By Hal Draper. Originally published as chapter 4 (Lenin and ‘Dictatorship’) and part of chapter 5 (The International Debate on ‘Dictatorship’) of Draper’s book, The “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” from Marx to Lenin.

As we have seen, in the social-democratic party in which Lenin grew up the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was accepted by almost everyone. What did Lenin come to understand by the term?

Like everyone else, Lenin had to ask himself what Marx could have meant. By the time he started writing on socialist problems (the first writings in his Collected Works stem from 1893) the word “dictatorship’ had already acquired some of its modem meaning; it was even beginning to be counterposed to ‘democracy’ to some extent. Yet Lenin, like other Marxists, assumed that the historical fate of socialism was inextricably linked to the advance of democracy, social, economic and political: “Whoever wants to reach socialism’ by any other path than that of political democracy will inevitably arrive at conclusions that are absurd and reactionary both in the economic and political sense.”1

The rather surprising outcome was that Lenin worked out for himself, or invented, a unique definition of ‘dictatorship’ which, as far as I know, came out of his own head. More than ever, different people discussing ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ were using a different vocabulary, talking past each other. Throughout Lenin’s writings—in Luxemburg’s and others—there were passages of curt reference to the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ which simply connected it up with the generic concept of “conquest of power.’ The best example of this came in Lenin’s Granat Encyclopaedia article “Karl Marx,” written in 1914; it routinely referred to:

a political struggle directed towards the conquest of political power by the proletariat (“a dictatorship of the proletariat” ).2

But these passages are unedifying. We want to pause at those that revealed what the writer thought the term meant.

1. First Interpretation

For the first decade of Lenin’s literary activity, from 1893 up to 1902, there is no record that he used the term at all. He must have seen it in Plekhanov’s writings, in Bernstein’s attack, in Kautsky, etc, but it played no role in his own formulations. Test cases are provided by the drafts for party programs that he did in the 1890s. In 1895-1896 he wrote such a draft, plus an “Explanation of the Program,” but in both documents the passages dealing with state power made no use of the term.3 Near the end of 1899 he wrote another piece on what a draft party program should say—with similar results.4 About the same time, an unpublished review-essay on Kautsky’s Anti-Bernstein discussed the Revisionist case; Bernstein’s remarks on the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ did not figure in it.5

In fact Lenin paid no attention whatever to the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ or ‘dictatorship’ alone until the question was imposed on the Russian movement by Plekhanov in 1902. This underlines from another side that it was Plekhanov who was the begetter, fons et origo, of the career of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in the socialist movement.

In early 1902, preparing for the Second Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers Party, Plekhanov (as we have seen in the preceding chapter) included ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in a draft for the party program. The fight against Bernsteinian Revisionism, in its West European and Russian forms, had heated up, too. In his main precongress discussion piece, What Is To Be Done?, Lenin was mainly interested in other problems; and while ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ occurred three times in this work, the references were routine ones, as it were. That is the formulations were such incidental references to workers’ political power that one cannot say if they entailed any special understanding of the term.6

Among Lenin’s papers of the time we find an “Outline of Plekhanov’s First Draft Program,” in which one of the planks used “command of political power” simply in apposition with ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’7

In a draft program drawn up together with other Iskra editors, a plank linked up ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ with defense of the revolution in the usual manner.8 It was in his “Notes on Plekhanov’s Second Draft Program,” jotted down in February-March that we get the first indication of how Lenin understood the term. It transpired that he understood it to refer only to the suppressive tasks of a workers’ government. His argument went as follows: if the (Russian) petty-bourgeoisie, including the peasantry, supported the proletariat in the revolution, then of course it would not need to be suppressed, and therefore a “dictatorship” could be dispensed with. This thought explains the following notes:

… the concept of dictatorship” is incompatible with positive recognition of the outside support for the proletariat. If we really knew positively that the petty-bourgeoisie will support the !proletariat in the accomplishment of its, the proletariat’s, revolution it would be pointless to speak of a “dictatorship,” for we would then be fully guaranteed so overwhelming a majority that we could get on very well without a dictatorship (as the “critics” [Revisionists] would have us believe).

The next sentence tries an interpretation of Marx:

The recognition of the necessity for the dictatorship of the proletariat is most closely and inseparably bound up with the thesis of the Communist Manifesto that the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class.9

This was a remarkable blunder. It was in the Manifesto, which indeed did assert that “the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class,”10 that Marx on the next page viewed the socialist movement as the “independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority.”11 In any case Marx was convinced that the socialist revolution would normally come about with the support of a secure majority of the masses of people. According to Lenin’s 1902 notes, this would mean that a “dictatorship” of the proletariat would be unnecessary. In short, the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ ceased fo be applicable to the advanced capitalist countries and became a special institution relevant mainly to countries like Russia.

It goes without saying, in the light of the evidence, that this view has no resemblance to Marx’s. Indeed, it has no resemblance to any subsequent claim made by Lenin about the international applicability of the concept. Asking himself why a democratically-based popular revolution should be called a ‘dictatorship,’ Lenin had adopted Plekhanov’s solution. Plekhanov’s contribution to the puzzle had been to spell out the antidemocratic meaning of the term. Lenin’s notes carried this approach to a logical conclusion—and therefore to a theoretical disaster, in which the explanation ceased even to make good sense. To be sure, this had taken place before Plekhanov spoke at the Second Congress; but Lenin’s notes were based on a discussion of Plekhanov’s advance drafts, and Plekhanov no doubt argued for them at least as frankly in Iskra discussions as he did at the congress sessions.

How far along the road Lenin’s thinking carried the matter can he seen in a further note, a couple of pages on, It was addressed to the peasants, pitched in terms of how much “indulgence” a workers’ state could show to them if they behaved properly:

Now then, we say, if you adopt this, our, standpoint [as given in the theoretical part of the party program], you can count on “indulgence” of every kind, but if you don’t, well then, don’t get angry with us! Under the “dictatorship” we shall say about you there is no point in wasting words where the use of power is required.12

Very tough-talking, to be sure, and the more mature Lenin would consider such an attitude very stupid. It occurred only in private notes, and was not repeated. But it left no doubt about what the writer thought “the dictatorship” was all about. It was about the Plekhanov-type abrogation of democratic rights in specific situations and nothing else.

If Lenin did not subsequently recur to this view that a ‘dictatorship of the proletariats would he unnecessary if a secure majority were assured to a workers’ state, this was true no doubt because it was so utterly untenable in theoretical terms. He was going to have to invent a different solution to the problem.

2. The Two-Class “Dictatorship”

At the Second Congress in 1903, Lenin did not participate in the brief discussion precipitated by Mandelberg and Plekhanov; as he explained, the point was cut short in the proceedings. But he had a word to say about it in his book on the congress split, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, published in the spring of 1904.

Here he was especially interested in explaining how the congress divided into political tendencies. It was in illustrating this lineup that he twice mentioned the Mandelberg-Plekhanov speeches.13 Not because he felt he had to vindicate them: he reported that they were not controversial among the lskraists, and this indeed was the significance he saw in the episode, since it showed once again that the Right and Center were ranged against the revolutionary social-democracy. Lenin’s brochure, therefore, offered no substantive discussion of the issue, since it assumed that Plekhanov’s views were the generally accepted views of Marxists. He did not betray awareness that an issue existed.

In another year the revolution of 1905 changed the entire political landscape, and precipitated efforts by the socialist leaders to rethink the problems of the Russian revolution. We have already mentioned (Chapter 3, Section 4) that Lenin came up with a watchword which he formulated as the “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.” This presented two terminological problems:

(1) How could one have a “dictatorship” of two classes? If in Marx’s terms a class ‘dictatorship’ meant simply the possession of state power by a given class (as in a ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’ exercised in, say, a parliamentary democracy like England), then a proletarian-cum-peasant ‘dictatorship’ would mean a state in which two quite different classes were simultaneously in power. Marx would have found it hard to make sense of this.

Actually, the term was invented by Lenin, early in 1905, without regard to this theoretical difficulty, but in response to the political dilemma of the revolution. The Russian proletariat was small and economically weak in this backward country, but politically decisive in organizing and leading the revolutionary upsurge against the autocracy, an upsurge mainly powered by the peasant masses. The proletariat could be envisioned by the socialists as playing a “hegemonic” (leading) role in the revolution itself; but if, on the crest of revolt, it formed the expected “Provisional Revolutionary Government,” could it really establish and maintain a workers’ state? Workers’ state—this meant moving toward governmental measures that went beyond bourgeois property relations, socialist measures. If it took socialist measures, it would alienate mass peasant support to the revolution.

