Dictatorship of the proletariat

In Marxist sociopolitical thought, the dictatorship of the proletariat refers to a state in which the proletariat, or the working class, has control of political power.[1][2] The term, coined by Joseph Weydemeyer, was adopted by the founders of Marxism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, in the 19th century. In Marxist theory, the dictatorship of the proletariat is the intermediate system between capitalism and communism, when the government is in the process of changing the ownership of the means of production from private to collective ownership.[3]

Both Marx and Engels argued that the short-lived Paris Commune, which ran the French capital for over two months before being repressed, was an example of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

According to Marxist theory, the existence of any government implies the dictatorship of one social class over another. The dictatorship of the bourgeoisie is thus used as an antonym of the dictatorship of the proletariat.[4]

Marxism–Leninism follows the ideas of Marxism and Leninism, seeking to establish a vanguard party, to lead proletarian uprising, assume state power on behalf of the proletariat, and create a single party socialist state. The socialist state, representing a dictatorship of the proletariat is governed through the process of democratic centralism, which Vladimir Lenin described as "diversity in discussion, unity in action." It remains the official ideology of the ruling parties of China, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam, and was the official ideology of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the other ruling parties making up the Eastern Bloc.

Libertarian Marxists, especially Luxemburgists, criticize Marxism–Leninism for its differences from Orthodox Marxism, and they oppose the Leninist principle of democratic centralism and the Leninist strategy of vanguardism. They also oppose the use of a one-party state which they view as undemocratic.

Rosa Luxemburg, a Marxist theorist, emphasized the role of the dictatorship of the proletariat as the rule of the whole class, representing the majority, and not a single party, characterizing the dictatorship of the proletariat as a concept meant to expand democracy rather than reduce it, as opposed to minority rule in the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, the only other class state power can reside in according to Marxist theory.[5]

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Theoretical approaches

Karl Marx

Karl Marx did not write much about the nature of the dictatorship of the proletariat, with his published works instead largely focusing on analysing and criticising capitalist society. In 1848 he and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto that "their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions".[6] In the same year, commenting on revolution in Vienna he again highlighted the role of the violence: "there is only one way in which the murderous death agonies of the old society and the bloody birth throes of the new society can be shortened, simplified and concentrated, and that way is revolutionary terror".[7]

On 1 January 1852, the communist journalist Joseph Weydemeyer published an article entitled "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" in the German language newspaper Turn-Zeitung, where he wrote that "it is quite plain that there cannot be here any question of gradual, peaceful transitions", and recalled the examples of Oliver Cromwell (England) and Committee of Public Safety (France) as examples of "dictatorship" and "terrorism" (respectively) required to overthrow the bourgeoisie.[8] In that year, Karl Marx wrote to him, saying:

Long before me, bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this struggle between the classes, as had bourgeois economists their economic anatomy. My own contribution was (1) to show that the existence of classes is merely bound up with certain historical phases in the development of production; (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; [and] (3) that this dictatorship, itself, constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society
Karl Marx, 1852[9]

Marx expanded upon his ideas about the dictatorship of the proletariat in his short 1875 work, Critique of the Gotha Program, a scathing criticism and attack on the principles laid out in the programme of the German Workers' Party (predecessor to the SPD). The programme presented a moderate, evolutionary way to socialism, as opposed to revolutionary, violent approach of the "orthodox" Marxists. As a result the latter accused the Gotha program as being "revisionist" and ineffective.[10]

Marx stated that in a proletarian-run society, the state should control the "proceeds of labour" (i.e. all the food and products produced), and take from them that which was "an economic necessity", namely enough to replace "the means of production used up", an "additional portion for expansion of production" and "insurance funds" to be used in emergencies such as natural disasters. Furthermore, he believed that the state should then take enough to cover administrative costs, funds for the running of public services, and funds for those who were physically incapable of working. Once enough to cover all of these things had been taken out of the "proceeds of labour", Marx believed that what was left should then be shared out amongst the workers, with each individual getting goods to the equivalent value of how much labour they had invested.[11] In this meritocratic manner, those workers who put in more labour and worked harder would get more of the proceeds of the collective labour than someone who had not worked as hard.

