Dictatorship of the proletariat

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In Marxist socio-political thought as developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the 19th century, the dictatorship of the proletariat is a socialist state in which the proletariat, or the working class, has control of political power. The use of the term "dictatorship" is controversial, and does not refer to the Classical Roman concept of the dictatura (the governance of a state by a small group with no democratic process), but instead to the Marxist concept of dictatorship (that an entire societal class holds political and economic control, within a democratic system).

Following on from the theories of Marx and Engels, Marxists believe that a socialist state is an inevitable step in the evolution of human society. It is a transitional phase that emerges out of the "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie", or capitalist society, in which the wealthy classes own the means of production and exploit the working classes for the generation of private profit, and that it will itself eventually come to be replaced by an entirely classless, stateless form of society known as pure communism.

Both Marx and Engels argued that the short-lived Paris Commune, which ran the French capital for three months before being repressed, was an example of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In the 20th century, revolutionary socialist governments took power in a number of nations, such as the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, and claimed to have created socialist states that were dictatorships of the proletariat.[citation needed]

Theoretical approaches

Karl Marx

The German political theorist and sociologist Karl Marx (1818-1883) was the primary founder of Marxism, although he wrote little about the nature of the dictatorship of the proletariat, his published works largely focusing on analysing and criticising capitalist society.

On 1 January 1852, the pioneering communist journalist Joseph Weydemeyer published an article entitled "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" in the German language newspaper Turn-Zeitung in New York.[1] In that year, Karl Marx wrote to him, saying:

Now, as for myself, I do not claim to have discovered either the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. 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.[2]

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), a socialist organisation whose policies he thought to be ineffectual. He 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.[3] 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.[4]

In other works, Marx stated that he considered the Paris Commune, a revolutionary socialist 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.[5]

Friedrich Engels

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”; moreover noting that the State is “at best, an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, whose worst sides the proletariat, just like the Commune, cannot avoid having to lop off at the earliest possible moment, until such time as a new generation, reared in new and free social conditions, will be able to throw the entire lumber of the State on the scrap-heap”.[6] Marx’s attention to the Paris Commune placed the commune in the centre of later Marxist forms.


Upon the destruction of the Paris Commune (1871), during Marx’s lifetime, there were no other serious attempts at implementing the dictatorship of the proletariat. In the twentieth century, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin developed Leninism — the adaptation of Marxism to the backward socio-economic and political conditions of Imperial Russia (1721–1917); later the official ideology of some Communist states. The State and Revolution (1917) discusses the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, and proposes pragmatic means of effecting it.[7] 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.

To effect and realise the communist revolution, the urban workers and peasants require the active leadership of a political vanguard party of dedicated, professional revolutionaries to so establish the dictatorship of the proletariat. In the Russian Imperial case, the Bolshevik Party was the “vanguard of the proletariat” — who launched and led the soviets to victory in the October Revolution of 1917. Like Marx and Engels, Lenin discounted liberal democracy (the Kerensky Government) as unrepresentative of the proletariat’s interests, for being a façade of the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”.

Moreover, because trade unions inherently are political reformers (seeking accommodation with the capitalists to improve the lot of the members) — therefore, revolutionary action in the proletariat’s behalf requires that the vanguard party politically educate the workers and peasants, helping them transcend the low political expectations of the “trade-union consciousness” and so develop the “true revolutionary class consciousness” that would allow the vanguard party’s assumption of State power, via the dictatorship of the proletariat.

In the event, the proletarian dictatura would eliminate the intra-class social division impeding the rational development of communism; nevertheless, despite a successful revolution, the bourgeoisie remain stronger than the proletariat, because:

For a long time after the revolution the exploiters inevitably continue to retain a number of great practical advantages: they still have money (since it is impossible to abolish money all at once); some movable property — often fairly considerable; they still have various connections, habits of organisation and management; knowledge of all the “secrets” (customs, methods, means, and possibilities) of management; superior education; close connections with the higher technical personnel (who live and think like the bourgeoisie); incomparably greater experience in the art of war (this is very important), and so on and so forth.[8]

