The period of transition: Polemic with the P.C.Int.-Battaglia Comunista

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The debate on the period of transition has always been the object of fierce polemics between revolutionary groups. With the devel­opment of the class struggle, revolutionaries have been compelled to focus their attention on more immediate questions, in particular the question of organization and intervent­ion. But in playing its role of advancing concrete proposals in the workers' struggles, the revolutionary organization, because it is based on what is ‘general', on what concerns all workers, the whole class, can't afford to neglect the problem of the historical goals of the struggle: the revolutionary destruction of the capitalist state, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the communist transformation of social life. In devoting this article to the positions of the Partito Comunista Internazionalista (PCInt - Battaglia Comunista) on the period of transition, as expressed in the document from their 5th Congress (Prometeo No 7), we are aiming to help reanimate this important discussion in the revolutionary movement. (For further reading on this question see the ICC's pamphlet ‘The Period of Transition from Capitalism to Socialism').


For our part, we have no doubt that the PCInt's text does share with us an important extent of common ground in the historical acquisitions of marxism. In particular:

* against the idealist theories typical of bourgeois historiography, it locates the origins of the state in the real historical and material evolution of class society;

* against anarchist utopianism, it affirms the necessity for the dictatorship of the proletar­iat and for a state in the transition period, which will still be marked by class divisions;

* against reformism, now a counter-revolution­ary ideology of the bourgeoisie, it affirms the lessons of the Paris Commune about the need to smash the bourgeois state and replace it with a state of a new type, a semi-state destined to disappear with the overcoming of class antagonisms

* following Lenin's State and Revolution it affirms that the semi-state must be based on the soviet form discovered by the working class in 1905 and 1917;

* and finally, in line with the contribution of the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left in the 1930s, it draws a certain number of critical lessons from the Russian experience:

-- the causes of the decline of the Russian revolution and of the transformation of the Soviet State and the Bolshevik party into a counter-revolutionary capitalist machine reside first and foremost in the failure of the revol­ution to spread internationally;

-- within the objective framework of the isolation of the revolution and the conditions of backwardness and famine facing the Russian proletariat, certain errors of the Bolshevik party acted as "accelerators" of the process of degeneration;

-- the first of these errors resided in an identification between the party and the dic­tatorship of the proletariat, resulting in the entanglement of the party with the state, the growing rift between party and class, and the increasing inability of the party to play its real role as a political vanguard.

There is also an echo - though, as we shall see, a faint and inconsistent one - of the position, developed by the Fraction and further elaborated by the Gauche Communiste de France and the ICC, that not only can the party not be identified with the state, but also that the transitional state and the dictatorship of the proletariat are not identical.

The importance of these shared points is not to be underestimated because they constitute the basic class lines on the problem of the state, the essential ‘starting point' for a marxist understanding of the question. The exception to this is the question of the non-identification of the state with the dictator­ship of the proletariat which, as we have always maintained, is an ‘open question' which cannot be definitively settled until the next major revolutionary experience.

Having briefly defined these areas of agreement, we can now develop our criticisms of the PCInt's inadequacies and inconsistencies which weaken their capacity to defend or develop the marxist position on these questions.

An incomplete assimilation of the work of the Italian Left

The PCInt claim that: "The political positions mentioned here represent the theoretical baggage and traditions of struggle of the Italian Left, whose hist­orical presence has been ensured through the foundation of the Communist Party of Italy and the consecutive acquisitions of the Fraction and the PCInt constituted during the course of the Second World War."

As we have said, the text undoubtedly reflects the influence of the Fraction. But while the PCInt doesn't merely sweep the work of the Fraction under the carpet like the Bordigists do, neither can it be said that it has fully assimilated its work and above all its method, which enabled it to initiate a fundamental critique of the positions of the Communist International. But in a number of areas the PCInt reverts back to the ‘Leninist' orthod­oxy which the Fraction dared to call into question. This is especially clear on the quest­ion of the relationship between the proletariat and the transitional state.

According to the PCInt, the ICC digresses from marxism into opportunism when it argues that a crucial lesson of the Russian revolution is that the transitional state, emanating from a social order still divided into classes, will have a con­servative rather than a dynamic character, at best codifying and administrating the push towards communism deriving from the revolutionary class, at worst opposing it and becoming a focal point for the renascent counter-revolution. That, consequently, the proletariat must not identify its class rule with the state machine, but must rig­orously subordinate it to the control of its own class organs.

The PCInt want to be very ‘orthodox' on this question and so go back to Marx's statement that in the transitional period, "the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat" (in which Marx was essentially attacking reformist deviations about the state). For the PCInt, the state is "a workers' state", even "a socialist state" (in the sense that it permits the realization of socialism). It is the same thing as the soviets: "The error is to see the soviets (which hold all power) distinct from the state; but the proletarian state is none other than the centralized synthesis of the network of soviets."

In fact, the PCInt can only remain ‘orthodox' on this question by ignoring some of the fundamental issues posed by the Fraction and the continuators of its method. The text does have a glimmering of the Fraction's developments in this area, in that certain passages imply that the state and the dictatorship of the proletar­iat are not identical: for example, the text begins by saying:

"To talk about the period of transition is to talk about the workers' state and its political and economic characteristics, and about the re­lationship which has to be established between it and the specific form of the dictatorship of the proletariat: the soviets."

