The state in the period of transition
The International Review of the ICC has on several occasions dealt with the question of the period of transition from capitalism to communism. It has published at least ten texts which have in particular gone into the problem of the relationship between the dictatorship of the proletariat and the state in the period of transition. The idea that these two notions are not identical has appeared in the following texts: ‘Problems of the Period of Transition’ and ‘The Proletarian Revolution’ (IR, no.1); ‘The Period of Transition’ and ‘Contribution to the Study of the Question of the State’ (IR, no.6); ‘The State and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ and ‘The Communist Left in Russia’ (IR, no.8); ‘The Political Confusions of the CWO’ (IR, no.10) ; ‘Draft Resolution on the State in the Period of Transition’ (Second Congress of the ICC) and ‘State and Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ (IR, no.11). This idea has often been considered as scandalous and ‘absolutely foreign to Marxism’ by a number of revolutionary elements, who have rushed forward brandishing that famous quote from Marx in Critique of the Gotha Program where he says that, during the period of transition, “the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”
The following text is a new contribution on this question. It aims in particular to establish that the non-identity between state and dictatorship of the proletariat is in no way ‘anti-Marxist’; on the contrary, although it may go against certain formulae by Marx and Engels, it is wholly within the framework of Marxism.Nature and function of the state
At the heart of Marx’s theory of the state is the notion of the withering away of the state.
In his critique of Hegel’s philosophy of the state, with which he began his life as a revolutionary thinker and militant, Marx not only fought against Hegel’s idealism which held that the idea was the point of departure for all movement (making the “idea the subject, the real subject, or properly speaking, the predicate” in all cases, as he wrote in Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the State), he also vehemently denounced the conclusions of this philosophy, which made the state the mediator between social man and universal political man, the reconciliator of the split between private man and universal man. Hegel, noting the growing conflict between civil society and the state, wanted the solution to this contradiction to be found in the self-limitation of civil society and its voluntary integration into the state, for as he said, “it is only in the state that man has an existence which conforms with reason” and “everything that man is, he owes to the state and it is there that his being resides. All his value and spiritual reality, man only has them through the state”(Hegel, Reason in History). Against this delirious apology for the state Marx said “human emancipation is only completed when man has recognized and organized his own forces as social forces, so that social force is no longer separated from himself in the form of political force”, ie the state (from The Jewish Question).
Right from the start Marx’s theoretical work took up a position against the state, which was a product, an expression of, and an active factor in, the alienation of humanity. Against Hegel’s strengthening of the state, and its absorption of civil society, Marx resolutely stood for the withering away of the state as synonymous with the emancipation of humanity, and this fundamental notion would be enriched and developed throughout his life and work.
This radical opposition to the state and the announcement of its inevitable withering away weren’t the product of Marx’s personal genius, even though it was Marx who put forward the most rigorous analysis, the most coherent demonstration of this. This problem was there in the reality of the epoch, and it was in this same reality that the first germs of an answer began to come to the surface with the appearance and struggle of a new historic class: the proletariat. However great Marx’s own contribution and merits, he simply made theoretically coherent the movement of the proletariat that was unfolding in reality.
At the same time as he fought against Hegel’s idealism and apology for the state, Marx equally rejected all the ‘rationalist’ theories which sought to base the state on ‘critical reason’ or those theories which rejected it in the name of a moral principle like Stirner and Bakunin.
A historical product of the development of the productive forces and of the division of labor -- which led to the break-up of primitive communist society -- the new society based on private property and the division between antagonistic classes necessarily gave rise to this superstructural institution, the state.
The expression of a historic situation in which society has entered into an irreducible state of contradiction and antagonisms1, the state is at the same time the indispensable institution for maintaining a certain cohesion, a social order; an institution for preventing society from destroying itself completely in sterile struggles, and for imposing this social order (by force) on the exploited classes. This order is the economic domination of an exploiting class in society; the state is the guardian of this class and it is through the state that the economically dominant exploiting class accedes to the political domination of society. The state therefore is always the emanation of exploiting classes and, as a general rule, of the immediately predominant class. The state originates from this class, a fraction of which specializes in state functions.
From what we have just said it follows that the fundamental role of the state is to be the guardian of the established economic order.
When new exploiting classes arise, representing the new productive forces which have developed within society to the point where they have entered into contradiction with the existing relations of production and so demand a change in them, they come up against the state, which represents the last bastion of the old society. The revolutionary dynamic is always situated in civil society, in the newly rising classes, never in the state as such. It is thus essentially an instrument of social conservation. To say that the state is conservative or revolutionary according to the state of the class which dominates it, to put these two moments on the same level, to make a parallel between them, is to gloss over the problem of the fundamental character of the state, its essential function. Even when the revolutionary class has conquered the state by force, reconstructing it in order to adapt it to its needs and interests, it doesn’t change the essentially conservative nature of the state, or give it a new revolutionary nature. And this for two reasons:
-- first, that the new state is simply the result, the culmination of a transformation which has already taken place elsewhere, in the economic structure of society. The new state simply registers and consecrates an existing fact.
