Dictatorship of the proletariat and the Second International

In the third of his articles discussing peaceful and violent revolution Jack Conrad examines the use of the term 'dictator-ship of the proletariat' after Marx an Engels

So far over the course of this series of articles I have proven beyond reasonable doubt two fundamental propositions. Firstly, Marx, Engels and Lenin discounted neither the desirability nor the possibility of peaceful revolution. Leftist critics - including those featured in these pages - who, citing some supposed universal law, damn peaceful revolution and contemptuously dismiss it as a "concession to left reformism" veer dangerously close to anarchism. The Marxist approach is clear and is accurately summed up in the ninth formulation of the Weekly Worker's 'What we fight for' column - the working class comes to power "peacefully if we can, forcibly if we must".

The second proposition which has been proved is that Marx and Engels used the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' as a term synonymous with the 'rule of the working class'. Nothing more and nothing less. It had for them no special meaning and carried no connotations of violence, let alone the "destruction" or "smashing" of so-called bourgeois democracy.

Following Hal Draper's Karl Marx's theory of revolution volume three and its companion The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx to Lenin, my last article located, quoted and put in context every single site in the entire Marx-Engels corpus of books, pamphlets, programmes, articles and letters where the term the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' was employed or discussed.

There are a mere 12 such sites. We proved that in the 1850-52 period Marx counterposed the dictatorship - or, to update the terminology, the rule - of the working class to the elitist notions of Auguste Blanqui, who envisaged the rule over the working class by a select revolutionary minority. When Marx again took up the term in the 1871-75 period it was once more in order to distinguish his democratic politics from Blanquist elitism and, in the case of the Critique of the Gotha programme, the Lassalleans. Ferdinand Lassalle was himself notoriously hostile to democracy - "Who speaks of universal suffrage utters a cry of reconciliation" (F Lassalle Workers' programme quoted in E Bernstein Evolutionary socialism New York 1961, p138).

Engels reiterated Marx's position after the latter's death in 1883. In his Critique of the Erfurt programme Engels savaged "philistine" party members in Germany, who, cowering before the kaiser and Prussian legality, denounced the dictatorship of the proletariat - that is, a republic, the abolition of the monarchy and the rule of those below through universal suffrage and winning the battle for democracy.

Of course, some can never be convinced. Sectarian blockheads and leftist windbags will in the name of Marx, Engels and Lenin continue to angrily dismiss the possibility of peaceful revolution. It is all a devilish plot hatched by revisionists, they monotonously insist - blithely ignoring, of course, the actual stated positions of Marx, Engels and Lenin themselves.

By the same measure, in order to sustain their cut-price political myths or as a means of excusing the high crimes of bureaucratic socialism, Trotskyite and Stalinite doctrinaires alike carry on cluelessly referring to the dictatorship of the proletariat in terms of terror and denying democracy. Perhaps such people are beyond reason and rational debate. However, others will ponder, as I have done, and surely rethink.


In part three of this series we shall examine the spin and counter-spin put on the dictatorship of the proletariat by the direct inheritors of the Marx-Engels tradition. Once again what I write rests heavily on Draper's The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx to Lenin.

Perhaps the best indication of the shape of things to come is to be found with Georgi Plekhanov - who later became the leading figure in Menshevism. A fellow social democratic revolutionary, Alexei Voden, visits an aged Engels in London. In his hand he carries a letter of introduction from Plekhanov - though a recent convert from Narodnik politics, he had already established a formable reputation as Russia's foremost Marxist thinker. The date is 1893. Some 30 years later Voden published an account of the meeting in his memoirs.

Engels asks what Plekhanov thought of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Voden recalls: "I was forced to admit that GV Plekhanov had repeatedly expressed his conviction to me that when 'we' come to power, of course 'we' would allow freedom to no one except 'ourselves'" (quoted in H Draper The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx to Lenin New York 1987, p39).

