Etienne Balibar’s On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

In this post I want to summarise and discuss Balibar’s text – regarded now as something of a Marxist classic, and certainly a very impressive defence of the fundamental logic of the argument Lenin sets out in State and Revolution in particular. In the post that follows this I’ll move to a critique of Balibar, informed in part by Nicos Poulantzas’ perspective in his later work.

Etienne Balibar’s On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat is almost certainly one of the most, if not the most, conceptually sophisticated defences of the arguments Lenin establishes in The State and Revolution (and closely associated texts such as The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky). First published in 1976, Balibar’s book was very much a product of specific political circumstances. It was written as a political intervention in the debate within the French Communist Party (PCF) over the party’s decision at its 22nd Congress to expunge references to ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ from official party aims (and indeed to renounce this concept entirely as outdated and unsuitable for modern French conditions) and to substitute for this the objective of a ‘democratic road to socialism’. The book can be regarded as part of a wider theoretical dialogue over the ‘Eurocommunist’ trajectory of Western European CPs at the time. Indeed the PCF’s decision to drop the objective of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ should be seen in the specific context of the turn to a strategy of ‘broad’ electoral alliances on the part of the French, Spanish and Italian CPs (from 1972 the PCF had oriented its political strategy on a ‘Common Programme’ with the Socialist Party and Left Radicals) and their concurrent attempts to distance themselves from the USSR.

The other major text to emerge from this conjuncture – and from the debate within and around the PCF in particular – was Nicos Poulantzas’ State, Power, Socialism, first published two years after Balibar’s book. Indeed, we can see these two texts as polarised antagonists in this confrontation – Poulantzas elaborating a theoretical justification for a ‘democratic road to socialism’ (although we should be careful to remember that Poulantzas was well to the left of the PCF leadership – his ‘Left’ Eurocommunist conception of the transition to socialism was by no means shared by Georges Marchais), while Balibar sought to defend classical ‘Leninist’ principles. As with State, Power, Socialism, however, On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat retains a very sharp relevance today that rises above the specific historical context in which it was written. It’s an attempt – an extraordinarily rich and lucid one at that – to articulate, in a rigorous way, the logic of Lenin’s thought in relation to state power and the transition to communism and I don’t think Balibar’s sophisticated interpretation/defence of ‘Leninist’ precepts in these respects has ever been surpassed. As such, it’s well worth investigating Balibar for what his text has to tell us about the continuing salience of Lenin’s thought as formulated particularly in State and Revolution.

Balibar’s book begins with his core argument (and the major thrust of his intervention in the debate within the PCF) – that the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ is not (as Graham Lock puts it in his introduction to Balibar’s text) ‘a policy or a strategy involving the establishment of a particular form of government or institutions but, on the contrary, an historical reality’ (Lock, in Balibar, 1977, p. 8). It is, as Balibar later puts it, ‘the reality of an historical tendency‘ – ‘a reality, just as objective as the class struggle itself, of which it is a consequence’ (Balibar, 1977, p. 134). Indeed, the dictatorship of the proletariat is nothing other than socialism itself understood as the historical period of transition between capitalism and communism. As such, it is ‘not a matter of choice, a matter of policy: and it therefore cannot be “abandoned”, any more than the class struggle can be “abandoned” except in words and at the cost of enormous confusion’ (Lock, in Balibar, 1977, p. 8).

The first chapter is a very interesting critique of the way in which, as Balibar sees it, those proposing that the concept should be dropped tend to present the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ [henceforth DoP] as a particular regime, or a particular set of tactics that may well have been unavoidable given ‘Russian conditions’, but which would be unnecessary and inappropriate for an advanced bourgeois democracy such as 1970s France. Here, Balibar extrapolates an amusing kind of complicity between the ‘Tankie’ faction of the PCF and their Eurocommunist opponents. Both fundamentally agree that the DoP is ‘what existed in Russia’ (the authoritarian one party state etc.) – but while the former maintain that this provides a ‘model’ to be implemented elsewhere too, the latter reject it based on a simplistic counterposition between ‘dictatorship’ (appropriate for ‘backward’ conditions) and ‘democracy’ (possible and appropriate to the Western European context). This latter Eurocommunist position, as Balibar further suggests, allows the party leadership to pull off a dextrous manoeuvre in which it can distance itself from the USSR and proclaim its own (parliamentary) democratic credentials while also appearing to maintain some kind of fidelity to the October Revolution and (perhaps more importantly) side-stepping any potentially awkward questions about its historic support for, and formerly ultra-loyalist justification of, Stalinist practices in Russia (and beyond).

