Max Shachtman


Dictatorship of Party or Proletariat?

Remarks on a Conception of the AWP ... and Others

(July 1934)

From New International, Vol.1 No.1, July 1934, pp.9-11.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

EVER since the Russian revolution restored the idea of proletarian dictatorship to its rightful place in living Marxian doctrine, the social reformists of all varieties have condemned it as obsolete or rejected it with a contemptuous reference to its possible or exclusive applicability to Uzbecks, Bashkirs and other Asiatic Bolsheviks. In the last year, however, the titanic shock of the Austrian cataclysm has blown breaches through the democratic dogmas of official socialism and everywhere in its ranks new voices are being heard.

“The establishment of the proletarian dictatorship,” declares the latest program of the American Socialist Party’s “Militants Group”, “is again being proclaimed by one party after another as the first step on the road to socialism.” Otto Bauer has somewhat belatedly reminded himself that the “revolutionary dictatorship of the working class” ought to be established when next the opportunity is afforded in Austria. The Detroit convention of the Socialist Party voted for the idea, after which a corps of National Executive Committee lawyers, apparently oblivious of the fact that the United States Supreme Court would willingly and freely do the job for them, was sent scurrying through law libraries to find out if the dictatorship of the proletariat is constitutional. Even Mr. Norman Thomas is in the mode and dallies distantly with one of the less impolite pseudonyms for the dictatorship, workers’ democracy.

If the late Elbert H. Gary could say, “We are all socialists now” – it can be said today, “We are all for the dictatorship of the proletariat now.” And exactly in the same spirit For, are we not to be permitted a meek skepticism about the sudden conversion to proletarian dictatorship on the part of many who up to yesterday were justly considered congenital Right wingers ? Alas, the skepticism is more than warranted the minute one looks a line further than the formula itself in the various new documents that multiply like rabbits.

The resolution of the “Left” wing minority at the Paris conference of the Second International last August declares itself, for example, for the “dictatorship of the revolutionary party”. The Militants Group, which supported this resolution, has tardily discovered that this is a bad translation (cf., their program, p.15). It should read “the dictatorship of the revolutionary classes”. Which classes? The proletariat and what other? To muddle up what is already obscure, we are told further that proletarian democracy “is the only guarantee for the development of the dictatorship by the revolutionary classes into a dictatorship of workers and peasants”. Assuming for the moment that by the time this article appears it will not have been discovered that another bad translation has been made, it is not improper to ask just what is to be the content of the dictatorship by the revolutionary classes which, with the aid of one thing or another, is to develop into what is apparently something else, a dictatorship of workers and peasants.

We are further confounded by the proposal (p.16} that the “phrase ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ may not be advisable to express the ideas for which it stands ... it is desirable to designate it by some other term, such as ‘workers’ democracy’”. The American Workers Party thus gains an adherent, for it advances essentially the same idea in its program and discussions. But the Militants Group is not the only one. Norman Thomas (New Leader, May 12, 1934) shows just what can be done with this “pseudonym” for the dictatorship of the proletariat, by saying “that even in a transitional period the ideal to hold up and to work for is workers’ democracy rather than a dictatorship of the proletariat, which means a dictatorship of one party”. [1] The Militants Group program (p.14) which is for the proletarian dictatorship (but not for the “Russian way”) is, however, opposed to the “one party dictatorship for which Stalinism stands”. (We shall see presently who stands for that) One of the latter-day Militants who wisely hopped on its bandwagon at the last moment as the most effective way of saving reformism and who instantly became a prominent luminary – Haim Kantorovitch – rounds out the conception: “What we have in Russia at present is not a dictatorship of the proletariat, but a dictatorship over the proletariat.” (Towards Socialist Re-orientation, p.19, Italics by H.K.) [2]

So they are all for one kind of dictatorship of the proletariat or another, just as even Morris Hillquit was in 1921 when he cleverly adjusted himself to the spirit of the day in order to save the spirit of yesterday. But they all recoil like one man from the Medusa: “dictatorship of the party”, or “dictatorship of one party”. (The Militants Group proposes the re-legalization of the Mensheviks in Russia!) To some, that is pure Bolshevism. Others, who wrap themselves in a few shreds of Bolshevism against the winds of Left wing criticism, shrewdly make the idea seem odious by calling it Stalinism.

