How can the working class defend its revolution? Understanding the dictatorship of the proletariat

Feb 1, 2008

The ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’

Workers around the world have instinctively understood the need for a union. In the fight against the bosses—whether it is for pay and benefits, better working conditions or to defend the gains they have already won—individual workers standing alone lose, while workers uniting together can win.

While today some jobs come with health care benefits, this was not always the case. Health care benefits were won through militant workers’ struggles by unions against the capitalist bosses. As soon as gains are won by the workers, however, the capitalist boss inevitably tries to reduce or eliminate these advances to maximize profit.

Through unions, the working class organizes to defend gains won by organizing, by setting up picket lines, by striking and other actions.

Throughout the 20th century, workers waged much larger struggles—not just to protect themselves from the exploitation of their employers, but to uproot their exploiters once and for all. The socialist revolutions in Russia, China, Korea, Albania, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, Cuba and others all set out with this aim. Each time, the question has been posed: How will the working class—the new ruling class—organize to protect itself from imperialist attack and counterrevolution?

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels anticipated the question as early as 1848 in the Communist Manifesto. “We have seen,” they wrote, “that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.” For the first time, the ruling class will consist of the vast majority of society instead of a tiny few.

“The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e. of the proletariat organized as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible,” they continued.

The working class would need to organize as the ruling class. Long before workers had ever successfully held power, Marx and Engels could see the need for organizing politically—with the tools of state power—against the power and wealth of the bourgeoisie.

As much as the working class would like it not to be the case, the capitalist class and the legacy of class division remain following the seizure of power. All kinds of inequality in income and personal property holdings, as well as racism and sexism, do not disappear on their own immediately after a workers’ revolution. The ideological influence of the bourgeoisie encompasses more than the class of exploiters. The preeminence of bourgeois ideology, reinforced by material stratification inside society, in turn provides a base for counterrevolution following a socialist revolution.

The experience of the Soviet Union shows that the possibility of capitalist restoration remains long after a revolutionary triumph.

Marx and Engels were writing on the eve of the 1848 revolutions. The working class was in the streets, and Marx and Engels were among the few to see in this class the potential to “organize as the ruling class.” In summing up the experiences of the 1848 uprisings in France, Marx noted in his essay “Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850” that “there appeared the bold slogan of revolutionary struggle: Overthrow of the bourgeoisie! Dictatorship of the working class!”

The concept of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” became a central feature of revolutionary socialism. It also became one of the most misunderstood concepts, used by enemies of Marxism to prove that communism was in essence dictatorial and anti-democratic.

All power to the workers!

On Jan. 1, 1852, one of Marx’s close colleagues in the United States, Joseph Weydemeyer, published an article titled “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat” in a German-language newspaper. Marx responded in a famous letter dated March 5, 1852:

Long before me, bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economists, the economic anatomy of the classes. What I did that was new was to prove: 1) That the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production, 2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, 3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.

Two points immediately emerge. First, Marx was not writing about a particular form of government; rather, he referred to dictatorship in the sense of exclusive class power. The interests of the working class were diametrically opposed to those of the capitalist class, and a state could serve only one class. The dictatorship of the proletariat was a precise class phrase that expressed a slogan popularized by the U.S. Black Panther Party in the late 1960s: “All power to the people!”

Second, the exclusive power in the hands of the working class was seen as a step toward the abolition of class exploitation overall.

The Paris Commune

“Of late, the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.”

Those were Engels’ words in his 1891 introduction to Marx’s work “The Civil War in France.”

Marx wrote more about the dictatorship of the proletariat following the 1871 Paris Commune. The Commune was the first example of a working-class government—a model for a socialist state—even though the workers only held power for two months before being drowned in blood. The experience of the Commune proved the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The Paris Commune was formed after workers seized power in Paris following the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. Originally set up to defend the capital against a Prussian invasion, the Commune soon had to face both French and Prussian troops.

