Formulation nine and the dictatorship of the proletariat - part two

Jack Conrad continues his reply to those who have attacked the recently updated 'What we fight for' column as a move to the right

As the reader will be aware, the new, updated version of the Weekly Worker's 'What we fight for' column has been hotly debated. In particular the ninth formulation has come in for much flak. Critics have told us that defending the idea of peaceful revolution is the "strongest" indication yet that the Communist Party is moving "rightward" (John Pearson Weekly Worker July 11).

That all "historical evidence" militates against "such an illusion" (Barry Biddulph Weekly Worker July 25). That violent revolution is a "necessity" and holding out the possibility of "bloodless revolution" should count amongst the "rank illusions" of Kautskyism and "treacherous social democracy in general" (David Moran Weekly Worker August 22).

I have already detailed the positions of Marx, Engels and Lenin on peaceful revolution (Weekly Worker September 19). Quite clearly they never rejected the possibility as a matter of principle. On the contrary they advocated peaceful means as being entirely preferable. The use of force could never be excluded, however.

The capitalist class will do everything in its power to block the transition to socialism. As repeatedly shown by history, that includes unleashing the horrors of civil war and all the death and destruction that inevitably entails. Force must be met with force. And it is certainly in the vital interests of the working class to ensure that it has in its possession such overwhelming means of violence that the other side calculates that resistance would be futile. Failing that, the civil war must end quickly and decisively with the victory for the working class.

As promised, part two of this article begins our discussion of the thorny question of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Much of what I shall say is drawn from Hal Draper's seminal Karl Marx's theory of revolution volume 3 and its excellent companion The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx to Lenin.

In common with the orthodox Trotskyite left our critics put an equals sign between the dictatorship of the proletariat and violence and counterpose the dictatorship of the proletariat to the "sham" of what is dismissively called bourgeois democracy. Eg, comrade Moran revels in the notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat assuming a "dictatorial character" and employing "terroristic methods" (Weekly Worker August 22).

Not only are these comrades mistaken but, as will be argued in part three, so too in this case were Lenin and Trotsky. I shall also examine in a forthcoming article the absurd claim that the CPGB is set on a "rightward" course by turning to my programmatic work Which road? - first produced as a discussion article in 1983 and greatly expanded in 1991, when it was published as a full-sized book. In conclusion the possibilities of peaceful revolution in the 21st century will be examined.

Before Marx and Engels Marx's first use of the term 'dictatorship of the proletariat' appears over a series of articles written after the turbulent years of 1848-49 - these articles were later knitted together into Marx's book The class struggles in France: 1848 to 1850. The term is used three times - once in each of what were the separate original instalments.

Both Marx and Engels had taken a leading role in the European revolutions of 1848 - Marx editing the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, which served as the common political paper of revolutionary democracy in Germany. At the same time the Marx-Engels partnership took a keen interest in the simultaneous revolutionary events which swept France, Austria, Hungary and Italy. All the revolutions had been soundly defeated. So what were the lessons? This is what Marx sought to answer in The class struggles in France.

In discussing the term 'dictatorship of the proletariat' Draper begins by asking an elementary question of his own. When it first appeared in 1850, "What did the phrase mean to Marx and his contemporaneous readers?" (H Draper The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx to Lenin New York 1987, p11).

Without doubt in the middle of the 19th century the term still carried the same or a very similar meaning to what it had for centuries before. It was not synonymous with autocracy, tyranny or absolutism, nor was it automatically counterposed to democracy. Draper explains that the word began as a reference to the dictatura of the ancient Roman republic.

The Roman dictatura had three main features. One, it was a constitutional and legal device - faced by an invasion or civil disorder, the Roman senate could empower one man to exercise special power in order to overcome a crisis or emergency. Two, it was temporary. The maximum duration of the dictatura was six months, but the normal procedure was to hand back power once the emergency had ended. Three, it was limited in significant ways. The dictator could not make new laws; his powers were primarily military. Nor could he raise his own finances; they had to be voted for him by the senate. His remit was limited to Italy and specific measures were put in place over time to ensure that the dictatura never became a permanent institution.

This is how things worked in Rome - for three centuries - until the expansion of the empire to Mediterranean proportions and as a concomitant the growing autonomy of a mercenary army led to conditions which allowed Julius Caesar to have himself appointed 'perpetual dictator'. The Caesarist system - which took shape after the assassination of Caesar himself and the coming to power of his adopted son, Augustus - was a kind of hybrid. Constitutionally it combined elements of monarchy with those of aristocratic democracy. The emperor was officially described not as a dictator but as the 'first citizen' - the princeps civitatis.

