MARXIST INTERNET ARCHIVE | ETIENNE BALIBAR

ETIENNE BALIBAR

ON THE DICTATORSHIP OF THE PROLETARIAT


 
What is State Power?

 
The question of power is the first one which must be examined. It is the most general question: it is in the historical possession of power by such-and-such a class that you find in concentrated form the conditions either of the reproduction of the existing social relations (relations of production and exploitation) or of their revolutionary transformation. It is also the most immediate question, the one which the workers face in their daily struggle for liberation, one which can be very quickly settled in one way or the other as soon as a revolutionary situation leads them into an open confrontation with the ruling class on the political terrain.

    Lenin, following Marx, constantly pointed out that the basic question of revolution is that of power: who holds power? and on behalf of which class? It was the question posed in the weeks immediately preceding the October Revolution (the question of the 'two revolutions', bourgeois and proletarian): will the Bolsheviks seize power? That is to say: will the Bolsheviks be the instrument of the seizure of power by the masses of the working people, who have become conscious of the irreconcilable antagonism between their own interests and those of the bourgeoisie? Or will the bourgeoisie, rallying to itself the remnants of Tsarism, imposing by terror and by mystification its hegemony over the peasant masses and even over a fraction of the proletariat, and supported financially and militarily by its imperialist allies, succeed in crushing the revolution and re-establishing the bourgeois State, thanks to which, in spite of the change in political form, the essential factor (exploitation) can persist? All the revolutions and all the counter-revolutions which have taken place since, however diverse their conditions, their forms and their duration, only provide massive confirmation of this point. Which means

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that it is valid for the whole of modern history: and what is modern history but the history of revolutions and counter-revolutions, their head-on clash being felt even inside those countries which, temporarily, 'benefit' from an apparent tranquillity? That is why you will never find a revolutionary who does not recognize, at least in words, the decisive character of the question of power.

    But there is more. You only have to follow the course of any socialist revolution (especially the Russian Revolution) in order to convince yourself that this question, which has to be immediately decided, nevertheless cannot be settled once and for all. It remains -- or better, it reproduces itself-- throughout the whole revolutionary process, which provides it in the forms imposed by each new conjuncture with a determinate answer. Will State power be held or lost? That is the question with which the historical period of the dictatorship of the proletariat begins. But it is also a question which continually reappears, just as long as a reason for its appearance persists in the form of the existence of class relations in production and in the whole of society. As long as this basis exists, the dictatorship of the proletariat remains necessary in order to develop the revolutionary forces and to defeat the counter-revolutionary forces whose contradictory unity is not destroyed until long after the seizure of power.

    This shows that the problem of power can absolutely not be reduced to a tactical question. The forms in which this seizure of power is carried out in the first place (armed uprising, prolonged people's war, peaceful political victory, other perhaps unprecedented forms) depend strictly on the conjuncture and on national particularities. We know that, even in the Russian conditions of the period between April and October 1917, Lenin did for a short time believe that the conditions existed for a peaceful (but not 'parliamentary') victory of the revolution, when he launched for the first time the slogan: 'All power to the Soviets!' In fact, there exists no historical example of a revolution which can be reduced to a single one of these forms, which does not represent an original combination of several forms. But in any case this diversity does not affect the nature of the general problem of State power, or rather it represents only one aspect of this problem, which must not be taken for the whole. The concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat has nothing essentially to do with the conditions and forms of the 'seizure of power' . But it is ultimately linked with the question of holding power, which in practice determines the whole course of the revolution.

    If this is how things are, it is because, in the last analysis, State power is not the power of an individual, of a group of individuals, of a particular stratum of society (like the 'bureaucracy' or 'technacracy') or of a simple, more or less extensive fraction of a class. State power is always the power of a class. State power, which is produced in the class struggle, can only be the instrument of the ruling class: what Marx and Engels called the dictatorship of the ruling class.[1]

    Why the term 'dictatorship'? Lenin answered this question absolutely clearly in a ceaselessly repeated phrase, whose terms only have to be properly explained:

    '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.

    This [is a] simple truth, a truth that is as plain as a pikestaff to every class-conscious worker [. . .] which is obvious to every representative of the exploited classes fighting for their emancipation [. . .] which is beyond dispute for every Marxist.' (The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, C.W., XXVIII, 236 [p. 11].)

    Elsewhere, Lenin uses an equivalent and very illuminating expression (I am quoting from memory): Dictatorship is the absolute power, standing above all law, either of the bourgeoisie or of the proletariat. State power cannot be shared.


Marxism and bourgeois legal ideology
'As plain as a pikestaff to every class-conscious worker', says Lenin. He is right, because this argument is only the logical


[1] Kautsky produced a host of arguments to prove that the term 'class dictatorship' cannot be understood 'in the strict sense', because a class as such cannot govern. Only individuals or parties can govern . . . Consequence: 'by definition' every dictatorship is the rule of a minority, and the idea of the dictatorship of a majority is a contradiction in terms. Lenin, refusing to confuse government, which is only one of its instruments, with State power, showed in 1903 (in 'To the Rural Poor') that in the Tsarist autocracy it is not the Tsar nor the 'omnipotent' functionaries who hold State power, but the class of great landowners. There is no 'personal [cont. onto p. 67. -- DJR] power': neither that of Giscard or of Jacques Chirac nor that of the Company Presidents of the 25 greatest capitalist monopolies! For this 'personal power' is only the political expression of the power of the bourgeoisie, i.e. of its dictatorship.

