A tale of two phrases

What did Marx mean by the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’? Marc Mulholland thinks the answer is closely bound up with ‘permanent revolution’

Many readers will be familiar with a famous letter Karl Marx wrote in 1852 to Joseph Weydemeyer in New York, where he modestly says that a lot of the notions attributed to him, such as the significance of social classes, had actually already been pointed out by bourgeois historians.1 But he does claim certain discoveries - one of which is to prove the existence of classes as “only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production”; and secondly that “the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship or the proletariat”. ‘Dictatorship’ here constitutes only a phase - a transition to the abolition of all classes and a classless society.

So Marx clearly considered the dictatorship of the proletariat to be important, but he wrote irritatingly little about it. Many comrades will, however, be familiar with the writings of Hal Draper and in particular Karl Marx’s theory of revolution. This contains several volumes, but it is entirely readable - it is very witty, a tremendously enjoyable read. One section was expanded into an entire volume - Karl Marx’s theory of revolution: the dictatorship of the proletariat, and what Draper did was to account for 12 places (loci, as he calls it) for the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the works of Marx and Engels and to analyse each of them.

Like a lot of Marxists Draper clearly finds the phrase, ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, problematic, and in fact he went on to write another book - Dictatorship of the proletariat: from Marx to Lenin - which is a discussion of how the phrase was taken on after Marx: in Draper’s view it was very much vulgarised and abused. I think we can reasonably add to this approach a couple of articles which take a very similar approach by Lars T Lih. They were published by the journal Historical Materialism and they discuss in a similar ‘loci’ fashion the concept of ‘permanent revolution’, and how that phrase is used by Marx and to a lesser extent Engels. I will elaborate below how this vague notion of ‘permanent revolution’ might tie in with the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

In both Draper and Lih there is, I think, an element of a liberal kind of bias - or ‘whitewashing’ if you like - of what Marx wrote. They claim - and this argument can be traced back to Karl Kautsky - that, when Marx talked about the dictatorship of the proletariat, he was really just providing another name for a workers’ government: just as we live in a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie - which in many respects looks like parliamentary democracy, but with all kinds of limitations - we should think about the rule of the proletariat in the same way. It would feature an orderly, democratic government, which is a ‘dictatorship’ only because it is dominated by one class, just as a parliamentary democracy is today. The goal is the disappearance of all classes and therefore of the state itself - and in important respects any state is dictatorial.

This argument put forward by Draper and Lih - that really ‘dictatorship’ is a term which was almost stumbled upon accidentally by Marx, and was just another way of saying class hegemony, whether bourgeois or proletarian - gives quite the wrong impression. I am not convinced by it at all. The fact that Marx uses the term is actually indicative of something much more ‘raw knuckle’. We should take ‘dictatorial’ seriously, not just as a play on words. Absolutely, Marx did not mean the dictatorship of one man. But perhaps we can point to a parallel that Marx might well have drawn himself: the dictatorship of the Lincoln government during the American Civil War. That was pretty ruthless - the application of unremitting military force, the abrogation of many normal civil liberties and the expropriation of property (slaves) without compensation - and could reasonably be called dictatorial, in the sense of a government where normal laws had been, in the least, suspended. This notion, the temporary suspension of the regular ‘rule of law,’ is actually pretty much how Lenin defined the dictatorship of the proletariat in his famous controversy with Kautsky.

But what exactly was Marx talking about, when he used the term, ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’? Well, clearly it precedes what you might call the entire socialisation of the economy, the disappearance of the class-based state and indeed the transformation of consciousness - which is effected by a transformation of the mode of production. Marx talks about the various stages by which this might happen. First we have the class formation of the proletariat, no longer as a diffuse stratum of general labourers and porters, but as a large-scale wage-labour core to the production and reproduction of capital. This is followed by (to a greater or lesser extent) concerted, if sporadic, resistance to exploitation - riots, demonstrations and guerrilla-style organisation - a period when we might talk about the proletariat as a class in itself, but not yet for itself.

