«— The State and Socialist Strategy 6 —»

On the Democratic Character of Socialist Revolution

Under the headline “Why Kautsky was right,” Eric Blanc wrote:

“Leninists for decades have hinged their strategy on the need for an insurrection to overthrow the entire parliamentary state and to place all power into the hands of workers’ councils.”1

When I read these words, my mind went back to a day 40 years earlier when this formulation was hurled at me by members of Canada’s security police. They used it as justification for their illegal disruption and harassment directed against me and fellow members of the Revolutionary Workers League (RWL).

To be sure, Eric Blanc is a firm defender of the legality and legitimacy of socialist groups, including those who draw inspiration from the 1917 Russian revolution and the writings of V.I. Lenin. He will also be the first to agree that the hundreds of political groups worldwide that draw inspiration from Lenin represent a broad gamut of political strategies, including a great many that accept his thesis as a preference that, were it possible, “the path to anticapitalist rupture in conditions of political democracy [passes] through the election of a workers’ party to government.”2

However, the charge of a “strategy of insurrection” has a life of its own. It lies very close to the standard accusation of seditious intent made by rightist security police around the world against socialist movements. This charge arouses concern among many working people who rightly prize democratic and electoral rights. Clarity is all the more important given that some twentieth-century socialist revolutions in Russia and elsewhere brought to power Stalinist regimes hostile to workers’ democracy and sometimes murderously repressive toward dissidents, real or imagined.

Replying to Eric Blanc, Mike Taber has convincingly challenged the concept that Lenin ever advanced such an “insurrectionist strategy.” Lars Lih has demonstrated that no such notion is found in Bolshevik policy in 1917. We are left, however, with the question of how to respond to such charges, whether raised by pro-capitalist forces or, on occasion, by anti-Leninist currents in the labour movement.

With that in mind, let us return to my exchange with police spokespersons in an Ontario Commission of Inquiry forty years ago.

A Campaign of Police Disruption

Canada’s security police have a long record of repressive actions against working-class and left-wing political activists, people of colour, Quebec nationalists, Indigenous peoples, and homosexuals. Victims of this harassment have been fired, blacklisted, jailed and deported; their organizations have been banned. During the rise of radical movements in the 1960s and 1970s, such police disruption was escalated, particularly in Quebec. Many police actions were blatantly illegal. In October 1970, the federal government went so far as to invoke Canada’s War Measures Act, under which civil liberties were suspended and 465 left activists in Quebec were arbitrarily jailed.

This repression aroused strong protests, including from the organization to which I then belonged, the Revolutionary Workers League (RWL). In 1978 the RWL itemized a wide range of the known secret police operations against our members in a long out-of-print book by Richard Fidler, RCMP: The Real Subversives. Richard has published two major excerpts from this book online. The first, his introduction to the volume, is accompanied by an account of a particularly brazen case of RCMP theft during that period. The second is a 30-page submission that Richard drafted for the RWL submission to a government inquiry into RCMP misdeeds.

I was among the targets of this illegal harassment. In 1972, after I became Executive Secretary of a predecessor of the RWL, the League for Socialist Action (LSA), the RCMP provided LSA members with a series of anonymous letters seeking to discredit me and secure my removal from office. One of the charges against me was that I had once sought psychiatric help. LSA members shrugged off the letters as an obvious police operation, and that was that.3

Six years later, however, the incident came to the attention of an Ontario government inquiry looking into quite another matter, the confidentiality of health information submitted to the Ontario Health Insurance Plan. Learning of the 1972 poison-pen campaign against me, the inquiry’s head, Justice Horace Krever, summoned me and the responsible RCMP officers for questioning at a hearing on March 9, 1979. The police perpetrators, Stanley Chisholm and Ronald Yaworski, claimed the medical information had not come from the health insurance agency, at least, not directly. Of more interest, however, was how they explained their motivation in attacking me.

On the Witness Stand

The RCMP officers told Justice Krever that I had been targeted because I was known to be violence prone. They did not say that I had ever committed an act of violence or uttered a threat or raised my voice in anger. Instead, they claimed an ability to predict my future behaviour based on my political beliefs. They noted my allegiance to the example of the establishment of Soviet power in Russia in 1917 and also my membership in the Fourth International, which, they stated, was dedicated to “violent overthrow of the existing government.” The Fourth International was founded in 1938 by Leon Trotsky, a central organizer of the allegedly subversive October 1917 revolution in Russia.

