two concepts of dictatorship of the proletariat

Bruce Buchan bruceb at
Sun Feb 18 21:23:34 MST 1996

Dear Mike,

I came across your message on the Marxism list recently, and I've been
thinking about my reply.  I share your interest in the concept of the
'dictatorship of the proletariat', but as an anarchist, I suspect that I am
less willing to see the merits of the idea.  I think there is still much to
be learned from the celebrated debate between Marx and Bakunin on the
dictatroship of the proletariat.  But you raise some good points, and I'd
like to respond to some of them in detail.

First, on the question of what Marx really meant by 'dictatorship': you
indicate that there is a real confusion here, and I think Marxists would be
better off just admitting that, as on the question of the state in general,
Marx' thought is at times confused, confusing, or simply incomplete (but hey
- we're all human!).  The academic literature points to two interpretations
of Marx' 'dictatorship' idea which you also identify, each of which has some
justification in Marx' writings, but seem mutually exclusive.  I shall call
these two ideas the 'classical' and 'majority' theories of dictatorship

The classical theory of dictatorship derives its nature from the ancient
Roman institution of dictatorship, which would have been familiar to Marx
and all 19th century intellectuals (an education in the classics and ancient
history was regarded essential up until fairly recently).  According to this
model, the dictator was one person who took the reigns of office into his
(there were no female dictators in ancinet Rome) hands for a limited period
of time, specifically in order to meet some particular military crisis.  The
legitimacy of the office was assured by the fact that the crisis was so near
at hand that there was no alternative but to suspend normal procedures.  I'm
not quite sure on this, but I think that the dictator had also to be
appointed by the Senate; in any case, a prospective dictator could not
simply sieze office in some coup - to the Romans that would be tyranny.
Clearly then, this model of dictatorship is based on the existence of a
crisis - the crisis necessitates the office, but the office lasts only so
long as the crisis itself.

The second, or majority model of dictatorship is a very different notion
indeed.  According to this theory, it is not one person, but a class, and a
majority class at that, which governs, and in contrast to the previous
model, there is no mention of the need assume extraordinary (but temporary)
powers to meet a particular crisis.  Marx' writings on this model of
dictatorship are woefully incoherent, but clearly he is of the opinion that
the dictatorship of a majority class will be democratic, and will usher in a
new era of freedom and equality (communism).  Exactly how this was to be
achived is unclear - on the one hand he referred to the fact that since the
bourgeoisie is a minority class, only proletarian rule can be truly
democratic, on the other hand, he referred to forms of representative
democratic institutions which implies that the proletariat does not in fact
rule as a class (e.g. through participatory democracy) but only through
representatives.  Marx resolved this problem by adhering to the spurious
notion that the interests of proletarians are more or less identical, and so
it matters not which proletarians govern, their class interests will be
served.  I suspect that this view is either naieve or disingenuous.

Your concluding xomments suggest that you expect that if a revolution is to
take place, it will only occur in one country.  There is a very grave
problem here for all revolutionaries - Marxists and non-Marxists alike - in
that Marx, Bakunin, Trotsky, and most of the other perceptive revolutionary
theorists argued that socialist revolution had to be international.  A
single, isolated revolution could not hope to succeed - whether they
establish a dictatorship or not.  The problem is not one of military
survival - dictatroships can usually manage to do this farly well - but of
revolutionary fulfilment.  In other words, for a socialist revolution to
succeed, the purpose and aims of the revolution, the needs and expectations
of the revolutionaries have to be met.  If the only goal is to survive
militarily, then it can hardly be described as a socialist revolution, and
this has been the problem in so-called socialist countries to date.  By
establishing a worker's state in the current international system, the aims
and purposes of the revolution are subordinated to the need to withstand
military intervention and economic competition - the end result is neither
of the models of dictatorship Marx talked about, but something more akin to
personal tyranny (Roumania), a one-party state (USSR), or a form of
enlightened despotism (Cuba).

I don't know how the problem of international revolution is to be resolved,
but I think the honest path for revolutionaries requires us to admit that
the dictatorship idea is a dangerous fallacy.  I am not naieve enough to
believe that power does not tend to perpetuate itself; while power does not
necessarily corrupt, neither does it 'wither away'.  Of course I've had
Marxists say to me that after the revolution, individuals will not be
interested in personal rule, self-aggrandisement, etc., and therefore
tyranny will be a thing of the past.  But this is not argument but faith,
and like all expressions of faith, "After the revolution..." arguments boil
down to wishful thinking.  I think we have to be prepared to admit that
revolutionary social change is going to be far more difficult to theorise
and to achive than the simplistic 19th century formulas suggest.  Just as
societies develop and change, so must our thinking, and much of our thinking
on the issue of social change remains stunted by an inexplicable adherence
to the moribund and outdated formulas of 19th century theorists.  Though
these theorists still have much to offer us, I am firmly convinced that the
'dictatorship of the proletariat' is an offering we should be prepared to
'throw into the dustbin of history'.

Best Wishes,


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