The Democratic Tasks of the Revolutionary Proletariat

1906-06-17 - Vladimir Ilich (Lenin)


The [Russian] Social Democratic Party, as the conscious exponent of the working-class movement, aims at the complete liberation of the toiling masses from every form of oppression and exploitation. The achievement of this objective—the abolition of private property in the means of production and the creation of the socialist society—calls for a very high development of the productive forces of capitalism and a high degree of organisation of the working class. The full development of the productive forces in modern bourgeois society, a broad, free, and open class struggle, and the political education, training, and rallying of the masses of the proletariat are inconceivable without political freedom. Therefore it has always been the aim of the class-conscious proletariat to wage a determined struggle for complete political freedom and the democratic revolution.

The proletariat is not alone in setting this task before itself. The bourgeoisie, too, needs political freedom. The enlightened members of the propertied classes hung out the banner of liberty long ago; the revolutionary intelligentsia, which comes mainly from these classes, has fought heroically for freedom. But the bourgeoisie as a whole is incapable of waging a determined struggle against the autocracy; it fears to lose in this struggle its property which binds it to the existing order; it fears an all-too revolutionary action of the workers, who will not stop at the democratic revolution but will aspire to the socialist revolution; it fears a complete break with officialdom, with the bureaucracy, whose interests are bound up by a thousand ties with the interests of the propertied classes. For this reason the bourgeois struggle for liberty is notoriously timorous, inconsistent, and half-hearted. One of the tasks of the proletariat is to prod the bourgeoisie on, to raise before the whole people slogans calling for a complete democratic revolution, to start working boldly and independently for the realisation of these slogans—in a word, to be the vanguard, to take the lead in the struggle for the liberty of the whole people.


In the pursuit of this aim the Russian Social-Democrats have had to fight many a battle against the inconsistency of bourgeois liberalism. Let us recall, for instance, how Mr. Struve began his career, unhampered by the censor, as a political champion of the “liberation” of Russia. He made his début with his preface to the Witte “Memorandum”, in which he advanced the markedly “Shipovian” (to use the current political nomenclature) slogan, “Rights, and an Authoritative Zemstvo”. The Social-Democratic Party exposed the retrogressive, absurd, and reactionary nature of that slogan; it demanded a definite and uncompromising democratic platform, and itself put forward such a platform as an integral part of its Party programme. Social-Democracy had to combat the narrow conception of the aims of democracy which obtained in its own ranks when the so-called Economists did their best to play down these aims, when they advocated the “economic struggle against the employers and the, government”, and insisted that we must start by winning rights, continue with political agitation, and only then gradually (the theory of stages) pass on to political struggle.

Now the political struggle has become vastly extended, the revolution has spread throughout the land, the mildest liberals have become “extremists”; it may therefore seem that historical references to the recent past such as we have just made are out of place, with no bearing on the actual turbulent present. But this may seem so only at first glance. To be sure, such slogans as the demand for a Constituent Assembly and for universal, direct, and equal suffrage by secret ballot (which the Social-Democrats long since and in advance of all presented in their Party programme) have become common property; they have been adopted by the illegal Osvobozhdeniye, incorporated in the programme of the Osvobozhdeniye League, turned into Zemtsvo slogans, and are now being repeated in every shape and form by the legal press. That Russian bourgeois democracy has made progress in recent years and months cannot be doubted. Bourgeois democracy is learning by experience, is discarding primitive slogans (like the Shipovian “Rights, and an Authoritative Zemstvo”) and is hobbling along behind the revolution. But it is only hobbling along behind; new contradictions between its words and its deeds, between democracy in principle and democracy in “Realpolitik”, are arising in place of the old; for revolutionary developments are making steadily growing demands on democracy. But bourgeois democracy always drags at the tail of events; while adopting more advanced slogans, it always lags behind; it always formulates the slogans several degrees below the level really required in the real revolutionary struggle for real liberty.

