Max Beer 1922

An Inquiry into Dictatorship III

Source: Labour Monthly, August 1922, pp. 110-120;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

[In the preceding sections of this Inquiry, the germs of the conception of social or proletarian dictatorship have been traced in the first French revolutionary period. In the succeeding section, Max Beer comes to the formulation of the theory of proletarian dictatorship by Karl Marx. An intervening section dealing with the development of the revolutionary secret societies in France up to 1848, and particularly with Blanqui and his ideas, has been omitted in the present serial publication, but will be included in full in the book version of the Inquiry which will subsequently be issued. The present section brings together in review: Marx’s various statements on the Dictatorship of the Proletariat; the longest and most important of these, his address to the Communist League in 1850, which is still little known in this country, is held over for reprinting in full in the next issue. – ED.]

Karl Marx and the Proletarian Dictatorship

§ 1. – French Influences

Marx came to Paris late in the autumn of 1843. He brought with him a well-trained intellect, philosophical and literary knowledge, and a strong desire to study socialism, of which he had heard during his journalistic career at Cologne in 1842-43. The best place to study it was, at that time, Paris. For, since 1830, France was teeming with social criticism, and in 1843 the Socialist Movement had many writers and several periodicals. “For some time,” observes a contemporary French author who wrote in the years 1840-43, “there has arisen a concert of recriminations and anathemas against society. Every day a new champion appears in the arena to challenge the existing order; now in the name of literature, now in the name of science. The detractors of our social system abound, and they raise such a noise that few writers dare to defend it."[1]

This movement of social criticism had, theoretically, the following sources: Saint Simonism, Fourierism, the writings of Simonde de Sismondi and Pierre Proudhon, besides the Bible and primitive Christianity, Plato, and Sir Thomas More. It was indeed a large literary movement, but mainly of intellectuals; and it drew into its vortex even John Stuart Mill.

The Fourierists, with their chief literary man, Victor Considérant, dealt particularly with the antagonisms and dispersal of interests of the various social strata, the ruinous effects of free competition upon the lower middle classes and working people, the scientific achievements of this stage of society, the concentration of properties, and the imminent rise of a feudalism of capita1.[2] The Saint Simonians dealt with the historical development, the critical and organic stages of human society, the changes of the rights of property, the transitory nature of property. They demanded an organisation of labour to be effected by a centralised association of bankers for the benefit of all who took part in the production, according to their capacity and the work done.[3] Saint Simon himself, a few moments before his death. (1825), expressed the hope that a Labour Party would soon be founded.[4]

Simonde de Sismondi, a Swiss writer, and a younger contemporary of David Ricardo, with whom he had some intercourse, published a severe examination of the factory system, showing that Liberal economics, while they resulted in an augmentation of wealth, totally neglected distribution, and this neglect gave rise to pauperism and commercial crises, which threatened to divide society into a handful of magnates and multitudes of hungry slaves. The mechanical, inventions might even lead to a concentration of the means of production, which would allow a few people to produce goods for a whole nation deprived of any effective demand.[5]

Proudhon, in 1840, made a great stir by his “Qu’est-ce clue la propriété?” criticising the whole institution of property and demonstrating that its root was robbery. La propriété, c’est le vol. The possessors of the land could not have got it by virtue of the social compact, since that compact was entered into for the purpose of protecting equality, while we now saw great inequalities; neither could it rest on labour, since the soil was a free gift of nature. The same argument applied to movable wealth, which could not be the result of the labour of the owners, since the labourers were poor. Property was therefore the result of force, violence, and injustice.

Into this atmosphere came Marx in 1843. He eagerly studied all those movements. Their traces are distinct enough in the Communist Manifesto. But none of their leaders was able to offer any way out to a better future. Indeed, the social critics like Sismondi offered no remedy whatever; the Fourierists deplored the class division, civil wars, and revolutionary upheavals, feared revolutionary upheavals, and regarded the proletariat as the helpless victims of a stage of society, the inner forces of which would act through the industrial magnates and make them pass from competition to association. Considérant dedicated his Destinée sociale to King Louis Philippe, “the chief of the Government and the largest proprietor of France.” The Saint Simonians saw in the financiers the regenerators of society. Proudhon kept his measures of salvation a secret to himself; he had not yet come out with his free credit bank. All those writers, to whom may be added Louis Blanc, who in 1839 and 1841 published his Organisation du travail, abhorred revolution, and regarded themselves as advocates of “pacific evolution” – the very term is theirs.

