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A Paper I Wrote In April 1973 at the Age of 22
The Dictatorship of The Proletariat.
By: - Tarek Heggy


One of the issues most closely associated with the transi­tion to socialism is "the dictatorship of the proletariat". In Marxist theory, the transition to socialism is meant to come about through the eruption of the struggle between the bour­geoisie and the working class, or proletariat, whereby state power would pass into the hands of the proletariat. The latter would exercise its dictatorship until it triumphs over all the other classes which remain in society even after the proletariat assumes power as residuals of a long, deep-rooted past. During that phase, all power would be in the hands of the proletariat to enable it to accomplish its historic task, that of eliminating all classes antagonistic to the working class. 83 Once it has accomplished its mission, its dictatorship will come to an end, since no other classes will exist and the state apparatus will fall, along with the entire system of laws, when all men (those who remain!) will have attained the highest stage of communism.

Briefly, that is the idea of the `dictatorship of the proletariat', its rationale, functions and fate. To show how basic this idea is to the whole structure of marxist ideology, and to leave no room for the argument that its repudiation is a development within the framework of the marxist theory itself and not a blatant contradiction of its very foundations, let us turn to the words of Marx himself.

In a letter postmarked London, Karl Marx wrote to Joseph Wiedmeyer in New York on March 5, 1852, affirming that "The class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat". 84 Twenty-three years later, in his `Critique of the Gotha Programme' published in 1875, he wrote: "Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolu­tionary transition of the one into the other. There corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat." 85Communist leaders in many parts of the world still declare their total adherence to that belief; some even hold that the dictatorship of the proletariat must continue beyond the transi­tion to socialism, at long as capitalism remains strong in the world. 86


Contemporary socialist experiments are still at the stage of the dictatorship of the proletariat. However, nowhere has the proletariat come to power through a long struggle against capitalism, nor through the eruption of the struggle in the form of a violent workers' revolution. Rather, it has always seized power either through military coups or through takeovers by com­munist parties supported by Soviet military presence, and then in countries that did not go through the stage of capitalist development in the orthodox marxist sense of the word.

In other words, the accession to power by these dictator­ships did not proceed in the manner envisaged by Marx. Another glaring discrepancy between the theory he expounded and its ap­plication in practice is that not one of the dictatorships of the proletariat existing in countries of the socialist bloc can claim to have been established by the working class. In the Soviet Union, for example, the leaders of the Bolshevik party all came either from the middle or upper-middle class. Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Kaganovitch and other Bolshevik leaders who laid the foundations of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the Soviet Union were all middle class intellectuals, many of them Russian Jews from professional and merchant families. The same applies to those who created dictatorships of the proletariat in the rest of the socialist countries, including those in the Third Worlage of capitalist development in the orthodox marxist sense of the word.

In other words, the accession to power by these dictator­ships did not proceed in the manner envisaged by Marx. Another glaring discrepancy between the theory he expounded and its ap­plication in practice is that not one of the dictatorships of the proletariat existing in countries of the socialist bloc can claim to have been established by the working class. In the Soviet Union, for example, the leaders of the Bolshevik party all came either from the middle or upper-middle class. Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Kaganovitch and other Bolshevik leaders who laid the foundations of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the Soviet Union were all middle class intellectuals, many of them Russian Jews from professional and merchant families. The same applies to those who created dictatorships of the proletariat in the rest of the socialist countries, including those in the Third World. In Cuba, for example, the dictatorship of the proletariat was established by members of the upper middle class, by the sons of rich families who had been sent to European capitals for their studies, a great luxury in such poor societies.

What does dictatorship of the proletariat really mean? Ac­cording to Marxists, it is a dictatorship exercised by the majority in the interest of the majority and against all the classes and groups opposed to those interests. If that is so, why is the majority represented at the higher echelons of the com­munist party by only a few who are selected in a particular manner? Why does the majority in its entirety not enter into the communist party? Especially since Marxists absolutely reject the idea of representational democracy which is the basis of the western parliamentary system. Why, if not for the fact that their dictatorship is directed against the proletariat itself in the name of the proletariat. Can anyone maintain that Stalin's regime of violent repression was directed only against the non-proletarian classes in the Soviet Union and that it did not af­fect the entire population? In fact, the leadership of this regime, like that of every other dictatorship of the proletariat, was made up of members of the middle class who took it upon themselves to protect the interests of the working class in the face of all other classes.