The hostility to a dictatorship of the party is shared by the American Workers Party. In its open letter to the Revolutionary Policy Committee of the Socialist Party it assails the Stalinists for their “revisionist identification of workers” democracy with party dictatorship”. In the discussion session between its sub-committee and the Communist League of America”s (June 6, 1934), a warm polemic developed because of our refusal to accept their standpoint on this question. Now, the dictatorship in all its aspects and implications remains the fundamental question of the program. The conception of comrades Budenz, Burnham and Hook was not only that the dictatorship of the proletariat and the dictatorship of the party are not identical (which they are not, to be sure), but that they exclude each other, the latter producing the degeneration of the former; that there is an immanent contradiction and conflict between the two. Our own standpoint was not only gratuitously compared with Stalin”s, but we were confidently challenged to present and defend it.

It is not in the spirit of accepting a challenge that we intend to do precisely that, but more out of consideration for the obviously urgent need of establishing clarity in this highly important question, mindful not only of the AWP position but also of the position of those thinking socialists who no longer shy away from either the phrase or the idea of the proletarian dictatorship (even in America).

Is the dictatorship of the proletariat identical with the dictatorship of the party ? Obviously not. That would be as absurd as to ask if the proletariat itself is identical with its party. Did any representative Bolshevik ever entertain such an idea, before or after Lenin”s death? Never, to our knowledge. In 1922, the eleventh congress of the Russian Communist Party “especially underscored” the resolution of the eighth congress, in 1919, on the mutual relations between party and Soviet organs: “The functions of the party collective must in no case be confounded with the powers of the state organs, such as are the Soviets. Such a confusion would yield disastrous results, particularly in the military field. The party endeavors to direct the activity of the Soviets, but not to replace them.” (Russische Korrespondenz, April-May 1922, p. 283.)

– Then it is not a dictatorship of the party, said the Bolsheviks!

– Not so fast! It is a dictatorship of the proletariat. So the Bolsheviks said, and so indeed it was. But never did they put the question: dictatorship of the proletariat or dictatorship of the party, dictatorship of the proletariat versus dictatorship of the party. They left that kind of metaphysic to two classes of opponents: the reformists, led by Kautsky, and the ultra-Leftist, semi-anarchist or semi-syndicalist groups, led by the German Communist Labor Party. The reason why they never counterposed the two will be seen from the writings of Lenin and other authoritative spokesmen. Magister dixit – that does not prove the validity of one side of the argument or the other. Not necessarily or at all times. But this time what is involved is precisely what these authentic teachers did say on the question. Consequently we permit ourselves to confine the dispute essentially to quotations from Lenin, Trotsky and others so as to establish whether the dictatorship of the party is Leninist or “revisionist”, i.e., a Stalinist innovation.

“The question arises:” asked one group of German ultra-Leftists in its pamphlet of 1920, “Who should be the wielder of this dictatorship; the Communist Party or the proletarian class ...? On principle, should we strive towards the dictatorship of the Communist Party or the dictatorship of the proletarian class?”

To which Lenin, who advised western revolutionists to praise the Bolsheviks less and learn from their experiences more, retorted:

“The very posing of the question: ‘Dictatorship of the party or dictatorship of the class? – Dictatorship (party) of the leaders or dictatorship (party) of the mass?’ is proof of a quite incredible and hopeless mental confusion. People wear themselves out in order to concoct something extraordinary, and in their intellectual zeal make themselves ridiculous.” (Collected Works, Vol.XXI, p.225 [German edition])

At the end of the same year, in a speech to the party fraction in the eighth all-Russian Soviet congress, Lenin dealt with exactly the same question from a somewhat different angle:

“The dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be realized by means of an unbroken organization, for not only with us, in one of the most backward capitalist countries, but in all the other capitalist countries as well, the proletariat still remains so split up, so bowed down, here and there so corrupted (particularly by imperialism in the separate countries), that an all-embracing organization of the proletariat cannot directly realize its dictatorship. The dictatorship can be realized only by that vanguard which has absorbed the revolutionary energy of the class. In this manner there arises to a certain extent a system of cog-wheels. That is what the mechanism of the foundation of the dictatorship of the proletariat looks like, the essence of the transition from capitalism to Communism.” (Selected Works, The Struggle for the Social Revolution, p.890 [German edition])

Again, in his speech to the educational congress held shortly after the revolution, Lenin declared:

“When we are reproached for establishing the dictatorship of a single party and the single socialist front is proposed to us, we reply: ‘Yes, dictatorship of a single party and on that score we shall not yeld, for it is this party which, in the course of many years, has won its place as vanguard of the whole industrial proletariat.’” (G. Zinoviev, Le Leninisme, p.303)

In this spirit, the twelfth congress of the Russian Communists adopted a resolution stating: “The dictatorship of the working class can be secured in no other way than through the form of the dictatorship of its advanced vanguard, that is, the Communist party.”