Besides the theorists, Marx studied the practical movement of the proletariat: the traditions of the National Convention, of Robespierre and Babeuf, the recent experiences of the Blanquist organisations, which kept alive the embers of the revolutionary communist fire among the élite of the Parisian proletariat. Marx, in the Communist Manifesto, mentions the Babeuf conspiracy, paying honour to its memory. And in another place he speaks very highly of the société des saisons.[6] He regards it as a thoroughly proletarian and communist secret organisation which ought not to be confused with those middle-class republican conspiracies that occurred after 1820, the latter having been directed by professional conspirators, the alchemists of revolution, whose business it was to overthrow the Government by a coup-de-main, while the “saisons” had for their mission the organisation and education of the revolutionary elements of the proletariat, to imbue them with communism, and enable them to act as leaders of the masses in times of revolution. Marx even puts the société des saisons on the same level as his own Communist League, maintaining that both were the natural growth of the soil of capitalism.[7]

In the work of Buonarotti and Blanqui, as well as among the revolutionary proletariat and their organisations, Marx found revolutionary communism and the forces of negation which were to destroy the old and to build the new. He then went to work to sift his material and to lay the foundation of his system.

How did he do it? How did he reconcile the elements of evolution and revolution?

§ 2. – Evolution and Revolution

Marx sifted, co-ordinated, and systematised his evolutionary and revolutionary material by means of a philosophical generalisation learnt at the school of Hegel. The evolutionary material he found in the economics of Western Europe and in Saint Simonism, Fourierism, & c.; the revolutionary forces he found among the proletariat and their leaders, from the French Revolution to 1844. By virtue of his philosophical generalisations, social history proceeded by the three stages of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, or by the struggle of the antagonistic forces, in which the old positive is dissolved by the negative, the whole process resulting in a lifting of civilisation to a higher plane.

The conflict of the antagonistic elements must be developed and brought to a head by critical reason. This is the mission of the revolutionary intellect and volition. The negative personal forces must be inspired with consciousness of their struggle, of their object, of their aims and ends. This task implies, on the one hand, research, knowledge of the essentials of social life, of its forces, operations, and tendencies; and on the other hand, education and organisation of those elements which form the negation, finally bringing them into action.

Knowledge and action. Scientific research into the evolutionary process; mobilisation of the forces antagonistic to the old positive-revolutionary action.

This was the method of Marx, forged in the years after his arrival in Paris. It was later strengthened by his studies of the English industrial revolution, Chartism, and general politics. The method is evolution through revolution. Social progression by means of the class struggle. Without revolutionary action the evolutionary process of the economic foundation of society might result in a deadlock, leading to stagnation and decay.

Whenever we read a book of Marx we must first find out whether it is devoted to scientific research, to economic development, analysis of capitalism, production and exchange, or whether it deals with the action of the proletariat. The economic process is the evolutionary material; the socialist action of the proletariat and its communist leaders is revolutionary transformation.

In the Communist Manifesto the proletariat is the main subject. Therefore revolutionary factors prevail. Marx appears there as the philosopher of revolution.

In Capital it is modern industry which forms the main subject. The evolutionary factors are in the forefront of his disquisitions. Marx appears there as the analyst of the economic development.

In retracing our steps from the Communist Manifesto back to the Fourierists and Saint Simonians, to whom Marx is undoubtedly indebted, we perceive at once the distance which socialism had traversed in those four or five years from 1843 to 1847-48. It has progressed from the Saint Simonian financiers and the Fourierist proprietors arid woe-begone revolutionary croakers to the theories concerning the class struggle, the economic interpretation of history, and the mission of the proletariat as the revolutionary and socialist class.

