The Revolutionary Dictatorship of the Proletariat, by Birrion Sondahl

A Day in New York: 19th July 20

Image by The All-Nite Images via Flickr

by Birrion Sondahl
Guest Writer, Dandelion Salad
May 13, 2021

“Only he is a Marxist who extends the recognition of the class struggle to the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat.” — Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, The State and Revolution — Chapter 2

People often get caught up in anti-communist propaganda because of a confusion of terms. One of the most controversial has been the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ which has often been misconstrued as a 20th century style dictatorship. The reality is it is the furthest thing from authoritarian rule. The dictatorship of the proletariat is and always has been democracy for the people.

When Eugene V. Debs was visited in prison upon his nomination as the presidential candidate for the Socialist Party in 1920, Hellraiser Journal reported he “touched on the phrase, ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat,’ and said that this was misinforming and an unfortunate expression, when applied to socialism. The socialists, he said, were “opposed to all dictatorship; that all they wanted and sought were freedom, equality and justice.” This statement led to misinformation coming from the Communist Party USA, stating in The Daily Worker in 1926, “Debs’ conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat was that of a dictatorship exercised by an individual, such a dictatorship as that exercised by the first Napoleon or the Tsar of Russia during the period of unlimited autocracy, or the Mussolini dictatorship in Italy at the present time.” This was absolutely incorrect, for when Debs accepted the nomination for president in 1920, the words he actually used were,

“There is some difficulty about that unfortunate phrase about the dictatorship . A ‘dictatorship’ does not imply what we mean. It is a misnomer. Dictatorship is autocracy. There is no autocracy in the rule of the masses. During the transition period, the revolution must protect itself. The French Socialists in their recent congress took what I believe is the correct attitude, that everyone believes in a dictatorship as a thesis . But it is an unfortunate term and leads to misrepresentation. I am sorry it is used.”

Debs was correct that it was an unfortunate expression, but it has entered standard use and it is important to understand the concept and its role in achieving a socialist society. In order to better understand what the dictatorship of the proletariat is, it is first necessary to realize our current society is a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The best example of this is found in the United States, though it exists in a myriad of forms globally throughout capitalist society.

A 2014 study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page found that the attitude of the people towards a policy has negligible impact on whether it is passed by congress or not. As they wrote, “Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” If the proletariat had political power, Bernie’s platform would already be a reality. Every single item on his platform had the support of the majority of the population. A Reuters/Ipsos poll in July 2018 found that Medicare for all had a 70% approval rating. Yet Nancy Pelosi’s aide promised insurance lobbyists that Medicare for all would not be passed. Joe Biden campaigned on a public option but ended up just expanding COBRA with millions in handouts to the insurance corporations. This is what the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie looks like – the ruling class chooses what becomes law and the people have no say. As Lenin described it, “Democracy for an insignificant minority, democracy for the rich – that is the democracy of capitalist society.” As the proletariat is the largest class, in a true democracy, they would have the final say in passing legislation. Engels went so far as to say “If one thing is certain it is that our party and the working class can only come to power in the form of the democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the Great French Revolution has already shown…” There is nothing more democratic than the dictatorship of the proletariat – the rule of the people, not the capitalists.

This rule of the people is what Marx and Engels referenced in The Communist Manifesto in 1848. They wrote, “The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.” This seizure of political power by the proletariat is one and the same as the dictatorship of the proletariat. The Manifesto expands on this,

“We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy. The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.”

That the state becomes the proletariat organized as the ruling class cannot be over emphasized. When the proletariat seizes political power, it is not with the intention of maintaining the current machinery of government but rather to smash it and replace it. As Marx wrote, “the next attempt of the French revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it, and this is essential for every real people’s revolution on the Continent.” This is because, as the Manifesto stated, “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.