In the Critique, he noted however that "defects are inevitable" and there would be many difficulties in initially running such a workers' state "as it emerges from capitalistic society" because it would be "economically, morally and intellectually... still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges", thereby still containing capitalist elements.[11]

In other works, Marx stated that he considered the Paris Commune (a revolutionary socialism supporting government that ran the city of Paris from March to May 1871) as an example of the proletarian dictatorship. Describing the short-lived regime, he remarked that:

The Commune was formed of the municipal councilors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible, and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally workers, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive, and legislative at the same time.[12]

This form of popular government, featuring revocable election of councilors and maximal public participation in governance, resembles contemporary direct democracy.

Friedrich Engels

Force and violence played an important role in Friedrich Engels's vision of the revolution and rule of proletariat. In 1877, arguing with Eugen Dühring Engels ridiculed his reservations against use of force:

That force, however, plays yet another role in history, a revolutionary role; that, in the words of Marx, it is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one, that it is the instrument with the aid of which social movement forces its way through and shatters the dead, fossilised political forms
Friedrich Engels, Anti-Duhring, 1877[13]

In the 1891 postscript to The Civil War in France (1872) pamphlet, Friedrich Engels said: "Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat"; to avoid bourgeois political corruption:

the Commune made use of two infallible expedients. In this first place, it filled all posts—administrative, judicial, and educational—by election on the basis of universal suffrage of all concerned, with the right of the same electors to recall their delegate at any time. And, in the second place, all officials, high or low, were paid only the wages received by other workers. The highest salary paid by the Commune to anyone was 6,000 francs. In this way an effective barrier to place-hunting and careerism was set up, even apart from the binding mandates to delegates [and] to representative bodies, which were also added in profusion.

In the same year he criticised "anti-authoritarian socialists", again referring to the methods of the Paris Commune:

A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists. Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois?
Friedrich Engels, On Authority, 1872[14]

Marx's attention to the Paris Commune placed the commune in the centre of later Marxist forms.

This statement was written in "Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League", which is credited to Marx & Engels:

[The workers] must work to ensure that the immediate revolutionary excitement is not suddenly suppressed after the victory. On the contrary, it must be sustained as long as possible. Far from opposing the so-called excesses – instances of popular vengeance against hated individuals or against public buildings with which hateful memories are associated – the workers’ party must not only tolerate these actions but must even give them direction.
Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, Address of the Central Committee..., 1850[15]


In the 20th century, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin developed Leninism—the adaptation of Marxism to the backward socio-economic and political conditions of Imperial Russia (1721–1917). This body of theory later became the official ideology of some Communist states.

The State and Revolution (1917) explicitly discusses the practical implementation of "dictatorship of the proletariat" through means of violent revolution. Lenin denies any reformist interpretations of Marxism, such as the one of Kautsky's. Lenin especially focuses on Engels' phrase of the state "withering away", denying that it could apply to "bourgeois state" and highlighting that Engels work is mostly "panegyric on violent revolution". Based on these arguments, he denounces reformists as "opportunistic", reactionary and points out the red terror as the only[16] method of introducing dictatorship of the proletariat compliant with Marx and Engels work.[17]

In Imperial Russia, the Paris Commune model form of government was realised in the soviets (councils of workers and soldiers) established in the Russian Revolution of 1905, whose revolutionary task was deposing the capitalist (monarchical) state to establish socialism—the dictatorship of the proletariat—the stage preceding communism.

In Russia the Bolshevik Party (described by Lenin as the "vanguard of the proletariat") elevated the soviets to power in the October Revolution of 1917. Throughout 1917, Lenin argued that the Russian Provisional Government was unrepresentative of the proletariat's interests because, in his estimation, they represented the "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie". He argued that because they continually put off democratic elections, they denied the prominence of the democratically constituted soviets, and all the promises made by liberal-bourgeois parties prior to the February revolution remained unfulfilled, the soviets would need to take power for themselves.

Proletarian government

Lenin argued that in an underdeveloped country such as Russia, the capitalist class would remain a threat even after a successful socialist revolution.[18] As a result, he advocated the repression of those elements of the capitalist class that took up arms against the new soviet government, writing that as long as classes existed, a state would need to exist to exercise the democratic rule of one class (in his view, the working class) over the other (the capitalist class).[18]

The use of violence, terror and rule of single communist party was criticised by Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg and Mikhail Bakunin. In response Lenin accused Kautsky of being a "renegade" and "liberal"[19] and these socialist movements that did not support the Bolshevik party line were condemned by the Communist International and called social fascism.

