Marx and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat
First published in Workers’ International, Moscow 1918.
Translated by Herman Jerson.
First published in English in International Review, New York 1938.
Reprintend in J. Martow, The State and the Socialist revolution (limited edition), London 1977, pp.49-56.
Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread: by Andy Carloff 2010.
In her polemic against Edouard Bernstein, Rosa Luxemburg declared, quite correctly, that “there never was any doubt for Marx and Engels about the necessity of having the proletariat conquer political power.”  However, the conditions under which this conquest was to be accomplished did not appear the same to Marx and Engels at different periods of their life.
At the beginning of their activity – writes Kautsky in his Democracy or Dictatorship – Marx and Engels were greatly influenced by Blanquism, though they immediately adopted to it a critical attitude. The dictatorship of the proletariat to which they aspired in their first writings still showed some Blanquist features.
This remark is not entirely accurate. If it is true that Marx, putting aside the petty-bourgeois revolutionarism that colored the ideology and politics of Blanquism, recognized the Blanquists of 1848 to be a party representing the revolutionary French proletariat, it is no less true that there is nothing in their works to show that Marx and Engels found themselves at that time under the influence of Blanqui and his partisans. Kautsky is right when he points out that Marx and Engels always took toward the Banquists a wholly critical attitude. It is undeniable that their first conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat arose under the influence of the Jacobin tradition of 1793, with which the Blanquists themselves were penetrated. The powerful historic example of the political dictatorship exercised during the Terror by the lower classes of the population of Paris served Marx and Engels as a point of departure -in their reflection on the future conquest of political power by the proletariat. In 1895 (in his preface to Class Struggles in France), Engels drew the balance of the experience that his friend and he bad gathered in the revolutions of 1848 and 1871: “The time has passed for revolutions accomplished through the sudden seizure of power by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses.” When he said this, Engels recognized that in the first period of their activity, the question for him and Marx was exactly that of the conquest of political power “by a conscious minority at the head of unconscious masses.” In other words, the problem that seemed to face them was the duplication, in the 19th century, of the experience of the Jacobin dictatorship, with the role of the Jacobins and the Cordeliers taken by the conscious revolutionary elements of the proletariat, supporting themselves on the confused social fermentation of the general population.
By adroit politics, which, because of its knowledge of the practice and theory of scientific socialism, the vanguard would be able to carry on after its seizure of power, the broad proletarian masses would be introduced to the problems current on the day after the revolution and would thus be raised to the rank of conscious authors of historic action. Only such a conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat could permit Marx and Engels to expect that after a more or less prolonged lull, the revolution of 1848 – which began as the last grapple between feudal society and the bourgeoisie and by the same internal conflicts occurring between the different layers of bourgeois society – would end in the historic victory of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie.
In 1895, Engels recognized the inconsistency of this conception. “As soon as the situation calls for the total transformation of the social order, the masses must participate in it directly, and they must have an understanding of what is at stake and what must be won. This is what the history of the last half-century has taught us.”
That does not mean to say, however, that in 1848 Marx and Engels did not entirely realize what were the necessary historic premises of the socialist revolution. Not only did they recognize that the socialist transformation could only come at a very high level of capitalism, but they also denied the possibility of keeping political power in the bands of the proletariat in the case that this imperative condition did not first exist.
In 1846, in his letter to M. Hess, W. Weitling described his break with Marx in the following words: “We arrived at the conclusion that there could be no question now of realizing communism in Germany; that first the bourgeoisie must come to power.” The “we” refers to Marx and Engels, for Weitling says further on: “On this question Marx and Engels had a very violent discussion with me.” In October-November of 1847, Marx wrote on this subject with clear-cut definiteness in his article: Moralizing criticism.
If it is true that politically, that is to say with the help of the State, the bourgeoisie “maintains the injustice of property relations” (Heinzer’s expression), it is no less true that it does not create them. The injustice of the property relations ... does not owe its origin in any way to the political domination of the bourgeois classes; but on the contrary, the domination of the bourgeoisie flows from the existing relations of production ... For this reason, if the proletariat overthrows the political domination of the bourgeoisie, its victory will only be a point in the process of the bourgeois revolution itself and will serve the cause of the latter by aiding its further development. This happened in 1794, and will happen again as long as the march, the “movement,” of history will not have elaborated the material factors that will create the necessity of putting an end to the bourgeois methods of production, and, as a consequence, to the political domination of the bourgeoisie. (Literary Heritage, volume II, p.512-513. Our emphasis.)