In far greater detail, we have the view of Trotsky, written down in a work which enjoyed the official approval of the Russian Communists and the Communist International as well as a wide distribution in several languages.

“The exceptional role of the Communist party in the victorious proletarian revolution is quite comprehensible. The question is of the dictatorship of the class. Into the composition of the class there enter various strata, heterogeneous moods, different levels of development. The dictatorship, however, presupposes unity of will, direction, action. Along what other road then can it be attained? The revolutionary supremacy of the proletariat presupposes within the proletariat itself the political supremacy of a party, with a clear program of action and an inviolable internal discipline.

“The policy of coalitions contradicts internally the regime of the revolutionary dictatorship. We have in view, not coalitions with bourgeois parties, of which of course there can be no talk, but a coalition of Communists with other ‘Socialist’ organizations, representing different stages of backwardness and prejudice of the laboring masses.

“The revolution swiftly undermines all that is unstable, wears out all that is artificial; the contradictions glossed over in a coalition are swiftly revealed under the pressure of revolutionary events. We have had an example of this in Hungary, where the dictatorship of the proletariat assumed the political form of a coalition of the Communists with the compromisers decked in red. The coalition soon broke up. The Communist party paid heavily for the revolutionary incompetence and political treachery of its companions. It is quite obvious that for the Hungarian Communists it would have been more advantageous to have come to power later, after having afforded the Left compromisers the possibility of compromising themselves once and for all. How far this was possible, is another question. In any case, the coalition with the compromisers only temporarily hid the relative weakness of the Hungarian Communists, at the same time prevented them from growing stronger at the expense of the compromisers, and brought them to disaster.

“The same idea is sufficiently illustrated by the example of the Russian revolution. The coalition of the Bolsheviks with the Left Social Revolutionists, which lasted for several months, ended with a bloody conflict. True, the reckoning for the coalition had to be paid, not so much by us Communists as by our perfidious companions. It is obvious that such a coalition, in which we were the stronger side, and therefore were not taking too many risks in the attempt to make use of the extreme Left wing of petty bourgeois democracy for the duration of an historical stretch of the road, tactically must be completely justified. But nonetheless, the Left SR episode quite clearly shows that the regime of compromises, agreements, mutual concessions – for that is what a coalition regime is – cannot last long in an epoch in which situations change with extreme rapidity, and in which supreme unity in point of view is necessary in order to render possible unity of action.

“We have more than once been accused of having substituted for the dictatorship of the Soviets the dictatorship of our party. Yet it can be said with complete justice that the dictatorship of the Soviets became possible only by means of the dictatorship of the party. It is thanks to the clarity of its theoretical vision and its firm revolutionary organization that the party assured the Soviets the possibility of becoming transformed from amorphous parliaments of labor into the apparatus of the domination of labor. In this ‘substitution’ of the power of the party for the power of the working class there is nothing accidental, and in reality there is absolutely no substitution at all. The Communists express the fundamental interests of the working class. It is quite natural that, in the period in which history places these interests on the order of the day in all their magnitude, the Communists should become the recognized representatives of the working class as a whole ... The Kautskyans accuse the Soviet power of being the dictatorship of a “section” of the working class. ‘If only,’ they say, ‘the dictatorship was carried out by the whole class!’ It is not easy to understand what they actually have in mind by this. The dictatorship of the proletariat, by its innermost essence, signifies the direct domination of the revolutionary vanguard, which rests upon the heavy masses, and where necessary, obliges the backward rear to conform with the head.” (Terrorismus und Kommunismus, p.90ff.)

By this time a fairly accurate idea should exist as to where the “revision” is located, or rather where it is not located. Now let us inquire into where a revision, without quotation marks, actually did occur. The results will not prove uninteresting, and to some – surprising.

In 1924, a brochure called The Results of the Thirteenth Congress of the Russian Communist Party commented on the phrase “dictatorship of the party” as follows: “I remember that in one of the resolutions of our congress, it even appears, in the resolution of the twelfth congress, such an expression was permitted, naturally as an oversight [!] ... Then Lenin is wrong in speaking of the dictatorship of the proletariat and not of the dictatorship of the party,” concludes the author with that irony peculiarly his own.

