Dictatorship of the Proletariat
DICTATORSHIP OF THE PROLETARIAT
The concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat originated with Karl Marx and was applied by Vladimir Lenin as the organizational principle of the communist state after the Russian Revolution. Josef Stalin subsequently adopted it to organize workers' states in Eastern Europe following the Soviet takeover after 1945. In China, Mao Zedong claimed that the communist revolution of 1949 was the first step to establishing a proletarian dictatorship, even though the peasantry had been largely responsible for the revolution's success.
In The Communist Manifesto (1848), Marx gave the reasoning for establishing absolute authority in the name of the working class: "The first step on the path to the workers' revolution is the elevation of the proletariat to the position of ruling class. The proletariat will gain from its political domination by gradually tearing away from the bourgeoisie all capital, by centralizing all means of production in the hands of the State, that is to say in the hands of the proletariat itself organized as the ruling class." In Critique of the Gotha Program (1875), he theorized how "between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. There corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the State can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat." Marx employed the term, then, as absolutist rule not by an individual but an entire socio-economic class. If capitalism constituted the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, it would be replaced by socialism—a dictatorship of the proletariat. In turn, socialist dictatorship was to be followed by communism, a classless, stateless society.
In his 1891 postscript to Marx's The Civil War in France (1871), Friedrich Engels addressed social-democratic critics of this concept: "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." Differences over the principle—and over whether a conspiratorial communist party was to incorporate this idea—were to divide the left into revolutionary (in Russia, Bolshevik) and reformist (Menshevik) wings.
Lenin developed the praxis of proletarian dictatorship in State and Revolution (1917): "The proletariat only needs the state for a certain length of time. It is not the elimination of the state as a final aim that separates us from the anarchists. But we assert that to attain this end, it is essential to utilize temporarily against the exploiters the instruments, the means, and the procedures of political power, in the same way as it is essential, in order to eliminate the classes, to instigate the temporary dictatorship of the oppressed class." A dictatorship by and for the proletariat would realize Lenin's dictum that the only good revolution was one that could defend itself. Dictatorship would allow the working class to consolidate political power, suppress all opposition, gain control of the means of production, and destroy the machinery of the bourgeois state. Political socialization would follow: "It will be necessary under the dictatorship of the proletariat to reeducate millions of peasants and small proprietors, hundreds of thousands of office employees, officials, and bourgeois intellectuals." Paradoxically, Lenin saw this form of dictatorship as putting an end to "bourgeois-democratic parliamentarism" and replacing it with a system expanding democratic rights and liberties to the exploited classes.
In sum, for Lenin, "only he is a Marxist who extends his acknowledgement of the class struggle to an acknowledgement of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat." Moreover, "the dictatorship of the proletariat is a stubborn struggle—bloody and bloodless, violent and peaceful, military and economic, educational and administrative—against the forces and traditions of the old society" (Collected Works, XXV, p. 190).
In Foundations of Leninism (1924), Stalin identified three dimensions of the dictatorship of the proletariat: 1) as the instrument of the proletarian revolution; 2) as the rule of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie; and 3) as Soviet power, which represented its state form. In practice, Lenin, and especially Stalin, invoked the concept to rationalize the Communist Party monopoly on power in Russia, arguing that it alone represented the proletariat.
See also: communism; lenin, vladimir ilich; marxism; stalin, josef vissarionovich
Balibar, Etienne. (1977). On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. London: NLB.
Draper, Hal. (1987). Dictatorship of the Proletariat from Marx to Lenin. New York: Harper Review Press.