The question of the state is almost certainly the most widely misunderstood and misrepresented aspect of Marxism. Marx’s critique of capitalist economics is more or less acceptable to social democrats, anarchists, Trotskyites and various strands of the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia; however, his critique of the capitalist state and his understanding of what must replace it have been rejected or – more commonly – swept under the carpet.
In this article, we shall attempt to shed some light on Marx’s teaching on the state, in particular the theory of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, which is the cornerstone of that teaching. We will also attempt to show how the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat distinguishes revolutionary Marxism from anarchism, social democracy and pacifism.
Dictatorship of the proletariat = working-class democracy
The expression ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ sounds entirely offensive to most people who have been brought up and educated in capitalist societies. In Britain, our schooling leaves us with a most narrow view regarding the questions of democracy and dictatorship. We are taught that democracy and dictatorship are mutually exclusive and that there is a straight line from ‘most democratic’ (multi-party parliament) to ‘most dictatorial’ (fascism and communism lumped together).
This education deliberately obscures the fact that the much-revered British democracy is, in reality, democracy for the capitalist class alone. Yes, there are multiple parties (for fairly specific historical reasons that are beyond the scope of this article), but these all represent the capitalist class: the policies of Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat are the policies of business, of private property, of exploitation, of imperialism.
The working class has not the slightest say in how the country is run. In fact, the whole state is geared towards the armed suppression of the working class. This is difficult to appreciate in times of relative social peace, but it is all too clear during times of unrest (think, for example, of the role played by the police and the army during the general strike of 1926 or the great miners’ strike of 1984-85).
Therefore, British democracy can be considered as the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. It is democratic to the extent that there is democracy for the capitalist class (via parliament and various extra-parliamentary bodies), and it therefore differs from the total bourgeois dictatorship of a Franco or a Hitler; however, it is dictatorial in the sense that the bourgeoisie maintains its exploitative relationship with the proletariat (the working class) through means of repression.
The dictatorship of the proletariat, on the other hand, means democracy for the working class combined with the violent suppression of the overthrown capitalist class. For example, the Soviet Union of Lenin and Stalin was democratic for the working class, whose interests were represented by the various bodies of the state and who had an exceptionally high level of involvement in the running of the country (via soviets, trade unions, factory committees, farm committees, school committees, neighbourhood committees, etc); however, it was dictatorial towards the former ruling class, the capitalists, who never gave up on their bid to restore the old, backward, exploitative, brutal order.
Similarly, modern Cuba is a workers’ democracy – through the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution and other structures, ordinary Cubans have a level of democratic participation that we in Britain can only dream of; however, the Cuban state is set up to firmly rebuff any person or organisation attempting to revert to the old capitalist/neo-colonial order.
Lenin described the dictatorship of the proletariat as “a stubborn struggle – bloody and bloodless, violent and peaceful, military and economic, educational and administrative – against the forces and traditions of the old society”. (‘Left-Wing’ Communism: an Infantile Disorder, 1920)
Earlier in the same work, he wrote: “The dictatorship of the proletariat is a most determined and most ruthless war waged by the new class against a more powerful enemy, the bourgeoisie, whose resistance is increased tenfold by its overthrow (even if only in one country), and whose power lies not only in the strength of international capital, in the strength and durability of the international connections of the bourgeoisie, but also in the force of habit, in the strength of small production. For, unfortunately, small production is still very, very widespread in the world, and small production engenders capitalism and the bourgeoisie continuously, daily, hourly, spontaneously, and on a mass scale. For all these reasons the dictatorship of the proletariat is essential, and victory over the bourgeoisie is impossible without a long, stubborn and desperate war of life and death, a war demanding perseverance, discipline, firmness, indomitableness and unity of will.” (‘Left-Wing’ Communism, an Infantile Disorder, 1921)
Elsewhere, he explained: “In the transition, the class struggle grows more intense. The transition from capitalism to communism represents an entire historical epoch. Until this epoch has terminated, the exploiters will inevitably cherish the hope of restoration, and this hope will be converted into attempts at restoration. And after their first serious defeat, the overthrown exploiters … will throw themselves with tenfold energy, with furious passion and hatred grown a hundred-fold, into the battle for the recovery of their ‘lost’ paradise.” (The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, 1918)
To summarise: the dictatorship of the proletariat is the form taken by the state after the working class has overthrown the capitalist state but before the bourgeoisie has been finally defeated.
The final defeat of the bourgeoisie has not yet been achieved anywhere in the world (and, realistically, there will be no ‘final defeat’ until capitalism has been overthrown in at least the overwhelming majority of the world’s countries).
Cuban socialism is firmly established, but the Miami mafia and the US state are still actively trying to subvert the revolution (this is amply demonstrated by the dozens of assassination attempts on Fidel Castro); therefore, the Cuban state cannot afford to rest – indeed, with the growth of tourism (introduced to aid economic recovery), the Cuban state has to be more vigilant than ever.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) faces constant US interference and the presence of 37,000 US troops and several hundred nuclear warheads across the border in south Korea.
The USSR had to defend itself in the war of intervention (1918-21) waged by all the imperialist countries together in league with the tsarist White Guard and the ostensibly ‘revolutionary’ Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries; it then faced a number of plots, sabotage and assassinations, again the work of a combination of internal and external reactionary elements; and it then had to protect itself from the onslaught of German imperialism in World War II.
Thus the whole history of socialism, from the Paris Commune onwards, demonstrates that socialism cannot be maintained without the forcible suppression of the overthrown capitalist class and its foreign allies.
Approaching the question from the opposite direction, you find a number of examples of socialist or progressive movements that failed to survive precisely because they did not establish a sufficient force for the repression of their class enemies.
