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The following text is a report of a meeting held by the group Révolution Internationale in February 1972. The subject under discussion was “the content of socialism”. This was the first time the group as a whole had dealt with such a subject. The aim of the meeting was not to pretend to end up with a ready-made, immutable theory on what the content of socialism should be, but rather to open up the discussion, to begin dealing with the problem by studying the experience of past revolutions and the theories put forward by revolutionaries throughout the history of the workers' movement. This text takes up the main ideas that emerged from the discussion.

Two tendencies appeared: the first defending the “classic” idea that, during the period of transition, the workers' councils take on the tasks of the state, that they are the “workers’ state”. The second tendency saw the necessity and inevitability during the period of transition of a state which would be linked to, but distinct from, the workers' councils. The state can be considered as an instrument, not of society's revolutionary transformation, but rather of the consolidation of the gains of the revolution: victory in the struggle against the bourgeoisie. The dictatorship of the proletariat is not to be confused with the state; to be able to ensure progress towards the socialist transformation, the working class must maintain its freedom of action and the independence of its class organs – the workers' councils – that are the instruments of its dictatorship.

It is obvious that this discussion remains open, and that such a difficult subject cannot at this point be made a “principle” of the group. Nonetheless, the debate takes place within a certain framework; there is no place in the group for “Leninist”/state-capitalist theories that claim to solve the problems of the transitional period by means of a party-state.

On the content of socialism

The historical evolution of the idea of the content of socialism

To deal with the problems that will occur during the “transitional phase” – in other words the period between the day after the revolution (the seizure of power by the international working class) and the definitive realisation of communism (classless society) – it is useful to review briefly the theory of socialism's evolution from the beginning of capitalism.

In fact, revolutionaries' conceptions of the content of socialism have folloWed the evolution of the class struggle. For revolutionaries, there is no such thing as an “immutable theory” or an “absolute truth”; their theories have consequently developed thanks to their permanent confrontation with reality, and to the strengthening and enrichment which each experience of the working class has brought with it.

Thus, at the beginning of the 19th century, owing to the “extreme youth” and inexperience of the working class, revolutionaries had an entirely idealist conception of socialism, which they depicted as an ideal world of harmony and justice that could be reached by peaceful evolution. Their criticisms of bourgeois society, despite their accuracy, remained on a moral and ethical level. For them, the revolution was simply a question of “good will” and moral principles; they believed in a peaceful evolution from capitalism to communism through the creation and subsequent proliferation of little communes and phalansteries (Owen, Fourier, etc: Utopian socialism). Inevitably, these theories led into a dead-end, as did those of Proudhon, who thought the workers' emancipation from their exploitation could begin within capitalist society by means of associations of producers producing and exchanging goods “at their fair price”. These theories were shown to be utopian because they saw the transition from capitalism as being immediately realisable simply through human will. For the utopian socialists, socialism remained an abstraction, in the realm of ideas, because they did not see the real subject of socialist transformation – the working class. Proudhon, who wanted to spare the working class its wage slavery did not see the road to its emancipation – the class struggle. All these theories simply denied any problem of a period of transition to socialism.

Historical Materialism

Historical materialism raised for the first time the historical necessity of capitalism's disappearance and the establishment of Socialism ceased to be communism a simple question of morality and will, to be understood instead as the last and inevitable step in the "history of class struggle". Historical materialism gave the good intentions of the utopian socialists an explanation and a scientific basis. For Marx and marxists, the course of history is determined, not by ideas and human will, but by the development of the productive forces. The development of the productive forces within capitalist society comes into conflict with the capitalist superstructure and relations of production. This creates the basis not only for the possibility of the appearance of a new society, but its necessity.

With the appearance of historical materialism, it also became clear that capitalism will be destroyed, not by “men of goodwill”, but by a class, the working class, called upon to carry out this task. It will be the subject of history, for only this class will have an interest in – and capacity for – the liberation of the productive forces from  their capitalist fetters, and the establishment of a society no longer dominated by commodity relationships, a society which will eliminate the domination of man by man.

There is no continuity between previous societies and communism (the “end of the reign of necessity, and the beginning of the reign of freedom”). This is why the passage from capitalism to communism will not be accomplished overnight. The proletarian revolution will not immediately set up a new society, but will open a period of social and economic transformation, and of maturation in the class; this is the period of transition that Marx had already called the “lower phase” of communism, or “socialism” and which would precede the “higher phase” of communism.