But this insight is then contradicted by the PCInt's insistence on defining itself against the positions of the ICC. And in doing so, it inevitably defines itself against the work of the fraction.

The pages of Bilan (organ of the Italian Left in exile, 1933-38) contain many profound studies on the question of the state. Its historical origins, the different forms of the state in capitalist society, and so on, are analyzed in the series ‘Party-State-International'. The political and economic questions posed by the transition period are examined above all in Mitchell's articles ‘Problems of the Period of Transition' (which the ICC intends to republish). In the light of the Russian experience, where the Soviet state was transformed into a monstrous bourgeois apparatus, Mitchell returned to some of Marx and Engels' warnings about the transitional state being a necessary evil, a "scourge" which the proletariat is compelled to use, and concluded that the Bolsheviks had made a fundamental error in identifying the dictatorship of the proletariat with the transitional state:                

"Although Marx, Engels and above all Lenin had again and again emphasized the necessity to counter the state with a proletarian antidote capable of preventing its degeneration, the Russian revolution, far from assuring the maintenance and vitality of the class organs of the proletariat, sterilized them by incorporating them into the state; and thus the revolution devoured its own substance.           ­                                                                                               

"Even in Lenin's thoughts the idea of the ‘dictatorship of the state' began to predominate. At the end of 1918, in his polemic against Kautsky (The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky), he was unable to distinguish between two conflicting concepts: the state and the dictatorship of the proletariat." (Bilan No 31). Or again:

"The safeguard of the Russian revolution, the guarantee that it would stay on the tracks of the world revolution, was therefore not the absence of all bureaucracy - which is an inevitable excrescence of the transition period - but the vigilant presence of proletarian organs in which the educat­ional activity of the party could be carried out, while the party itself retained a vision of its international tasks through the International. Because of a whole series of historical circum­stances and because of a lack of indispensable theoretical and experimental equipment, the Bolsheviks were unable to resolve this basic problem. The crushing weight of contingent events led them to lose sight of the importance of retain­ing the Soviets and trade unions as organs which could be juxtaposed to the state, controlling it but not being incorporated into it." (ibid).

The link between this position and that of the ICC is clear. The class organs of the proletariat are not to be confused with the state. Thus, the PCInt should take issue with Bilan on this matter.

Of course, the ICC's position is not merely a repetition of Bilan's. By assimilating the work of the GCF, it has made it clearer on a number of points:

* on the party question: Bilan saw the need to distinguish the proletariat and its party from the state, but tended to identify the party with the proletarian dictatorship. For the ICC, the party is not an instrument for wielding political power. This is the task of the workers' councils and other unitary organs. The function of the party is to conduct a political fight within the councils and the class as a whole against all the vacillations and bourgeois influences and for the implementation of the communist program;

* on the union question: while the proletariat in the period of transition will still require organs to defend its immediate interests against the demands of the state, these will not be trade unions, organizations which arose on the basis of specific trades in the struggle for reforms last century, and which have proved themselves antithetical to the needs of the class strugg­le and have passed over to the capitalist camp in the epoch of social revolution, but the workers' councils, factory committees, militias, etc, (see below);

* on the question of the state itself: the GCF and the ICC, inquiring more deeply into the origins of the state in history and in the transitional period, have rejected the formulation ‘proletarian state', which still appears in Bilan's work.

In the passage in their document dealing with the historical origins of the state, the PCInt correctly summarizes Engels' writing on the subject by saying that:

"1) the state is the product of a society divided into classes

2) the state is the instrument of domination by the economically dominant class."

However, they do not draw all the appropriate conclusions from this, in particular, that the state did not emerge as the simple, ex nihilo creation of a ruling class but arose ‘spontaneously' from the inner contradictions of a social order dividing into classes. It is this understanding of the state as first and foremost an instrument for the preservation of social order which makes it possible to explain how, in the phenomenon of state capitalism, the state can ‘substitute' itself for the traditional ruling class. And it is this understanding of the fact that the state arises from a class-divided social situation which enables us to see that the transitional state doesn't emanate from the proletariat but from the exigencies of the transitional society itself. In a sense, the destruct­ion of the bourgeois state represents a break in a millennial continuity which takes us back, on a higher level, to the situation preceding the emergence of the first state forms. The transitional state coheres out of the ‘disorder' bequeathed by the smashing of the bourgeois state power. But in contrast to all previous states, this state won't ‘automatically' become the organic expression, the prolongation of an econ­omically dominant, exploiting class, because such a class will no longer exist. The proletariat will have to wage a constant political struggle to ensure that the state remains under its control: no automatic unfolding of economic laws will ensure this. On the contrary, the period of transition will be the battleground between con­scious human will and economic automatisms of all kinds, and thus between the communist proletariat and the state which will tend to reflect the continuing pressures of economic laws in a society still marked by scarcity and class divisions.

