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The dictatorship of the proletariat and the death of the Left

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 141 | November 2021

Presented as a teach-in at the Platypus Midwest Regional Conference on September 25, 2021 at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, the video of which can be found at <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cn8XCyyhgVE>.

Marxism and the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat

THE DICTATORSHIP OF THE PROLETARIAT is the most controversial proposition by Marxism — and is indeed how Marxism distinguishes itself politically, ideologically and theoretically, and intellectually as well as practically and organizationally. The death of the Left is a measure of its abandonment of this prognosis, intellectual project and political program of Marxism that culminated in the dictatorship of the proletariat.

What did Marx and Marxism mean by the “dictatorship of the proletariat”? Very simply, the political rule by the working class. The form of such rule was meant to be “dictatorial” in the sense of revolutionary, politically and socially transformative, overruling social and political norms of constitutional government. It was meant to be a “state of emergency” and hence a dictatorship in the sense of the Ancient Roman Republic, an active political intervention into society of limited duration.

What was meant by a dictatorship of the “proletariat,” specifically? It meant the political rule of the workers, but not in the restricted sense of those employed in wage labor, but in a more expansive sense that would include both the unemployed or only potentially employed, and those not employed in wage labor strictly speaking, for instance “middle class” salaried professionals, including the middle-management “white collar” workers of corporate capitalism. But the center of political power was to be the wage-laboring working class.

The dictatorship of the proletariat was a world-historical and hence geopolitical proposition. It was meant to be a global rule of the working class, with revolution encompassing the preponderance of the capitalist world, which means where capital itself is concentrated: not where money is concentrated, but rather labor, where the production and reproduction of capital is concentrated.

Positively, this meant the production of value in global capitalism, which is not identical to the production of material wealth in terms of articles of consumption as subsistence goods, but rather where capital as the means of production is produced. This meant the core capitalist countries.

This meant the countries where capital as the expression of the “general social intellect” is concentrated. The dictatorship of the proletariat must be in the position to at least begin to appropriate the means of production on a global scale. Capital as “dead labor” — historically accumulated labor in the current existing means of production — must be appropriated by the “living labor” of the present working class.

Strategically, this meant a complex and potentially politically quite complicated intervention in the existing capitalist production process, or the current conditions for the production of material wealth (including intellectual wealth), in an ongoing way.

Negatively, it meant that the global working class must be in a position to overcome the reproduction of wage labor as the source of valuation for material wealth. The working class must be in a position to outlaw unemployment and prevent the exploitation of the labor of desperate poor people, in favor of gearing global production towards the production of wealth for human needs and overcoming the social compulsion to labor as part of the valorization process of capital, breaking its cycle of reproduction. What Marx called the “necessity” of the dictatorship of the proletariat was the necessity of breaking the cycle of capitalist reproduction, necessarily on a world-historical and hence global scale.

Until this happens, capitalism will continue. — So long as wage labor exists, capital and its contradiction will persist.

So what is capitalism — what is it that needs to be overcome?

Capitalism is the constraint and distortion and deformation of society by the imperative to produce and reproduce the value of capital.

Capital is past labor — the potential for producing wealth or material (including intellectual) goods in society — but in the form of the contradiction Marxism found between the potential of industrial production and the social value of living human labor and the social and political rights deriving from that value. Capitalism, or the capitalist mode of production that produces and reproduces capital, is the contradiction between the bourgeois social relations of labor and the industrial forces of production that are constrained — dominated — by those relations.

It is not the case, as is commonly mistakenly assumed by supposed “Marxists,” that bourgeois social relations means the individual private property in the means of production by members of the capitalist class, and that industrial forces of production means the collective social productive capacity of the working class. No.

The basis of the social rights of property in bourgeois society is the labor of the producers. This is the right of bourgeois social relations. The issue is how this social right is contradicted by the necessities and possibilities of industrial production.

As I have pointed out elsewhere (in my “What is capitalism?” and “Socialism in the 21st century”[1]), there are two different and increasingly divergent commodities produced by industry: goods for the subsistence of the working class; and surplus value as the fund for investment in production, which can take the form of either paying workers’ wages and/or for technology. It is the apparent conflict of technology vs. human labor that characterizes capitalism on a societal scale.

