About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Reclaiming the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

Title: The Dictatorship of the Proletariat: Marxism's Theory of Socialist Democracy

Author: John Ehrenberg

Publisher: Routledge, London.

In a forthright letter to the African Communist (3rd quarter, 1994), a comrade from the Tshiawelo branch pleaded for the SACP to take up a long overdue discussion of the dictatorship of the proletariat (DOP). He then added his own opinion on the matter: "The dictatorship of the proletariat is a government of the working class. You will lose friends when you take this direction, but you will end up being a friend of workers and the poor." John Ehrenberg would heartily agree.

While the DOP has historically provoked numerous written and oral debates amongst socialists, it would seem that even to mention the phrase these days is taboo. In the"new" age of so-called "democratisation" and the self-deprecating apologetics for the failures of "actually existing socialism", discussion of the DOP has clearly become unfashionable. This relatively unknown and overlooked book is a refreshingly open and serious challenge to those who would confine the DOP to the dustbin of history.

Ehrenberg opens his sally by succinctly identifying the basic reason for engaging in such an unfashionable debate - to rescue the democratic meaning and content of a socialist theory and practice, as contained in the concept of the DOP. This rescue operation is aimed at those who would attack (and gut) Marxism in general, and the 1)01' in particular, on the same grounds as those for which it has enjoyed universal appeal - namely, the commitment to the overthrow of capitalism in the name of political and social democracy.

Calling much of the contemporacy left "weakened and disoriented", Ehrenberg argues that the "revolutionary and democratic" core of the DOI' has become an embarrassment to the very groupings whose claims still lead them to Marx, Engels and Lenin for ritualistic theoretical support". Asa result, many now try to save Marx, Engels and Lenin from themselves, by denying any antagonism between their works and "conventional individualistic rights-based understandings of democracy". Others seek to portray their works as possessing an inherent antipathy to-wards "liberalism" and thus democracy. It is fortunate that, as against these two distortions, Ehrenberg seeks to take Marx, Engels and Lenin '"at their word", and tries to uncover what they meant when they called the DOl' a democracy.

To help sustain such a project, Ehrenberg insists that, as socialists, we should realise that "communism's problems stem from insufficient fidelity to its roots rather than from too much orthodoxy". In order to reclaim these roots of classical Marxism, Ehrenberg argues that we must see the DOP as representing "their understanding of democracy".

In an attempt to locate the theory of the DOP in the earliest writings of Marxand Engels, Ehrenberg traces the development of their critique of Hegel's limited theory of the state, which led them to a vision of a "radical democracy whose power rested on its commitment to democratise both society and the state". This, in turn, led Marx and Engels to their sustained critique of liberal rights-based bourgeois democracy, whose main foundation they identified as the "freedom" of the right to the pursuit of self-interest on the basis of private property and which gives rise to the false separation between the political and the social spheres. Following from this recognition, Marx and Engels argued that the proletariat, because of its materially "empty" relationship to bourgeois democracy (i.e. it was propertyless), constituted the only social force capable of fundamentally transforming society.

By conducting this historical analysis of the writings of Marx and Engels, Ehrenberg reminds us that the essence of the DOP is the recognition of the material (and thus class) basis of any democracy. As Ehrenberg points out, we cannot even begin to fight for socialism unless we recognise that democracy is a class weapon, rather than a "principled" and declassed set of political and social "rights" that can be applied to everyone, regardless of their material identity.

Just as the bourgeoisie requires its "democracy" to preserve private property and class privilege, so too does the working class demand an "unprecedently powerful and radical" class democracy of its own to institute social transformation. In other words, the DOP is just as much a demand of ongoing class struggle (which we all know has not disappeared), as democracy itself - the two are inseparable. While this recognition might not sit very well with many "socialists" who would interpret the DOP as outmoded and anti-democratic, this probably has more to do with their "understandable hut misleading tendency to equate it with the historical evolution of the Soviet Union", rather than with any attempted serious analysis of Marxist theory and its application to contemporary society.

In tracing the development of the DOP, Ehrenberg provides another important reminder to socialists: Marxist democratic theory "reserves a central role to a powerful and transformative political apparatus whose mission is to lead the attack on private property and the social relations which accompany it". Or put another way, the DOP is part of the workers' version of what all political power has hitherto been - "the organised power of one class for oppressing another" (the Communist Manifeslo).

Today's self-styled "democrats" might shudder at this, but then again such "democrats" would evidently have us believe that somehow "popular democracy" (i.e. that of the workers, peasants and unemployed, who make up the vast majority of humankind) can he achieved without the exercise of popular coercion. Despite denials to the contrary, it is just as clear today as it was during Marx's time, that all states are, in varying guises, class instruments. So when socialists talk about "democratising" society and the state is it outmoded and anti-democratic to say that such democratisation should be conceived of as struggling for the DOP? Surely any realistic appraisal of the contemporary conditions we find ourselves in as socialists, should not focus on the fickle forms that purport to represent "democracy", but rather the content and character of that "democracy" (i.e. its social composition and material foundation)?