The state does not exist to serve the working class but rather to defend the bourgeoisie from them. In addition to the state, a new force of global capitalist power is rising – transnational corporations. As William Robinson describes, “In distinction, 21st-century fascism involves the fusion of transnational capital with reactionary and repressive political power — an expression of the dictatorship of transnational capital.” The new threat is modern day nation states are simply becoming the pawns of transnational capitalist power. The modern proletarian revolution must not only smash the apparatus of the state but also the transnational corporations. Only then can a new, better society be created in its place.

Rosa Luxemberg described the dictatorship of the proletariat in the following manner, “Socialist democracy commences simultaneously with the dismantling of class domination and the construction of socialism. It begins at the very moment of the seizure of power by the socialist party.” However, the class struggle will not end after the proletariat seizes political power. The capitalist class will still exist and will fight back. It is during this transitory period, the stage between capitalism and communism, that the proletariat will have to wield its power with decisive force if it hopes to maintain political control. As Marx describes:

“It means that so long as the other classes, especially the capitalist class, still exists, so long as the proletariat struggles with it (for when it attains government power its enemies and the old organization of society have not yet vanished), it must employ forcible means, hence governmental means. It is itself still a class and the economic conditions from which the class struggle and the existence of classes derive have still not disappeared and must forcibly be either removed out of the way or transformed, this transformation process being forcibly hastened.”

The ruling class has been inflicting violence on the lower classes since the beginning of recorded history. Imperialism is capitalistic violence on a global scale. Colonialism has always been rooted in violence and genocide. There the capitalist system is based on violent oppression of the working class. This system will not be destroyed without a violent struggle. As quoted earlier, Debs said, “During the transition period the revolution must protect itself.” There is no magical transition from capitalism to socialism. Voting will not achieve this end. As Lucy Parsons said, “You can’t vote yourselves out of wage-slavery.” Elections in a capitalist society are not democratic – rather they simply allow the illusion of choice. As Marx wrote, the voters only decided “which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament.”

The last two presidential elections in the United States are prime examples of how capitalist elections function. Even a moderate democratic socialist like Bernie Sanders was not allowed the chance to win because he was too much of a threat to the capitalist system. Socialism will not be won without a proletarian revolution. Debs explained, “The socialist platform is not to watch votes, but to state our position clearly and firmly. There is a tendency to make of socialism a party of politicians, but not a party of workers. This must be checked. We do not care for votes for the sake of votes themselves; we do not care for office to achieve office.” The message of socialism was clearly more important to Debs than winning. The Bernie campaign was not clear enough with the messaging on socialism. When he said, “Well, if there’s going to be class warfare in this country, I think it’s time the working class won that war,” he did not go on to describe that the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat was necessary to win this class struggle. While he inspired millions, he did not take the steps necessary to start the revolution. Debs did not shy away from the revolutionary struggle.

“The most heroic word in all languages is REVOLUTION.” — Eugene V. Debs

Communists believe in a more just society, one not based on oppression but on mutual aid and cooperation. It would be best if this were achievable with the minimum of violence. But this will not be up to the communists, it will be the bourgeoisie who make the decision whether to allow a true democratic society to replace their oligarchy. Considering the United States is a terrorist state using its police and military to protect capitalist interests at home and abroad, it is highly unlikely the socialist revolution will be bloodless. As Kwame Ture put it, “Dr. King’s policy was, if you are nonviolent, if you suffer, your opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart. That’s very good. He only made one fallacious assumption. In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.” Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated for his attempts to lead a nonviolent socialist revolution. The Black Panther Party did not initiate violence, yet were violently suppressed by the state when they armed themselves for self defense. The dictatorship of the proletariat will be a self defense organization using their political power to protect the revolution from reactionary forces.

Only once the resistance of the capitalist class has been crushed, will the dictatorship of the proletariat no longer be necessary. As the Manifesto describes:

“When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another. 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.”