-- secondly, the fundamental task of the new state is not to rid itself of the vestiges of the old, already defeated classes, but above all to defend the new social order against the threat of new exploited classes, to ensure their subjugation. It’s important not to confuse the appearance of the state with its underlying reality.
Some people, basing themselves on this or that event which has taken place at moments of social crisis and revolution, think that you can ascribe a dual nature to the state, conservative and revolutionary at the same time. They cite, for example, the acts of the Convention and the Terror directed against the feudal aristocracy, the internal and external war during the French revolution, the support given at certain moments to the bourgeoisie by the monarchy in France, the policies of Peter the Great in Russia, etc. Against this, we would like to point out that:
1. The exception only proves the rule.
2. You can’t see and understand the course of history and its fundamental laws through purely circumstantial spectacles -- like you can’t measure the distance between galaxies with a ruler.
3. It’s not our task to study and explain in a detailed way every separate event (that would be phenomenology) but to explain their general pattern, to draw from them a general set of laws.
4. We are studying the state in history, not the history of the state. We’re not studying each moment, each day of its existence, but the existence of the state itself, which corresponds to a definite, limited historical era; the era of the division of society into classes. Throughout this historic era, the fundamental function of the state has been to maintain an existing social order. Maintain, keep up, guard -- all these are ways of saying conserving as against creating. It’s the passive as opposed to the active, the static as opposed to the dynamic.
5. Against whom does the state ensure the defense of the existing order? Which social forces threaten the social order2? One possible reply; the old ruling classes.
These old classes have been defeated and overcome above all in the economic sphere. The revolution simply consecrates this defeat, it doesn’t determine it. That’s why Marxists could speak of such political revolutions as ‘palace revolutions’; the real transformation having already taken place in the entrails of society, in its underlying reality, the economic structure.
Another important observation; the revolutionary movement never breaks out from inside the existing state; even the political revolution breaks out in civil society against the state. And this is because it’s not the state which revolutionizes society, but revolutionary society which modifies and adapts the state. The new state arises after the event of the revolution; it may undertake some spectacular measures against members of the old ruling class, but this never goes very far or lasts for very long. The old ruling class continues to exist and its members continue to occupy an important place in the state apparatus, often a preponderant place. This is proof that the old ruling class is not the great threat it’s claimed to be, that the strengthening of the state is not mainly directed against this class (which is the supposed evidence for the state’s revolutionary nature). This is an enormous over-estimation of the state, which by and large is not borne out by history. The basic threat to the existing order comes not from the defeated classes but from the oppressed classes and new rising historic classes -- the first in a constant manner, the second potentially -- who present this mortal danger, against which the existing order has need of the state, this concentrated force of coercion and repression.
The state is not so much a barricade against the past as one against the future. It is this which makes its defense of the present (conservatism) a function closer to the past (reactionary) than to the future (revolutionary). In this sense one can say that while classes represent productive forces in development, the state is the defender of the relations of production. The historical dynamic always comes from the first the fetters from the second.
6. As for the examples of the supposedly progressive or revolutionary role played by the French monarchy, Peter the Great, etc., it is clear that the state was led to carry out progressive acts not because this was inherent to its progressive nature but in spite of its conservative nature, under the pressure of new progressive forces. The state can’t completely avoid the pressures coming from civil society.
It is a fact that the suppression of serfdom and the development of capitalist industrialization in Russia was carried out under the Tzars, just as industrialization in Germany was carried out by the Prussian Junkers, and in France under Bonapartism. This doesn’t make these regimes and states revolutionary forces; the latter two, Germany and France, were born directly out of the counter-revolution of 1848-51.
7. As for the argument about the dual nature of the state -- counter-revolutionary and revolutionary at the same time -- it is no more serious than the argument put forward in defense of the unions, which sees them as having a working-class nature as well as a bourgeois nature, because here and there they defend this or that worker. You could equally well talk about the dual nature of the CRS (French riot police) because from time to time they save people from drowning. In fact every time someone doesn’t know how to argue they naturally resort to this ‘dual nature’ idea.
These few remarks don’t add anything substantial, but are necessary to show up the inanity of the objections, and to make our understanding of the conservative function of the state more precise.
We must be extremely careful not to fall into the confusion and eclecticism which holds that the state is both conservative and revolutionary. This would turn reality on its head and open the door to Hegel’s error which makes the state the subject of the movement of society.
