Chinese Analyses of Soviet Failure: The Dictatorship of the Proletariat

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 15

Zhou Youguang

The centrality of the seemingly abstruse concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat to ongoing ideological debates in China was spotlighted recently in a wide ranging interview given by the 105 year old senior communist stalwart Zhou Youguang (1906-), best known for his invention of the system of Chinese-English transliteration known as hanyu pinyin. Reminiscing about what brought him to support the communists against the nationalists (Kuomintang), the linguist hearkened back to regular talks he and other intellectuals held in Chongqing during wartime with the future Prime Minister Zhou Enlai (1898-1976). In these discussions, Zhou assured his listeners authoritatively and convincingly that the communists would implement a democratic regime, far freer than that of Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) [1]. Mao Zedong (1893-1976) made a similar assurance in 1945, as the Chinese civil war was ending, telling a Reuters correspondent that “a free, democratic China would … realize the ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’ concept of Abraham Lincoln and the ‘four freedoms’ proposed by Franklin Roosevelt” [2].  

Zhou Youguang pinned these assurances to the bedrock of communist doctrine when he further recalled that the great scholar Chen Duxiu (1879-1942), one of those who introduced Marxist thought into China and helped to found the communist party (although he was later condemned and marginalized) had written in 1940 that the dictatorship of the proletariat—which is what both the Soviet and Chinese dictatorships have claimed to be, was in fact “the same as the democracy of the capitalist class—a citizen’s freedom of assembly, opinion, organization, publication, to strike and organize opposition parties. After 1949 this important document could no longer be published” [3].

In the USSR, the regime imposed by the Bolshevik coup d’état of 1917 was regularly called a “proletarian” dictatorship, which is to say a dictatorship exercised by or on behalf of the entire population of workers as the final stage in the liberation of hitherto oppressed society. The same process took place in China. Yet as Zhou’s reminiscences suggest, giving such a name to either of those regimes is in fact problematic, since in the fundamental works of Marx and Engels, party rule through dictatorship is not considered as identical to “proletarian” dictatorship as the two founders envisioned it [4].

To understand the issues involved for the serious Marxist in defining different sorts of “dictatorship,” it is essential to grasp that Karl Marx’s (1818-1883) entire vision saw history as moving, through a dialectical process, from complexity toward simplicity. Historical processes steadily rendered more simple and homogenous a human society that had begun full of complexity and differentiation.

Thus, in feudal times, polities and authorities were more than could be counted, and the degrees of personal status complex and diverse. By contrast, with the advent of industrialism, all of this was being sorted out into two antagonistic components: on one side a mass of workers having no property but sharing a common interest, and on the other a handful of capitalists owning the means of production and having interests contrary to those of the workers. As Marx and Engels saw it, the final turn of the dialectical millstone would eliminate the capitalists and make the workers proprietors of everything.

The dictatorship of the proletariat would therefore in their concept be simple and brief: a matter of arresting the remaining capitalists and taking control of the industrial society that had matured under their power, and then stepping aside to allow the emergence of a new and enduring form of society, that would be both materially abundant and politically free, while having little, if any, need for government, for in it social conflict would be impossible. This was so because power would now belong to the workers, all of whom lived and labored in a comparable way and therefore, it was believed, had identical interests, and thus no reason to quarrel over politics.

The reality of communist power in both the USSR and China was very different. It arrived long before society had reached the level of maturity envisioned by Marx and Engels. Therefore, the new dictatorship did not so much transfer a modern society to the workers’ ownership as it did strive to create such a society. Nevertheless, the Marxist view was articulated repeatedly in Soviet communist thought, notably at the time we are considering in this series, during the closing decades of the last century. The officially promulgated version was that contradictions that had existed in the old society had ultimately been rooted in differing relationships of individuals to the means of economic production. These differences were steadily disappearing as socialism was built under the so-called proletarian dictatorship of the Soviet party, with the result that a new, homogenous, and equal society was coming into being. “[T]he “improvement and perfection” (sovershenstvovanie) of social relations in the stage of developed socialism were said to be the continued convergence (sblizhenie) of classes and major strata and the gradual effacement (stiranie) of the differences between them” [5]. Such developments were in keeping with the Marxist prediction of the eventual homogenization of humanity into a single class, by the workings of the dialectic. The Chinese view, in which the undifferentiated and cohesive mass of the renmin or “people” plays the leading role in history, clearly draws on these Soviet concepts derived from Marxism.