But there’s another kind of complicity between Eurocommunism and Stalinism too. In a really fascinating section Balibar recounts what he sees as an historical antecedent of the PCF’s abandonment of the DoP – ‘it was the Soviet Communists themselves, under Stalin’s direction, who first historically “abandoned” the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat’ (Balibar, 1977, p. 49 [hereafter, all references are to this text unless otherwise indicated]). Specifically in 1936, on the occasion of the introduction of the new Soviet Constitution, it was proclaimed that the class struggle was over in Russia, and that as such ‘socialism in one country’ had been achieved. It was not claimed that classes had been abolished, but that relations of antagonism between them had been eliminated and that, consequently, the Soviet state was now the ‘state of the whole people’. What this implied, of course, was that the period of DoP (the period in which a specifically proletarian state had been necessary to suppress the old ruling class) had been superseded in Russia and, further that the DoP constituted a temporary stage of transition toward socialism which was itself a distinct historical stage of transition toward communism and indeed a discrete mode of production in its own right characterised by state ownership of the means of production.

The complicity here with the PCF’s Eurocommunist perspective was that the latter adopted similar assumptions in relation to the DoP and socialism – namely, the DoP was simply an historical mini-phase of dictatorial transition to socialism understood as a mode of production in which a universal state of the ‘whole people’, shorn of its class determination and in some sort of direct control of the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy, would superintend a society in which class antagonisms had been overcome. The only difference is that the Eurocommunists imagined that they could move straight to ‘democratic socialism’ (at least after an initial preparatory period of reform under ‘advanced democracy’) without the need for an intervening phase of ‘dictatorship’. But socialism, Balibar argues, is nothing other than a phase of heightened class struggle – a contradictory and dialectical terrain in which two modes of production (capitalism and communism) overlap and fight it out and in which the embryonic communist potentialities thrown up within capitalism are made progressively more and more real (or not – it’s a conflictual struggle and as such the outcome is not pre-ordained) – and a phase of transition, moreover, that has to be understood to be synonymous with the DoP. Further, the Eurocommunists’ (essentially bourgeois) counterposition of ‘democracy’ and ‘dictatorship’ as distinct alternatives rests, for Balibar, on a fundamental misrepresentation of classical Marxism’s understanding of these terms. More than anything this misrepresentation obscures the reality, from the classical Marxist perspective, that parliamentary democracy is itself a type of dictatorship. Specifically it is a particular form taken by the ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’.

The main interest of Balibar’s book for me, however, is his account of what he takes to be the basis of the theory of the DoP as you find it in Lenin, and Balibar’s subsequent elaboration of a ‘more complete analysis’ (p. 63) on these foundations. The theory of the DoP, Balibar remarks, ‘can be summed up in outline in three arguments, or three groups of arguments, which are ceaselessly repeated and put to the test by Lenin’ (p. 59). These three theoretical arguments, as articulated by Balibar, are really very striking and boldly stated. The first deals with state power. Balibar sums it up thus: ‘State power is always the political power of a single class, which holds it in its capacity as the ruling class in society’ (p. 59). This implies that in capitalist society, as Balibar goes on to make plain, ‘State power is held in an absolute way by the bourgeoisie, which does not share it with any other class, nor does it divide it up among its fractions’ (p. 59). He goes on to point out that this thesis ‘has the following consequence: the only possible historical ‘alternative’ to the State power of the bourgeoisie is an equally absolute hold on State power by the proletariat’ (pp. 59-60).

The second argument focuses on the state apparatus and can be summed up ‘by saying that the State power of the ruling class cannot exist in history, nor can it be realized and maintained, without taking material form in the development and functioning of the State apparatus’ (p. 60). The core of this ‘State machine’ is constituted by the repressive state apparatus(es), though Balibar also remarks that Lenin never claimed that this core was the only aspect of this ‘State machine’. This repressive core Balibar comments, comprises ‘on the one hand, the standing army, as well as the police and the legal apparatus; and, on the other hand, the State administration or “bureaucracy”‘ (p. 60). This second thesis, he goes on to say, implies that ‘the overthrow of the State power of the bourgeoisie, is impossible without the destruction of the existing State apparatus in which the State power of the bourgeoisie takes material form’ (p. 60).