There is no reason to doubt the veracity of Voden's story. Plekhanov simply took as good coin the elitist approach espoused by Blanquists and Mikhail Bakunin's followers in Russia. Here lie his intellectual antecedents and what passed for common sense amongst other revolutionaries. Needless to say, this elitism does not derive from Marx. Furthermore let us stress that conditions in 1890s Russia tended to confirm and reinforce such ideas in Plekhanov's Weltanschauung. Tied body and soul to pre-capitalist modes of production, the peasant multitude could not be trusted. Or so thought Plekhanov.

The first generation of workers in Russia's nascent industries were not only a tiny minority, but were illiterate and woefully ignorant too. For Plekhanov such human material had to be remoulded and that would take many generations. The enlightened revolutionary party must carefully guide them. Meanwhile Marxists should hold a decidedly "equivocal" attitude when it came to democracy. How did Engels respond? Voden recounts that Engels feared that, burdened with such an awful outlook, the party in Russia was in danger of either "turning into a sect" or suffering a "series of splits from which Plekhanov would not benefit" (quoted in ibid p40).

Prophetic words indeed. Engels reportedly remarked that Plekhanov seemed to him to be a Russian version of Henry Hyndman - the leader of the Social Democratic Federation in Britain. Plekhanov took the news as a complement. He was presumably unaware that Engels (and Marx) despised this top-hatted labour dictator and his contempt for basic democratic norms.

As Draper remarks, this obscure exchange in Engels's house takes on its full significance when one considers that on the initiative of Plekhanov the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party later included the dictatorship of the proletariat in its programme. Plekhanov did not have in his mind the triumph of democracy, but minority rule and an educative dictatorship. That is what he meant by the dictatorship of the proletariat. This profound misunderstanding of Marx was not confined to Russia. Virtually the whole Second International spectrum misunderstood the Marx-Engels position.

Why? Certainly not because of stupidity or because the writings of Marx and Engels were dense and esoteric so that form obscured content. Put in historical context, their meaning is not hard to fathom. Draper pointedly explains the failure of post-Marx-Engels Marxism not in the relations of disciple to teacher but in the greater influence exerted on the disciples "by their own environments, socialist and capitalist, than by Marx's ideas" (quoted in ibid p42).

Draper samples some of the Second International's leading personalities. He shows that the Marxist idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat died with Engels in 1895. There is no continuity. Let us illustrate the point. Paul Lafargue - Marx's son-in-law and one of the founders of the Workers Party in France. Lafargue entertained strong illusions in the revolutionary potential of a certain general Boulanger - a populist figure who in his day gained a mass following amongst those alienated by parliamentary corruption and procrastination.

Essentially Lafargue proposed - as did many other leftists - to give Boulanger's movement critical support in the naive belief that socialists could ride the "wave of the future" and find themselves a shortcut to power. Shades of the SWP and political islam. Lafargue aped Boulanger's anti-parliamentarianism. From the back of his mind he also doubtless recalled that Marx had on some occasion or another written in favour of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Hence he blunderingly writes of the proletariat taking "possession of the state" and going on to "rule society dictatorially until the bourgeoisie has disappeared as a class" (quoted in ibid p43). Lafargue is publicly telling the followers of Boulanger that the Marxists too would sweep away parliament and institute special dictatorial measures that would crush bourgeois resistance and really get things done. Trains would run on time. While Boulanger's star remained high in the firmament, Lafargue continued to peddle such dangerous nonsense. This despite the long to-and-fro correspondence with Engels who time and again urged him to reconsider.

Lafargue knew exactly what Engels was saying. He could not fail to understand. But the pressures of French political reality and his appetite for quick popularity proved far stronger. In that sense Lafargue both prefigures the future and reflects the elitist Blanquist past of revolutionary thought in France. Edward Bernstein - Engels's secretary and, along with Karl Kautsky, executor of the Marx-Engels literary archive.