The thesis of the conservative nature of the state, which is above all concerned with its own conservation, is closely and dialectically linked to the notion that the emancipation of humanity can be identified with the withering away of the state. The one highlights the other. By glossing over the former you obscure both the theory and the realization of the necessary withering away of the state.
A failure to understand the conservative nature of the state inevitably has as its corollary a failure to insist on the fundamental Marxist idea of the withering away of the state. The implications of this are extremely dangerous.
What is even more important, and concerns us first of all, is to show that the state -- old and new -- has never been and can never be, by definition, the bearer of the movement towards the abolition of the state. Now, we have seen that Marx’s theory of the state identifies the movement towards the elimination of the state with the movement towards the emancipation of humanity; and, since the state can’t be the subject of its own elimination, it follows that by its very nature it can’t be the motor or even the instrument of human emancipation.
Marx’s theory of the state also shows the inherent tendency of the state and “that fraction of the ruling class which makes it up and which forms itself into a separate body” to “free” themselves from civil society, to separate themselves, to “raise (themselves) above society” (Engels). Without ever achieving this completely and while continuing to defend the general interests of the ruling class, this tendency is nevertheless a reality and opens the way to new contradictions, antagonisms and alienations, which Hegel already saw and noted and which Marx took up; above all the growing opposition between the state and civil society, with all its implications. This tendency in turn explains the numerous social convulsions in the riding class itself, the different varieties of state forms existing in a given society, and their particular relationship with society as a whole. This tendency to make itself independent of society means that self-conservation is a major preoccupation of the state, and further reinforces its conservative nature.
With the development of class society in its succeeding forms, the state develops and strengthens itself, pushing its tentacles into every sphere of social life. Its numerical mass grows proportionally. The upkeep of this enormous parasitical mass is maintained through a growing levy on social production. By raising taxes directly and indirectly, which it does not only from the incomes of the working masses but also from the profits of the capitalists, the state even enters into conflict with its own class, which wants a state that is strong but also cheap. For the men of the state apparatus, this external hostility and their common interests give rise to a response of defense and solidarity, an esprit de corps which solidifies them into a caste of their own.
Of all the state’s fields of action, coercion and oppression are its most characteristic functions. For this purpose it has an absolute exclusive monopoly of armed force. Coercion and oppression are the raison d’être of the state, its very being. It is the specific product of them, endlessly reproducing, amplifying and perfecting them. Complicity in massacres and terror is the most solid cement for the unity of the state.
With capitalism we reach the culminating point of the entire history of class society. Although this long historical march, traced in blood and suffering, has been the inevitable tribute humanity has had to pay for the development of the productive forces, the latter today have reached the point where this kind of society is no longer necessary.
In fact its survival has become the greatest fetter to the further development of the productive forces, even endangering the very existence of humanity.
With capitalism, exploitation and oppression have reached a paroxysm, because capitalism is the condensed product of all previous societies of exploitation of man by man.
The state in capitalism has achieved its destiny, becoming the hideous and bloody monster we know today. With state capitalism it has realized the absorption of civil society, it has become the manager of the economy, the boss of production, the absolute and undisputed master of all members of society, of their lives and activities; it has unleashed terror and death and presided over a generalized barbarism.The proletarian revolution
The proletarian revolution differs radically from all previous revolutions. While all revolutions have in common the fact that they are determined by and express the revolt of the productive forces against the relations of production of the existing order, the proletarian revolution expresses not simply a quantitative development but poses the necessity for a qualitative, fundamental change in the course of history. All the previous modifications which took place in the development of the productive forces were contained within the historic epoch of scarcity, which made the exploitation of labor power an inescapable necessity. The changes they brought about did not diminish exploitation but made it more intense, more rational, extending it to greater and greater masses of the population. They assured a more advanced expropriation of the instruments and the products of labor.
In the dialectical movement of human history they make up one and the same period, that of the negation of the human community, that of the Antithesis. This fundamental unity means that the different societies which have succeeded each other in this period appear, whatever their differences, as a progressive continuity. Without this continuity it would be impossible to explain events as contradictory and incomprehensible at first sight as:
-- the long survival of the political domination of classes who have long since lost their economic domination; the ability of these classes to accommodate themselves to the needs of the new exploiting class.
-- the long social survival of old classes and the active role they continue to play in the new society.
-- the possibility of the new victorious class collaborating with or incorporating the old defeated class.
-- the possibility for new ruling classes to maintain or reintroduce modes of exploitation which they had long ago fought against and defeated. For example the slave traffic carried on and defended by capitalist Brtainn until the second half of the 19th Century.
-- the alliances of factions of the bourgeoisie with the nobility, and against their own class.
