Marc Chirik and the state in the period of transition

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Militants of the GCF, Paris 1945: left to right, Chirik, Bricanier, Mousso and Evrard

The last time this series looked specifically at the problem of the state in the period of transition was in our introduction to the theses on the state produced by the Gauche Communiste de France in 1946[1]. We presented this text as an important continuation of the work of the Italian left which, during the 1930s, had produced a number of articles examining the lessons of the defeat of the Russian revolution, in which the problem of the state was seen as central. Building on the warnings by Marx and Engels against the tendency of the state to alienate itself from society, the characterisation of the state as a temporary scourge which the proletariat will have to use while limiting to the maximum its most harmful aspects, the articles of Vercesi and in particular Mitchell (a member of the Belgian Fraction) had already drawn a distinction between the necessary function of the “proletarian state” and the real, effective power of the proletariat[2]. The GCF text took a step further by arguing that the state, by its very nature, is foreign to the proletariat as the bearer of communism and thus of a stateless society.

In our introduction to the Theses we noted certain weaknesses or ambiguities in the 46 text (on the unions, the role of the party, the economic programme of the revolution), most of which would be substantially overcome through the process of discussion and clarification which was at the heart of the GCF’s activities. But these advances – particularly on the unions and the party - were corrected in other texts[3] since to our knowledge the group didn’t produce any further documents on the question of the transition period itself.

The 1946 theses were a product of the collective work of the GCF and drafted by Marc Chirik, who had played a key role in the formation and theoretical development of the group. When the group broke up after 1952 (despite Marc’s efforts to maintain it), Marc was “exiled” to Venezuela where he was not engaged in any organised political activity for over a decade. However, this was not a period of disengagement from political reflection on his part and as soon as the times began a-changing, in the early to mid-60s, Marc had formed a discussion circle with some young elements, the result of which was the formation of the Internacialismo group in 1964. This group in turn eventually became the section in Venezuela of the ICC.  

Marc himself returned to Europe in order to take part in the historic events of May-June 1968 and stayed to help form the group Révolution Internationale, which would become the French section of the ICC.

To the generation of revolutionaries who emerged from the international wave of struggles sparked off by May 68, revolution didn’t seem such a distant prospect. A number of new groups and militants, having rediscovered the tradition of the communist left, not only set about demarcating themselves from the left wing of capital by re-appropriating the fundamental class positions elaborated during the period of the counter-revolution, but also plunged into debating the character of the anticipated revolution and the road towards a communist society. The approach towards the transitional period and its semi-state which had been put forward by the GCF and further elaborated by Marc soon became a focal point for many passionate discussions among the new groups. A majority of RI and the groups aligned to it were convinced by Marc’s arguments but it was made clear from the start that this particular analysis could not be considered as a class line because history had not yet definitively established its veracity. The discussion thus continued within the newly-formed ICC and with other groups involved in the discussions about the international regroupment of the newly emerging revolutionary forces which marked this phase. The first issue of the International Review contained contributions on the transition period from Marc (on behalf of Révolution Internationale) and a long article developing ideas along the same lines written a young CD Ward on behalf of World Revolution in the UK, as well as a text from Rivoluzione Internazionale in Italy arguing in favour of the proletarian character of the transitional state, and a further contribution by Revolutionary Perspectives, which was the nucleus of the future Communist Workers’ Organisation. These texts were written for the 1975 conference which saw the formal constitution of the ICC; although there was no time to hold the discussion during the meeting they were published as a contribution to an ongoing debate.

It is no exaggeration to say that these debates were heated. The Workers Voice group in Liverpool soon broke off from the regroupment discussions, citing the future ICC’s majority position on the transitional period as proof of its counter-revolutionary character, since it allegedly meant, in a future revolutionary process, advocating a state that would dominate the workers’ councils. As we argued at the time (“Sectarianism unlimited” in World Revolution 3), this was not only a false accusation but also to a large extent a pretext aimed at preserving WV’s local autonomy from the threat of being swallowed up in a larger international organisation; but other reactions of the time revealed the extent to which the acquisitions of the Italian communist left had been lost in the fog of the counter-revolution. At the Second  ICC Congress in 1977, for example, where a resolution (and counter-resolution) on the state in the period of transition were on the agenda, a delegate from Battaglia Comunista, which then and still today claims to be the most consistent continuator of the tradition of the Italian left, seemed dumbfounded by the very notion of questioning the proletarian character of the transitional state, even if this view was merely a logical conclusion drawn from Bilan’s contributions in the 1930s.

