“Dictatorship of the Proletariat”: what did Marx mean?

“Between capitalist and communist society 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”. 


This statement by Marx, in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, has been seized upon by followers of Lenin to justify the idea of the existence of a coercive State machine after the establishment of Socialism. The leaders of Russia claim that Marx advocated the establishment of a “proletarian state” and that this now exists in Russia. The various Bolshevik groups in the advanced capitalist countries believe that we must go through a lengthy transition of “socialism” before “real communism” can be brought about.


Before these ideas are examined it must be clearly stated how we, along with Marx, envisage the establishment of Socialism. For Marx, there were two essential prerequisites. The first of these is a clear understanding of the principles of Socialism by the working class and an unambiguous desire to put them into practice. The second is an advanced industrial economy which has developed the forces of production to the point at which free access is technically possible.


Marx however was over-optimistic on both these points, especially in his earlier writings. He assumed that developing a socialist consciousness in the working class was a relatively simple matter, that socialist ideas would arise more or less spontaneously out of a trade union consciousness. It was not for some time that he grasped the extent to which capitalist ideas influenced the workers and the enormous task which faced Socialists in winning over the workers.


On the question of the level of capitalist development, Marx was again somewhat mistaken. He studied the capitalist system largely in relation to the Lancashire textile industry, which was at the heart of the English industrial revolution. Today there appears very little modern about the textile industry—it tends to flourish in relatively backward countries with a predominantly agrarian population. Capitalism, in other words, had certainly not reached its zenith in the middle of the nineteenth century. Indeed it had hardly even begun.


Given, then, that Marx believed the means of production had been developed far enough to provide an abundance of goods, it therefore followed that the working class could not establish Socialism as soon as it captured political power. A transitionary period was necessary, in which the means of production would be developed as rapidly as possible. There would exist a coercive State. Consumption would be regulated by means of labour-time vouchers. This state of affairs would be replaced by completely free access as soon as possible.


Marx’s idea of the form of this transition period did not remain static throughout his life. In the 1840’s, he saw it as a Jacobin-style political dictatorship in the manner of Robespierre and St. Just. He later came to envisage a system of elected delegates to local committees, as in the Paris Commune. Towards the end of his life he saw it as a democratic republic based on a majority of delegates from a socialist party elected democratically to parliament.


It is perfectly plain, therefore, that Marx’s views on the need for a transition between capitalism and communism was a product of the time in which he was living. From Marx’s own point of view, it is only possible to see the world from a particular time and place in which one lives. Bearing in mind his over-optimistic view of the readiness of the working class to institute Socialism during his life-time, it is not surprising that he expected a lengthy transition would be necessary. Since Marx’s death the forces of production have been developed immeasurably; the possibility of a world of abundance has long been technically feasible, held back only by the political ignorance of the working class. Although Socialism certainly cannot be established at the drop of a hat, there is no need any longer to visualise a lengthy transition.


Marx, then, did believe that a period known as “the dictatorship of the proletariat” would separate capitalism and communism. However, this phrase was consciously and dishonestly distorted by Lenin. Firstly, it must be understood what Marx meant by the word dictatorship. He used the word in an explicit sense to mean the domination of society by one class through its control over the state machine. He often, for example, referred to Britain as a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”, though he was freely allowed to write and work in the country. Lenin, however, made what can only be construed as a quite deliberate play on words, using the term dictatorship in its popularly understood sense, to mean the denial of. basic democratic freedoms, the maintenance of rule by force and the ruthless suppression of political opponents. A year before the revolution of 1917 he wrote:


And in the twentieth century . . . violence means neither a fist nor a club, but troops. Dictatorship is state power based directly on violence. (Collected Works, vol. 23, p. 95.)


Elsewhere, he wrote:


Dictatorship is based directly upon force and unrestricted by any laws. The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is rule won and maintained by the use of violence by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie.” (Collected Works, Vol. 28, p.236).


Lenin’s conception of “the dictatorship of the proletariat” is not, therefore, based on Marx’s, but is a gross perversion of it. The type of society which exists in Russia today is the logical outcome of Lenin’s thinking. Though they may deny it, this is also the type of society advocated by leftists when they rant about “fighting for socialism”, “socialism” being defined as the transition period before “communism”,


Our case is clear and simple. Socialism (or Communism – we use the words interchangeably) is a society based on common ownership with free access, without money or wages. This can be established as soon as the working class see the need for it. Talk about “transition periods”, based on Lenin’s dangerous writings, does nothing to bring this end one minute nearer.


B. K. McNeeney