Dictatorship of the proletariat
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In Marxist theory, the dictatorship of the proletariat refers to a state in which the proletariat (the workers) has control of political power, which must be understood within the context of historical materialism. The term, coined by Joseph Weydemeyer, was adopted by the founders of Marxism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, in the 19th century. In Marxist theory, the dictatorship of the proletariat is what exists between capitalism and communism. It is a democratic state where the whole of the public authority is elected and recallable under the basis of universal suffrage; it is the defeat of the bourgeois state, but not yet of the capitalist mode of production, and at the same time the only element which places into the realm of possibility moving on from this mode of production.
Both Marx and Engels argued that the short-lived Paris Commune, which ran the French capital for over two months before being repressed, was an example of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The dictatorship of the proletariat is inherently democratic, and cannot take the form of single-party rule. Research into the origin of the term has shown that it was never intended to mean a dictatorship — as the term is currently understood — in any way, and that it was always conceived of as a democratic society. The view of modern Marxists critical of the Soviet Union-style states is that they did not form in any way a practical application of the dictatorship of the proletariat, but rather were not dictatorships of the proletariat at all.
Karl Marx did not write much about the nature of the dictatorship of the proletariat, with his published works instead largely focusing on analysing and criticising capitalist society. In 1848 he and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto that "their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions".
On 1 January 1852, the communist journalist Joseph Weydemeyer published an article entitled "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" in the German language newspaper Turn-Zeitung, where he wrote that "it is quite plain that there cannot be here any question of gradual, peaceful transitions", and recalled the examples of Oliver Cromwell (England) and Committee of Public Safety (France) as examples of "dictatorship" and "terrorism" (respectively) required to overthrow bourgeoisie. In that year, Karl Marx wrote to him, saying:
Long before me, bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this struggle between the classes, as had bourgeois economists their economic anatomy. My own contribution was (1) to show that the existence of classes is merely bound up with certain historical phases in the development of production; (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; [and] (3) that this dictatorship, itself, constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society
Marx expanded upon his ideas about the dictatorship of the proletariat in his short 1875 work, Critique of the Gotha Program, a scathing criticism and attack on the principles laid out in the programme of the German Workers' Party (predecessor to the SPD). The programme presented a moderate, evolutionary way to socialism, as opposed to revolutionary, violent approach of the "orthodox" Marxists. As result the latter accused the Gotha program as being "revisionist" and ineffective.
Marx stated that in a proletarian-run society, the state should control the "proceeds of labour" (i.e. all the food and products produced), and take from them that which was "an economic necessity", namely enough to replace "the means of production used up", an "additional portion for expansion of production" and "insurance funds" to be used in emergencies such as natural disasters. Furthermore, he believed that the state should then take enough to cover administrative costs, funds for the running of public services, and funds for those who were physically incapable of working. Once enough to cover all of these things had been taken out of the "proceeds of labour", Marx believed that what was left should then be shared out amongst the workers, with each individual getting goods to the equivalent value of how much labour they had invested. In this manner, those workers who put in more labour and worked harder would get more of the proceeds of the collective labour than someone who had not worked as hard.
In the Critique, he noted however that "defects are inevitable" and there would be many difficulties in initially running such a workers' state "as it emerges from capitalistic society" because it would be "economically, morally and intellectually... still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges", thereby still containing capitalist elements.
In other works, Marx stated that he considered the Paris Commune (a revolutionary socialism supporting government that ran the city of Paris from March to May 1871) as an example of the proletarian dictatorship. Describing the short-lived regime, he remarked that:
The Commune was formed of the municipal councilors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible, and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally workers, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive, and legislative at the same time.
This form of popular government, featuring revocable election of councilors and maximal public participation in governance, resembles contemporary direct democracy.
Force and violence played an important role in Friedrich Engels's vision of the revolution and rule of proletariat. In 1877, arguing with Eugen Dühring Engels ridiculed his reservations against use of force:
That force, however, plays yet another role in history, a revolutionary role; that, in the words of Marx, it is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one, that it is the instrument with the aid of which social movement forces its way through and shatters the dead, fossilised political forms
In the 1891 postscript to The Civil War in France (1872) pamphlet, Friedrich Engels said: "Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat"; to avoid bourgeois political corruption:
the Commune made use of two infallible expedients. In this first place, it filled all posts—administrative, judicial, and educational—by election on the basis of universal suffrage of all concerned, with the right of the same electors to recall their delegate at any time. And, in the second place, all officials, high or low, were paid only the wages received by other workers. The highest salary paid by the Commune to anyone was 6,000 francs. In this way an effective barrier to place-hunting and careerism was set up, even apart from the binding mandates to delegates [and] to representative bodies, which were also added in profusion.
