In a hallucinatory article in the Washington Post, Pulitzer-prize winning militarist Anne Applebaum warns of the rise of a new threat to American liberal democracy: the “neo-Bolsheviks.” Pointing to Trump advisors Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, she laments that “neo-Bolshevik language has so far enjoyed unprecedented success in Britain and the United States, two countries that have never known the horror of occupation or of an undemocratic revolution that ended in dictatorship.”
Applebaum is not the only one to understand the Russian Revolution, whose centenary we celebrate today, as an event marred by the legacy of dictatorship. Attempting to take their distance from this terrifying word, socialists like Joseph M. Schwartz claim that “Most socialists are committed to a political project built around fulfilling the promise of liberalism — liberty, equality, and solidarity — that capitalism precludes.”
As Applebaum writes,
In his dark, nihilistic inaugural address, much of it written by Bannon and Miller, the president announced that he was “transferring power from Washington D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People” — as if the capital city had until 2017 somehow belonged to foreign occupiers. This un-American idea of the “People” bears more than a passing resemblance to the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, the force that scientific Marxism once predicted would run the world.
But as it is used by handwringing anti-communists like Applebaum today, this troublesome phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat” is a messy lump of several poorly defined concepts. To understand the word “dictatorship” as we do now – as the opposite of democracy, an authoritarian regime in which an individual or minority group exerts violent and absolute power – is an anachronistic projection which totally distorts Marx’s usage.
Why would Marx, an advocate for many of the things we now describe as “civil liberties,” use a phrase like “dictatorship of the proletariat”? The answer is inextricable from the developments in the language and political thought of the 19th century, of which Marx was both a participant and an avid observer. In the course of the various revolutions against monarchy, democracy had emerged from its ancient Greek basis to become a key point of discussion in modern European political thought. However, its legitimacy was by no means taken for granted, as it is today.
After the French and American revolutions, a common fear among enlightened liberals, like Alexis de Tocqueville or Immanuel Kant, was that democracy would result in a tyranny or despotism of the masses. These terms had a connotation of illegitimate rule, much closer to what we mean by “dictatorship” today. Even those who exalted a “will of the people” did not entirely succeed in securing a monopoly on legitimacy for democracy. There is, as we all know, no immediate, unified will of the people, but a diversity of opinions. People disagree in various ways, and even a decision taken by a majority will force a minority to accept that the expression of the will of the people requires going against its own opinion.
As parliaments, congresses, and assemblies were constructed to deliberate and determine the will of the people, they posed another conceptual problem: if a small minority of the population elected as members of parliament is able to adequately represent the will of the people, why not one individual who has the wisdom to determine this will? Popular consent for autocratic regimes throughout history demonstrates that the will of the people is not always to live under a democratic regime.
The term “democracy,” then, was a highly controversial one, and one which by no means could be assumed to be in contrast with tyranny, despotism, or dictatorship. “Dictatorship,” on the other hand, was a far more technical term. It referred to a function in Roman law: an elected magistrate who would, in states of emergency during which the existing order was threatened by insurrection or war, assume special powers for a limited term of six months in order to defend the republic.
But in certain exceptional cases – first Sulla, then Julius Caesar – the dictator extended beyond his mandate to alter the constitution and exceed the term limit, in the case of Caesar signalling the end of the Republic and the shift to Empire. Consequently, the term had an ambiguous relationship to the categories of tyranny and despotism. A dictator only became a tyrant if he failed to respect the legal limits of his office.
In Europe’s period of revolution, between the 17th and 19th centuries, all these categories were in flux. Existing orders were overthrown by revolutions and new constitutions were brought into being; it was a zone in which force and violence, rather than legality and legitimacy, determined the course of the political future. “Dictator” now potentially signified the agent which would produce new constitutions and guide the revolutionary order in this generalized state of emergency.
During the French Revolution, the National Convention was attacked as a dictatorship, and in the turbulent years extending to the 1848 revolution, the term came to be used to refer across the political spectrum. The bourgeois Provisional Government of 1848 was described as a dictatorship, and various tendencies on the left advocated a dictatorship of a revolutionary minority, whose leadership would make it possible to educate the public and reshape society.
