D is for Dictatorship

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The phrase the "dictatorship of the proletariat" is famous, and much misunderstood. It's certainly liable to frighten the bourgeoisie. The difficulty is, it's also liable to frighten our side.

Karl Marx used the term a few times, and Frederick Engels a little less. What did they mean by it, and why did they use this phrase?

As to what they meant by it, that is quite clear. They meant what today is meant by the phrase "workers' state", or "the rule of the working class", or "conquest of political power by the working class". No more, and no less. They also used these terms, and other similar ones.

Dictatorship already had a variety of meanings, but it still had a strong link to the original Latin meaning, "dictatura". The "dictatura" was one element in the constitution of the old Roman Republic. It referred to a figure who was appointed by the Republic, for a period not exceeding six months (in practice often less), to rule by decree during an emergency. It was understood, in that sense, to be part of the normal workings of Roman law. It did not mean tyranny.

For Marx and Engels, not only was the term not opposed to democracy, it assumed it. There was no other way that the working class could rule except by democracy organised from below. They set the term against the "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie" over every aspect of life in capitalist society, the "rule of capital", the subordination of political life to the needs of accumulation. In place of capitalist dictatorship, they argued, the workers must organise their forces to take power themselves, establish their own "ascendancy", "class rule", "power", "state", or indeed "dictatorship".

Why use this odd expression? Many of the occasions when they did so they were debating with other leftists of their own time, notably the Blanquists.

The Blanquists were influential in revolutionary circles up to the 1870s. For them, the revolution would consist of a dedicated band of revolutionaries, who would seize power in the name of the people, acting for them. They would exercise a revolutionary dictatorship, and having seized power they would "educate" the people so they could learn to share power. There are echoes of such ideas in 20th century guerrilla movements.

What distinguishes the Blanquist idea is its elitism. The revolutionary minority will act for the people. To such revolutionaries, Marx and Engels replied, "You say you want an enlightened dictatorship of the few. We want the dictatorship of the proletariat, and that requires self-organisation by workers, not relying on a few 'saviours from on high.'"

Marx and Engels favoured the most complete democracy, otherwise known as self-government. That was at the core of what they meant by revolution.

It was precisely because of the more advanced democracy working people established in the brief-lived Paris Commune in 1871 that they celebrated it. Marx wrote a brilliant pamphlet, The Civil War in France, defending and acclaiming its achievements. It's worth reminding ourselves of the main features of that democracy.

Just to list the measures is to see the difference with our own state. Election of all Commune members was by unlimited universal suffrage. All officials were to be "responsible and recallable". All officials were paid workmen's wages - imagine, no perks, privileges and high salaries for public office! There would be depoliticisation of the police (under Commune control) and separation of church and state. Judges would be elected and recallable. The standing army was abolished. The Commune was to be "a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time". The Commune had to carry out its own policies, directly, not get some other poor sod to do the actual work.

What the Commune showed the workers' movement, Marx insisted, was that it can't just take over the old machinery of state. It needs to build a new, more vibrant democracy, from below.

"Self-government", Marx pointed out, meant more than the British understood by it:

"It is not the self-government of the towns by turtle-soup guzzling aldermen, jobbing vestries and ferocious workhouse guardians... It is not the political self-government of the country through an oligarchic club and the reading of the Times newspaper. It is the people acting for itself by itself."

On the tenth anniversary of the Commune, Engels again celebrated the same features, and he concluded:

"Of late, the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the phrase, dictatorship of the proletariat. 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."

Do we have to use the phrase today? I doubt it. Not because of the idea. That has a brilliant future, still to be made. But the sense of words changes over time. The 20th century, above all, saw the word "dictatorship" used to summarise all manner of political tyrannies, including fascism and Stalinism, military rule and other vile regimes. In most workers' minds it means the opposite of democracy.

In the 1960s we chanted on demonstrations, "Two Four Six Eight - Rise and build a workers' state!" That was the Marxist idea, and it's even more relevant today.

A note to readers: In writing this article, I re-read the third volume of Hal Draper's Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution, which is devoted to just this question. It is the ultimate work on the topic. Buy it or borrow it. And don't miss Donny Gluckstein's wonderful book on The Paris Commune: A Revolutionary Democracy.

Colin Barker


Further reading:

  • State and Revolution by V I Lenin
  • The Paris Commune by Donny Gluckstein
  • Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution: The "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" by Hal Draper (print on demand available. Contact Bookmarks on 020 7637 1848)