What is the dictatorship of the proletariat?

Charles Bonnier on ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ A Note to Chapter 2, Section 6, Page 53

One of the better-known statements at the end of the nineteenth century, purporting to explain the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ to French socialists, came from Charles Bonnier. After appearing in the Guesdist party organ Le Socialiste in 1897, it was in good part reprinted both in Compêre—Morel’s Grand Dictionnaire Socialiste in 1909 and in Verecque’s Dictionnaire du Socialisme in 1911.

Bonnier was a French socialist writer, later a university lecturer. He joined the French Workers Party (Guesdists or "Marxists") when he was about 17; besides being active as a party militant, he became a contributor to the socialist press. His best-known book, La Question de la Femme, was also published in 1897. For many years he was a lecturer at Oxford University, while remaining in close touch with his friend Jules Guesde; and so Engels had to deal with him as a sort of representative of the French party. By the same token, Bonnier must have had many opportunities to talk with Engels. He also followed German Socialist literature.

Engels had been dead for two years when Bonnier wrote a three-installment article for Le Socialiste on "La Conquete des Pouvoirs Publics." The "Bernsteiniad" had barely started at this time: Bernstein's first Neue Zeit articles on "Problems of Socialism" started appearing in 1896, continuing through the next two years; his book came out in 1899. When Bonnier published his first installment in December 1896, there was still no general realization of what had happened to Bernstein. Bonnier’s article did not mention Bernstein, but I surmise that he may have been provoked to take up the subject of "political power."

Bonnier’s second installment started with emphasis on the of "the triumph of the proletariat: the more or less violent death of society based on the capitalist system." It was in the third installment published on January 10, 1897, that he undertook to exp1ain ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ The following excerpts constitute most of this installment.

If there is one necessity that clearly emerges from studying the facts that imposed itself rigorously on the founders of scientific socialism, it is that of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Many socialist militants including the best intentioned, reject the term even if they thing itself; claiming that this term dictatorship has taken on, in our history, a sense of monopolization and violence. Thus we have to clear here what was meant by Dictatorship of the Proletariat both by Marx and Engels, who devised the term, and the French Workers Party which has inscribed it on its banner.

Dictatorship means government, more or less prolonged, by one part of society, by a class, over the other classes, at the precise time when ordinary laws are no longer in force. Thus it was that in Rome, at times of great danger, a man was invested with all the powers of the Republic, both civil and military, for a definite period. Likewise, on certain occasions the Doge in Venice or the principal magistrate in the Italian republics. In modern times we have had the Jacobin Dictatorship, and then, as its fatal outcome, the Eighteenth Brumaire of Bonaparte.

These were the excessive and, so to speak, crude forms of Dictator which have stuck in the minds and imagination of the crowd. But it separate the thing itself from its surroundings, from its appearance. see, behind a greater or lesser degree of violence, military apparatatus or civil proscription, always the same indispensable element: illegality. Indeed, let anyone show us in modern history a single government that at its origin did not have this character of illegality, of dictatorship.

Citing Taine’s France Contemporaine, Bonnier goes through a number of cases that illustrate the foregoing thesis. (I would remark, very much aside, that any new government that did not begin by changing the rules of legality would be, by the same token, new; hence Bonnier’s thesis is self-proving.) The article then concludes as follows:

What is called a regular government is a myth, in the bourgeois period, and it does not deceive even the president of the Chamber. Now all these governments have been—to put it moderately—governments of dictatorship during the first third of their duration. They governed against the mass of the population, and it was only when by friction between governors and governed and by habituation there was established a sort of compromise that the machine could function in a somewhat satisfactory fashion, until the next upset came.

Well then, when we speak of revolutionary Dictatorship, we mean simply that there will come a time when the proletariat conscious of its strength will seize power by force (in one form or another), and, so long as it has not accomplished its mission and justified its reason for existence, it will be in a "condition of Dictatorship." It is not by free choice that it will get to that point but by historical necessity.

What will distinguish it from other governments will not be its seizure of power but the manner in which it will exercise it. Whereas the other governments had the mission only of representing and affirming a class, the proletariat will destroy classes and absorb them into the collectivity. But to do this, in its seizure of the Dictatorship and as long as it exercises it, it is necessary for it to be distinct and personal, separated both from its friends who have only a confused notion of the necessity of its historical role and consequently could stand in its way, and from its enemies who will do their best to prevent it from being fulfilled.

Bonnier’s statement, near the end, that the "dictatorship" will be "personal" is very surprising. Indeed, I think it must have been a typographical or other error, for the formulation "impersonal dictatorship of the proletariat," used especially by Valiant, was heard in France when the term was used.

Appendix in Hal Draper's "The Dictatorship of the Proletariat from Marx to Lenin," Monthly Review