As it happened, although the resolution expressing the majority position was eventually adopted at the ICC’s Third Congress in 1979, at the 1977 congress it was judged that the debate had not matured sufficiently and should continue. A number of the contributions to this debate were later published as a pamphlet which shows the richness of the debate[4]. Within the ICC, the minority was not homogeneous but tended towards the idea that the position of Bilan on the state in the transition period had been the correct one, whereas the GCF had departed from the marxist conception. Some of the comrades of the minority later rallied to the majority position whereas others began putting in question other key developments made by the GCF and taken forward by the ICC, notably on the question of the party. Most of these dispersed in different directions – one towards a more orthodox Bordigist position, another embarking on a brief attempt to form a new version of Bilan (Fraction Communiste Internationaliste), while others imbibed the dangerous concoction of anarchism, Bordigism and the defence of so-called ‘workers’ terrorism’ which marked the trajectory of the Groupe Communiste Internationaliste[5].

In this article, we are going to focus on three contributions to the discussion within the ICC from that period written by Marc Chirik. This approach continues and concludes the three preceding articles in this series which have considered the contribution to communist theory made by particular individuals within the proletarian political movement during the period of counter-revolution (i.e. Damen, Bordiga, Munis and Castoriadis). This is not because we approach these individual communists in the manner of academic journals where theory is always seen as the intellectual property of this or that specialist; on the contrary, as class militants, these comrades could only make their contributions with the aim of developing something which, far from being the copyright of individuals, only exists to become the universal property of the proletariat – the communist programme. But for us the communist programme is a work of association where individual comrades are able to make their particular contribution within a wider collectivity. And precisely the outstanding quality of Marc Chirik was his capacity to “universalise” what he had acquired, through living experience, on the organisational and programmatic level - to transmit it to other comrades. Thus, within the history of the ICC, there have been a number of important contributions to this general effort to illuminate the road towards communism by other comrades of the organisation – some of which we will refer to in this article. But there is no doubt that the texts written by Marc are examples of his profound grasp of the marxist method and deserve to be re-examined in some detail.  We apologise in advance for the length of some of the quotations from these articles, but we think it’s best to let Marc’s words speak for themselves as much as possible.

Periods of transition in history

The article published in IR 1 is notable for posing the question of “transition periods” in a broad historical framework.

“Human history is made up of different stable societies linked to a given mode of production and therefore to stable social relations. These societies are based on the dominant economic laws inherent in them. They are made up of fixed social classes and are based on appropriate superstructures. The basic stable societies in written history have been: slave society, Asiatic society, feudal society and capitalist society.

What distinguishes periods of transition from periods when society is stable is the decomposition of the old social structures and the formation of new structures. Both are linked to a development of the productive forces and are accompanied by the appearance and development of new classes as well as the development of ideas and institutions corresponding to these classes.

The period of transition is not a distinct mode of production, but a link between two modes of production - the old and the new. It is the period during which the germs of the new mode of production slowly develop to the detriment of the old, until they supplant the old mode of production and constitute a new, dominant mode of production.

Between two stable societies (and this will be true for the period between capitalism and communism as it has been in the past), the period of transition is an absolute necessity. This is due to the fact that the sapping of the basis of the existence of the old society does not automatically imply the maturation and ripening of the conditions of the new. In other words, the decline of the old society does not automatically mean the maturation of the new, but is only the condition for it to take place.

Decadence and the period of transition are two very distinct phenomena. Every period of transition presupposes the decomposition of the old society whose mode and relations of production have attained the extreme limit of their possible development. However, every period of decadence does not necessarily signify a period of transition, in as much as the period of transition represents a step towards a new mode of production. Similarly ancient Greece did not enjoy the historical conditions necessary for a transcendence of slavery; neither did ancient Egypt.

Decadence means the exhaustion of the old social mode of production; transition means the surging up of the new forces and conditions which will permit a resolution and transcendence of the old contradictions”.