Lenin’s solution was to propose that the Provisional Revolutionary Government to be established on the downfall of the autocracy should be based on an alliance of the two revolutionary classes; and while the workers’ (socialist) representatives in the alliance would play the leading role (“hegemony of the proletariat”) they would have to confine the action of the government in an essential respect. This government would carry through the democratization of Russian society (the “bourgeois-democratic revolution”) to its most extreme end, but would refrain from taking directly socialist measures, measures encroaching on the private-property rights that defined capitalism.

It is not our present task, fortunately, to discuss the merits and demerits of this solution of Lenin’s to the crucial problem of the Russian revolution. As we saw, Trotsky argued that a Provisional Revolutionary Government would not he able to refrain from socialist measures, and hence would be compelled to act as a worked state, even if one which made maximum efforts to satisfy peasant needs. What Lenin was trying to emphasize, with his newly invented term, was that the proposed Provisional Revolutionary Government would have to be (1) an alliance of the two classes (2) which could not carry out a socialist program, even if led by socialists.

As is well known, Trotsky’s prediction was more or less verified in 1917 by Lenin’s own government, which in fact was compelled to take socialist measures. The two-class ‘dictatorship’ never came into living existence, and it is perhaps unfruitful to speculate whether such a societal be could ever have been viable. Lenin’s two-class ‘dictatorship’ remained an ideological construct, and today has a museum-like quality.

What, then, was the point of calling this construct a ‘dictatorship’ of two classes? It was a good example of the “tyranny of language”— language forms imposing themselves in a terminological “logic” regardless of other logical relations. The “logic” went this way: If the Provisional Revolutionary Government was not going to be a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in accordance with the Russian party program, it had to be some other ‘dictatorship.’ The code-word became the language; ‘revolutionary government’ had to be translated into ‘revolutionary dictatorship.’ Besides, if ‘dictatorship’ entailed suppression (as everyone thought), who was going to suppress whom? The two-class ‘dictatorship’ was a way of promising (terminologically) that the revolutionary government would not suppress the peasantry.

(2) The other terminological problem was the affixation of ‘democratic’ before this ‘dictatorship.’ This development has been mentioned before: here ‘democratic’ was a short form of ‘bourgeois-democratic,’ and Lenin’s watchword meant that the Provisional Revolutionary Government would confine itself to the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution.

We have seen14 that in Western Europe in mid-century the term ‘Democracy’ (as in ‘the Democracy’) had gone through a course of development: at first, a broad term for the left opponents of absolutism, including both bourgeois-democrats and proletarian-socialist democrats; later, especially after 1849, a term eschewed by the revolutionary left, which used it pejoratively to mean pinkish radicals and social-democratic liberals. In Russia, where there was a great deal of catching up to do, the term ‘democratic’ hardened, in socialist usage, into a virtual synonym for ‘bourgeois-democratic’ as distinct from or opposed to ‘socialist.’ (This usage was not unknown in the West even by the turn of the century, but it was less consistent.)

Terminologically, this development was explicable; in political thinking, it was an invitation to a muddle. If ‘democratic’ implied ‘bourgeois,’ then socialists who wanted to be “revolutionary” were led to say it only with a sneer or grimace. One aspect of the muddle to which it led was the (later) growing belief in some left circles and among some sell-styled revolutionary Marxists, that ‘democracy’ had no meaning except in terms of class power.

Thus Lenin’s “slogan” of the “democratic dictatorship” of the two revolutionary classes made its appearance in a context which put the main stress not on the ‘dictatorship’ but focused controversy on the other ingredients—the limitation promised by ‘democratic’ and the two-class problem stated by the ‘proletariat and the peasantry.”

Lenin’s “slogan” could have been formulated without the word ‘dictatorships’ and often was so formulated by Lenin himself: e.g., a “revolutionary proletarian-peasant government,” etc. The ironic fact is that the impetus, or occasion, for formulating it around the word ‘dictatorship’ came from outside Lenin: it came from his Menshevik opponents. (This may remind us how the question of dictatorship was raised at the Second Congress not by Lenin but by two future Mensheviks.)

To see what happened, let us pinpoint exactly when Lenin started using the ‘democratic dictatorship’ slogan and under what circumstances. Even before the 1905 revolution he had already adumbrated the underlying idea of a proletarian-peasant alliance in a revolutionary government. But when did he start attaching the term ‘dictatorship’ to this germinal idea?

The answer is: it was linked to Lenin’s response to the Mensheviks’ publication of a pamphlet by the leading Menshevik A. S. Martynov. Martynov’s pamphlet was entitled Two Dictatorships. During the first months of 1905 Lenin referred to and quoted from this pamphlet numerous times, as a punching-bag. What he kept. on quoting was a passage in which Martynov denounced the idea of the socialist party’s bringing about a successful popular uprising against the autocracy, because this victory would force it to assume power and (horrors!) institute a proletarian dictatorship, when all Mensheviks knew that only a bourgeois regime was in the cards. The modern reader must keep in mind that Martynov’s horror was not evoked by ‘dictatorship’ but by ‘proletarian,’ that is, the error was to institute a proletarian-socialist regime under premature conditions which made survival impossible in backward Russia.

Lenin’s first publication of the ‘democratic dictatorship’ formula came in an issue of his paper (March 8, 1905) in which he polemicized against Martynov’s pamphlet and propounded the brand-new slogan.15 All through these early months of 1905, when we find the very first uses of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry,’ virtually every use is in connection with a response to Martynov’s Two Dictatorships.

Martynov Two Dictatorships

Then at the Third Congress, Lenin made this connection himself, eliminating any possibility of doubt about the immediate genesis of the formula. The party congress met in April-May; Lenin reported on Social-Democratic participation in a Provisional Revolutionary Government. He began the report by saying that this question of participation did not come up because the prospect was imminent. Why then did it come up?

But the question has been forced upon us not so much by the actual state of affairs as by literary polemics. It must always be borne in mind that the question was first raised by Martynov, and that he raised it before January 9 [Bloody Sunday]. He wrote in his pamphlet Two Dictatorships.18

And he proceeded to quote the same passage from Martynov’s pamphlet that he had been attacking ever since February, and he likewise proceeded to put forward the ‘democratic dictatorship’ formula once again, his response to Martynov.

3. The New Definition

Lenin’s exposition of the two-class dictatorship “slogan” began with the April 12, 1905 issue of his paper, and was continued in the discussions and documents of the Third Congress.19 The reader can find accounts of the subsequent controversy in many works. If we keep an eye specifically on our own narrower question—the meaning assigned to ‘dictatorship’ in the controversy—we find the usual lack of awareness about the existence of the problem. But in fact Lenin was incubating a new interpretation of the meaning of the word. The new meaning was dimly adumbrated in his aforementioned report to the Third Congress. There he said, of the “revolutionary dictatorship”:

It can be only a dictatorship, that is, not an organization of “order,” but an organization of war. If you are storming a fortress, you cannot discontinue the war even after you have taken the fortress.20

In his major work of this period, Two Tactics of the Social-Democracy, the incubation period had not yet terminated, but he made another point of the utmost importance, on an aspect of the problem that would remain for a long time. After exploring Marx’s statements about ‘dictatorship’ in 1848,’20 he was moved to stress that ‘dictatorship’ and ‘democracy’ are not “mutually exclusive.” It was a conclusion he was going to find hard to remember:

… the bourgeoisie understands by dictatorship the annulment of all liberties and guarantees of democracy, arbitrariness of every kind, and every sort of abuse of power in a dictator’s personal interests.22

This was the “vulgar bourgeois view,” he wrote. What was his view? From Marx’s 1848 articles he gathered that “the task of such a [revolutionary] dictatorship is to destroy the remnants of the old institutions.” But what is “dictatorial” about that, given a democratically based revolution? He had not yet incubated an answer. When the Mensheviks objected to his two-class ‘dictatorship’ formula on the ground that dictatorship presupposes a “single will,” he did not reject the definition, but merely argued that it was “abstract.”23 This argument was not about the will of a single man but of a single class.

His own definition of ‘dictatorship’ was ready for publication less than a year later. In April 1906 he published a pamphlet, The Victory cf the Cadets and the Tasks of the Workers’ Party, which presented it full-panoplied.24 For the first time by anybody in a long while, this work showed awareness that there was a problem about the common understanding of the word ‘dictatorship’:

Why “dictatorship,” why “force”? . . .

This question is usually put by people who for the first time hear the term ‘dictatorship’ used in what to them is a new connotation. People are accustomed to see only a police authority and only a police dictatorship, The idea that there can be a government without any police, or that dictatorship need not be a police dictatorship, seems strange to them.26

This is a fresh and welcome note in our study, an insight for which Lenin was well nigh unique in this period. Unfortunately, the positive content of this work was less happy. For, after cogitating over the problem of just why ‘dictatorship’ was dictatorial, he had worked out an answer which must produce more puzzlement than enlightenment.