It appears therefore that Marx admitted the possibility of a political victory of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie at a point of historic development when the previously necessary conditions for a socialist revolution were not yet mature. But he stressed that such a victory would be transitory, and he predicted with the prescience of genius that a conquest of political power by the proletariat that is premature from the historic viewpoint would “only be a point in the process of the bourgeois revolution itself.”
We conclude that, in the case of a notably “premature” conquest of power, Marx would consider it obligatory of the conscious elements of the proletariat to pursue a policy that takes into consideration the fact that such a conquest represents objectively “only a point in the process of the bourgeois revolution itself” and will “serve the latter by aiding its further development.” He would expect a policy leading the proletariat to limit voluntarily the position and the solution of the revolutionary problems. For the proletariat can score a victory over the bourgeoisie – and not for the bourgeoisie – only when “the march of history will have elaborated the material factors that create the necessity (not merely the objective possibility! – Martov) of putting an end to the bourgeois methods of production.”
The following words of Marx explain in what sense a passing victory of the proletariat can become a point in the process of the bourgeois revolution:
By its bludgeon blows the Reign of Terror cleansed the surface of France, as if by a miracle, of all the feudal ruins. With its timorous caution, the bourgeoisie would not have managed this task in several decades. Therefore, the bloody acts of the people merely served to level the route of the bourgeoisie.
The Reign of Terror in France was the momentary domination of the democratic petty bourgeoisie and the proletariat over all the possessing daises, including the authentic bourgeoisie. Marx indicates very definitely that such a momentary domination cannot be the starting point of a socialist transformation, unless the material factors rendering this transformation indispensable will have first been worked out.
One might say that Marx wrote this specially for the benefit of those people who consider the simple fact of a fortuitous conquest of power by the democratic small bourgeoisie and the proletariat as proof of the maturity of society for the socialist revolution. But it may also be said that he wrote this specially for the benefit of those socialists who believe that never in the course of a revolution that is bourgeois in its objectives can there occur a possibility permitting the political power to escape from the hands of the bourgeoisie and pass to the democratic masses. One may say that Marx wrote this also for the benefit of those socialists who consider utopian the mere idea of such a displacement of power and who do not realize that this phenomenon is “only a point in the process of the bourgeois revolution itself,” that it is a factor assuring, under certain conditions, the most complete and radical suppression of the obstacles rising in the way of this bourgeois revolution.
The European revolution of 1848 did not lead to the conquest of political power by the proletariat. Soon after the June days, Marx and Engels began to realize that the historic conditions for such a conquest were not yet ripe. However, they continued to overestimate the pace of historic development and expected, as we know, a new revolutionary assault shortly after, even before the last wave of the tempest of 1848 had died away. They found new factors that seemed to favor the possibility of having political power pass into the hands of the proletariat, not only in the experience gathered by the latter in the class combats during the “mad year” but also in the evolution undergone by the small bourgeoisie, which seemed to be pushed irresistibly to a solid union with the proletariat.
In his Class Struggles in France and later in The Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx noted the movement of the small democratic bourgeoisie of the cities toward the proletariat, a movement that took definite form by 1848. And in the second of the indicated works, he announced the probability of similar movement on the part of the small peasants, hitherto deceived by the dictatorship of Napoleon III, whose principal creators and strongest support they were.
The interests of the peasants – he wrote – are no longer confused with those of the bourgeoisie and capital, as was the case under Napoleon I. On the contrary, they are antagonistic. That is why the peasants now find a natural ally and guide in the city proletariat, whose destiny it is to overthrow the bourgeois order. (The Eighteenth Brumaire, German edition, p.102.)
Thus the proletariat apparently no longer bad to wait to become the absolute majority in order to win political power. It had grown large as a result of the development of capitalism, and it benefitted besides by the support of the small propertyholders of the city and country whom the pinched chances of making a living moved away from the capitalist bourgeoisie.