-- the military support bourgeois Britain gave to the feudal Vendee against the bourgeois revolution in France. The military alliance of bourgeois Britain with all the feudal countries against the ruling bourgeoisie in France. The long alliance between this same Britain and the ultra-reactionary regime of Tzarism. The support given by this first, most developed capitalist nation to the slave-holding South against the industrial, progressive bourgeoisie of the North during the American Civil War.
This explains why the revolutions of this era have been mere transfers of the state machine from one exploiting class to another and very often social transformations which take place even without a political revolution.
It is quite different with the proletarian revolution because it is not in continuity with the problems posed by scarcity, but is the end of scarcity of the productive forces; its problem is not how to make exploitation more effective but how to suppress it; not how to reinforce oppression but how to destroy it for good. It is not the continuity of the Negation, but the Negation of the Negation, the restoration of the human community on a higher level. The proletarian revolution can’t reproduce the characteristics of the previous revolutions we’ve just mentioned, because it is in radical opposition to them, both in content, form and means.
One of the fundamental characteristics of the proletarian revolution is -- as opposed to previous revolutions, and bearing in mind the level of development of the productive forces -- that the necessary transformations can’t take place with long gaps from country to country. The whole world is straight away its theatre of operations. The proletarian revolution is international or it is nothing. Having begun in one country it must extend itself to all countries or quickly succumb. Other revolutions were the work of minority, exploiting classes against the majority of the toiling masses; the proletarian revolution is that of the immense majority of the exploited against a minority. Being the emancipation of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority, it can only be realized by the active and constant participation of the immense majority. It can in no way take previous revolutions as its model because it is opposed to them on every point.
It has the task of overturning all the existing structures and relations, beginning with the total destruction of the superstructures of the state. In contrast to previous revolutions which simply completed the economic domination of the new class, the revolution of the proletariat -- a class which has no economy of its own -- is in its first act a political revolution which, through revolutionary violence, opens up and ensures the process of total social transformation.The dictatorship of the proletariat
As the Communist Manifesto showed, the bourgeoisie has not only created the material conditions for the revolution, it has also produced the class that will be its gravedigger, the subject of the revolution; the proletariat. The proletariat is the bearer of this radical revolution, because it is a “class with radical chains”, a class which is the “negation of society”, which in Marx’s terms embodies all the sufferings of society, against which “no particular wrong, but wrong generally is perpetrated”, a class which has nothing to lose but its chains and which can’t emancipate itself without emancipating the whole of humanity. This is the producer class, the class of associated labor par excellence. This is why the proletariat is the only class which can solve the hitherto insurmountable and unbearable contradictions of class society. The proletariat’s historical solution is communism. The depth of this historic change and the impossibility of any measures in this direction being taken within capitalism -- which means that the revolution is the pre-condition for it -- demands the replacement of capitalist class rule by the rule of the proletariat. The proletarian dictatorship is undoubtedly linked to this rule, but there’s more to it than that. “Dictatorship”, wrote Lenin, “means an unlimited power, based not on law but on force”3. The idea of force linked to the dictatorship is not new; what interests us is the first part of this phrase, which contains the idea of an “unlimited power”. Lenin stressed this a great deal; “...this power recognizes no other power, law or norm no matter where they come from”4. Particularly interesting is this other passage where he talks about the dictatorship of the proletariat as something more than just force:
“This question is always posed by those coming across the word dictatorship for the first time in a new context. People are only used to seeing it in the sense of police power and police dictatorship. To them it’s strange that there could be a power without any police, a dictatorship which isn’t a police dictatorship”5.
This was the power of the Soviets which Lenin exalted so much and which created “...new organs of revolutionary power; workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ soviets, new authorities in the town and countryside” and which were based neither on the “force of bayonets” nor on “the commissariat of police” and which “had nothing in common with the old instruments of force”6. Wasn’t this dictatorship also founded on force and coercion? Yes, of course, but what’s important is to distinguish its novel quality. Whereas the dictatorship of former classes was essentially directed against the future, against human emancipation, the dictatorship of the proletariat is the dictatorship “of the people against the oppression of the police organs of the old power”. This is why it must be based on something more than just force.
“The new power, this dictatorship of the immense majority, can only maintain itself with the aid of the broad masses, only by inviting in the freest possible way the masses as a whole to participate in this power. Nothing hidden, nothing secret, no formal rules and regulations ...it is a power which is open to everyone’s view, which does everything under the eyes of the masses, which is accessible to the masses, which emanates directly from the masses; it is the direct organ of the popular masses, without any intermediary”7.
We have here not a description of communism, where the problem of power doesn’t exist, but of the revolutionary period in which power occupies a central place. It’s the question of the power of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. In Lenin’s writings we see what the dictatorship of the proletariat has to be, and we also find the essence of the Marxist idea of the withering away of the state. In the same vein Engels could write:
“Gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.”