The industrial forces of production are the productive capacities of society as a whole, what Marx called the “general social intellect,” whose potential for the production of social wealth has outstripped the social and political rights of appropriation through living human labor by the working class.

The capitalist class represents not the exploitation of the workers but the social value of accumulated labor in capital, the surplus value produced by labor that becomes the precondition for further future production. When the capitalists fail to support the social value of capital as the basis for production, they cease to be capitalists, cease to be stewards of capital, and become mere moneybags. As Marx put it, a miser is an irrational capitalist whereas a capitalist is a rational miser. The miserliness or “misery” of capitalism that Marx had in mind was not the economic efficiency of social investment in production but the impoverished basis for measuring and valuing the social potential of production according to the surplus value that can be produced by human labor and its wages. The wager of labor in capitalism is that current present production will provide the basis of future production — that human activity and life will thus support itself in an ongoing way through capitalism.

The contradiction Marxism found in capitalism was that what began as a means to an end of social production and wealth, capital, became an end in itself, and what was an end in itself, human life and activity, becomes a mere means to the ends of capital.

The proletariat was Marx’s term for describing and critiquing the existence of the working class in industrial conditions in which there was an increasing divergence and disparity between the value of capital and the value of wages in social production. Marxism called this the expropriation of the working class by capital, in which the workers became less and less able to appropriate the total social product and — most importantly — its potential for future production through its wages as a means of consumption. This was how the working class became “propertyless,” increasingly socially divested of the property of its labor.

The “virtuous cycle” of bourgeois society became the circuit of capital in production and consumption, as bourgeois social relations and right increasingly undermined and destroyed themselves. There were thus value-crises in capital, which were crises of society as a whole. The result of these crises was the destruction of the value of both wages and capital. Capital became less profitable, the wage-earning potential of labor decreased, money went without opportunities for productive investment, and workers went unemployed. This was especially true at a generational level in which the reproduction of capital did away with jobs and the continued reproduction of workers created masses of unemployed and unemployable people.

Industrial production made human labor increasingly superfluous to the production of wealth, and thus the social value of human activity and life became not realized through productive activity but negated by it. Marxism thought that this meant the possibility and necessity of overcoming the valuing of human activity and life through labor as a measure of social wealth. This was the motivation for the proletarianized working class’s struggle for socialism.

In today’s terms of measuring social wealth through GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and Per Capita Productivity and Purchasing Power Parity, there is a contradiction between these indices of economic activity and actual individual and collective life and wellbeing in society. The United States has remained the highest GDP and PPP country in the world, with the highest productivity of labor. And yet there are increasing numbers of unemployed and unemployable people, and what labor employment exists and increases consists of new forms of work that are — temporarily — not yet replaceable by technology, for instance the “service sector.”

This is the immiseration of society in capitalism that Marx observed and which has continued up to today.

In socialism, the industrial superfluousness of workers was to be replaced by the superfluousness of work. As Marx envisioned it, work was to go from “life’s prime need” to “life’s prime want” — people would work because they wanted to, not because they needed to do so, either individually or collectively. The possibilities of science and technology as a higher form of social cooperation than the division of labor would allow “from each according to his ability and to each according to his need.”

The increased specialized division of labor in bourgeois social cooperation continues, but with an increasing and intensifying gulf opening between the new forms of social interdependence thus created and the forms of socially valuing and supporting the laboring activity and human lives thus employed.

Bourgeois demands for recognition of equal social and political rights to participation in and contribution to as well as share in consumption and production and reproduction of present and future wealth come up against the limits of the bourgeois form of such rights — the value of laboring activity — and the value of capital as measure of social production and consumption: the limits of capitalism as a self-contradiction of bourgeois society in industrial production.

The politically strategic vision of Marxism was that, to break the repetitive cycle of capitalist crisis and destruction, the wage-laborers would need to abolish wage labor — the laborers would need to abolish labor. It was not enough that the capitalists destroyed capitalism — that capitalism destroyed capital. The very basis for the reproduction of capital — labor — must be overcome. What society already was doing in capitalism in an unconscious and self-alienated way must be overcome in a disalienated and self-conscious way. But first it would need to be done consciously: the working class must politically and socially take over and appropriate capitalism before it can be overcome.

