by John Reed
I. What is Bolshevism?
Bolshevism is the Social Revolution to which Socialists have looked forward for more than half a century. It is the inevitable struggle which must accompany the transition of society from Capitalism to Socialism. It is the final battle of the workers of the world for power to end forever the tyranny of class rule, and the misery of exploitation.
History is a chronicle of the slavery of the working class in many forms–chattel slavery, serfdom, wage slavery. At various periods one group of exploiters has wrested the power from another—kings from priests, barons from kings, merchants from barons, plutocrats from them all; but always the workers have toiled, and always the product of their labor has been taken from them.
Many attempts have been made by the workers to overthrow their exploiters, and to enjoy the fruits of their labor, in the words of John Ball, “without money and without price.” Every attempt up to now has been crushed in blood and fire— the slave insurrections of Rome, the Communist risings in the Middle Ages, the Paris Commune of 1871, and the Russian Revolution of 1905. In Socialism the working class for the first time based its aspiration to freedom on scientific fact. Bolshevism is Socialism put into practice. Today the workers are becoming conscious of their power and ability to win the world for Labor. They always had the power, and sometimes the wish. But they lacked the will and the knowledge of the way. Bolshevism is the will and the way.
The word “Bolshevism,” which can be freely translated as “program of the majority,” originated at a convention of the Russian Social Democratic Party in 1903, which split into two factions—the majority (bolshinstvo) adopting the principles which, after the actual experiences of the Revolution of 1905, developed into what we now call Bolshevism. The main idea of the Bolsheviki at that time was that the present is a revolutionary period—a period when the struggle of the working class turns into open revolution; that the power of the Army of Capitalism lies in the fact that its organization is centralized, and commanded by a General Staff—and that in order to overthrow Capitalism, the Army of the Working class must also be centrally organized, with its General Staff. The Staff of the Army of Capitalism is directed by capitalists, in the interest of the few. The Staff of the Working Class fights under the direction and in the interests of the many—the workers.
In this Convention the minority (menshinstvo)— afterward known as Mensheviki—held that the working class as yet had neither the knowledge of how to overthrow Capitalism, nor the ability to create a new social order; and that therefore Social Revolution was impossible for a long time to come. Moreover, they believed that Socialism was to be achieved by “education” and “democratic” political action.
Bolshevism is practical. It does not assume that the capitalist class is going to be legislated out of power without a fight. Power is based on private ownership. In order to secure power the workers must control capitalist property, and abolish ownership. This they can do only by force—the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.
Today the workers of all countries are resolving to make an end to Capitalism. Bolshevism asserts that it is the Socialists, the trained revolutionary thinkers, who must point out the way, and lead the workers along it.
As Lenin says,
If Socialism can only be realized when the intellectual development of all the people permits it, then we shall not see Socialism for at least five hundred years . . . . The Socialist political party—this is the vanguard of the working class; it must not allow itself to be halted by the lack of education of the mass average, but it must be the masses using the Soviets as organs of revolutionary initiative….
The Soviets are the representative bodies of the vast majority of the organized working class. Without the unhesitating support of this vast majority, revolutionary leaders could accomplish nothing. Bolshevism in Russia conquered only because the people were ready to follow it. Bolshevism is established today in Russia because it is supported by the greater part of the Russian people.
If this were not so, the Bolsheviki would have ceased to lead the Russian Revolution long ago. Their power is based upon the Soviets, for whom all persons who live by working may cast their votes—and the delegates to which are subject to instant recall. Local Soviets meet frequently, and may be summoned in extra session on short notice by a minority, for the voters, peasants or workers, are always gathered together in the fields and factories. The All-Russian Congress of Soviets, consisting of over 2,500 members, meets every three months, at which time the Government automatically resigns and a new Government is elected, responsible to the Congress and its Central Executive Committee. And between times, any or all members of the Government may be easily recalled from office.
The Socialist Commonwealth is not born without fearful birth-pangs—the Proletarian Dictatorship. Russia today is not a Socialist Commonwealth—nor does it pretend to be. There is a Proletarian Dictatorship, engaged in conducting the final struggle of the working class against the capitalist class—not, however, its own capitalist class, for that has been conquered, but International Capitalism. Until International Capitalism is overthrown, Proletarian Dictatorship will not, cannot end.
