Failure as an orphan of success

11 04 2007


If my column last week had spoken about the importance Marx gave to freedom of thought and expression, it is also necessary to answer why he supported the idea of “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” (proletariat = working class). Does not this idea of “dictatorship” of the working class negate individual freedom? In fact, most critics of Marxism identify this concept of “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” as the root of the authoritarianism and totalitarianism of communist societies.

To understand the idea of “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” one has to understand the political and social context in which this term was used. In the 1850s, when Marx first borrowed this term from one of his associates, democracy was still an infant. Voting was severely restricted to the upper classes and legal and civil rights of the citizen were few and far between. Even the most “progressive” societies of that age – the United States of America and Great Britain – did not allow most of their citizen’s such “fundamental” rights as voting, freedom of association or the freedom of thought and expression. The only “fundamental” right which was fully guaranteed was the right to private property and inheritance of that right from father to son.

In those days the State, as a guarantor of political rights, regularly enforced this right of private property over its citizens, an overwhelming number of whom had no political or legal rights. It was an age when human beings were owned like cattle in the USA and Britain still had privileges for its landed gentry in its statute books; it was an age when the monarchies of Europe were still firmly in the saddle and the colonial conquests and plunder were becoming the norm. Marx and Engels demonstrated with great clarity in their writings how economic power – control over resources – was concentrated among a few people who formed the ruling class of the State and who were the only section of society who had access to political rights and freedoms.

The working class and the peasantry (those who till the soil with their hands) were not only deprived of the vote and other political rights, but were totally dependent on the owners of capital and land for their bare existence. The State, which was supposed in theory to be neutral, was in reality a tool of those who controlled economic power and had political rights. It was in this context, where an overwhelmingly large number of people lived their lives under this “dictatorship” of the rich and powerful, that the idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was first conceived. In my opinion, the use of the term “dictatorship” was a rhetorical play on the word to counter the “dictatorship” of the capitalists and landholders.

This is apparent when Marx and Engels use the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” to refer to the radical, wide-ranging democracy of the Paris Commune of 1871. “Dictatorship of the proletariat” was meant to refer to – in opposition to the “dictatorship” of the capitalists and landlords – genuine democracy where not only would all humans have equal political rights, but economic power will not be concentrated in private hands nor will social discrimination and prejudice curtail the freedom of the individual. It was a form of democracy which not only provided unprecedented political rights to all irrespective of wealth or birth, but also destroyed those relations of economic exploitation and social oppression which curtailed access to these political rights for the vast majority.

The sense in which “dictatorship of the proletariat” was used in that age to refer to genuine, universal democracy is evident from the manner in which defenders of capitalists and landlords used this term. The Times newspaper of London warned at about this time that universal suffrage would have the effect of dis-enfranchising ‘the present electors’ by making the lower classes ‘supreme’. Alexis de Tocqueville, the liberal theorist of democracy, bemoaned that the popular upsurge of the French Revolution was a period of “popular” dictatorship as sovereignity had been taken over by the masses. [These instances have been taken from Hal Draper’s excellent book].

It is important to remember that for Marx, and later Marxists like Lenin, there was an element of force involved in establishing this “dictatorship” of the proletariat as they were convinced that the capitalists and landlords would not give up their privileges without a bitter fight. Therefore, if genuine democracy had to be established in society, then the power of the State, which has always been used to shore-up private property, had to be used to destroy the social and psychological power that the capitalists and landlords continued to wield.

Over the years, the context that gave meaning to the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat” has changed. Within a century or so since Marx first deployed this concept of “dictatorship”, universal suffrage had become the norm in almost all countries. Even where it has not become the actual practice, there is very little intellectual opposition anymore to equal vote for all citizens. Wherever democracy is denied (other than in some exceptional countries like Saudi Arabia) the idea of popular sovereignty is not denied. The particular tyrant or dictator merely argues that he is necessary for restoring democracy, not that democracy is in itself bad or undesirable. It is important to comprehend the world historical character of the universal acceptance of universal suffrage. It is the first time in history that the political right to govern has been cut off from economic power or accident of birth. Every human being in this conception of polity, now has the right to decide who will govern and by what laws.