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development of the recognition of the class struggle, and this recognition is part of the daily experience of the exploited workers, in their struggle against exploitation. Which does not mean that this logical development does not have to overcome any obstacles. On the contrary, it never stops coming up against the power (i.e. the operation) of bourgeois legal State ideology, which the bourgeoisie has a vital interest in maintaining. Bourgeois legal ideology inevitably influences the workers themselves. They are not 'vaccinated' against it: indeed, it is inculcated in them by all the practices of the bourgeois ideological State apparatuses, from their childhood in the primary school to their adult participation as citizens in the political institutions of the country. To develop the analysis of the State from the proletarian standpoint of the class struggle is therefore at the same time to criticize its constantly resurgent bourgeois legal representation.

    The whole question of 'democracy' versus 'dictatorship' is profoundly rooted in legal ideology, which then reappears within the labour movement itself in the form of opportunism: it is striking to note the degree to which the terms in which this opportunism is formulated remain constant from one period to another. It is impossible to understand the reason unless you go back to its cause, the reproduction of legal ideology by the bourgeois State apparatuses.

    Legal ideology is related to the law; but although it is indispensable to the functioning of the law, it is not the same thing. The law is only a system of rules, i.e. of material constraints, to which individuals are subjected. Legal ideology interprets and legitimates this constraint, presenting it as a natural necessity inscribed in human nature and in the needs of society in general. The law, in practice, does not 'recognize' classes, which is to say that it guarantees the perpetuation of class relations by codifying and enforcing rules addressed only to 'free' and 'equal' individuals. Legal ideology on the other hand 'proves' that the social order is not based on the existence of classes but precisely on that of the individuals to which the law addresses itself. Its highest point is the legal representation of the State.

    Bourgeois legal ideology tries (successfully) to make believe that the State itself is above classes, that it only has to do with individuals. That these individuals are 'unequal' in no way embarrasses it, since, seeing that they are 'equal' in the sight of the law, any State worthy of the name will naturally set about dealing with these inequalities . . . So it would follow that State power cannot be described as the exclusive domination of a single class, because this expression, from a legal point of view, actually does not make sense. Instead of the idea of the domination of a class you find in legal ideology, to be precise, the notion of the State as the sphere and the organization of public interests and of public power, as against the private interests of individuals or groups of individuals and their private power. It is essential to grasp this fundamental aspect of bourgeois legal ideology if you do not want to find yourself, voluntarily or otherwise, trapped within its implacable 'logic'.

    I said that the law is not the same thing as legal ideology, though the latter sticks to it like a limpet; and here is the direct proof: the distinction between the 'public' and the 'private' spheres is a very real legal relation, constitutive of all law, whose material effects are unavoidable as long as law exists. But the idea that the State (and State power) must be defined in terms of this distinction, as the 'public' sector or sphere, as the organ of 'public' service, of 'public' security and order, of 'public' administration, of 'public' office, etc., represents a gigantic ideological mystification. The legal distinction 'public'/'private' is the means by which the State is able to subordinate every individual to the interests of the class which it represents, while leaving him -- in the bourgeois epoch -- the full 'private' liberty to trade and to undertake 'business' . . . or to sell his labour power on the market. This distinction is however not the historical cause of the existence of the State. Otherwise one would have to admit that, like the omnipotent God of our priests and philosophers, the State is its own cause and its own end.

    The same circle is in operation in the manner in which bourgeois legal ideology presents the opposition between 'dictatorship' and 'democracy': as a general and absolute opposition between two kinds of institutions or of forms of State organization, in particular of two types of government. A democratic State cannot, from its own point of view, be a dictatorship, because it is a 'constitutional State' in which the source of power is popular sovereignty, in which the government expresses the will of the majority of the people, etc. Bourgeois legal ideology thus performs a clever conjuring trick: it ceaselessly explains, convincing itself and especially convincing the masses (it is only the experience of their own struggles which teaches them the contrary) that the law is its own source, or, what comes to the same thing, that the opposition between democracy (in general) and dictatorship (in general) is an absolute opposition. This really is the case, it says, because democracy is the affirmation of the law and of its legitimacy (and 'democracy taken to the limit' is the affirmation of and respect for the law taken to the limit), while dictatorship is the negation of this same legality. For bourgeois ideology, in short, where does law come from? -- from democracy. And where does democracy come from? -- from the law. To the notion of the State as the 'public' sphere, as 'public' service, is now added, to complete the circle, the idea of the 'popular will' (and of 'popular sovereignty'): the idea that 'the people' is a unified whole (collectivity, nation), unified beneath its divisions, linking together the 'will' of all the individuals and transforming it into a single will represented in the legitimate majority government.

    You must therefore make a choice: either the system of notions of bourgeois legal ideology, which rules out any analysis of the State in terms of class struggle, but which precisely for this reason serves the class struggle of the bourgeoisie of which the existing State is the instrument; or the proletarian point of view, which denounces this mystification in order to struggle against the class domination of the bourgeoisie. Between these two positions there is no possible compromise: it is impossible to 'make room' for the standpoint of the class struggle inside the bourgeois legal conception of the State. As Lenin said, with reference to Kautsky:

    'Kautsky argues as follows: "The exploiters have always formed only a small minority of the population".

    This is indisputably true. Taking this as the starting point, what should be the argument? One may argue in a Marxist, a socialist way. In which case one would proceed from the relation between the exploited and the exploiters. Or one may argue in a liberal, a bourgeois-democratic way. And in that case one would proceed from the relation between the majority and the minority.