When, after an interruption of twenty years, the revolutionary process was revived to end in the Paris Commune, it was in this new fact that Marx thought he saw an opportunity favoring the solution of the last uprising by the effective and solid dictatorship of the proletariat.
Marx wrote in Civil War in France:
Here was the first revolution in which the working class was acknowledged as the only class capable of social initiative, even by the great bulk of the Paris middle-class – shopkeepers, tradesmen, merchants &@11; the wealthy capitalists alone excepted ... This mass, belonging to the Third-Estate, had assisted in 1848, in crushing the workers’ insurrection, and soon after, without the least ceremony, was sacrificed to their creditors by the then Constituent Assembly ... This mass now felt it was necessary for it to choose between the Commune and the Empire ... After the errant band of Bonapartist courtiers and capitalists had fled Paris, the true Third-Estate Party of Order, taking the shape of the “Republican Union,” took its place under the flag of the Commune and defended the latter against Thiers’ calumnies. (Civil War in France, Russian edition, Boureviestnik, pp.36-37.)
Already in 1845, at the time when he was only groping his way to socialism, Marx indicated in his Introduction to the Criticism of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law the necessary conditions permitting a revolutionary class to lay claim to a position of dominance in society. For that, it must be recognized by all the masses oppressed under the existing régime as “the liberating class par excellence.” This situation is possible when the class against which the struggle is led becomes in the eyes of the masses “the oppressing class par excellence.” In 1848 this situation certainly did not exist. The decomposition of small property was not yet far enough advanced.
The situation appeared quite different in 1871. By that time, Marx and Engels had undoubtedly freed themselves from the influence of the Jacobin tradition and, therefore, from their conception of the dictatorship of a “conscious minority” acting at the head of unconscious (not understanding) masses (that is, masses which are simply in revolt, J. M.). It is precisely on the fact that the wined small propertyholders grouped themselves knowingly around the socialist proletariat that the two great theoreticians of scientific socialism based their force cast of the outcome of the Parisian insurrection, which, as we know, began against their wishes. They were correct concerning the city petty-bourgeoisie (at least, that of Paris). Contrary to what happened after the June days, the massacre of the Communards in the month of May, 1871 was not the work of the entire bourgeois society but only of the big capitalists. The small bourgeoisie participated neither in putting down the Commune nor in the reactionary orgy that followed. Marx and Engels were however, much less correct concerning the peasants. In Civil War, Marx expressed the opinion that only the isolation of Paris and the short life of the Commune had kept the peasants from joining with the proletarian revolution. Pursuing the thread of reasoning of which Eighteenth Brumaire is the beginning, he said:
The peasant was a Bonapartist, because the great Revolution, with all its benefits to him, was in his eyes, personified in Napoleon. Under the Second Empire this delusion had almost entirely disappeared. This prejudice of the past could not withstand the appeal of the Commune which called to the living interests, the urgent wants of the peasantry. The worthy Rurals knew full well that if the Paris of the Commune could communicate freely with the departments (provinces), there would be a general rising of the peasants within three months ... (Page 38.)
The history of the Third Republic has demonstrated that Marx was mistaken on this point. In the 70’s, the peasants (as, moreover, a large part of the urban petty bourgeoisie in the provinces) were still far from a break with capital and the bourgeoisie. They were still far from recognizing the latter as the “oppressing class,” far from considering the proletariat as “the liberating class” and confiding to it the “direction of their movement.” In 1895 in his preface to Class Struggles, Engels had to state: “It was shown again, twenty years after the events of 1848-1851, that the power of the working class was not possible,” because “France had not supported Paris.” (Engels gave also as a cause of the defeat, the absence of unity in the very ranks of the revolting proletariat, which, in proof of its insufficient revolutionary maturity, led it to waste its strength in a “sterile struggle between the Blanquists and Proudhonians.”)
But no matter what was the error in Marx’s evaluation, he succeeded in outlining very clearly the problems of the dictatorship of the proletariat. “The Commune,” he said, “was the true representative of all the healthy elements of French society, and therefore the truly national government.” (Civil War, page 38, emphasis by Martov.)
