at that time stands very well as the answer to the authors of this CRC document, some 70 years later.

As for the statement that "the Soviets became mere cogwheels in the machine", apparently the authors of this document think they have made a profound point by adding the word "mere" here. But, as Lenin explains it, there is nothing "mere" about it. He makes clear that while, on the one hand, "the Party, shall we say, absorbs the vanguard of the proletariat, and this vanguard exercises the dictatorship of the proletariat", at the same time, the functions of government "have to be performed through the medium of special institutions which are also of a new type, namely, the Soviets". ("The Trade Unions, the Present Situation and Trotsky's Mistakes", LCW , vol. 32, p. 20) The authors of this document actually quote this statement from Lenin, but they do not grasp its significance--apparently they are so put off by the use of the metaphor "cogwheels" that to them it is of little importance that Lenin says that the Soviets perform the functions of government and that these Soviets are "special institutions" and are "of a new type" (note: they are not the same old institutions of bourgeois society but represent a radically new form of state power and are performing the functions of government). How, and with what outlook, is it possible to miss the historic significance of this?

Yes, Lenin does frankly discuss the fact that "in all capitalist countries (and not only over here, in one of the most backward) the proletariat is still so divided, so degraded, and so corrupted in parts (by imperialism in some countries) that an organisation taking in the whole proletariat [here Lenin is referring to the trade unions in particular] cannot directly exercise proletarian dictatorship. It can be exercised only by a vanguard that has absorbed the revolutionary energy of the class." (ibid, p. 21) And then Lenin goes on to make the infamous statement that, "The whole is like an arrangement of cogwheels", and, "It cannot work without a number of `transmission belts' running from the vanguard to the mass of the advanced class, and from the latter to the mass of the working people." (ibid)

One can only ask here: what is wrong with this? Where, in any of this, is there the notion that the party exercises the dictatorship of the proletariat and the functions of government in place of the masses? The only objection that can be raised--and the one that is in fact being raised in this CRC document--is that Lenin insists on the leading role of the party. You may object to that if you wish--and certainly the bourgeoisie, and various Mensheviks, social-democrats and so on, from the time of Lenin on down, have strenuously objected to it-- but anyone claiming to be a communist and to uphold the dictatorship of the proletariat in principle must show how the masses can in fact exercise the dictatorship of the proletariat and prevent the restoration of capitalism without the leading role of the party that is, without the institutionalized leading role of the party. The one is the same as the other: recognizing this leading role in words while insisting it not be an institutionalized leading role amounts in reality to the same thing as negating this leading role altogether. We shall see how this CRC document aims to show precisely that the masses would be better off without the (institutionalized) leading role of the party under socialism, and how the document fails miserably--as it must--to show this.

To put this whole question of the role of the Soviets (and other mass organizations) in relation to the Communist Party in broader, and more historical, perspective, it is necessary to "demystify" this whole thing a bit. In the first place, although in a real and profound sense the Soviets were the creation of the masses, this was never a question of some "pure" or purely "spontaneous" creation of the masses. The Soviets were the product of the class struggle, in which the masses were influenced by a number of different political forces, including the Bolsheviks and also the Mensheviks and a number of others. And within the Soviets, from their inception, there was continual and often fierce struggle between representatives of different trends, ultimately representing different class interests.

A concentrated focus of this struggle was the question of what, after all, was the political role of the Soviets and what process they were to be part of. To put it simply, the Bolsheviks saw in the Soviets a means for the masses to be organized for the overthrow of the old order, the smashing of the old state machinery and the exercise of the dictatorship of the proletariat; the Mensheviks and others rejected and resisted this--their view of the Soviets flowed from their petit-bourgeois outlook--and when and to the degree that they led or influenced the Soviets, this was in the direction of turning them into mass organizations oriented toward social-democratic and/or anarchist programs, in opposition to the seizure and exercise of state power by the proletariat. Struggle over these fundamental differences went on within the Soviets before and right up to the October insurrection; and it went on, in different forms, after power was seized.

It is true that, not long after the seizure of power, Lenin recognized the need for an adjustment in the role of the Soviets and the relation of the Party to them, which is reflected in the statements by Lenin that the CRC document cites. But this has to be understood in the context of the concrete events of the time as well as in a larger historical perspective. As noted earlier, this was a situation of desperate civil war and then, even with victory in that war, of massive disruption, dislocation, and disintegration, economically and politically. In these circumstances, many of the most advanced elements within the Soviets had volunteered to become leaders and commissars of a Red Army that had to be created, almost literally, overnight and hurled into decisive battle. Others were mobilized on different but also decisive fronts of struggle: on trouble-shooting missions where crises of various kinds had erupted; to help in the suppression of counterrevolutionaries; to help staff the food administration, factory management, etc.; and to join and build up the Party.

