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You are here: Platypus /Concerning Chris Cutrone and the dictatorship of the proletariat

Concerning Chris Cutrone and the dictatorship of the proletariat

John Ehrenberg

Platypus Review 146 | May 2022

CHRIS CUTRONE IS CERTAINLY CORRECT that the theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat is central to Marxism’s revolutionary core and that abandoning it is particularly damaging to both theory and practice.[1] But its very importance makes it a broader category than simply a political stage of limited duration in the transition to socialism. Indeed, it characterizes the entire transition from capitalism to socialism, the first stage in the development of a communist society. Both Marx and Engels made it clear that the task of the proletarian dictatorship would come to an end only as the state began to “wither away” as part of the transition to a higher stage of social organization. In any event, the concept itself is marked by a deep contradiction that anticipated the difficulties of an extremely complicated historical period. This contradiction has generated important theoretical confusion and broad practical disagreements about just what is meant by the politics and economics of the transition. These confusions and disagreements are central to the Marxist project and are unlikely to be resolved, if only because Cutrone is right that the broad reformist and revolutionary Left have largely agreed that speaking and thinking about the dictatorship of the proletariat makes little sense anymore.

Their materialist outlook notwithstanding, Marx and Engels took the position that socialist relations of production do not arise spontaneously from within the boundaries of capitalism. They must be created de novo, and this creative project is the proletarian dictatorship’s central task. It is one and the same as its “negative,” coercive task of demolition and repression. The interrelationship between dismantling bourgeois relations of production and constructing socialist relations can be expected to take different forms depending on specific conditions, and Marx and Engels famously refused to speculate about “cookbooks for the future.” The environment might be shaped by global revolutions, violent insurrections, peaceful transitions, or transformations in single countries. It might be a tortuously difficult period marked by frequent twists and turns or it might be relatively simple and uncomplicated. What is key is that the working class’s hold on state power provides an indispensable lever with which to uproot the old and simultaneously construct the new.

The foundations of the theory were largely in place by the appearance of the Communist Manifesto in 1848. Cutrone implies that they developed alongside Marx’s political economy, but they arose out of their theoretical and political understanding of how that section of the working class that was most closely tied to capitalism’s most powerful forces of production had become the “universal class,” uniquely capable of leading the broad and comprehensive movement that full “human emancipation” required. From his early modification of Hegel’s theory of the state to his critique of the French Revolution’s inability to adequately address the “social question,” Marx developed his philosophical materialism as he began to focus on how bourgeois property limited political liberty. His early articles on wood theft and freedom of the press did illustrate an increasing orientation toward economics, but his turn toward the political theory of communism and the dictatorship of the proletariat was driven by his rejection of Hegel’s claim that the bureaucracy could function as society’s “universal class.” The class nature of the state drove Marx to conclude that one had to understand society before one could understand the state, and his early attempts to examine social conditions drove him toward a fully-developed materialist conception of history that was largely in place by 1848. The Communist Manifesto contained all the seeds of the later formulation, and the later theorization of the dictatorship of the proletariat was fully rooted in Marx’s development during the 1840s.His critique of “merely political” revolutions that fell short of “human emancipation” had led him directly to the industrial proletariat, his alternative to Hegel’s universal class precisely because it lacked all connections to existing society. The political triumph of the proletariat would be the precondition to a social transformation that would go beyond anything the bourgeoisie could possibly lead. The most consistently revolutionary class precisely because of its propertylessness, only the proletariat could lead a process that would usher in its full emancipation and that of every other laboring class as well. Marx, Engels, and Lenin all focused on the section of the working class that was shaped by its connection to the most advanced means of production. This meant the factory proletariat, and while Cutrone’s salaried professionals, middle management, and other white-collar workers might benefit from proletarian rule and even play a part in the transition to socialism, Cutrone is correct to say that “the center of political power was to be the wage-laboring working class.”[2] The proletariat’s seizure and use of political power would enable it to move past the “merely political revolutions” of the past that had left the “pillars of the house standing.” The necessity to uproot private property in the means of production meant that politics would lead economics throughout the entire period. This was particularly true in the early stages of the Russian Revolution, where the means of production were not fully in place and had to be created by the application of state power.

Lenin’s understanding of imperialism as “the eve of the socialist revolution” raised the possibility of a successful revolution in a single country like Russia, where the forces of production were crippled and deformed by the social, economic, and political remnants of feudalism and serfdom. The irony of revolution happening where capitalism was relatively underdeveloped and the broad society was deeply mutilated by that underdevelopment was not lost on him, and Cutrone’s assertion that the proletarian dictatorship was supposed to be “a global rule of the working class, with revolution encompassing the preponderance of the capitalist world” ignores one of the most important foundations of Lenin’s work.[3] A close examination of imperialism had led him to the possibility that socialist revolution might break out where capitalism was underdeveloped, rather than in the most industrialized and advanced societies of Western Europe. The weakest link in the capitalist chain might just be in countries like Russia or India, a possibility that Marx and Engels had prefigured in some of their fragmentary observations and their forays into journalism. As if the peculiarities of the Russian situation were not enough, the state of permanent emergency that characterized the early years of the Soviet Union was born of international isolation, unrelenting hostility from the chief capitalist powers, a brutal civil war, domestic resistance and the necessity of dragging the wavering petty bourgeoisie and middle peasants into a socialist future which they did not necessarily want and for which they were not necessarily prepared. Proletarian leadership was indispensable during this extraordinarily difficult and complicated period, and only its ability to wield state power would make it possible for the industrial working class to exert its leadership. The Paris Commune had provided the only concrete example of how state power might have been used to uproot bourgeois relations of production, but it never had the time to develop. Marx observed that the workers had been too timid in using their power and were too naïve about their enemies. If the Communards had failed to use their power in a sufficiently strong manner, their successors would have to learn from their example.