These first two arguments, Balibar argues, were not ‘discovered’ as such by Lenin – they were explicitly present in the writing of Marx and Engels. But Lenin’s contribution was, first, to ‘rescue’ these arguments from deformation and obscurity in the context of the opportunist drift of Second International social democracy and, second, to insert them ‘for the first time in an effective way into the field of practice’ (P. 61). The third argument, however, though not without its precedents, was much more Lenin’s own contribution and was discovered by him as the product of class struggles in Russia in the revolutionary period (and thus this discovery post-dates the writing of State and Revolution). This argument is the one that we have already encountered, partially, in the first chapter – that it is only communist social relations that are really incompatible or irreconcilable with capitalist ones and that socialism is a contradictory phase of transition from one mode of production to the other. This, Balibar, says ‘implies that socialism is nothing other than the dictatorship of the proletariat’ – further, the DoP ‘is not simply a form of “transition to socialism”, it is not a “road of transition to socialism” – it is identical with socialism itself’ (p. 62).

Having identified these three core arguments Balibar then sets out, over the three chapters that follows, to elucidate them in more detail and draw out their further implications. One of the fundamental components of the first argument is the (strikingly Poulantzas-like) view that state power is relational – the state ‘rests on a relation of forces between classes, which it develops and reproduces’ (p. 88). Like Poulantzas, too, Balibar makes an analytical distinction between ‘state power’, on the one hand, and the ‘state apparatus’ (or what Poulantzas refers to as the state’s ‘institutional materiality’) on the other. This conceptual move (and its attribution to Lenin as a distinction at least implicit in his thought) allows Balibar to develop a very interesting interpretation of some of Lenin’s writing though I am not at all convinced that Lenin really does work on the basis of this conceptual framework. For example, Balibar suggests that the rather notorious line in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky that the ‘revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is rule won and maintained by the use of violence by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, rule that is unrestricted by any laws’ is not so much, as it is often interpreted, a statement celebrating arbitrary violence without limit or restraint, but instead a statement indicating the extra-legal (or pre-legal), a priori status of the class balance of forces. Just as, for classical Marxism, bourgeois law and state apparatus, in the final analysis, are rooted in a particular set of class relations that exist prior to that law and that state apparatus (and which the latter two both reflect and reproduce), so the DoP must rest, too, on a particular balance of class forces that, in the final analysis, boils down to force. Class exploitation under capitalism is a relationship of force – whether or not the state apparatus takes a parliamentary democratic or authoritarian form. In the same way the DoP – whether or not it takes a highly repressive political institutional form – rests, in the end, on the class supremacy of the proletariat. Now, perhaps, this is an entirely obvious reading of Lenin, but I have to say that it never occurred to me before that this was what he meant – and I also have to say that I’m not really very convinced by it. I’m not convinced, that is, that this is what Lenin is really getting at in the passage just quoted and I’m sceptical that he does in fact make the wider analytical conceptual distinction Balibar says he does. Nevertheless it is food for thought.

State power belongs, absolutely, to a single class, Balibar argues, because the state is fundamentally rooted in class antagonism and in ‘the reproduction of the whole of the conditions of this antagonism’ (p. 77) – there is no third way between the maintenance and extension of this exploitation (i.e. the class interests of the bourgeoisie) and the struggle for its abolition (i.e. the class interests of the proletariat). Thus state power is either the possession of the bourgeoisie (the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie) or the possession of the working class (the DoP). It also follows from this, Balibar comments, that because state power is rooted in, and reproduces, class exploitation and domination it is thus the possession of the ruling class as a whole and not merely or mainly any of its internal fractions. Further, there is no part of the state, or any of its functions, that lies outside the field of class determination. Balibar draws here on Lenin’s polemic against Vandervelde (that we’ve encountered in a previous post). He has in mind those Eurocommunist arguments that seem to suggest, like Vandervelde, that certain state apparatuses or functions manifest or serve a ‘general social interest’ – the state in ‘the broad sense’, in distinction from class repressive apparatuses (the state in ‘the narrow sense’) – and might thus, once the worst bits of the state are ‘lopped off’ (Engels!), serve a post-capitalist ‘universal social interest’. The whole of the state under capitalism is always absolutely the political power of the (whole) bourgeoisie.

What this in turn implies, of course, as we have seen, is that the whole of the existing state apparatus (which is the material form taken by the state power of the bourgeoisie, but not purely the same thing as the underlying balance of forces) must be overthrown by the proletariat and a new one, manifesting the material-institutional form of their state power constructed in its place. Balibar insists, as Lenin does of course, that the essential pivot of opportunism is its position on the state apparatus in this respect. It’s not necessarily that opportunism deviates from classical Marxism on the abstract question of the exercise of power, or denies that the proletariat must ‘take power’, or even that it refuses to use the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ – ‘Social-Democratic opportunism, from Kautsky to Plekhanov to Leon Blum, always formally referred to the “dictatorship of the proletariat”‘ (p. 89). But they did so, while ‘at the same time emptying it of its practical content, the destruction of the State apparatus’ (p. 60).

