Dictatorship of the Proletariat — Dimitrios Kivotidis


The Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, March 1917. (Wikimedia Commons.)

[This is the first in a series of posts on key concepts of Marxist legal theory that we at Legal Form are organizing in collaboration with our comrades at Critical Legal Thinking. All posts in this series, including the present one, will appear concurrently on Legal Form and Critical Legal Thinking.]

The Marxist concept of dictatorship has a different meaning from one-man rule or state of siege. It is a central concept of the political theory of Marxism, referring not just to the form of government but to the question of which class is politically dominant. This is why its analysis cannot be carried out in the abstract, but always in concrete relation to the rule of a specific class. When we speak of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie or the dictatorship of the proletariat, we have to take into account the specific characteristics that distinguish the rule of one class from the rule of the other. For instance, to speak of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie is to acknowledge that there exists a material threshold below which, even if the government is taken over by representatives of the workers, state power in fact remains in the hands of the bourgeoisie, which will either make use of a “socialist” government for its own ends (as in the case of the Social Democratic Party in interwar Germany and Syriza in Greece) or overthrow it and crush the mass movement (as in the case of Allende in Chile).

This post focuses on the dictatorship of the proletariat. The classical texts of Marxism agree that anti-capitalist revolution is an essential element of the dictatorship of the proletariat. [1] For both Marx and Lenin, the form of the proletarian state presupposes the effective suppression of the standing bourgeois army and its replacement by the armed people. This was the first decree of the Paris Commune, the first attempt to establish a workers’ state in 1871. According to Marx, this decree was fact transformed into an institution. [2] The necessity of armed revolution–the necessity of which Marx and Engels regarded as being illustrated by the experience of the Paris Commune–is expressed in the statement that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”. [3]

The Paris Commune was a model for the dictatorship of the proletariat because it allowed for another issue to come to the fore: the dialectic between (democratic) form and (revolutionary) content. In political form, the Paris Commune cannot be characterized as a dictatorial regime. Its guiding principle was radical democracy: the extension of representation from parliament to the bureaucracy, the judiciary, and the army; universalisation of suffrage; strict accountability of delegates to their electors and revocability at short notice; abolition of the division of powers between legislature and executive in favour of legislative dominance; abolition of internal hierarchies within the state officialdom; replacement of the army by the “people armed”. [4] These were the characteristics of the political form of the Commune. 

The undeniably democratic nature of the political form of the Paris Commune was precisely one of the principal foci of Marx’s account of the relationship between the democratic forms of government and the practical needs of the revolution. The form of the Paris Commune was democratic and its content was the rule of labour over capital. But the main question here concerns the compatibility of form and content. In his letter to Kugelmann, Marx suggests that if the “comrades of Paris” are defeated–and they were–“only their ‘good nature’ will be to blame”, because “they should have marched at once on Versailles”. [5] Instead, the “Central Committee surrendered its power too soon, to make way for the Commune” and its democratic election. [6] This suggests that Marx clearly identified a tension between form and content, democracy and proletarian rule. This tension was identified by Engels, too. In the same spirit as Marx’s letter to Kugelmann, Engels suggested that the Paris Commune could be reproached for not having used “the terror which its arms inspire” freely enough. [7] 

Fast forward to another critical episode in the international working-class movement: in 1903 the Second Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Party, best known for the Bolshevik–Menshevik split, took place. In his address, Georgi Plekhanov suggested that the basic principle of democracy, salus populi suprema lex (the welfare of the people is the highest law), was translated under revolutionary conditions into salus revolutionis suprema lex (the success of the revolution is the highest law). [8] This meant that “if, for the sake of the revolution’s success, we need temporarily to restrict the functioning of a particular democratic principle, then it would be criminal to refrain from imposing that restriction”. [9] Plekhanov continued by suggesting that “hypothetically, a case is conceivable where we Social-Democrats would oppose universal suffrage”. [10] The above statement of Plekhanov seems to follow Marx’s account the dialectical unity of form and content of the Paris Commune. Establishing a more substantive democratic form than bourgeois democracy while suppressing the counter-revolution was a pressing problem of the rising, militant working-class movement. Marx and Engels’ positions on this issue were carried forward and developed by theorists such as Plekhanov and Lenin in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