At the time this text was written, the emerging revolutionary movement was already faced with the influence of the precursors of today’s “communisation” current, particularly in the writing of Jacques Camatte and Jean Barrot (Dauvé). Indeed the ICC had already been through a split by a group of members who had come from the Trotskyist organization Lutte Ouvrière but had quickly fallen for the pseudo-radical notions which marked what we at the time called “modernism”: that the working class had become, in essence, a class for capital, that its struggle for immediate demands were a dead-end, and that the communist revolution meant the immediate self-negation of the working class rather than its political affirmation through the dictatorship of the proletariat. In this vision, the idea of a transition period directed by the proletariat was denounced as no more than the perpetuation of capital: the process of communisation obviated any need for a phase of transition between capitalism and communism[6]. That such ideas were gaining currency in the revolutionary movement was also shown by the evolution of one of the groups that attended the conference – the Revolutionary Workers’ Group, based in Chicago, which had also come out of Trotskyism but which was now discovering the uselessness of the fight for economic demands (see the Preface to IR 1). Meanwhile the Revolutionary Perspectives group insisted that an isolated proletarian bastion should consciously seal itself off from the world market while implementing all kinds of communist measures inside its borders: this was less a modernist aberration than a belated apology for the “War Communism” of the 1918-21 period in Russia, but it shares with the communisers the idea that it is possible to introduce authentic communist measures in a single country or region[7]

Marc’s text provides us with a solid starting point for criticising all these approaches. On the one hand it insists that every new mode of production has been the product of a more or less long period of transition, which is “not a distinct mode of production, but a link between two modes of production - the old and the new”. This certainly applies to the period of transition to communism, which is anything but a stable mode of production (sometimes misleadingly described as “socialism”). On the contrary, it will be the theatre of a sustained combat to push forward the communist transformation of social relations against the immense economic and ideological weight of the old society and indeed of the thousands of years of class society which preceded capitalism. This will be true even after the point at which the proletariat has conquered power on a world scale and is even more applicable to situations where the first proletarian outposts confront a hostile capitalist environment.

At the same time, the text goes on to explain that the period of transition to communism differs profoundly from all previous such transitions:

  • its aim is not the institution of a new form of class exploitation, but the abolition of all forms of exploitation;
  • whereas previous transitions had been the product of blind economic laws, communism is a society in which all production and distribution are subject to conscious human activity;
  • unlike previous modes of production, communism cannot exist in one part of the globe but must be planetary in scale;
  • unlike previous transitions, where the old ruling classes and their state forms could to a considerable extent adapt to the rising mode of production, communism demands the complete destruction of the economic and political structures of capitalism.

The consequence of all this is that the period of transition to communism cannot begin inside capitalism, through an accretion of economic changes which serve as the basis of the power of the new ruling class, but only after an essentially political act – the violent dismantling of the existing state machine. This is the starting point for the rejection of any idea that a real process of communisation[8] can begin before the destruction of the world-wide power of the bourgeoisie. Any economic and social changes undertaken before that point has been reached are essentially stop-gaps, contingent and emergency measures that should not be painted as a kind of “really existing communism”, and their main aim would be to reinforce the political domination of the working class in a given area.

The proletariat’s economic policy

Indeed, even after the beginning of the period of transition proper, the text warns against the idealisation of the immediate measures taken by the working class:

“On the economic plane, the period of transition consists of an economic policy (and no longer a political economy) of the proletariat with a view to accelerating the process of universal socialisation of production and distribution. But the realisation of this programme of integral communism at all levels, while being the goal affirmed and followed by the working class, will still be subject to immediate, conjunctural and contingent conditions in the period of transition which only pure utopian voluntarism would ignore. The proletariat will immediately attempt to advance as far as possible towards its goal while recognising the inevitable concessions it will be obliged to tolerate. Two dangers threaten such a policy:

  • the idealisation of this policy, presenting it as communist when it is nothing of the sort
  • the denial of the necessity of such a policy in the name of idealistic voluntarism”.

The whole spirit running through the text is one of revolutionary realism. We are talking about the most radical social transformation since the advent of the human species and it is absurd to think that this process – which for the vast majority of humanity today is seen as impossible, contrary to human nature, at best “a nice idea that would never work” – could in fact take place all in one go: in historical terms, overnight. 

The text goes on to outline some more specific aspects of this “economic policy”, which in fact remain quite general: 

  • Immediate socialisation of the great capitalist concentrations and of the principal centres of productive activity.
  • Planning of production and distribution--the criteria of production must be the maximum satisfaction of needs and no longer of accumulation.
  • Massive reduction of the working day.
  • Substantial rise in the standard of living.
  • The attempt to abolish remuneration based on wages and on its money form.
  • Socialisation of consumption and of the satisfaction of needs (transportation, leisure, meals, etc).
  • The relationship between the collectivised sectors and sectors of production which are still individual - particularly in the countryside - must tend towards an organised collective exchange through co-operatives, thus suppressing the market and individual exchange.

