When the dictatorship of the proletariat lasts longer than expected

Kim Jeong Un did remarkably well in his recent election to a seat in North Korea’s supreme people’s assembly. The Western media is being suitably sarcastic about the 100% turnout, of whom 100% voted for the young Kim, but for me it highlights a curious thing about communist countries — even in the most extreme case of North Korea, there is some vestige of a “normal” liberal state underneath, with the Communist Party as a kind of overlay. In China, as is well known, the Communist Party isn’t even a legally recognized organization, and meanwhile in the Soviet Union, Gorbachev’s most decisive reforms consisted precisely in trying to empower the “normal” state at the expense of the Party.

The practice of fixing elections needs to be seen through this lens, as an enactment of the Party’s suspension of the “normal” state. We see this most clearly in the case of Yugoslavia, where Tito had genuine democratic legitimacy and would have won elections easily, but nonetheless the Communist Party rigged the elections. The point isn’t to use elections to gain spurious legitimacy, but to enact the Party’s illegitimacy in terms of the “normal” state institutions that it ultimately wants to abolish.

Agamben occasionally makes reference to this dynamic in the Homo Sacer series, seeing in the “dual state” structure the justification for the category of “totalitarianism” that includes both fascism and communism. While the critique of 20th century communism remains largely implicit, his basic point is that something like the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” understood as a suspension of “normal” state functions in order ultimately to abolish the state altogether, could never have worked. This is because the state of exception is precisely what generates the “normal” state, so that when prolonged indefinitely, the state of exception becomes its own state (as happened in all the communist countries, most notably North Korea, where communism somehow “looped back around” to hereditary monarchy).

As Gorbachev’s experience shows us, however, the answer is not to return to the “normal” state, which certainly backfired in Russia’s case, giving them rule by something like a mafia apparatus as opposed to the old Communist Party apparatus (i.e., fascism replacing communism).

One thought on “When the dictatorship of the proletariat lasts longer than expected

  1. But what about Benjamin’s “real” state of exception? “Gigantomachy Concerning a Void” is crucial here, revealing the extent to which Schmitt’s concerns with the state of exception are bound up with a critique of very prospect of proletarian dictatorship, both in general and as it develops in Benjamin’s work.

    Is it possible to abolish the conditions that make the continual reconstitution of law necessary? Marx thought so: “If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organise itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.” (from the Manifesto)

    From a Marxist perspective, the “reality” of a revolutionary suspension of law, of a “state of exception”, is a function of its capacity to transform the conditions of production in a manner that renders the reconstitution of state power unnecessary. I think this is what Benjamin would have understood by the concept. The unreality of the “really existing” Communist regimes is rather easily accounted for: they were incapable of so transforming the conditions of production on an adequate scale, i.e. globally, and specifically in the core capitalist nations.

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