This political revolution has also made “rule of law” a similar universal value. While it if often not followed in practice, but globally there is no coherent voice which argues against the desirability or necessity of the “rule of law”. The significance of this political revolution, which has appeared to us as evolution since it has been implemented over a few generations, cannot be overstressed. For the first time in human history, citizens have the political authority, if only in theory, to curtail the economic power of the ruling class. While capitalism still remains entrenched, and has perhaps become stronger in the recent past with the demise of socialist States and the massive increase in technological prowess, political power in the hands of the citizens is not a mere chimera or mirage. It has been used to beat back the exploitation of capital over workers, extend civil rights, curtail prejudices, and provide social security to all citizens in many countries. This itself is proof of concept that political power of democracy is not a mere sham but is a real force in the world today; that it is an ally of the poor, the weak and the oppressed.

If democracy has become an unassailable principle in today’s world, Marxism as an idea and communism as a practice have been central to its victory. It is therefore quite ironic, and tragic, that communist parties and movements are today, more often than not, identified with authoritarianism and totalitarianism and largely perceived as being opposed to democracy and freedom by most people. The very success of the democratic struggles led by communists has left them with failure. Is this the world historical role of communism – to be a midwife to democracy – and itself die in the throes of authoritarianism? I will try to address this question next week.

~ ~ ~

A slightly shorter version of this was published in The Post, on 11 April, 2007.

—– —–

Further Readings:

Apart from Marx’s letter to Weydemeyer which is linked in the main text above, it is useful to read Civil War in France and Critique of the Gotha Programme to fully understand the manner in which Marx used the term “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”.

Lenin’s main exposition of the term came in the defence of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 when he deployed this idea to counter those who were unsure of the applicability of his April Thesis for the immediate seizure of power and for politically crushing the bourgeoisie. Read Lenin’s State and Revolution, Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky and “Democracy” and Dictatorship.

There is a good summary of the entire evolution of this term and the manner in which it was deployed by Marx and Lenin, based on Draper’s book, here and here.





5 responses

11 04 2007

Dictatorship of Proletariat is a term which got misused and misinterpreted to the extreme extents. This great thesis proposed by Marx which was given a definite shape by Lenin was grossly misinterpreted after Lenin’s time. USSR and Eastern block apart ,during Cold War days ,it became a catch word even for African despots like Mengistu(Ethiopia) and Kerekou(Benin),who pretended to uphold this great principle, along with Marxism-Leninism, in order to secure aid from Soviet camp. And there had been fatal errors inside USSR and Eastern block nations, regarding the implementation of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

But the question becomes, has the historic experience of misuse of this term is good enough to invalidate and inundate it? Is it fair to confine this proposition from Marx and its endorsement and implementation under the leadership of Lenin, to the era in which they lived? Does it lack universality? Has universal suffrage become the final word in the search for a true democracy?

But it will be a remiss if we discard the debacle of some of the political movements which confined themselves to the parliamentary way. Allende of Chile, Arbenz of Guatemala,Moshadiq of Iran all came to power through parliamentary road, and imperialism could shake their Govts, using brute force. These incidents tell us that universal suffrage becomes a tool in hands of oppressed masses, only when the correlation of forces is conducive to its sustenance. You can’t go to Colombia and preach the beauty of universal suffrage to the armed rebels, whose attempt to intervene in electoral politics was liquidated armed death squads(FARC’s electoral front Patriotic Union(PU) was liquidated by right wing death squads), though the same thing can be done in case of Venezuela, as of now. It all depends on the correlation of classes, and their relative strength and force, at a point of time.

If universal suffrage is the panacea for all social ailments, then there wouldn’t have been an October Revolution at all! Dictatorship of Proletariat is all about giving rights to the vast majority of people the right to determine their own fate, it is the dictatorship of the vast majority of oppressed masses on the oppressors, something that standalone universal suffrage can’t promise .Lenin himself had pointed out that the form and character of this dictatorship may vary. When there was a need to launch “Red Terror” he doesn’t hesitate to do that. When Kronshdat rebellion broke out no one hesitated to curb it, as it was aimed at the overthrow of Soviet power. When left SRs, who used pseudo –chauvinism on the wake of Brest-Litvosk to malign Bolsheviks,( there is no harm in terming them as October revolutionaries) broke with Bolsheviks and launched an insurrection, Lenin didn’t shy away from using force to suppress them. These are all instances of using the coercive arm of socialist state, to suppress counter-revolutionary elements, and this the characteristic of a Dictatorship, which is bound to defend itself. This is the point where revolutionary Marxists do differ from evolutionary social democrats of all types.