His target here was the mildly liberal-reform Constitutional Democratic Party (Cadets, for short), whose “professors” were misrepresenting the views of the revolutionaries, he said. “Please note,” he told them,

that dictatorship means unlimited power based or force, and not on law. in civil war, any victorious power can only be a dictatorship.27

This was not an incidental thought; he repeated it. The soviets that had arisen in 1905, he said, were the embryo of a new revolutionary government; they

represented a dictatorship in embryo, for they recognized 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.28

And he kept on insisting on it. He gave an example: suppose police were torturing a revolutionist, and a crowd of workers poured in and overwhelmed the torturers. “When a revolutionary people resorts to force” against the “Cossacks”—

that is a dictatorship of the revolutionary people. It is a dictatorship, because it is the authority of the people over [the Cossacks, etc.], an authority unrestricted by any laws.

He waxed “scientific”:

The scientific term “dictatorship” means nothing more nor less than authority untrammeled by any laws, absolutely unrestricted by any rules whatever, and based directly on force. The term “dictatorship” has no other meaning but this.29

This definition of ‘dictatorship’ was going to be held and expounded by Lenin for a long time, but it was already fully developed in this, its first exposition.

This definition can only be called a theoretical disaster, first-class, like Lenin’s 1902 blunder. This reign of pure force, in which there existed no law, authority, standard, or rules “whatever,” could exist, if at all, only for a relatively brief period of pitched battle, before the revolutionary forces won out and established their own state (or else lost, of course). Actually, even in a pitched battle it is unlikely that there will be no authorities, laws, etc,; on the contrary, there are likely to be a double set of these; but for the sake of argument let us concede that Lenin’s no-law situation exists for the period of unresolved battle. But after? If we are talking about a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ victory in the battle means that a workers’ state begins to operate. It must, to be sure, defend itself, suppress counterrevolution, recast the state institutions, etc.—in short, carry out all the tasks of a workers’ state, whatever one conceives these to be; but it begins to operate. Without any laws whatever? Without rules? Without standards? On the contrary, its operation means that it establishes its own, new, class-reoriented laws, rules, standards and authorities, new institutions under its own law. According to Lenin’s definition, as soon as it does so, the ‘dictatorship’ ceases; according to everyone else, the new workers’ state begins.

As a matter of fact, although Lenin kept repeating this definition, he never drew the absurd conclusion that the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ ceased when a workers’ state established its own laws and institutions. His definition lived on as a construct only.

Another remarkable aspect was Lenin’s repeated claim that his definition was “scientific.” This might suggest that he had encountered some allegedly scientific (e.g., philological, etc.) basis for the claim; but if he did, he never mentioned it. What is also puzzling is that he repeatedly referred to the ‘Latin’ origin of the term ‘dictatorship’30— yet did not appear to have an inkling of what the Latin (Roman) meaning really was; he did not even vouchsafe an incorrect inkling.

Whether he found the new definition in some unnamed source or invented it out of the blue, his definition of ‘dictatorship’ had nothing in common with any other conception of the term held by socialists or—what is more important—with any conception of the workers’ state held by Marxists. Now this sort of thing was not typical of Lenin, and a working hypothesis for such occasions is that the otherwise singular definition must have fulfilled some theoretical function for him despite its extreme weakness. If we ask what this function might have been, we need not go further to find it than the carne article that first expounded the definition.

We have to go back to Lenin’s example of the “dictatorship of the revolutionary people” who overwhelmed the police torturers: he drew the example out further. In this scene:

we see the dictatorship of ale people, because the people, the mass of the population, unorganized, “casually” assembled at the given spot, itself appears on the scene, exercises justice and metes out punishment, exercises power and creates a new revolutionary law.31

Parenthetically, we point out that if it created a new “law,” it was ipso facto no longer a ‘dictatorship,’ according to the definition; but Lenin ignored this crying contradiction. Also: if we were to discuss the case more seriously, we would have to ask why a lynch mob is not also a “dictatorship of the people,” and the answer would likewise burst the seams of Lenin’s definition. But let us continue with Lenin’s passage in order to see where he is going:

Lastly, it is the dictatorship of the revolutionary people. Why only of the revolutionary, and not of the whole people? Because among the whole people, constantly suffering, and most cruelly, from the brutalities of the [Cossacks], there are some who are physically cowed and terrified …

And there are others who are “degraded” by bad theories that prevent them from fighting or “by prejudice, habit, routine”; and there are still others who stay out of the fight for one bad reason or another, including cowardice. Conclusion?

That is why the dictatorship is exercised, not by the whole people, but by the revolutionary people who, however, do not shun the whole people, who explain to all the people the motives of their actions in all their details, and who willingly enlist the whole people not only in “administering” the state, but in governing it too and indeed in organizing the state.

Thus our simple analogy contains oil she elements of the scientific concept “dictatorship of the revolutionary people,” and also of the concept “military and police dictatorship.”32

Thus the entire concept of a class dictatorship, whether of one or two classes, has been argued away by dint of a “scientific” definition, and replaced with the concept of an ad-hoc “dictatorship’s wielded by the ‘revolutionary people”—a concept which Lenin’s detailed example has made into a dictatorship wielded by revolutionary activists. This category obviously stands for the revolutionary party.

The entire construct has led to the transmogrification of the class dictatorship into a party dictatorship. Which was exactly what the traditional ‘revolutionary dictatorship’ had always meant to the movement before Marx: Q.E.D. The party dictatorship would, of course, “explain,” “enlist,” and refrain from “shunning” the “whole people.” Here, though not subsequently, Lenin even forgot to mention that there were classes in between the “revolutionary people” (party) on the one hand and the ‘whole people” on the other.

It will be asserted, naturally, that this was a special “Leninist” distortion of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ into the dictatorship of the party. But as we have pointed out, everyone else (with the possible later exception of Luxemburg) assumed that the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ would be exercised in practice as a ‘dictatorship of the party.’ They assumed it, but Lenin characteristically had to develop a reasoned basis for the idea. This is what he tried to do, and this was the sad result. But the conception that linked ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and ‘dictatorship of the party’ was not his invention.

4. On State and Revolution

With the decline of the revolutionary wave, the discussion of revolutionary problems also ebbed. There was a long hiatus, lasting into the period of World War I, in the incidence of Lenin’s mentions of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ In December 1914 there was an article in which he referred to the new definition of ‘dictatorship’: it was given in bare-bones fashion in two words, “unrestricted power.” Outside of routine usages, there was an article in 1909 which stated that “the Bolsheviks have never spoken of the ‘inevitability’ of ‘dictatorship’ but of its necessity.”33 The meaning is unclear but not worth the space to untangle.


The first year in which we find Lenin again referring repeatedly to the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ or to the two-class ‘dictatorship’ was 1916. The context was mainly the lively debate then going on among the Bolsheviks themselves on the question of the right of national self-determination, The connection between this question and ‘dictatorship’ was not direct; the references may have started cropping up simply because Lenin was studying the problems that led to the writing of State and Revolution.

Now in discussing the question or national self-determination Lenin’s heavy emphasis was that self-determination was a democratic demand that had to be supported by socialists; and more than once he wanted to stress that this democratic demand, like democratic demands in general, was not incompatible with the programmatic concept of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’:34

socialism can be implemented only through the dictatorship of the proletariat, which combines violence against the bourgeoisie, i.e., the minority of the population, with full development of democracy, i.e., the genuinely equal and genuinely universal participation of the entire mass of the population in ail state affairs and in all the complex problems of abolishing capitalism.36

This statement of the issue was close to Marx’s concept; Lenin’s espousal of national self-determination as a democratic issue seemed to turn his emphasis in that direction. It produced this, for example, in the late summer of 1916:

For socialism is impossible without democracy because: (1) the proletariat cannot perform the socialist revolution unless it prepares for it by the struggle for democracy; (2) victorious socialism cannot consolidate its victory and bring humanity to the withering away of the state without implementing full democracy.37

But he had not forgotten the definition of ‘dictatorship’ he had worked out in 1906, and it remained his operative formula. ‘Dictatorship,’ he repeated, is a “domination of one part of society over the rest of that “rests directly on coercion.”38 And: “Dictatorship is state power based directly on violence.”39 His last reference before the March 1917 revolution came in a letter to Inessa Armand, emphasizing on again the connection with democracy: Armand should include the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in a lecture to show

why it is necessary, why it is impossible without arming the proletariat, why it is fully compatible with complete, all-round democracy (in spite of the vulgar opinion).40

The interrevolution period—that is, the period from March to November 1917—can be considered, from our present narrow focus, the period in which State and Revolution was gestated.41 In this inter-revolution period there was a considerable uniformity about his references to the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ and a notable characteristic was his full return to and repetition of the 1906 definition. For the first time in some years, the “no law” concept recurred, as he went back to his 19 writing to answer the question: What exactly is ‘dictatorial’ about the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’? By April 1917 he was trying to define the proletarian half of the dual-power situation. The Soviet power, he said, constitutes a government alongside the government of the bourgeoisie, and—