In his 1906 pamphlet, “The Victory of the Cadets and the Tasks of the Workers’ Party” [11], Lenin defined dictatorship as “unlimited power based on force, and not on law”. [12] It is crucial–and quite challenging–to grasp that Lenin’s definition of dictatorship refers not so much to the form of government, but rather to the source of authority of the workers’ state. The source of authority of proletarian rule cannot be a law of the bourgeois state. This, for Lenin, means that construction of the socialist order cannot result from legislative reforms enacted through a bourgeois parliament. The workers’ state establishes its own rules, its own laws, its own standards, which are not based on bourgeois laws, political institutions, or principles of legitimation. 

Lenin also discussed the tension between the democratic form and the success of the revolution. He argued that the issue of disenfranchising the bourgeoisie should not be regarded “from an absolute point of view, because it is theoretically quite conceivable that the dictatorship of the proletariat may suppress the bourgeoisie at every step without disenfranchising them”. [13] The Soviet political form would not be the sole model for all countries, because the transition from capitalism to communism is “bound to yield a tremendous abundance and variety of political forms”. [14] However, “abundance and variety of political forms” also means that a situation of crisis might necessitate the adoption of a dictatorial form. After all, state power entails violence and repression for the reproduction of a regime of power, property, and productive relations. 

Nevertheless, this is far from negating the democratic essence of the dictatorship of the proletariat. What the classic texts seem to agree upon was that the democratic form of the dictatorship of the proletariat went hand in hand with the socio-economic content of proletarian rule. They emphasized the material conditions necessary for this democratic form to develop, as well as the eventual abolition of juridico-political forms. According to Lenin, the dictatorship of the proletariat is a “persistent struggle–bloody and bloodless, violent and peaceful, military and economic, educational and administrative–against the forces and traditions of the old society”. [15] However, Lenin understood that the force of habit is a most formidable force, one that cannot change as long as the bourgeois state and the mechanisms that reproduce bourgeois ideology persist. 

Dictatorship of the proletariat refers to a long historical process during which conditions develop for the democratic participation of workers in the management of social and political affairs, and subsequently for the abolition of the state and its laws. The “simple and self-evident democratic measures”, such as the institution of elections for all official positions, their recall at any time, and the reduction of their salaries to the level of an ordinary “workman’s wages” [16], would “acquire their full meaning and significance only in connection with the ‘expropriation of the expropriators’ either being accomplished or in preparation, i.e. with the transformation of capitalist private ownership of the means of production into social ownership”. [17] Therefore, according to Lenin, the essence of class dictatorship is determined not so much by issues of legality or illegality, violence or peacefulness, but rather by the issue of who controls the means of production.

It is worth resting on Lenin’s point on the preconditions of this fuller democratic form. The central precondition is the expropriation of the expropriators–the abolition of private ownership of the means of production. Another prerequisite for a full democracy, or rather for the association of free producers that Marx defined as communist society, is the all-round development of physical and mental abilities. [18] As Evald Ilyenkov put it, “the question of building a communist society amounts to the converting of each individual from a one sided professional–from a slave of the division of labour system–into an all around personality, a real master (proprietor) of the material and spiritual culture created by all mankind”. [19] This can only be the result of a long and arduous process of struggle and social restructuring that affects all social relations, especially living and working conditions.

The concept of dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be grasped unless we understand it as a historical period of transition and development of the conditions for the elimination of classes, as well as the abolition of class rule and the state. This process, which in Marxist discourse is known as the withering away of the state and law [20], is crucial for understanding what dictatorship of the proletariat means. The rule of the proletariat, exercised through the proletarian state, is only reproduced so as to lead to the elimination of class rule altogether. The dictatorship of the proletariat lasts as long as the state withers away. This process of political transformation–more accurately, the process of abolition of the “political”–is linked to the development of productive forces and relations.

