Marx and Soviet Reality. Daniel Norman (1955)

X: The Dictatorship of the Proletariat

There is no doubt that the theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat as the transition government from a capitalist society to a Socialist one is the backbone of Marxian theory of the future society. It is true that Marx borrowed the formula from Blanqui. But the meaning he gave it was completely different.

It was in the Paris Commune that they saw the form of government closest to their conception, and Engels gave the reason in his introduction to the 1891 edition of Marx’s Civil War in France: it was a ‘new and truly democratic’ form of government. It showed how the ‘transformation of the state and the organs of the state from servants into masters of society – an inevitable transformation in all previous states’, could be avoided. And the means, it is interesting to note, were (i) ‘election on the basis of universal suffrage of all concerned, subject to the right of recall at any time, by the same electors’ of all administrative, judicial and educational officials; (ii) ‘an effective barrier to place-hunting and careerism’ by reducing the wages of the high officials to the level of those of the workers.

From the above the democratic character of this ‘dictatorship’, as well as the idea of a proletariat identified with the vast majority of the people, clearly emerges. Here was indeed ‘a whole large class’ following, as they often repeated, the only road to wisdom, ‘learning by its own mistakes’, by ‘their own experiences and through the consequences of their own mistakes’, as Engels’ letters to Sorge and others bear witness.

It must also be remembered that Marx and Engels never had the contempt that the Bolsheviks manifested for democracy. They did not wish to destroy it, but to enlarge and perfect it. The aberration of helping Hitler to destroy the Weimar democracy as the best way towards the establishment of a Socialist society, in Germany, for instance, could never have entered their heads.

In fact, their quarrel with Lassalle had similar, though how incomparably lesser, origins. Engels, for instance, though at a moment when the House of Commons was not as largely representative as it is today and though he was well aware of its limitations, went so far as to say that ‘since 1848 the English Parliament has undoubtedly been the most revolutionary body in the world’. (Incidentally, this letter to his old friend, JP Becker, dated 15 June 1885, is missing from the ‘Communist’ selection Marx – Engels on Britain.)

And Marx, when giving Danielson the reasons why he considered it ‘impossible to make real analogies between the United States and Russia’, did not forget to mention that ‘the masses there are quicker, and have greater political means in their hands, to resent the form of any progress accomplished at their expense’ (10 April 1879). Is it necessary to insist on the meaning of transforming the ‘franchise... from a means of deception... into an instrument of emancipation’, a sentence from the preamble to the programme of the French Workers Party, written by Marx, which Engels quotes in 1895 (Introduction, Class Struggles in France)?

It is generally considered that Lenin took his conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat from Marx, that in practice he remained faithful to the spirit of the Commune up to the end of the years of ‘War Communism’. In fact, from the very beginning there was no question of a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in Russia.

Already in 1918, Rosa Luxemburg was able to discern the real nature and the future development of the October Revolution. Her criticism is all the more important in that it came from one of the founders of the German Communist Party, from one of the most ardent revolutionaries of the working-class movement, but revolutionary in the Marxian sense, that is, who has not replaced the ‘critical conception’ with dogmatism and who was not prepared to take things at their face value, from whatever quarter they might come; who although endowed with quite exceptional will, did not replace ‘revolutionary evolution’ by ‘simple will’, nor make a fetish of the proletariat – or anything else.

Answering Trotsky’s argument – ‘As Marxists we have never been idolaters of formal democracy.’ – she wrote: ‘Of course we have never been idolaters of formal democracy. Neither, have we been “idolaters” of Socialism and Marxism!’ ‘But’, she went on, ‘does it follow that we have the right... to throw overboard Socialism or Marxism when it becomes inconvenient for us?’

According to Rosa Luxemburg, the ‘fundamental error of Lenin – Trotsky’s theory’ lay in the fact that ‘just as Kautsky, they oppose dictatorship to democracy’. In this dilemma, she says, ‘Kautsky decides for democracy, and, of course, for bourgeois democracy... Lenin – Trotsky decide, on the contrary, for the dictatorship of a handful of men, that is for dictatorship on the bourgeois model.’ (The Russian Revolution)

But ‘the historical mission of the proletariat, on coming to power, is to create, in place of the bourgeois democracy, a Socialist democracy and not to destroy democracy altogether’. This is, she writes, ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’:

But this dictatorship consists in the manner of application of democracy, not in its abolition; in the energetic and resolute encroachments on the acquired rights and the economic condition of bourgeois society, without which the Socialist transformation cannot be achieved. But this dictatorship must be the work of the class and not of a small minority in the name of the [working] class.

In fact, according to Rosa Luxemburg, ‘the abolition of the most important guarantees for a healthy public life and for the labouring masses: the freedoms of the press, of association and of speech’ – was the greatest mistake of Lenin and Trotsky. The origin of this mistake she found in their conception of the Socialist state as ‘an instrument of oppression of the bourgeoisie... in a way, the capitalist state turned upside down’.

The Socialist State cannot exist, she maintains, without the ‘instruction and education of the whole of the mass of the people’ – its ‘vital elements’. And:

... freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of a single party – no matter how great their number – is not freedom at all. Freedom is always freedom for those who think differently. Not because of fanatical love of ‘Justice’, but because everything enlightening, healthy and purifying in political freedom depends on that and it loses all its efficiency when ‘Freedom’ becomes a privilege.

As to what actually happened, and the inevitable consequences: Lenin and Trotsky have replaced the representative bodies set up by general popular elections [6] by the Soviets as the sole true representation of the whole toiling masses. But with the suppression of political life throughout the whole country, the vitality of the Soviets themselves is bound to be gradually paralysed. Without general elections, unlimited freedom of the press and of association, and free struggle of opinions, life in every public institution slowly dies, it becomes a fiction of life, where only bureaucracy remains the active element. That is a law nobody can avoid.

Public life gradually goes to sleep; a few dozen party leaders with inexhaustible energy and limitless idealism direct and rule; amongst them, in fact, a dozen remarkable brains are leading, and an Úlite of the working class is summoned from time to time to applaud the speeches of the leaders, to vote unanimously the resolutions submitted to them, in the last resort a clique government – a dictatorship it is true, but not the dictatorship of the proletariat: the dictatorship of a handful of politicians, that is, a dictatorship in the bourgeois meaning of the word, in the Jacobin sense.

And so it was.

A short time after writing the above, Rosa Luxemburg lost her life to the mercenaries of the then Minister of the Interior, the Social-Democrat Noske (as he himself admitted in his memoirs), and her pamphlet on the Russian Revolution fell victim to a conspiracy of silence organised by the Bolsheviks. Had she escaped Noske, Stalin was there to repair the mistake.