As it is, however, the. Russian Soviet Republic, hampered by the lack of education of a people for centuries plunged by tyranny in darkness, and engaged in defending itself against the world, has already accomplished miracles in organizing industry, agriculture, and education—only hinting at the mighty achievements of the new order, when the removal of capitalist obstruction finally frees the creative genius of the workers.
When the working class, the basic stratum of society, heaves its giant shoulders, the entire superstructure of Capitalism cracks and falls in ruins.
Before our eyes nation after nation is drawn into the headlong current of Social Revolution, with Bolshevism at the helm.
Bolshevism is Socialism arrived at the point of social revolution—at the dictatorship of the proletariat foretold by Karl Marx.
The object of proletarian dictatorship is to seize the power of the capitalist class and transfer it to the workers. It has no other purpose.
The methods and expedients it must use vary according to conditions. In Russia today, half the strength of the proletarian dictatorship is employed in defending itself against the assaults of International Capitalism. But both in its external and internal policies, the Russian Soviet Government is supported by the great majority of the people—peasants as well as industrial workers.
2. Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution
Bolshevism saved the Russian Revolution. To the Russian people the Revolution meant Peace, Land to the peasants, and workers’ control of industry. The propertied classes would not surrender their property; and the “moderate” Socialists, who compromised with the land-owners and capitalists, could not accomplish the will of the people. Only a government exclusively of and for the workers and peasants could satisfy these demands.
The Bolsheviki advocated such a Government, and made these popular demands the basis of their program. And the history of the Russian Revolution is the chronicle of the awakening of the masses to the political realities of the situation.
The overthrow of Czardom, in March, 1917, was accomplished by the spontaneous action of the popular masses. The bourgeois Liberals did not participate in the Revolution. Only after the Revolution was accomplished did they step in, through the Provisional Government, and try to bridle it for the purpose of perpetuating Capitalism.
Meanwhile the masses were themselves organizing. On March 14th the newly-formed Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies proclaimed: “All together we win fight for the removal of the old Government.”
The Soviets, representing truly the masses of workers, soldiers and peasants, thus appeared as the real Government of the people—which, if it had not been diverted by the “moderate” Socialists, could have become the Government of Russia early in the Revolution This was what the Bolsheviki never ceased to urge, with their slogan, “All Power to the Soviets !”
The Mensheviki and Socialist Revolutionaries controlled the Soviets; at first they announced that the Soviets would be “a pistol at the head of the Provisional Government, to compel it to keep its promises”—but they ended by supporting the Provisional Government and trying to dissolve the Soviets.
These “moderate” Socialists held that owing to the economic backwardness of Russia, the Revolution could only be a political Revolution—not a social Revolution. Therefore, naturally, a capitalist state must first be established in Russia. Distrusting both the masses and themselves, they refused to take the power for the Soviets.
The capitalist Ministers, aware of their weakness, threatened to resign unless the Soviet leaders would enter the Government. The “moderate” Socialists complied; on May 19th the first Coalition Cabinet was formed—which, with the economic life still controlled by the capitalists, made the Mensheviki and Socialist Revolutionaries defenders of Capitalism in Russia.
For the “Moderate” Socialists needed the capitalists worse than the capitalists needed the “Moderate” Socialists.
Impelled by the attitude of the masses, the Soviet leaders proclaimed the Russian peace-terms: “No annexations, no indemnities, the right of self-determination of peoples.” But the Provisional Government had ratified the secret treaties concluded between the Czar and the Allies, and the “moderate” Socialists continued to support a war which they themselves had denounced as a “senseless imperialistic slaughter.” At the bidding of the Allies and the Russian imperialists, they countenanced the July offensive, which was contrary to the very principles of the Revolution, and resulted in the demoralizaton of the Russian army. Depending on the capitalists, they were reduced to begging the Russian and Allied imperialists to renounce their imperialistic aims—and were contemptuously ignored.
