Letter From Europe: Dictatorship of the proletariat

As expected, the French Communist Party voted at its XXIII Congress in Paris in May to remove the reference to ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ from its rule-book. This was a foregone conclusion, since the Party leader, Georges Marchais, had announced two years ago that this would be happening. The only opposition came from a small group around the overrated philosopher Louis Althusser and from die-hard Stalinists like Jeannette Vermeesch, widow of former Party leader, Maurice Thorez.


‘Dictatorship of the proletariat’ was indeed a phrase used by Marx, but never with the meaning the PCF has given it. Marx always insisted that socialism could only be established by political action; in other words, that in order to establish socialism, the working class should gain control of the machinery of government and use it to force the capitalist class to give up its ownership of the means of production. In his private letters and notes he sometimes referred to this use of political power by the working class to abolish capitalism as the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.


Both words are obscure and derive from Ancient Rome. Under the constitution of the Roman Republic there was provision for one of the magistrates in times of crisis to be nominated dictator, which meant that he was invested with plenary powers to deal with the situation. Proletarii was the word used to describe the poor Roman citizens who were regarded as contributing nothing to the State but children (in Latin proles means ‘offspring’).


These two words were introduced into modern political terminology at the time of the French Revolution, the leaders and thinkers of which modelled themselves on the Ancient Roman Republic. The Jacobins were in favour of a ‘dictatorship’ by a minority of revolutionaries to crush the resistance of the nobility. The term proletaire came into use to describe ordinary, poor people. Both terms were inherited by the political descendants of the extreme French revolutionaries in the nineteenth century, including the utopian communists from whom Marx learned part of his socialism.


Marx, however, used the word proletariat in a more precise fashion, not to mean just poor people generally but only those who worked for wages: the working class. The ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was thus, for him, the exercise of political power by the working class in their own interest. This Marx equated with a complete political democracy in which the working class — the majority in capitalist society — would rule. His references to the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ all show that he understood it to be the exercise of political power by the working class within a democratic framework.


We ourselves have never used the phrase ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in our everyday propaganda. This is not because we do not agree with Marx that the working class should take democratic political action to establish socialism, but because the phrase is obscure and misleading. We have always preferred to express the same concept by the use of phrases like ‘the capture of political power’ and ‘the conquest of the powers of government’ which are more easily understandable.


In speaking of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ rather than simply of a ‘revolutionary dictatorship’, Marx made a decisive break with the Jacobin tradition. The idea of ‘dictatorship’ was given a democratic content, since the plenary political power it implied was to be exercised by the majority class in society and not by some revolutionary minority.


By the turn of the nineteenth century Jacobin ideas has almost died out in France but were enjoying a revival in Russia, a country whose political and social system had many of the features of France’s ancien regime. Here the idea of a minority revolutionary dictatorship had an attraction for the anti- Tsarist revolutionaries, including some of those who considered themselves Marxists. Among the latter was Lenin, who carried this idea over into the Social Democratic movement.


Lenin was in favour of the Russian Social Democrats being organised as a ‘vanguard party’ whose task would be to lead the workers, peasants and oppressed nationalities of Russia against the Tsarist regime. The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 was carried out in just this way — and it resulted in the establishment not of Marx’s ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, a working class democracy, but in the revolutionary dictatorship of the Bolshevik minority. Since the economic and political conditions of Russia did not permit the establishment of socialism the Bolsheviks had no choice but to develop capitalism in Russia (largely in the form of ‘state capitalism’, as Lenin himself described it). But since capitalism cannot be run in the interests of the working class, the Bolshevik dictatorship soon became a dictatorship not just against the nobility, the capitalists and richer peasants but also a dictatorship over the working class: the trade unions were taken over by the government, strikes were banned, protests were suppressed and protestors sent to labour camps.


Unfortunately, this was not evident to a section of the war-weary and discontented working class of Western Europe. To them Russia was what it proclaimed itself to be: a ‘workers’ republic’ which showed the way for the workers of other countries. The Bolshevik government exploited this sympathy to split the Social Democratic parties in the West and set up ‘Communist’ parties based on Bolshevik ideology.


In France in 1920 a majority of the delegates to the Social Democrats’ Congress at Tours voted to go over to Bolshevism and set up the Parti Communiste Francais. The new PCF was committed to Bolshevik ideology, including the idea that it as the self-styled ‘vanguard of the working class’ would exercise a revolutionary dictatorship. By a strange irony of history, the Jacobin idea of minority dictatorship, which had been rejected by Marx and which had almost died out in France, was reintroduced there by way of backward Russia. This time, however, it was called the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. It was with this Jacobin, Leninist sense that the phrase was introduced into the rule-book of the PCF.


Now it has been removed. Which is not such a bad thing, since, first, it had no right to be there in the first place, and second, its being there added to the already great enough confusion surrounding the phrase.


Adam Buick (Luxemburg)