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Dictatorship of the Proletariat

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Lenin's chief contribution to the Marxist canon was the development of Marx’s concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat which would be exercised during and after the revolution by the communist party acting as the vanguard of the proletariat. 

The Marxist concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat should not be confused with the concept of dictatorship as a specific form of government which is the opposite of democracy.  In the Marxist teaching, the concept of dictatorship denotes the system of political domination of a certain social class. For example, under the capitalist system a given country may have a democratic form of government. But the trappings of democracy only conceal the political and economic domination, or dictatorship, of the bourgeoisie as the ruling, dominant class of the capitalist socio-economic formation. The class struggle in the capitalist society necessarily leads to the overthrow of the minority dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and to the establishment of the majority dictatorship of the proletariat. This dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless communist society.

Liberty Leading the People (28 July 1830). By E. Delacroix

In the writings of Marx and Engels the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat was most clearly elaborated with regard to the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871. The founders of Marxism viewed it as the first proletarian revolution in human history,  which brought to power a government of the working class - the bloc of proletarian and petty-bourgeois revolutionaries.

It was the government of a new type - the first example of a dictatorship of the proletariat in history. The main conclusion that the two founders of Marxism had made from their analysis of the lessons of the Paris Commune was that the chief reason for its downfall was the insufficient toughness of the proletarian government, its hesitancy in suppressing the counterrevolutionary forces, its tactics of  ‘passive defense’.

In developing the Marxist concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat, Lenin also attached great importance to the study of the lessons of the defeated Paris Commune and insisted on the form of an iron dictatorship that would be utterly ruthless and merciless towards the enemies of a workers’ republic of the future. Lenin left no doubts what exactly he meant by dictatorship:  



Dictatorship is rule based directly upon force and unrestricted by any laws.


The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is rule won and maintained by the use of violence by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, rule that is unrestricted by any laws.


Lenin used the phrase ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ to describe a government representing the majority of the population, but prepared to use force to control the minority that still opposed it. According to him, immediately after the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism there would be an intermediate period during which dictatorship of the proletariat would perform the function of suppression of the exploiting classes with the consequent destruction of the very foundations on which the activity of exploiters was based (such as private property) and even the physical annihilation of the exploiters themselves. However, the new government would be more democratic than any that had existed previously, as it would represent for the first time in history the interests of most Russians, rather than those of a privileged minority.

Long Live Proletarian Dictatorship! (Russian poster) 

In Lenin’s view, the new proletarian government would need to build and maintain a coercive machinery of power and use it not just against its internal enemies, but also to withstand ‘direct attempts on the part of the bourgeoisie of other countries to destroy the victorious proletarian socialist state’. Only with the triumph of the proletarian-socialist revolution on a world-wide scale and with the achievement of the ultimate, communist, stage, class struggle would finally be over, society would become classless and the coercive apparatus of the State would no longer be needed. The State would die out (or, to use Friedrich Engels’s famous phrase, simply  ‘wither away’). The dictatorship of the proletariat would come to an end.  

If Paris Commune of 1871 was the first attempt in history to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat, then Russia became the first country in the world where, under the determined leadership of Lenin and his Bolshevik party, the dictatorship of the proletariat triumphed and consolidated in 1917.

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