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On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

(September 1977)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.101, September 1977, pp.31-32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat
Etienne Balibar
NLB £6.50

IN 1976 the 22nd Congress of the French Communist Party (PCF) formally declared that the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat was inapplicable in the conditions of Western Europe today. Since the PCF had long before abandoned the dictatorship of the proletariat in practice, when it prevented the great strikes of 1936 and 1968 from developing into revolutionary challenges to capitalism, the main significance of the move was as an attempt to present the PCF as a safe reformist party that could be trusted with the reins of government.

However, the Congress provoked a debate of which this book is a result. The author, Etienne Balibar, is a member of the PCF and the most important collaborator of the philosopher, Louis Althusser. His arguments, in defence of the dictatorship of the proletariat, are of some interest of a time when the British Communist Party is carrying out an attempt similar to the PCF’s to prove its respectability.

Unlike the supporters of the dictatorship of the proletariat in Sid French’s New Communist Party, Balibar is not an apologist for the Stalinist tyranny in the Soviet Union. Influenced by the state capitalist analysis of Russia developed by the French Maoist Charles Bettelheim, Balibar argues for

“the idea that the history of the USSR, before, during and after the Stalin period, might represent a process and a tendency in contradiction with the dictatorship of the proletariat.“ (p.43)

Balibar concentrates on developing a lucid and interesting discussion of why

“the dictatorship of the proletariat is not a particular method, a particular model or a particular ‘path of transition’ to socialism. It is the historical tendency which leads from capitalism to communism, through the transition period of socialism, in the conditions of imperialism.” (p.154)

Citing extensively from Marx and Lenin (the French edition contains an appendix of selections from their writings on the subject), Balibar concludes that in order to initiate the transition towards a classless, communist society the working class must destroy the capitalist state machine and establish its own state power. Such a path is inevitable, according to Balibar. To believe otherwise is to disarm the workers’ movement in the face of the class power of the bourgeoisie:

“To suppress the dictatorship of the proletariat is at the same time to suppress the dictatorship of he bourgeoisie ... in words. Nothing could serve it better, in practice.” (p.156)

However, Balibar’s argument is riddled with ambiguities. Having insisted on the necessity of smashing the state machine he then asserts that this process need not involve armed struggle. On the contrary,

“the forms in which this seizure of power is carried out in the first place (armed uprising, prolonged people’s war, peaceful political victory, other perhaps unprecedented forms) depend strictly on the conjuncture and on national peculiarities.” (p.65)

Apparently, the dictatorship of the proletariat is quite compatible with the parliamentary road to socialism!

Even greater doubts are aroused by a speech by Althusser, printed as an afterword, which is much more conciliatory towards the PCF leadership than Balibar’s text. Althusser explains that the sense in which Lenin meant smashing the state was “nothing to do with annihilation, but rather with recasting, restructuring and revolutionising an existing apparatus in order to ensure the triumph of the domination of a new class, firmly linked with the masses of the people.” (p.206. In other words, smash does not mean smash, but reform.

However, the institutional forms taken by this “mass proletarian democracy” are treated by Balibar as a secondary question than can be safely deferred until after the seizure of power when they may be “officially recognised as organs of the new revolutionary state.” (p.111)

Yet Lenin, Trotsky and Gramsci all stressed that the organs of workers power – Soviets, workers’ councils or whatever you choose to call them – would begin to develop before the seizure of power out of the mass struggles of workers. As a result, the revolutionary process would inevitably lead to an armed clash between the embryonic proletarian state and the established capitalist state to determine which class is to rule society. In this way, the development of workers’ democracy in opposition to ruling-class power would determine the nature of the seizure of power itself, commanding, if Althusser will excuse the word, the annihilation of the capitalist state machine as an organised entity and its replacement with a regime in which workers’ councils would be, riot merely part of the new state, but its essence. The ambiguities in Althusser and Balibar’s conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat reflect their desire to depict events like the Chinese, Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions as authentic socialist revolutions, even though in these countries political power did not pass into the hands of the masses, but became the bureaucratic monopoly of pne party regimes. As a consequence, whatever its interest, the critique they offer of Eurocommunism’s rejection of the very idea of working-class power is not based upon consistent revolutionary principles. It is a centrist critique, which, if it is prepared to break with certain forms of Stalinism and reformism, will not reject others.

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