    If we argue in a Marxist way, we must say: the exploiters inevitably transform the State (and we are speaking of democracy, i.e., one of the forms of the State) into an instrument of the rule of their class, the exploiters, over the exploited. Hence, as long as there are exploiters who rule the majority, the exploited, the democratic State must inevitably be a democracy for the exploiters. A State of the exploited must fundamentally differ from such a State; it must be a democracy for the exploited, and a means of suppressing the exploiters ; and the suppression of a class means inequality for that class, its exclusion from "democracy".

    If we argue in a liberal way, we must say: the majority decides, the minority submits. Those who do not submit are punished. That is all.' (C.W., XXVIII, 250. [The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, pp. 30-31]

    For the Marxist theory of the State, which involves a class standpoint diametrically opposed to that of bourgeois legal ideology, every democracy is a class dictatorship. Bourgeois democracy is a class dictatorship, the dictatorship of the minority of exploiters; proletarian democracy is also a class dictatorship, the dictatorship of the immense majority of working and exploited people. By holding on to the direct relation between the State and the class struggle, we preserve the only key to its materialist analysis.

*       *       *

    Let us return to Lenin's phrase, which I quoted above: 'A power standing above the law'. Does this definition mean that a State power might exist without any law, without any organized legal system -- and here we must include the dictatorship of the proletariat, since the dictatorship of the proletariat is once again always a State power, as is the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie? Absolutely not. It means on the contrary that every State imposes its power on society through the mediation of a system of law, and thus that the law cannot be the basis of this power. The real basis can only be a relation of forces between classes. It can only be a relation of historical forces, which extends to all the spheres of action and intervention of the State, i.e. to the whole of social life, since there is no sphere of social life (especially not the sphere of the 'private' interests defined by law) which escapes State intervention; for the sphere of action of the State is by definition universal.

    We might here deal with a current 'objection', which is of course in no way innocently meant, which creates confusion by surrep titiously reintroducing the point of view of legal ideology.

According to this objection, Lenin's definition of the State is 'too narrow' , since it identifies State power with the repressive function, with the brutal violation by the ruling class of its own law. Apart from the fact that this objection is not at all new -- contrary to what one might think, given that, though it is in fact a theoretical revision of Leninism, it is presented as an example of theoretical progress and as 'transcending' Lenin's position -- it is particularly absurd from a Marxist or even quite simply from a materialist point of view.

    In Lenin's definition the essential factor is not repression or repressive violence, as exercized by the State apparatus about which we were just speaking, and by its specialized organs -- police, army, law courts, etc. He does not claim that the State operates only by violence, but that the State rests on a relation of forces between classes, and not on the public interest and the general will. This relation is itself indeed violent in the sense that it is in effect unlimited by any law, since it is only on the basis of the relation of social forces, and in the course of its evolution, that laws and a system of legislation can come to exist -- a form of legality which, far from calling this violent relation into question, only legitimates it.

    I said that this current objection is particularly absurd, because if there is anything true about repression, for example police repression, it is precisely the fact that it does not stand 'above the law'. On the contrary, in the vast majority of cases it is provided for and organized by the law itself (a law which can, in case of need, be specially constructed to this end by the ruling class with the aid of its legislative and judicial State apparatus). It is worth recalling in this connexion that the closure of factories put into 'judicial liquidation' or their simple 'transfer' elsewhere, the sacking of workers, the seizure by the bailiffs of debtors' property, the attacks on 'illegal' popular demonstrations are all perfectly legal practices, at least in most cases, while the use of strike pickets attempting to prevent non-striking workers or blacklegs from entering a factory, the occupation of factories, organized opposition to evictions from workers' homes, and political demonstrations dangerous to the government constitute, in the official language, 'interference with the right to work', 'attacks on the property right', or 'threats to public order', and are quite illegal. You only have to think a little about the significance of these everyday

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examples in order to understand Lenin's formula: 'Class dictatorship is a power above the law'. It is therefore not a question of forgetting about the law, of reducing State power to its repressive functions, but of recognizing the true material relation between State power, law and repression.

    You will see at the same time how absurd it is to present the bourgeoisie, and in particular the imperialist bourgeoisie of the present day, as a class driven by history, by the crisis of its own system, to 'violate its own legality'! It may of course happen, in fact it certainly does sometimes happen, that the working people, defending themselves step by step against exploitation and making use in this struggle of all the means at their disposal, including legal means, succeed in exploiting, in the fight against a particular employer or a given administrative decision, the 'gaps' in the existing system of legislation and the contradictions which even the unceasing activity of the jurists has been unable to eliminate, and even certain favourable legal provisions which they have been able to force through by their struggles. No trade union or Communist militant is however unaware of the extraordinary difficulties of such an enterprise and of its necessary limits, and especially of the fact that it can in any case never succeed except on the basis of a certain relation of forces, and with the support of mass pressure. But, above all, what this ceaselessly repeated struggle teaches the working people is precisely the fact that the ruling class, because it holds State power, remains in control of the game: from the standpoint of the ruling class -- as long as you do not confuse this standpoint with the moral conscience of its jurists and its petty-bourgeois ideologists -- law is not an intangible absolute. In applying the law, or in getting it applied, it may be necessary to find a way round it; it certainly always has to be transformed and adapted to the needs of the struggles of the capitalist class and of the accumulation of capital. And if this process of adaptation cannot be carried out without calling into question the constitutional form (the public institutions -- parliamentary, legal and administrative) in which the power of the ruling class is exercized then, in that case, the bourgeoisie is not averse to making a political 'revolution': the history of France, from 1830 to 1958, provides enough examples of the fact.

