What is the dictatorship of the proletariat good for, and what is it not good for? Now, we hear lots of attacks on socialism and specifically on the dictatorship of the proletariat these days, and how it's not good for this, not good for that, not good for anything—not good for the people, not good for humanity, that it runs against human nature, etc., etc., etc. So it's important to talk about what the dictatorship of the proletariat is good for, as well as what it's not good for.
What it is good for is meeting the needs and serving the highest interests of the masses—which fundamentally means carrying forward the transition to communism, as part of and together with the world proletarian revolution. It's good for uprooting the basis of exploitation and oppression and the division of society into classes, eliminating class distinctions together with other forms of oppressive relations, including very importantly, the oppression of women as well as national oppression and other major forms of social inequality and antagonism. That's what it's good for. It's good for radically transforming the material base and the superstructure of society, including the thinking of the people. It's good for all that.
Now, what it is not good for is reinforcing a system of exploitation and oppression. It's not good for reinforcing class divisions in society. It's not good for creating conditions in which a handful of people can prosper at the expense of the great mass of people and can monopolize and have control over not only wealth and the means to create wealth but the whole superstructure of society, including intellectual life, ideology and culture. The dictatorship of the proletariat is not any good for all that. And that's why the bourgeoisie essentially doesn't like it—in fact hates it—because it's absolutely useless for those things, and it's very useful, in fact indispensable, for uprooting those things.
This is a very important point to bring out. From the point of view of the bourgeoisie, the dictatorship of the proletariat is not good for anything. It is not good for serving the interests of an exploiting clique and providing opportunities for a small part of the population to advance at the expense of the great majority and enrich themselves by exploiting the masses of people. It's not good for enabling them to monopolize economic life and thereby political life, having a monopoly of political power and, as a concentrated expression of that, military power, and a monopoly on ideology, including intellectual and cultural life.
So that, in fundamental and essential terms, is what the dictatorship of the proletariat is good for, and not good for, and how different classes look at that.
What Is Dictatorship?
This gets to the question: "What is a dictatorship?" As opposed to the unscientific concepts constantly spewed out by the bourgeoisie and its mouthpieces of various kinds—who insist that dictatorship is a matter of autocratic or tyrannical rule by a handful of people or even an individual—a dictatorship is, in essential terms, a monopoly of power. It is a monopoly of political power, by one class or another—represented, in a concentrated way, as a monopoly of armed force.
Now, in this connection, it is necessary to briefly touch on something that was spoken to in the "Democracy" book (Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That?) and elsewhere, which is a certain disagreement with Lenin's characterization of dictatorship—not only the dictatorship of the proletariat but dictatorship more generally. Specifically, I am speaking to where Lenin defines dictatorship as "rule unrestricted by laws." (See, for example, "The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky," Lenin, Collected Works, v. 28, p. 235—cited in the "Democracy" book—p. 234, footnote 21.) He also says in another place, in speaking of the new revolutionary state power:
"The organs of authority that we have described [in the new Soviet republic] represented a dictatorship in embryo, for they recognize no other authority, no law and no standards, no matter by whom established. Authority—unlimited, outside the law, and based on force in the most direct sense of the word—is dictatorship." ("A Contribution to the History of the Question of the Dictatorship," in Lenin, CW , v. 31, p. 351.)
Now, we have to put this in historical context, especially in disagreeing with it, or pointing to its limitations. As noted, Lenin is writing in the first very few desperate years of the Soviet republic. This was a time when the proletariat, led by the Bolsheviks, hadn't consolidated power, or had only begun to consolidate it, when the civil war and imperialist intervention descended on them in a certain sense, and they had to resort to rule which was to a significant degree not framed in terms of, and not institutionalized through, laws and other similar means, but had to be more or less directly the extension of the policy of the party together with the mobilization of the masses. But as a general characterization of dictatorship, Lenin's formulation here is not correct; that is, it is not correct to define dictatorship as rule unrestricted by anything, essentially, and in particular unrestricted by laws—authority that is based on force in the most direct sense of the word. And again, it's important to examine the context of this last statement by Lenin, where he says that this "authority that we have described ... represented a dictatorship in embryo, for [it] recognized no other authority, no law and no standards, no matter by whom established." In other words, there was no historical precedent for this rule and no law previously established to embody it. It was authority which, again, depended on the line and leadership of the party and the mobilization of the masses around that, and not on institutionalized structures and procedures, and not on laws in particular.