This is the withering away of the state – once socialism has been fully established, the need for class distinctions will cease. Private property will have been abolished and a true communist society will be within reach. There will be no more need for the state as Marx notes, “Since the whole thing begins with the self-government of the commune.” This must be the end goal of any revolution – a truly communist society.

The dictatorship of the proletariat does not represent the emancipation of the working class, even though they will have political power. True freedom does not exist in a system of violence. As Engels explained:

“Now, since the state is merely a transitional institution of which use is made in the struggle, in the revolution, to keep down one’s enemies by force, it is utter nonsense to speak of a free people’s state; so long as the proletariat still makes use of the state, it makes use of it, not for the purpose of freedom, but of keeping down its enemies and, as soon as there can be any question of freedom, the state as such ceases to exist.”

This is true freedom – the end of the state and the end of class distinctions. As Marx put it, “The condition for the emancipation of the working class is the abolition of every class, just as the condition for the liberation of the third estate, of the bourgeois order, was the abolition of all estates and all orders.” This is what Debs made clear when he said, “What we are really working for is the emancipation of the working class. Our duty is to show why we organize; to leave no room for misunderstanding.” The unfortunate choice of the word ‘dictatorship’ left room for misunderstanding, which has been used against the socialist movement throughout history. An actual look at the concept itself shows it to be simply the control of political power by the proletariat during the transitory period between capitalism and communism. As Marx simply outlined:

  1. that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production (historische Entwicklungsphasen der Production),
  2. that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat,
  3. that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.

In order to achieve democracy in the truest sense, it is necessary to first transition through the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Further Reading:

Marx and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (Summer 1962) by Hal Draper

The State and Revolution: The Marxist Theory of the State and the Task of the Proletariat in the Revolution by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin


Birrion Sondahl is a writer at An Appeal to Reason, covering topics from a socialist perspective – both historical and recent news.

Originally published at Real Progressives, May 10, 2021

From the archives:

The Anti-Social Socialist: 8 Myths about Socialism

Caleb Maupin: The Definition of Socialism + What is Scientific Socialism?

The Anti-Social Socialist: How Do We Rent Our Lives?

A New Strategy For The American Left, by Yanis Iqbal

When The Revolution Comes by Gaither Stewart

Socialist Revolution Can Defeat The Rich, Not Higher Taxes + Creating A Dictatorship Of The Proletariat Is Crucial by Rainer Shea

Steering America’s Angry Masses Towards Proletarian Revolution by Rainer Shea

How Debs Became A Socialist by Paul D’Amato

Definitions: The Proletariat by Gaither Stewart

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

24 thoughts on “The Revolutionary Dictatorship of the Proletariat, by Birrion Sondahl

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  8. I’ve always wondered how the dictatorship of the proletariat, as part of the class struggle, works on the ground in terms of the mode of production that exists at that time. It would appear that if a revolution occurred at different points during the development of capitalism, the character of a revolution occurring earlier on in capitalism’s development would not look the same as a revolution that occured during mid-development capitalism or by the end of late capitalism.

    1. Revolution during early capitalism. Capitalism by definition needs to exploits workers to be a capitalist class. Thus, if a revolution occurred earlier on in an underdeveloped country, like the Russian and Chinese revolutions (the so-called weakest link argument), what would the character of that revolution be?

    Will the proletariat still be “employed” by capitalists while also being in charge of the State? This is like the situation in China today where the capitalists still exploit workers but what projects capitalists undertake are under control of the party and for the betterment of the working class.

    The Soviet Union brought back the managers as the workers did not have the knowledge of how to run the factories (NEP).

    Either way, the party develops the productive powers which Marx thought was necessary to provide for a democracy (in the future? Marx had a unique understanding of what ‘democracy’ would look like). But both undeveloped countries had to face the more developed capitalist states. Facing external forces like the US, centralizing control over the country and implementing centrally planned programs makes sense, but attacks by the more advanced capitalist countries could exhaust an underdeveloped country’s resources.