The withering away of state and law involves such a high development of communist production that the distribution of products will not call for a system of norms to regulate how many products are to be received by each; each will take freely “according to their needs”. [21] Additionally, individuals will have become “so accustomed to observing the fundamental rules of social intercourse, when their labour is so productive that they will voluntarily work ‘according to their ability'”. [22] Communist society, based on the productive and distributive principle “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”, will be the result of a process of struggle for eliminating the contradictions of capitalist society. These contradictions include not just class divisions, or the contradiction between the private ownership of the means of production and the socialized labour process, but also the contradictions between mental and physical labour, town and country, etc. 

Marx defines as revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat the period of political transition between capitalist and communist society. [23] This period of transition corresponds to the first stage of communist society, “not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society”–and still stamped with the “birthmarks” of the capitalist society. [24] These birthmarks signify the contradictions that this first phase of communist society inherits from capitalism, including the contradiction between town and country, manual and intellectual labour, commodity and socialist production. 

Such birthmarks necessitate the existence of law and the state during this first phase of immature communism. Law does not wither away in the dictatorship of the proletariat. Rather, the defects of the first phase of communist society are reflected in the proletarian state and its legal form. Marx argued that “right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby”. [25] Lenin reinforced this point by suggesting that “this first phase of communism cannot yet provide justice and equality, as differences, and unjust differences, in wealth still persist”. [26] The reason for these unjust differences is the persistence of the distributive principle “to each according to his labour”. With regard to the distribution for individual consumption, the principle that applies to socialism—that is, immature or incipient communism—is that “a given amount of labour in one form is exchanged for an equal amount of labour in another form”. [27]

So long as social contradictions remain, the “narrow horizon of bourgeois right” cannot be completely crossed. [28] The emancipatory process does not stop with the crushing of the bourgeois state and the overtaking of state power by the working class and its allies. Therefore, law still operates in a social formation where class contradictions may have been eliminated, but some contradictions remain (such as the ones between manual and intellectual labour, skilled and unskilled labour, town and country) and some of them may be antagonistic in nature (such as the one between commodity and socialist production).

We reach the conclusion that engaging with issues such as the relationship between law and revolution, or the role of law in the process of socio-economic change, necessitates engaging with the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat. On this basis an issue that could be researched further is the effect of the abolition of the principle of the dictatorship of the proletariat from the Programme of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on the process that led to the victory of counter-revolution in the USSR. The view was established and reflected in the 1961 Programme of the CPSU that the “dictatorship of the proletariat had fulfilled its historic mission and has ceased to be indispensable in the USSR”. [29] The reason for this was the conclusion of the first phase of communism and the victory of socialism. This meant that the state, which initially “arose as a state of the dictatorship of the proletariat”, in this new stage became “a state of the entire people, an organ expressing the interests and will of the people as a whole”. [30]

The theory of the “all peoples’ state” that replaced the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was reflected in the substitution of the system of Soviet representative institutions based on indirect election through workers’ councils for a system of direct universal suffrage on the basis of geographical constituencies. The argument can be made that the downgrading of the role of production units as nuclei of political organization had a negative impact on the class composition of the higher state organs and on the application of the right of recall of delegates. In this way, Soviet constitutional law might have played a role in enhancing counter-revolutionary tendencies, even if unintentionally.

This and other aspects of the history of the concept of “dictatorship of the proletariat”, such as its abolition from the programmes of communist and workers’ parties following the gradual ideological victory of Eurocommunism [31], need to be studied further. This is all the more urgent in the aftermath of the most devastating global capitalist crisis since the 1930s, which demonstrated the precariousness of the concessions won by the working class within the confines of the capitalist state–to say nothing of the delusional faith in the capacity of bourgeois parliamentary institutions to lead the emancipatory process towards the abolition of exploitation. 

[1] Here see first and foremost Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme” [1875], in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, vol. 24 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2010); and V. I. Lenin, “The State and Revolution” [1918], in V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 25 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974). On the appearance and use of the concept of dictatorship in the works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, a comprehensive exposition may be found in Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol. 3 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1986), as well as Hal Draper, The Dictatorship of the Proletariat from Marx to Lenin (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1987).

