CHAPTER SIX: THE DICTATORSHIP OF THE PROLETARIAT
Carrillo wants to give up this concept. His reasons are basically related to those expressed a few years ago in an article in Political Affairs.net on the ten worst and best ideas in Marxism by Joe Sims. It is the number one worst idea: “1. “Dictatorship of the proletariat.” Probably the worst phrase uttered by a political theorist ever. Who wants to live in a dictatorship? Even if I agreed with it conceptually, (which I don't), the Machiavellian in me has enough sense not to repeat it. Indefensible. And by the way, working-class “hegemony” (whatever the hell that means, sorry Gramsicans), aint much better.” [8-5-2008]
Carrillo writes: “The term dictatorship has in itself become hateful in the course of the present [20th] century, which has seen the most abominable fascist and reactionary dictatorships, among them Franco, and has known the crimes of Stalinism— that is to say, the phenomenon arising from the corruption of the dictatorship of the proletariat — and the evils of totalitarianism of one sort or another; all that is enough to justify the abandonment of the political use of the term.” Who indeed wants to live in a dictatorship?
Carrillo sees a problem. It is pragmatic and practical to abandon the term in our cadre work but what about Marxist theory? Marx, Engels, and Lenin used the expression and thought it was a cornerstone of Marxist theory. In the following, Carrillo will deal with this conundrum.
MARX AND ENGELS ON THE STATE
In the Communist Manifesto, Carrillo says, Marx and Engels for the first time conclude that the State’s main purpose is “for the domination of one class over another.” [p.145] This is still true today, in Spain or the US it makes no difference. “Even in countries where there are the most liberties, the State is the organized power of one class for oppressing another.”
Fascism is the worst State form the ruling class uses to oppress the working class and working people in general. Communists understand that the bourgeois democratic State is also a tool of oppression against the workers but we do not dismiss bourgeois democracy as having no redeeming values. The rights and liberties found in democratic States are the result of the major and minor victories in the class struggle that the workers have won over the years. The bourgeoisie instituted rights for itself as against the feudal and monarchist regimes it took power from and working class struggles have expanded those rights to cover its class as well as it could.
Carrillo continues by saying Marx & Engels in the Manifesto and later works equated “the raising of the proletariat to the position of ruling class with winning the battle of democracy.” [ p.147]
We should note that if we win the battle for democracy and become the ruling class we will have to oppress another class (that is what the State is for) i.e., the bourgeoisie. Traditionally this has been called the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat. A term not used by Carrillo. Why “democratic dictatorship”? Because for the first time in history the ruling class will represent the interests of the vast majority of the people, will be the working people themselves taking control of the economic foundations of society and the State as such will begin to cease to exist with the elimination of the bourgeoisie, there being no class left to oppress, the State will “wither away.”
The question is— Can this be done peacefully under the ground rules of bourgeois democracy? Will the present capitalist ruling class allow a peaceful transition? Carrillo’s answer is “Yes”— this can happen in the advanced fully developed capitalist countries because the revolutionary forces will have convinced all the various class interests and organizations that socialism is the best of all possible worlds by means of purely democratic struggle and the capitalist ruling class will realize that resistance is futile. But this has never happened, you say "Don’t be such a negative Nellie!" “Things do not have to be always the same and in the end they are certainly not always the same, even though in particular historical conditions they may have been so.” [p.149]
WHY THE CONCEPT OF THE DICTATORSHIP OF THE PROLETARIAT?
In the days of Marx, Engels and Lenin (MEL) the proletariat did not amount to a majority of the population so if a revolution broke out that brought the workers to power they had to impose the dictatorship of the proletariat to maintain themselves in power during the transition to socialism. MEL were aware that not being in the majority, the dictatorship was necessary. This is Carrillo’s position. But Lenin, aware of the fact that the vast majority of Russians were in fact peasants, I;e., petty bourgeois in Marxist terms, used the slogan “Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Peasantry.” So this was a democratic majority and still a “dictatorship” to repress the capitalists as a class. However, the country was underdeveloped.
Carrillo does not want to dismiss the writings of MEL on the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat — for their historic period. His position is that in the modern world of the highly developed capitalism of Europe and the USA plus a few other highly advanced economies the traditions of bourgeois democracy are so ingrained that the transition to socialism can take place without the need for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Well, these traditions are so ingrained that, in the USA, we just had an election (2020) which the defeated sitting president tried to declare rigged and that he won it . Had he succeeded in remaining in power there would be no question about the validity of the dictatorship of the proletariat still being on the venue even in so called advanced democracies.