Needless to say, the monarchical element dominated and eventually reduced the senate to a lifeless appendage. Did the dictatura inevitably lead to the Caesarist system? No, Caesarism emerged from the decay of aristocratic democracy and bent the emergency use of dictatorship to its own purposes. "Significantly", Draper says, this "prefigured" the fate of the dictatorship of the proletariat (H Draper Karl Marx's theory of revolution Vol 3, New York 1986, p13).

Bearing in mind what happened in Stalin's Soviet Union after 1928 and, following that, in other so-called 'socialist' countries, this is surely undeniable. To get a flavour of the meaning of the Roman dictatura think about martial law or a state of emergency. Such measures in advanced capitalist countries are usually firmly based on constitutional legality and are enacted as a means of bypassing cumbersome procedures and garnering resources and personnel - against a proven internal or external threat or after a devastating natural disaster.

It is true that this fascist leader or that army clique could use martial law in order to eliminate democratic rights and install themselves into power. But few would claim that ipso facto constitutional stipulations that allow for special powers to be temporarily used in order to save existing society are necessarily anti-democratic. The Roman meaning of the term percolated down the years and was used in the main by 18th and 19th centuary European thought as referring to an emergency measure outside the normal constitutional workings. The one-man aspect was sometimes emphasised; on other occasions conservatives bayed against the influence exerted by those below as being 'dictatorship'.

During the course of the French Revolution we therefore find the Girondists denouncing the "dictatorship of the National Convention" or the "dictatorship of the Commune of Paris" - which between them represented the most democratic phase of the revolution. Draper even quotes the British parliament being denounced by reactionaries as a dictatorship on the grounds that it held "all power" - shades of the Countryside Alliance (H Draper The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx to Lenin New York 1987, p12).

Clearly the meaning of the word, like all language, is fluid and used in different ways by different interests. In the backwash of the French Revolution and the Bonapartist regime the Jacobin-communists around Franà§ois Babeuf developed their ideas about how to avoid another defeat. They reasoned that the revolution would have of necessity to be violent and the work of a tightly organised group of conspirators. Buonarroti - Babeuf's lieutenant - published a highly influential book in 1828 which became something of a textbook for Jacobin-communism. It was duly translated into English and published by the physical-force wing of the Chartist party.

Having seized power, the enlightened sect of conspirators institutes a transitional revolutionary government which crushes the reactionary opposition and over a generation educates the downtrodden masses till the conditions reach the necessary level which can allow democracy to flourish.

The French historian, Samuel Bernstein, shows that such ideas of an 'educative dictatorship' were also held by Auguste Blanqui in the 1830s and 40s. On occasion this was expressed as the dictatorship of Paris over the countryside - the rural masses were particularly backward and tended toward counterrevolution. But what did the dictatorship of the city really amount to? Blanqui's sect argued that the ideal would be a triumvirate which will act "on behalf of the general interests and human progress" - supreme power in the hands of one individual would apparently excite suspicion (quoted in S Bernstein Auguste Blanqui and the art of insurrection London 1971, p82).

Draper ridicules all such elitist schemas - in the name of "the people" the revolutionary sect would defend the revolution "against the people" (H Draper The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx to Lenin New York 1987, p13).

As Draper emphasises, Blanqui neither invented nor ascribed to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Such ideas were totally alien to his notions of an educational dictatorship. During the 1848 revolutions the call for a dictatorship came from many quarters - left and right. In France the provisional government which installed itself after February called itself a dictatorship.

On its right Alphonse Lamartine described himself and his colleagues in the government as "dictators". On its left Louis Blanc - the forerunner of moderate 'socialism' - advocated the perpetuation of the "dictatorship" till the people had been sufficiently educated. In addition he spoke favourably about the old idea of a dictatorship of Paris over the countryside.

Wilhelm Weitling in Germany presented himself as the popular saviour and advocated the dictatorship of a "single head": ie, he would act as the people's messiah. Mikhail Bakunin entertained similar notions. He later recounted that his aim in 1848 was to establish a "government with unlimited dictatorial powers" to which all would be "subjected to a single dictatorial authority" - behind this would operate strictly hierarchical secret societies.

At the final apex of power one finds the carefully hidden figure of Bakunin himself. Evidently such concepts of dictatorship were counterposed to democracy - but just like the term 'government' it was open to being filled with different contents.

What of Marx? He simply laid hold of the term 'dictatorship' as it existed in the mid-19th century and used it for his own purposes. As the most influential figure on the extreme left of the revolution in Germany, he stood for the national assembly - which had been produced by the March revolution - declaring itself, in the name of the people, the sovereign power in Germany. All kingdoms, petty principalities and dukedoms must be abolished. Germany should instead be declared a republic "one and indivisible".