The dictatorship of the proletariat is the unlimited power of a class freely and fully exercising its creative powers; it’s the taking over -- without intermediaries -- of its own destiny and the destiny of society as a whole, bringing in its wake the other laboring classes and strata. The proletariat cannot delegate this power to any particular formation without abdicating its own emancipation, because the “emancipation of the proletariat can only be the work of the proletariat itself.”
The capitalist class, like other exploiting classes in history, united in the goal of exploitation, is itself divided into mutually hostile factions with divergent interests, and it can only achieve unity in the rule of a particular faction, the faction which runs the state. The proletariat has no hostile, divergent interests within itself. It finds its unity in its goal, communism, and in its unitary class organs, the workers’ councils. It is in itself and from itself that it derives its unity and strength. Its consciousness is dictated by its existence. The process whereby it becomes conscious is expressed by the appearance within it of currents of thought and of political organizations. These can sometimes be the bearers of alien class ideologies, or they can be extremely important and precious expressions of a real awareness of the proletariat’s historic class interests. The communist party represents the clearest fraction of the class, but it can never claim to be the class itself or to replace it in the accomplishment of its historic tasks. No party, not even the communist party, can claim a ‘right’ to neither lead nor a particular power of decision within the class. The power of decision is the exclusive attribute of the unitary organizations of the class and their elected and revocable organs; this power cannot be alienated to any other organism without the risk of gravely altering the functioning of the class’s organizations and the accomplishment of their tasks. This is why it’s inconceivable that the directing organs of the unitary organizations be entrusted, even by a vote, to this or that grouping. This would be to introduce into the proletariat the practices and modes of operation of non-proletarian classes.
All political formations who recognize the autonomy of the working class in relation to other classes, and its unlimited hegemony over society, must have full freedom of action and propaganda in the class and in society, since “one of the preconditions for the development of consciousness in the class is the free circulation and confrontation of ideas within it” (Marx).
Some people might see this conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat as an expression of ‘democratism’. Just as they take the bourgeois revolution as a model for the proletarian revolution, they take the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie as a model for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Because the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie is the state and nothing but the state, they take the state which inevitably arises in the period of transition, after the victory of the proletarian revolution, for the dictatorship of the proletariat, making no distinction between the one and the other. They pay no attention to the fact that the bourgeoisie has no other unitary class organ except the state, whereas the proletariat creates unitary organs which regroup the whole class: the workers’ councils. It is through the councils that it makes the revolution and defends it afterwards, without dissolving them into the state. The unlimited power of the councils: this is the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is exerted over the whole of society, including the semi-state of the transition period. The Marxist notion of the semi-state or Commune-state escapes them completely and all they retain of the dictatorship of the proletariat is the generic word ‘dictatorship’, which they identify with the strong state, with state terror. What’s more they identify the dictatorship of the class with the dictatorship of the party, the latter dictating its laws by force on the class. This view can be summed up as: a single party seizes the state, uses terror to subordinate the unitary organs of the class -- the councils -- and the whole soviet system of transitional society. Such a dictatorship of the proletariat resembles, like two drops of water resemble each other, the fully formed totalitarian capitalist state -- the Stalinist or fascist state.
The so-called arguments about the need to reject any reference to majorities and minorities, reduced to a ridiculous question of 49% and 51%, are just sophisticated jugglings, an empty phraseology, a superficial radicalism which glosses over the real problem. The point isn’t that the majority is always right. The point is that the proletarian revolution cannot be the work of a minority of the class. This isn’t a question of formalism, but of the very essence and content of the revolution, i.e. that the class “organizes its own forces as social forces” (Marx) and doesn’t separate them as external, independent forces. The accomplishment of the revolution is thus inseparable from the effective and unlimited participation of the immense majority of the class, from their self-activity and self-organization. This above all is the dictatorship of the proletariat. This doesn’t go along with the strengthening of an all-powerful state, but with the weakening of the state; this is a state amputated at birth by the unlimited power and will of the proletariat.
The dictatorship of the proletariat goes together with the concept of the withering away of the state, as Marxism from Marx to the Lenin of State and Revolution has always affirmed. It’s not the state which makes the dictatorship, but the dictatorship of the proletariat which tolerates the inevitable existence of the state and guarantees the process of the withering away of the state.The state in the period of transition
The difference between Marxists and anarchists isn’t that the former conceive of socialism with the state and the latter a society without a state. On this point there is complete agreement. It’s rather with the pseudo-Marxists of social democracy, the heirs of Lassalle who yoked socialism with the state, that this difference exists, and it’s a fundamental one (cf Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program and Lenin’s State and Revolution). The debate with the anarchists centered round their total misunderstanding of the need for a transition period: as good idealists they foresaw an immediate, direct leap from capitalism to communist society8.