    No relation of forces between the classes can be maintained without institutionalized repression. But no relation of forces can be maintained by or rest on or be identified with repression alone. That would be a completely idealist notion. An historical relation of forces between the classes can only be founded on the whole of the forms of the class struggle, and it is perpetuated or transformed in function of the evolution of all the forms of the class struggle. In particular, it rests on the relation of economic forces, in which the bourgeoisie possesses the advantage of the monopoly of the means of production, and therefore of permanent control and pressure on the conditions of life and work of the masses. And it rests on the relation of ideological forces, in which the bourgeoisie possesses the advantage of legal ideology (including what Lenin called 'constitutional illusions' and the 'superstitious religion of the State', which are supported by bourgeois law), the advantage of the whole of bourgeois ideology materialized in the daily operation of the ideological State apparatuses, in which the exploited workers themselves are held.

    Lenin's definition cannot therefore be 'too narrow', in the sense that it might be supposed to take account of only one aspect of State power (the repressive aspect). On the contrary, it aims precisely to show that all the aspects of State power (repressive and non-repressive, which actually cannot be separated) are determined by the relation of class domination and contribute to the reproduction of its political conditions. In this sense, all the functions of the State are through and through political: including of course, the 'economic' and 'ideological' functions. But Lenin's definition is just 'narrow' enough to exclude the possibility that, in a class society, any aspect whatever of the State might escape the field of class antagonism.

    In reality the distinction between a 'narrow' and a 'broad' definition of the State is an old theme, which can be traced a long way back in the history of the labour movement. It was already invoked by the theoreticians of Social-Democracy against the Marxist theses on the' State and the dictatorship of the proletariat: 'Marx and Engels regard the State not as the State in the broad sense, not as an organ of guidance, as the representative of the general interests of society. It is the State as the power, the State as the organ of authority, the State as the instrument of the rule of one class over another', wrote the Belgian Socialist Vandervelde in 1918, quoted by Lenin. (C.W., XXVIII, 322. [The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky , pp. 134]) The need, stressed by Marx, to overthrow the State power of the bourgeoisie by destroying the bourgeois State apparatus would in this perspective obviously only concern 'the State in the narrow sense' . . . As far as 'the State in the broad sense' is concerned, the organ of guidance and public service, it would have to be not destroyed but developed: the point would be to make 'the transition from the State in the narrow sense to the State in the broad sense', to organize 'the separation of the State as an organ of authority from the State as an organ of guidance, or, to use Saint-Simon's expression, of the government of men from the administration of things' (Vandervelde; in op. cit., pp. 323-24 [p. 136]). The reference to Saint-Simon's humanist technocratism is illuminating.

    Those of our comrades who, after the event, are hurriedly seeking 'theoretical' foundations for the abandonment of the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat are being driven into exactly the same position. Here is a typical example. Francois Hincker, immediately after the 22nd Congress of the French Party, published a series of three articles in which he wrote:

    'Throughout the whole history of the Marxist-Leninist labour movement, two appreciations [sic ] of the concept of the State have circulated and intersected. [. . .] A "narrow" appreciation: the State is a repressive apparatus which has been produced by the governing class [sic ], which is separated from the social base (relations of production), and intervenes on it from the outside [. . .] A "broad" appreciation: [. . .] the essence of the State is the organization of the functioning of class society in the direction of the reproduction of the existing relations of production, in the direction of the reproduction of the domination of the ruling class. [. . .] Everything suggests that, precisely, to "do politics", for the political personnel of the ruling class, is to surpass the immediate and competing interests of the individual members of the bourgeoisie. This domination, this hegemony, is exercised by means of repression, by means of ideology, but also by means of organization, to the point that, and just because, it renders services which, taken separately, have a universal use-value. This last aspect has not been sufficiently attended to by the old and new classics of Marxism.[2] [. . .] The ruling class has to represent its interests in universal terms, [. . .] to construct roads, schools, hospitals, to assure the


[2] Note the elegance with which the author constructs, to measure, a 'narrow' conception of the classics which he needs in order then triumphantly to introduce his argument for 'broadening' it.

function of arbitration in the form of a system of justice, which in general works in favour of the ruling class [sic ], but which also, willy nilly, guarantees a certain security, a certain order, a certain state of peace, etc.'[3]

    Thus he finally comes up with this pearl of Statist ideology: 'To smash the State is to develop the democratic State with the aim of causing it to take on its full social function'.[4]

    In fact, if the State 'in the broad sense' could not be reduced to class domination, if this domination only affected its operation after the event, pulling it and deforming it 'in the direction' of the reproduction of such domination, and sooner or later coming into contradiction with the 'needs of society', then the revolutionary struggle would not be a struggle against the existing State, but more fundamentally a struggle for that State, for the development of its universal functions, a struggle to rescue it from the abusive 'stranglehold' maintained on it by the ruling class . . . It is not surprising, then, that this definition of the State quite simply adopts the traditional image provided for it by bourgeois legal ideology. The Marxist thesis says: it is because the social relations of production are relations of exploitation and antagonism that a special organ, the State, is necessary for their reproduction; that is why the maintenance of the working population, which capitalism needs and the conditions of the development of the productive forces, which capitalism needs -- including the construction of roads, schools, hospitals -- must inevitably take the form of the State. But what we are now being offered, on the contrary, is the bourgeois thesis (whose value has, it seems, not been 'sufficiently attended to' by the classics of Marxism) that the State is something other than the class struggle; that it is partly (for the essential part) detached from that struggle, and that it limits the field of the class struggle (by subjecting it to the demands of the 'whole' of society). In turn it is at most limited (shackled and perverted) by that struggle.[5] Thus, if these limits are overcome, it will be all the more 'free' to fulfil its universal (democratic) functions . . . But all this