The state apparatus performs two essential and intertwined functions Balibar argues (again, not unlike Poulantzas) – first it organises and unifies an otherwise fractious ruling class, and second, it organises the domination of society under that single ruling class. But the precise forms that this general double function takes will differ according to the mode of production. This leads Balibar to remark that it is imperative that we ‘grasp a very important fact, which Lenin constantly emphasised’, which is ‘the fact that each great historical epoch, based on a determinate material mode of production, comprises tendentially one type of State, i.e. one general determinate form of State’ (p. 95). ‘A ruling class’, he continues:

cannot make use of any type of State apparatus; it is obliged to organise itself in historically imperative forms, which relate to the new forms of class struggle in which it is held fast. The feudal-ecclesiastical type of organisation is completely ineffective as a means of organising the class rule of the bourgeoisie. The same general point is true of course with respect to the dictatorship of the proletariat. If the class struggle fought out by the proletariat is of a different kind from that of the bourgeoisie, it follows that, even if it does need some kind of State apparatus, it cannot purely and simply make use – as if they were instruments which could be manipulated at will – of the standing army, the law courts and their judges, the secret and special police forces, the parliamentary system, the administrative bureaucracy, immune from practically any form of control by the people…, etc.. (p. 95)

Rather a lot here seems to ride on the phrase ‘purely and simply’ (reminiscent in this sense of the famous ambiguity in Marx’s ‘cannot simply lay hold’ phrase!) and as we shall see Balibar seems to muddy the waters a little bit in his discussion of the forms that the ‘smashing’ of the bourgeois state apparatus will take, but the main thrust of his argument is the emphasis on the ‘absolute’ hold of the ruling class over ‘its’ state. A new ruling class must replace the entire old state apparatus (that manifests-reflects a particular class balance of power and particular forms of exploitation) with an entirely new type of state apparatus. Just as state power is either the state power of the bourgeoisie or that of the proletariat, a particular form of ‘state machine’ (set of apparatuses) is either a capitalist machine or a working class one. The main, defining characteristic of the proletarian state apparatus, Balibar argues, is that it institutionalises mass proletarian democracy – it functions as a sort of vector and fulcrum for the direct intervention of the masses on the political scene. In this way there is a qualitative difference between bourgeois democracy and proletarian democracy and this is also an indication of the way in which the institutions of the bourgeois state apparatus – especially its core ones – are incompatible with the DoP.

This intervention of the mass of the people in the state apparatus and in the exercise of state power as it increases is also, simultaneously, the main vector for the process of the state’s ‘withering’. Since the communist mode of production which socialism, as an historical epoch of transition, takes as its objective and destination is a classless and thus stateless society, however, the state machine of the DoP must be regarded as a hangover from the capitalist mode of production with which it is still entangled. In this sense, Balibar suggests, every state apparatus – even a ‘state of a new type’ under the DoP – is always bourgeois, even when workers use it against capitalist social relations. This argument (though not I think unproblematic for his wider thesis) allows Balibar to be clear, in a way that I don’t think Lenin is in the key writings we’ve looked at, that the proletarian state at all times necessarily represents a potential threat to the working class that they must constantly guard against (as we’ve seen Lenin tends to assume an absolute synonymity between the proletariat and its state). Since the proletarian state is proletarian, but also in some sense always bourgeois – a hangover from a dying mode of production – Balibar comments that ‘the notion of the proletarian State itself designates… a contradictory reality, as contradictory as the situation of the proletariat in its role as the “ruling class” of socialist society’ (p. 122). But what overall ‘defines the dictatorship of the proletariat is the historical tendency of the State which it establishes: the tendency to its own disappearance, and not towards its reinforcement’ (p. 122).

