Max Beer 1922

An Inquiry into Dictatorship I

Source: Labour Monthly, June 1922, pp. 399-404;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

An Inquiry into Dictatorship: By special arrangement with the LABOUR MONTHLY Max Beer, whose work on the History of British Socialism and on Marxian Theory has made him well known to readers in this country as the foremost living Socialist historian, has undertaken an inquiry into the whole theory and practice of dictatorship in relation to the working-class movement. This inquiry, which will be published serially in six numbers of the LABOUR MONTHLY, will bring to light many hitherto unpublished documents of the revolutionary movement, and will reveal a direct line of descent from the period of the French Revolution to Lenin that is still not generally realised. Special attention will be paid to the vexed question of Marx’s relation to the theory of dictatorship, and the results of the inquiry will have an important bearing on the whole present controversy over dictatorship in relation to Socialism.


§ 1 . – What it is and what it is not

Dictatorship is the exercise of quasi absolute governmental power by a single person or a limited number of persons in times of national or social emergencies. Yet it is neither absolutism nor usurpation, neither tyranny nor terrorism. It has in essence nothing to do with those forms and methods of government. It is distinctly marked off from them by two main characteristics. First, it either forms an integral part of free institutions, or adheres to the principle of parliamentary government or to the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people. Secondly, it is but a temporary suspension of public liberty, parliamentary arrangements, democracy, and social equality, with the sole view of shielding them from the deadly perils attendant upon internal crises and foreign wars, or of preparing the soil and the environment for the undisturbed incubation and growth of a new order of political and social justice; it has often been regarded as a means to regenerating society and making it efficient enough to fulfil the duties of a higher stage of civilisation. A governmental arrangement of this kind has indeed, as we shall see presently, been so often made use of in the course of European history that there appears to be much force in the observation made in 1848 by the French publicist, Emile de Girardin, that “il faut à tout régime nouveau, pour éclore, le nid de la dictature."[1]

§ 2. – Types of Dictatorship

There are known to history three types of dictatorship, namely, (1) the Roman, which was official and formed an integral part of the Constitution of the Roman republic; (2) the modern, which may be called unofficial, since it grew out of liberal and democratic revolutions, like that of the Civil War in England, out of which issued the dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell, or the French Revolution, which produced the National Convention and the Jacobin dictatorship of Robespierre and his colleagues; (3) the proletarian, which is a doctrinal and practical part of the social revolutionary movement and which is regarded as the prospective authority for governing society during its transition period from private property to industrial democracy.

The first two types of dictatorship are mainly political, while the latter is socialist or communist. Proletarian dictatorship is still a subject of acute controversy, turning however mainly on quotations from and scholastic interpretations of Marx and Engels, and, therefore, barren of satisfactory results. Only an historical inquiry into the development of the idea of dictatorship could, in my judgment, throw some light on this problem. It is the proletarian type of dictatorship which will form our main thesis, while the Roman and the modern types, being, as we have said, of a purely political nature and more of antiquarian than actual interest, will be briefly dealt with, so as to give at least historical sequence to the treatment of a problem which has of late aroused the attention of politicians and social writers, of statesmen and popular propagandists.

Political Dictatorships

§ 1. – Roman Official Dictatorship

In the beginnings of their republic, observes J.J. Rousseau, the Romans often had recourse to dictatorship, because the foundation of the State was not yet so firmly established as to maintain itself by the force of the Constitution alone. Those were times, however, when the manners of the people rendered the precautionary measures superfluous which at other times might have been necessary. There was then no fear that the dictator might abuse his power or attempt to wield it beyond the fixed term.[2] The three centuries during which the Roman republic from time to time had recourse to the appointment of a dictatorship or magister populi, about eighty times in all, were the most vigorous and successful in the long history of Rome. The first dictator was appointed, as is well known, in 498 B.C., the last in 202 B.C. – we thus exclude Sulla and Julius Caesar, who were simply usurpers. In those three hundred years Rome settled the social conflict between the patricians and the plebeians, absorbed the whole of Italy, fought the First and Second Punic Wars, beat Hannibal, and ruined Carthage, rose to a military and naval power of the first magnitude, and entered on her imperial career. Under the protecting shield of dictatorship the severest internal and foreign crisis which any nation ever had to encounter were boldly faced and triumphantly overcome. It is this period which made the Romans renowned for simplicity of manners and republican virtues, and a model people of whose deeds and struggles rising liberalism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were so fond of dwelling. After the Biblical figure of Gideon and David came Cincinnatus and Cato (major).

