The dictatorship of the proletariat

Mr. Speaker! You claim that yours is a Marxist party aiming to establish Socialism by peaceful means, i.e. elections. And yet Karl Marx advocated “the dictatorship of the proletariat”, which, whenever it has been established, has always resulted in a reign of bloody terror. Now then—answer that one!

Okay, pal. We’ll have a go!

Your first point is quite right. The SPGB does work for the establishment of Socialism by peaceful, orderly, sensible means, i.e. elections (Parliament).

Next, wherever K. Marx used the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat” he could only have used it to mean the conquest of political power by a majority of the people. Implicit in the whole concept of Socialism is democratic operation, because it can only be run by a majority. There is overwhelming evidence to show, from the whole of Marx’s and Engels’s writings, that Marx’s meaning for this phrase (or slogan) was democratic taking of power by a free majority.

We all know, of course, that this question had been enormously complicated by the Russian Bolsheviks, especially Lenin. Finding themselves unexpectedly in power in 1917—in a vast backward country where public administration (due to the disastrous defeats in the 1914-18 war) had collapsed—Lenin and Co. were faced with the problem not of the “proletariate” but the stubborn, obstinate, ignorant Mujik, the mass of the population: peasants.

Confronted with this dilemma, Lenin adroitly invented “the dictatorship of the proletariate and peas- antry“, which would have made poor Marx spit blood. Marx’s perfectly sensible straightforward proposition that capitalism converts peasants into a majority of wage-workers, who then democratically assume political power, became a complex mumbo-jumbo of the Party leading the workers, leading the peasants, leading nowhere!

In the sixty years since then, the question has settled itself because the European Communist Parties (including the British one) have all renounced the “dictatorship” rubbish—it loses votes! Another little paradox the Commies have never explained is why you have to run election candidates to establish illegal dictatorships.

The SPGB has never advocated or even used this phrase “the dictatorship of the proletariat”. Its Declaration of Principles stipulates the capture of the political machinery by conscious democratic vote.

Many very well qualified scholars have rigorously examined the whole of Marx’s writings on this question, and come up with indisputable proof that his use of the phrase was for the proletariat as the majority.

Lucien Laurat in his book Marxism and Democracy wrote: “The phrase ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ is to be found in three places in the works of Marx, and two in those of Engels . . .  it is quite clear that for them, this ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ was synonymous with democracy.” Laurat gives an example from Engels, written on 29th May 1891:

If anything is certain, it is that our Party can only come to Power under the form of the democratic Republic. Precisely this is the specific form for the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariate’ as the great French Revolution has already shown.

Since Laurat’s book was written some other examples have been found, but the use of the phrase by Marx and Engels was very scanty. Michael Harrington, who is chairman of the left-wing committee supporting Jimmy Carter and therefore (like Laurat) could not be accused of supporting the SPGB, says in his book Socialism:

It was during this ‘ultra-left’ period that Marx used the fateful phrase ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’. It is, alas, of little political moment that it can be demonstrated that when Marx wrote this he did not mean ‘dictatorship’, at least, as the word is now commonly employed.

Whatever Marx did or did not say, the position of the SPGB is the only feasible one for 1977: Socialism through democratic political action. Regarding the questioner’s third, and last point: apart from Lenin’s and Brezhnev’s Russia, regarded by most as a phoney today, the only place and time claimed to have been ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ was Paris in 1871.

The majority party in the Commune were followers of August Blanqui, the secret conspirator and godfather of dictatorship. “They started out from the viewpoint that a small number of resolute men would be able to seize the State, and draw the mass around a small band of leaders.” (F. Engels, Introduction to Civil War in France.)

And yet, when these same “Blanquists” issued proclamations to the rest of France, what did they propose? The free-est, most democratic administration France had ever heard of. In the words of Engels: “They proposed a free Federation of all Communes with Paris.” Marx added, in Civil War in France: “The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage, responsible and revocable at short notice.” That is obviously what he called the proletarian dictatorship.

Even the correspondent of the London Times reported that the change in Paris was astounding. For the first time since 1848 the streets of Paris were safe at night without a police force, therefore no dictatorship.

If the questioner wants to blame the working men’s City Council of Paris for the reign of terror which followed its bloodthirsty suppression in 1871, he might just as well blame the unfortunate street girls of London for being murdered by the psychopath Jack the Ripper.

And the NEXT question, please . . .


(Socialist Standard, August 1977)