In opposition to those on the right who hankered for a dictatorship to preserve the autocratic monarchies against the people, Marx and the Neue Rheinische Zeitung argued for an "energetic dictatorship" of the popular assembly which would smash and eliminate all the old institutions and put in place a whole range of democratising measures. He did not raise the demand for a dictatorship of the proletariat nor even working class rule. That - and the theory of permanent revolution - was though soon to come.

Following the 1848-49 revolutionary wave official Europe united as one against the threat of popular or democratic dictatorship. Draper quotes The Times thundering against giving the vote to the majority of the people because this would in effect "disenfranchise" the existing electors and make the lower classes "supreme". The liberal Alexis de Tocqueville is also cited, lamenting that the 1789 French Revolution had not been led by an "enlightened autocrat" and regretting that the whole revolution had been a period of "popular" dictatorship. He unashamedly favoured the dictatorship of one man to the "dictatorship" of "popular sovereignty" (H Draper The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx to Lenin New York 1987, p17).

In short, reactionaries loathed and feared what they frequently called the dictatorship of the majority or the dictatorship that comes with universal suffrage. Aristocrats and the rising bourgeoisie had the right to rule - by virtue of education, intellect, wealth or simply the musket and sabre. Popular rule or democracy was regarded by all polite society as unnatural, ungodly and akin to chaos and lawlessness. Democracy was a palpable threat to private property - military rule was altogether to be preferred.

Marx and Engels

The Marx-Engels partnership emerged in this intellectual climate, when the term 'dictatorship' was used either positively or pejoratively on both sides of the barricades. Marx and Engels employed the word freely. The medieval church exercised an "intellectual dictatorship"; the petty German states operated under the "dictatorship" of Prussia and Austria; all of Europe buckled under the "dictatorship of Moscovy".

Engels even described Marx, as he worked as editor-in-chief of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, as operating as a "dictator" when it came to style, cuts and priorities - it can be no other way, as anyone who has participated in the production of a frequent publication, faced by a definite printer's deadline, will affirm. However, unlike the mainstream left of their day Marx and Engels opposed all notions of the dictatorship by an enlightened communist elite and associated plans for one-man rule.

Auguste Blanqui, Mikhail Bakunin, Ernest Jones, Ferdinand Lassalle, Auguste Comte, Henry Hyndman and other would-be "labour dictators" found themselves on the receiving end of cutting remarks or devastating polemical cannonades. On the other hand when Marx and Engels wrote of the dictatorship of the proletariat they took an altogether different view. In common with the Chartist left, and all other "real" working class movements, the Communist manifesto makes its position clear.

Like the Chartists the "immediate aim" of the communists was the "formation of the working class into a class" and the "conquest of political power by the proletariat" (K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 6, New York 1976, p498). How would this class rule? For Marx and Engels - again like the Chartists - the answer was simple? There must be universal suffrage - as reactionaries and liberals alike feared that is bound to challenge the sacred rights and liberties of property. Understood in this simple but historical sense, it is crystal clear what Marx and Engels meant by the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The term is synonymous with the rule of the working class and carried no particular implication vis-à -vis force or violence. The workers' state represents victory in the battle for democracy and is nothing whatsoever to do with any denial of democracy. Draper lists three distinct periods when Marx and Engels specifically referred to the dictatorship of the proletariat (or formulations almost exactly akin).

Period one, 1850 to 1852 - when lessons were drawn from the revolutionary upheavals of 1848-49. Period two, 1871 to 1875 - the period after the Paris Commune. Period three, Engels' defence of the term after 1883, as inherited from 1871-75.

Let us follow Draper. In total he has found only 12 sites which directly reference the dictatorship of the proletariat in the whole Marx-Engels corpus. Of necessity we must précis - but nevertheless the message is still unmistakable. Example one. In the first chapter of The class struggles in France Marx opposes the slogan 'dictatorship of the bourgeoisie' with the slogan 'dictatorship of the proletariat'.

This, Draper reckons, was a literary device because the slogan did not actually appear in the France of 1848. Marx is against the "terrorism" and the "rule" of the bourgeoisie. In the second chapter Marx puts forward the view that the working class in France is not yet ready to "seize the revolutionary dictatorship" ... Draper believes that this constitutes a criticism of the Blanquist plan for the communist elite to gain power by means of a coup.