When I took the stand, I flatly denied the charge of seditious intent. Unconvinced, Justice Krever then led me through an extensive discussion of the four socialist Internationals and the Russian revolution, which he claimed to find very enlightening.4 Even so, in the three-volume report of his commission, Krever stated without explanation that my disavowal of seditious intent was not “objective or even valid.” Nonetheless, he warned sternly that the RCMP has become “a law unto itself.” Its security services, he proposed, should be separated off from the federal police. This was in fact done in 1984.5

Public outcry against the crimes of the RCMP security service forced the new agency in this field, the Canadian Security Information Service (CSIS), to be more circumspect in disruptive activity. In recent years, the security service has grown bolder and its powers have been augmented. See Richard Fidler, “Trudeau Government Gives Dangerous New Powers to Canada’s Political Cops.”

Although I had testified with only a few hours warning and without preparation, I knew well enough what to say. Learning how to respond to charges of sedition was a staple of basic RWL education.

I drew on the RWL’s 30-page brief to the federal government’s whimsically named “Royal Commission of Inquiry into Certain Activities of the RCMP,” and headed by Judge D.M. McDonald. The brief, included in Richard Fidler’s The Real Subversives (Toronto: Vanguard Publications, 1978), has been republished in his blog, Life on the Left.

‘An Assault on the Rights of All’

The RWL brief to the McDonald Commission, drafted by Fidler, itemized the RCMP’s crimes against the League’s members: raids on their homes, seizures of documents, threats, bullying of relatives, visits to employers to get them fired, slanders, break-ins, inclusion in government blacklists. Victims of such actions included “political parties, Quebecois nationalists, trade unionists, farmers organizations, Native activists, and others” – in short, “an assault on the rights of all Canadians and Quebecois.”

As for the RWL, the brief pointed out that on a broad range of social issues “our views are shared by many, if not most, Canadians and Quebecois…. However, on the question of socialism we are in a minority. “We seek to win a majority to our point of view” through activities such as meetings, publications, running candidates in elections, and participation in trade unions and social movements. “None of these activities is illegal or undemocratic.”

Moreover, the security police are “utilizing a sweeping definition of ‘subversion’ so broad that it could encompass any organization or individual holding dissident opinions.” Their working definitions of subversion refer to “any threat … to the stability of society” even if expressed through legal advocacy.

“That is why we say it is not us but the RCMP – and its ‘political masters’ in the government – who are the real subversives in this country.”

‘We Can Win Over the Majority’

In giving my testimony, I also took as a model the testimony of James P. Cannon, a leader of the US Socialist Workers Party (SWP), at his trial for sedition in 1941. A pioneer US Communist leader, Cannon had worked closely with Trotsky, Zinoviev, and other Communist leaders in the 1920s and 1930s, His testimony is published in Socialism on Trial, available at Marxists Internet Archive.

Cannon’s testimony begins with the concept of social revolution as a “radical transformation of the underlying economic structure of society, the property basis of society.” This becomes possible when the ruling class of society is no longer able to solve its problems and has to a large degree lost confidence in itself. “The misery and desperation of the masses must have increased to the point where they desire at all costs a radical change.” They share “a tremendous sentiment … for socialist ideas and for socialist revolution.” Also necessary is “a workers’ party that is capable of leading and organizing the movement of workers in a resolute fashion for a revolutionary solution of the crisis.”

So long as workers hold democratic rights, Cannon states, his socialist party will “exhaust all the possibilities for a peaceful transformation” of society “to the very end.” Revolutionary socialists will contest elections with the purpose of getting elected and opening up the debate on socialism in parliament or congress. “We have every reason to be confident that we can win over the majority of the people to our program,” Cannon says.

If democratic processes are maintained and not disrupted by fascist actions by the government, Cannon states, socialism “can secure a victory by the democratic process,” even to the point of legislating the ensuing transformation through constitutional amendments. US constitutional protection of private property rights must be changed, but the “Bill of Rights” should be upheld as a foundation for a qualitative expansion of democracy.

In all probability, however, “the [capitalist] minority will not allow such a peaceful transformation.” History shows that no privileged class leaves the scene “without trying to impose its will on the majority by force.”

Cannon projects two methods of heading off such minority violence. “First, we are going to try to assert our rights… to get the support of enough people, whether they agree with our political theory or not, to maintain the democratic processes and civil rights.” Further, if fascist bands threaten to break up the labour movement, “we are going to advise the workers, before it is too late, to organize workers’ defense guards and not permit the fascist hoodlums to break up workers’ organizations and meetings.”

Cannon invokes the example of President Abraham Lincoln when faced with a pro-slavery rebellion by “a good section of the American army and its best officers” in 1861. “Lincoln took what he could and recruited some more and gave them a fight, and I always thought it was a wonderfully good idea.”