After this period of upheaval, it is clear that Marx chose his words carefully, for strategic reasons. Hal Draper concludes, in his comprehensive overview of the term:
For Marx and Engels, from beginning to end of their careers and without exception, “dictatorship of the proletariat” meant nothing more and nothing less than “rule of the proletariat,” the “conquest of political power” by the working class, the establishment of a workers’ state in the immediate postrevolutionary period.
In fact, the whole emphasis of the term was its proposal of a class dictatorship, by the majority of the population whose political goal was to abolish all class distinctions, rather than the dictatorship of a revolutionary minority. The latter idea of a dictatorship by the revolutionary leadership, represented in these debates by Louis Auguste Blanqui and his followers, was anathema to Marx, and his subversion of the word “dictatorship” was intended to propose that a proletarian revolutionary regime would be one based on far more popular participation than any government that had previously existed, a vision he saw realized in the directly democratic Paris Commune of 1871. As Kristin Ross remarks, “The Commune made it very clear to Marx that not only do the masses shape history but in so doing they reshape not just actuality but theory itself.”
The most obvious perception of the dictatorship of the proletariat, calcified in the public imagination by the ulterior motives of historians from Robert Conquest to Timothy Snyder, is the use of revolutionary terror to suppress counterrevolution, a usage which indeed corresponds to the classical reference to a “state of emergency.” But in 1917, holding in mind the brutal repression of the Paris Commune, this was an understandable fixation of the Bolsheviks, who estimated that the scale of violence that could result from counterrevolution and restoration would surely be greater than the consequences of any revolutionary terror.
As a general ethical calculation, this is clearly true. The defeat of the Paris Commune meant the massacre of 30,000 people, an atrocity which would be equivalent to the murder of every single current member of the Democratic Socialists of America. A victory by the reactionary forces aligned against the Russian Revolution in 1917 could have meant an unimaginable scale of violence and suffering, which had already been forecast in World War 1. Yet as a strategic and political consideration, this calculation poses problems. The practice of revolutionary terror undermines the revolution, turning it against its popular basis and obstructing the achievement of its emancipatory goals.
But it is a mistake to try to defend against the excesses of revolutionary terror – the emergency measures taken by a revolutionary regime establishing a new order – by simply embracing the political forms of modern bourgeois democracy, as Schwartz’s reference to liberalism implies. It is this that Lenin criticized, in Karl Kautsky’s scandalized response to the Russian Revolution, as the attempt to “turn Marx into a common liberal.” Because in fact, there is another very distinct question implied by the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is the question of the very form of politics itself. It is the question of whether it is possible to exit the bourgeois conception of politics, in which democracy is equated with the framework of rights and the parliamentary apparatus.
Here the Leninist theory must be understood to be contradictory. Because Lenin, following Marx, proposes the most radical break in history with the previous existing conceptions of politics, in the formula of “smashing the state.” He identifies the dictatorship of the proletariat as the transitional phase in which the existence of all classes will be abolished. In his most sustained theoretical statements on this question, Lenin clearly names the political form which will be the active agent of this abolition: the soviet. The dictatorship of the proletariat initiates the process of the withering away of the state, because for the first time the oppressed class smashes the state machine instead of seizing it and wielding it, establishing its own emergency state which will ultimately wither away as its basis in the existence of classes disappears.
This formula has been subjected to devastating criticism. The most powerful of these criticisms – for example, by Nicos Poulantzas – show that by producing a binary opposition (“dual power”) between the direct democracy of the soviets and the centralized autocracy of the capitalist state, Lenin leaves a gap where he must identify the process by which this power relation is reversed and soviet democracy replaces capitalist autocracy. That gap is filled by the vanguard party, which in actual practice comes to be equated with the state. In the urgency of emergency rule this equation of party and state is strengthened to a degree that makes the withering away of the state impossible.
However, Poulantzas and others were mistaken to reduce this concrete problem of material organization – the relation between soviet and party and the means by which the capitalist state is overthrown – to the bourgeois political framework which is the framework of rights and the parliamentary apparatus. In the sense that democracy is meant to name an autonomous form of rule, in which people make decisions regarding their own lives rather than having those decisions imposed from above, rights and parliament are not sufficient. Indeed, rights and parliaments only exist because they have been imposed by struggles from below, and they are partial and inadequate realizations of the potentialities of these struggles. The founding document of the United States is mistaken in saying that rights are endowed by our creator – as women, slaves, and the non-propertied could clearly perceive. They were won by resistance.