To be more precise, the emanation of the state from the transitional society means that it will be based on organisms - the territorial soviets - that regroup the whole non-exploiting population. Though containing proletarians these organs are not proletarian in themselves and the proletariat must always maintain a strict political independence through its specific class organs, the workers soviets, which will exert a rigorous control over the territorial soviets and all the administrative or repressive organs which emerge from their centralization.

It is striking that the PCInt's text almost entirely evades the problem of the organization of the non-proletarian, non-exploiting strata in the transitional state - particularly in view of the PCInt's self-proclaimed ‘sensitivity' to the problems facing these strata in the peripheries of capitalism, where they greatly outnumber the working class and thus pose a central problem to the revolution. Consequently, when it is compelled to touch on this problem, it falls into two symmetrical errors:                                      

-- the ‘workerist' error (which has in the past been particularly marked in the Communist Workers Organization), of denying that these strata will have any participation whatever in the transitional     state. Thus they write:

"The soviets will be elected exclusively by workers, excluding any electoral rights to those who profit from wage labor or who, in one way or another, economically exploit the labor of the proletariat".

The exclusion of the exploiters from participation in the soviets is one thing and we agree with it. ­But this passage gives us no idea at all about what is to be done with the vast mass of humanity - peasants, artisans, marginalized elements, etc, etc who belong neither to the working class nor the bourgeoisie. To have attempted to exclude these masses from the soviet system would have been unthinkable to the Bolsheviks in 1917, and so it should be to communists today. To draw in these strata behind the workers' revolution and not against it, to raise their consciousness about the aims and methods of the communist transformation, to push forward their integrat­ion into the proletariat - these strata must be incorporated into into the soviet system through a network of soviets elected on the basis of neighborhood or village assemblies (in contrast to the workers' soviets which will be elected by workplace assemblies);

-- the interclassist error, which consists of fusing or submerging the class organs of the proletariat into the organs regrouping the entire non-exploiting population. This confusion raises its head when the PCInt talks about the trans­itional state as "the state of all the exploited... directed politically by a working class organized on an international basis." Again, the formulation itself is not totally incorrect; the confusion arises out of what is not said. Who are "all the exploited"? Only the working class, or, as the passage seems to imply in the phrase "directed politically by the working class", the other non-exploiting strata as well? And if the state is to be the state of all the non-exploiting strata, how will it be "directed politically" by the working class if the working class is not organized in an independent manner?

Both these errors reinforce each other, since they spring from the same source: an incapacity to analyze the real social conditions giving rise to the state in the period of transition.

On the trade union question, it is normal to expect today's revolutionary groups to be clearer than the Italian Fraction, since the absence of autonomous class struggle for most of the ‘30s did not provide the latter with all the material required to resolve this question. As we have said, both Bilan and (in an initial stage) the GCF considered that the necessary defense of the proletariat's immediate interests against the demands of the transitional state would be carried out through the trade unions. What is strange, however, is to read that the PCInt - which says the trade unions are no longer proletarian organs and will have to be destroyed in the revolution - also argues in its period of transition document, written in 1983, that:

"The soviets are really revolutionary and political organs. They should thus not be mixed up with the trade unions which, after the revolution, will still have the function of defending the immediate interests of the prol­etariat and organizing struggles against the bourgeoisie during the difficult process of the ‘expropriation of the expropriators'. Neither should they be confused with the factory councils which have the task of ensuring workers' control over production."

We have often said that the PCInt and the CWO retain certain confusions about the unions as ‘intermediary' or even ‘workers' organizations in this epoch, and this quote confirms it: they seem unable to understand why the trade union form no longer corresponds to the needs of the class struggle in this epoch, the epoch of capitalist decadence and of the proletarian revolution. The essential characteristics of the class struggle in this epoch - its massive character, its need to break down all sectoral barriers - won't change after the seizure of power by the workers. We have already said that we recognize the continuing necessity for the workers to be able to defend their immediate and specific interests against the exigencies of the transitional state, but to do this they will require organs that regroup proletarians irrespective of trade or sector: the factory committees and the workers' councils themselves. In the PCInt's view of things, where the workers' councils ‘are' the state, we are presented with the bizarre scenario of the workers using trade unions to defend themselves ... against the workers' councils!

In conclusion

This article in no way claims to be an exhaustive study of the question of the period of transition, or even of the PCInt's view of the matter. It's aim has rather been to give a new impetus to the discussion of the transition period, to define certain basic starting points, and to criticize the confusions, contradictions, or outright concessions to bourgeois ideology contained in the positions of another revolutionary organization. The PCInt's positions, though setting off from this marxist starting point display on certain crucial issues - the relationship between class and state, party and state, the union question - a difficulty in moving from this point of departure to its most coherent conclusions. They stand half-way between the most advanced positions of the communist left and the depasse theses of the Communist International under Lenin. But as even the revolutionary bourgeoisie understood, you can't make a revolution half-way. All confusions and contradictions about the revolutionary process will be exposed mercilessly by the revolution itself. This is precisely why the debate on the period of transition can't be ignored today: when we are launched on the ocean of the communist revolution, we will have to be equipped with the most accurate compass permitted by the present evolution of Marxist theory.