Elections and Social Movements

The electoral path to a workers’ government sketched out by Cannon expresses revolutionary socialists’ preference but does not reflect the usual course of struggles for social change. The very fact that he and 17 comrades – SWP members and unionists – were tried and ultimately jailed for socialist advocacy shows that defenders of capitalism do not wait until socialism nears majority support before assailing socialists and the workers’ movement with repression.

All experience shows that the electoral process under capitalism is constrained by the surrounding institutions of the capitalist state and economy, which prevent elected governments, under most conditions, from initiating radical social change.

Movements for social change usually run far ahead of the electoral process or bypass it entirely. For example, the great mass movement in the US for Afro-American human rights in the 1950s and 1960s gained ground through a campaign of non-violent mass action that defied existing segregationist laws and endured fierce and brutal police repression and rightist violence. Dozens of activists for Black freedom were murdered before their movement won significant legislative support.

In a similar way, the movement for abortion rights in Canada mobilized in the streets in the face of a campaign of widespread rightist violence that killed ten supporters of abortion rights in the US and attacked many others in Canada. The movement in Canada openly defied existing prohibitions, winning mass support to the degree that the reactionary law against a woman’s right to choose became unenforceable. Only at that point did parliament take action, repealing the reactionary law.

Great social movements redefine legality and human rights, setting in motion a process of change that becomes irresistible. Socialists utilize electoral opportunities while recognizing that they are far from the whole story.

A workers’ government committed to socialism will probably be achieved as the democratic ratification of a program that has already gained majority support through discussion and mobilization among the population at large.

Criticisms of Cannon’s Testimony

Some members of the Fourth International, of which Cannon was a leader, criticized his testimony for having focused on democratic and defensive formulations rather than stating boldly socialists’ intentions of launching an insurrection to overturn the bourgeois government and smash its state. Grandizo Munis, a Spanish member of the International then living in Mexico, wrote a discussion article along these lines, claiming that Cannon and his fellow defendants had bent to the pressure of the bourgeois court.

The US Socialist Workers Party (SWP) published the critique by Munis together with a response by Cannon.6 Cannon’s reply, appended to the online version of What Is Socialism, defended his testimony on the establishment of Soviet rule in Russia, backing this up with an impressively broad array of quotations from Lenin and Trotsky. Cannon’s interpretation is also a close match for the view more recently expounded by Lars Lih on the basis of historical research (see Lars Lih, “Karl Kautsky as Architect of the October Revolution”).

Another part of Cannon’s reply, “Defensive Formulations and the Organization of Action,” considers the method of his testimony: presenting socialist revolution as a democratic process that must defend itself against minority violence. This “defensive” approach is not a lawyer’s ploy to impress a jury, Cannon explains. “Defensive formulations” correspond to the logic and dynamics of working-class struggle and of great mass progressive movements. Those who attribute an “insurrectional strategy” to revolutionary socialism do not merely misread the October 1917 overturn; they misunderstand the logic of working-class struggle. •

This article first published on the JohnRiddell.com website.


  1. With regard to “workers’ councils,” it should be noted that the councils that took power during the Russian revolution embraced workers and soldiers, and that the huge masses of soldiers represented land-holding peasants as well as a great many self-employed toilers.
  2. This text continues a discussion on this blog initiated by Eric Blanc, which also included contributions by Mike Taber and Lars Lih.
  3. Many years later, I made application to the RCMP for a copy of their file on me. More than a year later, I received three boxes containing more than 2,000 pages. They consisted mostly of notations that text or entire pages had been removed, through what must have been an infinite labour of word-by-word obliteration and re-copying. Among the removed material were the RCMP poison-pen letters. But they had long been publicly available in the report of the Krever Commission.
  4. Krever also took evidence at much greater length from Ross Dowson, who had drawn the Commission’s attention to the poison-pen letters against me. For a transcript of Dowson’s testimony, see Ross Dowson v. RCMP.
    During the hearing, Yaworsky and Chisholm of the RCMP testified that the information contained in the poison-pen letters against me was fabricated and untrue, making them criminally liable to a charge of libel.
    Dowson and his lawyer, Harry Kopyto, subsequently pursued this angle with great tenacity. They initiated a campaign demanding that the RCMP officers be charged and, when that was refused, pressing charges on their own. I joined Ross and Harry in some of these initiatives.
  5. Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Confidentiality of Health Information, Commissioner the Hon. Mr. Justice Horace Krever, 1988, vol. 2, pp. 38-48.
  6. James P. Cannon, Socialism on Trial (New York: Pioneer Publishers, 1942) is available in an expanded edition from Pathfinder Press and is also online. The article by Grandizo Munis is included in the print edition and in Part 4 of the online version.

John Riddell is a Toronto-based activist and maintains a blog at johnriddell.com.