It is absolutely impossible to deal with the problem of the state after the revolution if you haven’t already understood that “between capitalist society and communist society lies the period of revolutionary transformation of the one into the other” (Critique of the Gotha Program); if you haven’t understood why this period takes place not before but after the victory of the revolution, or why it is radically different from previous transition periods; if you haven’t understood the fact that after destroying the rule of the capitalist class, there will still exist huge masses of the laboring population who are profoundly anti-capitalist but not pro-communist, and that there can be no question of excluding them from political life and active participation in the organization of society.
Only if you begin from these objective, historical realities, not from the state in itself, can you understand: 1. the inevitable emergence of the state; 2. its fundamental difference from other types of state; 3. the necessity for the proletariat to have an active attitude towards it, in order to progressively limit its functions and ensure that it withers away. Let us look at these points more closely.1. The inevitable emergence of the state
a. More than in other revolutions, the proletariat will encounter ferocious resistance from the defeated capitalist class. It should be stressed that in the act of revolution, i.e. chasing the capitalist class from its ruling position and destroying its state apparatus, the proletariat will rely solely on its class power, i.e. its own organs, without needing any kind of state. The living breath of the revolution will demoralize and disorganize the permanent army, which is mainly made up of workers and peasants, the majority of whom will go over to the revolution. But once it has been defeated, the bourgeoisie, mad for revenge, will begin to resist, regroup its forces, reconstitute a selected army of volunteers and mercenaries, and will unleash a pitiless counter-revolutionary war and terror. Faced with a war organized with all the military arts and techniques created by the bourgeoisie, the proletariat cannot simply put forward its own armed masses, but will be forced to build a regular army, which incorporates not only workers but the whole population. War, reprisals, systematic coercion against the threats of the counter-revolution -- these are the first necessities giving rise to a state institution.
But however important are the requirements of the military struggle, the need for coercion against the counter-revolution -- which during the civil war may well take precedence over all other tasks -- it would be a simplistic error to think that this was the only or essential reason for the emergence of a state. The simple fact that the state will survive well after the period of civil war is ample proof of this.
For the same reason it is important to remember the difference between this state and previous states, which directed their coercion mainly against the rising classes, whilst accommodating themselves to the old ruling classes. It is exactly the opposite with the state in the period of transition: coercion is not used against rising classes -- for none exist -- but against the former ruling class with whom there can be no collaboration.
b. Society in the period of transition is still a society divided into classes. Marxism and history teach us that no class society can exist without a state, not as a mediator, but as an indispensable institution for maintaining a necessary cohesion which prevents society from tearing itself apart.
Moreover, if it’s both possible and indispensable for the proletariat to deprive the old ruling class -- a small minority -- of its political rights, it would be a pure nonsense, highly prejudicial, and totally impossible, to exclude the great mass of non-proletarian, non-exploiting strata from political and social life. These masses will be intensely interested in all the economic, political and cultural problems of the immediate life of society. The proletariat cannot ignore their existence or exert systematic coercion against them during the revolutionary transformation. It has to have a policy of reforms towards them, a policy of propaganda, of incorporating them into social life, without dissolving itself into them or abdicating its mission and its hegemony -- the essentials of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The necessary incorporation of these masses takes the form of that particular institution, the Commune-state, which is still a state. It is essentially the existence of these classes, their slow dissolution and the imperious necessity to incorporate them, which makes the emergence of a state inevitable in the period of transition to socialism.
c. In addition to the above two reasons there is the need for the centralization and organization of production and distribution, relations with the outside world etc: in a word the administration of a public life completely overturned by the revolution -- the administration of things which society has not yet separated from the government of men.
These three factors act together to determine the emergence of the state after the revolution.2. The fundamental difference between this state and previous states
Analyzing the Commune, Engels said that this was no longer really a state. Trying to show the profound differences with the classical state, Marx, Engels and Lenin gave it various names: Commune-state, semi-state, popular state, democratic dictatorship, revolutionary dictatorship, etc. All these names highlight what distinguishes it from previous states.
Above all this state is distinguished by the fact that for the first time it is the state of exploited classes, not exploiting classes. It is the state of the majority in the interests of the majority against a minority.
It is not there to defend new privileges but to destroy privileges. It uses violence not for the purposes of oppression but to prevent oppression. It is not a body raising itself above society but is at the service of society. Its members and functionaries are not nominated but elected and revocable, its permanent army is replaced by the general arming of the people, it replaces oppression with a maximum of democracy, i.e. freedom of opinion, criticism, and expression, and most important of all it is a state which is withering away. But it is still a state, the government of men, because it is an institution of a society still divided into classes, even though the last one.