Marc’s text begins by the following warning - it is always with the greatest caution that revolutionaries have raised the question of the period of transition. The number, the complexity, and above all, the newness of the problems the proletariat must solve prevent any elaboration of detailed plans of the future society; any attempt to do so risks being turned into a straitjacket which will stifle the revolutionary activity of the class”. It is quite understandable that Marc only provides us with a very general outline of a possible “economic policy” of the proletariat. One of the points is rather too general  - “substantial rise in the standard of living” - to do much with, but the others do indeed indicate the general direction; and one clearly marks an advance over the 1946 text, i.e. when it says that “the criteria of production must be the maximum satisfaction of needs and no longer of accumulation”, since the 1946 text still tended to see the proletariat’s “development of the productive forces” as a process of accumulation which can only mean the expansion of value. In fact, we are only too aware today that both the economic and ecological crises of the system are the result of  an “over-accumulation” and that real development will necessarily have to take the form of a profound transformation and reorganisation of the productive forces accumulated under capitalism (involving, for example, the conversion from highly polluting forms of production, energy and transport, the reduction of capitalist mega-cities to a far more human scale, massive reforestation, etc).

Regarding the distribution of the social product in the transitional period, the text does not pronounce on the debate on “labour time vouchers” based on Marx’s proposals in the Critique of the Gotha Programme and strongly advocated, for example by the Dutch council communists of the GIC in the Grundprinzipien[9] and by the CWO in their most recent article on the transition period[10], but Marc’s text sets the tone by insisting both on the attempt to get rid of wage and monetary forms and on the widespread socialisation of consumption: free provision of transport, communal meals etc. In the WR text in IR 1 the position is more explicit in its rejection of the labour time vouchers. Although Marx did not consider these vouchers to be a form of money since they could not be accumulated, the WR article argues that the labour time system

“does not really go beyond the capitalist notion of labour as an 'exchange' between the individual, atomised worker and 'society'. The system of labour-time vouchers would tend to divide those proletarians who are able to work from those who are not (a situation which may well be intensified in a period of international revolutionary crisis), and would furthermore drive a wedge between proletarians and other strata, inhibiting the process of social integration. Such a system would demand an immense bureaucratic supervision of each workers' labour, and would most easily degenerate into a form of money-wages at a downturn of the revolution (these drawbacks apply both to the period of the civil war and to the transition period itself).

A system of rationing under the control of the workers' councils would more easily lend itself to democratic regulation of the total resources of a proletarian bastion and to the encouragement of feelings of solidarity among all members of the class. But we have no illusions that this or any other system will represent a 'guarantee' against the return of wage slavery in its most naked form”

However, we don’t think that we can say any more definitely than in 1975 that this debate on the immediate economic measures of the proletariat in power has been settled once and for all. On the contrary, while it can and should continue today (we aim to return to the question in a future article in this series), it can only be settled by a future revolutionary praxis.

The state as a scourge

Having defined the general character of the transition period, the text goes on to reaffirm the position on the state which had already been outlined by the text of the GCF in 1946:

“The transitional society is still a society divided into classes and so there will necessarily arise within it that institution peculiar to all societies divided into classes: the STATE. With all the limitations and precautionary measures with which we will surround this institution (functionaries will be elected and revocable, their consumption will be equal to that of a worker, a unification will exist between the legislative and executive functions, etc.), and which make this state into a 'semi-state', we must never lose sight of the state's historic anti-socialist, and therefore anti-proletarian and essentially conservative, nature. The state remains the guardian of the status quo.

We recognise the inevitability of this institution which the proletariat will have to utilise as a necessary evil in order to: break the resistance of the waning capitalist class and preserve a united administrative, and political framework in this period when society is still rent by antagonistic interests.

But we categorically reject the idea of making this state the standard-bearer of communism. By its own nature (‘bourgeois nature in its essence’ - Marx), it is essentially an organ for the conservation of the status quo and a restraint on communism. Thus, the state can neither be identified with communism nor with the proletariat which is the bearer of communism. The proletariat is by definition the most dynamic class in history since it carries out the suppression of all classes including. itself. This is why, while utilising the state, the proletariat expresses its dictatorship not through the state, but over the state. This is also why the proletariat can under no circumstances allow this institution (the state) to intervene by violence within the class, nor to be the arbiter of the discussions and activities of the class organs - the councils and the revolutionary party”.

It was this position in particular - the conservative nature and non-proletarian nature of the state – which was the subject of divergent arguments within the ICC, not only with regard to the transitional state, but the state in general.