In the same year he criticised "anti-authoritarian socialists", again referring to the methods of the Paris Commune:
A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists. Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois?
This statement was written in "Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League", which is credited to Marx & Engels:
[The workers] must work to ensure that the immediate revolutionary excitement is not suddenly suppressed after the victory. On the contrary, it must be sustained as long as possible. Far from opposing the so-called excesses – instances of popular vengeance against hated individuals or against public buildings with which hateful memories are associated – the workers’ party must not only tolerate these actions but must even give them direction.
In the 20th century, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin developed Leninism—the adaptation of Marxism to the backward socio-economic and political conditions of Imperial Russia (1721–1917). This body of theory later became the official ideology of some Communist states.
The State and Revolution (1917) explicitly discusses the practical implementation of "dictatorship of the proletariat" through means of violent revolution. Lenin denies any reformist interpretations of Marxism. Lenin especially focuses on Engels' phrase of the state "withering away", denying that it could apply to "bourgeois state" and highlighting that Engels work is mostly "panegyric on violent revolution". Based on these arguments, he denounces reformists as "opportunistic", reactionary and points out the red terror as the only method of introducing dictatorship of the proletariat compliant with Marx and Engels work.
In Imperial Russia, the Paris Commune model form of government was realised in the soviets (councils of workers and soldiers) established in the Russian Revolution of 1905, whose revolutionary task was deposing the capitalist (monarchical) state to establish socialism—the dictatorship of the proletariat—the stage preceding communism.
In Russia the Bolshevik Party (described by Lenin as the "vanguard of the proletariat") elevated the soviets to power in the October Revolution of 1917. Throughout 1917, Lenin argued that the Russian Provisional Government was unrepresentative of the proletariat's interests because, in his estimation, they represented the "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie". He argued that because they continually put off democratic elections, they denied the prominence of the democratically constituted soviets, and all of the promises made by liberal-bourgeois parties prior to the February revolution remained unfulfilled, the soviets would need to take power for themselves.
Lenin argued that in an underdeveloped country such as Russia, the capitalist class would remain a threat even after a successful socialist revolution. As a result, he advocated the repression of those elements of the capitalist class that took up arms against the new soviet government, writing that as long as classes existed, a state would need to exist to exercise the democratic rule of one class (in his view, the working class) over the other (the capitalist class).
Soviet democracy granted voting rights to the majority of the populace who elected the local soviets, who elected the regional soviets, and so on until electing the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union. Capitalists were disenfranchised in the Russian soviet model. However, according to Lenin, in a developed country it would be possible to dispense with the disenfranchisement of capitalists within the democratic proletarian dictatorship; as the proletariat would be guaranteed of an overwhelming majority. [Notes on Plenkhanov's Second Draft Programme. Lenin Collected Works. Vol. 6, p. 51]
....Dictatorship does not necessarily mean the abolition of democracy for the class that exercises the dictatorship over other classes; but it does mean the abolition of democracy (or very material restriction, which is also a form of abolition) of democracy for the class over which, or against which, the dictatorship is exercised.
Banning of opposition parties and factions
During the Russian Civil War (1918–22), all of the major opposition parties either took up arms against the new Soviet Government, took part in sabotage, collaboration with the deposed Tsarists, or made assassination attempts against Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders. When opposition parties such as the Cadets and Mensheviks were democratically elected to the Soviets in some areas, they proceeded to use their mandate to welcome in Tsarist and foreign capitalist military forces. In one incident in Baku, the British military, once invited in, proceeded to execute members of the Bolshevik party (who had peacefully stood down from the Soviet when they failed to win the elections). As a result, the Bolsheviks banned each opposition party when it turned against the Soviet government. In some cases, bans were lifted. This banning of parties did not have the same repressive character as later bans under Stalin would.
Internally, Lenin's critics argued that such political suppression always was his plan; supporters argued that the reactionary civil war of the foreign-sponsored White Movement required it—given Fanya Kaplan's unsuccessful assassination of Lenin on 30 August 1918, and the successful assassination of Moisei Uritsky, the same day.
After 1919, the Soviets had ceased to function as organs of democratic rule, as the famine induced by forced grain requisitions led to the Soviets emptying out of ordinary people. Half the population of Moscow and a third of Petrograd had, by this stage, fled to the countryside to find food. Political life ground to a halt.
The Bolsheviks became concerned that under these conditions—the absence of mass participation in political life, and the banning of opposition parties—counter-revolutionary forces would express themselves within the Bolshevik party itself (some evidence existed for this in the mass of ex-opposition party members who signed up for Bolshevik membership immediately after the end of the Civil War).
Despite the principle of democratic centralism in the Bolshevik Party, internal factions were banned. This was considered an extreme measure, and did not fall within Marxist doctrine. The ban remained until the USSR's dissolution in 1991. In 1921, vigorous internal debate and freedom of opinion were still present within Russia; the beginnings of censorship and mass political repression had not yet emerged. For example, the Workers Opposition faction continued to operate despite being nominally dissolved. The debates of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union continued to be published until 1923.