The author is no other than the same Stalin to whom Kantorovitch and others, with such cruel injustice, attribute the introduction into Soviet life of the idea of party dictatorship as against the Dictatorship of the proletariat! Had they said black is white they could not be further from the truth.

Immediately after the appearance of the brochure, Zinoviev penned a stiff reply in which the Lenin position was reproduced and which, with the approbation of the overwhelming majority of the members of the Central Committee and the Political Bureau, appeared in Pravda (No.190). By 1926, however, not only had Zinoviev joined with Trotsky in the famous Opposition Bloc but Stalin had gained sufficient control of the party apparatus to attack more impudently and with greater impunity every fundamental idea for which Lenin and the party ever stood. Stalin now took the offensive on the question and raked Zinoviev fore and aft for his views on the dictatorship of the proletariat and the party, especially as expressed in his book Leninism, compiled from lectures delivered in 1924 which were, in their time, anonymously directed at Stalin. The polemic can be found, among other places, in the speeches delivered by the two opponents at the November-December 1926 plenary session of the executive committee of the Communist International (seventh plenum).

The theoretical import of the dispute is far from trifling, but the practical results of Stalin”s position are of even greater concern. Stalin’s standpoint did not mean, as might be superficially indicated, that he stood for the rule of million-headed masses instead of its “undemocratic usurpation” by a comparatively tiny party. Just the opposite tendency should be discerned. After mechanically counter-posing the one to the other, Stalin has strangled Soviet democracy by strangling party democracy. The Soviets themselves have been hollowed out into shells because the Stalinist apparatus has systematically clubbed the party into an amorphous, impotent pulp. (The reformist elucubrations about Stalin’s “dictatorship of the party” are positively ludicrous, even in the sense in which it is used; it is precisely the party that Stalin has crushed!) The indispensable pre-requisite for the reestablishment and the widest extension of Soviet democracy, for the reconsolidation of the proletarian dictatorship which Stalinism Has undermined, is nothing short of the rebuilding and restoration to its former supremacy of the revolutionary Communist party in the USSR! To probable critics:

Shouldn’t the real (?!) power lie with the Soviets, after all ? Yes, but not as against the revolutionary party (see, Germany and Austria in 1918, Cronstadt, Miliukov’s slogan: “Soviets without Communists”). The Soviet system is the political form of the dictatorship of the proletariat which is firmly realizable only through its vanguard, the party.

Isn’t a Soviet-party conflict theoretically possible, and in that case who would submit to whom? All sorts of things are theoretically possible; consequently, “theoretically” the party would submit and seek to convince the Soviets.

Aren’t you presupposing an ideal, incorruptible revolutionary party, which you really cannot guarantee? We guarantee nothing in the class struggle. If the party degenerates, fight inside for its regeneration; if that becomes hopeless, fight to build a new one. Without it – no dictatorship of the party, nor of the proletariat; no Soviet democracy – only the triumph of reaction.

How can you one-party-dictatorship people win the socialists when you tell them that after the revolution their party will be suppressed? (The Stalinists often ask us how we can propose a united front with the party that betrayed the workers!) We do not, however, tell the socialists anything of the kind. The revolutionary dictatorship will suppress only those who take up arms against it – the Bolsheviks never did more than that in Russia (see, Trotsky’s article in 1932 on Socialist and Communist relations in the struggle to seize power in Germany, The Militant, No.168.)

How can you be so sure that events, let us say, in the United States will follow the Russian pattern in such details? 1. It is not the “Russian” pattern; 2. The Hungarian revolution broke its neck on this “detail”; 3. History is not for professors, but something to learn from, and truth being always concrete, the lessons to be drawn from the history of the last seventeen years, at least, of revolutionary struggle lead to certain inescapable conclusions. We leave it to Kantorovitch to mumble (at this late date!) about the “possibility” of following several “non-Russian” roads to power. We follow Lenin.



1. Unless otherwise indicated, all italics are my own. M.S.

2. Kantorovitch’s Militants demand the defense of the Soviet Union, where a dictatorship over the proletariat prevails. Why? What class is dictating over the proletariat ? What system of property relations does this class represent and defend, well or ill? In any other country where there exists a dictatorship over the proletariat (Italy, Germany, France, United States) we regard it as simple social patriotism to “defend the fatherland”. Loose and ambiguous language does not always mean a loose mind; sometimes it means an extremely “astute” one.

Max Shachtman

Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 17.11.2005