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In the period of decadence when the private bourgeoisie has been replaced by the state bourgeoisie, the confrontation between the working class and the “state-boss” is always a direct one. After the 1914-18 war, during the revolutionary period in the developed Western countries, marxists could not conceive of any tactical compromise between the proletariat and the middle classes because the middle classes had either been proletarianised by the development of capitalism, or, as was the case for those remnants from the past such as merchants or landlords, they were – as strata – simply pillars of the counter-revolution.

At the end of the imperialist war, the only international alternative was either the Dictatorship of the Proletariat or the Dictatorship of Capital. There was no room for the so-called third road of the “democratic state of the whole people”. Lenin's main error was to make a universal theory out of the special case of Russia. In Russia, the workers benefited from the peasants' neutrality (more than their active support) at the time of the October Revolution, but this was solely in relation to the problem of peace which Kerensky's bourgeois government obstinately refused to settle.

In fact, as soon as the Bolsheviks were forced to impose a tax-in-kind in order to feed the workers and the Red Army, the peasants as a class became the main supporters of reaction (the White Armies and the Entente) or of an archaic regionalism (the Makhnovist movement). The substitution of the democratic workers' and peasants' dictatorship for the dictatorship of the proletariat was the first step towards abandoning any extension of the international revolution.

The proletariat allowed its political power to be compromised by the immediate economic interests of the peasantry, particularly by carrying out the Bolshevik slogan of “the land to the peasants!” Faced with these errors of the Russian Communist Party, Gorter, in his Reply to Lenin, was right to say: “The workers of Western Europe are alone; For only a very thin layer of the poor petty bourgeoisie will help them. And this layer is economically insignificant. The workers must bear the weight of the revolution alone. This is the great difference with Russia.”

If the proletariat is faced with the need to take economic measures such as the tax-in-kind, it must obviously explain its reasons to the representatives of the non-exploiting classes in the Soviets, and do everything in its power to take conciliatory measures. At no time can there be any question of sharing, or even giving up, a part of the political power guaranteed to the proletariat by its consciousness and its majority within the organs of government (Soviets), as well as by its own organisation into factory councils and the Party. Only in this way will the proletariat fully exercise its dictatorship thanks to a state which is “proletarian”, but is always oriented towards its primordial historical tasks, and is therefore a “semi-state”.

All these theoretical clarifications are necessary, since today there is a great confusion among revolutionaries about the relationship between the state and the proletarian dictatorship. This text will try to contribute to a clarification of this question; it was written because the one presented to the February 1972 meeting was unsatisfactory and contained certain contradictions. In fact, although the resurgence of class struggle has been obvious since May '68, the ideological weight of the counter-revolution still weighs heavily upon us. This weight can also be felt in the 1946 text of the Gauche Communiste published in Internationalisme, a split from the French Bordigist fraction, written in a period of rampant Stalinist ideology, and therefore unable to profit from the proletarian renewal. We should be able to recognise the historical and theoretical value of this effort at theoretical reflection, given the unfavourable conditions in which it was written, but we also have to underline its mistakes and its weaknesses.

Thus, the main focus of the text's argument rests on the experience of the Russian revolution which is, indeed, of the greatest political importance as a historical reference. However, this reference, apart from the class lessons that can be drawn from it, is given an absolute value when it comes to examining the degeneration and counter-revolution that followed. The text's whole viewpoint, its whole argument, suffers from the trauma that the proletarian defeat in Russia – followed by the setting-up of state capitalism in the name of socialism – represented for revolutionaries: The overall analysis is therefore affected adversely, and in the discussions and the presentation of texts at the February meeting, the explanations of comrades who defended this text were often confused. For example, the text says:

History and the Russian experience, in particular, have demonstrated that there is no such thing as a proletarian state as such, but only a state in the hands of the proletariat, a state whose nature remains anti-socialist. If the political vigilance of the proletariat weakens, the state will become the stronghold, the rallying-point and the expression of the dispossessed classes of a reborn capitalism.

