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The Revolutionary Dictatorship of the Proletariat

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Only he is a Marxist who extends the recognition of the class struggle to the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat. 

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, The State and Revolution — Chapter 2 

People often get caught up in anti-communist propaganda because of a confusion of terms. One of the most controversial has been the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ which has often been misconstrued as a 20th century style dictatorship. The reality is it is the furthest thing from authoritarian rule. The dictatorship of the proletariat is and always has been democracy for the people.  

When Eugene v Debs was visited in prison upon his nomination as the presidential candidate for the Socialist Party in 1920, Hellraiser Journal reported he “touched on the phrase, ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat,’ and said that this was misinforming and an unfortunate expression, when applied to socialism. The socialists, he said, were opposed to all dictatorship; that all they wanted and sought were freedom, equality and justice.” This statement led to misinformation coming from the Communist Party USA, stating in The Daily Worker in 1926, “Debs’ conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat was that of a dictatorship exercised by an individual, such a dictatorship as that exercised by the first Napoleon or the Tsar of Russia during the period of unlimited autocracy, or the Mussolini dictatorship in Italy at the present time.” This was absolutely incorrect, for when Debs accepted the nomination for president in 1920, the words he actually used were, 

“There is some difficulty about that unfortunate phrase about the dictatorship . A ‘dictatorship ’ does not imply what we mean. It is a misnomer. Dictatorship is autocracy. There is no autocracy in the rule of the masses. During the transition period, the revolution must protect itself. The French Socialists in their recent congress took what I believe is the correct attitude, that everyone believes in a dictatorship as a thesis . But it is an unfortunate term and leads to misrepresentation. I am sorry it is used. “

Debs was correct that it was an unfortunate expression, but it has entered standard use and it is important to understand the concept and its role in achieving a socialist society. In order to better understand what the dictatorship of the proletariat is, it is first necessary to realize our current society is a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The best example of this is found in the United States, though it exists in a myriad of forms globally throughout capitalist society.  

A 2014 study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page found that the attitude of the people towards a policy has negligible impact on whether it is passed by congress or not. As they wrote, “Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” If the proletariat had political power, Bernie’s platform would already be a reality. Every single item on his platform had the support of the majority of the population. A Reuters/Ipsos poll in July 2018 found that Medicare for all had a 70% approval rating. Yet Nancy Pelosi’s aide promised insurance lobbyists that Medicare for all would not be passed. Joe Biden campaigned on a public option but ended up just expanding COBRA with millions in handouts to the insurance corporations. This is what the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie looks like – the ruling class chooses what becomes law and the people have no say. As Lenin described it, “Democracy for an insignificant minority, democracy for the rich–that is the democracy of capitalist society.”  As the proletariat is the largest class, in a true democracy, they would have the final say in passing legislation. Engels went so far as to say “If one thing is certain it is that our party and the working class can only come to power in the form of the democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the Great French Revolution has already shown…” There is nothing more democratic than the dictatorship of the proletariat – the rule of the people, not the capitalists.   

Propaganda poster for the dictatorship of the proletariat

This rule of the people is what Marx and Engels referenced in The Communist Manifesto in 1848. They wrote, “The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.” This seizure of political power by the proletariat is one and the same as the dictatorship of the proletariat. The Manifesto expands on this, 

“We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy.  The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.”

That the state becomes the proletariat organized as the ruling class cannot be over emphasized. When the proletariat seizes political power, it is not with the intention of maintaining the current machinery of government but rather to smash it and replace it. As Marx wrote, “the next attempt of the French revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it, and this is essential for every real people’s revolution on the Continent.” This is because, as the Manifesto stated, “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” 

The state does not exist to serve the working class but rather to defend the bourgeoisie from them. In addition to the state, a new force of global capitalist power is rising  – transnational corporations.  As William Robinson describes, “In distinction, 21st-century fascism involves the fusion of transnational capital with reactionary and repressive political power — an expression of the dictatorship of transnational capital.” The new threat is modern day nation states are simply becoming the pawns of transnational capitalist power. The modern proletarian revolution must not only smash the apparatus of the state but also the transnational corporations. Only then can a new, better society be created in its place.  

Rosa Luxemberg described the dictatorship of the proletariat in the following manner, “Socialist democracy commences simultaneously with the dismantling of class domination and the construction of socialism. It begins at the very moment of the seizure of power by the socialist party.” However, the class struggle will not end after the proletariat seizes political power. The capitalist class will still exist and will fight back. It is during this transitory period, the stage between capitalism and communism, that the proletariat will have to wield its power with decisive force if it hopes to maintain political control.  As Marx describes:

“It means that so long as the other classes, especially the capitalist class, still exists, so long as the proletariat struggles with it (for when it attains government power its enemies and the old organization of society have not yet vanished), it must employ forcible means, hence governmental means. It is itself still a class and the economic conditions from which the class struggle and the existence of classes derive have still not disappeared and must forcibly be either removed out of the way or transformed, this transformation process being forcibly hastened.”

