dictatorship of the proletariat

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dictatorship of the proletariat

(MARXISM) the form of government which Marx envisaged as emerging immediately after the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and before the establishment of COMMUNISM. LENIN introduced the notion of dictatorship of the proletariat via the Communist Party but because of the oppressive implications of the term, many Marxists no longer use it.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Dictatorship of the Proletariat


the power of the working class, established as a result of a socialist revolution and having as its aims the building of socialism and the transition of society to the construction of communism. This power is called proletarian because the working class, led by the Marxist-Leninist party and allied with the peasantry and other democratic strata of society, holds the leading position in society and the state. It is called a dictatorship because, while implementing the broadest democracy for the working people, it uses force whenever necessary to suppress the resistance of the exploiting classes and the activity of elements hostile to socialism.

The doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat flows inevitably from the Marxist-Leninist theory of classes and the class struggle. Marx and Engels opposed the petit bourgeois tendencies that endeavored to reconcile and conceal class contradictions, and they also opposed the anarchists, who called for the immediate destruction of any state organization. In opposition to these ideas, Marx and Engels proposed that it was necessary that the proletariat win political power in order to build a new society. The proletariat needed power in order to “wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state, that is, in the hands of the proletariat, organized as the ruling class, and in order to increase the total of the productive forces as rapidly as possible” (“Manifesto of the Communist Party,” 1848, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 4, p. 446).

The generalization of the experience of the Revolution of 1848–49 in Germany and of the Paris Commune of 1871 was particularly important for the development of the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat. It permitted Marx and Engels to draw the important conclusion that the bourgeois state machine must be smashed, and it enabled them to reveal the basic characteristics of proletarian power. Marx used the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” for the first time in the work The Class Struggle in France, 1848–1850 (ibid., vol. 7, pp. 31, 91). Subsequently, drawing on the experience of the international workers’ movement, Marx formulated a conclusion on the dictatorship of the proletariat in the Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875): “Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this also is a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat” (ibid., vol. 19, p. 27).

The doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat was further developed to apply to the age of imperialism and proletarian revolution in the works of V. I. Lenin, who emphasized that the dictatorship of the proletariat signifies a special form of the proletariat’s alliance with the peasantry and other exploited masses. He revealed the profoundly democratic character of the dictatorship of the proletariat as the power of the toiling people—that is, the majority of society—over the exploiters, who make up an insignificant minority. Lenin first expressed the idea that the soviets were a new form of the working-class state. He worked out the question of the organization of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the leading role of the communist party in this system, and he examined the variety of forms of the dictatorship of the proletariat in various countries. The tenet of the necessity of establishing a dictatorship of the proletariat became a fixed part of the program of the RSDLP with the adoption of the party program at the Second Congress in 1903.

The Marxist-Leninist doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat was brilliantly confirmed by the example of the first socialist country, the Soviet Union, whose experience enriched the theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat with new ideas and conclusions.

A new stage in the development of the theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat began after World War II (1939-45), when the working class, in alliance with broad democratic strata, was victorious in a number of European and Asian countries. This experience was generalized in the decisions of the Twentieth through Twenty-fourth Congresses of the CPSU, the Program of the CPSU, and documents of fraternal communist and workers’ parties. These documents elaborate on the problems of similarity in general principles and the variety of forms of the transition to socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat. They raise the possibility of broader class alliances of the proletariat in the socialist revolution in the contemporary period, as well as the chance that under certain conditions parliaments may be transformed from instruments of the bourgeoisie into forms of popular power that realize socialist transformations. The Declaration of the Conference of the Representatives of Communist and Workers’ Parties of the Socialist Countries (1957) characterized the dictatorship of the proletariat as a general law of socialist revolution and the construction of socialism.

The transition to communism, which is being realized in the USSR, has raised problems of the further development of the socialist state. In its Program in 1961 the Communist Party of the Soviet Union elaborated on the question of the growth of the state of the dictatorship of the proletariat into an entire-people socialist state.

The Marxist-Leninist doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat took shape and was developed in a fierce struggle against right- and left-wing opportunism. Lenin wrote: “A Marxist is solely someone who extends the recognition of the class struggle to the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat. This is what constitutes the most profound distinction between the Marxist and the ordinary petit (as well as big) bourgeois. This is the touchstone on which the real understanding and recognition of Marxism shall be tested” (Poln. pobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 33, p. 34). Struggling against reformists and right-wing revisionists, who deny the need for the dictatorship of the proletariat during the transition from capitalism and socialism, Marxist-Leninists proceed from the view that the construction of socialism is impossible without the dictatorship of the proletariat. At the same time, Marxism-Leninism struggles resolutely against dogmatic, oversimplified, and distorted interpretations of the dictatorship of the proletariat and against the endeavor to perpetuate the dictatorship, the exaggeration of the role of coercion in the transition to socialism and communism, and the underestimation of the need to develop socialist democracy.