    In the Soviet Union’s case, with the NEP programs, the capitalist managers were used to manage production because the workers didn’t have the knowledge of how production worked. Indeed, it was Marx’s analysis that showed the workers’ alienation from decision making over both the mode and means of production left workers alienated from their own exerted labor objectified in products and machines and seen by them as a force used against them.
    In both the Soviet and Chinese systems, it appears that the gravediggers of capitalism would not have the knowledge Marx, on the one hand, thought they would have when taking over the State (and underdeveloped countries certainly lack the advanced knowledge), but on the other hand, Marx’s own analysis of alienation appears to negate such a possibility for worker knowledge. This could be because Marx had different conceptions of knowledge applicable here — knowledge of how technologies and distribution worked in a globalized and interconnected world or knowledge of how to use the tools and machines which they had possession of every workday for their own purposes and goals.

    In any event, it appeared that there was/is the need for a central government and a centralized planned economy in the Soviet Union and China for 3 reasons: First, to keep control in the hands of the proletariat (or their representatives) until such knowledge was gained by workers through education. Second, as Marx said, there is the need to quickly develop the productive forces. Third, to keep other outside capitalist countries from taking advantage of that lack of knowledge on the part of the workers to manipulate and regain control.

    As for this third reason for the need for centralized government, the Soviet Union and China had different tactical means by which to hold the outside capitalists at bay.

    For the Soviet Union, the Kronstadt rebellion could be seen as an example of the third reason for centralization. That is Kronstadt epitomized a situation where outside capitalists could take advantage of the lack of knowledge and education and experience of the workers to engage in a raid. The Kronstadt rebellion took place while outside capitalists were waiting for the ice to break in a week or two to send ships into that area. While waiting, they sent a spy to cause disruptions among the young and new Kronstadt sailors as the regular sailors were sent to other areas of Russia for educational purposes. The central government felt the need to stop the sailors’ revolt as they were allowing, though unknowingly, for a possible capitalist raid.

    In China’s case, China has kept the other capitalist countries at bay by a tactic of allowing the companies of those countries to do business in China, thus making any invasion problematic for capitalism. It also helps China to obtain advanced technologies in the bargain.

    2. Revolution during middle capitalism. If the proletariat do have the knowledge, education and experience with the productive process – middle capitalism if you will – what would a revolution look like under these different material conditions? Will the workers no longer work for capitalists? Does that mean that the workers take over the businesses? Automation would make possible for a worker takeover as the knowledge needed to understand the machinery is not needed as much as is the knowledge as to how to use the machinery. Also, the internet has made access to knowledge available at your fingertips.

    If the workers take over the businesses, what would be the relation between those businesses run by the proletariat and the State under the dictatorship of the proletariat? What would be the purpose of the State under these circumstances? How would capitalists structure a counter-revolution? Would the companies have the military on their side, or would the military be responsive to the proletarian State? What of the police?

    What if businesses were globalized? Would the takeover of businesses by the proletariat be a takeover of the global companies – a global revolution? If so, what would constitute a dictatorship of the proletariat as far as the State is concerned? Would there be other countries’ states involved? What would a dictatorship of the proletariat look like in these scenarios, that is, what problems would it address?

    If the businesses are taken over by the workers, how is it that capitalism could continue production and still be considered a capitalist class? The material conditions in these middle capitalist scenarios do not seem to be the material conditions faced by the Soviet Union or China where central control and planning were necessary to keep the other capitalist countries from regaining control.

    3. Revolution under late capitalism. What conditions are faced under late capitalist? That is, the Marx of the Grundrisse foresaw how machines will take over most of the work done by workers forcing the mass of the population into unemployment. So, is the revolution in late capitalism a takeover by the workers or by the unemployed? Capitalism creates its own gravediggers, but what would that mean under these circumstances? Marx meant the gravediggers to be the workers as they are the ones who wield the technology and can use it to take control. But if technology has developed as Marx revealed in the Grundrisse to the stag of what today we’d call robots, the maintenance of such machinery needs only have a handful of people, especially with the development of AI. So, will this handful of “workers” really be the representatives of a proletariat revolution? Or, as in the movie, Elysium, will the mass of people be simply unemployed or sporadically employed and have no control over the “robots.”

