One of the key questions in evaluating Trotsky and the Bolsheviks is the issue of party vs. class dictatorship. I’m going to assume here that ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, in the sense discussed in previous posts on “Terrorism and Communism“, is desirable.
Now this question is in many respects quite obvious. The Bolshevik party destroyed proletarian rule by abusing and subordinating the soviets. They, in the cliched phrase, substituted their own party for the working class. Stalin merely continued the basic attitude of Lenin and Trotsky.
What’s interesting, really, is that this fact is so often denied by modern Trotskyists (or rather, that there are so many Trotskyists, since it would be hard to be one while also seeing the man himself as a ‘gravedigger of the revolution’).
So before going into any sort of deep and interesting discussion, I will try to convey how conspicuous this fact appears to me.
To judge a group’s actions we might look at three things: what they said, what they did, and what sort of effect it had. If some of these are bad but others good, then we have a difficult decision. But if they’re all the same…
What they said: just in this one book, we have “in the hands of the party is concentrated the general control…it has the final word in all fundamental questions…[in] all moot questions…conflicts between departments and personal conflicts within departments – the last word belongs to the Central Committee of the party.”
Similarly, Lenin says “the dictatorship of the proletariat is possible only through the Communist Party”.
What about what they did? Well, they delayed elections they expected to lose, they suppressed the activities and criticism of rival parties, they re-drew electoral boundaries in order to maintain an effective majority, they changed electoral rules to benefit their own candidates, and when they lost elections they dispersed the soviet that had slighted them. Eventually, no rival groups existed who weren’t in prison.
But wasn’t this justified by the eventual result? The eventual result was Stalin, who did more than any other single individual to hold back world communism.
Now, maybe Trotskyists might think that some or all of these methods were correct and justified, but I don’t really see how it can disputed that the Bolshevik party established a party dictatorship. They did it, they said they were doing it, and it lasted for 70 years.
But maybe I’m being too hasty. Let’s consider some of what Trotsky says in this entire book dedicated to his defense. He seems to offer two main arguments. Firstly:
“The question is of the dictatorship of a class. In the composition of that class there enter various elements, heterogenous moods, different levels of development. Yet the dictatorship presupposes unity of will, unity of direction, unity of action.”
That is – democracy is unwieldy and inefficient. Secondly:
“[I]n reality there is no substitution at all. The Communists [i.e. the Bolshevik Party] express the fundamental interests of the working class.”
That is – the party represents the interests of the workers anyway.
Now the first of these would require a long discussion that I will hopefully cover in my two further planned posts on T&C, but it should be noted that true or false, this is not a recognisably ‘Marxist’ idea. This is in fact precisely what the idea of class dictatorship was meant to replace – the doctrine of ‘necessary’ dictatorship to introduce socialism. One of the key differentiating features of Marxism was that “the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class itself”. So to find perhaps the 3rd and 4th most famous ‘Marxists’ (after Charles himself and Engels) speaking of the basic inadequacy of mass control and direction for revolutionary purposes is distinctly odd.
But maybe we should look then to the second argument – that the party represents the interests of the working class. To be honest, I’d be surprised if anyone can believe this with a straight face. It rests on Trotsky’s claim for their “clarity of theoretical vision”. But on loads of issues, they were wrong. They said something, then the opposite happened. They were, in fact, human.
But then we come to the final and most blatantly humourous argument. Trotsky replies to the following objection:
“But where is your guarantee (certain wise men ask us) that it is just your party that expresses the interests of historical development? Destroying or driving underground the other parties, you have thereby prevented their political competition with you, and consequently you have deprived yourselves of the possibility of testing your line of action.”
The reply comes – during a civil war,
“…the ruling party has sufficient material standard by which to test its line of action, without the possible circulation of Menshevik papers. Noske [a German minister] crushes the communists, but they grow. We have suppressed the Mensheviks and th Socialist-Revolutionaries [the rival socialist parties] – and they have disappeared. This criterion is sufficient for us.”
And there it stands, in its final naked glory. We use force and coercion to get our way, because we are the true representatives of the working class. And we know we are the true representatives of the working class, because we so effectively use force and coercion.
Beautiful, ain’t it?