On the other hand, the “moderate” Socialists in the Government could not accomplish anything toward the settlement of the problems of Land and Industry. In fact, their dependence on the capitalists forced them to act against the masses: “Socialist” Minister Kerensky reintroduced capital punishment in the army; “Socialist” Minister Avksentiev sent Cossacks to suppress agrarian revolts against the land-lords; “Socialist” Minister Nikitin broke the railway strike; “Socialist Minister” Skobeliev tried to dissolve the Workers Committees.
Thwarting the will of the popular masses, the “moderate” Socialists gave the capitalists an opportunity to organize and attempt the overthrow of the Revolution by force,—the Kornilov counter-revolution.
This destroyed the last faith of the masses in the “moderate” Socialists. Behind Kornilov was plainly visible the mailed fist of the propertied classes; and yet, in the face of the bitter resentment of the whole country, the “moderate” Socialists insisted on forming a new Government with the same propertied classes!
When the Bolsheviki seized the power in November, the army was starving and demoralized: there was no food in the cities; transportation had practically ceased; strikes, lockouts, and agrarian troubles were everywhere; the capitalists, in the Council of the Russian Republic were stronger than before; and the “moderate” Socialists were telling the people: “We can’t do anything—but wait for the Constituent Assembly!”
The Bolsheviki said to the people:
The Mensheviki and Socialist Revolutionaries promised you Peace, Land and Industrial Control eight months ago. Now they tell you to wait for the Constituent Assembly.
Like the Provisional Government, the Constituent Assembly is an expression of existing class-relations. If the capitalists control Russia, the Constituent Assembly will do their will or be dispressed. If the working class controls Russia, the Constituent Assembly must do our will.
The whole Governmental structure is built to serve and protect Capitalism; it can do nothing else.
You must seize the power, destroy the entire political edifice, and build a new one, controlled by yourselves alone, and fitted to serve the working class only. Fortunately you have one ready to hand—the Soviets. All power to the Soviets!
On November 7th, 1917, the Soviets—which in the meanwhile had developed a Bolshevik majority—took over the Government. And the Provisional Government, supported by the “moderate” Socialists, was unable in all Russia to rally to its aid more than a handful of Cossacks, junkers, and White Guards!
The Constituent Assembly, elected from lists of candidates made up four months before, accurately reflected the “coalition” of capitalists and “moderate” Socialists which was in power at that time. It refused to ratify either the People’s Government of Soviets, or the popular demands. So the people dissolved it and the dissolution provoked not a ripple of protest among the Russian masses; only the “Socialist intellectuals” and the New York Times objected.
Several months ago the seventy Constituent Assembly members who held together, with the President, Victor Tchernov, joined the Soviet Government. No opposition to Bolshevism based on the Constituent Assembly is valid any more.
Bolshevism is sweeping Europe. In every country in the world it has captured the imagination of conscious workers. It smashed Imperial Germany; said the German General Hoffman, in a recent interview, “We did not use Bolshevism. Bolshevism used us!”
* * * * * *
Any discussion of the Brest-Litovsk Peace is now purely academic. It accomplished its purpose in giving Soviet Russia a respite in which to prepare for the Revolutionary war—a war of propaganda—which finally resulted in the defeat of Imperial Germany, and has won back for Russia all the “surrendered” territories which have not been invaded or held by Governments subsidized by the Allies.
There was nothing else for the Bolsheviki to do but make peace. When the Soviets came to power, thanks to the criminal policy of the Provisional Governments, there was no Russian Army.
This war was recognized by all parties; by Kerensky’s Minister of War, General Verkovsky, when, on November 2 he announced that the Russian army could fight no longer; by Dan, representing the moderate “Socialists” at the last meeting of the old Central Executive Committee of the Soviets on November 6, when he said, “Unfortunately, Russia can no longer support the continuation of the war. There is going to be peace, but not permanent peace—not a democratic peace;” and finally by the lamented Constituent Assembly itself.
The first acts of the Bolshevik Government were to propose to all nations, three distinct times, to enter negotiations for a general democratic peace. This invitation was contemptuously ignored, leaving the only resource of the Soviet Government to make a separate peace with Germany.