In 1898 Bernstein announced his revisionist turn in a letter to the Stuttgart congress of the German Social Democratic Party. Elaborating upon his theme a short while after, Bernstein proposed to drop the "dead weight" of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat'. Inevitably from then on the term became embroiled in the revisionist-orthodox dispute which dominated the proceedings of the Second International till its ignominious collapse into social chauvinism in August 1914. Though Bernstein worked in London under Engels's close supervision for a number of years, his attack on the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' shows that he has only the vaguest grasp of its meaning. First he says it is incompatible with the SDP working in the parliamentary arena. He then links the "antiquated" phrase to a lower civilisation: its use can only be looked upon "as a reversion, as political atavism" (E Bernstein Evolutionary socialism New York 1961, pp46-47).

Bernstein feels no need to directly refer to Marx or Engels. He invents his own definition of the dictatorship of the proletariat in order to deny the need for any form of class rule. His offhand treatment of the issue comes from the right and is designed to smooth the path for conciliation with official society and exclusive concentration on parliamentary deals and trade union bargaining. Wilhelm Liebknecht - one of the main founders of the German SDP. Liebknecht was eager to repudiate the charge that his party intended to introduce the dictatorship of the proletariat. The term is a wicked bourgeois invention! Using a neat trick, he claims that the SDP stood for the "destruction of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie", not the "dictatorship of the proletariat" (quoted in H Draper The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx to Lenin New York 1987, p48).

Jean Jaurès - rightwing social democratic leader in France. Jaurès basically claimed that despite his revolutionary reputation Liebknecht agreed with Bernstein - and went on in his turn to also decry the dictatorship of the proletariat. He quotes The communist manifesto to the effect that the proletariat "conquers democracy", and bizarrely then says - "that is, in fact, suspends democracy", since it "substitutes the dictatorial will of a class for the will of the majority of citizens" (quoted in ibid p50).

Evidently Jaurès is completely mystified by Marx-Engels because he chunters on about why democracy is better than dictatorship. Draper is doubtless right in assuming that Jaurès did not bother to actually read either Marx or Engels and simply lumped them together with Blanqui and his scheme for a minority coup. Karl Liebknecht - son of Wilhelm. From the left this Liebknecht polemicises with Jaurès and defends the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is "consistent with democracy" and it "presupposes a victory by the majority of the people". Yes, and yes again. However, Liebknecht then links the dictatorship of the proletariat to the "energetic" means used to stabilise this "class rule" - that is why the Communist manifesto speaks of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" (quoted in ibid p51).

Clearly he is wrong about the Communist manifesto. There is no mention of the dictatorship of the proletariat in that document. Nor when they used the term did Marx or Engels imply particular means. Karl Kautsky - the 'pope' of Marxism. Draper locates four representative pre-1917 examples of how Kautsky deployed the term 'dictatorship of the proletariat'. Kautsky disagrees with Franz Mehring, who, in leftist mode, wrote of socialism coming about only "when the faith of the masses in bourgeois parliamentarianism is entirely dead". Kautsky replies on behalf of what he calls "the representative system". He then says that the "parliamentary system" can be just as good an "instrument" of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" as it can of the "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie" (quoted in ibid p54).

There is a muddle of right and wrong here. Kautsky is plainly wrong to equate parliament with the "representative system". Parliament is merely one form of the "representative system". The Commune is another. And, according to Marx's The civil war in France, it was a superior form because it combined executive and legislative functions, paid delegates only the average of a skilled workers' wages and enshrined the right of electors to instantly recall them.

As the reader may know, Marx also stated in his Civil war in France that the working class could not simply lay hold of the "ready-made state machine" and use it for its own purposes. Kautsky was proposing to do just that. Yet, as we have already shown in the first article of this series, both Marx and Engels thought that it was quite possible in Britain and the United States for the working class to come to power using parliament and legal and peaceful means.

I too have held out the prospect of a working class parliamentary majority and a peaceful revolution. Not because of any universal law but merely as a possibility, given historically shaped conditions and traditions in Britain. Predictably this brought forth the accusation from one of the usual suspects that any such suggestion amounts to rehashing the old CPGB's reformo-nationalist programme, the British road to socialism. Communists aim to "smash" all "bourgeois democratic" states, and parliaments too, because they "cannot truly represent the masses", we are blusteringly told (Letters Weekly Worker September 26).