[3] F. Hincker, in La Nouvelle Critique, April 1976, p. 8 (my emphasis: E. B.).
[4] Ibid. , p. 9.
[5] There is an opportunist variant: the idea of the 'stranglehold of private interests' on the State, of the 'misuse' of public power for personal profit. Thus the slogan: let us fight to restore to the State as quickly as possible its natural liberty and universality!

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is simply based on the following fake argument: seeing that society cannot do without the State on the basis of the existing relations of production, it can never do without it, even when these relations disappear! Bourgeois ideology starts from the presupposition that the State, its State, is eternal, and -- not surprisingly -- that is also its conclusion.

    Remember Marx's words in the Communist Manifesto : 'Just as, to the bourgeois, the disappearance of class property is the disappearance of production itself, so the disappearance of class culture is to him identical with the disappearance of all culture.' In the same way the disappearance of the State is to him identical with the disappearance of society itself!

    In other words, it is impossible really to separate the recognition of the class struggle from the recognition of the class nature of the State as such -- from which follows the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat. As soon as you admit that the State, with respect to such-and-such of its functions, may stand outside of the field of class determination, as soon as you admit that it might constitute a simple 'public service' and represent the interests of the whole of society before representing those of the ruling class, otherwise than as the historical interests of the ruling class, then you are inevitably led to admit that the exploiters and the exploited 'also' have certain historical interests in common (those of the 'nation', for example), that their struggle does not determine the whole field of social relations, that it is restricted to a certain sphere of social life or that it may disappear under the weight of certain higher demands. And to crown it all, this limitation (therefore in fact abandonment) of the class point of view is invoked precisely with respect to the present-day development of the State, which represents historically the expression, reinforcement and concentration of the power of the ruling class, in step with the development of imperialism and the aggravation of its contradictions.

    I have just been speaking about the class interests of the bourgeoisie as a whole. In fact, the bourgeoisie as a class has only one fundamental interest in common. Except for this interest, everything divides it. The interest in question is the maintenance and extension of the exploitation of wage labour. It should there fore be easy to see what Marx and Engels intended by their argument about State power: State power can belong only to a single class just because its roots lie precisely in the antagonism between the classes, in the irreconcilable character of this antagonism. Or better: in the reproduction of the whole of the conditions of this antagonism. There is no 'third way' between the extension of this exploitation, for which the bourgeoisie is fighting, because its very existence depends on it, and the struggle for its abolition, led by the proletariat. There is no possibility of reconciling these two corresponding historical tendencies. Marx and Lenin were always trying to demonstrate this point: the basis of the petty-bourgeois ideology of the State -- and this is true even when it penetrates socialism and the organizations of the working class -- is the idea that the State represents at its own special level a site of conciliation in the class struggle between the exploiters and exploited. And the no. 1 key point of the proletarian conception of the State, an idea which is absolutely unacceptable to bourgeois and especially petty bourgeois ideology is the idea that the State results from the irreconcilable, antagonistic character of the class struggle, and is a tool of the ruling class in this struggle. The historical existence of the State is immediately linked to that of the class struggle, even when, indeed especially when it tries to fulfil 'general social functions', whether economic or cultural: for these general functions are necessarily subordinated to the interest of the ruling class and become means of its domination. The more important and diverse these functions become, the more this characteristic of the State as a tool of class rule comes to the fore.


Has the proletariat disappeared?
Let us put the point in another way: the only 'limits' on the class struggle are set by the class struggle itself, by the material means which it provides to the exploited masses to organize and mobilize their forces. One thing ought indeed to be clear: to the extent that class struggle is ever attenuated, it is not because antagonistic class interests have been reconciled or because the conflict between them has been transcended. On the contrary, it is because a certain relation of forces has been imposed in struggle by the proletariat. To take only one example, which has sometimes provoked debates inside the labour movement and has necessitated the vigilance or intervention of the Communists: the fact that representatives of the working people are elected to public bodies (Parliament, municipal councils) is an index of their strength and a help to them

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in their struggle, one means among others of taking this struggle further forward; but it certainly does not entail that the workers thereby hold the least scrap of State power, as if State power could be divided up into a number of different local or individual powers, shared out between the classes in proportion to their political strength, and thus cease to be absolutely in the hands of the ruling class. It is the experience of struggle itself, provided that this experience is consistently developed, which inevitably leads to the recognition of State power as the instrument of the ruling class, to what Marx called its class dictatorship.[6]

    If State power really is the dictatorship of a single class, in the sense which I have just indicated, it must be either the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie or that of the proletariat, which constitute tendentially the two classes of modern society, the two classes produced and reproduced by the development of capitalism. The class State, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and the dictatorship of the proletariat are three concepts representing the moments of a single antagonistic process. This is illustrated once again by the discussion now taking place, for, as we have seen, the rejection of the dictatorship of the proletariat leads immediately, by the logic of the ideological reasoning which it sets in motion, to avoiding, watering down and finally revising the idea of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, and therefore of the State as a class instrument. Thus you can begin to see why the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat is inseparable from the Marxist theory of the State and of the class struggle: let it go, and the rest crumbles!