Finally, in chapter three, Marx says that the socialism supported by the working class in France is "a declaration of the permanence of the revolution, the class dictatorship of the proletariat as the necessary transit point to the abolition of class distinctions generally". Again this should be read in contradistinction to the conspiratorial and elitist politics of Blanquism.

Example two. In April 1850 Marx's German communists, the Chartist left and Blanqui's exiled followers in Britain cemented some kind of united revolutionary front of mutual cooperation. It is noteworthy not for anything it actually did but for the joint programmatic declaration the representatives concocted: "The aim of the association is the downfall of all privileged classes, to subject these classes to the dictatorship of the proletariat, maintaining the revolution in permanence until the realisation of communism."

Draper argues that the chances are that Marx himself had no direct hand in this work. But his influence is there. While the very revolutionary language of the joint proclamation was designed to appeal to the Blanquists, the linking of dictatorship to the working class - and not to some revolutionary elite - was there to educate them. Dictatorship means rule. Class rule means class dictatorship. Marx's communists wanted the rule of the working class, not some revolutionary sect or a single man.

Example three. Otto Lüning - the editor of a leftish German paper - wrote a four-part attack on Marx for advocating the dictatorship, or rule, of the working class in his The class struggles in France instead of the abolition of all class distinctions. Marx put Lüning right on the latter point, but, as Draper stresses, neither in Marx's rejoinder nor in Lüning's polemic did the term 'dictatorship' feature as an issue of controversy. Both assumed it carried no special meaning - it simply denoted the "rule of the proletariat" (H Draper The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx to Lenin New York 1987, p27).

Example four. Marx's friend, and Lüning's brother-in-law, Joseph Weydemeyer, wrote an article, 'The dictatorship of the proletariat', in the New York German press. He concluded with the claim that any revolution must "have a dictatorship at its head". Marx replied correcting him. Marx went on to state that the dictatorship of the proletariat "only constitutes" the transition to the "abolition of all classes". Read in the context of example three, the meaning is clear. The rule of the working class leads to the end of class society.

Example five. In the two decades before the Paris Commune the writings of Marx contain not a single reference to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Marx uses other phases such as 'the rule of the proletariat', 'the conquest of political power', 'workers' state' and similar expressions. Not even in The civil war in France - written for the First International in defence of the 1871 Paris Commune - is there mention of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Marx calls the Commune a "working class government". Certainly the Commune carried out no measures which would nowadays be called dictatorial.

Marx, of course, painstakingly details what was significant for him - the extreme democracy that characterised the Commune. Only when French political exiles flooded into London did the question arise. The Commune had a Blanquist communist-Jacobin majority, which had proposed to set up a dictatorial Committee of Public Safety - it would curb democracy and exercise special powers. This met stiff opposition from both Proudhonists and members of the International. There was even an organised walkout from the Commune. On the general council - which met in London - Marx's opinion was bound to be asked for and in turn questioned.

Hence at the London conference of the International in September 1871 Marx felt obliged as chair to make a short speech in which he praised the Commune as the "conquest of political power by the working class" and, as reported by the New York World's correspondent, Marx linked the abolition of class rule with a "proletarian dictature" (the reporter's paraphrasing).

Clearly Marx once again had to work with and educate Blanquists who found personal motivation in the fiery expectation of the dictatorship of the revolutionary minority.

Example six. Against Proudhon's anarchism Marx wrote in defence of political - ie, democratic - activity. His thoughts were published in Italian in December 1873. The term 'dictatorship of the proletariat' appears in the course of a fictitious speech arguing against political indifference. Proudhon is depicted as opposing violent forms of struggle and the substitution of the dictatorship of the proletariat for the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie ... such "terrible crimes" violate Proudhon's "principle" of standing aside from political struggle.

Marx's meaning is again transparent though. The dictatorship of the proletariat is nothing more than the rule of the working class. With the Hague congress of the International in 1872, Marx oversaw the transfer of the general council to the United States. Having defeated Bakunin, he presumably feared that the Blanquists would attempt a take-over. A split with the Blanquists did follow.

However, as jokingly explained by Engels in a letter to a friend, the Blanquists had been infected by Marxism in terms of "our economic and political principles". They used the, new for them, term 'dictatorship of the proletariat' ... but simply as a synonym for the Blanquist seizure of power. This, as Draper points out, was the first time Engels used the phrase under his own name.

Example seven. Engels twice uses the term in The housing question. He discusses the Blanquists 'conversion' to scientific socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat. He refers back to the Communist manifesto and shows that he saw nothing in the term which had not been spelt out in 1847 by Marx and himself. Then, taking issue with a Proudhonist who on principle objects to political activity, Engels replies that every political party wants to establish its rule in the state - the revolutionary party of the working class included.

