Defining a dialogue of revolution: the dictatorship of the proletariat

A document from the Red and Anarchist Action Network (RAAN) discussing the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Submitted by Rhomboid on October 28, 2015

Defining a Dialogue of Revolution: The Dictatorship of the Proletariat
By Nachie (with contributions from members of the RAAN online community)

July 6th, 2003

"Engels' remark, 'Look at the Paris Commune - that was the dictatorship of the proletariat,' should be taken seriously in order to reveal what the dictatorship of the proletariat is not (the various forms of state dictatorship over the proletariat in the name of the proletariat)." - Guy Debord, Attila Kotányi & Raoul Vaneigem, 18 March 1962

"There were only two courses to choose between: either bend the knee before the counterrevolution or prepare to impose one's own power, to wit, proletarian power" - Jaime Balius, Friends of Durruti

Since the publication of our Principles & Direction, the Red & Anarchist Action Network has been criticized for the inclusion in that document of one phrase in particular, the idea of "proletarian dictatorship". The paragraph in question is reproduced below:

"The fetishization of decision-making process is rooted in liberal doctrine. What really matters is not how the decisions are made so much as what decisions are made, and who is making them. The inclusion of ruling-class elements in decisions means that the decision will be in favor of those elements. This is what Marx meant when he asserted the need for proletarian dictatorship, a term from which we do not shy." (pg. 20)

RAAN is quite comfortable with the language and message of the Principles & Direction. We feel that, taken in context and read in its entirety, our founding document speaks for itself. However, as a result of the continuing criticism regarding our use of the Marxist term "proletarian dictatorship", we have prepared this short statement regarding the true meaning of the phrase, as well as our position on its use.

We must be clear in the purpose of this text - we are interested only in improving and clarifying the dialogue within our own network. This is not an attempt by communists in RAAN to "convert the anarchists to Marxism", nor should it be taken as an invitation or olive branch to our critics. In no way do we expect to win over those who have been dogmatically attacking us at every turn since the beginning, nor do we seek to appease those entrenched sections of the anti-authoritarian movement that have been giving us grief on this relatively minor and very superficial ideological issue.

First and foremost, it is important to note that not everyone involved with RAAN uses or even personally agrees with the use of this term. The Principles & Direction makes this clear by describing it only as something "from which we do not shy", and not as a network policy to be "implemented" (as if the implementation of a spontaneous historical development were even possible!). This attitude is consistent with what has always been one of the original goals of the network - to create a productive forum for the discussion of (anti-state) communist ideas and the basic defense of Marxism from what we see as a dogmatic rejection and formulaic critique - often based only in Leninist distortions - from certain portions of the anarchist movement.

The proletarian dictatorship is not a party programme, it is an organic consequence of the advancement of the communist tendency. And like that tendency, it manifests and grows as an unstoppable reaction to real conditions already in existence; in particular the need for any revolution to preserve and defend itself. After the overthrow of the State, the class struggle will not immediately disappear, especially in situations where the new revolutionary society is besieged by those sections of the bourgeoisie still in existence. The dictatorship of the proletariat represents the autonomous progression of a revolution to the point where it has done away with all aspects of the old regime, and is able to successfully maintain itself. This does not, however, mean sustained violence. Once achieved, an egalitarian society could by its very existence preserve the proletarian dictatorship, provided that its functions continued to be inherently non-hierarchal.

"Private property as private property, as wealth, is compelled to maintain itself, and thereby its opposite, the proletariat, in existence. That is the positive side of the antithesis, self-satisfied private property.

"The proletariat, on the contrary, is compelled as proletariat to abolish itself and thereby its opposite, private property, which determines its existence, and which makes it proletariat. It is the negative side of the antithesis, its restlessness within its very self, dissolved and self-dissolving private property.

"The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-estrangement. But the former class feels at ease and strengthened in this self-estrangement, it recognizes estrangement as its own power and has in it the semblance of a human existence. The class of the proletariat feels annihilated in estrangement; it sees in it its own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence. It is, to use an expression of Hegel, in its abasement the indignation at that abasement, an indignation to which it is necessarily driven by the contradiction between its human nature and its condition of life, which is the outright, resolute and comprehensive negation of that nature.

"Within this antithesis the private property-owner is therefore the conservative side, the proletarian the destructive side. From the former arises the action of preserving the antithesis, from the latter the action of annihilating it." - Karl Marx, The Holy Family

The "proletariat" as referred to by Marx is a class of people defined by one of the most fundamental operations of capitalism, the exploitation of labor (this includes the unemployed, whose existence is a consequence of that system). The identification of this group as the proletariat is therefore only useful in the interest of familiarity, since by destroying all hierarchy (economic, ecological, political, and interpersonal) and exploitation, the proletariat as an independent class ceases to exist. Therefore the overall communist process, and in particular the development that we describe as the dictatorship of the proletariat, is not a consolidation of working-class "power", but rather the proletariat's revolutionary self-dissolution.