Origins of the state and all that

The 1981 pamphlet included a text by Marc called ‘The origins of the state and all that’, which was a response to a text[11] written by two comrades of the minority, M and S, defending the notion of the proletarian state on the basis of an examination of the historical origins of the state. M and S argued that, since the state is in essence the creation and instrument of a ruling class, it can play a revolutionary role in periods when that class is itself a revolutionary or at least actively progressive force, while it is only doomed to play a reactionary role when that class itself becomes decadent or obsolete. Their text thus rejects the definition of the state as being “conservative” in its essential nature. As for its essential function, it is as an instrument of repression of one class by another. Accordingly, during the transition period the state can and indeed must have a proletarian character, since it is nothing but the creation of the working class with the aim of exercising its dictatorship.

In his response, Marc provides a short but insightful history of the way that the proletarian movement has, through its own debates and above all its own experiences in the class struggle, developed its understanding of the question of the state: from the first ideas of Babeuf and the Equals about the conquest of the state by armed revolution to the intuitions of the utopians about communism being a society without the state; from the critique of Hegel’s state-worship by the young Marx to the lessons drawn by the Communist League from the revolutions of 1848 and above all by Marx and Engels from the Paris Commune of 1871, when it first became clear that the existing state was to be dismantled not conquered. The survey goes on to mention the studies of primitive communism by Morgan which made it possible for Engels to analyse the historical origins of the state, passing by the strengths, weaknesses, and incomplete insights of Lenin in relation to the experience of the Russian revolution, and finally to the efforts of the communist left to synthesise and develop all the advances made by the preceding expressions of the movement. The aim here is to show that our understanding of the problem of the state and the period of transition is not the product of an invariant marxist orthodoxy but has evolved and will indeed continue to evolve in the light of real experience and reflection on that experience.

The central core of the text is the reference to Engels’ famous passage about how the state first appears in the long transitional period when primitive communist society is giving way to the emergence of definite class divisions – not as the conscious creation ex nihilo of a ruling class but as an emanation of society at a certain stage of its development: The state is therefore by no means a power imposed on society from without; just as little is it ‘the reality of the moral idea’, ‘the image and the reality of reason,’ as Hegel maintains. Rather, it is a product of society at a particular stage of development; it is the admission that this society has involved itself in insoluble self-contradiction and is cleft into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to exorcise. But in order that these antagonisms, classes with conflicting economic interests, shall not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, a power, apparently standing above society, has become necessary to moderate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’; and this power, arisen out of society, but placing itself above it and increasingly alienating itself from it, is the state”.[12]

Marc explains that this does not mean that the state has a neutral or mediating role in society, but it does show that simply defining the state as ‘bodies of armed men’ whose function is to exert repression against the exploited or oppressed classes is inadequate, because the state’s primary role is to hold society together and for this repression alone can never be sufficient. Hence the need to use ideological institutions, forms of political representation, etc. As Marx put in The King of Prussia and Social Reform (1844), “from a political point of view, the state and the organization of society are not two different things. The state is the organisation of society” – with the qualification of course that we are still talking about a society divided into classes.

Marc then returns to Engels to emphasise that this function of organising society, holding it together, means preserving the existing relations of production and thus “As the state arose from the need to keep class antagonisms in check, but also arose in the thick of the fight between the classes, it is normally the state of the most powerful, economically ruling class, which by its means becomes also the politically ruling class, and so acquires new means of holding down and exploiting the oppressed class”[13].

However, this necessary identification with the state by exploiting classes of the past doesn’t apply to the proletariat because, as an exploited class, it doesn’t have its own economy. And we can add: faced with a situation where the old state has been dismantled and the old bourgeois society is in a condition of dissolution, the proletariat will still need an instrument for preventing the conflicts between itself and the other non-exploiting classes from tearing society apart. And since this situation is, in a sense, a return to the original conditions which led to the formation of the state, state forms will appear, emerge, manifest themselves whether the working class likes it or not.  And precisely because of this, the transitional state, however much the proletariat is able to dominate it, will not be a purely proletarian organ but will – as the Workers Opposition was already able to discern in relation to the Soviet state in 1921 – have a “heterogenous” nature[14], based on territorial communes or soviet type bodies in which the entire non-exploiting population is necessarily represented.