According to Lenin, this transitional state won’t be like the states: “the bourgeoisie has created everywhere, from constitutional monarchies to the most democratic republics”, but it will conform “to the lessons of the Paris Commune and the analysis Marx and Engels made of it” ... “This is the kind of state we need ... this is the road we must follow so that it is impossible to establish a police or an army separated from the people.”
Lenin did not confuse the state with the dictatorship of the proletariat because this state was simply “the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat anal poor peasants.” Certainly, Lenin said, “democracy is also a form of state which will have to disappear when the state itself disappears, but this will only happen with the definitive victory of socialism, with the establishment of full communism.”
And Lenin defined the role of the proletariat after it had “demolished” the bourgeois state: “the proletariat must organize all the exploited elements of the population so that they themselves can directly take in hand the organs of state power, themselves form the institutions of this power.”
These lines were written at the beginning of March 1917, hardly a month after the February Revolution. This theme, the taking over of the state by “all exploited elements of the population” was developed by Lenin in dozens of articles, particularly in State and Revolution. And we can say again “this is the kind of state we need” and which the revolution will give rise to.3. The necessity for the proletariat to have an active attitude towards the state in order to ensure that it withers away
We’ve looked at the tremendous gulf which separates the transitional state -- which as Engels said is no longer a state in the old sense -- from all others; but Engels still called it “a scourge” inherited by the proletariat; he warned the proletariat of the need to be on guard against this “scourge”. What does this mean?
Marx and Engels highlighted the measures which the Paris Commune immediately felt the need to take against the semi-state, notably the revocability of delegates and the limitation bf functionaries’ wages to the average workers’ wage, in order to limit its more pernicious tendencies. Lenin never ceased to recall these measures, showing how important for him was the danger of bureaucratization even in a Commune-state. The Paris Commune, limited to one town and only lasting two months, didn’t have much chance to show the dangerous sides of the semi-state. We can only admire the amazing political perspicacity of Engels, who managed despite this to show the need to be on guard against the “scourge” aspects of the post-revolutionary state.
The October Revolution, which took place in an immense country with a population of over 100 million and lasted a number of years, was to be a quite different experience. This experience was a tragic confirmation of what Engels said about the state as a scourge -- in fact it went beyond what he could have imagined in his worst nightmares.
When, following Marx, Engels and Lenin, we list the distinctive characteristics of this state, we are talking about what it should be rather than what it actually, is. In itself it carries a heavy burden of evils inherited from previous states. It is up to the proletariat to be extremely vigilant towards it. The proletariat can’t prevent it from emerging, nor avoid the necessity to use it, but in order to do so it must, as soon as it appears, amputate its most pernicious aspects, in order to be able to subordinate it to its own ends.
The state is neither the bearer nor the active agent of communism. Rather, it is a fetter against it. It reflects the present state of society and like any state it tends to maintain, to conserve the status quo. The proletariat, the subject of the social transformation, forces the state to act in the direction it wants to go. It can only do this by controlling it from within and dominating it from outside, by depriving it of as many of its functions as possible, thus actively ensuring the process of its withering away.
The state always tends to grow disproportionately. It is the ideal target of careerists and other parasites and easily recruits the residual elements of the old decomposing ruling class. This is what Lenin meant when he talked about the state as the reconstitution of the old Tsarist apparatus. This state machine, as Lenin said, “tends to escape our control and go in the opposite direction from the one we want it to go.” Lenin could not find words strong enough to protest against the enormous abuses committed by the representatives of the state against the population. This was not only done by the old crowd of Tsarism who infested the state, but also by the personnel recruited from among the communists, for whom Lenin invented the phrase komtchvanstva (communist riff-raff).
You cannot fight against such developments if you think they are accidental. In order to fight them effectively, you have to go to the heart of the matter, recognize that they have their root in this scourge, this inevitable survival, this superstructure, the state. It is not a question of lamenting, of throwing your hands up in the air and kneeling powerlessly in front of a fatality. Determinism is not a philosophy of fatalism. But nor is it a question that by will alone society will escape the need for a state. This would be idealism. But, while we must recognize that the state is imposed on us as an “exigency of the situation” (Lenin), as a necessity, it is important not to make a virtue out of this necessity, to make an apology for the state and sing eulogies to it. Marxism recognizes the state as a necessity but also as a scourge, and poses to the proletariat the problem of taking measures to ensure that it will wither away.
Nothing can be gained by coupling the word state with word proletariat or worker. You cannot resolve the problem by changing the name -- you only gloss over it by aggravating the confusion. The proletarian state is a myth. Lenin rejected it, recalling that it was “a workers’ and peasants’ government with bureaucratic deformations.” It’s a contradiction in terms and a contradiction in reality. The great experience of the Russian Revolution is there to prove it. Every sign of fatigue, failure or error on the part of the proletariat has the immediate consequence of strengthening the state; conversely each victory, each reinforcement of the state weakens the proletariat a little bit more. The state feeds on the weakening of the proletariat and its class dictatorship. Victory for one is defeat for the other.