It is a revolutionary dictatorship, i.e., a power directly based on revolutionary seizure, on the direct initiative of the people from below, and not on a law enacted by a centralized state power.42

We see that Lenin has thrown in a new, ad-hoc qualifier, the last phrase about a “centralized” state power. Wasn’t this power based on law,” authority, standards, rules, etc. established by a non-centralized (or not-yet-centralized) state power? Lenin ignores this obvious question. He wants to emphasize the identity of the Soviet dual power with the Paris Commune, and will do so innumerable times in this period. But wasn’t the power of the 1871 workers’ state embodied in numerous laws and institutions established by the (nonparliamentary) representative assembly called the Commune? No answer. He simply repeats ever more emphatically:

The fundamental characteristics of this type [of state power] are: (1) the source of power is not a law previously discussed enacted by parliament, but the direct initiative of the people from below, in their local areas—direct “seizures” …

And he concludes: “This, and this alone, constitutes the essence of the Paris Commune as a special type of state.”43 What exactly is the “this alone” that constitutes its essence: that the “source of power” is “not a law”? (Untrue.) That it is nonparliamentary? (True.) That it is “local”? (Untrue.) That it is based on “direct initiative”? (Partly true.) That the “seizure” was “direct”? (Untrue.) Above all, that it was a workers’ state? (True, but not mentioned by Lenin in this connection.) … I am trying to emphasize that several strands of thought were twisted into this statement.

This was only the first of several such passages that were now encountered in Lenin’s writings, complicated further by the fact that the ‘dictatorship’ he kept defining was sometimes that of the proletariat and sometimes of the two-class variety. Not only was the “no law” definition back, and repeated more than once, but new characteristics were thrown in with such apparent casualness that one wonders if he really thought they all meant the same thing. Thus in May he specified that a ‘dictatorship’ “rests not on law, not on the formal will of the majority .”44 By “formal will of the majority” he apparently meant elections; at any rate in June he made it explicit that the “scientific” meaning of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ meant “power based not on law or elections, but directly on the armed force of a particular section of the population.”45 But since the Soviets and the entire Soviet system were based on elections, what could this mean? And since he was specifically offering a definition, the power ceased to be a ‘dictatorship’ as soon as it was based on elections…

There was more to the muddle: in draft theses (which by nature were supposed to be worded with exactitude) one of the “Conclusions” was this:

Bring home to the mass of workers, peasants and soldiers that the reason for the revolution’s success locally is undivided power and the dictatorship of the proletariat.46

How on earth could the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’—which is the nationwide outcome of a revolutionary seizure of power—be the (prior) reason for success of the revolution locally? The least to be said about such usages is that they show how the phrase was taking on the character of a rubberized watchword, or code word, standing for something seen as a test of revolutionariness, but without a really scientific content.

These were the passages that preceded the final drafting of State and Revolution.

State and Revolution which after all was the product of a more than one-year-long excogitation of the theory of the state, suggests that Lenin was rethinking his understanding of ‘dictatorship’ along with the rest of the subject. Conclusions cannot be too sweeping for two reasons: (1) The ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was not the question central to this work. The focus was on what Lenin called “smashing” the old state apparatus and inaugurating the process of “withering away” by a unique type of state (or nonstate). At no point did Lenin undertake a special exposition on ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ (2) The work was unfinished, stopping short of a chapter that was scheduled to discuss the lessons of 1905 and 1917. It is therefore risky to lean on what is not in the work.

Still, the first thing to be reported is that, after reviving the “no law” definition of ‘dictatorship’ all through the first part of 1917, Lenin failed to mention it once in State and Revolution, in connection with the numerous invocations of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ He did mention a couple of elements associated with the definition: “undivided power directly backed by the armed force of the people.”47 In the midst of very strong emphases on the democracy of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ he did remark that it “imposes a series of restrictions on the freedom of the oppressors, the exploiters, the capitalists,” indeed their “exclusion from democracy…”48 This sentiment went all the way back to Plekhanov’s views of 1903.

On the other hand, apart from these passing remarks, the content of the work brought overwhelmingly to the fore the conceptions of a new type of commune state that would open up democratic vistas. The ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ he stated strongly, was not a fixed formula, but would appear, during the transition period, in “a tremendous abundance and variety of political forms,” just as the ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’ did; and he denounced the social-democrats for claiming that “the ‘dictatorship’ of the proletariat ‘contradicts’ democracy!!”49

The most remarkable characteristic of State and Revolution was not directly associated with the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ references, but it was related to them. It was the emphasis in this work—and only here—on the immediacy of the ‘withering away’ pattern. Here is the prime text:

The proletariat needs the state… But… according to Marx, the proletariat needs only a state which is withering away, i.e., a state so constituted that it begins to wither away immediately.50

A spotlight plays brightly on the unexpected last word. Let us look at a couple of related passages, for example at the little word ‘soon’ near the end of the following:

Under socialism much of “primitive” democracy will inevitably be revived, since, for the first time in the history of civilized society, the mass of the population will rise to taking an independent part, not only in voting and elections, but also in tile everyday administration of the state. Under socialism all will govern in turn and will soon become accustomed to no one governing.51

In another passage, there was no word like ‘soon,’ but its sense was implicit in the context: the suppression of a minority by a majority is compatible with the extension of democracy to such an overwhelming majority of the population that the need for a special machine of suppression will begin to disappear.”52 The sense of immediacy was also applied ex post facto to the Paris Commune, which:

was ceasing to be a state since it had to suppress, nor the majority of the population, but a minority (the exploiters) . And had the Commune become firmly established, all traces of the state in it would have “withered away” of themselves…53

Now of course it is especially this aspect of State and Revolution that has been scorned as utopian, as a momentary aberration on Lenin’s part; but such skeptical remarks are partly based on misunderstanding. In the first place, ‘begins to wither away” should be read with great emphasis on the first word; it is a question above all of direction of development, in the second place, Lenin’s thought was fixed specifically on the suppressive function of the state, its police side in the narrow sense. But it is the suppressive function of a state that was regarded as its ‘dictatorship’ aspect; and so these remarks by Lenin in State and Revolution interest us hugely, even though they do not occur in passages discussing ‘dictatorship.’

These were the ideas in Lenin’s mind when the November revolution took place. From State and Revolution to November, there were only a couple of routine references to ‘dictatorship,’ one-class or two-class.54 Right after the revolution, there was none. I wonder how long this would have lasted if the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly had not come up so soon…

Lenin’s first postrevolution mention of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ came in December in a statement, “Theses on the Constituent Assembly.” The two references in this document were routine ones.55 In January he dredged up and republished Plekhanov’s advance justification, in 1903, of the suppression of the Assembly.56

5. The Steel Wire

Thus it began: the progressive subordination of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ concept to the immediate exigencies of a Soviet state surrounded by counterrevolution, battered by White armies of intervention, ruined industrially, starved by the imperialist blockade, struggling to stay alive until revolution in the West could come to the aid of the beleaguered fortress.

This is the real history; our own subject lies in one small corner of it. There were legiions of casualties; individuals, institutions, and ideas were equally done to death. The pressures were gigantic; and mere concepts were crushed out of shape. All this requires a different history from this one.

But before we go to the small corner, let us note two things about the larger picture.

(1) During the period when the revolution was fighting for its life against 14 invading armies, Lenin thought that the outcome was going to be either/or: either the military overthrow of the Russian Revolution before the European Revolution could save it, or else the expansion of the revolution into a Continental and worldwide upheaval—the final destruction of capitalism over the entire planet. He did not count on the in-between situation that actually took place: a level of European revolution and of war exhaustion sufficient to blunt the imperialist world’s intervention without bringing about a social revolution on the Continent, so that the Russian Revolution survived militarily—but was isolated. The Beleaguered Fortress had been waiting for the revolutionary war to be won, so that it would be relieved. Now the war was over; and the fortress was still beleaguered.

All Russian Marxists had for decades explained that in their country a purely proletarian government, a socialist government, would be unviable, short of world revolution. That meant: a counterrevolutionary overthrow was inevitable. It would seem, therefore, unnecessary to explain why the universally expected actually happenedexcept for one detail. The counterrevolution came from inside the ruling party, which was not overthrown but which, rather, overthrew the workers’ state. If this were a different history, we would have to explain this, and account for the fact that the beleaguered workers’ state established by the Bolshevik party was transformed into a state ruled by the collective bureaucracy: the internal counterrevolution called Stalinism.

But as we said, that is a different story, and what we have to highlight is simply this: a counterrevolution had to take place inside the Beleaguered Fortress, and it did—whatever you think the counter-revolution was.