Following this, we have what, broadly speaking, Marx describes as one of trade union organisation, where the proletariat develops the ability to more systematically defend its sectional interests against capitalist exploitation. From trade union organisation there further develops a drive towards political organisation - and the working out of political, including legislative, demands. Marx particularly highlights in Capital the demand for a limited working day, backed up by legislation, which he describes as the first victory of proletarian political economy, as against bourgeois political economy. We can see here the crystallisation of a specifically proletarian political economy based upon a defence of proletarian (and indeed human) interests - as opposed to capitalist logic, which treated workers as disposable ‘hands’. We have reached here the point of a class in itself, which is capable of raising - and does raise - political demands.

The next logical step is more or less permanent political organisation to sustain pressure for ameliorative legislation: on the one hand, international organisation and, on the other, party-building: that is, the development of continuous proletarian political formations, which begin to think not just in terms of a legislative defence of class interests, but the transcendence of capitalism as a system. Up to our point in history, the proletariat has usually hovered somewhere about this line, moving backwards and forwards, depending on the class struggle and the technical composition of capital.

The next stage, as we move towards the overthrow of bourgeois state order, is ‘revolution in permanence’. This concept applies to a situation in which a revolutionary upsurge has erupted as a fairly broad-based class movement, and where the proletariat is one of a number of social forces that is mobilised. Presenting itself as the radical left wing of a broader revolutionary alliance, the proletariat and its political representatives act as the radical ferment in a heterogeneous revolutionary alliance. This is how ‘revolution in permanence’ is often presented, by Lars T Lih and others, and correctly so (although I think the phrase has other connotations).

Marx suggested that the revolution in permanence ultimately eventuates in the dictatorship of the proletariat. Through a process of tumultuous class struggle, splits and recombinations, the proletariat moves from being the radicalising, leftwing tendency within a broader revolutionary alliance, to becoming the revolutionary class - either through achieving hegemony over other class forces and revolutionary fractions; or (more likely) because other class forces desert the side of revolution out of fear of the proletariat and join the side of counterrevolution.

If the now predominantly proletarian revolutionary party takes power, it becomes in effect a dictatorship of the proletariat. This reflects the dominant class position of the proletariat and allows for the construction of a socialist society in line with its interests. That begins with the socialisation of the means of production in various ways: municipal, cooperative or state ownership; and the reinforcement of the proletarian position within society. From this there arises the more or less gradual dissolution of classes - including the dissolution or the proletariat itself - as well as the dissolution of the coercive state, on the road to communism (in the Critique of the Gotha programme Marx talks about this period as the “lower stage of communism”).

The dictatorship of the proletariat stage, whereby a revolutionary party takes power and consolidates it against its enemies, could well be quite prolonged as part of one of the succession of stages presented here in a schematic fashion. As such, it should be quite closely linked to ‘revolution in permanence’ in the sense that Marx used it. So what does it mean when we say that the dictatorship of the proletariat is part of this process of revolution in permanence? What Marx seems to be talking about is how the proletariat, the wage-earning class, forcibly subordinates the state and other classes to its will (so long as the state and those other classes remain in existence).


It is therefore helpful to think about how Marx conceived of the state. I know that a number of people - Mike Macnair included - think that Marx never really had a complete grasp of state theory, and that is probably right, but he does have fairly clear notions. One model of the state for Marx is the absolutist one of (broadly speaking) the 17th and 18th centuries. Here the state is autonomous from any one class. You can see this idea also in Marx’s sketchy notion of ‘oriental despotism’ - which is a dispersed class structure with no class being particularly capable of collective action in its own right and therefore the state having a great deal of autonomy/independence of action.

Marx’s model of the modern bourgeois constitutional state looked rather different from the absolutist or despotic state: it was one in which the urban bourgeois class, as well as the urban proletariat, is capable of collective action. Through the power of the purse (taxes and credit), and of political lobbying, corruption and management of public opinion through the press, the bourgeoisie is normally able to quite easily mould the state into an instrument of bourgeois class interests. In its perfected form, the ‘bourgeois state’ involves a representative assembly - a parliament of some sort - which is more or less amenable to bourgeois class interests, because the electorate is ‘managed’ by pressure, corruption, propaganda and the ‘dull compulsion’ of economic ‘common sense’, and the parliament it elects has the ability to authorise the necessary expenditures the state requires to maintain itself in existence.