Stalinism and 'dictatorship'
Elements of the later censorship and attacks on political expression would appear during Lenin's illness, and after his death, when members of the future Stalinist clique clamped down on party democracy among the Georgian Bolsheviks and began to censor material. Pravda ceased publishing the opinions of political oppositions after 1924, and at the same time, the ruling clique (Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Stalin) admitted large numbers of new members into the party in order to shout down the voices of oppositionists at party meetings, severely curtailing internal debate. Their policies were partly directed by the interests of the new bureaucracy that had accumulated a great deal of social weight in the absence of an active participation in politics by the majority of people. By 1927 many supporters of the Left Opposition began to face political repression, and Leon Trotsky was exiled.
Some modern critics of the concept of the "dictatorship of the proletariat"—including various Anti-Communists, Libertarian Marxists, Anarcho-Communists, and anti-Stalinist Communists and Socialists—argue that the Stalinist USSR and other Stalinist countries used the "dictatorship of the proletariat" to justify the monopolisation of political power by a new ruling layer of bureaucrats, derived partly from the old Tsarist bureaucracy and partly created by the impoverished condition of Russia.
However, the rising Stalinist clique rested on other grounds for political legitimacy, rather than a confusion between the modern and Marxist use of the term "dictatorship". Rather, they took the line that since they were the vanguard of the proletariat, their right to rule could not be legitimately questioned. Hence, opposition parties could not be permitted to exist. From 1936 onward, Stalinist-inspired state constitutions enshrined this concept by giving the various 'Communist Parties' a "leading role" in society—a provision that was interpreted to either ban other parties altogether or force them to accept the Stalinists guaranteed right to rule as a condition of being allowed to exist.
This justification was adopted by subsequent 'communist' parties built upon the Stalinist model, such as the CCP in China, the CP in North Korea, Vietnam, and the CP (initially the 26th of July Movement) in Cuba.
At the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) Nikita Khrushchev declared an end to the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' and the establishment of the All People's Government.
- Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing, but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.—Critique of the Gotha Program (1875)
- The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution.—Manifesto of the Communist Party
- If the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists. Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois?—On Authority (1872)
- The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is rule won, and maintained, by the use of violence, by the proletariat, against the bourgeoisie, rule that is unrestricted by any laws.
- A state of the exploited must fundamentally differ from such a state; it must be a democracy for the exploited, and a means of suppressing the exploiters; and the suppression of a class means inequality for that class, its exclusion from democracy.
- The proletariat cannot achieve victory without breaking the resistance of the bourgeoisie, without forcibly suppressing its adversaries, and that, where there is forcible suppression, where there is no freedom, there is, of course, no democracy.
- And if you exploiters attempt to offer resistance to our proletarian revolution we shall ruthlessly suppress you; we shall deprive you of all rights; more than that, we shall not give you any bread, for in our proletarian republic the exploiters will have no rights, they will be deprived of fire and water, for we are socialists in real earnest, and not in the Scheidemann or Kautsky fashion.
- 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.—The State and Revolution
- This dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy, not in its elimination, but in energetic, resolute attacks upon the well-entrenched rights and economic relationships of bourgeois society, without which a socialist transformation cannot be accomplished. This dictatorship must be the work of the class, and not of a little leading minority in the name of the class—that is, it must proceed step by step out of the active participation of the masses; it must be under their direct influence, subjected to the control of complete public activity; it must arise out of the growing political training of the mass of the people.—The Russian Revolution
- The term, "dictatorship of the proletariat", hence, not the dictatorship of a single individual, but of a class, ipso facto precludes the possibility that Marx, in this connection, had in mind a dictatorship in the literal sense of the term.—Dictatorship of the Proletariat
- Friends of Russia here think of the dictatorship of the proletariat as merely a new form of representative government, in which only working men and women have votes, and the constituencies are partly occupational, not geographical. They think that "proletariat" means "proletariat", but "dictatorship" does not quite mean "dictatorship". This is the opposite of the truth. When a Russian Communist speaks of dictatorship, he means the word literally, but when he speaks of the proletariat, he means the word in a Pickwickian sense. He means the "class-conscious" part of the proletariat, i.e., the Communist Party.—The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (1920)
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- The theory of Marx and Engels of the inevitability of a violent revolution refers to the bourgeois state. The latter cannot be superseded by the proletarian state (the dictatorship of the proletariat) through the process of 'withering away", but, as a general rule, only through a violent revolution. The panegyric Engels sang in its honor, and which fully corresponds to Marx's repeated statements. (The State and Revolution, Chapter 1)
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