    The proletarian revolution is the reversal of the existing relation of social forces, the establishment in the course of the struggle of a new relation of forces, the opposite of that which previously existed. To imagine that this reversal could take any other form than the dictatorship of the proletariat is to imply that there exists in history, over against the bourgeoisie, an antagonistic force other than the proletariat, a 'third force' independent of the proletariat, capable of uniting the working people against capital. This always more improbable miracle, this 'third force' is the saviour which petty-bourgeois ideology has long been awaiting in order to escape from the class antagonism within which it feels itself to be squeezed; this force it 'discovers' successively in the peasantry, the


[6] Communists have spent enough time fighting against the myth of 'counter-powers' in order not to fall into the same trap themselves.

intellectuals, the technicians or technocrats, the 'new working class', or even (the ultra-left or semi-anarchist variant) the 'sub-proletariat', etc. All this implies, against the whole historical experience of the labour movement, that, aside from bourgeois ideology and proletarian ideology, 'another' ideology might emerge within society 'transcending' the conflict between them. Finally, it suggests the idea that capitalist exploitation might disappear otherwise than by the tendential disappearance of wage labour and thus of every class division in society. But whoever believes that, as Lenin pointed out, will have to stop calling himself a Marxist!

    I know what objection will be made here: that by presenting the antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat as absolute, unavoidable and inevitable (as long as capitalism itself exists and develops), I deny the reality of history by presenting this antagonism as immutable. But do the 'facts' not show that the present-day bourgeoisie is quite different from its predecessors, that the present-day working class is quite different in structure and social status from the working class which Marx wrote about (or the one which we think he wrote about)? Am I, out of love for the concept itself, refusing to accept the consequences of these 'facts'? The problem about this objection, which actually means that it immediately destroys its own value, is that it is based on a complete misunderstanding of Marxist theory, and of its dialectical character. Marx's theory is not founded on the definition of some kind of 'pure' proletariat (standing against a 'pure' bourgeoisie): there is no 'pure' proletariat, there is no 'pure' revolution and there is no 'pure' communism. This theory does not depend on a picture of social classes with the fixed characteristics of a given epoch (the nineteenth century, or the beginning of the twentieth century, etc.). And for the excellent reason that the object of Marxist theory is not to paint such a picture, as a sociologist might do, but to analyse the antagonism itself, to discover the tendential laws of its evolution, of its historical transformation, and thus to explain the necessity of these transformations in the structure of social classes, ceaselessly imposed by the development of capital. Remember Marx, in the Communist Manifesto : unlike all previous modes of production, he says, capitalism is itself 'revolutionary'; it is constantly overturning social relations, including those which it has itself created.

    It should now be possible to see why it is wrong to confuse the

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absolute character of the antagonism between classes (which is the root of the whole question) with the idea of the immutability of social classes, an idea which can then be triumphantly 'disproved by the facts': this confusion actually amounts to a denial of the antagonism between the classes, to its progressive attenuation, and consequently to the conjuring away of the need for a revolutionary break with capitalism. Just as, in other circumstances, the transformation of the knowledge produced by the natural sciences allowed idealist philosophy to proclaim that 'matter has disappeared', we are here faced with a situation in which it is being ever more openly explained that classes are disappearing: no more 'bourgeoisie', in the strict sense, no more 'proletariat', in the strict sense. Power lies, so we are told, not with the bourgeoisie as a class, but in the hands of a few families, or rather of twenty-five or thirty individuals, the Company Presidents of the great groups of monopolies; that is, it lies nowhere, or rather in a simple, abstract politico-economic system which owes the persistence of its influence over men, over the people, only to the backwardness of their political consciousness! The antithesis to the capitalist system is no longer the proletariat, but everyone, or almost every one: for almost everyone, in one sense or another, is part of the working people! The proletariat is now interpreted simply as one category of working people among others.[7]

    The facts (since they have been mentioned) are quite different. They show that, with the development of capitalism, and especially of present-day imperialism, the antagonism is actually getting deeper and progressively extending itself to all regions of the world, leaving an ever narrower margin of manoeuvre to the social classes left over from the past in their attempts to provide themselves with an independent economic and political position. The centralization of the State power of the bourgeoisie and its dependence in relation to the proletariat on the process of accumulation of capital are increasing. The transformation of more and more working people into proletarians, even if it sometimes runs up against historical obstacles which slow it down, is inexorably running its course.

    Of course, the history of capitalism does demonstrate a ceaseless


[7] It is easy to appreciate the serious and solid nature of a theory which, having removed all those attributes of the working class which make it a potential ruling class, continues to talk about it as a ruling class.

evolution of the real relation in which the different fractions of the bourgeoisie stand to the State power of their class. There is an evolution with respect to the recruitment of the personnel which, through the State apparatus, guarantees this power in practice. There is -- which is far more important -- an evolution with respect to the manner in which the policies practised by the State favour the interests of this or that fraction of the bourgeoisie. But this absolutely does not mean that State power ceases to be the State power of the whole bourgeoisie, as a class, becoming in some sense the private property of a particular fraction of the bourgeoisie. This would in fact be a contradiction in terms and would inevitably lead in practice to the collapse of State power (which may happen in a revolutionary situation, provided that the proletariat and its allies know how to exploit it). State power is necessarily 'monopolized' by those who historically hold it, but it can only be monopolized by a social class.