Regarding the “conservative” role of the state, a clarification of the original 1946 text is in order, where the text says that “in the course of history, the state has appeared as a conservative and reactionary factor”. But conservative and reactionary are not exactly the same. The function of the state is always conservative in the sense of protecting, codifying, and stabilising developments that take place in economy and society. Depending on the epoch, this role can globally serve the progressive development of the productive forces; in periods of decadence, the same role becomes overtly reactionary in the sense of backward looking, preserving all that is past and obsolete. The key difference with the minority was not here, but with their idea that the dynamic movement - the movement towards the future - came from the state and not from society. An article published in IR 11[15] and signed RV argues forcefully that, even in the bourgeois revolution, which comrades of the minority were most keen to reference as an example of the state being a revolutionary instrument, the really radical movement pushing for the overthrow of the old regime came from “below”, from the “plebian” movement in the streets, the general meetings in the “sections”, or the first Paris Commune of 1793 - which were constantly coming up against the economic and political boundaries imposed by the bourgeoisie’s central state power in its quest for order and stability. This is even more the case for the proletarian revolution where the communist transformation led by the working class will constantly have to go beyond the legally defined limits laid down by the official organisation of the transitional society, the state.

The state as incarnation of alienation

In the third text, published in 1978 in IR 15[16], Marc elaborates on a number of the issues posed in the previous two articles, but in particular it picks up and develops on a key insight in the quote from Engels used in the previous article: “this power, arisen out of society, but placing itself above it and increasingly alienating itself from it, is the state”.[17]

As Marc notes, recognising the state as one of the most primordial manifestations of man’s alienation from himself, or from what he can be, is one of Marx’s earliest political insights and was key to his critique of the Hegelian philosophy:

“In his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the State[18], 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, therefore, Marx’s theoretical work took up a position against the state as such, which was a product, an expression of, and an active factor in, the alienation of humanity. Against Hegel’s demand for the strengthening of the state, and its absorption of civil society, Marx resolutely insisted that the withering away of the state was synonymous with the emancipation of humanity, and this fundamental notion would be enriched and developed throughout his life and work.

This is argued most explicitly in the section of the Critique dealing with the question of the vote, which for Hegel strictly maintained the separation between the legislative assembly and civil society, since the electors did not in any sense exercise a mandate over the elected. Marx saw a different potential, if the vote was to become universal and if “the electors had the choice either to deliberate and decide on public affairs for themselves or to delegate specific individuals to perform these tasks on their behalf.” The result of such a “direct democracy” would be this:

“In unrestricted suffrage, both active and passive, civil society has actually raised itself for the first time to an abstraction of itself, to political existence as its true universal and essential existence. But the full achievement of this abstraction is at once also the transcendence [Aufhebung] of the abstraction. In actually establishing its political existence as its true existence civil society has simultaneously established its civil existence, in distinction from its political existence, as inessential. And with the one separated, the other, its opposite, falls. Within the abstract political state the reform of voting advances the dissolution [Auflösung] of this political state, but also the dissolution of civil society”

These words might still be couched in the language of democracy but they also tend to transcend it, since they anticipate not only the dissolution of the state but also of civil – i.e. bourgeois - society. And in the year that followed Marx was to write the “Introduction” to the Critique, which unlike the latter was actually published (in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher of 1844) and to compose the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. In the first, Marx identifies the proletariat as the agent for revolutionary change, and in the second, he definitively declares for communism as the only possible future for human society.  

The Negation of the Negation

Returning to Marc’s text, it is significant that he again frames his whole line of inquiry in a very broad historical arc. As in the previous text on the origins of the state, where he talks at some length about “gentile” society and its demise, he begins with the dissolution of primitive communist society and the first emergence of the state. This he defines as the initial Antithesis or Negation which ensures that all subsequent class societies, despite all the changes that have taken place from one mode of production to another, maintain an essential unity and continuity – all the way to the future abolition of classes and thus the withering away of the state, which is the synthesis, the “Negation of the Negation, the restoration of the human community on a higher level”. 

In the whole long epoch of the first Negation, of class society, the state increasingly tends to perpetuate itself and its own private interests, to alienate itself more and more from society. Thus the increasingly totalitarian power of the state reaches its high point in the phenomenon of state capitalism that belongs to the epoch of capitalism’s decline. “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 generalised barbarism”.

This whole process is thus a key to measuring the distance between humanity as it could be and humanity as it now stands: in short the spiralling alienation of humanity, which has reached its most extreme point in bourgeois society. In opposition to this runs the “real movement”, the unfolding of communism, which as a precondition to its future flowering, must ensure the withering away of the state, fulfilling Marx’s promise of a time “when man has recognised and organised his own forces as social forces”. 

This panoramic view of history allows us to better understand the essentially conservative nature of the state, its necessary antagonism to the dynamic that emerges from the social, the human sphere:

“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”. 

