Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Irwin Silber

’...fan the flames’

First Published: The Guardian, February 25, 1976.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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All communists owe a vote of thanks to the revisionist Communist Party of France.

When, at its recently concluded 22nd national congress, the French CP formally dropped the thesis of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” from its set of basic principles, it performed an act of ideological clarification which should help to dispel whatever lingering doubts might still remain concerning the political bankruptcy of the Communist Parties of the major capitalist countries.

In a variety of ways, other Western CPs have done the same thing. Some have abandoned the goal of proletarian dictatorship in favor of an “historical compromise” (Italy) with bourgeois parties to “save” their respective countries or as part of a strategy of “revolutionary parliamentarianism.”

For its part, the U.S. Communist Party states that it has a strategy for socialism that is “within the American constitutional framework,” an aim which one might reasonably conclude forecloses the concept of smashing the bourgeois state and establishing proletarian dictatorship.

Why is the question of proletarian dictatorship so important?

Why did Lenin say in “State and Revolution”: “Those who recognize only the class struggle are not yet Marxists…Only he is a Marxist who extends the recognition of the class struggle to the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat... This is the touchstone on which the real understanding and recognition of Marxism should be tested.”

But the thesis did not originate with Lenin. As early as 1852 Karl Marx wrote: “No credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle.... What I did that was new was to prove.... 2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

So, the action of the French CP is not some minor pronouncement, an amendment of some secondary doctrinal thesis. It is an important revision of one of the most fundamental of the propositions of scientific socialism.

Still, we are not talmudists who stand in awe of the “sacred writings,” defending “scripture” at all costs against the ravages of time, experience and new ideas. Those who have abandoned the concept of proletarian dictatorship assert, after all, that times have changed and circumstances are different. Some even say–a remarkable coincidence of terminology here between, the French CP and some theorists for the New American Movement (NAM)–that they are really not opposed to the “content” of the phrase, only that harsh-sounding word “dictatorship,” which, they’re afraid will rub too many people the wrong way.

First, what must be said, is that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is not a concept that can be considered all by itself. Not only is it inextricably bound up with the class struggle, as Marx pointed out, but it is inseparable from both the Marxist theory of the state and the fundamental proposition that mass armed struggle is the only guarantor of socialist revolution.

What this means is that when the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is excised from the body of scientific socialism, the political heart of Marxism-Leninism has been removed along with it. One is left, at that point, only with a Marxist-oriented sociology of classes and either a hopelessly Utopian vision of socialism or–what is even worse–the substitution of blatant reformism for socialist revolution.

Why is this so? Because the struggle for socialism is, in the first place, the struggle by the proletariat to seize state power. It is only upon the seizing of state power–most particularly in smashing the military and police power of the bourgeois state which is the principal prop of capital–that the working class can proceed with the business of reorganizing society along socialist lines.

This should not be so hard to understand. As the experience of Chile demonstrated, what is the good of winning control of the parliament or even the presidency so long as the foundation of the state–the armed power of the police and army–remains under the control of the bourgeoisie?

To fantasize about “curbing the power of the monopolies” by creating an “antimonopoly coalition” that might–under some vaguely defined set of circumstances–score a smashing electoral victory in the U.S., is to transform the principles of scientific socialism into something more suitable for smoking in the privacy of one’s room late at night when the unrestrained pleasures of imagination are to be enjoyed for a passing moment.

When one abandons the thesis of the dictatorship of the proletariat, one simultaneously abandons any claim to be taken seriously as a revolutionary. With such a statement, the bourgeoisie has been put on notice that its most powerful political vehicle–the armed bourgeois state– will not be tampered with by those who are putting themselves forward before the workers as their “vanguard.”

Indeed, under such circumstances, the monopoly capitalists may well permit such “revolutionaries” a part of the political pie at the appropriate moment.

The dictatorship of the proletariat is the indispensable political instrument required by the working class to hold state power, smash the iron grip of the monopoly capitalists on the whole legal, military and judicial system and to create the new organs of popular power required for taking over the means of production and operating them on behalf of the working masses as a whole.


Abandoning the dictatorship of the proletariat is an act of political pacifism, a surrender to the class enemy even before the battle has been finally joined.

Well, perhaps this is just a ruse on the part of the revisionist CPs? Maybe it’s a way to disarm the bourgeoisie! Possibly the French and Italian parties, given the fact that they have such a large base in the working class, should make a real bid for power within the existing parliaments and–as good Marxists–if and when the bourgeoisie proves too recalcitrant, they can still go back to the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

In a sense, this is the fig-leaf of Leninist respectability to which the CPUSA clings when they say that in the final analysis the working class has the right to defend its democratic gains by force if the ruling class attempts to block the popular will by counterrevolutionary means.

But revolution is not an improvised game in which moves and countermoves are simply developed at each moment. The working class will never make a revolution unless it comes to understand the basic nature of the bourgeois state and the necessity for overthrowing it. The vanguard power must plan for the day when it will be forced to operate illegally at the very time when it can still operate in the open. The workers must be educated to the theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Are these the only things a communist party does? Of course not. But if it fails to do these things–if it openly and brazenly abandons a proposition that is indispensable to making revolution–all its protestations of devotion to Lenin and the working class to the contrary, it can only lead the workers right into the hands of their oppressors.

But even conceding the possibility that these revisionist CPs are really masking their true ideas for the moment is to give them too much credit.

In both France and Italy, the possibilities of “office” for the revisionist parties are just over the political horizon.

The Italian CP is within two percentage points of being the country’s largest electoral force and is standing patiently in the wings waiting for the call to assume the responsibility for “saving” the country. That this call can only emanate from the Italian bourgeoisie is so obvious that it hardly requires amplification.

The French party has been watching Italy with growing interest and envy. In France, the coalition between the Socialist Party and the French CP has achieved as much as 49% of the vote in certain circumstances. Thus, with visions of political sugar plums dancing in his head, French Party secretary Georges Marchais called for his “communism under the French colors” and declared that the traditional “raised fist is not in the French tradition.” Instead, said Marchais, “we are for the outstretched hand,” a juxtaposition of symbols that does not require comment.

This is opportunism so classic one expects to hear the strains of a Brahms symphony as accompaniment. The latest pronouncement from Paris formally abandoning the dictatorship of the proletariat is, however, only the explicit enunciation on a key ideological question of the abandonment of Marxism-Leninism and the consolidation of revisionism by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and those who followed in its orbit.

This process has taken place over the course of two decades now. It owes as much to the ideological disintegration of the Soviet party leadership with its line on “peaceful transition” and a “warless world” in the age of imperialism as it does to the class position of these parties in their own countries.

True, the latest moves have been accompanied by a show of “independence” from Moscow. But neither the French nor Italian CP could have much hope for a “share of power” in their respective bourgeois governments without putting some distance between themselves and their Soviet mentors. In the long run, however, abandoning the goal of proletarian dictatorship will prove even more reassuring to the monopoly capitalists than public expressions of concern over the fate of some Soviet “dissidents.”

Grasping the essence of the theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat is, therefore, a prime task of the party-building movement in the U.S. It is a question on which the communists clearly differentiate themselves not only from revisionism but from all forms of petty bourgeois liberalism, anarchism and social democracy.

Far from being a “sectarian” proposition, proletarian dictatorship is that concept which, in the long run, will enable the working class to distinguish between the charlatans of revolution and the vanguard in whose leadership it can have confidence.