Some of the most interesting passages in Balibar’s book (but for me also some of the most frustratingly opaque) are to be found in the section where he discusses ‘[w]hat has to be “destroyed”‘ in relation to the bourgeois state apparatus (pp 99 – 110). He is (fairly) clear, along with Lenin (at least in theory rather than in practice) that the repressive apparatus (which comprises, remember, ‘the bureaucracy’ in addition to the organs of direct coercion) must undergo ‘immediate destruction’ as ‘both the condition and a first consequence of the revolution’ (p. 99). But this does not mean that ‘all aspects of the bourgeois State apparatus can be destroyed in the same way, by the same methods, and at the same rhythm’ (p. 99). The ‘destruction of a whole State apparatus, and its replacement by new political forms of organization of the material and cultural life of society, cannot be carried out immediately, it can only be immediately begun‘ (p. 102). In this sense ‘this process of destruction’ can take no other form ‘than that of a lengthy class struggle which is already in its preparatory stages before the revolution, and which becomes fully acute afterwards’ and here Balibar takes aim at what he calls the ‘”ultra-left” idea of the immediate abolition of bourgeois institutions and the appearance out of the blue of new, “purely” proletarian institutions’ (p. 105) which he says is a myth that Lenin explicitly repudiated.

Now there’s a lot here that’s not exactly very clear. He appears to be saying that while the repressive institutions must be destroyed immediately, other organs of the bourgeois state apparatus (although I’m not certain about this…. what does he mean, precisely, by the word ‘aspects’ in the phrase ‘aspects of the bourgeois state apparatus’??) might be incorporated in the DoP – although he gives no indication of what these might be. He also appears to be saying that institutions of mass democracy cannot be set up overnight and that the institutions of the DoP must provide, in a sense, a period of apprenticeship for the working class – a phase of experimental political education which begins in advance of, and which must also extend beyond, the moment of the revolutionary seizure of power – before they can fully develop. He also appears to be saying that the bourgeois state apparatus resists destruction in as much as forms of parliamentarism and the wider social division of manual and intellectual labour are allowed to reproduce themselves within soviet type institutions (are these the ‘aspects’ of the bourgeois state apparatus that survive the initial revolutionary ‘smashing’ process rather than specific organs as such – or perhaps they are additional aspects that survive alongside these organs??). Things are not really made much clearer in this respect by the one relatively concrete example Balibar chooses to illustrate this longer term process, which is a remark from Lenin about the need to get ‘”pro-Soviet politicians into parliament'” for the purposes of ‘”disintegrating parliamentarism from within“‘ (Lenin, in Balibar, p. 106) – but this is clearly a tactic to be implemented before the seizure of power and tells us nothing about the survival of specific institutions afterwards.

The final part of Balibar’s argument (though the book also contains a ‘dossier’ comprising extracts from contributions to the debate at the PCF’s 22nd Congress – including a really interesting contribution from Althusser – and also Balibar’s postscript) focuses on the third key argument identified above. We’ve encountered the major dimensions of this argument previously, but Balibar supplements this with some interesting additional considerations. Among these he argues (along with Marx of course – but I think Balibar puts it particularly well) that communism should be seen as a ‘real tendency, already present in capitalist society itself’ and that this is true in ‘two senses, which are not originally directly related’ – on the one hand ‘in the form of the tendency to the socialisation of production and the productive forces’ and, on the other, ‘in the form of the class struggles of the proletariat, in which first the independence, and then later the ideological and political hegemony of the proletariat are manifested’ (p. 135). The particularly sharp and fascinating bit of Balibar’s argument here, however, is where he points out that while under capitalism these tendencies remain quite distinct (standing, in fact in mutual opposition – acting on each other in a conflictual relationship), under the DoP, to the extent that the working class take control of the process of the development and socialisation of the productive forces, these tendencies begin to merge. And to the extent that they merge, ‘the socialization of production tendentially ceases to take the capitalist form’ (p. 136) and segues into communism. ‘The history of the dictatorship of the proletariat’, as Balibar remarks, ‘is the history of the development and of the resolution of this contradiction’ (p. 136).

It’s in this ‘economic’ sense, then, in addition to the ‘political’ dimension of the proletarian state (though of course these two dimensions are not wholly distinct and the tendential movement toward communism also progressively merges ‘political’ and ‘economic’ relations), that socialism/the DoP represents a contradictory reality that expresses within itself a battle between two different modes of production. In this way, as Balibar rather nicely puts it, socialism is ‘two worlds within the same world, two epochs within one single historical epoch’ (p. 146). The transition from one to the other can only take the form of a long process of struggle, but moreover, this process can only unfold if, from the start, it is understood that ‘the effective realisation of socialism is only possible from the standpoint of communism’ (p. 63). That is, communism should not be treated as a distant ideal – i.e. the idea that first we consolidate socialism and only then, beyond that, does communism come on to the historical agenda. Instead, Balibar argues, socialism is nothing other than a process in which communism – already present as a ‘real tendency’ – is progressively instantiated.


Balibar, E. (1977) On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (London, NLB).



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