    With the advanced machines under the control of capitalists in late capitalism, would that make revolution less possible? The AI automated war machines can be operated by a handful of people and can be used against the masses of people as there would be no need for human control once given the commands (AI). And it won’t be too long before capitalism will take over the functions of the state, although it may no longer be considered capitalism. If there is a revolution under these conditions, what would it look like?

    • Mr. Schaff, I found your comments very interesting. Do you have a blog somewhere that I can look at?

      I have an opinion of my own on the subject, though it is not based on much research. I think that whether a revolution happens or not depends less on the level of economic development of the society, and more on the society’s level of awareness (or lack of awareness, i.e., what I believe Marx called “false consciousness”). In blatant dictatorships, the oppression is very obvious to the oppressed, and that gives them reason to rebel; thus the Russian revolution. In the USA today, plutocracy is disguised as a democracy, and people are less likely to rebel. However, the internet is an unprecedented phenomenon, perhaps unforeseen by Marx and Lenin. It is slowly making people more aware, and it may overcome the disguise. I think I hear stirrings. At least, I hope I do.

      • I don’t have a blog. On your opinion, it’s true that people who know they’re repressed may be more likely to rebel. However, it’s also the case that it depends on the people’s will to do so. Isolation of people will make a concerted effort a lot harder. That’s one thing the US does and not only in propaganda, but in infrastructure as well: Cars rather than public transportation, especially in the west where they consciously got rid of trolleys, superhighways bypassing communities rather than a route 66 adventure, TVs rather than union halls or bowling alleys, etc. Even in labor, grievances used to be on the shop room floor where all the workers were involved, shutting down operations until satisfied. Now you have arbitration that takes the grievance out of the shop and involves only the directly affected worker (and with the recent Supreme Court decision in Epic — no class action.

        The internet can be a source for information. But when you can’t shut down the information what you do is drown it out with disinformation so that people don’t know what to believe. Decades ago, a visiting prof from E. Germany, when I asked what the difference was between his and our system said that everyone knows what the good books are in E. G. but you can’t get them. In the US, there’s so much shit you can’t find them.

        • Well said. But I think that people are gradually finding the truth in the internet, despite it being mixed in with so much lies and nonsense. It looks to me like people are gradually awakening — but it’s hard for me to be certain; maybe it’s just that my echo chamber has become narrower and I’m getting a less representative sample of society. And even if people are waking up, it’s hard to tell whether they’re waking fast enough to avert the apocalypse. Ecosystem collapse and accidental nuclear war are both a lot closer than most people realize.

      • One other comment for leftymathprof. Marx always looked to the material conditions — what the workers had on hand or what potentials existed in those material conditions that could be realized. Even theory could become a material condition if it takes hold of the workers. So Marx took into consideration both the awareness of people and the economy. I think Marx understood that the best points in the economy for a revolution was during a crash, but Marx also believed in human action in reshaping the world. As such, he saw human action as free will — as an active notion, not passive. When people believe they are merely determined by forces outside of themselves, Marx would call this alienation — human action is seen as the action of the world, determinism. I see this in Marx when in the German Ideology he speaks of perception as an active notion in perceiving the human hand in the world — the objectified labor. In that way, what we perceive is the mode of production in which we live. In capitalist mode, machines are paramount, so the world is seen as if it was a machine. This can contribute to the hegemony of capitalism (I take hegemony more like Gramsci where hegemony is pervasive while ideology is more like propaganda).