§ 3. – The Communist League

Like the French secret societies, the German secret societies in Paris progressed from purely political and national to communist aims. German workmen and democrats who, from about 1830 onwards, were struggling for a free Germany, had to leave their native country and to carry on their propaganda either from Switzerland or Paris. In the latter town, which had gained particular attraction for revolutionists since the July revolution of 1830, the German refugees formed first “Societies of the Friends of Germany,” after the model of the “Amis du peuple”; then a “Society of the Banished,” from issued the “Society of the Just” (1836). This society was gradually turned into a communist organisation, some members of which belonged also to the société des familles and, later, to Blanqui’s société des saisons. Here they learned the technique of the revolutionary dictatorship, and became familiar with Buonarotti’s book. After the defeat of Blanqui in 1839, the German communists settled in London, where they joined the physical force wing of the Chartist Movement, or carried on their propaganda among the German workmen in London, and, through correspondence and missionaries, among the German refugees in Brussels, Paris, Hamburg, Berlin, Breslau, & c. At the end of 1846 they were advanced enough to learn of the work of Marx in Paris and Brussels, and they sent a delegation asking him to take the lead of the movement and attend their congress which was to take place in the summer of 1847. Marx could not come to London at that time, but a few months later (on November 21, 1847) he arrived in London, spoke at a public meeting of the Fraternal Democrats (Chartists), and then repaired to the Second Congress of the German League of the Just, which at that time was already known as the Communist League. At that congress he was commissioned to write a communist programme, and he wrote the Communist Manifesto. Marx is also the author of the preamble to the rules of the Communist League, which run as, follows: –


Proletarians of all Countries, Unite!

(1) The object of the League is the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the rule of the proletariat, the abolition of the old bourgeois society which is based on class antagonisms, and the establishment of a new society without classes and without private property.

(2) The conditions of membership are: –

(a) Revolutionary energy and zeal in propaganda;

(b) Adherence to communism;

(c) Non-participation in anti-communist, political, or national societies, and notice to the proper Party authority of participation in any other society.

Then followed the usual provisions concerning the enrolment of members, payment of dues, organisation, & c.

After the revolution of 1848, the Communist League removed its headquarters to Cologne and adopted the following revised rules (December, 1850)

The object of the Communist League is the destruction of the old society by means of propaganda and the political struggle, in order to effect the mental, political, and economic emancipation of the proletariat and to carry through the communist revolution. The League represents in the various stages of development through which the proletarian struggle has to pass the interests of the whole movement. It always seeks to rally round itself and to organise all revolutionary forces of the proletariat. It is secret and indissoluble until the proletarian revolution has achieved its object.

(2) The conditions of membership are: –

(a) Freedom from all religious ties; withdrawal from ecclesiastical associations.

(b) Insight into the conditions, development, and ulterior aims of the proletarian movement.

(c) Abstention from all associations and partial movements whose objects are inimical or destructive to the object of the League.

(d) Capacity and zeal in propaganda, unflinching fidelity to our convictions, revolutionary energy.

(e) Strict secrecy in all League matters ....

Up to the middle of 1850, George Julian Harney and Ernest Jones, the Chartist leaders, were members of the Communist League.

§ 4. – The Revolution of 1848 and Dictatorship

Less than a month after the outbreak of the February revolution in Paris, the various German States rose against their emperor, kings, and princes, at first in Vienna, then in Berlin, and in the smaller principalities. As we know, Marx was at that time in Paris; there he organised the German workmen in the Communist League and sent them over the frontier to take part in the German revolution. By the end of April, after having come into contact with the leaders of the French Socialist Movement, he and Engels left for Cologne, where the advanced elements of the population were on the point of publishing a democratic daily paper. They had collected some funds and soon handed over the paper to Marx. It was the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, which became the most advanced banner of the German revolution.

In Berlin the revolution had broken out on March 18, whereupon the leaders of the middle class entered the Government of Prussia, while the German professors, scholars, writers, and Liberal leaders were elected by the people to the Constituent Assembly at Frankfort-on-the Main to draft a free constitution for the empire. All went well until the French proletariat was crushed – about the end of June. With this defeat, the revolution in France and Germany was defeated. The militarists, royalists, and, generally, all reactionary classes recovered from the surprise of February and March and gradually gained the upper hand. By the middle of 1849 all the achievements of 1848 were lost. The organs of the revolution were suppressed, among them Neue Rheinische Zeitung. Marx, after having undergone two Press trials before the Cologne courts, was sent by the League to Paris, where he was threatened with banishment to Morbihan; he then left for London, where he settled in the autumn of 1849.

