Part 2: Proletarian Dictatorship, Bourgeois Dictatorship—What Is Similar.... And What Is Profoundly Different

From "On Proletarian Democracy and Proletarian Dictatorship: A Radically Different View of Leading Society"

This series by Bob Avakian is excerpted from a previously unpublished talk titled "Getting Over the Two Great Humps: Further Thoughts on Conquering the World."  The series was published 2003-04.

What is similar and what is radically different in terms of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie? The dictatorship of the proletariat has its democratic content (and form), and it is marked by the open declaration of a "core of leadership"--and an "official ideology"--embodied in the party. On the other hand, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie has its democratic content, but also has a disguised and denied "core of leadership"--and an "unofficial official ideology"--embodied in the domination of the political/ideological superstructure by the bourgeoisie, including very decisively its monopoly of armed force.

In other words, in each of these states, you have, in reality, a core representing the class in power--on the one hand the proletariat and on the other hand the bourgeoisie--a core which in fact is exercising leadership over all of society in the interests of and on behalf of a certain class. In socialist society, with the dictatorship of the proletariat, this is officially recognized, and proclaimed. It's openly declared. And it is institutionalized as the leadership of the party of the proletariat.

In bourgeois society, you still have a core of leadership, which represents the bourgeoisie as a class, and which carries out rule in its interests and brings to bear whatever force is necessary in order to uphold and enforce that rule. But, on the other hand, all this is denied, obscured and hidden. The bourgeoisie denies that its rule, or its form of society, particularly bourgeois democracy, is a form of dictatorship. It denies that there is in fact domination of not only the economic foundation of society but also the political and ideological superstructure and, as a concentrated expression of that, armed force, by a particular class, namely the bourgeoisie. It may admit that there is unevenness and inequality in society, and that some individuals may have more influence than others, but it denies the essential fact that this is domination by one class -- the rule essentially of one class over another, and the domination by that ruling class of not only the economic life of society but also of armed force and of the superstructure in broad terms.

In this connection, and as part of denying and obscuring the essence of its rule, elections--and, more specifically, competitive elections--are extremely important to the bourgeoisie, especially so long as it rules in the form of bourgeois democracy. This comes out in the book by Timothy Lomperis, From People's War to People's Rule , and generally in bourgeois political science.

For example, I was reading a book entitled Democracy and Its Critics , by Robert A. Dahl. He's sort of a social democratic theorist and a general apologist for bourgeois democracy. It's striking, in reading this book as well as bourgeois political science generally, how much importance they attach not only to elections, but also specifically to competitive elections. That is, how important it is to them that there be an electoral process in which there is not just one party, for which everyone either votes or doesn't vote, but competing parties, two or more. This is important in maintaining the appearance that the people have a choice and thereby actually have an effective influence upon affairs of the government and the state. It is necessary to recognize how much importance they do attach to elections, and in particular competitive elections, how important this is to the bourgeoisie's proclamation of its democracy as the best possible system of government and to achieving the necessary "consensus" and stability for its rule--stability within the ranks of the bourgeoisie itself and stability in terms of maintaining the loyalty of sections of the middle strata and having them act as a kind of an "anchor for the system" and a weight on the basic exploited and oppressed masses.

Polyarchy and Bourgeois Rule

In Democracy and its Critics, Dahl attempts to trace the development of democracy, from ancient society to the present. Now, I have to admit that I looked in the index to see what was and was not included there, and then I read the book. It was striking that, both in the index and in the contents of the book as a whole, there was a certain big gap when he was talking about democracy and its critics --a gap in terms of what he did and did not refer to and seek to answer. And, again, I have to admit that I was very tempted to send him Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That?--with a simple note: "you must have missed this"--because that book speaks to the essence of what Dahl argues for and it puts forward a critique of bourgeois democracy that, in its essence, Dahl does not address. But Dahl does deal with many of the same phenomena that are dealt with in Democracy, Can't We Do Better Than That?

He examines the early expressions of democracy in ancient Greek society and how in fact these were slave societies where the actual participation of people in the democratic process was very limited. He speaks to manifestations of democracy in early bourgeois society, in city-states in Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries. Then he speaks to the development of democracy in what is in fact bourgeois society in the late 18th and 19th centuries and down to the present--how, as he presents it, this represented a further extension of democracy, and even, as he analyzes it, a qualitatively different kind of democracy.

He has a term which he uses to describe this, which is "Polyarchy." He basically acknowledges that when you go from a society that's very small--maybe a few thousand people or whatever, such as some of the old Greek city-states--to a society of several hundred thousand or an even larger state, with millions (perhaps even tens or hundreds of millions) of people, you cannot have democracy in the same "pure" form that existed in the assemblies of the early Greek city-states. Leaving aside the foundation of slavery and the class differences within those ancient societies--which, again, Dahl does acknowledge--but just taking the restricted numbers of people (which were something in the range of a few thousands) who did take part in the democratic process in those city/states, Dahl recognizes that you can't achieve something like that, you can't implement it on a broad scale, in a modern society with millions, or perhaps even hundreds of millions, of people. (This obviously includes the U.S.) He argues that, in such a large modern society, you can't have "direct" democracy--that you can only have representative democracy.

