What is the 'dictatorship of the proletariat'?

In the following study I should like to suggest the first elements of a reply to this question, a question whose topical nature has brought it to the attention of all Communists. I hope thus to contribute to opening and to advancing a now unavoidable theoretical discussion in the Party and around it.

    The decisions of the 22nd Congress of the French Communist Party on this point, in spite of their apparently abstract character, have produced what might be considered a paradoxical result -- in any case, a result which has surprised certain Communists.

    The theoretical question of the dictatorship of the proletariat was not explicitly mentioned in the Preparatory Document. It arose in the course of the discussion, when the General Secretary of the Party, Georges Marchais, took up the suggestion of abandoning the notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat and of removing it as soon as possible from the Party statutes. From that moment on, this question dominated the pre-Congress debate: its solution seemed to be the necessary consequence and the concentrated expression of the political line approved by the Congress. The Central Committee's report, presented by Georges Marchais, made the point at great length: in order to establish a foundation for the democratic road to socialism for which the Communists are fighting, a new way must be found of posing and assessing the theoretical question of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The Congress in fact unanimously decided to abandon the perspective of the dictatorship of the proletariat, considered out-of-date and in contradiction with what the Communists want for France.

    But this decision settled nothing, at root. No-one can seriously claim that the question was subjected to a profound examination during the preparatory debates, and even less during the Congress itself.[1] So it is not surprising, under these circumstances, that Communists are asking questions about the exact meaning of this decision. They are asking how far it implies a rectification or a revision of the principles of Marxism. They are wondering how it helps us to analyze the past and present experience of the Communist Movement. They are wondering what light it sheds on the present situation of the International Communist Movement, faced with an imperialism which, in spite of the crisis, is as aggressive as ever. They are wondering what changes will have to take place in their daily activity and struggles.

    They are asking: what precisely is the 'dictatorship of the proletariat'? How is it to be defined? And, consequently, if the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' is being rejected, then what exactly is it that is being rejected? This common-sense question is very simple, and it ought not to be difficult to resolve -- but it is clearly decisive. To anyone who thinks about the problem it will become quite clear that the expressions 'rejecting the dictatorship of the proletariat' and 'renouncing the dictatorship of the proletariat' can have no precise meaning as long as this question has not been answered. It is quite clear that there is a very close link between the abandonment of a political line or of a theoretical concept and the content and the objective meaning of the alternative which is adopted.

    But since not all Communists are agreed on the meaning of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the result is precisely that the discussion which apparently took place did not go to the roots of the matter. And since the concept or concepts of the dictatorship of the proletariat, as they figured in the discussion, do not correspond to its objective reality; since, in spite of appearances, the discussion was not really about the dictatorship of the proletariat but

[1] In a press conference preceding the opening of the 22nd Congress, Georges Marchais appealed to the Communists for a new type of Congress, whose debates would go to the roots of the questions at issue and of the contradictions which they involve But this did not happen. Why not? It is not enough to cite the weight of old ways of working, of old deformations of democratic centralism. There are also reasons connected with the object of the debate itself: the dictatorship of the proletariat. How should a public discussion on this principle be 'opened'? This is the problem which, for the time being, has not been resolved.

about something else, it happened that the unanimity in the Congress only disguised what are, tendentially, divergent interpretations and practices. Not unity, but division. At the same time it happened that, although the dictatorship of the proletariat -- the word and the thing -- appeared to have been completely abandoned, the problems which had led to its being brought into question nevertheless remained, and were even aggravated. Such are the ironies and upsets of real history.

    If you want an example, just look at the reaction of the French bourgeoisie, which did not miss the opportunity of fishing in troubled waters and of exploiting our weakness, even at the theoretical level. Its most illustrious ideologists (Raymond Aron) and political chiefs (Giscard d'Estaing), newly qualified as Experts in Marxism, are making full use of their positions in order to trap the Communists in a dilemma: either give up the theory and practice of the class struggle, or return to the one-way street of the Stalin deviation, which of course had such a lasting effect in weakening the Party. Their tactic: to jump onto the Communist Party's own separation of the Leninist principle of the dictatorship of the proletariat from the politics of popular union -- and popular union really is a condition of victory over big capital -- in order to take the argument one (logical) stage further: by demanding that the Party should abandon class struggle too, since the dictatorship of the proletariat is nothing but the consequent development of this class struggle.[2] In addition, they claim that the decision made by the 22nd Congress, thus by the Communists themselves, amounts to an admission that these same Communists have up to the present indeed been opposed to democracy, that they have been fighting against it, and against freedom, in fighting for socialist revolution.

[2] V. Giscard d'Estaing, Press Conference, April 22, 1976: 'These changes seem to be related to an electoral tactic. The French C.P., for the first time in a long period, has the idea that it will soon be taking on governmental responsibilities, and at present it is directing all its activity to that end. Which means that it makes whatever announcements and public statements that it thinks might help it to enter the government. This is a matter of electoral tactics.

    'What is the significance of the suppression of the dictatorship of the proletariat, as long as this Party continues to affirm the class struggle? The truth is that the French Communists cannot renounce the class struggle, because once they do so they will become Social-Democrats [....] The only elements of disagreement with Soviet policy concern questions like those of liberties and individual rights which, since the French public is sensitive to these matters, have to be taken account of [cont. onto p. 37. -- DJR] when the French Communist Party works out its electoral tactics.' Raymond Aron, in Le Figaro, May 17, 1976: 'Georges Marchais suddenly proclaimed the abandonment of the formula of the dictatorship of the proletariat amidst a quasi-general scepticism. He was not the first to carry out the operation: Gottwald and Cunhal too made similar announcements. Yet the former eliminated his allies, or at least brought them to heel, on the first possible occasion, and the latter led his party in a bid for the seizure of power, unsuccessfully it is true, but without hesitation. In the esoteric language of Marxism-Leninism, the dictatorship of the proletariat remains a necessary transition between capitalism and socialism, whatever the form taken by this dictatorship. You can therefore interpret Georges Marchais' declarations in a limited, banal sense, similar to that implied by the words of Alvaro Cunhal, or in a doctrinal sense; in the latter case, the French Communist Party would have taken a first step in the direction of revisionism.'

    It is important that Communists should realize that there is no way out of these paradoxes, out of these real difficulties, except through a broad collective discussion. They should not be frightened that this might weaken them. On the contrary, if it goes to the root of things, it can only strengthen their influence. Every Communist has the duty to help the whole Party in this respect, as far as he is able. And with respect to the dictatorship of the proletariat, the Congress does at least have a good side: it can free Communists, in their theoretical work, from a dogmatic conception and use of Marxist theory, in which formulae like 'dictatorship of the proletariat' are taken out of their context and separated from the lines of argument and proof which underlie them, becoming blanket solutions, formal ready-made answers to every question. Emptied of their objective historical content, they are then ritually invoked in order to justify the most diverse and even the most contradictory kinds of politics. This use of the principles of Marxism and of the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat not only ought to be but urgently must be rejected.