Soviet democracy granted voting rights to the majority of the populace who elected the local soviets, who elected the regional soviets, and so on until electing the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union. Capitalists were disenfranchised in the Russian soviet model. However, according to Lenin, in a developed country it would be possible to dispense with the disenfranchisement of capitalists within the democratic proletarian dictatorship; as the proletariat would be guaranteed of an overwhelming majority. [Notes on Plenkhanov's Second Draft Programme. Lenin Collected Works. Vol. 6, p. 51]

The Bolsheviks in 1917–1924 did not claim to have achieved a communist society; in contrast the preamble to the 1977 Constitution (Fundamental Law) of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (the "Brezhnev Constitution"), stated that the 1917 Revolution established the dictatorship of the proletariat as "a society of true democracy", and that "the supreme goal of the Soviet state is the building of a classless, communist society in which there will be public, communist self-government."

....Dictatorship does not necessarily mean the abolition of democracy for the class that exercises the dictatorship over other classes; but it does mean the abolition of democracy (or very material restriction, which is also a form of abolition) for the class over which, or against which, the dictatorship is exercised.
Vladimir Lenin[20][21]

Banning of opposition parties and factions

During the Russian Civil War (1918–22), all the major opposition parties either took up arms against the new Soviet Government, took part in sabotage, collaboration with the deposed Tsarists, or made assassination attempts against Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders. When opposition parties such as the Cadets and Mensheviks were democratically elected to the Soviets in some areas, they proceeded to use their mandate to welcome in Tsarist and foreign capitalist military forces. In one incident in Baku, the British military, once invited in, proceeded to execute members of the Bolshevik party (who had peacefully stood down from the Soviet when they failed to win the elections). As a result, the Bolsheviks banned each opposition party when it turned against the Soviet government. In some cases, bans were lifted. This banning of parties did not have the same repressive character as later bans under Stalin would.[22]

Internally, Lenin's critics argued that such political suppression always was his plan; supporters argued that the reactionary civil war of the foreign-sponsored White Movement required it—given Fanya Kaplan's unsuccessful assassination of Lenin on 30 August 1918, and the successful assassination of Moisei Uritsky, the same day.

After 1919, the Soviets had ceased to function as organs of democratic rule, as the famine induced by forced grain requisitions led to the Soviets emptying out of ordinary people. Half the population of Moscow and a third of Petrograd had, by this stage, fled to the countryside to find food. Political life ground to a halt.[22]

The Bolsheviks became concerned that under these conditions—the absence of mass participation in political life, and the banning of opposition parties—counter-revolutionary forces would express themselves within the Bolshevik party itself (some evidence existed for this in the mass of ex-opposition party members who signed up for Bolshevik membership immediately after the end of the Civil War).

Despite the principle of democratic centralism in the Bolshevik Party, internal factions were banned. This was considered an extreme measure, and did not fall within Marxist doctrine. The ban remained until the USSR's dissolution in 1991.[23] In 1921, vigorous internal debate and freedom of opinion were still present within Russia; the beginnings of censorship and mass political repression had not yet emerged. For example, the Workers Opposition faction continued to operate despite being nominally dissolved. The debates of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union continued to be published until 1923.

Stalinism and "dictatorship"

Elements of the later censorship and attacks on political expression would appear during Lenin's illness, and after his death, when members of the future Stalinist clique clamped down on party democracy among the Georgian Bolsheviks and began to censor material. Pravda ceased publishing the opinions of political oppositions after 1924, and at the same time, the ruling clique (Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Stalin) admitted large numbers of new members into the party in order to shout down the voices of oppositionists at party meetings, severely curtailing internal debate. Their policies were partly directed by the interests of the new bureaucracy that had accumulated a great deal of social weight in the absence of an active participation in politics by the majority of people. By 1927 many supporters of the Left Opposition began to face political repression, and Leon Trotsky was exiled.