This is the theme of Marx’s classic study of the Paris Commune, The Civil War in France. Another famous example is the progressive but pacifistic government of Salvador Allende in Chile, which was overthrown in a brutal CIA-backed coup led by the notorious General Pinochet (a close personal friend of Margaret Thatcher).
Marxism vs social democracy
Revisionists and social democrats try to sweep Marx’s analysis of the state under the carpet. Some of them even claim that socialist revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat are not central to Marxism but simply represent Lenin’s application of Marxism to Russian conditions.
These claims are made in spite of such clear statements as the following: “Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. There corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” (Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875)
To this day, revisionists and social democrats deny the need for (or stay quiet about) the dictatorship of the proletariat. Britain’s Road to Socialism, the political programme of the revisionist Communist Party of Britain (CPB), envisages a parliamentary path, whereby communists exert so much influence on the Labour party that it drops its enthusiastic support for imperialism and starts implementing socialism.
Of course, nothing is said about how the bourgeois state would respond to such an unexpected and unlikely turn of events – such a discussion would only serve to disrupt the CPB’s lovely daydream about ‘collaborating’ towards socialism. Ultimately, these revisionist dreams reduce Marxism to pure reformism.
In the words of Lenin: “Only he is a Marxist who extends the recognition of the class struggle to the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat. This is what constitutes the most profound difference between the Marxist and the ordinary petty (as well as big) bourgeoisie. This is the touchstone on which the real understanding and recognition of Marxism is to be tested.
“And it is not surprising that when the history of Europe brought the working class face to face with this question as a practical issue, not only all the opportunists and reformists, but all the ‘Kautskyites’ [people who vacillate between reformism and Marxism] proved to be miserable philistines and petty-bourgeois democrats who repudiate the dictatorship of the proletariat.” (The State and Revolution, 1917)
Marxism vs anarchism
Another political trend that Marx and Engels fought with over the question of the state is anarchism.
Generally speaking, anarchists support the idea of a revolution against capitalism (although they vary widely in their level of confidence in the working class); however, they believe that, once the revolution has succeeded in its initial aims of overthrowing capitalism, there is no longer a need for a state and that ‘the people’ will simply be able to manage their own affairs.
Engels explained the deficiencies of this theory very clearly:
“Since 1845 Marx and I have held the view that one of the ultimate results of the future proletarian revolution will be the gradual dissolution of the political organisation known by the name of state. The main object of this organisation has always been to secure, by armed force, the economic oppression of the labouring majority by the minority which alone possesses wealth. With the disappearance of an exclusively wealth-possessing minority there also disappears the necessity for the power of armed oppression, or state power. At the same time, however, it was always our view that in order to attain this and the other far more important aims of the future social revolution, the working class must first take possession of the organised political power of the state and by its aid crush the resistance of the capitalist class and organise society anew. This is to be found already in The Communist Manifesto of 1847, Chapter II, conclusion.
“The anarchists put the thing upside down. They declare that the proletarian revolution must begin by doing away with the political organisation of the state. But after its victory the sole organisation which the proletariat finds already in existence is precisely the state. This state may require very considerable alterations before it can fulfil its new functions. But to destroy it at such a moment would be to destroy the only organism by means of which the victorious proletariat can assert its newly-conquered power, hold down its capitalist adversaries and carry out that economic revolution of society without which the whole victory must end in a new defeat and in a mass slaughter of the workers similar to those after the Paris Commune.” (Letter to Philipp Van Patten, 18 April 1883)
Marxism vs pacifism
The last objection to the theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat that we shall deal with here is that put forward by the pacifists, who hold that all violence is objectively wrong, regardless of whether it is perpetrated in a just or unjust cause, by exploited or exploiters.
In the following passage, Lenin makes it abundantly clear why the working class cannot dispense with violent means in its struggle against capitalism and for socialism:
“An oppressed class which does not strive to learn to use arms, to acquire arms, only deserves to be treated like slaves. We cannot forget, unless we become bourgeois pacifists or opportunists, that we are living in a class society, that there is no way out of this society, and there can be none, except by means of the class struggle.
“In every class society, whether it is based on slavery, serfdom, or, as at present, on wage labour, the oppressing class is armed. Not only the modern standing army, but even the modern militia – even in the most democratic bourgeois republics, Switzerland, for example – represent the bourgeoisie armed against the proletariat. This is such an elementary truth that it is hardly necessary to dwell upon it.
“It is sufficient to recall the use of troops against strikers in all capitalist countries.
“The fact that the bourgeoisie is armed against the proletariat is one of the biggest, most fundamental, and most important facts in modern capitalist society. And in face of this fact, revolutionary social democrats are urged to ‘demand disarmament’! This is tantamount to the complete abandonment of the point of view of the class struggle, the renunciation of all thought of revolution. Our slogan must be: the arming of the proletariat for the purpose of vanquishing, expropriating and disarming the bourgeoisie. These are the only tactics a revolutionary class can adopt, tactics which follow logically from the whole objective development of capitalist militarism, and dictated by that development. Only after the proletariat has disarmed the bourgeoisie will it be able, without betraying its world-historical mission, to throw all armaments on the scrap heap; and the proletariat will undoubtedly do this, but only when this condition has been fulfilled, certainly not before.” (The military programme of the proletarian revolution, September 1916)
It goes without saying that, in a short article, we cannot do more than give the briefest of overviews. To get a deeper understanding of the issues presented, the reader is advised to study Lenin’s classic The State and Revolution, as well as Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme and The Civil War in France (particular attention should be paid to Engels’ preface to the second edition).