The ruling class has been inflicting violence on the lower classes since the beginning of recorded history. Imperialism is capitalistic violence on a global scale. Colonialism has always been rooted in violence and genocide. There the capitalist system is based on violent oppression of the working class. This system will not be destroyed without a violent struggle.  As quoted earlier, Debs said, “During the transition period the revolution must protect itself.” There is no magical transition from capitalism to socialism. Voting will not achieve this end. As Lucy Parsons said, “ You can’t vote yourselves out of wage-slavery.”  Elections in a capitalist society are not democratic – rather they simply allow the illusion of choice. As Marx wrote, the voters only decided “which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament.”  

The last two presidential elections in the United States are prime examples of how capitalist elections function. Even a moderate democratic socialist like Bernie Sanders was not allowed the chance to win because he was too much of a threat to the capitalist system. Socialism will not be won without a proletarian revolution. Debs explained, “The socialist platform is not to watch votes, but to state our position clearly and firmly. There is a tendency to make of socialism a party of politicians, but not a party of workers. This must be checked. We do not care for votes for the sake of votes themselves; we do not care for office to achieve office.” The message of socialism was clearly more important to Debs than winning. The Bernie campaign was not clear enough with the messaging on socialism. When he said, “Well, if there’s going to be class warfare in this country, I think it’s time the working class won that war,” he did not go on to describe that the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat was necessary to win this class struggle. While he inspired millions, he did not take the steps necessary to start the revolution. Debs did not shy away from the revolutionary struggle.  

“The most heroic word in all languages is REVOLUTION.”  

Eugene v Debs

Communists believe in a more just society,  one not based on oppression but on mutual aid and cooperation. It would be best if this were achievable with the minimum of violence. But this will not be up to the communists, it will be the bourgeoisie who make the decision whether to allow a true democratic society to replace their oligarchy.  Considering the United States is a terrorist state using its police and military to protect capitalist interests at home and abroad, it is highly unlikely the socialist revolution will be bloodless. As Kwame Ture put it, “Dr. King’s policy was, if you are nonviolent, if you suffer, your opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart. That’s very good. He only made one fallacious assumption. In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.” Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated for his attempts to lead a non violent socialist revolution. The Black Panther Party did not initiate violence, yet were violently suppressed by the state when they armed themselves for self defense. The dictatorship of the proletariat will be a self defense organization using their political power to protect the revolution from reactionary forces.  

Only once the resistance of the capitalist class has been crushed, will the dictatorship of the proletariat no longer be necessary. As the Manifesto describes:

“When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organise itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.”

This is the withering away of the state – once socialism has been fully established, the need for class distinctions will cease. Private property will have been abolished and a true communist society will be within reach. There will be no more need for the state as Marx notes, “Since the whole thing begins with the self-government of the commune.” This must be the end goal of any revolution – a truly communist society.  

The dictatorship of the proletariat does not represent the emancipation of the working class, even though they will have political power. True freedom does not exist in a system of violence. As Engels explained:

“Now, since the state is merely a transitional institution of which use is made in the struggle, in the revolution, to keep down one’s enemies by force, it is utter nonsense to speak of a free people’s state; so long as the proletariat still makes use of the state, it makes use of it, not for the purpose of freedom, but of keeping down its enemies and, as soon as there can be any question of freedom, the state as such ceases to exist.”

This is true freedom – the end of the state and the end of class distinctions. As Marx put it, “The condition for the emancipation of the working class is the abolition of every class, just as the condition for the liberation of the third estate, of the bourgeois order, was the abolition of all estates and all orders.” This is what Debs made clear when he said, “What we are really working for is the emancipation of the working class. Our duty is to show why we organize; to leave no room for misunderstanding.” The unfortunate choice of the word ‘dictatorship’ left room for misunderstanding, which has been used against the socialist movement throughout history. An actual look at the concept itself shows it to be simply the control of political power by the proletariat during the transitory period between capitalism and communism. As Marx simply outlined: 

  1. that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the  development of production (historische Entwicklungsphasen der Production),
  2. that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat,
  3. that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.

In order to achieve democracy in the truest sense, it is necessary to first transition through the dictatorship of the proletariat.  

Further Reading: 

Marx and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (Summer 1962) by Hal Draper

The State and Revolution: The Marxist Theory of the State and the Task of the Proletariat in the Revolution by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin 

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