An important development in this respect is that communist parties in most of the industrialized countries, the very climate for socialism according to marxist theory, have, one after the other, abandoned the idea of dictatorship of the proletariat87, declaring that the transition to socialism does not have to come about through class struggle and that, if they ever came to power, they would not establish a dictatorship of the proletariat to abolish all other classes.

To destroy the idea of dictatorship of the proletariat is to destroy the backbone of marxist political thought as elaborated by Marx, Engels, Lenin and all other marxist theoreticians over a whole century. For without the dictatorship of the proletariat, the other classes will not be abolished and, consequently, humanity will not attain a classless society. As Marx himself had firmly rejected the idea of "the free people's state" advocated by Ferdinand Lassalle, this meant the collapse of the following basic tenets of marxist thought:

The class struggle (given that, after coming to power, the proletariat would coexist peacefully with other social classes);
The withering away of the state (since the proletariat would not liquidate the other classes, and the class division of society is the basis for the existence of the state);
The disappearance of laws (the existence of laws, like the existence of the state, is based on the existence of classes);

Attainment of the supreme communist stage (unimaginable in marxist thought without the dictatorship of the proletariat and its liquidation of all other classes).

The repudiation of this basic tenet of marxist thinking by the communist parties of western Europe and other parts of the developed world is due to several factors:

First, the democratic climate prevailing in Europe. West­ern Europe is solidly anchored in parliamentary democracy, in freedom of thought and opinion and in all other human rights and hence, by its very nature, cannot subscribe to any theory that would destroy such democracy and freedoms. This climate of freedom and democracy has imposed itself even on the communist parties of western Europe and on the staunchest supporters of Marxism in western Europe88 and in other parts of the world, like Japan.

It may have been easy for the peoples of Russia, the Uk­raine, Georgia, Siberia or the Caucasus to accept a dictatorship of the proletariat sixty years ago, or to accept the crimes of a tyrant like Stalin who liquidated scores of his closest comrades and millions of those who opposed his views89. After all, they were peoples who had known nothing but autocratic rulers and slavery through the centuries90. The history of tsarist Russia is a chronicle of brutal repression: one example that comes to mind here is the story of Spiratsky, the nineteenth century Russian minister who tried to introduce French laws into Russia and who was exiled to Siberia for his pains! For a nation whose historical frame of reference is a saga of harsh dictatorships, the dictatorship of the proletariat was no more than a new name for an age-old pattern.

The communist parties of Western Europe are far more aware than leftist movements in the third world of the negative con­sequences that will inevitably follow on the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat in their countries. They know that they can only come to power through a coalition with other parties and that there can be no question of those parties ac­cepting adictatorship of the proletariat. Thus they would have nowhere to turn for help but to the Soviets and, given the liberalism of the leaders of communist parties in western Europe (their birthright as citizens of a democratic civilization), as well as the lessons drawn from the recent past, this is unlikely to be an attractive prospect.

Western Europe has not forgotten the lessons learnt from the Soviet invasion of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, from Soviet ex­ploitation of the economies of eastern Europe and from Tito's ex­perience with the Soviets when he aspired to a degree of indepen­dence for his country. Not only was he expelled from the Comin­form, but Yugoslavia was subjected to strong economic pressure from the Soviet Union and other member countries of the Comicon.91 There are many other examples attesting to the perils of falling out with the Soviets. 92

Second, the failure of this basic tenet of marxist ideology to move from the realm of the theoretical to that of the applied. The socialist experience has proved to the communist parties of western Europe and other parts of the developed world that the elimination by the proletariat of all other classes and its at­tainment of the highest stage of communism when there will be no antagonistic classes, no state and no law, but one single class living in peace, was no more than wishful thinking, a naive illu­sion that has not materialized nor shows the slightest indication of ever doing so in any part of the world. Classes still exist in the socialist countries, albeit under new guises, the state has become stronger and more centralized, laws are gradually com­ing closer to West European legal theories and many other marxist expectations appear to be as illusory and elusive as the utopian dreams of Thomas More.

