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Dictatorship of the proletariat

The "dictatorship of the proletariat" or workers' state is a term employed by Marxists that refers to what they see as a temporary state between the capitalist society and the classless and stateless communist society; during this transition period, "the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat." The term does not refer to a concentration of power by a dictator, but to a situation where the proletariat (the working class) would hold power and replace the current political system controlled by the bourgeoisie (the propertied class). In short, the "dictatorship of the proletariat" would replace the current "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie". Many Marxists refer to this transitional stage as socialism or "workers' democracy".

Marx and Engels

On January 1, 1852, Joseph Weydemeyer had published an article in The New York Turn-Zeitung entitled "Dictatorship of the Proletariat." Marx, in an 1852 letter to Weydemeyer, stated that "Now as for myself, I do not claim to have discovered either the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me, bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this struggle between the classes, as had bourgeois economists their economic anatomy. My own contribution was 1. to show that the existence of classes is merely bound up with certain 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 constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society." He later also used the term in works such as the 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program.

The term "dictatorship" describes control by an entire class, rather than a single individual (dictator rei gerendae causa). According to Marx, the bourgeois state, being a system of class rule, amounts to a 'dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.' When workers take state power into their hands, they become the new ruling class and rule in their own interest, temporarily using the state machinery to prevent the bourgeoisie mounting a counterrevolution.

Although Marx did not plan out the details of how such a dictatorship would be implemented, he pointed to the Paris Commune as a model of transition to communism. He stated that:

The Commune was formed of the municipal councilors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally workers, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.
This social order with its emphasis on recallable delegates and maximal public participation in governance has many similarities to the modern conception of direct democracy.

Friedrich Engels, in his 1891 postscript to The Civil War in France, stated that "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." He criticized what he saw as corruption among politicians and stated that "the Commune made use of two infallible expedients. In this first place, it filled all posts administrative, judicial, and educational by election on the basis of universal suffrage of all concerned, with the right of the same electors to recall their delegate at any time. And in the second place, all officials, high or low, were paid only the wages received by other workers. The highest salary paid by the Commune to anyone was 6,000 francs. In this way an effective barrier to place-hunting and careerism was set up, even apart from the binding mandates to delegates to representative bodies which were also added in profusion." He also stated that the state is "at best an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, whose worst sides the proletariat, just like the Commune, cannot avoid having to lop off at the earliest possible moment, until such time as a new generation, reared in new and free social conditions, will be able to throw the entire lumber of the state on the scrap-heap. Marx's attention to the Paris Commune would make the commune take a central place in the thought of later Marxists.


The Paris Commune was short-lived, and no other serious attempt at implementing Marx's ideas was made during his lifetime. Vladimir Lenin developed on Marxist theory which after his death became known as Leninism which, in distorted form, became the official ideology of the Communist states. He discussed the concept of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" in The State and Revolution (1917), elaborating his proposals for putting it into practice. Lenin believed that the political form of the Paris Commune was revived in the councils of workers and soldiers that appeared after the 1905 Russian Revolution that called themselves soviets. Their task, according to Lenin, was to overthrow the capitalist state and establish socialism, the stage preceding communism.

Meanwhile, the role of the revolutionary party, in his case the Bolsheviks, was to serve as a "vanguard of the proletariat," which would start the revolution when the time was right and lead the soviets to victory. Like Marx and Engels, Lenin did not think that a liberal democracy could represent the interests of the proletariat because it was merely a "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie." Lenin argued that since trade unions are inherently reformist, seeking only an accommodation with capitalists to improve the lot of their members, revolutionary activity on behalf of the proletariat requires political organization into a party. The party will implore the workers to transcend their "trade-union consciousness" toward a "true revolutionary class consciousness", enabling the working class to consciously take state power and impose a dictatorship of the proletariat. Working-class rule will eventually eliminate the intra-class divisions that impede the development of communism. Lenin believed that, even after a successful proletarian revolution overthrows capitalism in one country, the bourgeoisie still remains stronger than the proletariat, because:

For a long time after the revolution the exploiters inevitably continue to retain a number of great practical advantages: they still have money (since it is impossible to abolish money all at once); some movable property often fairly considerable; they still have various connections, habits of organisation and management; knowledge of all the “secrets” (customs, methods, means and possibilities) of management; superior education; close connections with the higher technical personnel (who live and think like the bourgeoisie); incomparably greater experience in the art of war (this is very important), and so on and so forth.

For these reasons, Lenin argued that a "class dictatorship" was necessary in Russia. Lenin advocated the use of force to suppress the former ruling class and the removal of their voting rights, while quoting statements by Marx and Engels to support his policies against the criticism of other Marxists (such as Karl Kautsky), who argued that Lenin was being overly undemocratic.

Marx: “...When the workers replace the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie by their revolutionary dictatorship ... to break down the resistance of the bourgeoisie ... the workers invest the state with a revolutionary and transitional form ...
Engels: “...And the victorious party” (in a revolution) “must maintain its rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionaries. Would the Paris Commune have lasted more than a day if it had not used the authority of the armed people against the bourgeoisie? Cannot we, on the contrary, blame it for having made too little use of that authority?...
Engels: “As, therefore, the state is only a transitional institution which is used in the struggle, in the revolution, to hold down one’s adversaries by force, it is sheer nonsense to talk of a ‘free people’s state’; so long as the proletariat still needs the state, it does not need it in the interests of freedom but in order to hold down its adversaries, and as soon as it becomes possible to speak of freedom the state as such ceases to exist ....

