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Umsebenzi Online

Volume 14, No. 50, 26 November 2015

In this Issue:

Red Alert

The Communist Party and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

Introduction by Umsebenzi Online

On 6 January 2016 the South African Communist Party (SACP) will be commemorating the 21st anniversary of the death of its renowned leader, Comrade Joe Slovo. Slovo was a leader also of the African National Congress (ANC) and the joint ANC-SACP armed-wing uMkhonto weSizwe. The commemoration on 6 January 2016 will be held at Avalon Cemetery in Soweto, Johannesburg, where Slovo was laid to rest.

Umsebenzi Online will be carrying excerpts from his intellectual work as part of the commemoration process. The importance of COSATU's National Congress, currently underway in Midrand, Johannesburg cannot be overemphasised. Addressing the Congress, ANC President Comrade Jacob Zuma, to who Umsebenzi Online expresses its sincere gratitude, presented his useful insights about the notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the relationship between the national and class struggle.

In this issue, Umsebenzi Online presents Slovo on the notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat summing up the collective wisdom of, and decades of experience by the SACP. The SACP has taken international lessons into account in formulating its present strategic position on the matter so aptly summarised by Slovo. The present political programme of the SACP is that of building democratic working class power and hegemony in all key sites of struggle and centres of power.

Dictatorship of the proletariat

By Cde Joe Slovo

The concept of the 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat' was dealt with rather thinly by Marx as 'a transition to a classless society' without much further definition. For his part Engels, drawing on Marx's analysis of the Paris Commune, claimed that it indeed 'was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat'. The Paris Commune of 1871 was an exceptional social experience which brought into being a kind of workers' city-state (by no means socialist-led) in which, for a brief moment, most functions of the state (both legislative and executive) were directly exercised by a popular democratic assembly.

The concept of the 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat' was elaborated by Lenin in State and Revolution in the very heat of the revolutionary transformation in 1917. Lenin quoted Engels approvingly when he said that 'the proletariat needs the state, not in the interests of freedom but in order to hold down its adversaries, and as soon as it becomes possible to speak of freedom the state as such ceases to exist' (Engels, Letter to Bebel). In the meanwhile, in contrast to capitalist democracy which is 'curtailed, wretched, false ... for the rich, for the minority ... the dictatorship of the proletariat, the period of transition to communism, will, for the first time, create democracy ... for the majority ... along with the necessary suppression of the exploiters, of the minority.'

Lenin envisaged that working-class power would be based on the kind of democracy of the Commune, but he did not address, in any detail, the nature of established socialist civil society, including fundamental questions such as the relationship between the party, state, people's elected representatives, social organisations, etc. Understandably, the dominant preoccupation at the time was with the seizure of power, its protection in the face of the expected counter-revolutionary assault, the creation of 'democracy for the majority' and the 'suppression of the minority of exploiters'.

The term 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat' reflected the historical truth that in class-divided social formations state power is ultimately exercised by, and in the interests of, the class which owns and controls the means of production. It is in this sense that capitalist formations were described as a 'dictatorship of the bourgeoisie' whose rule would be replaced by a 'dictatorship of the proletariat' during the socialist transition period. In the latter case power would, however, be exercised in the interests of the overwhelming majority of the people and should lead to an ever-expanding genuine democracy - both political and economic.

On reflection, the choice of the word 'dictatorship' to describe this type of society certainly opens the way to ambiguities and distortions.

The abandonment of the term by most communist parties, including ours, does not, in all cases, imply a rejection of the historical validity of its essential content. But, the way the term came to be abused bore little resemblance to Lenin's original concept. It was progressively denuded of its intrinsic democratic content and came to signify, in practice, a dictatorship of a party bureaucracy. For Lenin the repressive aspect of the concept had impending relevance in relation to the need for the revolution to defend itself against counter-revolutionary terror in the immediate post-revolution period. He was defending, against the utopianism of the anarchists, the limited retention of repressive apparatus.

  • A Marxist-Leninist intellectual par excellence, Cde Joe Slovo was the General Secretary of the SACP, National Chairperson and leader of the uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), the people's liberation army, a joint ANC-SACP armed-wing. Slovo became the first minister of housing after the first democratic general election held in South Africa, in 1994 and died a year later on 6 January 1995. This is an excerpt of his pamphlet 'Has Socialism failed'. Published in 1989, the piece is accessible from the SACP website http://www.sacp.org.za/docs/history/failed.html or the Marxist Internet Archive https://www.marxists.org/subject/africa/slovo/1989/socialism-failed.htm

Umsebenzi Online is an online voice of the South African working class