While we may agree with the first statement (ie that its final goal does not allow the proletariat to identify itself with an instrument created to perpetuate the class division of society), it is hard to understand what comrades mean by “a state in the hands of the proletariat, which remains anti-socialist by nature”! In fact, apart from the description of it as "anti-socialist", the text tells us nothing about this state's class nature. Once the seeds of the bourgeoisie's political power have been uprooted, we might ask what is the basis for the real existence of this state, this new form of government of society?

The text appears to lean towards a state representing classes, or, in other words, towards actually abandoning any expression of the proletariat's political domination! The term “vigilance” that follows indicates a conception tinged with anarchism, or, at any rate, springing from a singularly subjective analyses of the counter-revolution. It seems that the state is almost considered as an evil in itself, a curse, and that its historical necessity has been forgotten. In reality, it was the identification of the Bolshevik Party and the Russian state, and its monstrous effects on the proletariat which plays here the role of a “sword of Damocles”, and which troubles the analysis of our comrades. The mistakes of Leninism, and the sordid deceptions of Stalinists and Trotskyists alike, are responsible for our present-day lack of clarity and theoretical confusion.

While we must condemn the identification of Party and State, and even of the State and the Proletariat, we must nonetheless say clearly that, in order to exercise its class dictatorship, the proletariat is forced by the resistance of the previous ruling class, to create new centralised forms of the “government of persons” within which it has majority control. In this way it will really control social life, that is to say, without sharing its political power with other classes, and by stamping the forward path towards communism on every decision taken during the transition period.

Thus, at the same time as it creates a new form of “state” (in the sense of a “government of persons”!) which will be the expression of proletarian political domination and of the necessity for the development of the socialist mode of production, its historical nature compels the proletariat to transform the whole of political life (extension of democracy, negation of its own existence, the end of classes) insofar as the economic realisation of Communism is carried out throughout the transition period. We can thus talk of the extinction of any and all forms of government, and so of the state.

From the moment of the seizure of power, the proletariat's domination is expressed through a semi-state; this is why it is immensely important to grasp the theoretical and practical meaning of these two words, as Lenin said in State and Revolution before he identified the “dictatorship of the proletariat” with the “dictatorship of the Party”. The real danger comes from the monopolisation of political power within the proletariat by a layer of specialists and intellectuals, supported by non-proletarian tendencies with-in the organisms of the workers' government. At this point the dictatorship of the proletariat as a class weakens, and it is then that the state ceases to be the form of government of the transitional society, and strengthens itself to be used by the new bourgeoisie for the solid maintenance of society's class divisions. The dictatorship of the Party then represents the political structure of state capitalism.

The formation of this bureaucracy, and the spreading grasp of the state, are conditioned by the ebbing of the revolution's extension on an international scale, and thus of the objective conditions that favour its extension. (cf. the role of bourgeois ideology in the Western countries, which despite the exacerbation of the crisis leading up to 1929, pushed the workers into frontism, trade-unionism and parliamentarism in the revolutionary wave following the First World War. See Pannekoek's 1920 text World Revolution and Communist  Tactics).

This international aspect has to be made clear in order to mark the distinction between our position and that of the council communist current (Mattick, Korsch, Socialisme ou Barbarie and Pannekoek himself), who made the mistake of attributing all the causes of bureaucratisation to the intelligentsia. They in fact denied the favourable conditions opened up by the 1914-18 war, and hence denied any possibility of setting-up the proletarian dictatorship.

Thus we can say that the proletarian semi-state can become a new capitalist state if the proletariat's power is seized from it by force (repression in Petrograd in 1918, Red Army, militarisation of labour, Kronstadt 1921), or if the organisms representing this power, and which guarantee its transitional form, (Soviets=semi-state) during the “lower phase of socialism” are destroyed or reduced to the role of a rubber stamp (“Resolution on the Role of the Communist Party in the Proletarian Revolution”, IInd Congress of the Communist International, and later the Stalinist Constitution of 1936).