Indeed, let us take that now current and generally accepted slogan, “For a Constituent Assembly on the basis of universal, direct, and equal suffrage by secret ballot”. Is that slogan adequate from the standpoint of consistent democracy? Is it adequate in the light of the urgent revolutionary tasks of the present moment? The answer to both these questions can be only in the negative. To be convinced that this is so one has only to examine carefully our Party programme, to which our organisations, unfortunately, do not often refer and which they quote and disseminate all too little. (As a happy exception, worthy of the widest emulation, we note the recent reprint of our Party programme in leaflet form by the Riga, Voronezh, and Moscow committees.) The keynote of our programme, too, is the demand for a popular Constituent Assembly (let us agree, for brevity’s sake, to use the word “popular” as denoting suffrage that is universal, etc.). But this slogan does not stand isolated in our programme. The context and the addenda and notes prevent any miconstruction on the part of those who are least consistent in the struggle for liberty or who even struggle against it. It occurs in our programme in conjunction with the following other slogans: (1) the overthrow of the tsarist autocracy; (2) its replacement by the democratic republic; (3) the sovereignty of the people, safeguarded by a democratic constitution, i.e., the concentration of supreme governmental authority entirely in the hands of a legislative assembly composed of representatives of the people and forming a single chamber.

Can there be any doubt that every consistent democrat is obligated to accept all these slogans? Why, the very word “democrat”, both by its etymology and by virtue of the political significance it has acquired throughout the history of Europe, denotes an adherent of the sovereignty of the people. It is absurd, therefore, to talk of democracy and in the same breath to reject even a single one of these slogans. But the main contradiction, the contradiction between the desire of the bourgeoisie to preserve private property at all costs and its desire for liberty, is so profound that spokesmen or followers of the liberal bourgeoisie inevitably find themselves in this ridiculous position. As everyone knows, a very broad liberal party is forming Itself in Russia with enormous rapidity, a party which has the adherence of the Osvobozhdeniye League, of the mass of the Zemstvo people, and of newspapers like Nasha Zhizn, Nashi Dni, Syn Otechestva, Russkiye Vedomosti,[1] etc., etc. This liberal-bourgeois party likes to be called the “Constitutional-Democratic” Party. In actual fact, however, as can be seen from the declarations and the programme of the illegal Osvobozhdeniye, it is a monarchist party. It does not want a republic at all. It does not want a unicameral assembly, and it proposes for the Upper House indirect and virtually non-universal suffrage (residence qualification). It is anything but anxious for the supreme governmental authority to pass entirely into the hands of the people (although for window-dressing purposes it is very fond of talking about the transfer of power to the people). It does not want the autocracy to be overthrown. It wants only a division of power among (1) the monarchy; (2) the Upper House (where landowners and capitalists will predominate); and (3) the Lower House, which alone is to be built on democratic principles.

Thus, we have before us the indisputable fact that our “democratic” bourgeoisie, even as represented by its most advanced, most educated elements, those least subject to the direct influence of capital, is trailing behind the revolution. This “democratic” party fears the sovereignty of the people. While repeating our slogan of a popular Constituent Assembly, it in fact completely distorts its sense and significance and misleads the people by its use, or, rather, abuse.

What is a “popular Constituent” Assembly? It is an assembly which, in the first place, really expresses the will of the people. To this end we must have universal suffrage in all of its democratic aspects, and a full guarantee of freedom to conduct the election campaign. It is an assembly which, in the second place, really has the power and authority to “inaugurate” a political order which will ensure the sovereignty of the people. It is clear as daylight that without these two conditions the assembly can be neither truly popular nor truly constituent. Yet our liberal bourgeois, our constitutional monarchists (whose claim to be democrats is a mockery of the people) do not want real safeguards to ensure either of these conditions! Not only do they fail to ensure in any way complete freedom of election propaganda or the actual transfer of power and authority to the Constituent Assembly, but, on the contrary, they seek to make both impossible since they aim at maintaining the monarchy. The real power and authority is to remain in the hands of Nicholas the Bloody. This means that the dire enemy of the people is to convene the assembly and “ensure” that the elections will be free and universal. How very democratic! It means that the Constituent Assembly will never have and (according to the idea of the liberal bourgeois) must never have all power and all authority; it is to be utterly devoid of power, devoid of authority; it is merely to come to terms, to reach an agreement, to arrive at an understanding, to strike a bargain with Nicholas II for the assembly to be granted a modicum of his royal power! The Constituent Assembly elected by universal suffrage is to differ in no way from a Lower House. That is to say, the Constituent Assembly, convened for expressing and executing the will of the people, is designed by the liberal bourgeoisie to “constitute”, over the will of the people, the will of an Upper House and on top of that the will of the monarchy, the will of Nicholas.