Similarly misunderstood, the word "dictatorship" in the context used by Marx does not carry with it the connotation of a single all-powerful despot or "vanguard" that many would attribute to it today. Rather, it is used to emphasize that the communist revolution is a form of absolute class rule in much the same way as a liberal Democracy is a bourgeois dictatorship - the difference being in that the State seeks to preserve class hierarchy, whereas the dictatorship of the proletariat is necessarily its abolition. This also is made quite clear in the Principles & Direction; "To call this 'proletarian democracy' is simply meaningless..." (pg. 19)

Contrary to Leninist doctrine, the dialectical advancement of the proletarian class struggle (communism) is not something that can be reigned-in or made subject to leadership, as it is a spontaneously-developing social relation based out of the unsustainability of the present system. The foreseeable goal of the communist tendency is the superseding of the current contradictions within capitalism through a total abolition of class society and all corresponding tools of oppression, including work, the State, politics, and environmentally destructive technology. Maintaining this understanding of communism as a dialectic process, we see the dictatorship of the proletariat as an undeniable part of that development. Like all aspects of communism, it is decentralized, leaderless, and instrumental in the final overthrow of class society.

When pressed to provide an account of the proletarian dictatorship in action, Marx and Engels suggested the Paris Commune as the most accessible example. At the same time, they warned that the experience of the communards was far from an actual communist revolution, and that in particular their attempt to wield the ready-made machinery of the bourgeois State had been a fatal mistake.

Since Marx's time, insurrections across the globe have again and again shown not only the need for proletarian dictatorship, but also the actual inevitability of such a development in any revolutionary situation. Rioters in Budapest during the Hungarian revolt of 1956 murdered scores of Stalinist police who had been machine-gunning their comrades, in effect imposing on the State the autonomous will of the proletariat. During the near-revolution of 1968 in Paris, workers who militantly occupied factories under collective self-management were defiantly proclaiming a new power over the old bourgeois Democracy. More recently, Mexican revolutionaries in Chiapas and the autonomous city of San Salvador Atenco have attacked and destroyed government voting stations. Though many of our critics applauded these actions, few seem to be making the connection between them and the applied proletarian dictatorship. When a body of workers in revolt erects barricades to stop a national election, or vandalizes the candidates' posters, they are actively denying the ruling class' right to free speech and propaganda (in this case, the spectacle of Democracy).

The proletarian dictatorship is not an authoritarian "transitional stage" in the development of the revolution, as some have accused. Nor is it part of the ridiculous notion that the "ends will justify the means". The ends and means of communism are one and same, and despite the intimidating tone of what was admittedly a poor word choice by Marx, the dictatorship of the proletariat is a term we use to identify a specific function carried out by the revolution, as autonomous and self-justifying as the revolution itself.

So what are we arguing about? It is beyond question that this issue is a particularly good example of useless ideological bickering. We are paying attention to it only because of the massive role that the misrepresentation of the idea of proletarian dictatorship has played in the demonization of Marx and the communist tendency in general. In the end, it does not matter so much what we call it as it does that it will happen, and the semantics of one anti-authoritarian ideology (or anti-ideology) over another will quickly fall away in the face of a true revolutionary process.

Perhaps it would be best to leave the final word on the necessity of the proletarian dictatorship to someone with whom most of our anti-Marxist critics may be more familiar:

"Do you know that the wealth of the bourgeoisie is incompatible with the comfort and liberty of the workers, because their excessive wealth is, and can only be, built upon the robbing and enslavement of the workers? ... Do you not see that, in order to become a power, you must unite --- not with the bourgeoisie, which would be a folly and a crime, since all the bourgeoisie, so far as they belong to their class, are our deadly enemies? Nor with such workers as have with deserted their own cause and have lowered themselves to beg for the benevolence of the governing classes? But with honest men, who are moving, in all sincerity, towards the same goal as you?

You will have to promise:


(2) Never, in your personal interests, to compromise with the bourgeoisie.

(3) Never to attempt to secure a position above your fellow workers, whereby you would become at once a bourgeois and an enemy of the proletariat; for the only difference between capitalists and workers is this: the former seek their welfare outside, and at the expense of, the welfare of the community whilst the welfare of the latter is dependent on the solidarity of those who are robbed on the industrial field." - Mikhail Bakunin, The Policy of the Council

For those who wish to more extensively research the concept of proletarian dictatorship, RAAN recommends the following texts:

1) The Holy Family by Karl Marx
2) Policy of the IWMA by Mikhail Bakunin
3) The Democratic Mystification by Jacques Camatte
4) Militancy - The Highest Stage of Alienation by Organisation des Jeunes Travailleurs Revolutionnaires
5) The Black Bloc Papers by GMAC
6) On Fire: The Battle of Genoa and the Anti-Capitalist Movement by various
7) The Anti-Anarchist Rhetoric of Leftism by Jason McQuinn
8) Working Class Self-Activity by George Rawick
9) The Democratic Principle by Amadeo Bordiga
10) From Politics to Life: Ridding Anarchy of the Leftist Millstone by Wolfi Landstreicher
11) Pluralism and Anarchism by Kenneth Maddock
12) Marx-Engels and Democracy by Communisme ou Civilisation
13) The "Renegade" Kautsky and his Disciple Lenin by Jean Barrot/Gilles Duave
14) A Different Sort of Democracy by Martin Glaberman
15) Towards a Fresh Revolution by Friends of Durruti
16) The Origins of Modern Leftism by Richard Gombin
17) Against Summits and Counter-Summits by the International Communist Group
18) What is Bureaucracy? by Claude Lefort
19) The Organizational Platform of Libertarian Communists by Dielo Truda
20) Communism vs Reforms by Sylvia Pankhurst
21) State Capitalism and Dictatorship by Anton Pannekoek
22) The Party of Labor by Emile Pouget
23) From the Analysis of bureaucracy to Workers Self-Management by Socialisme ou Barbarie
24) Against the Corpse-Machine by Ashen Ruins
25) Domination and Sabotage by Antonio Negri