One such expectation, confidently predicted by Lenin in 1917, was that World War I would put such unbearable pressure on the industrial capitalist states that the only way out of the crisis would be through the proletarian revolution. Events have since proved the fallacy of that analysis and we have yet to see a proletarian revolution in any large industrial state. 93 Another such expectation, announced by the well-known Bolshevik, Zinoviev, in 1918, was that within one year all of Europe would become communist!94 Only one year earlier, Zinoviev, together with Kamenev, considered that the bourgeois Russian Revolution of March 1917 should not transcend its historical limits and become a proletarian revolution too rapidly on the grounds that such a revolution would fail without the support of a general communist revolution in western Europe!

The expectation that a proletarian revolution would break out in all parts of Europe was not confined to Lenin and Zinoviev, it was shared by all the leaders of the Bolshevik revolution and by all European communists. 95&96 That preposterous expectation persisted until the early thirties, when it became clear to the communist movement in Russia and throughout the world that a proletarian revolution in western Europe or anywhere else in the developed capitalist world was an impossibility. Having come to that conclusion, they had to revise their views on other matters as well. Thus, after holding that the building of socialism in Russia was dependent on the revolutions to be led by western workers, they now claimed that it was the latter who needed the Russian experience to sustain, assist and support them.

This new rationale marked the beginning of a new relation­ship between Soviet Russia and the West. The Soviet Union had to ensure its security in a world that did not seem to be moving, as had been expected, towards a proletarian revolution. Stalin signed several treaties with Germany, then with the allies after World War II, in a bid to expand his boundaries and set up a wall of socialist states to serve as a buffer between the Soviet Union and western Europe. At a later stage, starting in the seventies, the Soviet Union sought a modus vivendi with the West, deferring its old dream to some distant future and resorting to covert methods of operation.

One European Marxist who did not share the belief of Marxist leaders in the Soviet Union and throughout Europe that capitalism was about to collapse, that the proletarian revolution was about to break out and that the dictatorship of the proletariat would be established in capitalist Europe, was Antonio Gramsci, secretary-general of the Italian Communist Party, who was im­prisoned in 1928 and died in prison in 1937. He showed a more realistic grasp of the situation when he said that the path of the western proletariat towards power and dictatorship was fraught with defeat.

Third, the disappearance from the developed countries of the working class described by Engels in "The Condition of the Work­ing class in England" and on whom Marx focused all his studies. The proletariat Marx and Engels knew in the nineteenth century was an exploited working class performing hard manual labour in difficult and primitive working conditions, totally devoid of any guarantees or social security. Such a class no longer exists in the industrialized capitalist world 97, as it did in Munich, Lyons, Manchester, Leeds, London and other large industrial cities of the nineteenth century. There is no longer any trace of those workers in today's factories, where there is no proletariat in the technical sense of the term but, rather, employees engaged for the most part in non-manual work.

In conclusion, the proletariat which toiled under such unspeakable conditions in the last century is a class that does not exist in the industrialized capitalist countries of our age, where technological advances are ushering in an age of industry without workers, where mental work will replace the manual work performed by Marx's proletariat.

A visit to any factory in a large industrial city today will corroborate the fact that today's working conditions are nothing like those which prevailed in the nineteenth century, that an en­tire system of social guarantees and security is provided to the workers of today, one that is certainly not enjoyed by their counterparts in the industrialized socialist countries. Con­sequently, there is no need for the communist parties of western Europe to advocate the dictatorship of a class that no longer ex­ists in developed capitalist systems.

Fourth, the disintegration of the idea of dictatorship of the proletariat is also due to an important economic fact, namely, that the economic hopes pinned by the early marxist theoreticians on the stages during which the proletariat would be in control have failed to materialize. Marxists believe that be­tween capitalism and communism, socities will go through a transitional tage, the post-capitalist socialist stage. During that transitional stage, the workers, through the dictatorship of the proletariat, would control all aspects of life, including the economy. They would strive to achieve greater growth to realize maximum productivity, the material basis for the establishment of the higher stage of communism, for it is through the realization of such maximum productivity that society can move from the socialist principle of `each according to his work' to the com­munist principle of each "according to his need".