Trotsky wanted to drag out the negotiations as long as possible, so that, first, the Allied peoples might see the sincerity of the Soviet Government and force their Governments to join the Conference; and second, that the German proletariat might be roused to revolution.
Lenin’s theory was:
The Allies are dominated by Imperialists. The German proletariat is not yet ready to rise. We must sign a peace in the end. If we do not accept the first peace terms offered, then we shall have to accept worse ones later. And no matter how many people believe in our sincerity, the moment we sign the inevitable peace treaty we shall be called German agents by the bourgeoisie of the world.
Trotsky’s plan was adopted—and Lenin’s prophesy came true.
We were forced to sign a ‘Tilsit peace’…. The Peace of Tilsit (Napoleon, 1807) was Germany’s greatest humiliation, and at the same time the turning-point toward the greatest of national revivals….
Because the Anglo-French and American bourgeoisie hoped to re-establish the Eastern front by once more drawing us into the whirlpool of war, they refused to attend the peace negotiations, and gave Germany a free hand to cram its shameful terms down the throat of the Russian people. It lay in the power of the Allied countries to make the Brest-Litovsk negotiations the forerunner of a general peace. It ill-becomes them to throw the blame for the Russo-German peace on our shoulders. …
We are in a beleaguered fortress as long as no other international Social Revolution comes to our assistance with its armies. But these armies exist, they are stronger than ours. They grow, they strive, they become more invincible the longer Imperialism with its brutalities continues. Working men the world over are breaking with their betrayers, with their Gomeperses and their Scheidemanns. Inevitably, labor is approaching Communistic Bolshevik tactics—is preparing for the proletarian revolution that alone is capable of preserving culture and humanity from destruction.
We are invincible. The proletarian Revolution is invincible.
3. Proletarian Dictatorship and Democracy
The Social Revolution has arrived. The final battle of the working class for control of the world is now being fought in Russia. Lenin said, before the Fourth Congress of Soviets, March, 1918:
The civil war brought about by the desperate resistance of the propertied classes, who are well aware that this is to be the last, the determining conflict for the retention of private ownership of land and of the means of production, has not yet reached its climax. In this conflict the victory of the Soviets is certain, but for some time our intensest efforts will still be required. A period of disorganization is inevitable—that is the case in all wars, all the more so in a civil war—before the resistance of the bourgeoisie is broken.
Until this resistance is broken—until the capitalist class is eliminated through the confiscation of its property and the abolition of private ownership, democracy is impossible. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat is the only means by which this can be accomplished. And as soon as the capitalist class has disappeared, the Dictatorship automatically ceases.
In all countries state of war exists between the working class and the capitalists. In most countries the Dictatorship of the Capitalists keeps the workers down by force, but cannot abolish them, for the workers are indispensable. In Russia, the Dictatorship of the Proletariat is abolishing Capitalism—for the capitalists are not necessary to society.
Political Democracy is a fake.
Modern nations have two governments; the political government, in which every man theoretically has a vote—and the economic government, in which the few who own industry and control production are autocrats over millions of workers. The policies of “democratic” governments are dictated by the “interests.” Woodrow Wilson, in his “New Freedom,” indicates this when he points out that the United States Government is in the hands of the great corporations.
Political democracy simply means that everybody may vote for a Government which must serve the “interests.”
“Political power, properly so-called,” says the Communist Manifesto, “Is merely the organized power of one class oppressing another.” The institutions of modern “democratic” governments are designated to protect and enforce the exploitation of the workers by the capitalists. Therefore, even if the working class should capture the political power by a majority of votes, that power could only go on exploiting the workers–unless industry is taken out of the hands of the capitalist class. The capitalists would resist this by force—as they have in the past—as they are doing in Russia and Germany today.
But it is impossible for the workers to get control of the state through the machinery of political democracy. They must forcibly seize industry, abolish the present form of government, and set up a new one in the interests of their own class. This Government—the Dictatorship of the Proletariat—will take away capitalist property and disfranchise all who do not work. When the capitalist class is eliminated, the war between the workers and the capitalists will be over, classes will have disappeared, and democracy will follow, based upon equality and the liberty of the individual.