So we have to disagree with this—or we have to recognize the limitations of it as a general definition of dictatorship—and we have to see that this particular comment that Lenin is making, which I just quoted, obviously reflects the situation that they were in at that time, the very desperate situation in the first few years of the Soviet republic in the context of the civil war and imperialist intervention. We have to recognize that what we see here is another expression of the fact that theory does develop in relation to practice—not in a one-to-one and narrow, pragmatic sense, but in an overall sense, it does develop in relation to practice. If we step back a bit, we can see, frankly, that Lenin is thinking out loud a bit here, he is finding and feeling his way theoretically, as the proletariat in power then was forced to find its way and forge its way forward practically in very arduous and tumultuous circumstances, very life-and-death circumstances. But with historical perspective and more experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat, we can also see that Lenin's definition of dictatorship (which I have cited here) is too limited and essentially not a correct definition of either the dictatorship of the proletariat or of dictatorship in general.
Now, in opposition to the anarchists—or in answer to the anarchists—we have to point to what is the necessity for dictatorship, what is the material basis underlying dictatorship, this monopoly of power by one class or another. Why, in other words, for a certain stage in history, is it inevitable that you will have the rule of one class or another, that you will have one form or other of dictatorship? Why is it that, after a certain development has occurred in human society beyond early communal forms, dictatorship in one form or another will be inevitable, that this will be true for a certain historical period? And, more specifically, why is dictatorship—the dictatorship of the proletariat—necessary even after the bourgeoisie has been overthrown, and throughout the socialist transition to communism worldwide?
These are questions we have spoken to in many different ways, but we have to continually come back to them, including in speaking to a new generation of youth—who are not familiar with a lot of these basic points and are not familiar with the arguments and polemics that have been carried out against various trends opposing the need for this dictatorship—youth who are only really familiar with the bourgeois propaganda and distortions and mis-definitions of what dictatorship is in general and what the dictatorship of the proletariat is in particular.
Now, at the same time, as I emphasized in the articles on anarchism (on communism versus anarchism) which were run in our newspaper, it is important to stress that the proletarian state (that is, the dictatorship of the proletariat) while a form of class rule, of class dictatorship, is and must be a qualitatively new and radically different kind of state. This is a point that was made by Marx, and it was also returned to and emphasized by Lenin in "The State and Revolution" and elsewhere. The final aim of communists is not to reinforce and to perpetuate the dictatorship of the proletariat, but is to abolish all forms of dictatorship, all states, and all "hierarchal" structures.
A Radically Different State
Here a very important principle should be brought forward, which was stated in "Further Thoughts" where it says: "at every point in this transition [that is, the socialist transition to communism], the more this state [that is, the dictatorship of the proletariat] is strengthened, the more it should embody something radically different from the bourgeois dictatorship and all other forms of the state." This is directly related to the profound point that the final aim of the dictatorship of the proletariat is in fact the abolition of this very dictatorship, of all dictatorship, of all states, and all hierarchal structures.
This touches on the question of the "withering away of the state" and how that is to be achieved through the transition to communism—through the exercise of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the continuation of the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat. This, in turn, is very much bound up with the whole question, which I have spoken to, of the relation between the "two humps,"* or the relation between winning and winning: the questions of how you win and how that relates to revolutionizing all of society (and the whole world); the questions of how power is seized and by whom , and for what it is exercised and how that, in turn, relates to the long-term, world-historic goal of getting over the final hump and reaching communism, worldwide. After all, the essential character of communist society is that it is a classless society in which there is neither a need nor a basis for states or hierarchies.