In order to provide a deepened practical dimension to the debate around the DOP, Ehrenberg devotes a substantial portion of the book to discussing the struggles for revolutionary change in Russia (later the USSR), from the late 1800s until Lenin's death in 1924. What emerges from this discussion is the complex and difficult task (led by Lenin) of merging the theory of the DOP with the harsh objective realities that faced the revolution.

In so doing, Lenin recognised that it was the "revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry" which offered the only way in which both productive forces could be unleashed and a measure of democracy instituted. In other words, the arguments for a "dictatorship" did not rest on the assumption that it would bring about socialism or immediately be able to institute socialist measures. But rather, that it was the only feasible strategy and path towards deepening democracy. It was clear to Lenin that the establishment of worker and peasant soviets could lead to a general "coalition of the proletariat and the peasantry" whose "winning victory in a bourgeois revolution, happens to be nothing else than the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry".

Much like the short-lived exam-ple of the Paris Commune, whose democratic character (working wages for elected representatives, re-callable representatives, direct accountability) was directly linked to the fact that it was, in essence, a dictatorship, the democratic content and character of the DOP in Russia would lie in its material rootedness (the mass of workers and peasants). And, just like the Commune, Lenin's theoretical and practical struggles for the DOP represented the absolute necessity of fusing political and social revolution as well as democracy and dictatorship.

Once the Bolsheviks had seized political power, the practical application of the complementary characteristics of the DOI' (democracy and dictatorship) became crucial to both defending that political power, and attempting to lay the foundation for economic emancipation. As Ehrenberg clearly states, the possibilities of a transition to communism would depend "as much on the popular character of the workers state as on its coerciveness". If the bourgeois state had been a weapon in the hands of a propertied minority, the democratic character of the proletarian state would initially change the character and direction of its coercive activity. This must be so because the capture of political power by the proletariat does not do away with continuing class struggle - the whole raison d'etre of a worker-controlled state (the DOP) is to act as a transitional institution to suppress the bourgeoisie, so as to create the conditions for "freedom".

Unlike far too many of today's "democrats", Lenin understood that the entrenched social and economic relations of capitalism could not be changed without "oppressing" the resistance of the exploiters. Ehrenberg points out that Lenin's response, to the charge that the "democratic" and "dictatorial" aspects of socialist struggle were mutually exclusive, was to argue for the necessity of defining democracy in terms of the relations between exploiter and exploited rather than as a pure, non-class political formation which reflects the "numerical relation between majority and minority".

Instead of the "democrats'" view that "classes settle things with each other and with the rest of society on the basis of majority rule", a serious socialist knows that these things are settled on the basis of economic and political power. The struggle for the IDOP acts as a platform for an assault on capitalist relations and for the ongoing battle for a hegemonic alliance between the proletariat and numerous non-proletarian strata of working people against capital. Indeed, the DOP represents a more inclusive struggle for transformation than any of the "democratic" alternatives could ever hope to be. As Lenin described it, the DOP is a "persistent struggle - bloody and bloodless, violent and peaceful, military, economic, educational, and administrative - against the forces and traditions of the old society."

One of the strengths of Ehrenberg's book lies in his ability to combine an extensive analysis of classic Marxist theory and practice, while situating the DOP squarely within the nexus of contemporary socialist struggles over organisational and ideological direction. If we, as socialists and socialist organisations see our efforts as an attempt to fight with, represent, and provide leader-ship to the working class, then Ehrenberg is telling us that we can-not do so without wholeheartedly embracing the struggle for the DOP.

Instead of acceding to the increasingly accepted (and distorted) view amongst many socialists that the DOP is an outmoded concept that necessarily leads to anti-democratic practice, Ehrenberg challenges us to reclaim its centrality to the democratic and revolutionary struggles in which we engage.

We need to face up to some harsh realities. "Human emancipation" cannot come about spontaneously, so the question is what can direct human action towards this general goal? To answer that question we must recognise the particular social character of the capitalist "market" and the relations it spawns ("nature's blindness is brought into human affairs as a governing force").

To fight against this state of affairs certainly requires the practicable grounding of people's struggles in concrete material realities, and this in turn requires that such struggles are organised around the very identity necessitated by capitalist relations of production themselves - the selling of labour.

It is not, as some would claim, that as socialists we want to falsely create a class identity to suit our own ideological and organisational purposes. But rather it is a conscious understanding and realisation that such a class already exists. It is a matter of taking theoretical and practical steps to facilitate that class struggle foremancipation, for hopefully eventually freeing all from the limitations of that very class "identity".

The DOP is central to any such project, and Ehrenberg's book provides compelling analyses and arguments for reclaiming it. He leaves us this to ponder: "The theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat is the central and defining mark of Marxist political theory, which is incoherent and irrational without it. It summarises its theory of the state, concentrates its understanding of democracy, and expresses its theory of social revolution and of communism. Without it Marxism is just another radical criticism of capitalism."

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.