Democracy has many meanings. Under some of these definitions, socialism respects and extends democracy. More than ever before, the administrative assistant, the factory worker, the retail worker, the student, will have a say in how things are run. But in many other senses, socialism is vociferously anti-democratic. The business owner, the stockholder, the financier, the avowed capitalist, will lose any and all rights and protections. They will have no say in how things are run. Moreover, for socialists democracy is merely a transitory form -- a necessary evil. With the disappearance of classes and the state, democracy and all forms of the state and politics wither away.
These are the theses defended in Lenin's State and Revolution. Lenin is very clear on these matters. Let's examine how Lenin is both right and (just a little) wrong about democracy, the state, and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The state, instrument of class rule
Lenin starts State and Revolution by repeating what Marx and Engels said about the state. The crudest outline is this: classes appear as society develops. In class society the wholesale arming of the population becomes impractical, since there is no longer a common interest, nothing to prevent internecine warfare. The exercise of authority becomes the domain of a subset of the population -- "the state." The state originates in class society, but stands above all classes. The state mediates class conflict in order to preserve the society it springs from. Of course, the state is not a neutral arbiter. To quote Engels:
Because the state arose from the need to hold class antagonisms in check, but because it arose, at the same time, in the midst of the conflict of these classes, it is, as a rule, the state of the most powerful, economically dominant class, which, through the medium of the state, becomes also the politically dominant class, and thus acquires new means of holding down and exploiting the oppressed class... the modern representative state is an instrument of exploitation of wage-labor by capital. By way of exception, however, periods occur in which the warring classes balance each other so nearly that the state power as ostensible mediator acquires, for the moment, a certain degree of independence of both (The Origin of Family, Private Property and State).
The state, then, to quote Engels' again, is
an organization of the particular exploiting class, for the maintenance of its external conditions of production, and, therefore, especially, for the purpose of forcibly keeping the exploited class in the conditions of oppression determined by the given mode of production (slavery, serfdom or bondage, wage-labor). The state was the official representative of society as a whole, its concentration in a visible corporation. But it was this only insofar as it was the state of that class which itself represented, for its own time, society as a whole: in ancient times, the state of slave-owning citizens; in the Middle Ages, of the feudal nobility; in our own time, of the bourgeoisie (Anti-Dühring).
Democracy, a form of the state
With this definition of the state firmly under our belt, Lenin's terse definition of democracy makes sense. Democracy is merely a particular form of the state:
Democracy is a state which recognizes the subordination of the minority to the majority, i.e., an organization for the systematic use of force by one class against another, by one section of the population against another (chapter 4, section 6).
Democracy is a form of the state, it represents, on the one hand, the organized, systematic use of force against persons; but, on the other hand, it signifies the formal recognition of equality of citizens, the equal right of all to determine the structure of, and to administer, the state (chapter 5, section 4).
Democracy is that form of the state in which the majority rules. But Lenin hastens to point out that this is rule by the majority only in a formal, almost illusory, sense, because
In capitalist society, providing it develops under the most favourable conditions, we have a more or less complete democracy in the democratic republic. But this democracy is always hemmed in by the narrow limits set by capitalist exploitation, and consequently always remains, in effect, a democracy for the minority, only for the propertied classes, only for the rich. Freedom in capitalist society always remains about the same as it was in the ancient Greek republics: freedom for the slave-owners. Owing to the conditions of capitalist exploitation, the modern wage slaves are so crushed by want and poverty that "they cannot be bothered with democracy", "cannot be bothered with politics"; in the ordinary, peaceful course of events, the majority of the population is debarred from participation in public and political life.
The correctness of this statement is perhaps most clearly confirmed by Germany, because constitutional legality steadily endured there for a remarkably long time--nearly half a century (1871-1914)--and during this period the Social-Democrats were able to achieve far more than in other countries in the way of "utilizing legality", and organized a larger proportion of the workers into a political party than anywhere else in the world.
What is this largest proportion of politically conscious and active wage slaves that has so far been recorded in capitalist society? One million members of the Social-Democratic Party -- out of 15,000,000 wage-workers! Three million organized in trade unions--out of 15,000,000!