How did the workers organize themselves against the combined threat of military invasion and bourgeois counterrevolution? The Commune abolished the standing army and police and armed the workers. Officials were elected by universal suffrage and could be immediately recalled. Officials were elected regardless of nationality and were paid a worker’s wage.

The Commune was not a talk shop. Unlike “democratic” congresses and parliaments, its members were responsible for carrying out the laws they passed.

In addition, rents were reduced, interest on debts was abolished and educational institutions were opened up, among many social measures that benefited the working class.

While recognizing the Paris Commune as the first genuine workers’ government, Marx also analyzed the reason for its downfall: its failure to take relentless action against the defeated ruling class that had fled to Versailles. The Commune’s hesitation and moderation allowed the French capitalists to regroup before retaking Paris amid the vicious slaughter of tens of thousands of French workers.

Toward a classless society

The experience of the Paris Commune proved decisive as Marx and Engels attempted to orient the German socialist movement in a revolutionary direction. They used many of the lessons in the debates surrounding the program of the German Socialist Workers Party in 1875—the so-called “Gotha Program,” named after the town where the socialist delegates met.

In “Critique of the Gotha Program,” Marx further explained the necessity of the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat through revolutionary struggle. Socialism could not be achieved through universal suffrage or winning reforms from the capitalist state.

Since the Gotha Program aimed to set out the goals of German socialists, Marx outlined the main features of communism—classless society. Under communism, exploitation would not exist and society’s wealth would be so great that the general principle of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” could be realized.

Marx also outlined socialism as a “lower stage” of communism, where private exploitation would be abolished but certain inequalities would still exist due to the lack of productive forces or remaining “birth marks of the old society.” During this period, wealth would be allocated according to the workers’ contributions to society as opposed to their needs.

But most importantly, Marx laid out the need for an intermediate stage. “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.”

Engels, in a follow-up letter to Socialist leader August Bebel, is more blunt: “The state is only a transitional institution which is used in the struggle, in the revolution, to hold down one’s adversaries by force.”

V.I. Lenin, the leader of the Russian Revolution, provided further analysis of the dictatorship of the proletariat in his 1917 pamphlet “State and Revolution.” He explained that the significance of Marx’s explanation of the dictatorship of the proletariat was that he showed it was “something which develops out of capitalism” and that it is not “scholastically invented.”

The experience of the socialist revolutions

The experience of the Russian Revolution and later revolutions in Cuba, Korea, Vietnam, China and elsewhere showed that the dictatorship of the proletariat is a necessary element to the defense, survival and growth of working-class rule. Unlike the original projections of the first socialist thinkers, workers overthrew their capitalist exploiters first not in the most developed countries but in the most oppressed and underdeveloped societies.

The transition to socialism and the envisioned “withering away of the state”—the diminished need for the suppression of counterrevolution—was a much more difficult task. In each case, the workers’ state served to stave off imperialist intervention and counterrevolution while desperately attempting to develop the productive forces of society.

The states established by the new revolutionary governments acted like unions, defending the workers in a world where the bosses were the imperialist giants, armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

Class struggle did not end after the victory of the socialist revolutions. In fact, it became even more intense. That was the reason that the early Bolsheviks looked with such hope toward victorious revolutions in the imperialist countries.

Just as bosses attempt to take back gains won by the workers through the union struggles, the capitalists attempt to return to power after a working-class revolution has made the working class the ruling class of society.

In order to organize itself effectively, the new workers’ state must destroy the old capitalist state that was used to repress the working class—its army, police, prisons and courts—and replace them with an entirely new socialist state to organize for the defense of the revolution. The new state is based on institutions and laws that serve the interests of the working class.

To write the next chapter in the development of the revolutionary socialist theory on the transition to communism will require new experiences. The greatest contribution would be a socialist revolution in the United States, where the productive forces are great enough to lay the foundation for liberating the world’s working class.

The life and legacy of Harry Haywood

The life and legacy of Harry Haywood

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