In London he founded the Neue Rheinische Revue, a monthly paper in which he attempted to take stock of the revolutionary events in France, and published, in 1850, a series of essays in which he attempted to explain in the light of the economic conception of history the defeat of June, 1848.[8] Simultaneously, he wrote an address to the members of the Communist League (March, 18 so). All those essays are eminently revolutionary, and they contain the first public expression of opinion by Marx on proletarian dictatorship and revolutionary tactics. Up to the middle of 1850, Marx encouraged by the revival of the agitation in Germany and of the Socialist Movement in France, was hopeful that the failures of 1848-49 could still be retrieved. He thought it therefore advisable to instruct the Leaguers as to their tactical movements in Germany.

We shall first give the commentary of Marx on the French events, and then the instructions to the German Leaguers as far as they are relevant to our subject. The commentary on the June defeat is as follows: –

The Paris proletariat was provoked and lured into the June insurrection, This fact alone is a sufficient condemnation of it. The proletariat itself did not feel the immediate need for the forcible overthrow of the bourgeoisie, not was it equal to such a task. The Moniteur declared plainly enough that the time was passed when the republic could be induced to pay honour to the illusions of the workers; and it needed the June defeat to convince them of the truth that it was Utopian to expect even the slightest improvement of their condition within bourgeois society, a Utopian expectation which was branded and punished as a crime as soon as any attempt was made to bring to fruition. In the place of the reform demands, which in rhetorical language looked big enough, but in essence were insignificant and of a bourgeois character, and which they tried to extract from the February Republic – in the place, I say, of such demands, the bold revolutionary battle-cry was heard: Overthrow of the bourgeoisie! Dictatorship of the Proletariat![9]

In Chapter III of the same work, which is the most powerful indictment of the social democrats of that period, Marx holds up all sorts of petty bourgeois socialism to ridicule and scorn, attacking particularly those social reforms which, instead of promoting the revolutionary movement of the working class, are recommending special panaceas for the ills of society, and declares:-

While the Utopian or doctrinaire socialism, which subordinates the whole movement to one of its moments, which in place of common social production puts the brain contortions of particular pedants and, before all, by petty jugglery and swollen sentiment seeks to spirit away the revolutionary war of the classes and its necessary concomitants – while this doctrinaire socialism which at bottom is but idealising present society, making a shadowless picture of it and then trying to pit this ideal against its own reality – while this sort of socialism is being made a present of by the proletariat to the petty bourgeoisie – while the rivalry between the various socialist chiefs is going on with regard to the excellence of their so-called systems as transition stages to social reconstruction – the proletariat is rallying more and more round the revolutionary socialism, round communism, for which the bourgeoisie has invented the name of Blanquism. This socialism is the declaration of the permanence of the revolution, the class dictatorship of the proletariat, as the necessary transition stage to the abolition of all class distinctions, the abolition of all conditions of production on which they are based, the abolition of all relations of production which correspond to those conditions of production, to the revolutionising of all ideas which spring from those social relations. The space of this essay does not permit of enlarging upon this subject.[10]

§ 5. – Of Universal Suffrage

The successful by-elections of the French socialists in 1850 inspired them with the democratic idea that socialism could, after all, be realised by the ballot. Marx, commenting on this, declares:-

The new electoral victory of April 28, 1850, imbued the montagnards (the democrats) and the petty bourgeoisie with wanton optimism. They exulted in the thought that they would arrive at the goal of their desire without a new, revolution in which they might have again to push the proletariat into the forefront: they calculated that at the general elections of 1852 they would have the majority in Parliament and make their hero, Ledru-Rollin, President of the French Republic. What happened then? The Party of Order replied to the electoral successes of the petty bourgeoisie by the abolition of the universal suffrage! .... On May 8, the new Electoral Bill was brought in. The whole social democratic Press rose as one man in order to preach to the people the necessity of dignified behaviour, calme majestueux, passivity, and complete confidence in its representatives. Every article of those journals was a confession that a revolutionary upheaval would destroy the “revolutionary” Press, and that it was now a question of life and death of the people’s Press. The alleged revolutionary Press betrayed its secret. It signed its own death sentence.

