In The Critique of the Gotha Programme, Part IV Marx writes:
“Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”
So, for Marx, the DotP (ie "Dictatorship of the proletariat" - an abbreviation used throughout here) is a 'political transition period' which corresponds to a transition in ‘society’, which I take it here means the economy.
In a letter to J Weydemeyer in 1852, Marx writes:
“... And now as to myself, no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them... What I did that was new was to prove: (1) that the existence of classesis only bound up withparticular historical phases in the development of production, (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to thedictatorship of the proletariat, (3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to theabolition of all classesand to aclassless society.”
Marx then saw his contribution as being to elucidate the transformation from capitalist society to communist society as being conditional on the proletariat establishing its revolutionary dictatorship.
Subsequent events – particularly the Paris Commune and the Revolution in Russia - have allowed some attempts to establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat to made and this in turn has provoked some debate about the forms the DotP might take, and the problems it may face. This is however still very much a work in progress; obviously, no ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ has ever been established which has acted as the ‘bridge’ from capitalist society to communist society; the attempts at proletarian power that have been made have, fairly rapidly, been recuperated back into capitalism, if indeed it can be argued that they ever left it.
State Capitalism and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat
If we think of the DotP as being a period of transition, then it stands to reason that at its beginning, the economic form that prevails is capitalism. It cannot be otherwise; if the proletariat is re-organising society (and as a fundamental part of that re-organisation, the economy) the re-organisation must begin in capitalism and be a process of capitalism being transformed into something else. If anything else were possible, the DotP would not be necessary – if it were possible for capitalism to spontaneously transform itself into new forms, especially at a local level, then socialist society doesn’t have to be global and doesn’t have to be established by the working class. But these things are not possible; capitalism must be abolished by the working class, and it must be abolished globally. Until it has done so, the proletarian dictatorship still retains the capitalist mode of production - because socialism cannot exist in one country, there is no alternative to an increasing attenuated capitalism. As the world revolution spreads, and more of the economy comes under the proletariat’s control, measures can be taken that anticipate ‘socialism’ but if socialist society is in itself classless and propertyless and stateless then it cannot exist, anywhere, untilallproperty is in the hands of the proletariat, everyone has been integrated into production (thus ending ‘classes’), and production itself has been restructured to fulfil real human needs not profit – or the need to go towards fighting the bourgeoisie.
But as socialism in one country is not possible, the DotP can only be a period of political transition corresponding to an economic transition if the world revolution succeeds. If there is no possibility of the transition to socialism - because of the defeat of the world revolution - then what becomes of the DotP? It's a political form that doesn't correspond to any kind of material reality, a 'political transition period' that doesn't correspond with an economic transition period. All that the dictatorship can do, isolated in one revolutionary territory, is seek to organise capitalism (not transform it) in order to defend any 'gains' of the revolution, though of course, as we have seen in the 20th century, it is at the same time dying on its feet as it is deprived of any material basis other than the continued existence of capitalism. A revolutionary political form cannot survive in a non-revolutionary period, because the basis of the revolutionary political form is the suppression of capitalism; and by the early 1920s the revolution was in retreat and the capitalist powers once more on the attack. The existing conditions did not allow the revolution to extend and thus what came out of the defeat of the revolution was a 'deformed' version of the DotP, which had not begun the transition to socialist society because it had been prevented from doing so, by the failure of the world revolution.
So, what is the concrete difference between the dictatorship of the proletariat and an economy run by a state-capitalist class? Both entail control over the economy; but the crucial factor is the direction of the revolution. In a period of revolutionary advance the proletarian power will be taking over functions of control of society. If the revolution is in retreat the likelihood is that the functions of the state will begin to separate themselves from control by the working class. Even in time of revolutionary advance this may happen, but we have few examples to draw on. In Russia, in the years immediately following the revolution, we see a process of the Bolshevik Party substituting itself for the working class. The Bolsheviks in 1917 were not a new class of state-capitalist bureaucrats; on the contrary, they were at that point the best representatives of the international proletariat, but as the world revolution faltered and the Bolsheviks more and more saw themselves as guardians of the new ‘soviet republic’ in Russia, they identified with and fused themselves with the state. It seems that the fundamental process of the state-capitalist class coming into being was that of the deprivation of the working class of political power, the disintegration of worker's democracy, which happened in the late teens and early ‘20s. I would argue that this disintegration of proletarian power is not in fact a consequence of the Bolsheviks coming to power, but a cause. I would see the checking of the revolution at the borders of the Russian state as being the cause of this failure.
As Rosa said in 1918,
“Let the German Government Socialists cry that the rule of the Bolsheviks in Russia is a distorted expression of the dictatorship of the proletariat. If it was or is such, that is only because it is a product of the behavior of the German proletariat, in itself a distorted expression of the socialist class struggle. All of us are subject to the laws of history, and it is only internationally that the socialist order of society can be realized. The Bolsheviks have shown that they are capable of everything that a genuine revolutionary party can contribute within the limits of historical possibilities. They are not supposed to perform miracles. For a model and faultless proletarian revolution in an isolated land, exhausted by world war, strangled by imperialism, betrayed by the international proletariat, would be a miracle.” (Russian Revolution, Ch 8)
State and semi-state
Lenin used the expression ‘semi-state’ to describe the DotP in State and Revolution (Ch. 1 Pt. 4):
“According to Engels, the bourgeois state does not “wither away", but is “abolished” by the proletariat in the course of the revolution. What withers away after this revolution is the proletarian state or semi-state”.