Real democracy must act in accordance with the interests of society as a whole. Our own form of Government is a striking example of a Government designed to uphold the interests of a minority—the capitalist class. Apparently democratic in form, the Constitution of the United States was deliberately framed, by landlords, traders and speculators, to establish and maintain their property rights and to thwart the will of the majority of the people.
Revolutions are never precipitated by the majority of a people—even the American Revolution was not begun by a majority—but they must possess the power to overthrow the ruling class. In the past, successful revolutions have always replaced the rule of one minority class by another minority class. The characteristic of the Social Revolution now in process is that it does away with every form of class rule.
But even the Social Revolution will not—cannot be started by a majority. It is begun by a mass of class-conscious and resolute proletarians, and the course of the Revolution itself awakens ever greater and greater masses of workers to an understanding of their interests, and draws them into the vortex of revolt.
There is no reason why the revolutionary forces should represent an absolute majority. Even when they embrace the vast majority of the working class, the acts and decisions of the Proletarian Dictatorship will not be based on democracy, but on the class position of the proletariat against the capitalist class position. In Russia the Proletarian Dictatorship could not last an hour unless it kept continually in touch with the revolutionary masses through the Soviets, leading yet controlled by the great popular will.
Moderate Socialists—and the bourgeoisie—accuse the Bolsheviki of advocating immediate, complete and perfect Socialism. What an absurdity! The Dictatorship of the Proletariat must last until Capitalism is abolished. Capitalism is international; world Capitalism must disappear before the Proletarian Dictatorship of any one country is ended.
Karl Marx said, “The victorious proletariat cannot seize the ready-made machinery of the State and use it for its own purposes.” It must build new organizations, based not on the government of men, but on the administration of things.
In Russia it is undeniable that the great masses of the people wanted Peace, Land, and Workers’ Control of Industry. In the sense that it has no other purpose than to give the people their desires, the Proletarian Dictatorship is profoundly democratic. In the sense that it refuses to ask the opinion of militarists, landlords and manufacturers upon these matters, the Proletarian Dictatorship rejects “democracy.”
* * * *
The Dictatorship of the Proletariat is “political power.” Its purpose is simply to abolish the capitalist class. The political power of the capitalists cannot abolish the workers—for the workers are essential to society; but the Dictatorship of the Proletariat can abolish the capitalists, for they are unnecessary.
Foiled in their game of tearing Marxian phrases from their context, the moderates, whenever they come across something in Marx that doesn’t agree with their theories, explain that the old gentleman wrote it in a moment of aberration. “Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” for example, was written “casually”—”merely a phrase;” Marx really didn’t mean it.
Apparently the moderates don’t know where the phrase occurs, so they hint that it is part of the Communist Manifesto, written in 1847. They may quote some sentences—torn from their context, by the way—from The Civil War in France, written in 1870, to prove that Marx changed his mind.
As a matter of fact, “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” occurs in a document five years later—Critique of the Gotha Program of 1875. Marx was then tolerably mature; he was not searching for “strong idioms;” he wanted to express himself clearly and definitely—and he did, as follows.
“Between the capitalistic society and the communistic lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. This corresponds to a political transition-period, in which the State cannot be anything else but the dictatorship of the proletariat.”
This exactly defines the Russian Soviet Government.
As Marx says:
“They (the proletarians) have nothing of their own to secure and to fortify; their mission is to destroy all previous securities for and insurances of individual property….”
“In one word you (bourgeois) reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend….”
“The abolition of bourgeois individuality, bourgeois independence and bourgeois freedom is undoubtedly aimed at….”
And also bourgeois “democracy”!
[Note: First published on July 12, 1919 in The Revolutionary Age. Text from John Reed Internet Archive]
The writer was an American journalist, poet, and socialist activist, best remembered for his first-hand account of the Bolshevik Revolution, Ten Days that Shook the World. He died in Russia in 1920, and was buried at the Kremlin Wall Necropolis.