So did Marx contradict himself? Have I become a worshipper of the bourgeois parliament. Not at all. Firstly let us recall that the 1871 Paris Commune began in effect as a representative institution little different from the Greater London Authority. The Parisian working class laid hold of it as their first revolutionary act by returning a clear Blanquist, Proudhonist and Marxist majority ... and then they proceeded to transform the Commune into a working and thoroughly democratic body using revolutionary methods. The ready-made state machine was not left intact, but remade. The working class in Britain could conceivably do the same.

Surely that is what Marx and Engels had in mind when they wrote about the possibility of peaceful revolution. Or were they backsliding rightists? The first act of the revolution would be to secure a majority in the House of Commons. But what would the second act of the revolution be? As explained in our first article, we would proceed in the manner suggested by Comintern in December 1922.

Everything must be done to ensure that the working class exerts its extra-parliamentary power. Arm the workers and disarm the forces of counterrevolution. The bourgeoisie is bound to promote a "slave-owners' revolt". Force must be met with force. Meanwhile what happens to parliament? Do we smash it? Do the workers leave it intact? Neither would be in our interests. Instead at a stroke we abolish the second chamber, the monarchy and all other such encumbrances. What is a talking shop must be transformed into a Commune-like body which embodies substantive democracy and combines legislative and executive functions.

Of course, things might not happen that way. But it is beholden on Marxists to seriously discuss such a possibility. Kautsky, of course, did not present his argument in the framework described above. He was right to counter leftists who dogmatically refused to admit that parliament could be an opening form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. But he was wrong not to consider other possibilities. For him the Reichstag - which was still a "fig leaf" for kaiserdom - simply needed an SDP majority.

Kautsky did not use the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' in the manner employed by Marx and Engels: ie, the rule of the working class. He wanted to sound orthodox and revolutionary by bandying around the phrase. But simultaneously Kautsky had no intention of upsetting the SDP's Reichstag fraction. In 1895 Kautsky depicts the popular movements in medieval Europe as being examples of "proletarian communism". Apparently like the SDP they set themselves the aim of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" (quoted in H Draper The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx to Lenin New York 1987, p56).

Draper is of the opinion that Kautsky inserts the phrase into his study, The forerunners of modern socialism, not for reasons of historical authenticity, but in order to reinforce his revolutionary credentials. The third instance cited by Draper comes in 1899 when Kautsky took up the cudgels against Bernstein. Here he writes of the "rule of the proletariat" taking on "the forms of a class dictatorship". Without doubt he uses the term 'dictatorship' as a form of rule rather than, as Marx and Engels did, simply "rule" itself. He implies violence and terror.

Lastly Draper quotes Kautsky from 1909. Inspired by the 1905 Russian Revolution, he took on his most leftwing manifestation in the pamphlet The road to power. Kautsky can be read as saying that 'rule' and 'dictatorship' are synonymous. So did he finally understand Marx and Engels? Draper thinks it unlikely. Luxemburg Rosa Luxemburg - the outstanding Polish-jewish Marxist who also worked closely with both the RSDLP of Lenin, Plekhanov, Martov and Trotsky and the German SDP. With good reason Draper announces that Luxemburg alone "consistently and without exception" used the term 'dictatorship of the proletariat' in the same manner as Marx and Engels (ibid p59). At least that is how Draper interprets her.

Let us provide a few examples. In her pamphlet Reform or revolution Luxemburg replies to Bernstein's miserable revisionism and the hopeless plan to bring about socialism through gradually reforming capitalism. Towards the end of the pamphlet there is an instructive reference to the dictatorship of the proletariat. She cites Marx recommending that in Britain the working class should peacefully buy out the landlords. Where Bernstein uses this passage to shore up his reformist programme, Luxemburg has little trouble in showing that what Marx was referring to the period after the conquest of political power: "The possibility envisaged by Marx," she notes, "is that of the pacific exercise of the dictatorship of the proletariat and not the replacement of the dictatorship with capitalist social reforms" (R Luxemburg Reform or revolution New York 1978, p53).