The character and features of the dictatorship of the proletariat are determined by the tasks of building socialism. In the economic sphere it is necessary to replace private property in the instruments and means of production with social property and to introduce the planned organization of production in the interests of the welfare and comprehensive development of the toiling people. In social relations, it is necessary to eliminate the exploiting classes and the possibility for the exploitation of man by man. Politically, the state must be strengthened by broadening its social base, consolidating the alliance of the workers and peasants, attracting increasingly broad masses to participation in the administration of public affairs, and further developing proletarian democracy. Militarily, it is necessary to strengthen the country’s defensive power and armed forces. Lenin wrote: “The dictatorship of the proletariat means a persistent struggle, bloody and bloodless, violent and peaceful, military and economic, educational and administrative, against the forces and traditions of the old society” (ibid., vol. 41, p. 27).

The expropriation of the property of the big bourgeoisie and landlords is one of the first steps of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Experience has shown that as a rule, expropriation provokes the fierce resistance of the exploiting classes. The resistance of the overthrown bourgeoisie is even more dangerous, because immediately after the socialist revolution the bourgeoisie still possesses a great deal of power. Only a strong, decisive power is capable of paralyzing the force of the bourgeoisie and suppressing its resistance. The force that the working class is compelled to use against the reactionaries is profoundly democratic in its aims, which express the will of the overwhelming majority of the people, and its methods, which are applied by the people themselves.

The essence and highest principle of proletarian power consists of the alliance of the working class with all the toiling people and other democratic forces. Lenin wrote: “The dictatorship of the proletariat is a specific form of class alliance between the proletariat, the vanguard of the working people, and the numerous nonproletarian strata of the working people (the petite bourgeoisie, small proprietors, the peasantry, the intelligentsia, etc.) or the majority of these strata, an alliance against capital, an alliance whose aim is the complete overthrow of capital, complete suppression of the resistance offered by the bourgeoisie as well as of attempts at restoration on its part, an alliance for the final establishment and consolidation of socialism” (ibid., vol. 38, p. 377). The working class alone, without allies, does not have the strength to take on and complete the immense tasks of socialist construction. It is called upon by history to lead all the toiling people not only in the overthrow of the capitalist system but also in the construction of a socialist society.

The breadth of the alliance of the working class with other democratic forces depends on concrete historical conditions as well as on the flexible policy of the proletarian state.

The power of the working class and all the toiling people is embodied in a system of political and social organizations, which include state agencies, political parties, trade unions, cooperative associations, and youth organizations. The Marxist-Leninist party of the working class is the leading force in the system of the dictatorship of the proletariat. It plays a special role in the political system of socialist countries. After taking power, the working class and its allies are faced with the necessity of enduring a stubborn struggle against the forces and traditions of the capitalist system and against the backward views and customs of millions of people. “Without a party of iron that has been tempered in the struggle, without a party enjoying the confidence of all honest people in the given class in question, a party capable of watching and influencing the mood of the masses, such a struggle cannot be waged successfully” (ibid., vol. 41, p. 27). Based on the theory of Marxism-Leninism and the experience of the masses, the party works out a political line in all areas of socialist and communist construction and directs the entire process of its practical implementation.

The revisionists have criticized this understanding of the role of the party in the dictatorship of the proletariat. They narrow the leading role of the party to such a degree that it boils down to a complete renunciation of party leadership of the construction of a socialist society. The revisionists assert that the party must be only an ideological factor in the development of socialist consciousness, and not a political factor or a power factor. This concept can lead to a strengthening of the influence in society and the state of political forces hostile to the working people. Rejecting the concept of the revisionists, Marxist-Leninists simultaneously rebuff the oversimplifiers, who maintain that the dictatorship of the working class is identical to the dictatorship of its party. This distortion would lead to the curtailing of the varied forms through which the working class implements its leadership of society. It would weaken the working class’s power by narrowing its base.

The party directs all state and public organizations, but it does not take their place. It achieves the implementation of its policy through party members who work in the machinery of state and in public organizations.

The increased role of the masses in social, political, and economic life is characteristic of all the socialist countries and is promoted by the organizational principles of all the organizations of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which are based on democratic centralism. The dictatorship of the working class gives rise to a historically new type of democracy—proletarian democracy, which is directed and led by the working class and serves those classes and groups of the population that are building socialism. Thus, proletarian democracy serves the interests of the overwhelming majority of society.

The power of the working class grows out of the concrete conditions of the liberation struggle of each people. Therefore, in different countries, it assumes different forms. Lenin wrote: “All nations will arrive at socialism—this is inevitable—but they all will do so in not exactly the same way; each will contribute something of its own to some form of democracy, to some variety of the dictatorship of the proletariat, to the varying rate of socialist transformations in the different aspects of social life” (ibid., vol. 30, p. 123).