How did political structures develop from absolutism to the modern bourgeois constitutional state? Marx looked at the models of the Dutch Republic to an extent, but - probably more so - to the English revolutions of the 1640s and the end of the 17th century, and, of course, to the French Revolution. These models implied a revolutionary ideology which allowed the bourgeoisie to mobilise the nation.

I think for Marx and others on the left the French Revolution was particularly significant, because in some respects it had elements of plebeian dictatorship: not of the proletariat, but of the Parisian crowd - the dictatorship of the sans-culottes (fundamentally the popular classes, particularly in Paris and other urban centres). What occurred in the French Revolution was a succession of insurrections - armed demonstrations that regularly turned into the storming of palaces, the national assembly or whatever - in which the Parisian crowd in particular imposed its will, at least temporarily, upon the revolutionary governments that followed in succession from 1789. These governments were driven towards radicalism by the dictatorship of the Parisian crowd.

An important part of this is how the sans-culottes organised themselves in Paris. They did so primarily through the institutions of local city government, not least the Paris Commune, which declared itself to be sitting ‘in permanence’. This is where the phrase, ‘revolution in permanence’, comes from - the idea that the government of Paris, controlled by the popular classes, is at all times overseeing the administration of the city in an executive fashion and indeed overseeing the national government, which was, of course, also located in Paris.

So it is not just a matter of the occasional insurrection or armed procession: it is revolution in permanence: that is, permanent pressure on the national government, in order to take the necessary measures and steel it against counterrevolution. It is all about the popular classes dictating to the government, arms in hand, and that is why ‘revolution in permanence’ and ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ need to be linked together in the way we think about these things.

The idea, frankly, was to intimidate the mostly bourgeois representatives who sat in the French elected assemblies. Popular ‘dictation’ was crucial in radicalising the revolution, until it eventuated in the Jacobin terrorist regime - which first terrorised those who were not willing to fight the counterrevolutionary foreign invasion, and ultimately terrorised the revolution in permanence (that is, it turned against the Paris Commune, against the popular classes in Paris and against the sans-culottes). So the Jacobin terrorist regime was not just the peak of the revolution: it was also the turning point, when the popular classes - the dictatorship of the sans-culottes - were essentially defeated by Jacobin terror, which put an end to the radicalism of the revolution.

Here we have something of a model of the masses literally dictating to the political class, and I think this is a useful way to think about the dictatorship of the proletariat. High-level mobilisation during a revolutionary crisis is one thing, however: you can keep it up for quite a while, as occurred in the French Revolution, but it is hard to see it being maintained indefinitely - and so, what about a regularised state form that might allow the popular class to ‘dictate’ (rather than being dictated to by the plutocratic press, bosses, lawyers, police and so on)?

Popular power

How did Marx and Engels conceive of that state form, the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’? What role for parliament? Parliaments are clearly important in the way the bourgeois state form is conceived. They themselves are a medieval inheritance - aristocratic in origin and generally the instrument of feudal elites - and to some extent we should understand 17th-18th century absolutism as, in part, a bourgeois and state alliance in order to clip the powers of the aristocracy, which often meant disempowering or closing down parliaments.

Nonetheless absolutism in the end relied upon the aristocracy just to get business done, because nobles and gentry managed administration in the localities on behalf of the crown. Because absolutism could not, in the end, fundamentally disempower aristocratic elites, we see a historic ‘switcheroo’ really. The bourgeoisie, whose members had often previously been anti-parliamentarian and pro-monarch, switched to pro-parliamentarianism. They did this once they reached a stage when they reckoned that their own social strength was sufficient to influence - and possibly even dominate - parliament. Parliament could now be converted from an instrument of aristocratic control of the state, into an instrument of bourgeois control. Parliamentarianism was revived, but now as a liberal bourgeois demand.