In other words the rule (dictatorship) of the working class could involve both the mailed fist and the velvet glove. Not so many years later, in 1903, when commenting on Polish developments, Luxemburg says the following: "The first act of socialist transformation must ... be the conquest of political power by the working class and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is absolutely necessary for effecting transitional measures" (quoted in H Draper The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx to Lenin New York 1987, p60).

Conquest of political power and the dictatorship of the proletariat are correctly treated as being virtually synonymous. In the immediate afterglow of the 1905 Russian Revolution Luxemburg writes with insight on the relationship between democracy under capitalism and the struggle for socialism. The workers in Russia, she says, struggle against "both capitalism and absolutism". This class "only wants the forms of bourgeois democracy, but it wants them for itself, for the purposes of the proletarian class struggle. It wants the eight-hour day, the people's militia, the republic - demands that simply point to bourgeois society, not socialist. But these demands at the same time press so hard on the outermost borders of the rule of capital that they appear as transitional forms to a proletarian dictatorship" (quoted in ibid p60).

In her 1906 pamphlet The mass strike she mocks any suggestion that Germany requires a bourgeois revolution. The goal can only be "the dictatorship of the proletariat" (R Luxemburg The mass strike Colombo nd, p72). What Luxemburg means by this can be seen from her 1910 comments of Engels' Critique of the Erfurt programme. She cites his demand for a democratic republic and writes of the proletariat "struggling for its dictatorship" again in terms synonymous with the conquest of political power (quoted in H Draper The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx to Lenin New York 1987, p61).

Lastly Draper refers to Luxemburg's agreement in 1917 with Trotsky's call for the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia "supported by the peasants". Draper contrasts this with Lenin's Bolshevik slogan: the 'revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry'; and by extension the Menshevik perspective of a bourgeois revolution supported by the working class. We have dealt with this whole tangled dispute elsewhere and we shall touch upon it again later in this series (eg, J Conrad Towards a Socialist Alliance party London October 2001, chapter 9).

Suffice to say, what is important for Draper is that Luxemburg writes of "a purely socialist government" as being the "actual and formal dictatorship of the proletariat" (quoted in H Draper The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' from Marx to Lenin New York 1987, p62). In short Luxemburg understands 'dictatorship' to mean 'rule'. Others on the left thought about dictatorship in terms of crushing bourgeois counterrevolutionary opposition. She was hardly unaware of this necessity and freely discussed the problem on many occasions. However, as Draper stresses, "she did not" do so "under the rubric of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat'" (ibid p63).

Luxemburg apart, misunderstanding the term 'dictatorship of the proletariat' was the rule. Draper rightly declines to put this down to intellectual failure. People misunderstood because they wanted to misunderstand. They either held to earlier, elitist conceptions, or they were signalling their conciliation with bourgeois society and its cribbed and cramped parliamentary institutions. Hence they attacked or ignored Marx's term in "accordance to their own leanings" (ibid p44). Meantime, in the late 19th century and into the 20th century, the term 'dictatorship' gradually metamorphosed.

Dictatorship came to mean tyranny and a deniel of democracy. Every time the Marx-Engels position was quoted, its original meaning escaped more and more readers. Add to this the following. Blanquism, which first caused Marx to take up the term, has disappeared. As a result the left in the workers' movement implicitly or explicitly fielded what they claimed to be the Marx-Engels position in terms of the exceptional methods needed to overcome bourgeois reaction after the revolution. Others on the right rejected the dictatorship of the proletariat because they believed that terror, minority rule and abolishing rights had no place in the programme of a respectable socialism.

Either way, the actual Marx-Engels position disappears beneath the accumulated debris of two self-interestedly wrong interpretations. Draper has no time for those who either credit or blame Lenin and Leninism for resurrecting the Marx-Engels position on dictatorship. But we must leave our discussion of the Russian movement and the politics of Lenin and Trotsky to the next article.