Our Declaration of Independence is also mistaken when it claims that “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In fact, the forms of government that arise with new constitutions are generally inherited from previous regimes, and reflect the contingent histories of their formation rather than the imperative of securing transhistorical rights. As a result, the new, potentially emancipatory characteristics of the new constitutions are not guaranteed by a linear historical process.
Capitalist parliamentary regimes have been quick to retract the rights that were won by insurgency – manifested as recently as the Obama years in the unprecedented expansion of the surveillance state and the arrogation of powers to indefinitely detain citizens without trial. Only a vigilant opposition allows us to retain these rights. And in situations of crisis, parliamentary democracy may find itself retreating to the zone of illegality and illegitimacy. The forms of modern bourgeois democracy – both the abstract framework of rights and freedoms, and the technical apparatuses of parliamentary governance – are no guarantee against tyranny, despotism, and indeed terror.
The binary opposition between democracy and dictatorship is a new one, and in fact one which only takes a clear shape in the period immediately following the Russian Revolution – the sequence of revolution and counterrevolution in Germany from 1918 to 1923 and the eventual outgrowth of Nazi dictatorship from the Weimar Constitution. It was not only the eventual Nazi Carl Schmitt, but also liberals like Max Weber, and indeed the leadership of the German Social Democratic Party, who saw a structural contradiction in the crisis of parliamentary democracy.
By enfranchising new masses of people and permitting freedom of press and assembly, parliamentary democracy had allowed insurrectionaries to sway the masses towards rising up against the existing constitution. Defending the constitution would require suppressing insurgency and thus violating democratic principles. It is for this reason that dictatorship – in precisely the technical sense of emergency rule – could arise through the means and apparatuses of parliamentary democracy itself. Needless to say, in this case, it would ultimately take on the form of fascism, and counterpose itself radically to democracy in principle.
Lenin, as it turns out, was correct to assert the necessity of breaking with the bourgeois conception of politics. The formal existence of rights and parliaments does not constitute a reliable guarantee against tyranny. In order to have autonomous self-governance, it is necessary to produce a new practice of politics, and in fact, it is this that Lenin means by “smashing the state.” Throughout The State and Revolution he explicitly describes the necessity of processes which will make it possible for all the functions currently monopolized by the state and exercised as domination over people to be reduced to mere technical administration of things.
Lenin is fascinated by the existence of a postal service which can coordinate communication and alter the very conditions of space and time, demonstrating the possibility of replacing bureaucracy with advanced technical procedures accessible to all. Today this possibility is even more palpable than it was in Lenin’s time, with means of information processing and communication that fit in our pockets surpassing the capabilities of the most vast and advanced postal services of the early 20th century.
This conception of the active transitional process of smashing the state through the forms of direct democracy is Lenin’s great contribution to political thought. But it is contradicted by his practical concessions to the exigencies of emergency rule, which resulted in the reproduction of the forms of domination characteristic of the previous order.
In this sense the dictatorship of the proletariat is a name for the tension between the production of a new practice of politics and reproduction of capitalist survivals. It is then necessary to subject the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat to a deep and radical critique. Merely criticizing the term, however, is not adequate; and criticizing it from the vantage point of the bourgeois conception of politics, of a socialism imbued with liberalism, actually reproduces the political framework of the capitalist state.
A meaningful critique of the historical practice of the dictatorship of the proletariat will be based on new theories of organization which will make it possible to prevent the equation of party and state. And it must further lead to the invention of processes of transition and construction that are able to prevent a post-revolutionary state of emergency from resulting in the regression to previous forms of domination.
But what we must not abandon in the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat is the most precious legacy proposed by Marx and Lenin. This is what was manifested in the Paris Commune and the first few moments of soviet power, one hundred years ago: the possibility of exiting the bourgeois conception of politics and inventing a new practice of politics, one which leads to a society in which domination and exploitation are little more than memories of an unthinkable past.