With a sufficiently capitalist economy, the parliamentary authorisation of taxation became an instrument of bourgeois regulation of the state. This occurred even if, as was often the case well into the 19th century (almost until the 20th century in Britain), parliaments remained dominated by aristocrats. Britain could be reasonably seen as the exemplar of the modern bourgeois state going into the 19th century. In many respects, while there are lots of caveats to this, Britain was a bourgeois state from at least the Glorious Revolution. Here aristocrats dominated both houses of parliament formally, but were always attentive to bourgeois commercial interests in practice, because it was British capital accumulation that provided the ‘sinews of the state’.

How was popular pressure applied in 18th century Britain? Clearly there was no British equivalent of the sans-culottes. It is worthwhile remembering, however, that the popular riot was very common - and basically viewed as an acceptable part of normal political practice for much of the 18th century. You could say that the riot provided a democratic element to the 18th century British constitution.

They were certainly effective as such: for example, they forced Robert Walpole to back down on an attempt to introduce the excise tax in 1733. In a sense, the ‘right to riot’ was informally recognised even by the 1714 Riot Act, which specified that, once an assembly was declared to be riotous, the participants were given an hour to disperse: in other words, paradoxically the Riot Act included a certain ‘right to riot’, subject to a time limit.

In practice rioting in the 18th century had very often been mobilised by employers. They encouraged their own workforce to go out, smash things up, generally make a lot of noise and intimidate politicians in the interest of their employers. And from time to time a riotous crowd would turn up outside parliament and physically manhandle MPs - this happened on a fairly regular basis in the 18th century, both in Britain and Ireland.

However, towards the end of the 19th century - partly because of the devastating anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780, which lay waste to large parts of London, and then (more importantly, I think) because of the French Revolution - this ‘right to riot’ was squeezed out of the political system in Britain.

Nevertheless, with the incipient emergence of a better organised working class - the earliest signs of a class for itself - you begin to see a mode of popular assertion which is not simply riotous, but something a bit more organised. In some respects this can be traced back to the 1760s, with the (broadly speaking) democratic movement of John Wilkes. He was a kind of a roguish aristocrat - a popular leader in London, who in the 1760s led a campaign against the aristocratic corruption of politics in Britain.

One thing that Wilkes and his lieutenants did was to organise what they called ‘committees’ of supporters of the Bill of Rights, which publicly issued instructions that were supposed to be binding on MPs, telling them how they must vote on certain issues. In other words, MPs were to be mandatories of the people.

One unnamed opponent of this kind of politics said at the time that it “points to a party of malcontents assuming to themselves, though very falsely, the title of The People”, adding that they were creating themselves into a “new order in the state”.2 Here you can see the incipient emergence of a democratic tendency, which is organising politically in order to force MPs to adopt certain positions. This was an early form of democratic ‘dictation’.

There was a very famous response to this from Edmund Burke, who had once been a radical Whig, but became a counterrevolutionary Tory. He addressed the electors of Bristol, attacking this notion of authoritative instructions - that is, mandates issued by organised voters to MPs - and he says this is entirely contrary to the constitution of Britain, since it fundamentally misrepresents the role of MPs. What they are supposed to do, Burke says, is make up their own mind through debate and not take instructions from the people they represent. This notion has become an absolute commonplace amongst the political classes in Britain - part of their ‘unwritten constitution’ - because, of course, it is a way of protecting the political classes from any direct pressure from the electorate: in particular the organised electorate.

However, the idea that MPs should be instructed by the electorate remained very powerful within British radicalism and we can see it at least into the 1830s, when it began to be overtaken by Chartism. It was an important, now largely forgotten, part of the emergence of democratic culture (when I say ‘democratic’, I mean the great mass of the people attempting to dictate to the political class).

In my second article on this question, I will discuss how Marx thought that proletarian ‘dictation’ might operate, once workers’ political representatives had assumed formal state power.

This is the first of two articles based on Marc Mulholland’s talk at Communist University in January. See: youtube.com/watch?v=u-PVOk4RYUE

  1. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/letters/52_03_05-ab.htm.↩︎

  2. oll-resources.s3.us-east-2.amazonaws.com/oll3/store/titles/2035/Lecky_1353-01.html.↩︎