(2) Such a counterrevolution, as we have already stressed, was the outcome of enormous sociopolitical pressures; and one of the con-sequences of pressure is that it deforms. Inside the Beleaguered For-tress, principles and concepts came under deforming pressure too. Stress produces temporary distortions: if you hang a series of weights on a steel wire, the wire will stretch—and stretch again—until the weights arc removed, after which the wire snaps back to its original size, In physics. it is said that the strain on the wire did not exceed the steel’s elastic limit. In politics, it is said that the deformation was not outside the bounds of principle, In one of the alternate-time universes well known to science-fiction readers, perhaps the German Revolution of 1918-1920 burst through the bonds imposed by the Social-Democrats, and Soviet Germany came into existence, with its economic efficiency, educated and advanced proletariat, technical knowledge and wealth. Germany plus Russia equals Communist Europe, Lenin said. Soviet Russia became a rather dreary backwater of the new world, carried along on the élan of the European Revolution. The steel wire in the Beleaguered Fortress had stretched and stretched, and now could snap back to its original length…

But since this did not happen in our universe, let us define what actually did take place. If we interpret the steel-wire metaphor of elasticity what happened was this; under the intolerable pressures of isolation in the Beleaguered Fortress, principles were first distorted by the strain of emergency exceptions, and then the distortions themselves became the principles.

The steel wire stands for workers’ and party democracy. This pattern was acted out with reference to a number of questions having to do with the capacity of the new Soviet institutions to facilitate control from below. A typical question of this sort was that of the decision of the Tenth Party Congress in 1921 to abolish organized factions—a decision which Trotsky later agreed helped lay the juridical basis for Stalin’s despotic regime. It was typical because it was proposed and adopted as an emergency exception, a deviation from the desirable degree of democracy, justified only by the life-and-death needs of the moment; and having been adopted for this reason, it became accepted as the norm. The question of a one-party state went through a similar evolution.

Wherever you look into Soviet politics during this period, you see “exceptions” turning into norms. The steel wire was refusing to snap back; it had stretched, and stayed stretched. This was the molecular process of internal degeneration.

If every concept and institution of workers’ democracy was under strain in the Beleaguered Fortress, the concept of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and of ‘dictatorship’ in general was under the hammer. It is only a question fo tracing how, by whom, and how rapidly distortions were turning into norms. The question of tempo was crucial, for no one could know at the time how soon the Beleaguered Fortress would be relieved.

In this period there is no point in simply listing mentions of the ‘dictatorship’ concept; it is a question of finding the points where new strains were put on the steel wire.

6. ‘Dictatorship’ in Year One

We are, then, looking into that small corner of the history of this period which is under the sign of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ The first ominous incident to record was an expulsion, a proceeding that used to be rare in the party. This involved the expulsion from the Bolshevik party of its trade-union leader, A. Lozovsky. According to Lenin’s draft resolution of January 2018, he had to be expelled for holding opinions:

… he expressed opinions which radically diverge from those of the Party and of the revolutionary proletariat in general, but coincide on all major points with the petty-bourgeois negation of the dictatorship of the proletariat…

Lozovosky had to be expelled because he “does not understand the necessity for the dictatorship of the proletariat … which sticks at no bourgeois-democratic formulas…” But this was careless, unbuttoned language: he was not being expelled for a lack of “understanding.” Point 6 was more enlightening: party membership was impossible for one

who refuses to accept the idea that it is the duty of the trade unions to take upon themselves state functions.57

Here the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was made the ideological ground of the expulsion—for the first time, I believe. Even worse was the real reason: Lozovsky had refused, as head of the trade unions, to go along with the Central Committee’s perspective of integrating the trade unions into the state machinery.58 Later Lenin himself approached this same position, in the so-called Trade-Union Controversy of 1920; Lozovsky was later readmitted to the party; but a considerable weight had been hung on the steel wire.

In an unpublished piece of the same month, Lenin remarked: “What dictatorship implies and means is a state of simmering war, a state of military measures of struggle against the enemies of the proletariat in power.”60 For a formula that sounds like a definition, the insertion of “military measures” indicated to what extent the special characteristics of the period were blurring in Lenin’s mind with what, on the next page, he called the “scientific” term for breaking capitalist resistance.

Toward the end of the month came a speech—made to the Third All-Russia Congress of Soviets on January 25—that we can qualify, like certain predecessors, as a theoretical disaster. Perhaps he was short of sleep that day but, for whatever reason, this is what came out:

One of the objectors [on the Right] declared that we had favored the dictatorship of democracy, that we had recognized the rule of democracy. That declaration was so absurd, so utterly meaningless, that it is merely a collection of words. It is just like saying ‘iron snow,” or something similar.

Those who talk so much about the dictatorship of democracy merely utter meaningless, absurd phrases which indicate neither economic knowledge nor political understanding.61

“One of the objectors” may have been a representative of the Left S.R.’s, who around this time were raising the watchword of the “dictatorship of democracy” (or of “the Democracy”) instead of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ meaning the “dictatorship” of the peasantry along with the proletariat; so says O.H. Radkey.62

Could Lenin really not remember eve hearing talk of “the dictatorship of [the] democracy”? Didn’t it at least remind him of a certain famous formula called the “democratic dictatorship”? He not only reiterated this claim of complete meaninglessness, without offering any explanation, but launched the following attack on “democracy,” tout court:

Democracy is a form of bourgeois state championed by all traitors to genuine socialism … who assert that democracy is contrary to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Until the revolution transcended the limits of the bourgeois system, we were for democracy; but as soon as we saw the first signs of socialism in the progress of the revolution, we took a firm and resolute stand for the dictatorship of the proletariat.

It would be hard to be more vulgar in flatly counterposing “democracy” to “dictatorship” in abstract terms—exactly what he had warned against more than once. The extreme theoretical ineptness of this passage is hard to understand, but its political import is not, especially given the current of the times.

This may have been pointed out to Lenin at the tie; for the next day, at a Railway Union congress, he spoke very differently: “it is not true that we are destroying democracy,” etc., and he lauded the Soviets as a higher form of democracy, a “real democracy,” and so on.63 But a couple months later, the “correction” was in turn forgotten: the alternatives, he said, were either the dictatorship of the proletariat or “the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, disguised by … democracy and similar bourgeois frauds…”64 (We will come back to this question in Chapter 5, Section 7.)

In the spring, the word ‘iron’ bean appearing in his descriptions of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’65 This proved metallurgically that he could not have been talking about a class dictatorship. “Either the dictatorship of Kornilov … or the dictatorship of the proletariat,” he asserted;66 but “Kornilov” was not a social class. At the same time the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ concept began sounding like an all-purpose fix-it man:

… our dictatorship of the proletariat is the establishment of order, discipline, labor, productivity, accounting and control by proletarian Soviet power…67

Perhaps it made good coffee too? It was customary to proclaim the ‘dictatorship’ had to crush the “exploiters,” but then Lenin threw in “exploiters and hooligans…”68 The idea of a class dictatorship directed against “hooligans” boggles the mind. The invocation of “dictatorial methods” also began looking like a cure-all:

… our task is to study the state capitalism of the Germans, to spare no effort in copying it and not shrink from adopting dictatorial methods to hasten the copying of it.69

This referred to the German war economy, involving the coercion of the capitalist class, i.e. suggesting a state “dictatorship” over the ruling class. By an unstated chain of thought, this passage ended with an appeal not to “hesitate to use barbarous methods in fighting barbarism.” Again: obviously the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was not merely a class concept when he urged that “there must be a dictatorship throughout the whole of Russia” and “not only centrally.”70

At the end of Year One, Lenin spoke at an anniversary meeting where he sought to summarize the year:

… this past year has been one of genuine proletarian dictatorship. This concept used to be mysterious book Latin, a mouthful of incomprehensible words. [Like ‘revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’?—HD] Intellectuals sought an explanation of the concept in learned works, which only gave them a hazy notion of what the proletarian dictatorship was all about.

The only such learned work in existence was his own State and Revolution. This philistine passage continued as follows:

The chief thing that stands to our credit during this past year is that we have translated these words from abstruse Latin into plain Russian. During this past year the working class has not been engaged in idle philosophizing, but in the practical work of creating and exercising a proletarian dictatorship…71

The process of translation into “plain Russian” was that of burying the class meaning of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ under its police aspect. The next day, on November 7, he spoke to an anniversary rally of the Cheka staff, and told them: “The important thing for us is that Cheka is directly exercising the dictatorship of the proletariat…”72 Presumably the rest of the state was exercising it only indirectly.

