Dictatorship of the proletariat

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The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat (DOTP) is a concept in Marxism referring to a transient state constructed in the transition period of social reconstruction coinciding with the social revolution. The DOTP, originating out of an intensified open class war is a state form which makes it possible to socialise the means of production which "gives [the] socialized character [of production the] complete freedom to work itself out. Socialized production upon a predetermined plan becomes henceforth possible".[1] This allows for a transition from the capitalist to the communist mode of production. The term 'dictatorship' is not related to an individual's dictatorship: in the DOTP, all public office is elected and recallable by the general or concerned population.[2]

The dictatorship of the proletariat is the government that is to exist following a proletarian revolution. The "dictatorship" prescribed by Marx is in no way related to its traditional definition (absolute rule by a single despot), or any other autocratic government (oligarchy, single-party state, etc.), but rather, a democratic government in which the people have absolute power. Marx used the term "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" sparsely so as not incite any notions of despotism. The term has its origins in the Roman Republic, where the term "Dictator" originated. In the Roman Republic, during times of crisis, a dictatorship was installed temporarily to provide strong leadership.[26] While this is not the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, it is still a dictatorship not meant to be permanent (as the state must "wither away" under the dictatorship of the proletariat. See "What Gurantee do you have that it will wither away?").

Later, during the French Revolution, the idea of a temporary, revolutionary dictatorship became a part of the program of the Jacobins and "Conspiracy of Equals." However, their conceptions of dictatorship differed from that of Marx's, in that instead of advocating a direct dictatorship of the people, they advocated a dictatorship of the people's interests. The Jacobins established a fanatical revolutionary regime and initiated the infamous "Reign of Terror," with the intent of purging the country of all counter-revolutionaries and foreign agents. Following the overthrow of the Jacobins, a new society advocating revolutionary dictatorship emerged, the aforementioned "Conspiracy of Equals." While not using the term "dictatorship," their programs made clear that they advocated a closed dictatorship of revolutionaries. Yet their motives for such a dictatorship were not so much in paranoia as the Jacobins, but in concern for the masses, whom they feared were too conservative and unenlightened for revolutionary purposes. Their platform promised the eventual establishment of a democratic republic, but only once the preceding dictatorial government recognized them as "enlightened."

Marx and Engels, while admiring their dedication to the proletariat, dismissed their notions of conspiratorial and exclusive organization, as well as their notions of Dictatorship. Marx formulated the dictatorship of the proletariat not as an emergency termination of democracy, but as the extension of the democracy of the previous regime. As Friedrich Engels said, "...If one thing is certain it is that our party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat...".


When Marx used the term dictatorship it corresponded to the meaning of 'dictator' in Roman Law. In the Roman Republic, the dictator (“one who dictates”), was an extraordinary magistrate (magistratus extraordinarius) with the absolute authority to perform tasks beyond the authority of the ordinary magistrate (magistratus ordinarius). The office of dictator was a legal innovation originally named Magister Populi (Master of the People), i.e., Master of the Citizen Army. The dictatorial powers of the dictator were possessed temporarily only for the durability of the civil insurrection that he was meant to crush. The word 'dictatorship' in the sense that Marx used it in inherently conveyed the meaning of temporary powers.[3] Hence, Marx speaks of a "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie" only by specifically referencing Cavaignac: "he was the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie". Gavaignac crushed a workers' uprising and relinquished power after he had done so, consistent with the use of dictatorship in that time period.

The term 'dictatorship' does therefore not convey oppression or subjugation as is sometimes argued. Marxists such as Hal Draper argue on this basis that the dictatorship of the proletariat (a sort of temporary emergency measure) cannot be equated with general bourgeois class rule (indefinite). Later followers of Marx, including Lenin, used it generally, referring to all bourgeois class rule as a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

It is also referred to as revolutionary dictatorship; or, dictatorship of the proletariat; or, workers' state; or, Republic of Labour; or, workers' republic; or, workers' government.


Some orthodox Marxists have argued that the dictatorship of the proletariat may be intra-party organs within a mass party-movement of the majority of the working class.

Amadeo Bordiga considers the Communist Party the organic unity of the proletariat. The dictatorship of the proletariat is therefore the dictatorship of the communist party. The Party would assume power and as the state withers away the Party would be transformed into a central administration that would be responsible for decision-making on the basis of the scientific method. Neither the Party nor the central administration would be subject to democratic control arguing that majority decision-making doesn't make it the correct decision. The correctness of decisions would be established on the basis of science.[4]

Withering away of the State[edit]

The withering away of the state was first used by Friedrich Engels in Anti-Dühring: "State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies out of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The state is not "abolished". It dies out [It withers away]."[5]

The state originated from class society and class antagonisms. The revolutionary dictatorship is the body of class rule against the bourgeoisie and its reaction. The withering away of the state occurs because of the disappearance of class antagonisms and the abolition of social classes. The revolutionary dictatorship uses coercion against the reaction to consolidate its power, as the reaction is beaten these types of coercive functions of the workers' state gradually disappear proportionally to the intensity of the reaction (as the reaction dwindles, so does the coercion employed). The working class organs of the revolutionary dictatorship are organically transformed into administrative organs of free association of equal individuals. The state disappears not because of a voluntary abdication of power by the ruling class but because the specific organs for class rule are transformed into organs of voluntary association around common ownership.

  1. Engels. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. Chapter III - Historical Materialism
  2. Engels. 1891 Introduction by Frederick Engels On the 20th Anniversary of the Paris Commune to "The Civil War in France". "Against this transformation of the state and the organs of the state from servants of society into masters of society – an inevitable transformation in all previous states – the Commune made use of two infallible expedients. In this first place, it filled all posts – administrative, judicial, and educational – by election on the basis of universal suffrage of all concerned, with the right of the same electors to recall their delegate at any time. [...] Of late, the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat."
  3. Hal Draper, 1987. The 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat' in Marx and Engels
  4. John CRUMP. Non-market socialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire : Macmillan, 1987. https://bataillesocialiste.wordpress.com/english-pages/1987-bordigism-buick/
  5. Engels, F. (1877). Anti-Dühring. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch24.htm