Lenin's Three Theoretical Arguments About the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

22nd Congress of the Parti communiste française

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22nd Congress of the Parti communiste française. via l'Humanité

In 1976, the French Communist Party formally abandoned the dictatorship of the proletariat as a strategic phase in the transition to communism in Western Europe. "No-one and nothing, not even the Congress of a Communist Party, can abolish the dictatorship of the proletariat. That is the most important conclusion of this book by Etienne Balibar," writes Grahame Locke in his introduction to On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, which he translated for Verso's 1977 edition.

The reason is that the dictatorship of the proletariat is not a policy or a strategy involving the establishment of a particular form of government or institutions but, on the contrary, an historical reality. More exactly, it is a reality which has its roots in capitalism itself, and which covers the whole of the transition period to communism, the "reality of a historical tendency," a tendency which begins to develop within capitalism itself, in struggle against it (ch. 5). It is not "one possible path of transition to socialism," a path which can or must be "chosen" under certain historical conditions (e.g., in the "backward" Russia of 1917) but can be rejected for another, different "choice," for the "democratic" path, in politically and industrially "advanced" Western Europe. It is not a matter of choice, a matter of policy: and it therefore cannot be "abandoned," any more than the class struggle can be "abandoned," except in words and at the cost of enormous confusion.

In the excerpt below, Balibar sketches the theoretical architecture of Lenin's conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat.  

Everyone knows that Lenin never wrote a "treatise" on the dictatorship of the proletariat (which has since been done), and neither did Marx and Engels. As far as Marx and Engels are concerned, the reason is obvious: apart from the brief and fragmentary experiences of the 1848 revolutions and of the Paris Commune, whose main tendency they were able to discover and to analyze, they were never able to study "real examples" of the problems of the dictatorship of the proletariat. As far as Lenin is concerned, the reason is different: for the first time, Lenin was confronted with the real experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Now this experience was extraordinarily difficult and contradictory. It is the contradictions of the dictatorship of the proletariat, as it was beginning to develop in Russia, that form the object of Lenin's analysis and of his arguments. If you forget this fact, you can easily fall into dogmatism and formalism: Leninism can be represented as a finished theory, a closed system — which it has been, for too long, by Communist parties. But if on the other hand you remain content with a superficial view of these contradictions and of their historical causes, if you remain content with the simplistic and false idea according to which you have to "choose" between the standpoint of theory and that of history, real life and practice, if you interpret Lenin's arguments simply as a reflection of ever changing circumstances, less applicable the further away they are in history, then the real causes of these historical contradictions become unintelligible, and our own relation to them becomes invisible. You fall into the domain of subjective fantasy. In Lenin's concrete analyses, in his tactical slogans is expressed a permanent effort to grasp general historical tendencies and to formulate the corresponding theoretical concept. If you do not grasp this concept, you will not be able to study, in a critical and scientific manner, the historical experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

In order to be as clear as possible, I shall first of all set out en bloc what seems to me to constitute the basis of the theory as you find it in Lenin.

The theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat can be summed up in outline in three arguments, or three groups of arguments, which are ceaselessly repeated and put to the test by Lenin. They can be found in identical form, explicitly or implicitly, in every page of the texts of Lenin covering the period of the Russian revolution, and in particular they appear every time that a critical situation, a dramatic turning-point in the revolution necessitates a rectification of tactics, on the basis of the principles of Marxism, in order to realize the unity of theory and practice. What are these three arguments?

The first of them deals with State power.

You can sum it up by saying that, historically speaking, State power is always the political power of a single class, which holds it in its capacity as the ruling class in society. That is what Marx and Lenin mean when they say that all State power is "class dictatorship." Bourgeois democracy is a class dictatorship (the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie); the proletarian democracy of the working masses is also a class dictatorship. Let us be more precise: this argument implies that, in modern society, which is based on the antagonism between capitalist bourgeoisie and proletariat, State power is held in an absolute way by the bourgeoisie, which does not share it with any other class, nor does it divide it up among its own fractions. And this is true whatever the particular historical forms in which the political domination of the bourgeoisie is realized, whatever the particular forms which the bourgeoisie has to make use of in the history of each capitalist social formation in order to preserve its State power, which is constantly menaced by the development of the class struggle.

The first thesis has the following consequence: the only possible historical "alternative" to the State power of the bourgeoisie is an equally absolute hold on State power by the proletariat, the class of wage-labourers exploited by capital. Just as the bourgeoisie cannot share State power, so the proletariat cannot share it with other classes. And this absolute hold on State power is the essence of all the forms of the dictatorship of the proletariat, whatever their transformations and historical variety. To talk about an alternative, however, is really imprecise: we ought rather to say that the class struggle leads inevitably to the State power of the proletariat. But it is impossible to predict in advance, in any certain way, either the moment at which the proletariat will be able to seize State power or the particular forms in which it will do so. Even less can we "guarantee" the success of the proletarian revolution, as if it was "automatic." The development of the class struggle can neither be planned nor programmed.

The second argument deals with the State apparatus.