Some modern critics of the concept of the "dictatorship of the proletariat"—including various anti-communists, libertarian Marxists, anarcho-communists, and anti-Stalinist communists and socialists—argue that the Stalinist USSR and other Stalinist countries used the "dictatorship of the proletariat" to justify the monopolisation of political power by a new ruling layer of bureaucrats, derived partly from the old Tsarist bureaucracy and partly created by the impoverished condition of Russia.

However, the rising Stalinist clique rested on other grounds for political legitimacy, rather than a confusion between the modern and Marxist use of the term "dictatorship". Rather, they took the line that since they were the vanguard of the proletariat, their right to rule could not be legitimately questioned. Hence, opposition parties could not be permitted to exist. From 1936 onward, Stalinist-inspired state constitutions enshrined this concept by giving the various 'Communist Parties' a "leading role" in society—a provision that was interpreted to either ban other parties altogether or force them to accept the Stalinists guaranteed right to rule as a condition of being allowed to exist.

This justification was adopted by subsequent 'communist' parties built upon the Stalinist model, such as the CCP in China, the CP in North Korea, Vietnam, and the CP (initially the 26th of July Movement) in Cuba.


At the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) Nikita Khrushchev declared an end to the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' and the establishment of the All People's Government.[24]

See also


  1. "On Authority". Retrieved 13 September 2014.
  2. Karl Marx; Frederick Engels. "Manifesto of the Communist Party". Retrieved 13 September 2014.
  3. "Critique of the Gotha Programme—IV". Critique of the Gotha Programme. Retrieved 2009-10-18.
  4. Lenin, Vladimir (1918). "Class society and the state". The State and Revolution. Lenin Internet Archive (marxists.org). External link in |chapter= (help)
  5. Luxemburg, Rosa (1918). "Democracy and Dictatorship". The Russian Revolution. New York: Workers Age Publishers. External link in |chapter= (help)
  6. Communist Manifesto, 1848, Chapter IV
  7. Karl Marx (1848). "The Victory of the Counter-Revolution in Vienna". Neue Rheinische Zeitung. Retrieved 2015-04-25.
  8. Joseph Weydemeyer (1962). "The dictatorship of the proletariat". Labor History. 3 (2): 214–217. doi:10.1080/00236566208583900. Retrieved October 15, 2011.
  9. See the letter from Marx to Joseph Weydemeyer dated March 5, 1852 in Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, Collected Works Vol. 39 (International Publishers: New York, 1983) pp. 62–65.
  10. "The Gotha and Erfurt Programs". 1875. Retrieved 13 September 2014.
  11. 1 2 Marx 1875. Chapter One.
  12. Marx, Karl (1986). "The Civil War in France". Marx & Engels Collected Works. 22. New York: International Publishers. p. 331.
  13. Engels, Friedrich (1877). "Theory of Force (Conclusion)". Retrieved 2013-11-06.
  14. Engels, Friedrich (1872). "On Authority". Retrieved 2013-11-06.
  15. Marx, Karl; Engels, Friedrich (1850). "Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League". Retrieved 2013-11-06.
  16. The supersession of the bourgeois state by the proletarian state is impossible without a violent revolution (The State and Revolution, Chapter 1)
  17. The theory of Marx and Engels of the inevitability of a violent revolution refers to the bourgeois state. The latter cannot be superseded by the proletarian state (the dictatorship of the proletariat) through the process of 'withering away", but, as a general rule, only through a violent revolution. The panegyric Engels sang in its honor, and which fully corresponds to Marx's repeated statements. (The State and Revolution, Chapter 1)
  18. 1 2 "www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/prrk/equality.htm".
  19. Vladimir Lenin (1918). "The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky". Retrieved 13 September 2014.
  20. V. I. Lenin, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. Collected Works, Vol. 28, p. 235.
  21. Marx Engels Lenin on Scientific Socialism. Moscow: Novosti Press Ajency Publishing House. 1974.
  22. 1 2 Marcel Leibman (1980) Leninism under Lenin
  23. "A Country Study: Soviet Union (Former). Chapter 7—The Communist Party. Democratic Centralism". The Library of Congress. Country Studies. Retrieved October 24, 2005.
  24. Law, David A. (1975). Russian Civilization. Ardent Media. p. 161. ISBN 978-0-8422-0529-0.

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