But it becomes really contentious if the mode of governance adopted during the civil war or foreign invasion is extended to the peaceful construction period, a period where thrust should go to enhancing the democratic rights of people, giving them boundless freedom to choose their own destiny. I would say the prerequisite of true democracy is the end of class rule.But in USSR and most of the socialist states(barring Cuba),this issue was grossly discarded, which resulted in the formation of an elite ruling class and bureaucracy, and which ultimately distanced those regimes from the masses. (Former Yugoslavian leader Milovan Djilas had made significant observations in this regard, though he ended up in an incorrect disposition, that the problem lies with Leninism itself).Similarly Euro Communism also had a reactionary fallout.

But there is definitely a sectarian attitude towards all these issues, which is still prevalent among certain quarters. A tendency to discard the peaceful avenues including parliamentary struggle, a tendency to justify and perpetuate the sectarian mistakes in the past. There are certain prominent CPs like JCP(Japan),AKEL(Cyprus) which choose parliamentary road and believes that they could attain a socialist revolution through peaceful means, in which I don’t see anything “revisionist” as the correlation of classes in these two nations have given birth to such a political line, but dogmatists would call them revisionists and social democrats. This sectarian attitude which ends up in dogmatic postulates is something which needs to be opposed and exposed.

To sum up I feel that in this article over emphasis is laid on universal suffrage, by projecting its universality, forgetting the fact that the principal contradiction and class correlation varies from nation to nation, and Dictatorship of Proletariat is still valid in 21st century. But there is certainly a need to enhance learn from the past mistakes, and there is certainly a need to enhance socialist democracy, as opposed to the sectarian faith that everything was perfect in the past!

13 04 2007

Normative Marxist Theory has to be understood and contexualized in the times that we live in. I agree totally with you that Democracy is a sine qua non for a progressive society. However, Democracy has to be understood not only in terms of elections and the sovereign right to choose your ruler but also substantively as a means of equitable distribution of power, obligations and authority among the larger society.

While the Soviet State and other socialist states scored high on several points that are part and parcel of democracy, such as civil society participation and co-ordinated public activity, it failed in several respects of distribution of power and accountability.

Marxist Theory provides a suitable templar for addressing the dichotomy in formal and substantive democracy. It gives the politico-economic analyst the tools to judge the political economic conditions that pervade the milieu of the times and adjudicates the role of the State in such a scenario.

Ergo in an instrumentalist normative progressive path in India, Democracy is a sine qua non despite the necessity to maintain a class based criterion for achieving a much more egalitarian society.

Marxists or atleast those who proclaim themselves to be so, seem to miss the wood for the trees when they argue for a system that parallels what Lenin articulated for in the times that were prevalent during the World War I.

Lenin’s “dictatorship of the proletariat” turned out more to be a “Dictatorship of the Party”, which was used quite effectively by the likes of Stalin as you have rightly pointed out.

In this regard, I would like to point out to the Webpage of the United States Communist Party where Sam Webb, the current General Secretary of the Party has written a good piece about Socialism and Democracy.

13 04 2007

@Lenin’s “dictatorship of the proletariat” turned out more to be a “Dictatorship of the Party”, which was used quite effectively by the likes of Stalin as you have rightly pointed out.

I think we should be more cautious when criticizing Stalin.

Fidel Castro’s comments on Stalin is really a balanced one on this score.

” [Borge] Fidel, for most Latin American revolutionary leaders, the current crisis of socialism has a mastermind: Josef Stalin.

[Castro] I believe Stalin made big mistakes but also showed great wisdom.

In my opinion, blaming Stalin for everything that occurred in the Soviet Union would be historical simplism, because no man by himself could have created certain conditions. It would be the same as giving Stalin all the credit for what the USSR once was. That is impossible! I believe that the efforts of millions and millions of heroic people contributed to the USSR’s development and to its relevant role in the world in favor of hundreds of millions of people.

I have criticized Stalin for a lot of things. First of all, I criticized
his violation of the legal framework.

I believe Stalin committed an enormous abuse of power. That is another conviction I have always had.

I feel that Stalin’s agricultural policy did not develop a progressive
process to socialize land. In my opinion, the land socialization process should have begun earlier and should have been gradually implemented. Because of its violent implementation, it had a very high economic and human cost in a very brief period of history.