        Thus, Marx, believing in free will, knew he couldn’t predict it but only give the conditions under which such action could be possible, thus the economics and crashes. He didn’t believe tho in idealism where it was consciousness that drove production. Consciousness is a product of production (human action). So, if you make a distinction b/w consciousness (idealism) and theory as a material condition in your “awareness,” I could see what you say.

      • The unemployed will increase rapidly. The predictions are that in the next 10 years, 30% of the jobs will be taken over by automation. Does that mean more lumpen-proletariat? (I take it your meaning is that of Marx’s in the 18th Brumaire). Or is it that there’s a point where self-interest, propaganda, etc. can no longer work — let’s say when there’s nothing left to lose but our chains? Marx’s analysis of machines and the finance industry in the Grundrisse makes any notion of revolution at that end stage problematic as I indicated above — capitalists (or whatever they become) will have control of a lot of robotized weaponry that “thinks” for itself given a goal. All I can think of as a counter is that of the professionals that develop such weaponry, a handful of them with their knowledge could counter the post-capitalists, possibly with the use of nanobots.

        That’s why I say the character of a revolution would be different given the level of development capitalism has reached. That would also mean the character that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” would take. In end stage capitalism, the vast majority of people would be unemployed and few “workers.” Would they still be considered the proletariat? The professionals? Or would there not be a state as the post-capitalists have assumed all the functions of a state?

        Marx’s notion of democracy may come in here. He saw the state as the alienated form of civil society and the rules and laws of the state, once their unalienated forms are absorbed by the populous are the rules and laws that allow for human freedom — society being such that the degrading work would be done by machines freeing us to perform the more “creative” work like (Marx’s example–composing) and society would be able to provide for your needs that result from your creative work which would also give back to society as it’s a social endeavor. I don’t think Marx said much about what communism would be in any particularity as he saw it as up to the people to decide for themselves. Any thing beyond the possibilities in existing material conditions would be utopian for him. Today, we have more of a sense of it although Marx was uncanny in his ability to show where capitalist logic ends up.

      • Birrion, thank you for the article. It will be interesting to see how the police state will develop. The state has the monopoly of violence to coerce adherence to the laws. But early on, Weber and others saw that adherence to the laws required more than just threats of violence. The state could not be everywhere enforcing the law. Weber saw habit as a way to keep people in line. In the mid 20th century, we’d say after Beneze that people’s motivations can be manipulated with propaganda. However, if capitalism is relying more and more on a police state to keep order, the flip side to a reliance on a police state means that propaganda is having less and less an effect.

        Leo Strauss, the godfather of the sociology side of the neocons, argued that we need an external enemy to unify the people. Today, with hundreds of TV stations, there are hundreds of different communities. You could unify people when you only had a few stations which gave the nation a shared experience of sorts, but not now. It would seem the neocon’s “shared enemy” con is no longer working. And with the loss of belief in science, the media, education, etc. with some justification due to the use of propaganda use to undermine such (corporate climate deniers e.g.) such undermining has resulted in people believing whatever they want. As one person told me, they let their gut tell them the truth. So propaganda has resulted not in having people believe what the propagandist wants them to believe, but the people not believing in any authority. So, yes, a highly automated police force may yet be able to be everywhere (especially with surveillance and facial recognition if they can ever get it working right). Maybe this experience will force people to recognize capitalism for what it is.

  9. It is indeed an important question. As for its answer, I agree with Debs but not Sondahl. Sondahl says the unfortunate phrase “has entered standard use”; I understand that to mean “we have to live with it, and we have to get used to explaining it over and over.”

    I would say instead “it has been standard use, but we can discard it and no longer live with it.” I would stop quoting ancient texts that use out-of-date language. And then, if anyone asks us about Lenin’s call for a “dictatorship,” we can just say

    “oh, Lenin’s choice of words was unfortunate, but what he meant is a democracy of the proletariat. Or, at any rate, that’s what =we= mean.”

    Or have I missed something?

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