Lenin on the Withering Away of Democracy

The Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies in Tauride Palace, 1917. For a brief period in February and March, the cabinet of the Provisional Government also sat in the Tauride, making it the nexus of all democracy in Russia.

[…] in speaking of the state “withering away,” and the even more graphic and colorful “dying down of itself,” Engels refers quite clearly and definitely to the period after “the state has taken possession of the means of production in the name of the whole of society,” that is, after the socialist revolution. We all know that the political form of the “state” at that time is the most complete democracy. But it never enters the head of any of the opportunists, who shamelessly distort Marxism, that Engels is consequently speaking here of democracy “dying down of itself,” or “withering away.” This seems very strange at first sight. But it is “incomprehensible” only to those who have not thought about democracy also being a state and, consequently, also disappearing when the state disappears.¹

So wrote Lenin in his seminal The State and Revolution on the eve of the fall of the Russian Republic, which, with its eight liberal principles, was, at least in name, the most democratic and progressive government in the world. What did he mean by this? One would be forgiven for assuming that the withering of the state, being the transition to lower-stage communism, would mean more democracy, not less, and certainly not its disappearance — after all, is not communism itself inherently democratic? No. Communism is not “inherently democratic” — this is an empty soundbite, and a regrettable one at that when it worms its way into genuine theoretical enquiry as opposed to propagandistic sloganeering. A common one, for sure, but an empty one nonetheless.

Each revolutionary class portrays itself, and more generally really appears, to be representing the interests of a wider section of the whole population than the previous revolutionary class, and every revolutionary class really does advance the interests of the general population even though the other classes do not end up in power.² This manifests itself in the increasingly universal ideals and ideology of revolutionary movements over time.³ The proletariat is no different. It is in this sense that communism is “democratic,” expanding the power base of society to a wider percentile of the population and aiming ‘at a more decided and radical negation of the previous conditions of society than could all previous classes which sought to rule,’ but to apply the name of democracy to such a thing is highly questionable.⁴

Regardless, Lenin, being a committed and grounded Marxist, rejected democracy ‘in general’; he instead supported only that “democracy” which advanced the proletariat’s position as a class.⁵ Democracy developed as an organisational mechanism for the rule of a class society, and as such, cannot be retained in a post-class, post-state society. It is all but inevitable that various characteristics of democratic régimes will persist, though in a markedly changed form, in communist societies, especially lower stage communism, but to think that this describes the wholesale preservation of a social system would be a mistake. It is important to understand Lenin is referring to just that: democracy as a system, and not as some amorphous conglomerate of moralistic and organisational principles as it is often taken for. If we call the latter, and not the former, “democracy,” which would be an entirely unscientific and un-Marxist thing to do, then yes, maybe democracy will be retained under communism, but this is not what Lenin means by it. The State and Revolution is, after all, a study of states.

So by “democracy,” does Lenin mean the bourgeois democracy we have today? The bourgeois democracy he hailed as ‘a great historical advance’ but which is marked by the context within which it made its appearance in history?⁶ And why would it be such an un-Marxist thing to do to refer to democracy by its organisational principle, “rule by the people”?

First, Lenin is indeed referring to bourgeois-democratic régimes, but he is also referring to would-be proletarian-democratic régimes too: ‘the political form of the “state” [once it has taken possession of the means of production in the name of the whole of society] is the most complete democracy,’ but it is this democracy, not the bourgeoisie’s, which is incapable of such a thing, that is being talked of “withering away.”

Second, “rule by the people” is not the organisational principle of democracy: it is its ideological manifestation. The organisational principle of democracy is majoritarianism or pluralism, voting, and, in its bourgeois manifestation, the manipulation of society ‘as a formless mass’ (the ideological construct of “the people” as opposed to specific classes, parties, groups, and so on).⁷ Marxists are absolutely opposed to this as our politics is an explicitly class-based one, and we do not advocate nor work towards a situation whereby political power is equally shared among or wielded for the various socioeconomic groups. Further, these ideological positions entrench and preserve the existing social systems. The bourgeoisie rule, via elections, through the consent (coerced and manipulated as it is) not just of the majority of the population in general but of the majority of proletarians specifically.⁸

Furthermore, it is not necessarily unscientific to refer to and define democracy by its organisational principles, not unless you were doing so to the exclusion of other considerations, principally the historical. However it would be unscientific to define and understand it by its ideological justifications, which present themselves as transhistorical when we know nothing to be transhistorical, the social forms and accompanying dominant ideas of an era least of all, and we know the ideas and prejudices of every age to in fact be the definite results of underlying economic structures. These structures constitute the material basis of superstructural forms like political and economic democracy (or lack thereof), and if these material bases no longer exist then these superstructural forms will cease to exist in turn. In discussing the withering away of the state (and so of classes and all the other processes that occur simultaneously with these developments), Lenin is discussing exactly such a disappearance of economic structures, without which “democracy,” which has a definite economic basis, will also disappear. To paraphrase from the excerpt with which we opened this article so as to better demonstrate this: the withering away of democracy is incomprehensible only to those who have not thought about democracy as being grounded in specific material conditions, that is, who have only thought of democracy in terms of its ideals.

¹ V. I. Lenin, “Class Society and the State,” The ‘Withering Away’ of the State, and Violent Revolution, The State and Revolution (1917)

² See K. Marx and F. Engels, “The Illusion of the Epoch,” Ruling Class and Ruling Ideas, The German Ideology (1845)

³ Ibid. Marx explains in a marginal note that universality ‘corresponds to (1) the class versus the estate, (2) the competition, world-wide intercourse, etc., (3) the great numerical strength of the ruling class, (4) the illusion of the common interests (in the beginning this illusion is true), (5) the delusion of the ideologists and the division of labour.’

Ibid.

See, for example, his article “Soviet Power and the Status of Women” and his letter of November 25 1916 to Inessa Armand for two explicit examples of this, but also The State and Revolution itself, which is littered with excellent remarks on the subject, though they are often such that they can be misconstrued by the opportunists which he rejected in the excerpt we are discussing. We here repeat his words to Armand for their clarity: communists ‘always stand for democracy, not “in the name of capitalism,” but in the name of clearing the path for our movement, which clearing is impossible without the development of capitalism.’

V. I. Lenin, “Bourgeois And Proletarian Democracy,” The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (1918)

L. Goldner, “Communism is the Material Human Community: Amadeo Bordiga Today” (1995)

See A. Bordiga, “Party and Class” (1921)

Bordiga, Amadeo. “Party and Class.” Rassegna Comunista 2 (1921). Accessed at https://www.marxists.org/archive/bordiga/works/1921/party-class.htm on 29/04/2020

Goldner, Loren. “Communism is the Material Human Community: Amadeo Bordiga Today.” Critique 23 (1995). Accessed at https://libcom.org/library/communism-is-the-material-human-community-amadeo-bordiga-today on 29/04/2020

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov. Letter to Inessa Armand (1916/1976). Accessed at https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/nov/25ia.htm on 29/04/2020

—. The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (1918/1974). Accessed at https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/prrk/ on 29/04/2020

— . “Soviet Power and the Status of Women.” Pravda 249 (1919/1965). Accessed at https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1919/nov/06.htm on 29/04/2020

— . The State and Revolution (1917/1964). Accessed at https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/ on 29/04/2020

Marx, Karl Heinrich and Friedrich Engels. The German Ideology (1846/1932). Accessed at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ on 29/04/2020

Philosophy. Writing on Marxism, eliminativism in philosophy of mind and metaethics, suffering(-focused ethics), and philosophical pessimism.

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