Neither can anything be gained by wanting the unitary organs of the class, the workers’ councils, to be the state. To proclaim the central committee of the workers’ councils as the state shows the craftiness of the promoters of this idea, but also their ignorance of the real problems posed by reality. Why burden the name council with the name state, if they are synonymous and describe the same thing? Is it out of love for the pretty word ‘state’? Have these radical phrasemongerers ever heard of the workers’ councils being called a scourge, or of the need for them to wither away? By proclaiming the councils as the state they exclude and forbid any participation by the non-proletarian toiling classes in the life of society, a participation which, as we have seen, is the principle reason for the emergence of the state. This is both an impossibility and an absurdity9. And if, in order to escape this absurdity, you try to get these classes and strata to participate in the workers’ councils, it will be the latter that will be altered and lose their nature as the autonomous, unitary organs of the proletariat.
We also have to reject the idea of structuring the state on the basis of different social categories (workers, peasants, liberal professions, artisans etc) organized separately. This would be to institutionalize their existence and take Mussolini’s corporate state as a model. It would be to lose sight of the fact that we are not talking about a society with a fixed mode of existence, but of a period of transition. It is not a question of organizing classes but of organizing their dissolution. The non-exploiting population will participate in social life as members of society, through the territorial soviets, and only the proletariat, as the bearer of communism, as well as ensuring its hegemonic participation in and direction of social life will be organized as a class through its workers’ councils.
Without entering into details, we can put forward the following principles for the structure of the transitional society:
1. The whole non-exploiting population is organized on the basis of territorial soviets or communes, centralized from the bottom up, and giving rise to the Commune-state.
2. The workers participate in this soviet organization, individually like all members of society, and collectively through their autonomous class organs, at all levels of the soviet organization.
3. The proletariat ensures that it has a preponderant representation at all levels, but especially the higher levels.
4. The proletariat retains and maintains complete freedom in relation to the state. On no pretext will the proletariat subordinate the decision-making power of its own organs, the workers’ councils, to that of the state; it must see that the opposite is the case.
5. In particular it won’t tolerate the interference of the state in the life and activity of the organized class; it will deprive the state of any right or possibility of repressing the working class.
6. The proletariat retains its arms outside of any control by the state.
It only remains for us to affirm that the political party of the class is not a state organ. For a long time revolutionaries did not hold this view, but this was a sign of the immaturity of the objective situation and their own lack of experience. The experience of the Russian Revolution has shown that this view is obsolete. The structure of a state based on political parties is typical of bourgeois democracy, of the bourgeois state. Society in the transition period cannot delegate its power to political parties, i.e. specialized bodies. The semi-state will be based on the soviet system, on the direct and constant participation of the masses in the life and functioning of society. This implies that the masses can at any time recall their representatives, replace them, exert a constant and direct control over them. The delegation of power to parties, of whatever kind, reintroduces the division between power and society, and is thus a major barrier to its emancipation.
Moreover, the assumption of or participation in state power by the proletarian party will, as the Russian experience shows, profoundly alter its functions. Without entering into a discussion on the function of the party and its relation to the class -- which raises another debate -- it is enough here to say that the contingent demands of the state would end up prevailing over the party, making it identify with the state and separate itself from the class, to the point of opposing the class.
To conclude, one thing must be clear once and for all -- when we talk about autonomy, we mean the autonomy of the class in relation to the state, not the autonomy of the state. The state must be subordinate to the class. The task of the proletariat is to preside over the withering away of the state. The precondition for this is that the class does not identify with the state.
1 “…. political power is precisely the official summary of the antagonisms in civil society” (Marx, Poverty of Philosophy)
2 We deliberately exclude the question of external threats, i.e. country to country; this is a real problem but in this context can only get in the way of clarifying what we’re trying to answer here: the role of the state in the historical evolution of societies.
3 Lenin, The Victory of the Cadets and the Tasks of the Workers’ Party, 28.3.06).
8 As often happens with idealism, it is only radical when engaging in abstract speculation, falling into the worst opportunism when it comes to concrete practice. This didn’t escape the anarchists. Their fierce ‘anti-statism’, based on willful ignorance of the needs of the historic situation, led them directly to integrate themselves into (and even more fiercely defend) the ‘Republican’ bourgeois state in the 1936-9 war in Spain.
9 The Workers’ Opposition fell into a similar error when it called for the state to be run by the unions, and Lenin correctly called this an anarcho-syndicalist conception.