When the “Patriarcha,” the posthumous work of Sir Robert Filmer was published in 1680, which advocated the divine rights of kingship and, in mistaking dictatorship for absolutism, pointed out that even free Romans invested certain persons with absolute power, the great martyr to political freedom, Algernon Sidney, replied that great as the power of the dictators undoubtedly were, they arose from the law. The dictator was only absolute in relation to other magistrates, but not to the people whose sovereignty remained inviolate. Sidney then proceeds, “Though I do therefore grant that a power like to the dictatorian, limited in time circumscribed by law, and kept perpetually under the supreme authority of the people, may by virtuous and well disciplined nations, upon some occasions, be prudently granted to a virtuous man, it could not be made into an argument in favour of absolute and hereditary monarchy, for the latter claimed to have power in itself, subject to no law.” [3]

While Sidney idealised the Romans considerably, his distinction between absolutism and dictatorship is a real difference. It is worthy to note that Sidney was one of those members of Parliament whom the first modern dictator, Oliver Cromwell, in his overpowering energy and fury, ordered out of the House.

§ 2. – Unofficial Dictatorship: Cromwell; the National Convention

As it is only free nations which may have to undergo periods of dictatorship, it is quite evident that Imperial Rome and mediaeval Europe could have no dictators, but many despots and tyrants. We must, indeed move forward to the middle of the seventeenth century to find from national aspirations, attempts at liberation from despotism, revolutionary upheavals, and a dictator. And it was England which produced one in the person of Oliver Cromwell. In the critical transition period from absolutism to constitutional government, which was attended by civil and national wars; in the midst of a chaos in which the new order germinated; in deadly peril on the one hand from royalist reactions, and on the other from unbending legalism and constitutional pedantries, which brought all reform work to a standstill, Cromwell, the embodiment of the spirit of the new law, suspended Parliament, sent the legalists home, reorganised the power of England, staved off the first royalist reactions, and gave the nation time and opportunity to reassert itself and to regain its self-consciousness. Although his dictatorship lasted for about seven years, he usurped no power: he merely protected the sovereign nation during its birth-throes of a new political order.[4] A Roman dictator would surely have acted with more decorum and official dignity than Cromwell did in April, 1653, but in all else his functions would have been those of the English Protector. And they arose from the same cause and motives. Rousseau states that Roman dictatorship was also necessary on account of the rigidity of the law, which could not adapt its operations to the requirements of a national crisis.[5] Still less was it possible for the cumbersome Parliamentary machinery to keep pace with the accelerated movement of national history driven by revolutionary power. “Revolutions,” says Marx, “are the locomotives of history."[6] The gates of any Parliament are too strait to admit a locomotive. This is one of the reasons of unofficial dictatorships in revolutionary epochs.

The French Revolution widened the gates of its successive assemblies and none the less had finally to have recourse to dictatorship. Through the States-General, the Constituent Assembly, the National Assembly, and the National Convention the revolution marched on from the idea of constitutional monarchy to that of a middle-class republic (the Constitution of 1791) and pure formal democracy (the Constitution of 1793). The National Convention, after the purge of the Gironde and the intimidation of the Plain (or marsh), turned in October, 1793, into a Jacobin dictatorship. Its official name was Gouvernement Révolutionnaire. It suspended the democratic constitution in order to prepare the country for pure political democracy, to keep down the counter-revolution as well as the communists, and to direct the energies of the people against the foreign foes who encircled France and threatened to strangle her. We meet here again the two essential characteristics of dictatorship: national and social crises, and suspension of democracy, in order to save it. Within ten months – that is up to the Ninth Thermidor (July 27, 1794) – the Jacobin dictatorship laid the foundation of modern France. It established the new higher education, produced the civil code, introduced the metric system of weights and measures, extinguished the manorial rights, and bequeathed to the nation those ideas of formal democracy which fermented France and the whole of Europe for over a century after.

