Understanding “Dictatorship” Beyond Propaganda

Since the proxy war in Ukraine that began on February 24, 2022, subsequent geopolitical shifts have created a situation for a restructuring towards a multipolar world. The distractions created by capitalist media have heightened confusion around how to discuss current geopolitical events. Despite the illusion of a free and fair press, as political scientist and cultural critic, Michael Parenti explicitly laid out in his renowned book, Inventing Reality, U.S. citizens are highly propagandized:

“The enormous gap between what US leaders do in the world and what Americans think their leaders are doing is one of the great propaganda accomplishments.”

How the general public understands the political economy of the world is at best limited and skewed by the relentless capitalist media narratives pushed by U.S. corporate interests. This confusion, facilitated by state propaganda, has not only helped garner national support for destructive U.S policy, but has also intensified the split between Africans in the empire and Internationalism.  No example is more apt than the use of the word “dictatorship.”

The average person living in the U.S. has a negative perception of the word “dictatorship.” And why wouldn’t they? Corporate media’s purposeful use of the word has been relegated solely towards U.S. enemy states (ie. the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, People’s Republic of China, Zimbabwe, The Islamic Republic of Iran, Cuba, Nicaragua, etc.). This helps solidify the image of the U.S. as a beacon of ‘democracy’ defending ‘human rights’ globally; the “shining light on the hill”. However, it’s important to place dictatorship in context and proper perspective. In order to understand the “role” of a dictatorship, it’s important to understand that the term, itself, is neutral and dependent on the class character of the state.

A dictatorship is a form of government where one individual or a group holds absolute power and authority over the state and its citizens. Dictatorships can vary in their ideologies and methods of governance. Yes, repressive regimes exist. But this does not mean that “dictatorship” can be defined as inherently that way, nor that the term itself is inherently negative. How “dictatorships” are understood should be determined by a state’s use of it.

If dictatorships are seen as a form of government with authority then, from a Marxian perspective, this would be “the ruling class”.  German-born philosopher, economist, and political theorist, Karl Marx, defines the ruling class as the social group that holds economic and political power in a given society. This class influences the state apparatus, including the government, judiciary system, and law enforcement, to serve their interests and protect their property rights. Through this control, the ruling class can shape the laws, policies, and institutions to perpetuate their dominance and suppress any challenges to their authority.

As African people living in the U.S. subjugated to structurally racist laws and relentless persecution, there is a pressing need to amass political power— the ability to establish and control institutions and influence, autonomy, and make sovereign decisions within a society impacting the distribution of authority and resources in a given community or nation. If the people can gain political power through avenues like community control and liberated zones, they would then become the ruling class. In Marxian terms, this is what’s known as the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The dictatorship of the proletariat is a concept in Marxist theory referring to a transitional phase during the process of socialist revolution. According to Marx, and his close friend and collaborator, political theorist Friedrich Engels, the state apparatus is where the working class (the proletariat) holds political power and control over the means of production.

In his analysis of capitalist societies, Marx identifies the ruling class as the bourgeoisie, which consists of the owners of the means of production, such as factories, land, and businesses. The bourgeoisie control the production and distribution of goods and services and accumulate wealth through the exploitation of the proletariat, the working class. The proletariat are the oppressed and exploited class, who must sell their labor to the bourgeoisie to survive. In his letter to J. Weydemeyer, Marx states that while he did not create the classes, he simply named them and was successful in proving the antagonistic nature of how the ruling class uses its economic power to maintain and strengthen its position in society. Marx notes that “the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat,[1] (3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.”  Marx believed that the inherent and consistent contradictions within the capitalist system (bourgeoisie vs proletariat) would eventually lead to the overthrow of the ruling class by the working class, leading to a socialist state working towards the establishment of a classless society. The only possible tangible “alternative” to the state power of the bourgeoisie is an equally absolute hold on state power by the proletariat. 

The ongoing Nicaraguan revolution gives us an example of how a state run by the people develops from class antagonisms to the process of withering away of the state. The existing capitalist structure of the state, which exploited and oppressed workers, was overturned through revolutionary processes to allow for the establishing of a new society, with new laws and people’s-centered institutions. The ideological framework of the Sandinista party dictates how representation in government is utilized and to what end. There are “Casa Maternas” throughout the country, which provide care and education for low-resource mothers during pregnancy, birth, and postpartum periods through a mix of traditional Mayan customs and Western medicine. Contrast this level of investment in human life within the capitalist mode of healthcare production in a country like the United States, where poor pregnant mothers are lucky to even see the inside of a hospital before going into labor; where the mortality rates of birthing Africans are at obscene levels. Two different methods of administering healthcare to a country, with two different classes in control of the operations.  

As a result of their people’s revolution, Nicaragua also granted its Indigenous and Afro-descendant population the title to 15 territories covering more than two million hectares (over 37,000km2 of land), a territory larger than El Salvador and Belize combined. In a country like the U.S. where the concept of “land back” has been relegated to spoken “land acknowledgements” and other forms of lip service, it is clear that the question of land redistribution is opposed to the interests of the capitalist ruling class, who view land as a resource for extraction. 

In other countries where the dictatorship of the proletariat continues to develop like Cuba, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and People’s Republic of China, workers are unionized, have full rights, hold positions within government, and are taking control of the means of production. In spite of this, ‘strong man’ theories about these states are made to demonize their elected leadership, and depict “dictatorship” as something that strips the people of their own autonomy within the revolutionary process. These nations are highly propagandized. Understanding how these terms are depicted to the general public, specifically the African masses, by corporate media helps us distinguish facts from western propaganda. It ultimately helps us define living examples of what our own liberation struggle could look like, and what it should be for.

In theory, the dictatorship of the proletariat is meant to serve the interests of the working class and pave the way for a more egalitarian and just society. Like “hegemony”,  “propaganda”, and “authoritarianism” (yes, that too), “dictatorship”, under the people, is something those of us seeking liberation from western hegemony, inside and outside the empire, are striving for.

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Erica Caines is a poet, writer and organizer in Baltimore and the DMV. She is an organizing committee member of the anti war coalition, the Black Alliance For Peace as well as an outreach member of the Black centered Ujima People’s Progress Party. Caines founded Liberation Through Reading in 2017 as a way to provide Black children with books that represent them and created the extension, a book club entitled Liberation Through Reading BC, to strengthen political education online and in our communities.