From the August 1937 issue of the Socialist Standard
Is Marxism in any way bound up with the idea of dictatorship? This is a question with which we are often confronted to-day.
Hence we are prompted to deal with the matter again, principally because of its repetition from various sides, but partly in view of a statement which recently appeared in England’s leading Labourist-capitalist journal, the Daily Herald.
Commenting upon the arrest of the leaders of the Spanish workers’ organisation known as the P.O.U.M. (the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unity) the Daily Herald took the opportunity to jibe at the Communists and said: —
We hope the Spanish Government does not intend to listen to the bloodthirsty demand of the Communists that the P.O.U.M. leaders should be executed.
Doubtless the P.O.U.M. is a nuisance and a danger. Unlike the Communists its members still take Marxism seriously, with the result that they despise democracy, and are not interested in fighting except for a dictatorship of their own.
Now, apart from the question of the internal disputes between the Spanish workers' parties, the point to note in the Herald's statement is the definite and unqualified association of Marxism with dictatorship. Taken as the statement stands the Herald's intention is clearly meant to convey the idea that Marxism is a negation and violation of democratic principle. But, as Marxists ourselves, we most emphatically repudiate this cunningly contrived imputation. Under cover of the Herald's pronouncement there lies one of the many attempts to discredit Marxism in order to justify the anti-Marxian, anti-Socialist attitude of the reformist opportunist Labour Party. It bids fair to lend support to the slogan of the bourgeois democrats that “Fascism and Marxism are the twin enemies of the human race.”
If there is one aspect of Socialist thought which may be said to stand out above all others it is the insistence in Socialist teachings that the principle of democracy is of paramount importance. We realise, of course, that at this statement many a Communist will instinctively smile, at the same time scoffing at us with the usual suggestion that we are “doped with bourgeois democratic ideology." Yet, search as you will the records of Socialist literature from the time of Marx and Engels up to, say, 1914, and the references to the question of dictatorship, or even the mention of the word, are conspicuous by their scarcity. In making this point we include the various public pronouncements of many present-day Communists who, before the 1917 upheaval in Russia, were content to call themselves Socialists rather than Communists. We then heard nothing of the present-time sophistries concerning "bourgeois democracy" and “the dictatorship of the proletariat."
In the year 1848, when Marx and Engels first sent their famous “Communist Manifesto” circulating throughout the world, the keynote of democracy was sounded by these pioneers of modern Socialism.
“All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities," say the authors of this manifesto. “The proletarian movement is the self-conscious independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority ” (page 28).
Later on in the same work we find the equally clear and concise statement: —
. . . that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of the ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.
Whatever criticism has been hurled at Marx and Engels their emphasis on the democratic principle underlying the Socialist philosophy raised no particular point of controversy until recent years.
How, then, does it all come about that Marxism has been identified with the idea of dictatorship?
Proceeding from the notion that “there is no smoke without fire" we are ready to concede the point that there is at least some basis, in fact, for the idea, even though it be a distortion of Marx’s standpoint.
It was after the formation of the Soviet regime in Russia in 1917 that we began to hear so much about dictatorship in connection with Socialist controversy.
Lenin and the Bolsheviks, seized the governmental power in Russia under conditions that Marx had not envisaged. In fact there is evidence to show that even the Bolsheviks themselves were more than surprised at their success in obtaining control of the political machinery of the State. Only the peculiar conditions of Russia in 1914 at the outbreak of the European War, its general unpreparedness for the conflict, its lack of military equipment, etc., and its final military and social collapse in 1917 could have possibly given such a party as the Bolsheviks the chance of assuming the control of the government. However, the attempt to apply Socialist ideas and conditions in a country where the great mass of the people were ignorant of even the elementary principles on which modern Socialism is founded failed from its inception; as it was bound to do considering the miserably backward state of the country, both economically and politically. But once the Bolsheviks had gained control in the midst of such conditions there seems little else that could have happened than the setting-up of a dictatorship if they were to maintain their hold upon the country irrespective of whether the people wanted Socialism or not. But the important point to notice is that their dictatorship had in reality nothing to do with Marx’s theory of the working class coming to power to overthrow capitalist domination and establishing the Socialist form of society. Yet Lenin in particular, and his devotees in chorus, have insisted that their action was along Marxian lines, using certain statements of Marx to support their case, and what do these statements amount to, anyway?