So all this is very important to bring out. When we talk about the dictatorship of the proletariat and why it is necessary and what it is good for (and what it is not good for), it's important to bring out also what is the objective of the dictatorship of the proletariat and, in that sense and consistent with that, how it is radically different from all previous forms of the state.
In summing up experience from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China and the Chinese revolution and socialist society overall, and in grappling with further advances and ruptures that must be made, in terms of carrying forward the struggle for communism, worldwide, it is very important to speak to the continuing contradictions—the mental/ manual contradictions and other aspects of "bourgeois right," broadly defined—within a socialist country and the relation between the socialist country and the overall world situation and world struggle (in other words, the two inter-related contradictions that were spoken to in "Strategic Questions"**—that is, the remaining contradictions within socialist society, "left over" from the previous society, in inter-relation with the uneven development of the world proletarian revolution and the emergence of socialist states one or a few at a time, and their existing for a certain period in a situation of imperialist encirclement).
This is also spoken to in the articles to which I just referred, on communism versus anarchism, where the approach is taken of going step by step through these actual contradictions and their inter-relation, and the struggle to overcome these contradictions, to show why if you try to implement an anarchist program, you will not be able to overcome the remaining inequalities and social divisions within socialist society itself which carry the seeds of exploitation, and you will not be able to really implement and give full force to proletarian internationalism. Instead, particularly in the (former) imperialist countries, such as the USA, you will fall back on imperialist chauvinism where you will attempt to (as it is characterized in those articles) "communize" the fruits of previous imperialist plunder, and in fact you will foster the re-emergence of imperialist relations with other societies in the world, along with the re- emergence of bourgeois relations and bourgeois dictatorship within the particular society itself in which you have attempted to implement this anarchist program.
In those anarchism articles (in particular in the first) the positive side of these two contradictions is also discussed, that is, the inter-relation between internationalism and carrying forward the continuing revolution within the particular socialist society. The point is made that there is a positive dialectic to be seized on there—particularly by approaching the struggle within a socialist country as a subordinate part of the world proletarian revolution overall—as well as the negative aspect of how these continuing contradictions within socialist society, in inter-relation with the world situation, tend to work against the continuation of the revolution within socialist society, or tend to continually reassert the basis, or strengthen the basis, for capitalist restoration.
An important point in this connection is also made in the polemic vs. K. Venu, which was published in A World To Win ("Democracy: Now More Than Ever, We Can and Must Do Better Than That"). That article points out that, as K. Venu and those associated with that line see it, the essential question in advancing to communism, once you establish the dictatorship of the proletariat, is basically the extension of democracy throughout the society. In opposition to that, it is stressed that the essential thing is not the extension of democracy but the continuation of the class struggle. That is what is decisive in continuing on the socialist road, toward the goal of communism, once power has been seized and consolidated, and the basic socialization of ownership has been established. This is a very important distinction and principle that is emphasized in that polemic. On the other hand, it is true that, as a key part of the class struggle and the advance toward communism, there is the need to give the fullest possible expression, at every point, to the basic principle that the dictatorship of the proletariat must be qualitatively different from all other states, and the more it is strengthened, the more it should be advancing toward its eventual "withering away," the more the radical difference between it and all previous states should be a material reality. This is a point that I will continue to come back to, from a number of different angles in the remainder of this talk.
* See "Two Humps in the World Revolution: Putting the Enemy On the Run" by Bob Avakian, Revolutionary Worker #940, January 18, 1998. "The problem of "getting over the hump" in the world revolution can be expressed in two aspects: First, "getting over the hump" in terms of breaking through and carrying out the seizure of power nationwide in a particular country, whether the road is protracted people's war or armed insurrection followed by civil war. And second, "getting over the hump" in terms of the strategic alignment—and "encirclement"—in the world—that is, making the leap to where the socialist states and the international proletariat have the upper hand strategically in the world, getting to the point where we have them on the run, where they are encircled." [Return to article]
**"Strategic Questions" is a talk by Chairman Avakian. Excerpts were published in RW Nos. 881 and 884-893, online at rwor.org in the section on Bob Avakian's writings under "Uniting All Who Can Be United." [Return to article]