The problem, however, is that history does not move from complexity to simplicity in society, as Marx thought, but rather in the opposite direction: with development, everything grows more complex. Contemporary societies are incomparably more intricate in their myriad of interrelated functions, dependencies, specializations and so forth, than any previous societies. From this fact, it follows that society is likely to face more internal disputes and choices, as it becomes more modern, rather than fewer. Providing mechanisms for the consistent and transparent resolution of those disputes thus becomes all-important.

That this was true for the Soviet Union was confirmed when the sociologist Zev Katz reported in 1973 that because of Soviet research in the late 1960s and early 1970s, “a new picture of Soviet society, possessing a highly stratified and complex nature, is emerging. Instead of the previous official picture, which was basically unidimensional (forms of ownership), a multidimensional image of stratification is gradually appearing” [6]. Much could be said about today’s China that parallels these developments. Social and functional differentiation proceeds apace; differentials grow massively in wages between different regions and occupations. Changing degrees of access to power, the proliferation of new ideas and belief systems, and so forth, are all well-known but less documented developments [7].

For serious Marxists, these are entirely unexpected and unwelcome developments, as they suggest that under “socialism” social conflicts continue and even intensify. This is a fundamental challenge to the whole Marxist vision of governance, in which the state was due to “wither away” because it was unnecessary after the workers’ triumph. In China this unexpected problem is only beginning to be dealt with by such expedients as Jiang Zemin’s (1926-) “three represents” or Hu Jintao’s (1942-) “harmonious society.” Yet, in the Soviet Union “[b]eginning in the middle of the 1970s, the leadership was increasingly insistent on discouraging or suppressing sociological research that tested the limits [of the Marxist predictions of social simplification]” [8].

These issues could be resolved, so Soviet communist theorists thought. They would not disappear of their own accord, following the inexorable laws of the dialectic, as Marx and Engels had believed—though this point was not stressed. Rather, “Soviet sources representative of the Brezhnev (1906-1982) leadership’s outlook resolutely denied … that stronger internal integration would arise solely from the spontaneous development of society. They insisted that if social development were not subjected to conscious, planned direction, the growth of complexity and differentiation would lead to anarchy and disintegration” [9]. No longer were social contradictions thought to be “survivals” or perezhitki of the old society. They were recognized as products, or “acquisitions”—nazhitki—of socialism itself [10]. By implication, then, new institutions would be required, even under socialism, to maintain social cohesion and harmony. This was a view precisely opposite to that of Marx, who saw the advent of socialism as bringing permanent social harmony.

This empirically-derived view was uncomfortable for Soviet theorists, but it fit in well with Mao Zedong’s long-held and distinctly non-Marxist view that class conflict continued even after the attainment of socialism. His 1937 essay “On Contradiction,” which is generally considered his stamp on Marxist Leninist theory, sees the struggle of opposites as ceaseless in history, rather than being, as Marx argued, a process that leads, ultimately, to a new and stable social order [11].

The problem for both the Chinese and the Soviet communist systems was what sorts of mechanisms could smooth over or resolve the contradictions created by the growth of complexity and differentiation, problems it should be noted that were entirely unanticipated by Marx, and arguably products of the distinctly non-Marxist methods in which power had been seized in both countries. Mao attempted to address the issue in his 1957 essay “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People” [12]. This essay, it should be noted, was in essence a response to the revelation of discord under the surface of the Communist dictatorship that came with the “hundred flowers” movement of 1956-57, discord that was exploited by Mao himself as he sought to use those excluded from power by the party dictatorship to regain supreme authority for himself in the Cultural Revolution, and has continued to be a salient feature of “People’s China” right up to the present [13].

As it turned out, when faced by the challenge of continuing, even developing complexity and diversity under socialism, both the Soviet Union and China turned away from strict Marxism toward more traditional concepts in their attempts to resolve these problems. Neither hesitated, until the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev (1931-) to use repression liberally; both sought ways to create social amalgamation in their traditional imperial repertoire, rather than in the actual ideas of Marx and Engels.

China saw much favorable discussion of Gorbachev and inter-party normalization in the late eighties under Premier Zhao Ziyang (1919-2005). In the Beijing Review, as early as 1987, there were a series of articles by Luo Rongxing and others, one of which, “Different Interest Groups Under Socialism,” points out how, in communist China, social diversity was developing (just as it had in the USSR).

“An indisputable fact in China today is that there exist different interest groups whose understanding of the objective situation is different . . . The socialist system has the advantage of being best able to identify the interests of the people with those of society as a whole, but there are still differences of interests between different groups of people.” [emphasis added]

Luo and his colleagues note:

“Since 1978 …. the reform has diversified forms of public ownership, stimulated the growth of individual, private, and other economic sectors, developed commodity and money relations, upgraded the role of market regulation, and broken away from the absolute egalitarian distribution system. All this has meant that interest relations have changed in every respect—making them more varied, complex, and above all more apparent than ever.”