If Carrillo is correct, and the concept of a dictatorship of the proletariat is no longer politically relevant for advanced capitalist states, it is not the case that the concept of the “hegemony” of the working class in the transitional state is outmoded. The working class will be the leading class in this state because it has the most advanced ideas and is the only class that can actually bring about the socialist transition, but the other classes and strata in the state will follow the lead of the workers because of the good examples they set, not\due to coercion.
Finally, there is the case of the Soviet Union and the Soviet model. The totalitarian state apparatus created by Stalin created a state that was not capitalist, was not bourgeois, but was a failed workers state because the workers were not the ones really controlling the state. It was controlled by an undemocratic bureaucratic caste and was unable to make a real advance towards socialism. There were good aspects and benefits provided to the people that they lacked in capitalist states but it was frozen in a stagnation that prevented it from further socialistic advances.
This whole issue is now moot. The Soviet Union imploded because it was unable to dialectically resolve the contradiction between its goal of socialism and its Stalinist power structure, which Khrushchev dented, but was unable to eliminate. The world communist movement is now on its own. The parties in the advanced capitalist countries must work out their own salvation— Lenin’s ideas are still the best ones for them to consult, but many parties only give lip service to Marxism-Leninism. The Chinese experiment is still in progress and world imperialism, led by the US, will do anything it can to see that it fails. It is in the interests of all communists, socialists, and genuine progressives to see that it doesn’t.
WHAT TYPE OF STATE
Carrillo points out that MEL saw two stages of the revolution— the first, Socialism, creates the working class led state, eliminates all exploiting classes, and then evolves into the second and final stage, Communism, a classless society free of human exploitation.
Carrillo says that the real world is quite unlike this ideal of how the revolution will turn out. While real social advances have been made in the USSR and the Eastern European socialist countries they are still backward in the area of consumer goods due to the legacy of destruction of WWII and their backward starting points compared to the advanced Western countries. Unfortunately the CPs in these countries have taken to talking about socialism as if they are already at that stage and freedom to argue about this with the authorities is restricted and forbidden. This has alienated large numbers of ordinary citizens who see the freedoms allowed in the Western democracies and become skeptical and disillusioned regarding real socialism because they are told the transitional phase, still full of backward capitalist manifestations and practices, is socialism.
Carrillo says the people will eventually move to replace the status quo and he fears “they will throw out the baby with the bathwater “ -- I.e., because the bureaucratic CPs will not lead the reform movements correctly the people will abandon the goal of socialism. [p.161] Carrillo’s worries seem to have been correct. This happened in the socialist bloc. But in the Soviet Union it was the CP itself, in its top leadership, that “lost the faith.” Carrillo thinks the democratic measures advocated by Eurocommunism will prevent this from happening during the revolutionary transformation to come in Western Europe, etc. [p.161]
This is what happened in the USSR. With the revolution in power with Lenin as its leader the masses were filled with enthusiasm for building socialism. The USSR did not have an advanced capitalist infrastructure. It had not gone through the state of advanced capital accumulation needed for such an infrastructure. Socialism needs to grow out of that already existing infrastructure. “[N]o account was taken of the fact that the new State might find itself compelled to carry out, before anything else, a typically capitalist task … the content of which did not undergo a fundamental change just because it was given the name ’socialist accumulation.’” [p.162]
To make a long story short, that ‘accumulation’ was sweated out of the Soviet population and it was carried out under the direction of a state bureaucracy composed of the most class consciousness and dedicated workers who directed a mass population in which that consciousness did not yet exist and which it tried to imbue with that consciousness. This was a dictatorship of the party over the proletariat. The growth of Soviet industry + the patriotic sentiments unleashed by the NAZI invasion and defeat accounts for the popularity of Stalin despite the excesses, and abuses, and crimes committed during this period. Carrillo also notes that there were tremendous economic, cultural and even spiritual advances also made at that time based on true revolutionary energy and sacrifices — so it is wrong to only dwell on the misdeeds of this era and fail to accentuate the positive. But we no longer need Stalinism as a model where there is a regime of bourgeois democracy in place which we can use. Stalinism was a revolutionary technique, which ultimately failed, designed for a backward underdeveloped country that lacked the real world objective economic materialist infrastructure to grow upon and make a transition to socialism.
Was failure inevitable? Carrillo did not think so. It was possible, at least in theory, to have democratized the system and prevented the collapse. We know that that didn’t happen because Khrushchev’s successors closed down ‘’the thaw’’ he initiated. In the 1970s Carrillo still hoped the Soviet system would self-correct and become again a model for others. “[P]erhaps what is lacking is the political analysis of the system which Khrushchev was unable to make or did not know how to make at the Twentieth Congress and which could be the starting point for a new leap forward on the part of the Soviet Union and all the socialist countries.” [p.165] After Khrushchev came the Brezhnev era of stagnation and then après Brejnev le déluge.