Democracy for an insignificant minority, democracy for the rich--that is the democracy of capitalist society. If we look more closely into the machinery of capitalist democracy, we see everywhere, in the "petty"--supposedly petty--details of the suffrage (residential qualifications, exclusion of women, etc.), in the technique of the representative institutions, in the actual obstacles to the right of assembly (public buildings are not for "paupers"!), in the purely capitalist organization of the daily press, etc., etc.,--we see restriction after restriction upon democracy. These restrictions, exceptions, exclusions, obstacles for the poor seem slight, especially in the eyes of one who has never known want himself and has never been in close contact with the oppressed classes in their mass life (and nine out of 10, if not 99 out of 100, bourgeois publicists and politicians come under this category); but in their sum total these restrictions exclude and squeeze out the poor from politics, from active participation in democracy (chapter 5, section 2).
we have no right to forget that wage slavery is the lot of the people even in the most democratic bourgeois republic. Furthermore, every state is a "special force" for the suppression of the oppressed class. Consequently, every state is not "free" and not a "people's state" (chapter 1, section 4).
The proletarian state
All that we have seen so far about the state and democracy applies only to societies where the state aims to perpetuate the division of society into classes.
But what about a society in which the oppressed have set out to abolish class distinctions? Their state -- the old one having been smashed in revolution -- is still necessary since one part of society must yet impose its will on another part of society:
The overthrow of the bourgeoisie can be achieved only by the proletariat becoming the ruling class, capable of crushing the inevitable and desperate resistance of the bourgeoisie, and of organizing all the working and exploited people for the new economic system (chapter 2, section 1).
Lenin perceptively grasps that
during this period [the overthrow of capitalism] the state must inevitably be a state that is democratic in a new way (for the proletariat and the propertyless in general) and dictatorial in a new way (against the bourgeoisie) (chapter 2, section 3).
He develops this notion further when he writes
And the dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e., the organization of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling class for the purpose of suppressing the oppressors, cannot result merely in an expansion of democracy. Simultaneously with an immense expansion of democracy, which for the first time becomes democracy for the poor, democracy for the people, and not democracy for the money-bags, the dictatorship of the proletariat imposes a series of restrictions on the freedom of the oppressors, the exploiters, the capitalists. We must suppress them in order to free humanity from wage slavery, their resistance must be crushed by force; it is clear that there is no freedom and no democracy where there is suppression and where there is violence.
Engels expressed this splendidly in his letter to Bebel when he said, as the reader will remember, that "the proletariat needs the state, not in the interests of freedom but in order to hold down its adversaries, and as soon as it becomes possible to speak of freedom the state as such ceases to exist".
Democracy for the vast majority of the people, and suppression by force, i.e., exclusion from democracy, of the exploiters and oppressors of the people--this is the change democracy undergoes during the transition from capitalism to communism (chapter 5, section 2).
But all of this entails an even greater change in the state.
The withering away of the state
Recall that the state is a power above society which mediates class conflict, so as to perpetuate class society. The proletarian state is completely different. Its sole aim is to destroy class society and classes generally:
... the proletariat needs only a state which is withering away, i.e., a state so constituted that it begins to wither away immediately, and cannot but wither away. And, secondly, the working people need a "state, i.e., the proletariat organized as the ruling class".
The state is a special organization of force: it is an organization of violence for the suppression of some class. What class must the proletariat suppress? Naturally, only the exploiting class, i.e., the bourgeoisie. The working people need the state only to suppress the resistance of the exploiters, and only the proletariat can direct this suppression, can carry it out. For the proletariat is the only class that is consistently revolutionary, the only class that can unite all the working and exploited people in the struggle against the bourgeoisie, in completely removing it.
The exploiting classes need political rule to maintain exploitation, i.e., in the selfish interests of an insignificant minority against the vast majority of all people. The exploited classes need political rule in order to completely abolish all exploitation, i.e., in the interests of the vast majority of the people, and against the insignificant minority consisting of the modern slave-owners -- the landowners and capitalists (chapter 2, section 1).