    In fact, in each epoch of the history of capitalism, there is always a profound political inequality between the fractions of the ruling class, even when this is expressed in compromises and unstable working arrangements. There is always a fraction which must, in order to maintain the State power of the ruling class, play in practice a role, a 'vanguard role', turning the State apparatus to its own profit, a fraction whose hegemony is the condition of the domination of the ruling class as a whole. The reason -- and this brings us to the essential point -- is that State power has no historical autonomy : it does not constitute its own source. It results in the last analysis from class rule in the field of material production, from the appropriation of the means of production and of exploitation. That is why, in the imperialist epoch, monopoly capital is dominant in the State, and transforms the instruments of the State's 'economic policy' in order to reinforce this dominant position. But it remains dominant just because, by force and material constraint, it asserts itself as the representative of the class interests of the whole bourgeoisie.

    A very important consequence with respect to the proletarian revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat is that the bourgeoisie as a class is not a homogeneous whole; it is criss-crossed -- today more than ever -- by a multitude of contradictory interests, certain of them very deep-rooted, which set the big monopoly bourgeoisie against the middle capitalist bourgeoisie

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and the productive or intellectual petty-bourgeoisie of proprietors or salaried employees. It is just the fact that the bourgeoisie holds State power which enables it to overcome these contradictions, obliging the middle and petty-bourgeoisie to accept the hegemony of great finance and industrial capital. As long as the bourgeoisie as a class holds State power, it is very difficult or even impossible to produce lasting divisions within the bourgeoisie, definitively to isolate the big bourgeoisie and to weld together the petty bourgeoisie and proletariat into a revolutionary unity. In any case, it is obviously not sufficient for this purpose to change the government, without touching the structure of the State: historical experience shows that every government, whether it likes it or not, is always subject to the relation of class forces; it does not stand above the State apparatus of which it is a part, but in a subordinate relation to that apparatus. 'The apparatus of State power', as Lenin sometimes put it, is not external to the unity of struggle of the ruling class, and this is all the more true the more centralized and authoritarian its character. Though apparently, in everyone's clear view, standing at the 'summit' of the State hierarchy, a government depends for its power on this apparatus; it is powerless against it, its 'authority' is empty. The fact that the government is taken over by representatives of the working people may constitute an important moment in the political struggle, but it does not mean that the proletariat together with the rest of the exploited people holds power. Those Frenchmen who have lived through the Popular Front government of 1936 and the Liberation will in this connexion recall not only the victories of these periods but also what we must accept (in order to draw the objective lessons) as a fact: that they were, for the time being, defeated, for they were unable to move forward from a popular government acting in favour of the working people, and in support of its demands, to the revolutionary seizure of State power. And if we look for a moment at the history of other countries, the examples of Chile with its Popular Unity alliance and Portugal with its Armed Forces Movement are more recent reminders, among others, of the existence of this critical threshold, below which all the victories won by the masses in struggle, however many and however heroic these victories may be, can always be reversed, and worse. But this is also the lesson of the Russian Revolution.

*       *       *

We can now return to the question of the proletariat. If the class structure of the bourgeoisie is historically transformed as capital is accumulated and concentrated and extends its field of domination to the whole of society, the proletariat does not stand outside of this process, unchanged. It is all the time becoming, tendentially, the social class whose original core was created by the development of manufacture and the first industrial revolutions. In fact the historical tendency to the dictatorship of the proletariat could never have become a reality without this historical transformation of the proletariat. Marx realized this at the moment when the practical experience of the revolutions of 1848-50 produced at one and the same time both the problem of proletarian power and the scientific theory capable of providing the concept with which to formulate this problem: 'We tell the workers: if you want to change conditions and make yourselves capable of government, you will have to undergo fifteen, twenty or fifty years of civil war' (Marx, to the Central Committee of the Communist League, September 1850).[8] As soon as you pose the problem of the dictatorship of the proletariat, you have to provide a historical (and dialectical) definition of the proletariat.

    To define classes, and in particular the proletariat, in a historical manner is not to come up with a sociological definition, a structure within which individuals are classified -- even one in which 'economic', 'political' and 'ideological' criteria are added together -- and then to apply this definition to successive 'historical data'. It is something quite different: it is to study the process of their tendential constitution as classes, and its relation to the historical struggle for State power. 'Every class struggle is a political struggle', wrote Marx in the Communist Manifesto -- which does not mean that it is expressed only in the language of politics, but that the formation of the antagonistic classes is the effect of the struggle itself, in which the question of who holds power is from the beginning already posed as the main stake. You cannot study the 'polarization' of society into two antagonistic classes separately from the historical struggle for-State power.

    The proletariat is not a homogeneous, unchanging group which bears its name and its fate clearly inscribed once and for all, for all


[8] Marx, The Revolutions of 1848 (Political Writings, vol. 1, Penguin ed., p. 341).

 

to see. It is the historical result of the permanent process by which it is constituted, which is the other side of the process of accumulation of capital. An uneven, contradictory process, but one which is in the last resort irreversible.