By the end of Year One, it was clear that Lenin was no longer using ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ to denote a workers’ state that was subject to the democratic rule of the working classes. It now meant a specially organized dictatorial regime, dictatorial in the sense that had become increasingly dominant, and increasingly counterposed to abstract democracy. We will see in the next chapter that a number of Bolshevik spokesmen carried this process of theoretical degeneration even further, thus facilitating (though certainly not causing) the social counterrevolution represented by Stalin.

7. Lenin’s Rejoinder: A New Stage

Kautsky’s attack on the Russian revolution and the Soviet government, an attack in the form of a theoretical disquisition on the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ evoked a series of replies from the Bolshevik side. Like Kautsky’s assaults, all of the defense documents were less concerned with marxist theory than with current vindications. As before, we cannot follow all the issues in this debate; we focus, again, on what was happening to the concept of ‘dictatorship’ and of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ though this was a byproduct.

The defense was led by Lenin’s reply to Kautsky’s Diktatur des Proletariats, a reply published in October 1918 with the title The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. One must remember the circumstances under which this Anti-Kautsky was written, as the revolution hung on to life in a war against 14 invading armies of imperialist intervention, all of whose political leaders claimed to be defending democracy against dictatorship. As one of his colleagues reminisced later, Lenin “was literally burning with anger,” “sitting up every day till late at night,” writing the polemic.73

The result was a booklet which flamed with indignation, and whose vituperative tone no doubt delighted those who were already convinced; but in terms of theoretical argumentation it was perhaps the worst work Lenin ever published.74 Its content has to be picked out of an enveloping fog of invective. Many of the points involved have already been discussed. The aspect that concerns us is the way in which this work represented a stage in the developing line of post-1918 Leninism on ‘democracy’—the line whose beginnings we noted in Chapter 4.76

In hindsight, the important step taken by Lenin’s Anti-Kautsky was its implicit repudiation of the idea that the proletarian or socialist revolution was a revolution of the majority of the people as the Communist Manifesto had emphasized.77 It was only implicit because Lenin did not actually assert the repudiation here. What he did was to cite Kautsky’s espousal of majority revolution, and, by merging it with Kautsky’s accompanying line of ‘abstract democracy,’ denounce it as bourgeois liberalism alien to Marxism. There were several passages of this sort,78 which would require considerable space to quote and analyze; but we can make do with one which came along in a summary vein.

If we argue in a liberal way, we must say: the majority decides, the minority submits. . . . Nothing need be said about the class character of the state in general . . a majority is a majority and a minority is a minority. . . And this is exactly how Kautsky argues.79

Here the ‘majority’ question is blurred together with the ‘abstract democratic’ method of denying the class character of states, so that both can be tossed out with one rhetorical gesture.

In the nearest approach by Lenin to confronting the obvious challenge, he reported that Kautsky asked, “Why do we need a dictatorship when we have a majority?” Lenin replied that “Marx and Engels explain” that a dictatorship is needed in order to suppress the bourgeois resistance to the revolution.80 (Let us leave aside the fact that neither Marx nor Engels ever linked this consideration to ‘dictatorship.’) Study the reply and you see Lenin’s method of short- circuiting the argument. What was needed to suppress the bourgeois resistance was the workers’ state; but neither Marx nor Engels nor Lenin before this had ever counterposed this revolutionary need to the concept of majority revolution.

What Lenin wanted to tie to Marx’s tail was a concept of ‘class democracy’ which he set forth, early in his Anti-Kautsky, in paradigmatic terms as follows:

… the ancient state was essentially a dictatorship of the slaveowners. Did this dictatorship abolish democracy among, and for, the slaveowners? Everybody knows that it did not.81

This was the model of a class dictatorship which was at the same time a class democracy, a democracy for the ruling class only; but this model concerned a case where the ruling class was a minority of the people ruling in the interests of a minority. By adopting this as his model for the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ Lenin “forgot” that Marx and all Marxists had always insisted that this was precisely the respect in which a workers’ state was basically different from all ruling-class states.

Adopting the slaveowners’ state as the paradigm for the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ Lenin reconciled himself to the unprecedented notion that a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ could just as well be the state power of a minority suppressing a majority as vice-versa. We need hardly expound the motivation driving him to break with Marx: the minority position of the Russian proletariat isolated from the European revolution.

This theoretical enormity was blurred in the process of argumentation by a device that cropped up all through the Anti-Kautsky: confusion of the ‘transition period’ in general with the short period of civil war, pitched battle for the conquest of power or its consolidation. It was and is easy to argue that the niceties of democratic procedures could not be observed between armed camps engaged in killing each other; or at any rate this was a separation question, inquiring into the special emergency exigencies of a workers’ power in the middle of a heavy civil war. But it is only when this situation is over that the constructive period of the workers’ state (dictatorship of the proletariat) begins. As we have pointed out,82 the genesis of a post-1917 Leninism was in good part part of the transformation of notions about emergency deviations into theories about “inevitable” revolutionary norms. We have a special case of this process, as Lenin transformed the desperate necessities of civil war into the basic characteristics of the whole transition period from the initial conquest of power to the final building of socialist society.

Here is an illustrative passage:

In these circumstances, in an epoch of desperately acute war, when history presents the question of whether age-old and thousand-year-old privileges are to be or not to be—at such a time to talk about majority and minority, about pure democracy, about dictatorship being unnecessary…! What infinite stupidity…!83

On the one hand, this talked of an “epoch,” on the other hand of “desperate acute war,” thus telescoping the idea of civil war into that of the whole epoch of the transition from capitalism to socialism. There were many such passages.

Then, much farther along, came an antidote clause, completely separate from the above argumentation. lithe Bolshevik government, Lenin wrote, had in 1917 “decreed” the “introduction of socialism” into the rural districts, “without a temporary bloc with the peasants in general,”

that would have been a Blanquist distortion of Marxism, an attempt by the minority to impose its will upon the majority…84

The concept of majority revolution had been denounced a few pages back as a purely bourgeois-liberal notion; now Lenin remembered something he used to say about Blanquism: this was the product of a guilty (theoretical) conscience.

Before leaving Lenin, we should note his intention, a year later, to write an extensive work on “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” this title being affixed to a bare outline which was never written up.84 The phrases jotted down in this outline arc only suggestive of how Lenin was trying to think the issues out. Under Part II, Point 12, headed “Decision by Majority,” he noted;

Its conditions: real equality (culture), real freedom).85

What was this precondition, ‘culture,” which was necessary before one could have “decision by majority”? Since the outline says nothing more, let us juxtapose a passage about “cultural level” from Lenin’s report to the party congress in March 1919:

We can fight bureaucracy to the bitter end, to a complete victory, only when the whole population participates in the work of government. … Apart from the law, there is still the level of culture . . . The result of this low cultural level is that the Soviets, which by virtue of their program are organs of government by the working people, are in fact organs of government for the working people by the advanced section of the proletariat, but not by the working people as a whole.

Here we are confronted by a problem which cannot be solved except by prolonged education.86

This passage, of course, reminds us of Lenin’s later remarks about the “deformed workers’ state.” But a “deformed workers’ state” means a deformed or distorted ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’—a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ which has been stretched like a steel wire. If “decision by majority” was conditioned on the development of a more “cultured” and educated proletariat, who meanwhile wielded the dictatorship?

If one follows the outline further down, the effective answer comes along under Part III, Point 25, with the brief notation:

Dictatorship of the revolutionary elements of the class.87

Lenin never filled out this outline, which obviously pointed toward the conscious acceptance of a minority dictatorship by the party; but others did.

By this time, Lenin had canonized the watchword ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ as the holy of holies of Marxist theory: “the very essence of proletarian revolution,”  “the key problem of the entire proletarian class struggle.”88 Exactly what this meant was as blurry and shifting as his definition of dictatorship; but in the sequel, this claim became beatified as one of the new “principles” of Marxism that Marx had never heard of. It became customary in the Comintern to expatiate on something called Marx’s “theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat”presumably different from merely Marx’s views on the role of a workers’ state although the attribution to such a “theory” to Marx was as much an invention as the “theory of increasing misery,” the tenet that “the end justifies the mean,” the principle of “the worse the better,” and other well-known ectoplasmic constructs of Marx-mythology.