Thus was the Marxist vision of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Edouard Manet, "Guerre Civile" (1874)

The death of the Left

Today, the ostensible “Left” — the avowed “socialists” — have abandoned the goal of the dictatorship of the proletariat, either in words or in fact, the latter by reinterpreting the dictatorship of the proletariat to mean the governing of capitalism by sociologically working-class political parties in a welfare-state or so-called “social democracy.”

For instance, the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) Jacobin magazine publisher Bhaskar Sunkara has recently offered that perhaps achieving socialism in the United States is impossible, but what is possible is “social democracy,” by which he meant a better social welfare state.

But even to the extent that Sunkara and his Jacobin comrades still claim to be not social democrats but rather (small-d) democratic socialists and aspire for something greater than welfare-state capitalism, they still base their vision on an earlier 20th-century liquidation of Marxism and its goal of the dictatorship of the proletariat. For instance, Ralph Miliband is a major influence for Jacobin. This is true for Jacobin-associated Catalyst journal editor Vivek Chibber’s essay “Our Road to Power,” which contrasted the current DSA’s political program to the older Marxism of Kautsky, Luxemburg and Lenin.

Miliband’s idea was that in the 20th century the state had become much more important as an actor in capitalism, and that the working class was less socially and politically excluded than it had been in the time of classical Marxism, with the result being that the working class neither could nor should renounce participation politically in the capitalist state, for instance through working-class parties elected to government. The working class is supposedly no longer barred from political power in capitalism.

This is of course far less plausible today, after a generation — 40–50 years of neoliberalism — now, than when Miliband originally formulated his perspective, in the decades after WWII.

But even conceding Miliband’s — and the current DSA’s — point, the issue is the identification of workers’ or labor parties with socialist politics, or governing the capitalist state with the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The issue is the Marxist vision of the dictatorship of the proletariat as a transition to, and not identical with, socialism. It is not merely a matter of political exclusion producing a need for revolution. At issue is the possibility of gradually evolving socialism out of capitalism through increasing state control over and welfare provisions in capitalism.

Historically, this has produced not the working class transforming capitalism into socialism, but rather the transformation of nominally “socialist” parties into political parties of governing capitalism, turning the working class’s social and political organizations into appendages of the capitalist state.

Because there has not been by any means the uninterrupted governance of capitalism by working-class and ostensibly “socialist” parties, this hypothetical reforming of capitalism into socialism appears to not have been definitively disproven, and remains a tantalizing prospect.

Whereas “socialist” or “communist” parties were meant to be more than merely social democratic, what has happened rather is the lowering of socialist and even communist politics to social democracy or welfare-statist capitalism. This has been called the “betrayal” of socialism by these parties, and has produced new movements for socialism, for instance by the 1960s–70s New Left and even more recently, during the crisis of the Great Recession, in the however brief upsurges, at least electorally, of new “Left” movements and parties claiming to be socialist, against the existing social-democratic and socialist parties, such as SYRIZA in Greece and Podemos in Spain. Furthermore, there were the phenomena of Jeremy Corbyn’s “socialist” leadership of the Labour Party and the Bernie Sanders Campaign for President in the Democratic Party in the U.S. All of these held out the promise of “democratic socialism,” at least eventually, even if it was posed merely as reversing the erosion of the welfare state in the past generation of neoliberal capitalism.

There is also of course the 20th-century counterexample of the “undemocratic socialism” in the Soviet Union and associated countries. Even though the recent cycle of “socialism” by the Millennial Left in its social-democratic aspirations was accompanied, as its shadow, by a neo-Stalinism of “tankie” Marxist-Leninists, the “democratic socialism” of the new social democrats is not really pitched against the threat of Stalinist authoritarian socialism of communism, but the latter does remain an obstacle to a true understanding of the original Marxist vision of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Moreover, Stalinism is seen as an authoritarian welfare state to which is opposed a more “democratic” one. What this ignores is that Stalinism was (and remains) democratic — perhaps as democratic as or even more so than capitalist democracy — (see for instance Cuba), but is not as liberal as the (ostensible) liberal democracy of capitalism.

