The Dictatorship of the Party-tariat

History Mar 20, 2020

‘The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: constitution of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of bourgeois rule, conquest of political power by the proletariat.’

Marx and Engels’ call to arms in The Communist Manifesto became immortalised by the pure veracity of its words. The ones above are no different, for within them they explain how the ‘spectre of communism’ would manifest itself in a proletarian takeover of the state; a threat that would haunt the world for centuries to come. Their text is full of phrases that have, and will continue, to ring throughout history. None, however, came to dominate it quite like those above.

Searching for a way to facilitate an ‘overthrow of bourgeois rule’, future thinkers happened upon one Marxian term that would infect the communist movement for good.

The Dictatorship of the Proletariat

This powerful and controversial term is as elusive as much of Marx’s thought, in that its meaning and interpretation has changed greatly over time. The man himself did not write of it very often, but when he did, he spoke of it as atransitional phase between the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of communism’. The proletariat seizes the state apparatus, overturns its hierarchy to support the people, and uses it to, in his words, ‘transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society’.

The Russian Revolution showed us the unfortunate result of this ideal. Lenin’s efforts, and the new order it birthed, are now categorised with a nature more befitting to ‘dictatorship’ than ‘proletariat’. I am not here, however, to present Lenin’s own musings on the subject; for that, read State and Revolution. Instead, I wish to show you that Marxism, in past and present, flatly rejects the totalitarianism floated in Leninism and the USSR. To that effect, consider this passage from the historian Gregory Claeys:

‘It is paradoxical that much of Marxism has relatively little do with the Marx we know today, or with the revolutionary paradigms of 1848 or 1871. Many of Marx’s key texts remained unpublished until the 1940s, and even then most went unread.’

The focus of Marx’s thoughts have always shifted with the eras, and will continue to do so, as various thinkers learn more about him and use his thoughts to their own ends. Lenin was no different.

Continuing on with the shifting nature of Marx’s work, many would be surprised to hear that his concept of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ involved little of what we now call a ‘dictatorship’. In fact, Engels, in response to social-democratic fears of the term, says the following:

‘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.’

The significance of this claim is that the Paris Commune, and what Marx and Engels admired in it, had very little in common with the methods and practises of the Leninist revolutionaries and the USSR. In The Civil War in France, Marx describes the Commune as ‘essentially a working class government’ which stood against a history of French governments that ‘had been emphatically repressive’. The Commune is joyously celebrated for having ‘supplied the Republic with the basis of really democratic institutions’. The proletariat’s emancipation from the confines of ‘social slavery’ is central to Marx’s love for the principles the Commune represented. As put succinctly by the Marxist historian Hal Draper:

‘It is clear that, in Marx’s eyes, the Commune took no “dictatorial” measures — if the present-day meaning of the word is used.’

Important to consider, also, is that Marx was never as stubborn in his conviction that the worker’s state should be achieved through revolution, as some later Marxist-Leninists would be. In a speech to The International Working Men’s Association, in 1872, Marx claims that there were indeed certain nations with democratic institutions ‘where the workers can attain their goal by peaceful means’; ‘America’ and ‘England’ being amongst them. Though Marx believed that in some nations ‘we must some day appeal’ to force if we are to ‘erect the rule of labor’, the fact that he entertained reformism for some western democracies in his later life is indicative of the changing nature of his outlook.

The true reality of Lenin’s authoritarianism, and its incompatibility with Marxism, is made abundantly clear by the negative reactions to it from his Marxist counterparts. The criticisms game from all angles, and from all sides of the left-wing debate. Rosa Luxemburg, who was indeed another revolutionary, summarises the shared contention well:

‘Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party — however numerous they may be — is not freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.’

Her analysis of the Russian Revolution, that it created a regime ‘worse than the evil it is supposed to cure’, epitomising the core criticism of Leninism and its analysis of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

This misinterpretation has already been explored in the essay, but was expanded upon at the time by Marxist theoretician Karl Kautsky. In one of his many refutations of Lenin’s ideology, he (as identified by Gregory Claeys) defined the regime as a form of ‘state slavery’ that denied the ‘universal suffrage’ necessary for a true worker’s state. He insisted that Marx saw the dictatorship of the proletariat not as ‘support for dictatorship in preference to democracy’, but as a ‘political condition’, and not the ‘form of government’ that the USSR became. This fits in well with what we have already considered about Marx, where the term ‘dictatorship’ is only used to describe a brief and temporary transition to something new.

That transition, furthermore, is often illustrated by Marx as one that follows the ‘natural stages’ of development into and beyond capitalist society. For the Mensheviks, this meant that a revolution could only arise once Russia has formed a capitalist proletariat, not whilst stuck with a peasantry, as was the most numerous group in the country’s mostly feudalist society. To the once Bolshevik, turned Menshevik, Vera Zasulich, the rejection of this belief was a Leninist ‘coup’ that ‘perverted Marxism’. For Gramsci, this meant that the revolutionaries were ‘not Marxists’ in the strict sense, and that the Bolshevik’s revolution was ‘based more on ideologies than on facts.

Leninism’s actualisation into totalitarianism is nothing more than the unsurprising result of a long-term trend for Lenin. For although the society he preached on paper was of little difference to other Marxists, the methods, and level of control, that he would exert on the people to achieve it was not.

For him the symbol of this dictatorial behaviour became the political party, which morphed into an ideological engine for achieving his own ends. In a 1903 conference for the Russian Social Democrat Labour Party, Lenin called for ‘as much centralism as possible’ in its ranks. Power had to be wielded from the centre, with the Central Committee able to veto any decisions made by those below it.

This early experiment translated well into the Bolshevik’s later government, where the centralised politburo had total control over the supposedly “democratic” soviets. The juxtaposition between soviet councils and absolute power did not bother Lenin, who saw ‘absolutely no contradiction’ with it. In 1918 he asked the question:

‘How can the strictest unity of will be ensured?’

And answered:

‘By the subordination of the will of thousands to the will of one.’

You would start to think, at this point, that Lenin would begin to realise the utter undemocratic and anti-worker position he has cornered himself into. But alas, Leninism had an answer to that to. The party’s ethics simply did not matter if they were acting “in the interest” of the working people. In 1923, Lenin still manages to insist that ‘political power is in the hands of the working class’.

This was what the USSR came to be, a nation riding on the back of an endless dictatorship of the “party-tariat”, and cycle of totalitarianism where claims to represent the working-people are used to veil state atrocities. Marxist theory, for Lenin, was just a means to an end, no matter how much he butchered it.

The methods that Bertrand Russel would come to call “too terrible” a price for “mankind” meant little to a man hell on achieving his political desires.

No wonder Lenin has been called ‘the Machiavelli of Marxism’.

Marxism now finds itself in a tarnished state. The capitalist world continues to move on without it, and any attempts to revive its great legacy are met with fear-mongering of “communist dictatorship”. Revolutionary theory is now confined to the world of academia, and party-politicians have to disavow Marxist terminology to appease modern voters.

Who is to blame for this sordid state of affairs. Well, in the words of the Marxist critic Angelica Balabanoff, it was ‘entirely Lenin’s creation’.

If the left are to revive any of the revolutionary potential it once held, then it must convince the world that socialism will never come at the expense of freedom. We must criticise those who toy with nostalgia for dictatorships, and disavow the tenets of Marxist-Leninism.

Until we do, the spectre of authoritarianism will haunt the left’s future forever.


Original image source — Modified by us.

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Samuel Clarke

Graduate anarchist and full-time civil servant with an interest in world history, ideology and political theory.