In addition to the determining influence of class character, the variety of forms of the dictatorship of the proletariat is explained by the influence on the form of proletarian rule of various factors other than the determining factor of its class content: the level of the economic and political development of the country, the arrangement of class forces in the country, the relative strength of the forces of socialism and capitalism in the world arena, the peaceful or violent path of the development of the socialist revolution, the level of the political consciousness of the people, and national traditions.

The Paris Commune of 1871 was the first form of rule by the working class in history. The soviets were the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat that arose in the revolutionary experience of the working class and popular masses of Russia and that were confirmed as a result of the Great October Socialist Revolution. In the course of subsequent revolutions after World War II (1939-45), a new form of the dictatorship of the proletariat was born—the people’s democracy. The development of the revolutionary movement has demonstrated convincingly that the fundamental features of working-class power are identical for all the countries that are carrying out the transition to socialism.

The experience of the people’s democracies indicates that, given favorable internal and external circumstances, it is possible to move from the democratic to the socialist stage of revolution and establish working-class rule without civil war. Under these conditions, the destruction of the old state machine can be accomplished gradually by severing its most reactionary parts and transforming and using traditional democratic forms. The new arrangement of class forces predetermines the characteristics of a people’s democracy. In these countries the dictatorship is directed primarily against the big bourgeoisie, and democracy is extended to the proletariat, peasantry, urban petite bourgeoisie, and intelligentsia. In almost all these countries, there are popular national fronts, including socialist and democratic forces: the National Front of Czechs and Slovaks in Czechoslovakia, the Fatherland Front in Bulgaria, and the Front of Socialist Unity in Rumania.

The transition of the people of other countries to socialism will give rise to new forms of working-class power. However, each people embarking on the road to socialism must inevitably, in one form or another, carry out a socialist revolution and establish the political power of the working class and of all working people.

The building of socialism and the transition to communism evoke changes in the character, tasks, functions, forms, and methods of activity of working-class power. The dictatorship of the proletariat, born out of the socialist revolution, plays a worldwide historical role in building socialism. At the same time, it undergoes changes in the process of building a socialist society. As the exploiting classes in one or another country are eliminated, the function of suppressing their resistance disappears, and the process begins by which the state of the dictatorship of the proletariat grows into an all-national organization of the laborers of the socialist society. Having secured the complete and final victory of socialism in the USSR and the transition of society to the construction of communism, the dictatorship of the proletariat has fulfilled its historical mission. From the point of view of the tasks of internal development, it has ceased to be necessary in the Soviet Union. The state of the dictatorship of the proletariat has been transformed into an all-national socialist state and the proletarian democracy, into an all-national socialist democracy. “The dictatorship of the working class ceases to be necessary before the state disappears” (Program of the CPSU, 1971, p. 101). The socialist all-national state continues the work of the proletarian dictatorship. The leadership of the working class, led by the Communist Party, is maintained during the period of the transition to communism. However, it also undergoes changes. The working class as the leading class does not enjoy any special privileges. With the disappearance of classes and the construction of communism, the working class will have completed the fulfillment of its role as the leader of society.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. “Nemetskaia ideologiia.” Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 3.
Marx, K. “Nishcheta filosofii.” Ibid., vol. 4, chap. 2.
Marx, K. Klassovaia bor’ba vo Frantsii, 1848–1850. Ibid., vol. 7.
Marx, K. Vosemnadtsatoe briumera Lui Bonaparta. Ibid., vol. 8.
Marx, K. Grazhdanskaia voina vo Frantsii. Ibid., vol. 18.
Marx, K. I. Veidemeieru, 5 marta 1852 g. (Letter.) Ibid., vol. 28.
Lenin, V. I. “O zadachakh proletariata v dannoi revoliutsii.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 31.
Lenin, V. I. “Gosudarstvo i revoliutsiia.” Ibid., vol. 33.
Lenin, V. I. “Proletarskaia revoliutsiia i renegat Kautskii.” Ibid., vol. 37.
Lenin, V. I. “O ’demokratii’ i diktature.” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “O gosudarstve.” Ibid., vol. 39.
Lenin, V. I. “O diktature proletariata.” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “Ekonomika i politika v epokhu diktatury proletariata.” Ibid.
Programmnye dokumenty bor’by za mir, demokratiiu i sotsializm. Moscow, 1961.
Mezhdunarodnoe soveshchanie kommunisticheskikh i rabochikh partii, Moskva 1969 g.: Dokumenty i materialy. Moscow, 1969.
K 100-letiiu so dnia rozhdeniia V. I. Lenina: Tezisy TsK KPSS. Moscow, 1969.
Osnovy marksizma-leninizma, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1962.
Osnovy nauchnogo kommunizma, 3rd ed. Moscow, 1969.
Burlatskii, F. M. Gosudarstvo i kommunizm. Moscow, 1963.
Leninskoe uchenie o diktature proletariata. Moscow, 1970.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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