According to Marx, the dictatorship of the proletariat does not consist in the crushing by the proletariat of all non-proletarian classes in society. On the contrary, according to Marx, it means the welding to the proletariat of all the “healthy elements” of society – all except the “rich capitalists,” all except the class against which the historic struggle of the proletariat is directed. Both in its composition and in its tendencies, the government of the Commune was a working men’s government. But this government was an expression of the dictatorship of the proletariat not because it was imposed by violence on a non-proletarian majority. It did not arise that way. On the contrary, the government of the Commune was a proletarian dictatorship because those workers and those “acknowledged representatives of the working class” had received the power from the majority itself. Marx stressed the fact that “the Commune was formed of municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in various wards of the city ... By suppressing those organs of the old governmental power which merely served to oppress the people, the Commune divested of its legal functions an authority that claims to be above society itself, and put those functions in the hands of the responsible servants of the people ... The people organized in Communes (outside of Paris) was called on to use universal suffrage just as any employer uses his individual right to choose workers, managers, accountants in his business.”
The completely democratic constitution of the Paris Commune, based on universal suffrage, on the immediate recall of every office-holder by the simple decision of his electors, on the suppression of bureaucracy and the armed force as opposed to the people, on the electiveness of all offices – that is what constitutes, according to Marx, the essence of the dictatorship of the proletariat. He never thinks of opposing such a dictatorship to democracy. Already in 1847, in his first draft of the Communist Manifesto, Engels wrote: “It (the proletarian revolution) will establish first of all the democratic administration of the State and will thus install, directly or indirectly, the political domination of the proletariat. Directly – in England, where the proletariat forms the majority of the population. Indirectly – in France and in Germany, where the majority of the population is not composed only of proletarians but also of small peasants and small bourgeois, who are only now beginning to pass into the proletariat and whose political interests fall more and more under the influence of the proletariat.” (The Principles of Communism, Russian translation under the editorship of Zinoviev, p.22.) The first step in the revolution, by the working class, declares the Manifesto, “is to raise the proletariat to the position of a ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.”
Between the elevation of the proletariat to the position of a ruling class and the conquest of democracy, Marx and Engels put an equals sign. They understood the application of this political power by the proletariat only in the forms of a total democracy.
In the measure that Marx and Engels became convinced that the socialist revolution could only be accomplished with the support of the majority of the population accepting knowingly the positive program of socialism – so their conception of a class dictatorship lost its Jacobin content. But what is the positive substance of the notion of the dictatorship once it has been modified in this manner? Exactly that which is formulated with great precision in the program of our Party (the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party), a program drafted at a time when the theoretic discussion provoked by “Bernsteinism” led Marxists to polish and define with care certain expressions which had obviously lost their exact meaning with long usage in the daily political struggle.
The program of the Social-Democratic Labor Party of Russia was the only official program of a Labor Party that defined the idea of the conquest of political power by the proletariat in the terms of a “class dictatorship.” Bernstein, Jaurès and other critics of Marxism insisted on giving the expression: “dictatorship of the proletariat” the Blanquist definition of power held by an organized minority and resting on violence exercised by this minority over the majority. For this reason the authors of the Russian program were obliged to fix as narrowly as possible the limits of this political idea. They did that by declaring that the dictatorship of the proletariat is the power used by the proletariat to crush all resistance which the exploiting class might oppose to the realization of the socialist and revolutionary transformation. Simply that.
An effective force concentrated in the State, which can thus realize the conscious will of the majority despite the resistance of an economically powerful minority – here is the dictatorship of the proletariat. It can be nothing else than that in light of the teachings of Marx. Not only must such a dictatorship adapt itself to a democratic régime, but it can only exist in the framework of democracy, that is, under conditions where there is the full exercise of absolute political equality on the part of all citizens. Such a dictatorship can only be conceived in a situation where the proletariat has effectively united about itself “all the healthy elements” of the nation, that is, all those that cannot but benefit by the revolutionary transformation inscribed in the program of the proletariat. It can only be established when, historic development will have brought all the healthy elements to recognize the advantage to them of this transformation. The government embodying such a “dictatorship” will be, in the full sense of the term, a “national government.”
1. Reform or Revolution, page 46. English ed.
Last updated on 27.8.2003