At the same time, however, Lenin stated that the system of soviet democracy did guarantee voting rights to the majority of the population. The principle of soviet democracy was that the local workers' soviets would elect representatives that would go on to form regional soviets, which would in turn elect representatives that would form higher soviets, and so on up to a Supreme Soviet, the highest legislative body of the entire country. The Soviet Union never claimed to have achieved the communist society; the 1977 Soviet Constitution stated that the revolution had "established the dictatorship of the proletariat", that "It is a society of true democracy", and that "The supreme goal of the Soviet state is the building of a classless communist society in which there will be public, communist self-government."

During the Russian Civil War, non-Bolshevik political parties - including other Marxist and socialist ones - were banned one by one on charges of sabotage, attempted assassination of Bolshevik leaders and cooperation with the enemy. Critics of Lenin argue that he intended to ban opposition parties all along and was merely looking for excuses to do so, while supporters argue that this measure became necessary due to the extreme wartime conditions and that the charges brought against the various opposition parties were genuine (citing, for example, the attempt on Lenin's life by Fanya Kaplan on August 30, 1918, and the successful assassination of Moisei Uritsky the same day). What is certain is that the Bolsheviks were the only political party left standing by the end of the Civil War, and Lenin died shortly thereafter.

Critics, including anti-communists but also Trotskyist communists (which defend the historical need for a Dictatorship of the Proletariat), Libertarian Marxists, anarcho-communists, and virtually all communists and socialists who were/are anti-Stalinist contend that Stalin's Soviet Union and the countries that followed its Stalinist model used the notion of a "dictatorship of the proletariat" to justify what was in effect a dictatorship of a new ruling elite, although of a different nature than the previous ruling elite. Some also say that the degeneration of the Russian revolution began before Lenin's death, and that he and Trotsky played a crucial role in it (for example, by crushing the Kronstadt uprising and banning opposing factions like the Workers' Opposition). Also, despite the principle of democratic centralism within the party, after the Kronstadt Rebellion and while Lenin was still in power, the Communist (Bolshevik) Party issued a temporary ban on factions within the party with the intention of making party members follow the agreed party line - the ban was not meant to disallow debate (arguably how Stalin later used it) but to ensure party unity. This ban remained until the fall of Communism and according to critics made the democratic procedures an empty formality. Party debates continued to be printed in the public press until they were suppressed in 1923, and internal party debates were stopped around 1927 with the suppression of the Left Opposition.

Trotsky and Trotskyists

Trotsky developed the theory that the USSR became a degenerated workers' state after 1923, based on a bureaucracy which was not an inherited ruling class but instead a recruited caste similar to the feudal clergy. He compared the phenomenon of Stalinism to Bonapartism, such that both were dictatorial political forms based on specific class property relations, Stalinism being to a workers democracy as Bonapartism is to a bourgeois democracy. For Trotsky, the collectivized economic basis represented the progress that was necessary to defend in the USSR while supporting a political revolution to establish workers' democracy.

Trotskyists after World War 2 described the states created through USSR occupation as well as through guerilla movements in Yugoslavia, Albania, China, Cuba, and Vietnam as deformed workers' states, since they did not result from the degeneration of a democratic workers state but were politically dictatorial from the beginning.


  • "Between capitalist and communist society there 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." - Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program
  • Lenin: The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is rule won and maintained by the use of violence by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, rule that is unrestricted by any laws.
  • Lenin: A state of the exploited must fundamentally differ from such a state; it must be a democracy for the exploited, ‘and a means of suppressing the exploiters; and the suppression of a class means inequality for that class, its exclusion from “democracy”
  • Lenin: the proletariat cannot achieve victory without breaking the resistance of the bourgeoisie, without forcibly suppressing its adversaries, and that, where there is “forcible suppression”, where there is no “freedom”, there is, of course, no democracy
  • Lenin: And if you exploiters attempt to offer resistance to our proletarian revolution we shall ruthlessly suppress you; we shall deprive you of all rights; more than that, we shall not give you any bread, for in our proletarian republic the exploiters will have no rights, they will be deprived of fire and water, for we are socialists in real earnest, and not in the Scheidemann or Kautsky fashion.
  • "The dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e., the organization of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling class for the purpose of suppressing the oppressors, cannot result merely in an expansion of democracy. Simultaneously with an immense expansion of democracy, which for the first time becomes democracy for the poor, democracy for the people, and not democracy for the money-bags, the dictatorship of the proletariat imposes a series of restrictions on the freedom of the oppressors, the exploiters, the capitalists. We must suppress them in order to free humanity from wage slavery, their resistance must be crushed by force; it is clear that there is no freedom and no democracy where there is suppression and where there is violence." - V.I. Lenin, The State and Revolution
  • "This dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy, not in its elimination, but in energetic, resolute attacks upon the well-entrenched rights and economic relationships of bourgeois society, without which a socialist transformation cannot be accomplished. This dictatorship must be the work of the class and not of a little leading minority in the name of the class – that is, it must proceed step by step out of the active participation of the masses; it must be under their direct influence, subjected to the control of complete public activity; it must arise out of the growing political training of the mass of the people." - Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution
  • "“The term, dictatorship of the proletariat’, hence not the dictatorship of a single individual, but of a class, ipso facto precludes the possibility that Marx in this connection had in mind a dictatorship in the literal sense of the term."- V.I. Lenin, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky

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