Assessing the Realization of Lenin's Dictatorship of the Proletariat

Jennifer Harvey


Reflecting on the Paris Commune in his 1872 article, “On Authority,” Engels maintained that proletarian sovereignty is realizable only through “authoritarianism” of a revolutionary kind, "whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means.” In line with Engelsian authoritarianism, Lenin’s theory of proletarian dictatorship foregrounded the empowerment of the working classes and laboring masses. In turn, the Bolshevik-led proletarian dictatorship was iron-fisted in practice. And yet, by the end of the civil war, the 'iron fist’ of Bolshevism was to be viewed, by those it initially mobilized, as a force of tyranny: Bolsheviks would repress (and justify their repression of) workers’ strikes and uprisings. 

In light of Lenin’s commitment to the Engelsian claim that revolutions require authoritarianism, it is crucial to identify the theoretical point where his conception of "revolutionary authoritarianism" reaches tyranny, and, by extension, the historical point where the Russian revolution was overtaken by counterrevolution.

Accordingly, the present study aims to offer an assessment of the realization of Lenin's theory of revolutionary authoritarianism. More precisely, it seeks to assess the realization of popular sovereignty, i.e., proletarian sovereignty, within the dictatorship of the proletariat insofar as the practice of proletarian dictatorship was theorized throughout Lenin’s 1917-1921 writings.

Lenin’s determination to realize an emancipatory, revolutionary authoritarianism might be identified in Bolshevik initiatives such as labor discipline, the enlistment of workers in Committees of the Poor, and the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly. However, instead of decentralizing the soviet government, such initiatives arguably undercut workers' empowerment and centralized power in the end. 

To understand the conflict between Lenin’s intentions and the effects of his practice of revolutionary dictatorship, I have done two things. First, tracing Lenin’s conception of ‘dictatorship’ back through Marx and Blanqui to Rousseau and Robespierre, I distill a conceptual framework that makes intelligible Lenin’s conceptions of proletarian sovereignty vis-à-vis its vanguard, the grounds on which workers would have been obliged to obey the vanguard, the legitimacy of force, and the power the workers would have had in contradistinction to the vanguard. Secondly, with this conceptual framework, I attempt to identify the point where Lenin’s theoretical work becomes counterrevolutionary, examine the implications of this conclusion within the context of his revolutionary practice, and thereby assess the merits and shortcomings of his revolutionary theory.