The state becomes openly the instrument of the domination of the possessing class: its power of coercion completes its “collectivised” exploitation of the proletariat; its police and armed gangs can physically exterminate any germ of revolution. The Russian experience shows us, then, the reverse of what the comrades affirm in their quotation. At no point is it simply because “the proletariat's political vigilance weakens” that the state, which had been “in its hands” abruptly becomes, owing to this lack of surveillance, “the expression of the dispossessed classes, of a reborn capitalism”. A whole process of internal struggle within the proletariat, which remains a danger right up to the world-wide seizure of power, is thus necessary before the governmental expression of the class (the semi-state) is to be transformed into a state against the proletariat.

There are two sides to this process: on the one hand, an interruption in the unification of class consciousness within the Soviets (which from the start contain elements of heterogeneity due to the presence of non-proletarian labouring strata); on the other, a strengthening of the power of the Communist Party – theoretically the most conscious element of the class – which, from being simply a part of the class, starts to claim to represent the whole class.

The "Bolshevik" theses on the role of the Party presented to the IInd Congress of the Communist International indicate very clearly the existence of this process:

The rise of the Soviets as the main historically-determined form of the dictatorship of the proletariat in no way detracts from the leading role of the Communist Party in the proletarian revolution. When the German 'Left' Communists say (see their appeal to the German proletariat of 14 April, 1920, signed 'Communist Labour Party of Germany') that 'the party, too, is more and more adapting itself to the Soviet idea and assuming a proletarian character' – 'dass auch die Partei sich immer mehr dem Rategedanken anpasst und proletarishchen Charakter annimmt' (Kommunistiche  Arbeiterzeitung, n°54), they are expressing the commonly-held idea that the Communist Party ought to dissolve itself into the Soviets, that the Soviet can replace the Communist Party. This idea is fundamentally incorrect and reactionary... The history of the Russian Communist Party, which has held power in a huge country for three years, shows that the role of the Party does not decrease in the period after the seizure of power, but, on the contrary, increases greatly.[1]

In this quotation we find. the perfect illustration, not only of the substitutionism of the Party's power for that of the proletariat, but above all of the identification of Party and State at the expense of the revolutionary expression of proletarian power: the Soviet semi-state. In fact, the KAPD did not defend the idea of the Party's disappearance, but of a role for the Party equivalent to the practice and organisation of the class itself (factory committees). This is why, along-side the evolution of consciousness in the Soviets (and only on this condition), the Party was to “proletarianise” itself, thus guaranteeing the passage from all forms of transitional government (the semi-state) to the complete disappearance of all government, of any state.

In conclusion, we quote a passage from the comrades' text which we feel totally contradicts their general thesis (that the Soviets are not the only government in the period of transition: a state “in the hands of the proletariat”). We identify with the whole of the following formulation, which shows again despite all its errors and contradictions, the elements of historic and revolutionary value contained in this 1946 text:

Everyone who works will participate in the elections to the organs of direction and management, to the councils. Only those who do not work or who live off the labour of others will be excluded. The interests of all the working masses will be expressed in the councils, including those of non-proletarian strata. The proletariat, because of its consciousness, its political strength, the place it occupies at the industrial heart of the economy, because of its concentration in the towns and factories, having acquired a sense of organisation and discipline, will play a preponderant role in the whole life and activity of the councils, and will give leadership and direction to the other strata of the labouring population. In the councils, the proletarians will for the first time learn the art of administering society for themselves. The Party will not impose its economic policies on the councils through decrees or by claiming some divine right. It will have to make its conceptions and policies prevail by proposing them, defending them, and submitting them to the approval of the masses organised in the councils or soviets, relying on the councils of workers and on the workers' delegates to the central councils to bring its class policies to a successful conclusion (all emphasis is my own)

The Soviets are thus, at the same time the expression of a government (a state form) and of the preparation for the withering away of all government: we must call them a 'proletarian semi-state' (for the proletariat is the dominant force and the last revolutionary class, which in affirming itself prepares its own negation as a class).

Guy Sabatier, September 1972

Excerpts from the text printed in the Bulletin d'Etude et de discussion de Révolution Internationale n°2 (May 1973)


[1]Quoted from Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, Ink Links, p.72