The best commentary on the motives that led to the suspension of the democratic constitution and the establishment of the Jacobin dictatorship was given by Buonarotti, the intimate friend of Robespierre and the real originator of the socialist dictatorship, of whom more later on. He writes:-

Some of those who had participated in the writing of the Constitution called democratic by the patriots, felt that it alone could not assure the welfare which Frenchmen demanded; they thought .... that it was necessary above all, to withdraw from the natural enemies of equality the means of deceiving, intimidating, and dividing the people; they knew that a series of extraordinary measures, which were indispensable to the bringing about of so happy and so great a change, were not compatible with the political forms of a normal organisation of society; finally, they were aware – and experience had since then more than justified their views – that without such preliminaries, universal suffrage as provided by the Constitution would mean the handing over of all power to the friends of all social abuses, and to lose for ever the opportunity for assuring public happiness.... From all these considerations the Constitution was suspended until the peace, and was replaced by a form of public authority which entrusted power to those people who had initiated the great work of emancipation, and which enabled them to keep down, by legal means, the internal enemies of liberty. This form of public authority was known as the Revolutionary Government; its energy and its achievements were prodigious.

Buonarotti believed that if this dictatorship had been given time and it had enjoyed the confidence of all revolutionary elements, it would have assured happiness and liberty to the French nation.[7]

The ten months of Jacobin dictatorship witnessed also the application of terrorist measures. Terrorism, however, is by no means essential to dictatorship. In France, it must be ascribed to the national temper, to the extremely dangerous condition in which Jacobinism found itself after the passing of its Constitution (1793), and to the inexorable logicality of purely political and legalist reasoning of men like Robespierre, Saint-Just, and all those who dominated the Convention. The Jacobin dictatorship was the highest manifestation of purely political thinking and formal democratic metaphysics, utterly impervious to the consideration that not government and constitutions, but the social economic forces form the foundation of society. Looked at from a socialist point of view, the two types of dictatorship dealt with hitherto appear to have been more or less progressive in political affairs, strong in all matters of national defence, and essentially conservative in all questions that concerned the transformation of the economic structure and conditions of society. Marx would call those types of dictatorship bourgeois. The Roman dictatorships were at first appointed to keep down the aspirations of the plebs; to maintain law and order; they were afterwards called upon to carry on the war. Cromwell set his face against the Levellers and the Saints; his dictatorial work comprised only moderate reforms in church, legal machinery, colleges and schools, and the very important national affair of the union of Scotland with England. Different in degree only, but similar in kind, were the dictatorial achievements of Robespierre and his colleagues.

Radicalism in politics, anti-communism in social economics, great achievements in the organisation of national affairs. All those dictators, from the fifth century B.C. to the end of the eighteenth century A.D., were increasingly political and middle class.

The National Convention, with its great successes in educational, legal, and other national activities, its prodigious dictatorial energy, and its lamentable failures in social and economic reforms, have, in various and divers respects, left an indelible impress on the mind of the masses. A certain distrust of formal democracy has remained as a legacy of Quatre-vingt-treize. The subsequent dictatorships have been increasingly social reformist, socialist, and communist, the rise and development of which we have now to trace.

(To be continued)

1. A new social order can only be hatched in the nest of dictatorship.

2. J.-J. Rousseau, Contrat Social, Book 4, Chapter 6.

3. Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, Chapter II, Section xiii.

4. Compare Frederic Harrison’s Oliver Cromwell, London, 1889, pp. 168-191 and 214.

5. J.J. Rousseau, l.c.

6. Karl Marx, Klassenkampfe in Frankreich, Berlin, 1895, p.90.

7. Buonarotti, Conspiration pour l’équalité, Brussels, 1828, pp. 33-41.