In Marc’s article, in the paragraph that opens this section, it is pointed out that Hegel’s cardinal error about history, in which he sees the true, forward-moving force as the state, is also committed at the logical level, in his confusion between subject and predicate, idea and reality, which Marx also criticises at length in the Critique: Family and civil society are the presuppositions of the state; they are the really active things; but in speculative philosophy it is reversed. But if the Idea is made subject, then the real subjects - civil society, family, circumstances, caprice, etc. - become unreal, and take on the different meaning of objective moments of the Idea”[19].

The form of the transitional state

The IR 15 article also goes into greater detail about the form of the transitional state:

We can put forward the following principles for the structure of the transitional society:

1. The whole non-exploiting population is organised 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 organisation, individually like all members of society, and collectively through their autonomous class organs, at all levels of the soviet organisation.

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 organised 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”.

These perspectives are not recipes for the cookbooks of the future; they “are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would-be universal reformer” (Communist Manifesto). On the contrary, they are the conclusions that need to be drawn from the real experience of the Russian revolution. Here, in its first heroic period, the specific organs of the working class – factory committees, Red Guards, soviets elected by workplace assemblies – were part of a broader network of soviets embracing the whole non-exploiting population. But Marc’s outline of the structure of the transitional state does make more explicit the necessity for the working class to exert its control over this general state apparatus, an idea that was as yet only implicit in the Russian revolution, for example in the notion that votes from workers’ assemblies and delegates should count higher than the votes of the delegates of the peasants and other non-exploiting classes. At the same time, the outline overcomes certain key errors made in the Russia of 1917, notably the fact that, once the Civil War began in 1918, the factory-based militias, the Red Guards, were dissolved into the territorial Red Army. This meant that the workers were deprived of a crucial instrument for defending their specific interests, even against the transitional state and its army, if need be. The paragraph that follows in Marc’s text also insists on another essential lesson of the Russian experience: 

“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. specialised 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”.

The workers’ councils of the future

A question needs to be asked regarding this sketch of a possible transitional state of the future. It is based on the fundamental principle that the proletariat, as the only communist class, must at all times maintain its autonomy from all other classes. The direct translation of this concept is the call for the workers’ councils to exert their dictatorship over the state, and the social composition of these councils is clear: they are city-wide councils made up of delegates elected by all the workplaces in that city. The problem for us is that this notion was put forward at a time – in the 1970s – when the working class still had a definite sense of class identity and, in the central countries of capital, was concentrated in large workplaces like factories, mines, shipyards, etc. But over the last few decades these concentrations have largely been broken up by the process of “globalisation” and the working class has not only been materially atomised by these changes but has also subjected to a relentless ideological offensive, above all the since the collapse of so-called ‘Communism’ after 1989: an offensive based on the idea that the working class no longer exists, that it is now at best a kind of underclass, even a racial underclass, as in the disgusting notion that the working class is by definition “white”. In the same way our class has been further fragmented by the process of “Uberisation” that seeks to present each worker as an individual entrepreneur. But above all it has been assailed by the propaganda which states that the class struggle is a total anachronism and can only lead not to the formation of a more human society, but to the worst forms of state terror, as in Stalin’s USSR[20].

These changes and campaigns have brought great difficulties for the working class and pose real problems about the formation of the workers’ councils of the future. It’s not that the council idea has totally disappeared or turned into a mere appendix of bourgeois democracy. The underlying notion appeared, for example, in the mass assemblies in the movement of the Indignados in Spain in 2011 - and against those groups like Democracy Now who wanted to use the assemblies to give a kind of vampiric life to the parliamentary system, there were those in the movement who argued that these assemblies were a higher form of self-government than the old parliamentary system. The majority of the protagonists of these assemblies were indeed proletarians, but they were in the main students, unemployed, precarious workers, and they overcame their atomisation by coming together in the town squares or in more local neighbourhood assemblies. At the same time, there was little or no corresponding tendency to hold assemblies in the larger workplaces.

In a sense, this form of assembly organisation was a return to the form of the Commune in 1871, which was made up of delegates from the neighbourhoods (but above all the working class neighbourhoods) of Paris. The workers’ councils or soviets of 1905 or 1917 had been a step forward from the Commune because they were a definite means for enabling the class to organise as a class. The “territorial” form, by contrast, is much more vulnerable to the idea that it is the citizens who are coming together, not a class with its own programme, and we saw this weakness very clearly in the Indignados movement. And more recently, the social revolts that have been sweeping he globe from the Middle East to South America have shown even more clearly the danger of interclassism, of the proletariat being drowned in the protests of the population in general, which are dominated by democratic ideology on the one hand and, on the other, by the despairing, disorganized violence that characterizes the lumpen-proletariat[21].  

