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What does "dictatorship of the proletariat" really mean?


Yesterday was the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, when for perhaps the second time in world history (the first being the Paris Commune), a “dictatorship of the proletariat” seized power. To mark the occasion, Viewpoint magazine published a piece by Asad Haider examining the meaning of that oft-misunderstood phrase and defending it against its critics. Haider asserts that the phrase diverges from our modern notion of dictatorship—authoritarian rule by a small and powerful elite—and instead implies something much closer to majority rule. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

After this period of upheaval, it is clear that Marx chose his words carefully, for strategic reasons. Hal Draper concludes, in his comprehensive overview of the term:

For Marx and Engels, from beginning to end of their careers and without exception, “dictatorship of the proletariat” meant nothing more and nothing less than “rule of the proletariat,” the “conquest of political power” by the working class, the establishment of a workers’ state in the immediate postrevolutionary period.

In fact, the whole emphasis of the term was its proposal of a class dictatorship, by the majority of the population whose political goal was to abolish all class distinctions, rather than the dictatorship of a revolutionary minority. The latter idea of a dictatorship by the revolutionary leadership, represented in these debates by Louis Auguste Blanqui and his followers, was anathema to Marx, and his subversion of the word “dictatorship” was intended to propose that a proletarian revolutionary regime would be one based on far more popular participation than any government that had previously existed, a vision he saw realized in the directly democratic Paris Commune of 1871. As Kristin Ross remarks, “The Commune made it very clear to Marx that not only do the masses shape history but in so doing they reshape not just actuality but theory itself.”

Image: Members of the Paris Commune, after pulling down a statue of Napoleon in the Place Vendôme, Paris. Via the New Yorker.


This is true. But a further defence of the dictatorship of the proletariat is needed against the great mass of anarchists, Trotskyists and fake ‘socialists’ who attack the Soviet state in history, and declare it was no longer a dictatorship of the proletariat prior to its liquidation in 1991 as a result of Gorbachev’s capitulation to bourgeois-idealist politics and the “wonders of the marketplace”.
This was the culmination of revisionist politics that crept into Moscow’s party leadership after the death of Lenin, and in the face of so many difficulties and surrounding imperialist world pressure.
For Lenin, the Soviet state always had to be strengthened for the transition to socialism to be improved. The Marxist “withering away of the state” would come later, after the world has been turned socialist by revolution.
The hallmark of fake socialists and Trotskyists is that they proclaim that there was something inherently wrong with the socialist state itself (under Stalin or other Moscow revisionist leaders) rather than the real history of plenty of Soviet leadership correctness and triumphs but also the weakness and eventual decline in thinking from blockheaded popular frontist politics (which backed middle-class liberalism and labourism, rather than Leninist revolutionary politics).