two concepts of dictatorship of the proletariat

Justin Schwartz jschwart at
Sun Feb 18 21:32:21 MST 1996

I am a MArxist and not an anarchist, but I agree with Bruce that the
language of the dictatorship of the proletariat is now too ambiguius and
compromised ti be useful. If we want to do scholarship, that's a worthy
goal. But in real world politics, "dictatorship" of any sort won't sell to
democratically minded workers or publics. We should salvage the sense of
whatever we think is good in Marx's or Lenin's or whoever's idea of the
DoP, work out thge kinks, and express the meaning we want in language that
is clear and attractive. I think "working class rule" is a good slogan
myself. Obviously that doesn't go to content. --Justin

On Mon, 19 Feb 1996, Bruce Buchan wrote:

> 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
> respectively.
> 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,
> Bruce.
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