THE WORLD ENVIRONMENT AND ITS INFLUENCE ON THE STATE
In this last part of the chapter Carrillo seeks to explain why socialism went off the tracks in the Soviet Union. No one, friend or foe of the Soviet Union, least of all Carrillo, would have guessed that in less than fifteen years the Soviet Union would be history and capitalism was being restored in Russia.
Born in the midst of WWI, suffering through three years of a brutal civil war, surrounded by imperialist powers planning its overthrow, the revolutionary government, after the founding of the USSR in 1922, realized it could not survive without rapid industrialization and centralization of power. Lenin and the Bolshevik leaders did not think the revolution could survive without being aided by a revolution in the advanced capitalist world which would come to its assistance. This didn’t happen and the Soviet Union was an orphan. The State that developed could not have survived had it been committed to the kind of Western style bourgeois democracy that Carrillo supported which, in fact, didn’t really come into its own until after WWII. The existential parameters in which the young Soviet state found itself situated “confirmed the impossibility of building complete socialism in a single country without socialism also triumphing in a series of developed countries." [p.166]
The system created by Stalin enabled the Soviet Union to industrialize and repel the Nazi invasion in WWII and the Red Army captured Berlin in 1945. The Soviet Union was a non-capitalist state run for the material benefit of working people by an authoritarian communist party which prevented the development of a worker’s democracy due to the top-down vertical structure of the devolution of power from the leadership of the CPSU to the lower levels of the party and from thence to the populace at large. It was supposed to be a democratic centralist party but it was centralist without the democratic element. It was flawed but still there was no capitalist exploitation of the working class and a different international environment would have allowed its democratic and socialist potentials to manifest themselves. Think of what the Cubans could have accomplished, and be accomplishing, without the US blockade smothering their potentials.
The Soviet model was imposed on the new Socialist Bloc of counties that emerged in Eastern Europe after WWII. The exception was Yugoslavia which developed its own model. This was the result of the Cold War initiated by the US — the Soviet Union had to hunker down to protect itself and the allied Socialist bloc was governed by Soviet allied parties that had looked to it for leadership against Hitler and the NAZIS and for the struggle against US imperialism and now followed its lead in both domestic and international affairs. The need for a common defense and the use of social income to build up the military rather than to enhance consumer goods availability hindered any developments favorable to democratic pluralism and reenforced the vertical structure of governance in the socialist bloc. Writing in the late 1970s, Carrillo concluded, “The context in which the global confrontation presents itself today does not favor the transformation of the Soviet Union into a state of working-class democracy.” [p.168]
Carrillo sees a problem with the Soviet leadership. They fail to see that their model is flawed due to the unfavorable historical circumstances that they have faced in trying to construct socialism over the last half century. [They were in fact 15 years away from collapse] They were claiming to already have achieved socialism and were about to enter the communist stage. The CPs around the world were supposed to follow this line and hitch their own parties to the fate of the Soviet Union in the Cold War which we were told we were winning due to the general crisis of capitalism. But the leaders of major CPs in Europe, especially in Italy,Spain and France didn’t see it that way. They saw socialism as an expansion of democracy while in the Soviet block it was limited and subject to over determination by party censorship. They didn’t see “proletarian internationalism” and as simply uncritically following the Soviet line.
“We in the communist parties which are functioning in the capitalist countries cannot accept the idea that the victory of socialism is determined in the confrontation between the countries in which capitalists no longer exist and those which still preserve capitalism.”[p.169] This is one of the signature positions of Eurocommunism. Many CPs around the world rejected this movement and remained allied ideologically with the Soviet Union, including the party in the US, all were caught flat footed with the collapse of the Eastern bloc. Some CPs dissolved, others became social democratic in name or de facto programmatically. Eurocommunism as a distinct movement disappeared but some parties formally anti-Eurocommunist, including in the US, more or less adopted the Eurocommunist outlook— peaceful electoral transition, pluralism (multi-party democracy), rejection of the dictatorship of the proletariat, etc.
Carrillo ends his book with the hope that as Eurocommunism grows in the West it will help the Soviet Union transform “into a real working people’s democracy.” 
After the Czech comrades were put down in 1968 by the Warsaw Pact, Brezhnev sitting in the Kremlin may have heard the death knell of Czech reform. If he had asked for whom the bell tolls he would not have liked the reply.
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association. He is the author of Reading the Classical Texts of Marxism.