The organ of suppression, however, is here the majority of the population, and not a minority, as was always the case under slavery, serfdom, and wage slavery. And since the majority of people itself suppresses its oppressors, a 'special force" for suppression is no longer necessary! In this sense, the state begins to wither away. Instead of the special institutions of a privileged minority (privileged officialdom, the chiefs of the standing army), the majority itself can directly fulfill all these functions, and the more the functions of state power are performed by the people as a whole, the less need there is for the existence of this power (chapter 3, section 2).
Since the proletarian state has no goal but to suppress a small fraction of society, both Lenin and Engels regard it as "no longer a state in the proper sense of the word." One might correctly call the proletarian state a "semi-state."
Remember that Lenin defines democracy as a form of the state. With the disappearance of the conditions that give rise to the state, democracy -- politics generally -- also disappears:
In other words, under capitalism we have the state in the proper sense of the word, that is, a special machine for the suppression of one class by another, and, what is more, of the majority by the minority. Naturally, to be successful, such an undertaking as the systematic suppression of the exploited majority by the exploiting minority calls for the utmost ferocity and savagery in the matter of suppressing, it calls for seas of blood, through which mankind is actually wading its way in slavery, serfdom and wage labor.
Furthermore, during the transition from capitalism to communism suppression is still necessary, but it is now the suppression of the exploiting minority by the exploited majority. A special apparatus, a special machine for suppression, the "state", is still necessary, but this is now a transitional state. It is no longer a state in the proper sense of the word; for the suppression of the minority of exploiters by the majority of the wage slaves of yesterday is comparatively so easy, simple and natural a task that it will entail far less bloodshed than the suppression of the risings of slaves, serfs or wage-laborers, and it will cost mankind far less. And it is compatible with the extension of democracy to such an overwhelming majority of the population that the need for a special machine of suppression will begin to disappear. Naturally, the exploiters are unable to suppress the people without a highly complex machine for performing this task, but the people can suppress the exploiters even with a very simple "machine", almost without a "machine", without a special apparatus, by the simple organization of the armed people (such as the Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies, we would remark, running ahead).
Lastly, only communism makes the state absolutely unnecessary, for there is nobody to be suppressed--"nobody" in the sense of a class, of a systematic struggle against a definite section of the population. We are not utopians, and do not in the least deny the possibility and inevitability of excesses on the part of individual persons, or the need to stop such excesses. In the first place, however, no special machine, no special apparatus of suppression, is needed for this: this will be done by the armed people themselves, as simply and as readily as any crowd of civilized people, even in modern society, interferes to put a stop to a scuffle or to prevent a woman from being assaulted. And, secondly, we know that the fundamental social cause of excesses, which consist in the violation of the rules of social intercourse, is the exploitation of the people, their want and their poverty. With the removal of this chief cause, excesses will inevitably begin to "wither away". We do not know how quickly and in what succession, but we do know they will wither away. With their withering away the state will also wither away (chapter 5, section 2).
Or, more succinctly:
Under socialism all will govern in turn and will soon become accustomed to no one governing (chapter 6, section 3).
All of this sounds like anarchism, but the Marxist conception of the destruction of the state is different. First, Marxists believe (and history shows) that an exploited class most forcibly suppress the previously-ruling class. This by definition calls for a "state":
We do not after all differ with the anarchists on the question of the abolition of the state as the aim. We maintain that, to achieve this aim, we must temporarily make use of the instruments, resources, and methods of state power against the exploiters, just as the temporary dictatorship of the oppressed class is necessary for the abolition of classes. Marx chooses the sharpest and clearest way of stating his case against the anarchists: After overthrowing the yoke of the capitalists, should the workers "lay down their arms," or use them against the capitalists in order to crush their resistance? But what is the systematic use of arms by one class against another if not a "transient form" of state (chapter 4, section 2).