I also feel that Stalin’s policy prior to the war was totally erroneous.
No one can deny that western powers promoted Hitler until he became a monster, a real threat. The terrible weakness shown by western powers before Hitler cannot be denied. This at encouraged Hitler’s expansionism and Stalin’s fear, which led Stalin to do something I will criticize all my life, because I believe that it was a flagrant violation of principles: seek peace with Hitler
at any cost, stalling for time.

During our revolutionary life, during the relatively long history of the
Cuban Revolution, we have never negotiated a single principle to gain time, or to obtain any practical advantage. Stalin fell for the famous
Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact at a time when Germans were already demanding the delivery of the Danzig Corridor.

I feel that, far from gaining time, the nonaggression pact reduced time,because the war broke out anyway. Then, in my opinion, he made another big mistake, because when Poland was being attacked, he sent troops to occupy that territory, which was disputed because it had a Ukrainian or Russian population,I am not sure.

I also believe that the little war against Finland was another terrible
mistake, from the standpoint of principles and international law.

Stalin made a series of mistakes that were criticized by a large part of
the world, and which placed Communists- who were great friends of the USSR-in avery difficult position by having to support each one of those episodes.

Since we are discussing this topic, I must tell you that I have never
discussed it with any journalist (or on any other occasion, he added).

The things I mentioned are against principles and doctrine; they are even contrary to political wisdom. Although it is true that there was a period of one year and nine months from September 1939 to June 1941 during which the USSR could have rearmed itself, Hitler was the one who got stronger.

If Hitler had declared war on the USSR in 1939, the destruction would have been less than the destruction caused in 1941, and he would have suffered the same fate as Napoleon Bonaparte. With the people’s participation in an irregular war, the USSR would have defeated Hitler.

Finally, Stalin’s character, his terrible distrust of everything, made him
commit several other mistakes: one of them was falling in the trap of German intrigue and conducting a terrible, bloody purge of the armed forces and practically beheading the Soviet Army on the eve of war.

[Borge] What do you believe were Stalin’s merits?

[Castro] He established unity in the Soviet Union. He consolidated what Lenin had begun: party unity. He gave the international revolutionary movement a new impetus. The USSR’s industrialization was one of Stalin’s wisest actions,and I believe it was a determining factor in the USSR’s capacity to resist.

One of Stalin’s-and the team that supported him- greatest merits was the plan to transfer the war industry and main strategic industries to Siberia and deep into Soviet territory.

I believe Stalin led the USSR well during the war. According to many
generals, Zhukov and the most brilliant Soviet generals, Stalin played an important role in defending the USSR and in the war against Nazism. They all recognized it.

I think there should be an impartial analysis of Stalin. Blaming him for
everything that happened would be historical simplism.”

The interview can be found at

These words comes from a man who is heading a nation which still upholds the dictatorship of the proletariat.Humanity had learned a lot from the historical experience of socialist construction in the past era,and the Marxist-Leninist forces across the world had made a critical evaluation of the past.

I would be eager to know how you will appreciate CPI(M)’s stand on this.


5.3 Class Character of the State under Socialism

The dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e., the dictatorship of the overwhelming majority over a minority of former exploiting classes, as opposed to the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, which is that of the minority over the overwhelming majority, is the character of the state during the period of transition from class to classless society.

The forms of the dictatorship of the proletariat, however, are not constant or immutable. As the socialist society develops, the forms pass through varying and different phases.

The ability to transit from one phase to another is determined by the correlation of class forces, both internal and international, and its correct estimation. In a situation of imperialist intervention, the civil war and the all-out attempts to destroy socialism that was being born, the proletarian state had to crush the counter-revolution and eliminate the forces of exploitation. This demanded the centralised apparatus of a state which was also essential for building a planned economy. However, after this phase was over, as the socialist system and the state consolidated and the correlation of class forces changed in its favour, opportunities for widening democracy and new initiatives opened up. Unfortunately, incorrect assessments of the reality led to the earlier methods of running the state machinery being carried over into the subsequent period. This led not only to the failure to realise the full potential of widening and deepening socialist democracy and popular people’s participation but also to distortions such as growing bureaucratism, violation of socialist legality and suppression of individual freedom and liberty. The movement to higher phases of the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat imply the progressive enrichment of socialist democracy.

However, in the name of correcting the distortions, the class character of the state cannot be abandoned. This would mean the abandonment of the revolution itself.

The right to dissent within the socialist framework must be recognised. But, in doing so, neither the class character of the state nor the leading role of the party can be abandoned. The Party, as the vanguard of the working class, performs the leading role in the successful completion of the revolution and in the process of socialist construction. In fact, it continues to lead the state as long as the state continues to exist.

