In liberal ideology, dictatorship and democracy are commonly thought of as occupying opposite ends of a spectrum against which all forms of government can be measured. Typically, bourgeois parliamentary democracy, as practised in the US and western Europe, occupies one end and is held up as the gold standard. This conception is based on an entirely false understanding of class society.
Any discussion of the nature of democracy and dictatorship must begin from our understanding of the state. The state arose as a product of irreconcilable class conflict, supposedly standing above that conflict and exercising control in the interests of ‘society’ as a whole [see Back to Basics pt7]. However, precisely because it arose out of class conflict, the state represents the dominant, or ruling, class. It is the state of that class and rules in the interests of that class, whilst representing these as the interests of ‘society’. Therefore, the basic Marxist characterisation of the state is as a repressive apparatus for the suppression of one class by another.
Any analysis of the modern state and the way in which it is used to reinforce the sanctity of private property, the very foundation of capitalism, and all of the ruling class ideologies which support this, will show that, whilst its methods may develop over time, its essential nature and purpose remain the same. What is much more complex is the range of mechanisms (both repressive and ideological, through coercion and consent) which are used to do this and the way in which they operate. This has proved fruitful ground for the development of Marxist theory (see for example the work of Gramsci or Althusser on this question) but it does not alter the basic conception of the state as an apparatus of ruling class control.
It is in this context that Lenin described the capitalist form of government as the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. This dictatorship may take different forms, from fascist dictatorship right through to parliamentary democracy, but it is still a dictatorship. This is not to suggest that the freedoms won by working class struggle are meaningless. Far from it! We must “take advantage of bourgeois democracy which, compared with feudalism, represents a great historical advance, but not for one minute must [we] forget the bourgeois character of this ‘democracy’, its historically conditional and limited character. [We must] never share the ‘superstitious belief’ in the ‘state’ and never forget that the state even in the most democratic republic, and not only in a monarchy, is simply a machine for the suppression of one class by another.” (Lenin, ‘Democracy’ & Dictatorship)
So clearly dictatorship and democracy are not mutually exclusive. More correctly, any state (any repressive apparatus for the suppression of a class), whether or not it is a ‘democracy’, can be described as a dictatorship in the name of whichever class exercises state power. And this is where we get to the real question. Who holds state power?
Marx argued that the historic role of the working class was to seize state power from the bourgeoisie and use it to “wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e. of the proletariat organised as the ruling class.” (Manifesto of the Communist Party) In other words: “that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat” (letter to Weydemeyer).
This dictatorship of the proletariat is not conceived as the rule of one person or one group but as the rule of the working class itself organised as the state – the rule of the vast majority of people over those who have historically exploited them. In this sense, the revolutionary change from the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, in whatever form, to the dictatorship of the proletariat represents a massive extension of democracy. Not the fig-leaf of parliamentary democracy we currently experience but a real, living democracy that involves working people directly in the running of the state.
It would be pointless now to attempt to predict the form that this will take as it is something which must be developed in the course of the struggle against capitalism, but there are many examples to draw on from the Paris Commune, to the Soviets of the USSR, to the People’s Democracies of Eastern Europe and Asia, to Cuba’s participatory democracy. The point is that it must be about giving power to the mass of working people to exercise real control over their lives.
As Lenin argued, “The dictatorship of the proletariat alone can emancipate humanity from the oppression of capital, from the lies, falsehood and hypocrisy of bourgeois democracy – democracy for the rich – and establish democracy for the poor, that is, make the blessings of democracy really accessible to the workers”.