On May 21, the Montagne initiated a debate and demanded the rejection of the Bill, arguing that it represented a flagrant violation of the Constitution. The Party of Order replied that, if necessary, the Constitution would violated, but meanwhile such a necessity did not arise, since the Constitution admitted of various interpretations, and that the majority of the Chamber was the competent authority to decide on the proper interpretation. Against the unbridled and wild attacks of the leaders of the Right, the Montagne appealed to the principles of equality and humanity, they took their stand the ground of legality. The leaders of the Right likewise planted their feet on the ground on which legality grows and flourishes, namely, on the soil of bourgeois property. On May 31, 1850, the Bill was passed into law.... An army of 150,000 men in Paris, the dilatory debates, the appeasement by the Press, the pusillanimity of the Montagne and of the newly elected representatives, the majestic calm of the lower middle class, and, above all, the commercial and industrial prosperity prevented any revolutionary attempt on the part of the proletariat.

The universal suffrage had served its historic purpose. The majority of the people had passed through an instructive stage of development, to which the suffrage, in a revolutionary epoch, had supplied the materials. It had to be ended, either by revolution or reaction.

The ending of universal suffrage by revolution could only mean the establishment of the dictatorship. Marx particularly points out that universal suffrage “weakened the energy of the French people by habituating them to legal triumphs instead of revolutionary ones.”

§ 6. – Tactical Problems of the Communists

Simultaneously with the publication of the first essays on the February revolution, Marx sent a general circular to the branches of the League. This circular constitutes the clearest general statement of Marx’s view of the relation of the revolutionary working-class movement to democracy.[11]

In a second address, London, June, 1850, Marx deals with the conditions of the Communist League, and informs the members that the central authority has come into close touch with the revolutionary elements of England and France. “Of the revolutionists, the real proletarian party, whose chief is Blanqui, has joined our organisation. The delegates of the Blanquist secret societies are in regular and official communication with the delegates of our League, whom they entrusted with important preliminary work for the next French revolution The leaders of the Chartist Movement are likewise in intimate communication with the delegates of our executive. Their papers are at our disposal. The break between this revolutionary independent workers’ party and those elements under O’Connor, who are disposed towards a conciliation with the bourgeoisie, has been accelerated by the delegates of the League.” [12]

Two years later, Marx had again occasion to refer to the proletarian dictatorship. A friend of his, Herr Weydomeyer (a Westphalian gentleman and former artillery officer), was a member of the Communist League and had taken part in the German revolution, just escaped being made prisoner, and went to America, where he published a periodical, Die Revolution, for which Marx wrote “The Eighteenth Brumaire.” Marx, having been informed that the German democrats in America were attacking him for his class-war theories, wrote to Weydomeyer on March 12, 1852, that he was quite innocent of the discovery of the class antagonisms of society, since that discovery had been made long ago by various French and English historians and economists, particularly by Aug. Thierry, Guizot, and Ricardo; and that, during the whole free-trade agitation in England, the leaders knew well that behind the struggle for a new trade policy there was concealed the class struggle between the manufacturers and the landowners. Mr. Disraeli, in his election address, 1852, expressly declared that the time had come “to put an end to the class war.” Marx then proceeds to say: –

As far as I am concerned, I cannot arrogate to myself the honour of having discovered the existence of the classes in modern society or their struggles with one another. Middle-class historians had long before me described the historical development of this strife of the classes, and middle-class political economists stated the economic anatomy of the classes. I have but added as a new contribution (1) that the existence of classes is bound up with certain historical struggles in the development of production; (2) that the class struggle leads necessarily to the dictatorship of the proletariat; (3) that this dictatorship is itself but the transition to the abolition of all classes and to the creation of a society of free and equal citizens.[13]

On April 12, 1871, he wrote concerning the Paris Commune to his friend, Dr. Kugelmann, Hanover: –