As early as 1848, the Communist Manifesto had warned its readers that the victorious workers, having “won” the “battle of democracy,” would be compelled to organize a “despotic” attack on private property in the means of production. The first set the conditions for the second. There was no contradiction between destruction and creation, repression and democracy. If “the first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy,” this did not require that revolution meant an insurrectionary assault on the bourgeois state. State power could be conquered in a variety of ways, and that power could likewise be used in a variety of ways. But even as they refused to write cookbooks, Marx and Engels did insist that bourgeois resistance would require resolution and firmness that would likely intensify as the proletarian effort to transform an entire society developed. That resistance would characterize the entire period of transition no matter how the seizure of power had developed, no matter how proletarian political power was organized, and no matter how the democratic content of the workers’ dictatorship was expressed.

Cutrone is right to point out that Roman history had demonstrated how dictatorship could serve democracy in certain conditions. The same was true of the French Revolution and of numerous other democratic upsurges and revolutions. Martial law and legally-defined conditions of dictatorship might be the necessary precondition for saving liberty in the long run. Indeed, almost all states allow for the imposition of martial law, and American history has seen political authorities impose it several dozen times. President Lincoln famously suspended habeas corpus throughout the Union in any case involving Confederate spies, prisoners, members of the military, or any traitor to the Union. Full martial law was imposed in Kentucky toward the end of the Civil War, the greatest struggle for a democratic republic since the Founding.

The “merely political” revolutions of the past had altered the structure of states and left intact the social foundations of private property and appropriation. Indeed, many bourgeois revolutions swept away the superstructural impediments that had hamstrung the full development of bourgeois social relations, bringing a relatively outmoded and obsolete political system into closer proximity with the objective requirements of an economic base that had already been transformed by the gradual development of bourgeois property relations. The legal-political transformations that characterized bourgeois revolutions made possible the fuller development of bourgeois relations of production and gave rise to the popular notion that revolutions are political events that reshape the superstructure. But Marx and Engels’s understanding of socialist revolutions are unique in their radicalism, in the sense that it penetrates to the root of the problem of social transformation. It is precisely because the socialist revolution has such radical aims and is compelled to transform the entire society that its use of state power is so essential.

The dictatorship of the proletariat describes the transition to socialism. Indeed, it is the political form of what Marx called the “first stage” of communist society. In this sense, socialism is considerably broader than democratic supervision of capitalist society. It means considerably more than taking over, transforming and using capitalism “before it can be overcome.”[4] This implies that it must be considerably stronger as it organizes “despotic” attacks on the bourgeoisie and its roots in private appropriation. Cutrone is too cautious here. Marx, Engels, and Lenin all agreed that “smashing” the bourgeois state was an essential precondition to the workers’ ability to use a transformed political apparatus in the construction of socialist relations of production — relations that did not yet exist, and could not exist, within the boundaries of bourgeois property relations. The Russian Revolution did demonstrate the need to use bourgeois methods in the early phases of the construction of socialism, and it turned out that the proletarian dictatorship meant a state-led program of rapid industrialization driven by the production of the means of production. This is why Lenin insisted that political power would be every bit as essential during the New Economic Policy as it had been during War Communism. Forced to make fundamental compromises, he knew that characterizing socialism as the supervision of capitalism might make rhetorical sense but only as part of a set of policies designed to transcend that very capitalism. Bourgeois methods of work served private property in capitalism, but Lenin consistently said that the same methods could serve socialism if organized by a proletarian dictatorship. The particular conditions facing the Bolsheviks dictated compromises with private property and the use of bourgeois innovations in accounting, supervision, and production. These compromises could be managed by a state that had been transformed by revolution before the foundations of socialism were in place. But the forces shaping the Russian experience were wildly different from contemporary conditions. What the dictatorship of the proletariat might look like in organizing the transition from a developed capitalist society remains to be seen.

Cutrone is right that the theory and practice of the proletarian dictatorship has faded from the program of what little remains of the international Left. Certainly the “Millennial Left” is ignorant of, and uninterested in, Marxist politics. In a time when the Nordic social democracies seem to be the most successful societies on the planet, the politics of the Left have become defined by strengthening public supervision of the market rather than deploying state power to overcome private property in the means of production. The Left’s theoretical and practical collapse is a reflection of a far deeper crisis. Indeed, it’s not clear just what the proletariat means anymore, even less so how its political power might be expressed, and hardly ever what a transformed society might look like. At the moment, it looks like Norway is the best we can do. Even that would be a substantial improvement over what we have to deal with now. |P

[1] See Chris Cutrone, “The dictatorship of the proletariat and the death of the Left,” Platypus Review 141 (November 2021), available online at <>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.