Engels says every "real" proletarian party, from the British Chartists onwards, has put forward a class policy: the organisation of the workers into a political party and "the dictatorship of the proletariat as the immediate aim of the struggle" (H Draper The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx to Lenin New York 1987, p33). Without doubt the Marx-Engels partnership is no different from any "real" working class party when it comes to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Example eight. This appears once again in an article written by Engels in 1874. His 'Programme of the Blanquist refugees of the Commune' states the following: "From the fact that Blanqui conceives of every revolution as the coup de main of a small revolutionary minority, what follows of itself is the necessity of dictatorship after its success - the dictatorship, note, not of the entire revolutionary class, the proletariat, but of the small number of those who made the coup de main and who themselves are organised beforehand under the dictatorship of one person or a few. One can see that Blanqui is a revolutionary of the previous generation" (quoted in H Draper The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx to Lenin New York 1987, p33).

Put another way, Blanqui believed in the revolutionary elite benignly ruling over the proletariat. Marx-Engels fought for the revolutionary rule of the working class. Example nine. The last time Marx mentioned the term was in 1875 in his famous Critique of the Gotha programme. Excoriating the statist illusions of the Lassallean wing of the Social Democratic Party in Germany, Marx demanded firmness of principle. He opposes Lassallean phrase-mongering about the "free state" and "present-day society".

Between capitalist and communist society, he says, there is a corresponding transitional period whose state "can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat". Unlike leftists in the 21st century Marx implicitly rejects all notions of a workers' state having to be more or less dictatorial. The dictatorship of the proletariat is for him simply the workers' state.

Example 10. When the term arose again - after Marx's death in 1883 - it was no longer in the context of Blanquism. In 1890 the German SDP set out to replace the old Gotha programme with a new, updated one. Engels intervenes in the pre-congress discussion. Wilhelm Liebknecht had successfully suppressed Marx's criticism of Lassalle and Engels manages after some difficulty to get it published in the party press. As a result hidden fault lines surface - as Engels intended. Writing in reference to this issue, he rhetorically asks a party comrade why we fight for the dictatorship of the proletariat if "political power is economically powerless". State power is an economic force.

Again things are clear. Engels attaches no special meaning - simply the conquest of political power by the working class. Meanwhile the right wing rebelled. One SDP deputy denounced the dictatorship of the proletariat from the floor of the Reichstag.

Example 11. In retaliation Engels put some pointed observations into his introduction to Marx's The civil war in France. Referring to the Paris Commune, he states his opposition to Blanquist plans for the revolutionary minority establishing the rule of a few. However, he also tears into the social democratic "philistine" who, "filled with wholesome terror" at the phrase 'dictatorship of the proletariat', recoils in fear. Echoing Marx in 1871, he declares that the Paris Commune is the dictatorship of the proletariat in practice.

Example 12. Three months later Engels fires off a whole broadside against the SDP right wing in the form of his Critique of the Erfurt programme. Engels took the opportunity to strike at the reformist idea that capitalism would peacefully grow over into socialism through its own self-movement. Lambasting the cowardice of the SDP leadership, he then urges the party to boldly proclaim itself against the Prussian monarchy and come out for the democratic centralist republic. "The working class," he writes, "can come to power only under the form of the democratic republic.

This is even the specific form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the great French revolution [the Commune] has already shown" (quoted in H Draper The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx to Lenin New York 1987, p37). Engels takes obvious delight in repeating the phrase that so upset the SDP's right wing. No kind words or mealy-mouthed attempts to ameliorate criticisms. Like Marx he was a political 'hard'. Battle and argument were his natural element. Nevertheless for those latter-day Marxists who assign a special meaning to the term 'dictatorship of the proletariat' Engels' joining it together with the democratic republic must cause no end of problems.

After all, most of them think about the democratic republic in terms of what they dismissively call 'bourgeois democracy' and define the dictatorship as a reference to violence and measures of oppression. As Draper ironically notes, such a muddle is inevitable amongst those who fondly imagine that their political jargon is virtually timeless and presumably "arose with Adam" (H Draper The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx to Lenin New York 1987, p39).

For the educated reader what Engels is saying is perfectly straightforward. He admonishes those in the SDP who backed away from openly calling for a republic in the programme because it might excuse the return of Bismarck's anti-socialist laws. Rather than bowing before the Prussian legality of the kaiser, Engels says the SDP should be clear about what they aim for. For his part he wants to include in the programme the demand for "concentration of all political power in the hands of the people's representatives": ie, a thoroughgoing democracy which is the "specific form" of the rule of the proletariat.