Is it not obvious that in talking, speechifying, and shouting about a popular Constituent Assembly, the liberal bourgeois, the Osvobozhdeniye gentry, are actually planning an anti-popular consultative assembly? Instead of emancipating the people, they want to subject the people, by constitutional means, first, to the power of the tsar (monarchism), and, secondly, to the power of the organised big bourgeoisie (the Upper House).

If anyone wishes to dispute this conclusion, let him assert: (1) that there can be a true expression of the popular will in elections without complete freedom of propaganda and without the actual abolition of all the propaganda privileges of the tsarist government; or (2) that an assembly of delegates devoid of real power and authority, in that these are left in the hands of the tsar, is not, in effect, a mere consultative body. To make either of these assertions one must be either a brazen charlatan or a hope less fool. History proves conclusively that a representative assembly coexisting with a monarchical form of government is in actual fact, so long as governmental power remains in the hands of the monarchy, a consultative body which does not bend the will of the monarch to the will of the people, but only conforms the will of the people to the will of the monarch, i. e., divides the power between monarch and people, bargains for a new order, but does not constitute it. History proves conclusively that there can be no such thing as really free elections, that the significance and character of these elections can hardly be brought home to the whole people unless the government that is combating the revolution is replaced by a provisional revolutionary government. Granting for a moment the improbable and the impossible, namely, that the tsarist government, having decided to convene a “Constituent” (read: consultative) Assembly, will give formal guarantees of freedom of propaganda, all the vast advantages and superior facilities for campaigning which accrue from the organised power of the state will nevertheless remain in its hands. These advantages and facilities for propaganda during the elections to the first people’s assembly will be enjoyed by the very ones who have oppressed the people by all the means in their power, and from whom the people have begun to wrest liberty by force.

In a word, we arrive at the very conclusion we reached on the previous occasion (Proletary, No. 3),[2] when we examined this question from another angle. The slogan of a popular Constituent Assembly, taken by itself, separately, is at the present time a slogan of the monarchist bourgeoisie, a slogan calling for a deal between the bourgeoisie and the tsarist government. Only the overthrow of the tsarist government and its replacement by a provisional revolutionary government, whose duty it will be to convene the popular Constituent Assembly, can be the slogan of the revolutionary struggle. Let the proletariat of Russia have no illusions on this score; in the din of the general excitation it is being deceived by the use of its own slogans. If we fail to match the armed force of the government with the force of an armed people, if the tsarist government is not utterly defeated and replaced by a provisional revolutionary government, every representative assembly, whatever title—“popular”, “constituent”, etc.—may be conferred upon it, will in fact be an assembly of representatives of the big bourgeoisie convened for the purpose of bargaining with the tsar for a division of power.

The more the people’s struggle against the tsar comes to a head and the greater likelihood there is of a speedy realisation of the demand for an assembly of people’s representatives, the more closely must the revolutionary proletariat watch the “democratic” bourgeoisie. The sooner we gain freedom, the sooner will this ally of the proletariat become its enemy. Two circumstances will serve to cloak this change: (1) the vagueness, incompleteness, and non-committal character of the would-be democratic slogans of the bourgeoisie; and (2) the endeavour to turn the slogans of the proletariat into mere phrases, to substitute empty promises for real safeguards of liberty and revolution. The workers must now watch the “democrats” with intensified vigilance. The words “popular Constituent Assembly” will be nothing more than words if, owing to the actual conditions under which the election campaign and the elections themselves are conducted, this assembly fails to express the will of the people, if it lacks the strength independently to establish the new order. The cardinal issue is now shifting from the question of summoning the popular Constituent Assembly to the question of the method by which it is to be summoned. We are on the eve of decisive events. The proletariat must not pin its faith in general democratic slogans but must contrapose to them its own proletarian-democratic slogans in their full scope. Only a force guided by these slogans can really ensure the complete victory of the revolution.