This semi-state, in the conception of the ICC, is a power that is not identical with the workers’ councils.
“while the new state is not identical to those that preceded it in history, it still retains characteristics that constitute an obstacle to the development of the revolution; which is why, as Engels had already pointed out and as Lenin had made clear in State and Revolution,the proletariat must on the very day of the revolution begin the process of eliminating the new state.
After taking power, the main obstacle that the soviets would run into in Russia was the newly emerged state, which “despite the appearance of its greater material power[...]was a thousand times more vulnerable to the enemy than other working class organs. Indeed, the state owes its greater physical power to objective factors which correspond perfectly with the interests of the exploiting classes but can have no association with the revolutionary role of the proletariat”; “The terrible threat of a return to capitalism will come mainly in the state sector. This, all the more so as capitalism is found here in its impersonal, so to speak, ethereal form.Statification can help to conceal a long-term process opposed to socialism.”(ICC, “What are the workers' councils? (Part 5) 1917-1921: The soviets and the question of the state”)
However, I'm a little confused by the way the ICC poses the problem, I must admit. My assumption is that the militia, the factories, distribution networks - everything will be under the control of the workers' councils. This is the ‘proletarian state’ (in so far as there can be such a thing).
Are the worker's councils, workplace or neighbourhood committees and general assemblies, and the organs of armed coercion, together the 'semi-state'? If the means of decision making, operating production/distribution/consumption of goods and services, and the means of exercising coercive force against other classes and strata are merged, is it counter-revolutionary?
From the recent exchanges on this question between the ICC and OpOp:
[the position of the ICC exhibits] “an accommodation to a vision influenced by anarchism that identifies the Commune-State with the bureaucratic (bourgeois) state”. [This puts] “the proletariat outside of the post-revolutionary state while actually creating a dichotomy that, itself, is the germ of a new caste reproducing itself in the administrative body separated organically from the workers’ councils”.
I certainly wouldn’t go so far as OpOp here, if the ICC is wrong, there is no basis for the new ‘caste’ and there is no problem to solve; on the other hand if the ICC is right then the working class needs to be aware of ‘its own’ state turning into a conservative force, of escaping its control.
Can this happen as the revolution is advancing? We have so little knowledge it is difficult to speculate. Only one revolution in recent history has come close to success, and that nearness to success was short-lived. It is possible that even in times of advance, the ‘revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat’ may be in danger of escaping from the control of the working class –with different parts of the administrative machinery becoming alternative centres of power. But, in times of revolutionary retreat it seems inevitable that the state will act as a conservative force.
The state exists while there are different groups in society with opposed interests. Once classes have been abolished through the abolition of property, then there is no social basis for a state. Even before this, the fact that the state is under the control (if not identical with) the proletariat means that it is unlike any previously existing state, the state of a majority of the population. The state in a sense 'withers' at the same time as the condition of being a worker is generalised. When all are workers, no-one is 'working class'(ie, a separate category of workers in society); when all administer the state, the state ceases to be an entity separate from the population. Incidentally, this may be the first time in history that the term ‘democracy’ would be appropriate, when ‘all the people of earth’ are involved in ‘ruling’.
Administration of society - that is, in the revolutionary period, state functions of organisation of production and monopoly of violence - is the task of the workers' councils (the organs of the working class organised at the point of production). Do these 'state functions' actually imply a 'state'? In a sense yes - if it looks like a state and acts like a state it's functionally a state. But it is a (pre-para-semi-)state (of a different type), because it is the state of a majority, for the first time in history. But whatever its type the state itself is not identical to the working class; it may be under its control but the two aren't the same thing.
But when the revolution is actually 'complete'? When all the territories are under the control of the working class and all property is collectivised and the entire productive and distributive apparatus is under the control of the working class, when all other classes have been integrated into production? There is no 'state' then, just a classless communal society. But to get there... what other option is there but for the working class to administer a 'state' that controls a part only of the world economy? Until the 'parts' are unified into socialised production, these parts must necessarily I think be capitalist. The 'withering away' comes precisely because those capitalist parts are wedded together to produce a socialised whole. The three things - taking over the whole economy, generalising the condition of the working class by integrating the other classes into production, and the withering away of the state - are the same phenomenon seen from different angles.
This is the task of the dictatorship of the proletariat – the abolition of property and integration of the whole of humanity into the productive process, the complete re-organisation of society to facilitate production for need not profit, and the consequent abolition of itself as a class. In this process it seems likely that it will need to be vigilant that the structures it sets up to help in this process do not escape its control and become a conservative or indeed retrograde force.