It is a fact that the dictatorship of the proletariat in Soviet Russia has not realized that dream. Even the progress achieved by the Soviet Union today, in comparison with the condi­tions which held in Russia prior to the Bolshevik revolution, cannot be considered an achievement of the dictatorship of the Soviet proletariat.

The capacity of the dictatorship of the Soviet proletariat can only be measured in terms of the level of growth reached by the Soviet economy (i.e., the level of development of productive forces) in the early days of World War II, because it is only up to that point in time that the growth of the Soviet economy can be credited solely to Soviet economic orientations. Whatever progress was achieved after the war is due to other factors we shall come to further on.

In the period between 1917 and 1941, the Soviet economy achieved noticeable growth. Yet the degree of growth cannot be compared to that of the western world nor even to the present rate of growth achieved by the Soviet Union. It was closer to the present rate of growth in the countries of Eastern Europe. Thus while the dictatorship of the Soviet proletariat did achieve a certain degree of progress because of economic planning and the protection of the new regime, that progress was never up to the level of what the Soviet Union achieved after the war. It had also begun to slow down noticeably just before the war, when Soviet industry began to slacken in the mid-thirties in terms of investments and development rates. Investments which had been growing until 1936 began to decrease systematically as indicated by the following statistics:

Year Volume of Investments
1933 2350 million roubles
1934 2552 " "
1936 4621 " "
1937 3621 " "
1938 3807 " "

Investment in the iron and steel industry alone (by far the most important of the heavy industries) decreased by 35% from 1935 to 1936. This downward trend continued until the late thirties. 98 Figures definitely point to growth between 1917 and 1936, but to a rate of growth not comparable to that attained by the Soviet Union after the war. Moreover, growth receded from the mid-thirties to the beginning of the war. The decline con­tinued during the war, but that was due to a concentration on the war industries and to the huge losses in factories and agricul­tural land incurred as a result of the sweeping German invasion.

So much for the economic achievements of the dictatorship of the Soviet proletariat before the Second World War. As to the development of the Soviet economy after the war, this was due to several factors:

the enormous quantities of raw materials obtained at very low prices from the East European countries which had become Soviet satellites;99

the transfer of hundreds of factories from Germany to the Soviet Union;100

the two million qualified Germans who were brought over to work in all areas of Soviet production, 101 particularly in the chemical and military industries;

the financial aid extended by the West (especially the United States), which also sent great quantities of goods and machinery to the Soviet Union during the last period of the war and immediately after. The assistance was estimated to be worth billions of dollars;102

the great wealth obtained from Manchuria after its evacua­tion by the Japanese;103

the annexation of neighbouring territories rich in mines and raw materials.

The thirteen European provinces annexed by the Soviet Union immediately after the war covered a total area of more than 270,000 square miles, an area greater than the Iberian Peninsula, while the Asian provinces of Manchuria were extremely rich in mineral wealth and water. 104

From the above, it is clear that the economic performance of the dictatorship of the Soviet proletariat can be divided into two distinct stages:

A first stage of steady progress followed by a decline just before World War II. The progress itself was modest and far from what had been expected from the dictatorship of the proletariat. It was noticeable only because Russia was so far behind the countries of Europe. At any rate, it was not an encouraging sign for the European Marxists, who found little in the economic per­formance of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the Soviet Union or, for that matter, in any country of eastern Europe, to justify the expectation that this dictatorship could realize the material basis for the establishment of the higher phase of com­munism.

A second stage of far greater progress that was not, however, due to the intrinsic strength of the Soviet system but, rather, to many external factors without which the Soviet economy would have totally collapsed. This is not an idle assertion but one that is substantiated by facts. Fact No. 1: the enormous difference between the economic performance of the Soviet Union in the period between 1917 and 1941 and its performance in the post-war period up to the present day. Where during the first period progress was slow and nearly ground to a halt as the momentum of the revolution waned, in the second period it surged forward in leaps and bounds. This dramatic upsurge can only be explained by the external factors we have mentioned, whose role in bolstering the Soviet economy cannot be over-emphasized. Fact No. 2: the countries of eastern Europe, which did not benefit from the exceptional circumstances available to the Soviet Union after World War II but had to fall back on their own resources, have been able to generate only minimal economic growth, their modest economies able only to provide their peoples with the bare necessities, exactly the same situation which existed in the Soviet Union before the war.

