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