Some mechanisms had to be found to represent and adjust these interests, or China’s society risked disintegration, chaos, or conflict. The methods of the past could not be used. According to Luo: “ Before the reforms, the masses and cadres were all easily led away from recognition of divergence of interests between different groups in the community: contradictions and conflicts between people were crammed bag and baggage under the rubric of ‘class struggle.’” Now the need was seen for an enduring structural and institutional solution [14].

After Li Peng (1928-) became premier in April 1988, this prickly topic, which posed a challenge to the whole presentation of the Chinese regime as a proletarian dictatorship in the Marxist sense, was quickly put to one side. In October 1988, an article by Jin Qi appeared in Beijing Review called “Controlling the Diversification of Interests.” Instead of discussing how the growing differentiation of Chinese economy and society might be accommodated, Jin’s article noted, “Future reforms and developments will largely be determined by whether effective ways to check the trend of diversification of interests and to overcome various related negative factors.” The only means proposed are “the establishment of a new series of market-oriented economic mechanisms” (although how markets would limit diversification is not made clear) and the old standbys, “to strengthen ideological education, establish the concept of putting the interests of the state and the people above all else, and subordinate local interests to overall interests. Professional ethics and social morals must be promoted. Overall, the development of socialist culture and ideology has to be accelerated” [15]. In other words, homogeneity was to be enforced and development restricted, even at the cost of overall social welfare.

In 1961, Khrushchev spoke of three stages, rastsvet-sblizhenie-slianie (Flowering-rapprochement-fusion). The Brezhnev-Kosygin leadership tried to modify this policy during the 1970s into the less ambitious goal of obshchnost (“community”), with the Russian Republic (RSFSR) as the bulwark and helper of all the other republics of the federation. Yuri Andropov (1914-1984) had to admit on the 60th anniversary of the USSR’s founding that, although all sorts of differences persisted even decades after the triumph of socialism, “national differences will continue much longer than class differences” [16].

What had become clear was that in the USSR at least, the fusion of classes and nationalities expected by Marx on the basis of shared economic interest was not occurring: quite the opposite. Likewise, ethnic and national differences persisted under socialism. So the question became, if class homogeneity was not to be the basis of the unity and harmony of a socialist state, what then would be? The failed Soviet answer was, under Brezhnev and Kosygin (1904-1980), some sort of cultural and supra-national unity. Under Gorbachev, of course, social and intellectual liberalization were taken as the key to stability.

Today in China an idea similar to that of the Brezhnev and Kosygin period in the Soviet Union is being propagated with the revival of the idea of a zhonghua minzu or “Chinese race” and the uneasily associated concept of “multi-racial state” (duominzuguojia), in which according to some the Chinese or Hanzu are the leading race, rather like the Russians in the former USSR. Whatever happens, China appears to have moved a very great distance away from the fundamental Marxist idea of stability and harmony reached through dialectical processes and delivered by the midwife of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Whether the search for social harmony by this route will be more successful in China than it was in the Soviet Union remains to be seen.


1. Mark O’Neill, “Zhou Youguang calls it as he sees it—and is not afraid to offend.” South China Morning Post, July 20, 2010, consulted 20 July 2010. My thanks to Gordon G. Chang for this reference.
2. Alan Wachman, “China’s Lincolnophilia,” November 27, 2009,
3. Mark O’Neill, see note 1, above.
4. See “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” in Tom Bottomore, ed. A Dictionary of Marxist Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983): 129-131.
5. Alfred B. Evans Jr. Soviet Marxism-Leninism: The Decline of an Ideology (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1993): 132. This fundamental book has not received the recognition it deserves.
6. Ibid., 132, quoting Zev Katz, “Insights from Emigres and Sociological Studies on the Soviet Economy,” in Soviet Economic Prospects for the Seventies, ed. Joint Economic Commmittee of Congress (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1973): 117.
7. For this see Martin King Whyte, Myth of the Social Volcano: Perceptions of Injustice and Distributive Injustice in Contemporary China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010).
8. Evans, p. 132
9. Ibid., 137, emphasis added.
10. Ibid., 174.
11. Text in, consulted July 10, 2010, and in many other places.
12. Text at
14. Beijing Review, November 30, 1987: 18-19.
15. Beijing Review, October 24, 1988: 4-5. I am indebted to Professor David Zweig for bringing these articles to my attention.
16. See Hauner: 29-30.