Terrorism and Communism: the Meaning of Dictatorship

Trotsky in “Terrorism and Communism” frequently counterposes his position – support for revolutionary dictatorship – with that of the ‘democratic’ Kautsky, doing so in the name of the famous Marxist phrase ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

Now, it’s routinely pointed out that this idea doesn’t mean a ‘dictatorship’ in the sense that we would now understand that term – the unaccountable rule of an individual or small group. Rather, it is very close in meaning to (perhaps even synonymous with) ‘rule of the proletariat’ or ‘power of the proletariat’ – and the proletariat is a mass class, not a dictatorial minority. So the dictatorship of the proletariat implies a great deal of ‘democracy’.

Yet here Trotsky is openly arguing against something called ‘democracy’. So the dictatorship of the proletariat is a dictatorship after all?

And, further complicating the issue, is that Trotsky and Lenin said on several occasions that their understanding of rule by the proletariat is tightly bound up with the rule of the Bolshevik party, and that when necessary this should be elevated over the momentary will of the actual workers. So there does seem to be an element of ‘dictatorship’ involved – but it’s not exactly this which Trotsky seems to be arguing for against Kautsky.

So things seem a bit confusing. I don’t claim to have matters sorted entirely, but I will try to distinguish three separate questions, answers to each of which might be termed ‘dictatorship’. These are not entirely distinct, and some issues blur the lines, but they helped me to conceptualise the issues.

The first question is who has political power. Is power exercised by organisations comprising or representing the whole population, or by an unelected minority? To put the issue in more materialist terms, which classes, sections of classes, and combinations of classes are politically dominant? Dictatorship here means the rule of ‘the few’, and democracy the rule of ‘the many’.

The second question is of the manner of exercising political power. Is power exercised cautiously and calmly, with multiple stages to ensure the best outcomes, checks and balances, separation of powers, balance and reciprocity in all things, and so as to seek the ideal compromise solution to each question, however long it takes? Or is power exercised rashly and decisively, with contempt for constitutional niceties, so that necessary and extreme steps may be taken as quickly as possible, before it is too late?

The latter might be called ‘dictatorship’, and the former ‘democracy’, but more appropriate contemporary terms might be ‘martial law’ or ’emergency rule’ as opposed to ‘constitutional rule’. In the 19th century (and largely before), ‘dictatorship’ had more this suggestion, being descended from the Roman ‘dictadura’, an emergency power given to a certain person to resolve an immediate crisis. What was so radical about Julius Caesar’s seizure of power was not that he became ‘dictator’, but that he became ‘dictator for life‘, i.e. normalised a state of emergency.

And the third question is of the methods of exercising power. Is power exercised only in ‘soft’ ways, or is force used? When force is used, does it depend on ‘due process’, or does it simply round up suspects or drops bombs onto residential areas? Etc. Here the term ‘dictatorship’ might be used to mean the willingness to use any means available – though ‘illiberal’ or ‘authoritarian’ might be a more natural word.

Now on the first two of these three questions, of the holder, and manner of political power, I would suggest that the Marxist dictatorship of the proletariat can best be represented, roughly, as follows:

The holder of political power is the proletariat – as opposed to either a certain other class, all classes equally, or an undemocratic clique or autocrat. Depending on how the reader views the parliamentary system (rule of the bourgeoisie, genuine democracy, sham democracy, etc.) this might be either more or less democratic – but it’s certainly not what we would call a ‘dictatorship’.

The manner of exercising political power is ‘dictatorial’ – harsh and decisive, as appropriate to a state of emergency.

This is in contrast both to those like Blanqui, communists who wanted communism to be produced by the rule of a small elite group (in contrast to whom it is the dictatorship of the proletariat itself), and to those who felt that the revolution should use only measured, tolerant, legal and perfectly ethical approaches to establish itself (in contrast to whom it is the dictatorship of the proletariat).

An example of this latter contrast might be, let us say, housing reform. The ‘democratic’ revolutionary movement pauses, notes that many of the owners of a lot of housing are absent, having left the country, while others are hard to identify because records have been lost. It does not want to deal too harshly with, or alienate, landlords, and so it delays action on housing, seeking to respect the property rights of owners as far as possible, until the issue can be directly discussed, and a solution reached to the satisfaction of all parties, possibly including paying some amount of compensation to those who have lost ‘their’ property.

The proletarian dictatorship, on the contrary, sees that it has no time to waste and no hope of winning the support of most property-owners. It immediately declares all housing stock expropriated, and composes its own bodies to administer and allocate that housing, in accordance with whatever are the most pressing concerns at the time (i.e. are there many people homeless, or refugees, is a lot of housing in unsafe conditions, is housing too energy-intsenive, etc.). If landlords find themselves worse off, nobody cares.

This sort of action, if taken during the normal course of political affairs, would no doubt be declared ‘dictatorship – look how often such a term is applied to a man whose slight inroads on private capital cannot be excused by any number of decisive election victories, Hugo Chavez, the ‘dictator’ of Venezuela.

However, the question of methods is left more open, it seems to me. Trotsky, of course, has a very clear view on the answer to this third question: the dictatorship of the proletariat exercises and entrenches its political power by any means necessary – notably including the terrorism mentioned in the title.

So for analysing the question of revolutionary dictatorship, there are, I think, the following questions:

1) Does it make sense for the proletariat to seize all power for itself – excluding non-proletarian classes? To make this a little more concrete, is power exercised by workers’ councils, filled with, um, workers, or by a broader section of society?

2) Does it make sense for the proletariat to submit to/place at its head a specific political party, supposedly ‘proletarian’, which will ‘lead’ it through the period of its dictatorship? Did the Bolsheviks, that is, replace the dictatorship of the proletariat with the dictatorship of the party?

3) Does it make sense for the proletariat, or other revolutionary group, having taken power, to act with ’emergency powers’ – i.e. with ‘dictadura’, dictatorship?

4) Are there any limits on the methods that a revolutionary group can use in its exercise of power? Are there methods which compromise its nature and cause, or does the end justify all means?

People might agree on different of these questions, while disagreeing on others.

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