8. End of the Line

The international debate reached a sort of zenith, quantitatively speaking, in 1920, after Kautsky’s 1919 Terrorismus und Kommunismus preciptated a series of rejoinders by Bolshevik Party spokesmen. A full account of this debate would require two things I lack: ability to read Russian and space to detail the arguments. But for our present purposes we do not need a full account. Let us survey four important and representative documents available in English:

  • L. Kamenev, The Dictatorship of the Proletariat. A thin, 16-page pamphlet, dated June 1920.
  • Karl Radek, Proletarian Dictatorship and Terrorism. A 60-age booklet.
  • N. Bukharin, “The Theory of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” first published in 1919 in a collection of articles by various hands.
  • L. Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism. Published in 1920 as a book-length polemic against Kautsky work of the same title.90

A common characteristic was that these writers asserted things Lenin was still skirting around. I think none of them understood the extent to which they were jettisoning Marx’s Marxism–and they certainly cared less about this consideration than did Lenin. This attitude was affected by two factors: they were more brashly swayed by the heady feeling that the whole universe of socialist thought was “up for grabs,” a virgin snowfield waiting for new footprints; and they could feel this way all the more uninhibitedly because, compared to Lenin, they were much more ignorant of Marx’s views. For example…

Trotsky habitually eschewed Lenin’s pattern of anxiously inquiring into “what Marx said,” on any given question; and of course this attitude can be explained as a justified aversion to quotation-mongering. The fact is, however, that typically Trotsky not only didn’t care “what Marx said” but often didn’t know what Marx thought—an ignorance which can also be vindicated, perhaps, provided he did not attempt to expound what he was ignorant of. In Terrorism and Communism Trotsky came a cropper at the first attempt. Referring to Locus 12 he wrote that Engels “obstinately defended the dictatorship of the proletariat as the only possible form of its control of the state.”91 This formulation would have been impossible to Engels, for whom the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was not a form of the workers’ state but a synonym for the workers’ state.

Similarly: Kamenev plainly had no idea that the Russian party was the only one that had programmatically adopted the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ “The dictatorship of the proletariat,” he wrote, “appears in the programs of the Socialist parties not later than the seventies of the nineteenth century.”92 This real ignorance of the history of Marxism and the movement should be borne in mind when we come, below, to exegeses on the Paris Commune.

More crudely than Lenin, these leaders and theoreticians plainly equated the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ with the period of civil war. Kamenev flatly called the ‘dictatorship’ a “period of warfare,” “an epoch of undisguised warfare, and armed clash…”93 Bukharin wrote down that “in an era of civil war, the model of state power is bound to be dictatorial.” His further discussion was predicated on “the protracted nature of a lengthy civil war.”94

The new style of repudiation of ‘democracy’ was pushed forward in ever-cruder language. Because Kautsky kept vaunting the Paris Commune as ‘democratic,’ Radek and Trotsky fell into the trap: they “refuted” Kautsky by turning on the Commune with arguments (specious) purporting to show that it was anti-democratic—as anti-democratic as Soviet Russia, you see. The Commune, asserted Radek, was “an insurrection against the results of universal suffrage in France,” “an insurrection … for the purpose of winning special rights for Paris…”95 Trotsky’s book had an atrociously twisted chapter on the Commune that stood Marx’s Civil War in France on its head.96

It was Trotsky who went farthest in throwing out ‘democracy’ out with the bathwater, that is, with Kautsky’s ‘abstract democracy.’ It was also he who went farthest in advocating the ddeformation of workers’ democracy in state affairs: this in the course of the Trade Union question (statification of trade unions) and of the militarization of labor. See Deutscher’s biography, last chapter of Volume 1.) This indeed was the real context for his theoretial enormities in Terrorism and Communism, but it is not my subject. It is necessary to emphasize that it was not only a question of some momentary slip in Trotsky’s thinking, but, rather, his adoption for a whole period of a deep-going and systematic break with Marx on the nature of the workers’ state. One pays for theoretical sins. When Trotsky later accepted the label ‘workers’ state’ for Stalin’s totalitarian regime, solely and exclusively because it maintained statified property, he was ccontinuing his lamentable record of separating the concept of ‘workers’ state’ (‘dictatorship of the proletariat’) from the question of working-class control from below (‘rule’).

As in the case of the Commune, it was partly the Agin’ syndrome: whatever Kautsky was for, one had to be against; whatever Kautsky praised had to be bourgeois liberalism or worse. In his anti-Kautsky, Terrorism and Communism, Trotsky simply equated majority revolution with the “fetishism of the parliamentary majority.”97 (Was there fetishism of the Soviet majority?) His analysis bottomed out with a new version of the old theory of the impossibility of majority control due to the corruption of the masses by present-day society. The masses of the people are held, through the educational system, “on the verge of complete ignorance,” with “no opportunity of rising above the level” of “spiritual slavery”; the capitalists “corrupt, deceive, and terrorize the more privileged or the more backward of the proletariat itself.” The function of the dictatorship of the proletariat was to reverse this situation . . . And somehow Trotsky did not realize that this argument destroyed any concept of a class dictatorship wielded even by a minority proletariat.98

Kamenev invited opponents to find a model in the capitalist wartime dictatorships, which carried out the gigantic task of organizing worldwide war. “Was this achieved,” he demanded to know, “by means of democracy? By the means of parliamentarism? By means of the realisation of the sovereignty of the ‘people’?” No, it was not; the world at war was “governed by the methods of dictatorship,”“by openly passing over to the methods of dictatorship.”99

The ‘dictatorship of the party’ was ever more candidly advocated as the reality behind the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ concept.

in reality—and if we do not play with words—such an organisation [such as a general staff in battle can only be the political party of the proletariat; i.e., an organisation of the most advanced, revolutionary elements of the proletariat, united by their common political programme and an iron discipline.100

Thus Kamenev. Here, as on some other questions, Trotsky was the worst. Only the party must have “the final word in all fundamental questions.” He carried the process another step forward, or downward:

Further, our practice has led to the result that, in all moot questions, generally—conflicts between departments and personal conflicts within departments—the last word belongs to the Central Committee of the party. This affords extreme economy of time and energy; and in the most difficult and complicated circumstances gives a guarantee for the necessary unity of action.101

As he had argued in 1904 (with signs reversed), it would be still more economical of time and energy to impose not merely the dictatorship

of the Central Committee but indeed the domination of the Secretariat. The revolutionary supremacy of the proletariat presupposes within the proletariat itself the political supremacy of a party, with a clear programme of action and a faultless internal discipline.102

One day he would find our where the “fault” lay in this dream of efficiency. Meanwhile he thought that

it can be sad with complete justice that the dictatorship of the Soviets became possible only by means of the dictatorship of the party.

Otherwise the Soviets would be “shapeless parliaments of labor.” With this phrase (though probably not thought through as such) theory descends a level: it is no longer “parliamentary” democracy that is impugned but any representative democracy. The power of the party, Trotsky went on to admit, is “substituted” for the “power of the working class”—but this ‘substitutionism’ is a bit too frank and he takes part of the confession back.103

If our subject were broader, it would be necessary to continue detailing this theoretical debacle of Trotsky’s, but it is perhaps enough to say that he goes on to argue for the outright “militarization of labor.”104

Enough, for our purposes: we are so far from Marx’s original concept of class dictatorship that there is no connection. But one last concept must be reported on: the main contribution of Bukharin’s essay to the burial of democracy.

Why (Bukharin asked) were Communists formerly in favor of democracy, indeed bourgeois democracy, but are now opposed to it? Simple: it’s the difference in the “epoch.” In the past we had to present our “class demands” in “a ‘democratic’ form,” but now we are free to speak our true mind. In the past the “proletariat”

was forced to demand, not freedom of assembly for workers, but freedom of assembly in general … freedom of the press in general. . . etc. But there is no need to make a virtue of necessity. Now that the time has come for a direct assault on the capitalist fortress and the suppression of the exploiters, only a miserable petty-bourgeois can be content with arguments about “the protection of the minority.”105

In the past, you see, we had to mask our real view so that our opponents would not know that we were lying when we pretended to support democratic rights on principle; we had to conceal that we demanded minority democratic rights only for ourselves and would deny them to others once we got the whip hand. . . . What a gigantic conspiracy it must have been, for the entire Marxist movement to have carried out this fraud! Bukharin claimed that the movement had lied in the past, and he was telling the truth now: but in fact, of course, no such absurd conspiracy had ever existed—Bukharin was lying now, to cover up a 180° turn in his view of democracy. In any case, with this line of argumentation, no one could believe him and his likes then or now. A movement that printed this drivel was discredited for the future as for the past.

In these ways, well in the van of Lenin, Bukharin and Trotsky took the theoretical lead in gutting socialism of its organic enrootment in the mass of people. When Stalin took another lead, the lead in organizing the socioeconomic counterrevolution in class power, the “juridical” basis in theory (to use Trotsky’s later expression) had already been laid. That fact is not gainsaid by another, namely, that when Bukharin and Trotsky looked upon their handiwork, they started in horror and scrambled away from it in another direction.

But now we are very near the point where the locution ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ simply became a code word for a species of totalitarian dictatorship, and hence devoid of any independent theoretical interest. The end of our story coincides with the end of an era in the history of socialism.


1. Lenin, Two Tactics of the Social-Democracy, in his Collected Works. 9:29

2. Lenin, “Karl Marx,” ibid., 21:71.

3. “Draft Explanation…,” ibid., 2:93+; see esp. 95f, 108.