You can sum it up by saying that the State power of the ruling class cannot exist in history, nor can it be realized and maintained, without taking material form in the development and functioning of the State apparatus — or, to use one of Marx's metaphors which Lenin is always borrowing, in the functioning of the "State machine," whose core (the principal aspect: but not the only aspect — Lenin never said that) is constituted by the State repressive apparatus or apparatuses. These are: on the one hand, the standing army, as well as the police and the legal apparatus; and on the other hand, the State administration or "bureaucracy" (Lenin uses these two terms more or less synonymously). This thesis has the following consequence, with which it is absolutely bound up: the proletarian revolution, that is, the overthrow of the State power of the bourgeoisie, is impossible without the destruction of the existing State apparatus in which the State power of the bourgeoisie takes material form. Unless this apparatus is destroyed — which is a complex and difficult task — the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot develop and fulfil its historical task, the overthrow of relations of exploitation and the creation of a society without exploitation or classes. Unless this apparatus is destroyed, the proletarian revolution will inevitably be overcome, and exploitation will be maintained, whatever the historical forms in which this takes place.

It is clear that Lenin's arguments have immediate bearing both on the State and on the dictatorship of the proletariat. The two problems are inseparable. In Marxism you do not have on one side a general theory of the State, and on the other side a (particular) theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat. There is one single theory only.

The first two arguments, which I have just set out, are already contained explicitly in Marx and Engels. They were not discovered by Lenin, though Lenin did have to rescue them from the deformation and censorship to which they had been subjected in the version of Marxist theory officially taught by the Social-Democratic parties. Which does not mean that, on this point, Lenin's role and that of the Russian revolution were not decisive. But if we restrict our attention to that core of theory which I have been talking about, it is true that this role consisted above all of inserting the theory of Marx and Engels for the first time in an effective way into the field of practice. It allowed a fusion to take place between the revolutionary practice of the proletariat and masses on the one hand and the Marxist theory of the State and of the dictatorship of the proletariat on the other — a fusion which had never, or never really taken place before. Which means that although important progress in organization took place in the Labour Movement after Marx's time, this was accompanied by a considerable reduction in its autonomy, in its theoretical and practical independence from the bourgeoisie, and thus in its real political force. It is the transformation of Marxism into Leninism which enabled it to overcome this historical regression by taking a new step forward.

This brings us to the third argument which I mentioned. This third argument deals with socialism and communism.

It is not without its precedents, without preparatory elements in the work of Marx and Engels. It is obviously no accident that Marx and Engels always presented their position as a communist position, and only explicitly adopted the term "socialist" (and even more so the term "social-democrat") as a concession. We can in fact say that in the absence of this position (and of the thesis which it implies) the theory of Marx and Engels would be unintelligible. But they were not in a position to develop it at length. This task fell to Lenin, and in carrying it out he based his work on the development of the class struggles of the period of the Russian revolution, of which his work is therefore the product, in the strong sense of the term. This argument is now meeting the fate which the first two arguments suffered before the time of Lenin and the Russian revolution: it has been "forgotten," deformed (with dramatic consequences) in the history of the Communist movement and of Leninism, just as the first two arguments were forgotten in the history of Marxism.

A first, very abstract formulation is sketched out by Marx in the Communist Manifesto and in the Critique of the Gotha Programme: it is that only communism is a classless society, a society from which all forms of exploitation have disappeared. And since capitalist relations constitute the last possible historical form of exploitation, this means that only communist social relations, in production and in the whole of social life, are really in antagonistic contradiction with capitalist relations, only they are really incompatible, irreconcilable with capitalist relations. Which implies a series of immensely important consequences, both from the theoretical and especially from the practical point of view. It implies that socialism is nothing other than the dictatorship of the proletariat. The dictatorship of the proletariat is not simply a form of "transition to socialism," it is not a "road of transition to socialism" — it is identical with socialism itself. Which means that there are not two different objectives, to be attained separately, by putting the problems into an order: first of all socialism, and then — once socialism has been constructed, completed, once it has been "developed" (or "developed to a high level"), i.e. perfected, once it has, as they say, created the "foundations of communism" — secondly a new objective, the transition to communism, the construction of communism. There is in fact only one objective, whose achievement stretches over a very long historical period (much longer and more contradictory, no doubt, than was imagined by the workers and their theoreticians). But this objective determines, right from the start, the struggle, strategy, and tactics of the proletariat.

The proletariat, the proletarian masses and the whole of the masses of the people whom the proletariat draws with it are not fighting for socialism as an independent aim. They are fighting for communism, to which socialism is only the means, of which it is an initial form. No other perspective can interest them, in the materialist sense of this term. They are fighting for socialism just because this is the way to arrive at communism. And they are fighting for socialism with the means already provided by communist ideas, by the communist organization (in fact by communist organisations, because the Party can never be more than one of them, even if its role is obviously decisive). In the last analysis, the masses are fighting to develop the tendency to communism which is objectively present in capitalist society, and which the development of capitalism reinforces and strengthens.

A very important consequence follows, which I will state in abstract form: the theory of socialism is only possible when developed from the standpoint of communism, and the effective realization of socialism is only possible from the standpoint of communism, on the basis of a communist position in practice. If this position is lost, if it drops out of sight, if the extraordinary difficulties of achieving it lead us to ignore or to abandon it in practice, even if it still has a place in our theory, or rather is still talked about as a distant ideal, then socialism and the construction of socialism become impossible, at least in so far as socialism represents a revolutionary break with capitalism.

It is now a question, not of working out all the implications of these arguments, but simply of preparing a more complete analysis, of explaining the way in which it is formulated, and of countering certain false interpretations and unfounded objections.