If you told someone you want the working class to take control of society and run it for themselves, they may give an approving nod. But use the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” and they’d likely recoil.
The phrase often conjures up visions of societies under “communist” dictatorships such as North Korea, or Russia under Stalin.
Yet in the 1917 Russian Revolution that’s exactly what the Bolshevik Party called for.
When leading Bolshevik Vladimir Lenin argued for a dictatorship of the proletariat, he envisaged a society very different from the tyranny that his critics today claim he wanted to create.
In State and Revolution—written during the revolution—Lenin argued that the existing political system is meant to ensure capitalists’ domination over workers.
He looked back at how revolutionary theorist Frederick Engels explained the purpose of the capitalist state. Engels and Karl Marx were the first to argue for a dictatorship of the proletariat.
Under capitalism the relatively small ruling class at the top of society survives by exploiting the far larger working class.
The ruling class' interest in exploiting workers is directly opposed to workers’ need to end their exploitation. The capitalist state defends this setup.
A layer of unelected officials from the capitalist class run government departments, the judiciary, the central bank and so on. Laws back them up and a bit of democracy gives them a mask of legitimacy—and the authority to carry on.
But they’re propped up by what Lenin called “special bodies” of armed people—the police and army—that use force to defend that system.
As Lenin wrote, “The state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another.”
Lenin said workers making a revolution needed their own state power to seize the property and wealth controlled by the capitalists.
The capitalist class won’t just allow the new socialist society to develop
He didn’t mean taking over existing state institutions—these instruments of capitalist rule have to be destroyed.
Workers have to set up their own organisations to run and defend the new society. In 1917 Russia this new state power was based on the “soviets”—mass revolutionary councils of workers, peasants and soldiers. This kind of state organisation is more democratic than anything under capitalism.
Through it, ordinary people have direct control over every decision that affects their lives. But it’s also an instrument of class rule—working class rule.
The capitalist class won’t just allow the new socialist society to develop. The old capitalist class in Russia waged a bloody civil war to crush the revolution after the soviets took power.
So any new workers’ state needs repressive powers to take property from the capitalists and defend the revolution by force.
This is what “dictatorship of the proletariat” means.
It’s not the same as how the capitalists use their repressive powers to enforce the exploitation of workers. The workers’ state uses its repressive powers to end that exploitation.
Lenin, Engels and Marx didn’t see this as a permanent setup. Once ordinary people take full control of capitalists’ “private” property, the basis for two opposing classes disappears—and so does the need for a state.
The workers’ state—not the capitalist state—eventually “withers away”. But without that dictatorship of the proletariat—workers’ control and democracy—socialism could never exist.