We can’t be sure how this problem will be approached in a future mass movement, which may well see the proletariat organising itself through a combination of workplace and street-based mass assemblies. It may also be the case that the autonomy of the working class will have to take on a more directly political character in the future: in other words, that the class organs of the next revolution will define themselves far more than in the past on the basis of their capacity to take up and defend proletarian political positions (such as opposition to parliament and trade unions, the unmasking of the capitalist left and so on). This by no means implies that the workplaces, and the councils that emanate from them, will cease to be a crucial focus for the coming together of the working class as a class. This will certainly be the case in countries like China whose frenzied industrialisation has been the counter-point to the de-industrialisation of parts of capitalism in the West. But even in the latter, there are still considerable concentrations of workers in sectors like health, transport, communication, administration and education (and in the manufacturing sector as well…). And we have seen some examples of how workers can overcome the disadvantages of being dispersed into small enterprises, for example in the struggle of the steel workers in Vigo in Spain in 2006, where assemblies of strikers in the town centre grouped together workers from a number of small steel factories. We will return to these questions in a future article. But what is certain is that, in any future revolutionary upheaval, the class autonomy of the proletariat of the proletariat will involve a real assimilation of the experience of previous revolutions, and above all, of the experience of the post-revolutionary state. We can say with some confidence that the critique of the state elaborated by a line of revolutionaries that links Marx, Engels and Lenin to Bilan and Marc Chirik both in the GCF and the ICC, will be indispensable to the reacquisition, by the working class, of its own history, and thus to the implementation of its communist future.

C D Ward, August 2019

 

[2] A number of these articles and our analysis of them can be found here: https://en.internationalism.org/series/395

[4]  A few articles from this pamphlet can be found here: https://en.internationalism.org/pamphlets/transition/preface.html. The original paper pamphlet The period of transition from capitalism to socialism is out of print but photocopies can be made on application.

[5] The evolution of this group, in particular its apology for terrorism and its violent threats against comrades of the ICC , took it outside the boundaries of the proletarian camp. See: https://en.internationalism.org/icconline/2006/groupe-communiste-internationaliste

[6] One of the most recent converts to this idea is the group Internationalist Perspective (http://internationalist-perspective.org/IP/ip-texts/communisation.html). An interesting response to those who reject the need for the transition period was published in 2014 by the CWO (https://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2014-10-07/the-period-of-transition-and-its-dissenters

[7] See our criticism of Dauvé on the events of Spain in 1936 https://en.internationalism.org/wr/230_Fbarrot.htm.

[8] In itself the term communisation is valid, since it is perfectly true that communist social relations are not the product of state decrees but of “the real movement that abolishes the present state of affairs” as Marx put it. But we reject the idea that this process can take place without the taking of power by the working class

[9] Communism is not a 'nice idea', Vol. 3 Part 10, “Bilan, the Dutch left, and the transition to communism”, International Review 151, https://en.internationalism.org/internationalreview/201303/6505/communism-not-nice-idea-vol-3-part-10-bilan-dutch-left-and-transitio

[10] See footnote 6

[11] “The state in the period of transition”, S and M, May 1977

[12] Origins of the Family, private property and the state, chapter IX

[13] Engels uses the term “normally” because he goes on to say “exceptional periods, however, occur when the warring classes are so nearly equal in forces that the state power, as apparent mediator, acquires for the moment a certain independence in relation to both. This applies to the absolute monarchy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which balances the nobility and the bourgeoisie against one another; and to the Bonapartism of the First and particularly of the Second French Empire, which played off the proletariat against the bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie against the proletariat”. Marc comments on such exceptions in “Origins of the state and all that…”, giving examples in which, in the framework of class society, the state form that generally corresponds to the dominant mode of production can also serve to protect relations of production which have reappeared after a long absence – the example of slavery in the 17th-19th centuries being a case in point.

[16] “The state in the period of transition”, IR 15, https://en.internationalism.org/content/2648/state-period-transition

[17] Origins of the Family, private property and the state, chapter IX

[20] The report on class struggle to the most recent congress of the ICC focuses on this question of class identity.  https://en.internationalism.org/content/16707/report-class-struggle-formation-loss-and-re-conquest-proletarian-class-identity

Rubric: 

Communism is on the agenda of history