Dictatorship of the Proletariat

JUST as Marx had applied historical materialism to the whole of mankind’s written history in the Communist Manifesto, just as he had used it during the revolution (1848) to investigate the individual developments with brilliant success, in his works, The Class Struggles in France, 1848-50 and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx tested dialectical materialism in the analysis of a longer, exceptionally stormy and just concluded period of contemporary history. As Engels put it, Marx endeavoured “to explain a piece of contemporary history by means of his materialistic approach on the basis of the given economic situation.”

In The Class struggles in France, 1848-50, in which he called revolutions, “the locomotives of history”, the driving force of social progress vastly accelerating it, Marx explained the main features of Socialist revolution and outlined ways of accomplishing revolutionary transformations. There he used for the first time the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” to define proletarian political power.

Marx developed his teaching on proletarian dictatorship, showing its class content and historical necessity, both of which derive from the very character of revolutionary transformations. “The right to work,” Marx wrote, “is, in the bourgeois sense, an absurdity, a miserable, pious wish. But behind the right to work stands the power over capital; behind the power over capital, the appropriation of the means of production, their subjection to the associated working class…” In other words, only in a society of the associated working class, by which Marx and Engels meant Socialist and Communist society, will the right to work be guaranteed, for the exercise of this right depends on the economic and political system. Only proletarian power can ensure the right to work through the building of a society without exploitation of man by man.

Showing the historical necessity of proletarian dictatorship as the stepping stone to a classless society, Marx formulated the conclusion that only in this political form can the economic emancipation of labour be achieved, because the dictatorship of the proletariat, in Marx’s conception, is a form of emancipation from the economic and political oppression of capitalism.

The Eighteenth Brumaire dealt with the political coup d’état in France that led to the establishment of Louis Bonaparte’s dictatorship. Taking France as an example, Marx showed that as long as the bourgeoisie was in power, the exploitation of the working class could not be abolished. In this work he expressed for the first time the idea that, after victory in the revolution the proletariat must not use the bourgeois machinery of State with its bureaucratic and military institutions set up for the suppression of the masses, but must smash it. “All revolutions perfected this machine instead of smashing it. The parties that contend in turn for domination regarded the possession of this huge Sate edifice as the principal spoils of the victory.”

Destruction of the old State apparatus, and the establishment of a new one under the leadership of the proletariat for the purpose of achieving the transitions from capitalist to Communist Society were the ideas underlying Marx’s concept of “proletarian dictatorship”, a concept that has since become an integral part of the Marxian theory of the State.

Somewhat later, in a letter to Joseph Weydemeyer, Marx summed up his conclusions on revolution and revolutionary transformation: “What I did was to demonstrate: (1) that the existence of classes is merely linked to particular historical phases in the development of production, (2) that class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, (3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.”

No German publisher dared print The Eighteenth Brumaire, and its publication in France was also out of question, what with Marx’s scathing exposure of Louis Bonaparte’s deception of the people. Weydemeyer tried to have it printed in the United States, but ran out of money. 

A German émigré worker, a tailor from Frankfurt, gave all his savings to Weydemeyer. Thus Marx’s work appeared thanks to the self-sacrificing spirit of an unknown German worker. But only a few copies of this important work managed to get to Europe.

No one yearned more than Marx for a quick revival of the revolutionary movement in Europe and especially in Germany.

Opportunistic and revisionist politicians and historians of the past and present have vied in mocking the supposed “revolutionary utopianism” and the “foolhardy revolutionary prophesying” of Marx and Engels. However, they have always suppressed the significant fact that Marx and Engels, in the practical political struggle, never let themselves be led by even their most ardent personal wishes, but only by the objective and subjective conditions and possibilities of the proletarian liberation struggle. That is why Marx and Engels, with the courage and frankness of genuine proletarian leaders, did not hesitate to revise their views, in the interests of the working class, when these views were shown to be wrong in practice.

So it was in 1850. In the course of the summer, on the basis of their economic and political studies, they came to the conclusion “that the world trade crisis of 1847 had been the true mother of the February and March revolution”. They concluded further that the economic revival in mid-1848 was the basis for the newly strengthened European reaction.

The scientific conclusion necessarily had far reaching implications for the political struggle. Marx immediately recognised that if the development of a “new revolution” was “only possible as a consequence of a new crisis” then the League’s tactics would have to be changed accordingly.

Instead of immediate preparation for an impending revolution, the Communists would have to turn to the long-term and patient building up of the forces of the future revolution. For that the further development and propagation of scientific Communism was necessary, as well as the training of revolutionary proletarian cadres.

This logical estimate, based on an historical-materialist analysis of the objective facts, evoked disappointment and rejection among most of the petty-bourgeois émigrés. Marx had foreseen this, since barren playing at revolution had in the meantime become the way of life of these émigrés. But even some members of the League’s Central Bureau did not understand the changed situation. They believed they could make the revolution “happen” at some appointed time. They fashioned endless new utopian plans for an immediate armed assault, and believed that the proletariat would immediately come to power in the next revolutionary upswing.

Marx tried to make clear to them in patient discussions that the workers’ party could not base its political line on subjective wishes, but only on objective conditions. At a meeting of the Central Bureau on September 15, 1850, he declared: “The minority replaces the critical viewpoint with a dogmatic one, the materialistic viewpoint with an idealistic one. Instead of the real situation, the wish alone is made the driving wheel of the revolution.” 

Marx opposed the – putschist viewpoint of Willich and Schapper with the declaration that the German proletariat was still too undeveloped, that it would need decades of revolutionary struggle, not only to change the existing situation, but “to change itself and to become capable of exercising political rule.”

All the attempts at persuasion were unavailing. Revolutionary impatience and theoretical immaturity marred the ability of even an old Communist and friend of Marx like Karl Schapper to see reality clearly.

Marx proposed that the Central Bureau should transfer its location to Cologne. He was guided in this by the fact that Willich’s supporters had gained the upper hand among the London émigrés, while in Germany the League members who stood directly in the struggle recognised the correctness of Marx’s viewpoint. The majority approved this proposal. The Willich-Schapper fraction remained in opposition to the decision and set up a separate League. They were soon expelled from the Communist League by the Central Bureau in Cologne.

The Cologne Central Bureau carried on its work on the basis of Marx’s viewpoint. It endeavoured to strengthen its organisational influence over the local organisations.

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