Since Marx's time the theory of the content of socialism has been extended, particularly by Lenin (in State and Revolution), by the Russian experience,[1] and by the studies of comrades of the Dutch Left – who attempted a serious study of the problem, but limited it to the level of an isolated industrialised country when in fact the conditions for revolution can only exist and ripen on the international level.

The object of our discussion today is to outline the problems that will face the proletariat after the revolution; we say “outline” the problems advisedly since it is obvious here that we are only trying to contribute to a discussion and study of a problem which has always been posed for revolutionaries, and which will continue to be posed until history itself has dealt with it.

In the discussion among revolutionaries about the society of the future, its ultimate, class-less phase, arouses little debate; indeed with our alienated vision, we cannot even imagine what problems will be posed then. We have only a few general guidelines:

  • the economy will cease to have an autonomous existence and will be controlled by mankind.
  • work will no longer be a "curse". - there will no longer be any contradiction between society and the individual… in a world without classes, the “new man” will be integrated into an ever more harmonious society.

By contrast the “transitional society” which must lead up to this “ideal society” raises innumerable problems; it will bear the burden of putting an end to capitalism and preparing for communism. To do this, the proletariat must act in a way that goes against everything we have seen in the past. For the transitional society, as its name implies, is not a fixed society, to be established, but must undergo a permanent transformation in order to resolve the enormous contradictions that will weigh on it after the revolution.

The main problems and contradictions after the revolution

As we have said, the proletariat's seizure of power, in itself only opens up a period when it will have to pave the way for the establishment of a classless society.

To claim – as many revolutionaries do today – that the proletariat's seizure of power will lead directly to the creation of a new society or that it will resolve all problems, is to imagine that problems can be eliminated by closing your eyes to them. This attitude does not take reality into account and thus leaves a free rein to the many dangers that will lie in wait on the forward march of the revolution.

The primary task of a working class power in any country will be to hasten the revolutionary process in other countries, as an absolute condition for its own existence. The transformation of society is only possible on an inter-national scale, and there can be no such thing as a “socialist economy”, or “self-management” in one country. The fundamental job at the start of the world-wide civil war will be to extend the revolution to other sectors and other countries.

Once the revolution is won, the working class will find itself in a precarious situation to say the least: it has to hold on to power, while at the same time:

  • its class consciousness is far from being unified;
  • it will be the only class to defend the interests of socialist transformation;
  • other classes and social strata will still exist (the peasantry, craftsmen, petty bourgeoisie) which, while they may take part in the struggle against the bourgeoisie, have no class interest in the socialisation of production. These strata, although they are not exploiters, will tend towards an opposition to the proletariat and the maintenance of individual production and commodity relationships.
  • these classes cannot simply be “eliminated” by violence. They will necessarily have a role to play in post-revolutionary society. In the short term the proletariat will have to come to terms with these classes in order to set in motion a dynamic that will transform the material basis of the peasantry and petty bourgeoisie (proletarianisation of parasitic strata, integration of craftsmen into production, encouragement of collectivisation in the countryside).

These classes have to be won over, integrated and assimilated through an ideological struggle and a transformation of the economic base that only the proletariat can carry out. These transformations cannot all be pushed through overnight. There will be a whole period before these classes can be integrated into the proletariat, and by the same token, before class society can be eliminated. This is the definition of the period of transition. Until these classes have disappeared, exchange relationships will persist, and the danger of a retreat will menace the revolution's forward march.

The problems of the co-ordination of production and distribution will have to be resolved. Planning on more than a merely local scale will be necessary.

The problem of the two-thirds of humanity that suffers from famine and chronic under-nourishment has to be solved. In short, the revolution must be world-wide, while at the same time the working class is in a minority on a world scale.

Nor must we ignore the fact that it is impossible to know what state the economy will be in at the end of the civil war. Large-scale destruction may well be followed by a period of shortages and scarcity.

These are only a few of the problems that will face us. Our aim is to offer a realistic conception of the revolution instead of a utopian one.