4. “Draft Program of Our Party,” ibid., 4:227+; see esp. 253.

5. “Review; Karl Kautsky…,” ibid, 4:193+.

6. What Is To Be Done?, ibid., 5:353, 363, 390-391.

7. “Outline…,” ibid., 41:50.

8. “Draft Program…,” ibid., 6:29. Cf. also “Material for Working Out…,” ibid., 41:36.

9. “Notes on Plekhanov’s Second Draft Program,” ibid., 6:51.

10. Marx & Engels, Communist Manifesto, in MESW 1:1117 [MEW 4:472].

11. Ibid., 118 [473].

12. Lenin, “Notes on Plekhanov’s Second Draft Program,” in his Coll. Wks. 6:53 fn. The suspension points at the end are in the text and do not represent an omission.

13. One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, ibid., 7:227f, 382f; see above, Chap. 3, Sec. 2.

14. See KMTR 2, Chap 7 (Sec. 2, 3, 6); Chap. 8 (Sec. 4); and page 253; also KMTR 3, Chap. 4 (Sec. 2).

15. A month before, Lenin’s papers show notes for 3 draft resolutions intended for the Third Congress of the party, in which he listed positions taken by the Mensheviks showing their rightward shift; and last on this list was their rejection of the idea of the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the petty-bourgeoisie” in the revolution.16 So he was already thinking of ic. In the March 8 issue of his organ Vperyod, he had two articles: in one he mentioned the Mensheviks’ “fear of the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” much as in his notes; in the other article he made clear that the charge of “fear” was based on the Martynov pamphlet, which he polemicized against. Martynov, he said, tries to frighten workers with the dire perspective of participation in the provisional government and the “revolutionary ‘dictatorship’ in a democratic revolution.”17 From here on his use of the “democratic dictatorship” formula comes in connection with further polemics against Martynov’s Two Dictatorships.

16. Lenin, “Draft Resolutions…,” in his Coll. Wks. 8:195 (editorially dated Feb.).

17. First article: “New Tasks and New Forces,” ibid., 8:212; second article: “Ozvobozhdeniye-ists and New-Iskristsm” 8:221.

18. “Report…,” ibid., 8:385.

19. See the articles in his Coll Wks. esp. at 8:279f, 284f, 293+m 382+.

20. “Report…,” ibid., 8:385.

21. For Marx in 1848, see Chap. 1, Sec. 2, or, in more detail, KMTR 3, Chap. 4.

22. Lenin, Two Tactics of the Social-Democracy, in his Coll. Wks. 9:131.

23. Ibid, 9:84.

24. The importance of this work was underlined by the fact that in October 1920 Lenin published a long study titled A Contribution to the History of the Question of the Dictatorship, which consisted mainly of a 15-page long reprint from the 1906 pamphlet.25

25. Contrib. to Hist. of Ques. of Dict., ibid., 31:340+; the excerpt is on 346-61.

26. Victory of the Cadets…, ibid., 10:245.

27. Ibid., 216.

28. Ibid., 244.

29. Ibid., 246.

30. Ibid., 218, 230.

31. Ibid., 246f.

32. Ibid., 247.

33. “The Proletariat and Its Ally…,” ibid., 11:374; “Some Sources of the Present Ideological Discord,” 16:90. For examples of “routine” usages, see 16:377, 17:221.

34. For Lenin’s identification of the “democratic republic” as the governmental form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, see the passage in a 1915 article: “The political form of a society where the proletariat is victorious in overthrowing the bourgeoisie will be a democratic republic … The abolition of classes is impossible without a dictatorship of the oppressed class, of the proletariat..”35

35. “On the Slogan for a U.S. of Europe,” ibid., 21:342.

36. Reply to Pk. Kievsky,” ibid., 23:25.

37. “Caricature of Marxism…,” ibid., 23:74.

38. Ibid., 69.

39. “The ‘Disarmament’ Slogan,” ibid., 23:95. For other references in 1916, see 22:153, 356, and 23:165.

40. Ltr, Lenin to Armand, Feb. 3, 1917, ibid., 35:282.

41. The final draft appears to have been written in August-September, but Lenin had been studying the questions involved with special intensiveness since the last months of 1916 and indeed there was a draft already finished by July 1917.

42. “The Dual Power,” ibid., 24:38.

43. Ibid., 39.

44. Report, 7th All-Russian Conference of the Party, May 7, 1917, ibid., 24:256.

45. “Epidemic of Credulity,” ibid., 25:65.

46. Draft Theses, 7th All-Russian Conference of the Party, May 7, 1917, ibid., 24:256.

47. State and Revolution, ibid., 25:404.

48. Ibid., 461f.

49. Ibid., 413, 490.

50. Ibid., 402.

51. Ibid., 487f.

52. Ibid., 463.

53. Ibid., 441.

54. “Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?” ibid., 26:94 124f; “Revision of the Party Program,” ibid., 26:155, 170.

55. “Theses on the Constituent Assembly,” ibid., 26:379, 383.

56. “Plekhanov on Terror,” ibid., 42:47f.

57. “Draft Resolution for the C.C. …,” ibid., 42:48f10.

58. A year later, the teachers’ union congress heard from Lenin that “only those unions which recognize the revolutionary class struggle for socialism by the dictatorship of the proletariat can be full and equal members of the trade unions.”59

59. “Speech, at the Congress….,” Jan. 18, 1919, ibid., 28:410.

60. “Fear of the Collapse of the Old…,” ibid., 26:401.

61. “Concluding Speech…,” ibid., 26:473f.

62. Radkey, Sickle Under the Hammer, 144; see also 141.

63. Lenin, “Report…,” Jan. 26, 1918, in his Coll. Wks. 26:489-91.

64. “Report…,” at the Congress, Jan. 20, 1919, ibid., 28:415.

65. See, for ex., ibid., 27:233, 265, 379, and 28:415.

66. Immediate Tasks…,” ibid., 27:263.

67. Report…, All-Russia C.E.C. Session, Apr. 29, 1918, ibid., 27:300.

68. “Six Theses…,” ibid., 27:316.

69. “Left-Wing Childishness and the Petty Bourgeois Mentality,” ibid., 27:340.

70. Report on Foreign Policy,” ibid., 27:379.

71. Speech…, ibid., 28:132.

72. Speech…, ibid., 28:170.

73. Memoirs of V.D. Bonch-Bruyevich, quoted in ed. notes, Lenin’s Coll Wks 28:512 n. 90.

74. This had happened before when Lenin allowed anger and indignation to swamp his reasoning processes. The best preceding example was his 1915 article against Trotsky on ‘revolutionary defeatism,’ a case I have discussed elsewhere in similar terms.75

75. For the article, see Lenin, “The Defeat of One’s Own Government,” in Coll. Wks. 21:275+; for my discussion, Draper, “The Myth of Lenin’s ‘Revolutionary Defeatism.'”

76. See Chap. 4, Sec. 6.

77. See the discussion and references in Chap. 4., Sec. 1., note 11.

78. Lenin, Proletarian Rev. and the Renegade K., in his Coll Wks. 28:239, 240, 243, 245, 246, 251, 254.

79. Ibid., 250.

80. Ibid., 252.

81. Ibid., 235.

82. See Chap. 4, Sec. 5, esp. p. [135].

83. Lenin, Proletarian Rev. and the Renegade K., in Coll Wks. 28:254.

84. Ibid., 304.

85. Only an initial section was written up and published under the title “Economics and Politics in the Era of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” in Coll Wks. 30:107+.

86. Lenin, “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” ibid., 30:99.

87. Lenin, “Report… Eighth Congress…,” Mar. 19, 1919, in Coll Wks, 29:183.

88. Lenin, “The Dict. of the Prol.,” ibid., 30:103.

89. Lenin, Proletarian Rev. and the Renegade K., in Coll Wks. 28:231.

90. Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism, 22.

91. Kamenev, The Dict. of the Prol., 6.

92. See the Bibliography for publication data on these titles. In addition, it is worth consulting the 1919 Soviet textbook, The ABC of Communism by Bukharan and Preobrazhensky, which had long sections on the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. A later stage was represented by the 1923 textbook, Elements of Political Education, by Berdnikov and Svetlov.

93. Ibid., 11.

94. Bukharin, “Theory of the Dict. of the Prol.,” 45, 48.

95. Radek, Prol. Dict. and Terrorism, 24f.

96. Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism, 69+.

97. Ibid., 21.

98. Ibid., 36f.

99. Kamenev, The Dict of the Prol., 4-5.

100. Ibid., 108.

101. Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism, 107.

102. Ibid., 108.

103. Ibid., 109.

104. Ibid., 137+.

105. Bukharin, “Theory of the Dict of the Prol.,” 47.