If you look again at the last chapter of my Eighteenth Brumaire you will find my opinion that the next French revolution will no more attempt to transfer the bureaucratic military State machinery from one hand to another, but will try to break it in pieces, and this is the preliminary condition of any revolution on the Continent. And this is the attempt of our heroic comrades in Paris.... If they are defeated it will be due solely to their “good nature.” They ought to have marched against Versailles as soon as General Vinoy and the reactionary part of the National Guards had left the field.... Second mistake: the Central Committee relinquished their power too early into the hands of the Commune, again from “scrupulous uprightness."[14]

The retention of power by the Central Committee, a body that consisted of the workers’ leaders and nominated by the insurgents, who had risen against the Versailles Government and proclaimed the commune, would have meant a dictatorship, while the administration of the commune which issued from a municipal general election was a regular local authority. Marx was evidently of opinion that the Central Committee ought to have used their dictatorial power until peace was declared or the revolution terminated, when a normal municipal government would have become possible.

In 1873, in an article to the Italian paper Plebe, Marx, arguing against the anarchist and Bakuninian anti-State propaganda, asked what crime there was against the spirit of communism if, at the final victorious revolutionary struggle of the working class, “we are determined to put in the place of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie the dictatorship of the working class.” [15]

Finally, we have Marx’s statement about dictatorship in his criticism of the Gotha programme, adopted in 1875 at the unification congress at Gotha between the Lassalleans and the Marxists, of which Marx thoroughly disapproved, criticising it in the severest manner as a piece of petty bourgeois democratic and social reformist work. Marx says: –

The question is, What changes will the State undergo in a Communist society? In other words, which are the social functions that will still remain there, and which are analogous to the present-day State functions? This question can only be answered by scientific research, and no amount of compositions of the words “people” and “State” brings us nearer to the solution of the problem. Between the capitalist and the communist society, there intervenes a period of revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. To this transformation corresponds also a political transition period, the state of which can be nothing else than the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat. Now, the Gotha programme has to do neither with the latter nor with the future state of the communist society. Its political demands contain nothing but the old well-known democratic litany – universal suffrage, direct legislation, popular rights, popular militia, & c. They are a mere echo of the bourgeois democracy, of the Peace and Freedom League. Even vulgar democracy, which regards the democratic republic as the millennium and has no idea that in this last form of bourgeois society the class struggle will be definitely fought out – even this democracy is far superior to that of the Gotha programme.[16]

1. Louis Reybaud, Etudes sur les réformateurs ou socialistes modernes, Vol. II, p.1, Paris, 1843.

2. Victor Considérant, Destineé sociale, Paris, 1837, Vol. I, pp. 189-221.

3. Saint-Amand Bazard, Exposition de la doctrine Saint-Simonienne, pp. 228-281. Vol. 41 of Oeuvres de Saint-Simon et d’Enfantin. Paris, 1877.

4. Louis Reybaud, Etudes sur les réformateurs, Vol. I, p.63, Paris, 1840; also Charles Pecqueur, Theorie nouvelle d’economie sociale, p. v, Paris, 1842.

5. S. de Sismondi, Nouveaux principes d’economie politique, 1919; Etudes sur l’economie politique, 1837.

6. Literarischer Nachlass von Marx und Engels, edited by Mehring, Vol. II, pp. 428, 432, Stuttgart, 1902.

7. Neue Zeit (periodical edited by Kautsky, Stuttgart), Ergänzungsheft 12, Letters to Freilegrath.

8. These essays were republished under the title Klassenkämpfe in Frankreich, 1848, by the Berlin Vortwärts in 1895.

9. Karl Marx, Klassenkämpfe in Frankreich, Berlin, 1895, p.40

10. Ibid, pp. 93-94.

11. The text of this circular is held over for reproduction in full in the next issue. – Ed.

12. Wermuth and Stieber, p.265.

13. Published in Neue Zeit (edited in Stuttgart by Karl Kautsky), 1906-1907, Vol. II, pp. 164-165.

14. Published in Neue Zeit (edited in Stuttgart by Karl Kautsky), XX, Vol. I, pp. 709-710.

15. Ibid. 1890, pp. 19 et seq.

16. Ibid. 1890-1891, pp. 561 et seq.