The fact is that, by the end of the civil war, tens of thousands of workers, soldiers, and sailors held responsible administrative positions (and this policy of absorbing advanced masses into the governing apparatus would continue with the collectivization and industrialization drives later, under Stalin's leadership). But it was also a fact that, as a result of all this, many of the best and most far-sighted leaders of the proletariat were enlisted not in the Soviets but in other institutions. And, along with this, there was a shift in the relative weight of the Soviets, as compared to these other institutions, including especially the Party, in the actual administration of society and the overall exercise of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

This is what Lenin is speaking to with his much-maligned analogy about cogwheels, conveyor belts, and so on, and his more general statement about the leading role of the party in the exercise of the dictatorship of the proletariat: Lenin is summing up, from the actual experience of that crucial period, that it is not possible to exercise this dictatorship simply through the Soviets or without systematic (institutionalized) party leadership of the Soviets (and other institutions and mass organizations). But he is not saying that the Soviets will no longer play a decisive role--he makes clear that they will continue to be relied on to perform the functions of government. He is not saying the party can replace the Soviets (or those other institutions and mass organizations) in the exercise of the dictatorship of the proletariat. He is not saying the leaders, rather than the masses, are decisive in the exercise of this dictatorship.4



1The Paris Commune of 1871 was the first successful seizure of power by the working class. For 76 days, between March 26 and May 30, the revolutionary workers held the city of Paris.

The French bourgeoisie had been defeated in war by neighboring Prussia, and the two governments conspired to disarm and suppress the population of Paris. In defiance, the people formed an armed militia--the National Guard--and launched a struggle for power. On March 26, a city-wide council of workers and soldiers declared the Paris Commune .

While fighting courageously at the barricades and ramparts that defended the city, the revolutionary Communards took farsighted steps toward the social transformation toward classless communist society. They declared the abolition of the military draft and the standing army and police. They enacted the separation of church and state, nationalized church property, abolished night shift, abolished interest on debt, and canceled rents owed by the people. The hated guillotine was publicly burned and state execution was abolished. The workers reopened factories closed by the capitalists and ran them cooperatively. Schooling was made free and open to all. The Vendome Column, a monument to France's wars of aggression, was pulled down. It was announced that no one leading or working for the Commune would make wages above the workers'. Immigrant residents of Paris were declared full citizens of the Commune and held many posts in the revolutionary government--and it was declared that "the flag of the Commune is the flag of the World Republic."

At the same time, the working class had not yet formed a Marxist vanguard party to lead this revolution. The Marxist internationalist currents were still only a small minority among the many different utopian socialist and radical democratic trends.

The reactionary French government launched an invasion from the nearby town of Versailles. The heroic fighters of the Commune, including many women and youth, defended the revolution with arms, street by street. Finally they were overrun by enemy troops. Tens of thousands were murdered in a bloodbath of mass executions.

The founder of modern communism, Karl Marx, who supported and closely studied this great struggle, wrote afterwards: "Workingmen's Paris with its Commune, will forever be celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society."

[Return to article]

2"Throughout this critique of the CRC document, where I speak of how it repudiates `the entire historical experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat,' I am referring specifically to the experience beginning with the October 1917 Soviet Revolution. While the CRC document claims to recognize certain achievements of this historical experience, it is clear in examining this document that--even on its own terms and without considering the logical implications of its position, it regards this entire experience as fundamentally flawed and insists that a whole different orientation should be adopted. And it should also be said that, in pitting the limited experience of the Paris Commune against the experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat since then, rather than recognizing and emphasizing the essential unity between them, this CRC document in reality rejects the fundamental spirit and lessons of the Paris Commune itself."--Bob Avakian

[Return to article]

3Throughout the article these paragraph notations refer to numbered paragraphs in the CRC document, which will soon be available online at

[Return to article]

4The role of the Soviets, and revolutionary institutions and mass organizations more generally, in relation to the larger, more long-term process of socialist transformation of society is a very important and complex question. It is a question I will return to later, in answering further arguments in the CRC document about how the Soviets were "relegated to the background."--Bob Avakian

[Return to article]