Furthermore, Dahl is forced to recognize that some people within such a society will have more access than others to various key resources, including information (although he tries to present ways to restrict this), and he acknowledges that they will have more influence than others over the political process. But, to him, the key to all this--and this is rather standard bourgeois-democratic thought--is that, if there are enough competing centers of power and competing interest groups, enough people competing for influence over the affairs of state and the institutions of government, then this allows for the broadest scope of democracy that is actually possible in large-scale modern society. Because, continuing his argument, once you have competing interests, then in turn those competing interests are forced to appeal to the masses of people in order to enlist them in their competition with other contending forces, and thereby the influence of the people can enter in and even somehow be decisive, even though they can't exercise "direct" democracy.

We should recognize, first of all, that this is a gigantic admission. What it amounts to saying-- whether Dahl openly acknowledges this or not--is that the most that can be envisioned, or the most we can conceive of that's desirable, is a society in which there are elite groups competing with each other for domination of the society, and the role of the people can only be to align with one or another of these elite groups and try to exert influence in that way. Of course, as we know, as the mechanisms and processes in bourgeois society actually operate, the bourgeoisie, except in times of severe crisis, will always resolve the contradictions within its own ranks--and will even use the mechanism of the state to help resolve the contradictions within its own ranks--to the detriment of the masses of people, and in a way that prevents the masses of people from really exerting any significant influence on affairs of state and on the governance of society. So actually Dahl is making quite an admission, although he wouldn't acknowledge that it is as much of an admission as it is.

Along with putting forward this notion of "Polyarchy"--which refers to diffused and competing interests among the elite of society (or diffused interests competing for influence over affairs of state)--he also brings in this concept of what he calls an "MDP society." That stands for Modern, Dynamic, and Pluralist.

See if you can guess what's the "paradigm" for such a society (hint: it's in North America).

"Modern" refers to a society that's modern not only culturally (as Dahl would see that) but also in terms of the economy and production and what this production provides. "Dynamic" means a society in which the economy is changing, and open to continual change, but also in which there is a certain class mobility, or certain avenues are always opening for people to change class position. And "Pluralist," of course, refers to the fact that there is not just one center of power but diffused and competing centers of power. He says that you can have "Polyarchy" without "MDP," and so on and so forth, but he does pretty much present "Polyarchy" and "MDP" as a package that constitutes the highest possible achievement of democratic society--and, in fact, the best possible form of society, of any kind--in the modern world.

Silly Arguments and Real Control

Now, as the title of this book suggests, Dahl does try to answer the various critics of democracy, including those who argue that in all societies, or at least in the kind of society that he is talking about, you will never really have democracy, you will always have rule and domination by an elite. And, as part of this, he attempts to answer the argument of Marxists, though his answer consists of crude distortion, obfuscation, and mainly ignoring or distorting the essential arguments of Marxists. (He applies an approach that Lenin ridiculed, in polemicizing against Kautsky--namely, the method of attributing a stupid argument to your opponent and then refuting it.) This is the essential way that he seeks to deal with particularly the Marxist critique of (what is in fact) bourgeois democracy. That's why I said (half-jokingly) that I was tempted to send him Democracy, Can't We Do Better Than That? with a note simply saying, "You must have missed this." The serious point here is that, if you are going to write a book and purport to present and to refute the arguments of the critics of democracy, you at least ought to take on their arguments in the way in which they present them, and then answer them. To put it another way, you ought to take on the best and strongest case of those you are seeking to refute.

But Dahl makes silly arguments--he insists that people who say that there is actually rule by an elite in "democratic" society have to show the lines and chains of command through which this elite is able to exercise its authority over society. And he insists that, so far as he knows, this has never been done. To which the obvious answer is, first of all: just read a few books, will you? Even populists--people like Domhoff and others--have made plenty of analysis of how the power structure works and how it is monopolized by a few major groupings of capital, or finance, or however it's presented. And, second, methodologically, even if it were true that no one had ever shown this, if it's a real question then you go investigate it and see what the objective truth is. Don't make a "debater's point"--this has never been shown, so therefore I'm off the hook, I don't have to speak to it. You go investigate the question, you go explore the actual mechanisms and workings of how power is exercised in a society such as the U.S.--how decisions are made and by whom, and how influence is exercised--and then tell us the results of your investigation. Tell us, in fact, your understanding of how this works--how authority and power is exercised and by whom, in actual fact-- you present a case for what does and does not happen in that regard. But Dahl doesn't do that either.

The point is that, when all is said and done, "democratic theory" of this kind not only serves as a rationalization for what is in fact the oppressive rule of the bourgeoisie, its actual dictatorship, but also serves as a rationale and a rallying cry for the chauvinism of the "democratic" country- -the domination and at times even direct military intervention of the imperialists, with the USA #1 throughout the world. In other words, if you make an analysis that purports to show that democracy is the end and highest point of evolution of human society, and there is no other form of rule which is better for the demos (the people); and if in fact there are other societies in the world with other forms of rule where the people are oppressed and where tyranny is implemented; and if these other states at various times come into conflict with this "higher" form of society, namely democracy; then the logic is that it is incumbent on these "democratic societies" to intervene in order to "right wrongs in the world," and in order to "oppose the tyranny" that's being imposed on people.

Whether or not people who put forward these (bourgeois) democratic theories would openly argue this in the somewhat crude way in which I've just characterized it, this is the logic of the case they are making. This is the use to which such rationales (about bourgeois democracy being the highest possible evolution of political association in human society) will in fact be--and have in fact been--put to use.