“Dictatorship of the Proletariat” —The Career of a Slogan

  • Richard N. Hunt


We have now dealt with three of the four “complications”—the vanguard party, the permanent revolution, the call for red terror—that have given rise to the view that Marx and Engels were totalitarian democrats at least in the earlier part of their lives. And we have also gained a vantage point from which to examine the fourth and perhaps most important topic, the concept that lies at the very heart of the controversy about their political philosophy—the dictatorship of the proletariat. No term in the Marxist vocabulary has become so famous, so provocative, so rich in mutually incompatible interpretations. The diversity of interpretations no doubt stems in part from the fact that Marx and Engels used the term so infrequently and were so miserly in descriptive detail. In the later classic debate on the subject, Lenin was able to regard the concept as “the very essence of Marx’s teaching,” while Karl Kautsky could dismiss it as a “little expression” (Wörtchen) that Marx had dropped once in a letter.1 Vulgar anti-Marxists have always imagined that Marx had in mind his own personal dictatorship.2 Since the establishment of the Soviet Union, however, most people have supposed the characteristics of that regime to reflect Marx’s concept most faithfully, and both sides in the Cold War have had a vested interest in maintaining that identification, whether accurate or not.


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  1. 1.
    V. I. Lenin, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky ( New York: International, 1934 ), p. 16;Google Scholar
  2. Karl Kautsky, The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, trans. H. J. Stenning (1919; reprint ed., Ann Arbor: Michigan, 1964 ), p. 140.Google Scholar
  3. 11.
    As quoted in J. L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (New York: Praeger, 1960 ), pp. 145, 124.Google Scholar
  4. 51.
    Charles DaCosta, Les Blanquistes ( Paris: Rivière, 1912 ), p. 18.Google Scholar
  5. 56.
    See Edward S. Mason, The Paris Commune ( New York: Macmillan, 1930 ), p. 509;Google Scholar

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© University of Pittsburgh Press 1974

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  • Richard N. Hunt

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