    Is there any need to remind ourselves of the material foundations of this historical process, in its continuity? It is the development of wage labour in the sphere of production, at the cost of individual and family production. It is the concentration of the workers in the great enterprises under the impact of the concentration of capital: and therefore the subordination of labour power to the 'machine system' in which the relations of exploitation, now irreversible for each individual, take on material form. It is therefore the formation of the 'collective labourer' of great capitalist industry, whose productivity is ceaselessly growing to the rhythm of the technological revolutions, while these become themselves so many means of pumping out his labour power; thus the expanded accumulation of capital is guaranteed. It is also the tendential extension of the industrial forms of the exploitation of labour power to other sectors of social labour, whether 'productive' -- in order directly to increase surplus value (agriculture, transport) -- or 'unproductive' -- in order to reduce to a minimum the inevitable 'invisible costs' of capitalist production (trade, banking, public and private administration, but also education, health care, etc.). And therefore, at the social level, it is the reduction of the individual consumption of the workers to the simple reproduction of labour power, in given historical and national conditions -- not excluding the form of 'mass consumption', i.e., of forced consumption, in which the needs of the reproduction of capital determine not only the quantity but the 'quality' of the means of consumption necessary to the reproduction of labour power. Finally, it is the constitution of the industrial reserve army, developed and maintained by the relative overpopulation provided to capital by periodic unemployment, the ruin of the small producers and colonialism and neo-colonialism.

    These elements do not all work together evenly, although they are linked within a single mechanism, historical effects of a single production relation. Do they seem to have become weaker, less important in the imperialist epoch in which we are living? Are we not rather experiencing an enormous leap forward in the continuing process of the constitution of the proletariat, a process each of whose new high points is marked by a 'crisis' and 'restructuring' of capital? And in particular, in a country like France, whose position in the group of imperialist powers, with its colonial preserves, allowed it for a long time to retard and limit this process, and therefore to maintain a petty-bourgeoisie which, though large and economically 'inefficient' is politically indispensable to capital, are we not faced with a breakdown in the traditional system of balances and with a brutal acceleration of the transfer of these groups into the proletariat?

    Nevertheless, this process does not automatically lead to the constitution of the proletariat as an independent class, or rather it only leads to such a thing through the interplay of contradictions intrinsic to its tendential law. That is just why it is not possible to present the proletariat simply as the 'core' of the constellation of working people, as something unaffected by these contradictions. The exploitation of wage labour rests on the competition between working people, without which there would be no wage-earning class; this explains the essential role played by the industrial reserve army in the capitalist mode of production. This competition takes new forms in every epoch, which depend on the class struggle fought by the capitalist class (concentration, industrial revolutions, skilled workers thrown on the shelf), but also on that of the workers themselves (as soon as they combine against capital in order to defend their conditions of work and life). Imperialism aggravates this competition. In the sphere of production itself, the new technological revolutions and the 'scientific' organization of labour made possible by monopolistic concentration completely transform the system of qualifications, and finally deepen the division between manual and intellectual labour. At the same time employees and technicians are pulled back into the ranks of the proletariat, while we also see the formation of new 'labour aristocracies' These divisions are complicated and exacerbated by the manner in which capital now exploits a world market in labour power, whether by exporting whole industries to 'underdeveloped countries' or by importing whole industrial armies of 'immigrant' workers, isolated and super-exploited. To talk about the proletariat is also to take into account the divisions induced by capitalism among the working people, especially within the working class.

    But it is also to take into consideration the struggle of this people against such divisions, an economic and a political struggle: a struggle which, as an economic struggle, is already as such a decisive political phenomenon on the scale of the entire history of capitalism, because its primary objective and principal result is to transcend these internal divisions, to unite the exploited masses against capital, in short precisely to create a class antagonistic to the bourgeoisie. The existence of organizations of the working class, trade unions and political organizations, and their transition from the corporate to the class point of view, from sects to mass organizations, from reformism to revolutionary positions -- these are not things which come to pass after the proletariat has already been formed: on the contrary, they are themselves moments in its constitution as a class with direct influence on the conditions of exploitation and the reduction of the population to the ranks of the proletariat. The bourgeoisie has to take account of these factors, and find new means of struggle, more efficient than those used against individuals, even against a large number or indeed a 'majority' of individuals.

    So you see: to define the proletariat in accordance with its complete historical concept leads straight to a double conclusion which is of direct importance to us.

    First : the development of the State power of the bourgeoisie, the reinforcement of its material means of intervention and the increased use of such intervention is in no way the consequence of simple technical and economic requirements, nor of the inevitable evolution of political power in general, but a direct function of the historical constitution of the proletariat as a class. The State of the imperialist epoch is not only the product of the class antagonism built into the capitalist production relation right from the beginning: it is the State of the epoch of revolutions and counter-revolutions ; it is expressly organized as the State of pre-emptive counter-revolution.

    Second : the process of constitution of the proletariat as a class is, for the fundamental reason indicated above, an unfinished process, counteracted by the very capitalism which sets it in motion. This process precisely cannot be brought to a conclusion without the proletarian revolution : the proletariat can only finally complete its constitution as a class in so far as it succeeds in constituting itself as the ruling class, through the dictatorship of the proletariat. But this suggests that the dictatorship of the proletariat must itself be a contradictory situation, in a new sense: a situation in which the proletariat can finally succeed in overcoming its divisions and form itself into a class, yet in which at the same time it begins to cease to be a class to the extent that it ceases to suffer exploitation. Thus we can understand why, as we are now seeing, the arguments about the dictatorship of the proletariat immediately involve arguments about the proletariat itself, and why the abandonment of the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat immediately causes the concept of the proletariat itself to 'disappear'. The circle is closed: the working people, if they do not constitute a proletariat, cannot hold State power as a class; they simply need the State to provide for their needs. It is a nice dream, but it is unfortunately only a dream.