Perhaps the most pernicious legacy of Stalinism is its equation of liberalism and capitalism, as if civil and social liberty and freedom is essentially the individual “liberty” of social irresponsibility (whether by individual people or by capitalist firms as corporate individuals) and the “freedom” to exploit and oppress others.

What this ignores is that capitalism itself — the domination of society by the imperatives of producing and reproducing capital — undermines the freedom and liberty of bourgeois civil society, not only for the working class but for others as well, including the capitalists.

The social democrats complain that the social-democratic welfare state is still constrained by the dictates of capital, threatened by “capital flight,” etc., but by this they mean the nefarious actions of the capitalist class, ignoring the issue of capitalism itself in the Marxist sense. Earlier historical Marxists were much clearer about the true nature and character of the problem, which is precisely why they advocated the dictatorship of the proletariat as the beginning and not the end of political and social revolution, opening the door to and beginning the process of overcoming capitalism, and not yet beyond capitalism, let alone the achievement of socialism, itself.

The recent historical cycle of the Millennial Left failed to grasp either in theory or practice the true nature and character of the problem they faced in capitalism. They failed to become truly Marxist.

Marx argued that, short of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the state remained the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie,” by which he meant the dictatorship of capital, or the state ruling in the interests of capital as a whole. This includes the workers who live and benefit by capital as it presently exists.

In the 20th century, the socialist and communist Left historically liquidated the Marxist vision of the necessity and possibility of the dictatorship of the proletariat not least by neglecting and abandoning the actual reasons for it.

The propaganda of working-class struggle politics by historical Marxism was mistaken in subsequent generations for theoretical substance, confusing cause and effect in capitalism. The class division and conflict between workers and capitalists was mistaken as the cause and not recognized properly as the effect of capitalism and its contradiction. The self-contradiction of social value in production between wages and capital was mistaken for a conflict of interests between workers and capitalists, with the latter regarded merely as exploitative profiteers and not as Marx saw them as “character-masks” of the greater social imperatives of capital. The workers were meant to replace the capitalist ruling class not to do away with exploitation but to make politically explicit and thus “conscious” the contradiction of capital.

Instead, socialism and communism reverted to their pre-Marxian meaning of mere social and political egalitarianism, a complaint against political and social hierarchy and the inequality in distribution and consumption between the working class and the capitalists.

The dictatorship of the proletariat was the intermediate and not ultimate political and social goal of socialist politics in capitalism, as originally understood by Marxism. While the motivations of the working-class struggle for socialism included the egalitarianism of labor — the bourgeois principles of “equal rights for all” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the freedom of “liberty, equality and fraternity” in a “free association of producers” — Marxism also assumed civil and political liberty, a liberal society and political order of voluntary participation and association.

It is precisely because bourgeois society in capitalism still exhibits such liberty and embodies such an egalitarian spirit of participation that there are discontents in such terms within it and indeed that there is any social and political movement at all against its failures.

The Left has fallen apart into either accommodating capitalist politics through welfare statism or accommodating society’s disintegration in capitalism through antinomian opposition of anti-bourgeois nihilism and anti-social attitudes — including the tribalism of communitarian social-group identity politics. In either case, it has abandoned the task of socialism and the political goal of the next historically necessary step of the dictatorship of the proletariat, to begin to move society beyond capitalism.

This is why and how the Left died historically — why it remains dead today. | P


[1] Chris Cutrone, Dick Howard, Shane Mage, Chris Nineham, Leo Panitch, “What is capitalism and why should we be against it?,” Platypus Review 129 (September 2020), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2020/09/01/what-is-capitalism-and-why-should-we-be-against-it/>; Cutrone, “Socialism in the 21st century,” PR 126 (May 2020), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2020/05/01/socialism-in-the-21st-century/>. See also “Robots and sweatshops,” PR 123 (February 2020), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2020/02/01/robots-and-sweatshops/>; “Jobs and free stuff,” PR 124 (March 2020), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2020/03/01/jobs-and-free-stuff/>; “Capital and labor,” PR 126 (May 2020), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2020/05/01/capital-and-labor/>.