In a letter to his friend, Weydemeyer, in 1852, Marx, among many other things, said: —
And now as to myself; no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modem society nor yet the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of the class struggle and bourgeois economists the economic anatomy of the classes. What I did that was new was to prove: (1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular, historic phases in the development of production; (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; (3) that the dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.
This is a favourite quotation from Marx among the Communists, but whilst we are about it we might just as well give another of like kind which Lenin used in his controversy with Kautsky.
In Marx’s criticism of the “Gotha Programme” of 1875 we find Marx stating: —
Between capitalist and Communist society there lies a period of revolutionary transformation of one into the other. This period has a corresponding political period of transition, during which the State can be nothing more than the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.
Now the outstanding feature of these statements is that they obviously refer to a dictatorship in the sense that the working class has achieved political power, and is about to shape a form of society in harmony with its own social needs.
But note the point, Marx does not refer or say that only a minority of the working class would or need take control of political power during the period of the "transformation of the one into the other.”
The Socialist revolutionary act in the Marxian sense is that of the “self-conscious independent movement of the immense majority.” The phrase dictatorship covers a condition of political power being exercised by and through majority will against a dislodged and dispossessed hitherto ruling class.
But this is a point that is generally distorted as a means of justifying the immature action of the Bolsheviks in attempting to impose Socialism on a country unready and unwilling for its adoption. A prominent Communist writer in this country, T. A. Jackson, in his book on “Dialectics,” makes an elaborate show of “squaring the circle” of Russia’s dictatorship with Marx’s conception.
In a chapter on Democracy and "Democracy” he sets forth the fundamentally democratic concept as follows: —
No revolutionary worker wants to be dictated to; no revolutionary worker wants to dictate personally to anybody else. Every worker not absolutely degenerate in subserviency feels he ought to have a say in the making of the rules he has to obey; and every worker not absolutely degenerate knows that in real practical life co-operation involves plan, rule and regulation. When the ordinary worker calls himself a “democrat,” he means that he feels in this way; he affirms, that is, his right to a say in the government of his personal and communal life.
After this clear and definite statement Mr. Jackson asks the question : —
What is the difference between “Democracy” in the British working class sense above, and the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” as Marx Engels and Lenin used the term?
Mr. Jackson offers his own answer to the question. He says, “In essence: no difference at all."
Very well then, if there is no essential difference, and on this point we are in entire agreement, our view of the matter is conceded, namely, that Marx’s conception of dictatorship is none other than majority rule, the majority rule of the working class in establishing Socialist society. If this much had been made clear by the Communists from the time of the Bolshevik uprising in Russia the whole world might have learned by now that the Soviet regime was not instituted according to the principle enunciated by Marx.
Further, we should never have heard the claptrap of the Communists in this country clamouring for the seizure of political power by an "intellectual minority."
Of course, Mr. Jackson will, no doubt, insist that the dictatorship in Russia is what Saint George Bernard Shaw said of it, namely, that the dictatorship there is all right since it is for the good of those who are being dictated to; a plea of defence that is put forward by Mussolini, Hitler and every dictator extant.
We repeat that the dictatorship in Russia is not the “dictatorship of the Proletariat" in the Marxian sense of the term. On the contrary, it has been the dictatorship of a party, a party which in the earlier stages of their conquest of power actually deprived its own members of the power of voting.
Russia, of the Soviet system, has undoubtedly had enormous economic, political and social problems to face, problems which in great measure they have responded to with great skill and political acumen, but the State capitalism of Russia, necessitated by its own internal difficulties, accentuated by the outside world of persistent capitalism, is not what Socialists of to-day, or Marx and Engels of the past, have been striving for. We stand to-day, as always, for the democratic ownership and control of the world’s resources. That this can only be effected by way of social revolution is not merely our determination. It is imposed upon us as a law of history, which decrees that when a subject class needs freedom from the shackles which bind it there is no other way than the conquest of power. That this power can only be gained by the great mass of the workers understanding the task confronting them is an inevitable consequence of the need to abolish class rule in its entirety.
When that task takes its initial form of working-class accession to power it must be by majority decision, the condition of capitalist society as we know it to-day indicates no alternative course. It is imperative to Socialism that the great mass of the workers understand and desire it if we are to establish a form of human association in which, to quote Marx once more, “the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all."