[2] Karl Marx, “The Civil War in France” [1871], in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, vol. 22 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2010), 331.

[3] Ibid., 328.

[4] Robert Fine, Democracy and the Rule of Law (Coldwell: The Blackburn Press, 2002), 127.

[5] Karl Marx, “Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann. 12 April 1871”, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, vol. 44 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2010), 131.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Friedrich Engels, “On Authority” [1872], in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, vol. 23 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2010), 425.

[8] “Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party Second Congress: Sixteenth Session” [1903], available at https://www.marxists.org/history/international/social-democracy/rsdlp/1903/index.htm.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid. In 1903 “Social-Democrats” was the name used for the majority of the working-class parties, i.e. for both the revolutionary and reformist currents of the working-class movement. “Social-democracy” had not yet crystallized into a concept to describe the bourgeois reformist forces operating in the movement. The split between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks was followed by another split in the international working-class movement between the Social-Democratic parties, which in the context of the First World War supported their national bourgeoisies, and the communist parties, which followed the Bolshevik line of proletarian internationalism and revolution.

[11] The Cadets were constitutional democrats; their official name was the “Party of the People’s Freedom”. Composed of liberals from the propertied classes, this was the party of political reform that formed the first Provisional Government of February 1917. As the revolution became a social-economic revolution, the Cadets grew more and more conservative; see John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World (London: Penguin, 1977), 18.

[12] V. I. Lenin, “The Victory of the Cadets and the Tasks of the Workers’ Party” [1906], in V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 10 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), 216.

[13] V. I. Lenin, “Report on the Party Programme, March 19, 1919”, in V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 29 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), 184.

[14] Lenin, “The State and Revolution”,  418.

[15] V. I. Lenin, “‘Left-Wing’ Communism: An Infantile Disorder” [1920], in V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 31 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), 44.

[16] Lenin, “The State and Revolution”, 426.

[17] Ibid. (emphasis mine).

[18] See Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The German Ideology” [1846], in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, vol. 5 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2010), 439.

[19] Evald Ilyenkov, “From the Marxist-Leninist Point of View”, in Marx and the Western World, ed. Nicholas Lobkowicz (London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1967), 391–407.

[20] See Friedrich Engels, “Anti-Dühring” [1877], in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, vol. 25 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2010), 267–68; also see Lenin, “The State and Revolution”.

[21] Ibid., 87.

[22] Ibid., 86.

[23] Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme”, 95.

[24] Ibid., 85.

[25] Ibid., 87.

[26] Lenin, “The State and Revolution”, 471.

[27] Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme”, 86.

[28] There was intense debate among legal and political theorists on the question of socialist law during the first decade of the Soviet Union’s existence. Evgeny Pashukanis, perhaps the best-known Soviet legal theorist, argued in his 1924 General Theory of Law and Marxism that commodity exchange is the basis for the existence of law; see Evgeny Pashukanis, Selected Writings on Marxism and Law, ed. Piers Beirne and Robert Sharlet (London: Academic Press, 1980), 79. According to Pashukanis, the abolition of commodity exchange should therefore lead immediately to the abolition of law. No such thing as “socialist law” exists, as it is a contradiction in terms. Other theorists opposed this view, criticizing Pashukanis’ theory of the commodity form and holding that Soviet law is radically different from bourgeois law, despite the formal resemblance. For Andrey Vyshinsky, Soviet law cannot be reduced to bourgeois law. It rather corresponds to a different socio-economic content, and, as a result, it assumes a partially different form; see Rett R. Ludwikowski, “Socialist Legal Theory in the Post-Pashukanis Era”, 10 (1987) Boston College International & Comparative Law Review 323, at 325. 

[29] See Programme of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961).

[30] Ibid., 91.

[31] For an extensive analysis of the current of Eurocommunism, see Kostas Skolarikos, Eurocommunism: Theory and Strategy in Favour of Capital [in Greek] (Athens: Synchroni Epochi, 2016). Also see Geoff Eley, Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850–2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). For a criticism of this current, among others, see Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Retreat from Class (London: Verso, 1986).

Dimitrios Kivotidis is Lecturer in Law at the University of East London.