This post forms part of a series with my others on Trotsky’s Book “Terrorism and Communism”, but I don’t mention the book anywhere. The idea of this post is a very abstract one – to take the notion of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and suggest that it can be seen to fit very neatly and logically into certain pre-Marxist traditions of thought, specifically ‘Social Contract Theory’, of the sort produced by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.
To briefly clarify what I mean by ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’: the proletariat is defined by two features, their lack of productive property (that is, they cannot generate an income from the profits or interest or rent on what they already own) and their consequent need to labour. Depending on which of these features is emphasised, the class could be more or less extensive either to include property-owning workers, like peasants (who own a plot of land and also work it) or propertyless non-workers, like students, the unemployed, or people doing domestic work for their family. People who technically ‘receive a wage’ but whose job is to administer and control capital for the benefit of capitalists (i.e. managing directors) would typically not be included for various reasons.
Anyway, in this post I’m going to put the emphasis on the ‘propertyless’ feature over the ‘working’ one. A proletarian is someone who cannot get an income out of their property. The ‘dictatorship’ of such people means a society in which they have exclusive political power. Whatever the political system, its powers (voting, eligibility, right of recall, etc.) are held exclusively by proletarians. Property-owners, members of other classes, might enjoy protection and support, but they are not full citizens.
Ok, so that’s the idea. Now how does this fit into social contract theory? For those not familiar with the (pretty intutive) basic idea, this approach (used very differently by different writers) tells a story of pre-social individuals voluntarily giving up some of their freedom in order to receive protection from society of their remaining freedom, thus entering a ‘contract’ which then forms the basis of legitimate political authority.
Now there’s some obvious problems with such a theory. For a start, I don’t remember ever signing such a contract; secondly, it bears no resemblance to actual history; thirdly, it rests on a very one-sided view of human individuals, occupying a mythical pre-social situation all alone. But at the same time, its basic idea has some merit – if one-sided, that side is still a valid one, even if we must construe the whole thing very metaphorically.
So the point I want to make is this: traditional social contract theorists, most especially John Locke, located property ownership in the pre-social freedoms that people enter society to preserve. That is, my property is something which I 1) can meaningfully own in isolation, and 2) can rightfully expect to be protected. This rested on a view of property as based on labour and as therefore an extension of self-ownership. Because I own my hand, if I use my hand to make something, I own that thing (putting it roughly).
Now I’ve argued before, at length, that this view is mistaken (especially in this post). In contrast, I defended the idea that property-ownership is a form of political dominion – that owning a factory, having sovereignty over the objects there, belongs to the same family as having sovereignty over a person, or a settlement, or a kingdom.
But part of the way property is presented is in contrast to a socially-bestowed entitlement. That is, if my friend, or my 2 million friends (I’m popular), say that I can use their boat for a week, I don’t therefore own their boat, I merely use it. To own it would mean precisely that I could use it regardless of what anyone else said. To compare with political sovereignty: an elected prime minister may exercise many of the functions of a king or queen, but in theory and principle, they are not ‘sovereign’ because their power depends on the consent of the people. The monarch is distinguished precisely by the unconditional character of their control – their sovereignty.
From this it follows that owning something is at some level an anti-social act. When I say ‘this stuff here is mine’, I am in a sense cutting myself off from everyone else by claiming a right and power independently of them. It’s like we’re all nice social contractors coming together to form society, but I start by saying “I’m the king”. Since nobody has yet joined my society this, perhaps, doesn’t mean much, but it is an impediment to anyone entering society with me. Social contracts are meant to be based on equality – but owning things, in the strong sense, means setting up a personal power that tries to be independent of society, and this puts me on an unequal footing with others. It means, in fact, that they cannot really form a normal social contract with me – they must see me as a rival sovereinty.
Like, imagine 5 housemates in a three-bedroom house getting together to decide how to apportion the rooms. Just before they “sit down to talk about it”, one of them declares “I’m getting room A, I don’t care what any of you say, even if you all disagree, I’m still sleeping there”. This is an impediment to the other four properly discussing it with that one individual. Rather than forming a single group (in a very weak sense) and relating to each other as fellow-members, they form a group of four, relate to each other as fellow members, and relate to that one person as a rival group (of one).
So as long as there is property, the social body is actually split into a number of little sovereigns, a sort of UN of people claiming pre-social rights. Except, of course, for those who do not own substantial property. They alone can fully enter a social contract in the traditional sense, a mutual giving up of freedom in order to collectively resolve disputes and co-operate. This is said, of course, on the assumption that they do not claim as their personal right any other kind of power, power over other people, or whatever.
So to recap: when we adjust traditional (I’m mainly thinking Lockean) social contract theory to reflect the idea of property as political power, not personal freedom, we arrive at the conclusion that in a non-communist society, there is a kind of social bond, from which property-owners are partially withdrawing themselves.
It is then only a short step to say that if non-property-owners (i.e. the proletariat) are alone fully part of society, the political structures by which that society is governed should be their prerogative, no-one else’s. Which is synonymous with the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
It may help matters to see it as a negative social contract. If you want to claim property rights – i.e. to claim not just a right to use something, but to decide how it is used, and who uses it, not dependent on the discretion of the rest of society, then fine – but in demanding this power independently of society, you will lose your power within society, your right to participate equally in its decisions. If you want full political rights and powers, then fine – as long as you submit what you own to the control of society and agree to accept society’s collective decision about its use.
Another way to see this is in the terms used by this interesting document whose authorship is unclear because the site it comes from is in Russian. The phrase I want to pick out is the claim that with the dictatorship of the proletariat, “for the first time in history, the ruling class is an open class“. The rule of the bourgeoisie, or of whites, or of men, or of feudal landowners, or whoever else, is rule by a closed class, one which individuals cannot enter at will (the bourgeoisie, admittedly, has a degree of openness, since the odd individual can enter it, but this is rare and difficult). Whereas rule by the proletariat is rule by a group which anyone can enter, simply by disburdening themselves of the power they claim.
Of course, proletarian dictatorship is usually also an unstable set-up, because it has a sort of ‘dual power’ – the political power of the proletariat confronting whatever remains of the economic power of property-owners. This is why it is typically seen only as a transitional stage – based on the fact that abolishing private property overnight is impossible. The structures of private ownership must be replaced by structures of collective ownership that are equally as complex, which requires the construction of a new administrative system, which will take time.
During this time, the proletariat holds onto political power for practical reasons – it is not hard to see that societies with an apparently ‘egalitarian’ political system, where each person, regardless of their economic power, has the same rights, will work to the advantage of property-owners if they continue to control the levers of economic power (just look at the bailouts – the state is “a comittee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie”).
But alongside these practical reasons, I’ve tried to argue in this post that there are also good theoretical reasons for restricting political rights to the propertyless. Here as in numerous other places, communism is merely the most logical working-out of liberal principles.