The dictatorship of the proletariat is defined by Marxist theory as the forceful use of state power by the working class against its enemies during the passage from capitalism to communism, entailing control of the state apparatus and the means of production.
This doctrine was used in Communist countries, which claimed to implement a dictatorship of the proletariat, to justify the state exercise of its power, ostensibly on behalf of the workers, to suppress all opposition (see totalitarianism). Critics, particulary anti-communists and non-Marxist communists, contend that this princicle is little better than a justification for granting sweeping powers to a new ruling elite. These critics maintain that it is not the working class which uses state power in Communist countries but a new elite more cruel and corrupt than the old ruling class it replaces (see nomenclatura).
Prior to 1871, Karl Marx said little about what in practice would characterize such a regime, believing that planning in advance the details of a future socialist regime constituted the fallacy of "utopian socialism". Marx used the term "dictatorship" to describe absolute control by an entire class (rather than a single sovereign individual) over another class (compare political absolutism). Thus Marx called capitalism the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, which he believed would be superseded by socialism (the dictatorship of the proletariat), which in turn would be superseded by a classless and stateless society known as communism. He viewed the dictatorship of the proletariat as only an intermediate stage, believing that governments, that is to say the use of state power of one class over another, would disappear once the classes themselves had disappeared.
However, although Marx did not plan out the details of how such a dictatorship would be implement, he did point to the Paris Commune of 1871 as an example of a society in his own lifetime that put his ideas into practice. In his work "The Civil War in France", Marx praised the government of the Paris Commune. Frederick Engels, in his 1891 postscript to the work, summarized this position, and praised the democratic features of this government, when he wrote: "In this first place, it filled all posts -- administrative, judicial, and educational -- by election on the basis of universal suffrage of all concerned, with the right of the same electors to recall their delegate at any time. And in the second place, all officials, high or low, were paid only the wages received by other workers." Engels argued that the working class, once in power, had to "do away with all the old repressive machinery previously used against it itself", and that it must "safeguard itself against its own deputies and officials, by declaring them all, without exception, subject to recall at any moment". In praising the Paris Commune, and at the same time defending his concept of a dictatorship of the proletariat, Engels said: "Of late, the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat."
The Paris Commune, however, was short lived, and no other serious attempt at implementing Marx's ideas was made during his lifetime. After Marx, the concept of a dictatorship of the proletariat was later altered and defined by many Marxist groups who adopted Lenin's theory documented in his brochure State and Revolution. Lenin believed that the political form of the Paris Commune was revived in the councils of workers and soldiers appeared after the 1905 Russian revolution and called soviets. These included the Bolsheviks, who used the concept to justify crushing dissent and defining the boundaries of acceptable discourse, and later the Maoists.
Marxists disagree among themselves on whether any of the "Marxist" regimes that came to power actually implemented in practice what Marx considered to be such a dictatorship. In practice, critics have argued that twentieth century regimes which claimed to institute a dictatorship of the entire working class in fact did not do so. In general, such regimes have utilized state power in ways which, critics argue, oppress workers just as much as the old regime, thus the becoming not a government which serves the proletariat but rather oppresses it.