That is not to say that even at the present rate of growth of the Soviet economy the standard of living of a Soviet citizen is not far below that of an ordinary citizen in any advanced in­dustrial country. He is still far from obtaining what a simple worker in those countries has access to in the way of basic necessities, let alone luxuries. It may be useful to give the reader an idea of the standard of living in an advanced in­dustrial country to show that the Soviet experience, at least in its economic aspect, was not an encouraging example to follow for societies which had far surpassed the inferior living standard of the Soviet citizen centuries before:

Between 1950 and 1975, the following developments took place in France:

pensions were quadrupled;

8.5 million new housing units were built;
he number of families owning a washing machine rose from near 0% to 70%;

the number of families owning a TV set rose from near 0% to 90%;

in 1953, only 8% of workers owned a private car; by 1972, the percentage of car-owning working-class families rose to 66%;

in 1953, 32% of civil servants owned private cars; by 1972, the percentage had risen to 86%;

in 1953, 56% of senior civil servants owned private cars; by 1972, the percentage had risen to 87%;

in 1975, there were six times as many high-school graduates as in 1950;

between 1950 and 1974, France created 5.35 million new jobs in the fields of industry and commerce;

despite the apparent steep increase in prices between 1956 and 1976, the price of food is considered to have decreased from 100 to 53, while the prices of manufactured goods decreased from 100 to 41.5, bearing in mind the increase in incomes, e.g., equipment that a Frenchman could have obtained in 1956 at the cost of 100 hours, he obtained in 1976 at the cost of only 41.5 hours;

in 1975, half of the French people owned their homes. 105

According to the statistics of the Soviet state itself, the Soviet people do not enjoy 10% of the comforts enjoyed by the French people. While the above statistics speak for themselves, two observations are in order here:

First, the failure of the dictatorship of the proletariat to achieve anywhere near as high a standard of living as that achieved under the capitalist systems of western Europe led European communists to question the validity of this key section of Marxist-Leninist theory. Second, the French statistics show to what extent social classes are drawing closer together: whereas the percentage of car-owners among senior civil servants rose by 21% between 1953 and 1972, it rose by 55% among the work­ing class during the same period.

These statistics not only indicate a rapprochement between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, they also disprove one of Marx's pet theories, viz, that industrial societies are divided into only two classes: a poor class which works and does not own (the proletariat) and a rich class which owns and does not work (the capitalist class). All other classes are reduced to the level of the proletariat, which would be getting ever poorer while the capitalist bourgeoisie would become ever richer. The French statistics turn this theory on its head: it seems the proletariat is catching up with the privileges of the upper classes, that it is getting richer, not poorer, and that it is getting richer at a rate that is bringing it ever closer to the bourgeoisie, contrary to Marx's predictions. 106

Finally, in a shrinking world where the tremendous develop­ment of the communications industry makes it impossible to keep any situation secret, the walls with which the Soviet Union surrounded itself for so long have come crashing down. As a result, the working classes in the advanced industrial countries are now well aware that their situation is far better, both economically and politically, than that of their counterparts in the socialist countries.

The shattering of the great economic hopes placed in the dictatorship of the proletariat was the main factor that led to the collapse of the idea itself, as workers in the advanced in­dustrialized countries asked themselves how the deprivation they see their brothers suffering from in the socialist countries can ever become the material basis for the higher stage of communism, when each will get according to his needs.

In addition to all the above, communist parties in several parts of the world rejected the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat as totally inappropriate for the non-industrial societies of Asia and Africa in which communists did manage to seize power. With peasants and farmers representing the majority of the population, the formula of a dictatorship of the proletariat seemed contrived and essentially flawed. This led several agricultural countries under communist rule, China being the most notable example, to introduce changes into the Marxist theory which, in our opinion, have shaken it to its very founda­tions. One is entitled to question how there could be a dic­tatorship of the proletariat in countries where there are no workers in the Marxist sense of industrial workers, and where an entire stage in the socio-economic evolution of society as advo­cated by Marx has been skipped, namely, the stage of capitalism out of the womb of which socialism is born. 107


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