While the forms continuously change, adapting to the concrete developments in each socialist country, these need not and cannot be the same for different socialist countries. The specific form of the dictatorship of the proletariat that will emerge in one socialist country, will depend upon the concrete socio-economic conditions and the historical background of these countries. Lenin, in State and Revolution, has stated clearly: “The forms of bourgeois states are extremely varied, but their essence is the same: all these states, whatever their form, in the final analysis are inevitably the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The transition from capitalism to communism certainly cannot but yield a great abundance and variety of political forms, but the essence will inevitably be the same: the dictatorship of the proletariat” (emphasis added).

Due to the lack of any other historical experience apart from the Paris Commune, the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat that arose in the specific conditions of the Soviet Union, was more or less copied in the other East European countries disregarding the local conditions and historical developments.

This had serious implications for the development and deepening of socialist democracy in these countries. For, the historical evolution of some of the East European countries had already established the bourgeois parliamentary system with its corresponding rights to the people. The form of the proletarian state, in these countries, naturally should have been to consolidate the gains already achieved by the people. The ensuing deformities in the state functioning, bureaucracy and the apparent violations of socialist legality spread, leading to the alienation of the people from the state and the Party.

Another major distortion that needs to be noted, concerns the fact that the dictatorship of the proletariat is the dictatorship of the class as a whole, i.e., of the overwhelming majority. Often in practice, as has been revealed in the recent developments, this dictatorship of the class was replaced by that of the vanguard, the Party, and more often than not, by the leadership of the Party.

The Party can exercise its leading role only through its constant interaction with the mass of the people, involving them in the functioning of the state and administration and winning their confidence for the consolidation of socialism. A leading role that is based on a constitutional fiat is, in fact, a departure from the very conception of the class character of the proletarian state. These distortions have resulted in the growing alienation of the people from the state and the Party, instead of drawing them more and more into the functioning of the socialist state by deepening socialist democracy. ”

Will it be wrong if I point out that true democracy exist in Cuba under
“dictatorship of the proletariat”?Should we let the generalization of the sectarian mistakes,eclipse the lucid example of Cuba?

Apart from CPI(M),prominent CPs like PCP(Portugal),CPoB(Brazil),CPSA(South Africa),CPN(UML)-Nepal,AKEL(Cyprus),JCP(Japan),CPV(Venezuela),CPC(Cuba),KPRF(Russia) and many more had come out with a detalied analysis of 20th century socialist experiment.While some of them clearly show aversion to the concept of a dictatorship(AKEL,JCP),most of the Marxist-Leninist parties which had done such a critical evaluation had decided to uphold it further.And if universal suffrage and democratic rhetoric will serve as a standalone indicator of the efficacy of democratic governanace, class emancipation and rectification,we have Vladimir Voronin’s CPM(Moldova),whose deeds will be inexplicable in this light.

Lenin’s words clearly acts as a guideline on this

“The forms of bourgeois states are extremely varied, but their essence is the same: all these states, whatever their form, in the final analysis are inevitably the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The transition from capitalism to communism certainly cannot but yield a great abundance and variety of political forms, but the essence will inevitably be the same: the dictatorship of the proletariat”.

Now the misintrepretation and misuse of Lenin’s thesis doesn’t invalidate the thesis itself.That is what CPI(M) had ointed out,which I also second.

16 04 2007
sai aravindh

read both the articles detailing the link between communism, democracy and freedom. Made interesting reading – i really appreciate candid approach towards the topic and the lucidity with which u hv put forth ur views.

26 04 2007
Pankaj Molekhi

Sorry to bother you, intellectuals, but proletariat (as collective noun) make bad rulers. Bolshevik and French revolutions proved it. Ruling and fooling is an art mastered by political leaders or monarchies. All of us (I am talking about non-intellecutal majority here) need gods, angels, booze, fantassies and other fall-ons, who can fix things in a jiffy. Housewives need stories of an angel who could arrange food for 30 sages without batting an eyelid. A passenger train traveller require Hanuman who can fly to and fro Lanka before others can walk ten metres. And firangis need a Batman/Spiderman who can fight all evil without bothering about FIRs and jury or Miranda lines. No wonder Marx called it opium.
Now tell me which of the commentator has not had alcohal, opium or any other dope in life. Ninety nine out of a 100 take some kind of sedative, and one lies.

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