Lenin defended his proposal against accusations of his being undemocratic, by theoretician Karl Kautsky and others, by quoting Marx and Engels in establishing the necessity for the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia — to forcefully depose and suppress the Imperial ruling class:

When the workers replace the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, by their revolutionary dictatorship . . . to break down the resistance of the bourgeoisie... the workers invest the state with a revolutionary and transitional form.[8]
And the victorious party [in a revolution] must maintain its rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionaries. Would the Paris Commune have lasted more than a day if it had not used the authority of the armed people against the bourgeoisie? Cannot we, on the contrary, blame it for having made too little use of that authority?[8]
As, therefore, the State is only a transitional institution, which is used in the struggle, in the revolution, to hold down one’s adversaries by force, it is sheer nonsense to talk of a “free people’s State”; so long as the proletariat still needs the State, it does not need it 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.[8]
— Engels

In principle, 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. Moreover, the USSR did not claim to have achieved a communist society; the preamble to the 1977 Constitution (Fundamental Law) of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (the “Brezhnev Constitution”), stated that the 1917 Revolution established the dictatorship of the proletariat as “a society of true democracy”, and that “the supreme goal of the Soviet state is the building of a classless, communist society in which there will be public, communist self-government”. [1]

According to Lenin, under certain conditions, it may be possible to dispense with a dictatorship namely, when the proletariat is guaranteed of an overwhelming majority [Notes on Plenkhanov's Second Draft Programme. Lenin Collected Works. Vol 6, p51].

During the Russian Civil War (1917–23), the Bolsheviks banned other political parties, to preclude sabotage, collaboration with the deposed monarchists, and further assassination attempts against Lenin (twice) and other Bolshevik leaders. Internally, Lenin’s Bolshevik 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. Subsequently, the Bolsheviks, and other ruling Communist parties after them, took the line that since they were the vanguard of the proletariat, their leading role in society could not be legitimately questioned. Hence, opposition parties could not be permitted to exist.

Critics of the concept of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” — Anti-Communists, Libertarian Marxists, Anarcho-Communists, and anti-Stalinist Communists and Socialists — propose that the Stalinist USSR and other Stalinist countries used the “dictatorship of the proletariat” to justify the dictatorship of a (new) ruling class; cf. the anti-bureaucratic Workers' Opposition (1920) and the Kronstadt uprising (1921). Despite the principle of democratic centralism in the Bolshevik Party, for organisational cohesion, internal factions were banned, but not debate; the ban remained until the USSR’s dissolution in 1991;[9] the debates of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union were published until 1923; internal debate ended (ca. 1927) with the Joseph Stalin’s suppression of Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition.

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.[10]


Karl Marx

  • 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)

Vladimir Lenin

  • 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.[11]
  • 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.[11]
  • 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.[11]
  • 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.[11]
  • 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

Rosa Luxemburg

  • 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

Karl Kautsky

  • 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

See also


  1. Joseph Weydemeyer (1962). "The dictatorship of the proletariat" (in English translated from German). Labor History 3 (2): 214-217. . http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00236566208583900. Retrieved October 15, 2011. 
  2. See the letter from Marx to Joseph Weydemeyer dated March 5, 1852 in Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, Collected Works Vol. 39 (International Publishers: New York, 1983) pp. 62-65.
  3. Marx 1875. Chapter One.
  4. Marx 1875. Chapter One.
  5. Marx, Karl (1986). "The Civil War in France". Marx & Engels Collected Works. 22. New York: International Publishers. p. 331. 
  6. 1891 Introduction by Frederick Engels: On the 20th Anniversary of the Paris Commune: Postscript. The Civil War in France. URL accessed on December 16, 2006.
  7. See "The State and Revolution" written by V. I. Lenin in Lenin Collected Works, Vol. 25 (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1974) p. 385.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/prrk/equality.htm.
  9. A Country Study: Soviet Union (Former). Chapter 7 — The Communist Party. Democratic Centralism. The Library of Congress. Country Studies. URL accessed on October 24, 2005.
  10. Law, David A. (1975). Russian Civilization. Ardent Media. p. 161. . 
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/prrk/index.htm.

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