And second, for Marxists the state is a product of societies at a certain stage of development. No more than it is conjured up as a conspiracy can it be wished away. The state, and democracy, only disappear as the result of a social transformation:
Only in communist society, when the resistance of the capitalists have disappeared, when there are no classes (i.e., when there is no distinction between the members of society as regards their relation to the social means of production), only then "the state... ceases to exist", and "it becomes possible to speak of freedom". Only then will a truly complete democracy become possible and be realized, a democracy without any exceptions whatever. And only then will democracy begin to wither away, owing to the simple fact that, freed from capitalist slavery, from the untold horrors, savagery, absurdities, and infamies of capitalist exploitation, people will gradually become accustomed to observing the elementary rules of social intercourse that have been known for centuries and repeated for thousands of years in all copy-book maxims. They will become accustomed to observing them without force, without coercion, without subordination, without the special apparatus for coercion called the state.
The expression "the state withers away" is very well-chosen, for it indicates both the gradual and the spontaneous nature of the process. Only habit can, and undoubtedly will, have such an effect; for we see around us on millions of occasions how readily people become accustomed to observing the necessary rules of social intercourse when there is no exploitation, when there is nothing that arouses indignation, evokes protest and revolt, and creates the need for suppression (chapter 5, section 2).
Weaknesses in State and Revolution
State and Revolution is one of the most profound texts generated by the workers' movement. It summarized a century of thought on state and revolution. But there are limitations, the most serious of which is Lenin's inadequate assault on democratic theory (!).
As seen above, Lenin says that under capitalism few workers develop a revolutionary consciousness. He cites the example of the German Social Democratic Party, with one out of fifteen million workers in its ranks. But Lenin also consistently speaks of the proletarian semi-state as "the people armed" and so on. There is no consideration that the revolution may have to be made, and power wielded, by less than the entirety of the working class. Compare to Bordiga: "Indeed only an advanced minority can have the clear vision of a collective action which is directed towards general ends that concern the whole class and which has at its core the project of changing the whole social regime. Those groups, those minorities, are nothing other than the party" ("Party and Class," 1921). On the other hand, in one passage Lenin does define the dictatorship of the proletariat as "the organization of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling class" (chapter 5, section 2). At any rate, we won't know until afterwards how many workers will take part in the revolution. The main thing is to remember Bordiga's warning that it would be nonsense to make the revolution a matter of gaining a certain threshold of popular support.
Lenin argues that socialism will allow for a great expansion of democracy and that workers will become involved in all aspects of politics. Conversely, capitalist democracy is criticized almost solely on the grounds that it is exclusive, that its reality does not live up to its ideal. Nowhere do we see Lenin repeat Marx's point that democracy is a product of the capitalist economy (cf. Grundrisse). Yet Pannekoek, whom Lenin derides in passing, repeats this insight very well: "The inner untruthfulness of political democracy is not an artful trick invented by deceitful politicians. It is the reflection, hence an instinctive consequence, of the inner contradictions of the capitalist system. Capitalism is based upon the equality of citizens, private owners, free to sell their commodities--the capitalists sell the products, the workers sell their labor power. By thus acting as free and equal bargainers they find exploitation and class antagonism as the result: the capitalist master and exploiter, the worker actually the slave. Not by violating the principle of juridical equality, but by acting according to it the result is a situation that actually is its violation. This is the inner contradiction of capitalist production, indicating that it can be only a transition system. So it can give no surprise that the same contradiction appears in its political form" (Workers' Councils).
Nor does Lenin repeat Marx's point that democracy and the state are at best an "illusory community" (The German Ideology). In portraying politics and democracy as practices that will wither away only after their perfection and extension, Lenin risks trapping revolutionary energy in the political sphere. Compare to Marx: "All revolution -- the overthrow of the existing ruling power and the dissolution of the old order -- is a political act. But without revolution, socialism cannot be made possible. It stands in need of this political act just as it stands in need of destruction and dissolution. But as soon as its organizing functions begin and its goal, its soul emerges, socialism throws its political mask aside" ("Critical Notes on the Article 'The King of Prussia and Social Reform' By a Prussian"). On the other hand, Lenin does hint that what one does when one "does politics" changes under socialism.
Lenin's conception of the economics of socialism is limited. There is too much emphasis on workers' control and state capitalism. See especially chapter 5 and chapter 6, section 3.
These limitations notwithstanding, State and Revolution is one of our movement's great texts, and its author one of our great fighters.