Because of the working class' weak position after the revolution, menaced by external threats (the economic situation, the balance of class forces) as well as internal ones (the weight of bygone ideologies, the lack of political unification), the danger of a "return" to capitalism will be multiplied tenfold. As revolutionaries we have to estimate these problems as well as possible, so as not to be "taken by surprise", and to try to limit the damage.

We know that the main difficulty of the period of transition will be a situation where the working class has demonstrated in practice its will to destroy the capitalist system in all its forms, and yet is unable to do so overnight, for the reasons we have indicated above; this is the nub of the problem of the transitional society; this is a phase of constant tug-of-war within society between a tendency to immobility, the preservation of the status quo or retreat, and a tendency – which only a conscious and independently organised working class can guarantee--towards a permanent overcoming of this situation, towards the construction of a classless society.

Why a state? 

The primary task of the revolutionary working class is in no way to ensure the survival of this hybrid, divided society that it will inherit from capitalism. Its mission goes far further, and to give it this role which does not belong to it would be to shackle it. Nonetheless, this task of ensuring the survival and functioning of this interim society must be carried out.

Whether we like it or not, a state will emerge after the civil war, since classes (peasantry, petty bourgeoisie) will still exist in the transitional society. The proletariat must lead a class struggle for the transformation of this society, and yet at the same time it is impossible to deprive these strata of all social expression, of all representation in social life. The state will be the expression of the contradictions within the transitional society. Like all states it will consolidate the gains of the past struggle (the victory of the revolution against the bourgeoisie) and its role will be to keep the class struggle in the transitional society within a framework which does not endanger this society's existence. But, unlike the states of the past, its purpose will not be to enshrine a new economic class domination, for the working class is not an exploiting class and has no privileged economic interests to defend.

The state of the transitional period will disappear when classes have disappeared. It is highly likely that the proletariat will have to take extreme care to ensure, by force if necessary, that the state does not become independent in relation to the rest of society. The class must be aware that the danger of a return to capitalism will come in part from this state itself, from this scourge inherited from a world divided into classes, this double-edged weapon that it will have to use in the same way that cobalt is used to treat cancer. 

In no way is the state of the transitional society the bearer of the revolution; it appears as the product of a certain situation and a certain balance of forces between the working class and other classes, which do not share the working class' interest in the revolution (remember that we speak always on the international level). Since it is the product of this state of affairs, it will tend to try to perpetuate this situation, to hinder the movement towards the elimination of the other classes. Contrary to what Lenin thought, it is by nature antithetical to the struggle for human liberation.

Historically, we have seen that at the moment of the insurrection, the state is identified with the unitary organs of the working class – the soviets. The state-soviet problem is posed luring the second phase (when the problems of the management of society and the maintenance of public order appear); the whole of society has to be kept alive, while at the same time there are only workers in the soviets. Identifying the workers' councils with the state, as do both Councilists and Leninists, is to miss the fact that:

  1. The proletariat's historic task cannot be identified with the state. The proletariat alone is the bearer of socialism, of a communist programme that will lead to the disappearance of classes. In the midst of the immediate reality, the proletariat must always defend the movement's final goal. The state is only a temporary compromise in a still divided society. The proletariat's aim is not to guarantee the existence of "states", but to overthrow the status quo, to be able to march towards socialism.
  2. A workers' "state" is a contradiction in terms. The working class does not build "states" because it is not an exploiting class. A state is inevitable in the period of transition, but it does not emerge from the working class. The state can be a danger for the proletariat; it may try to tie the workers' hands and make them "work for others". The working class must be free to carry out its policies, and this includes the right to strike against the dictates of the state. To confuse the state with the proletariat leads to the aberration of a "workers' state" that forbids the workers to rise against it.
  3. Trying to identify the proletariat with the state only dilutes the strength of the working class by uniting it with other classes that do not defend the same interests. The proletariat's dictatorship operates through its independent organisms – the workers' councils – and its class role within the state will depend on the balance of forces with other classes and the degree of consciousness and vigilance of the workers.

As we said above, the great difficulty of the period of transition is precisely that it is transitional. In other words, its evolution will constantly be threatened by immense counter-tendencies – and for this evolution to be blocked will inevitably mean degeneration and a return to capitalism. We might say that the transitional period will for a long time be located at a constantly modified distance between capitalism and communism, as long as the state has not completely disappeared. If revolutionaries do not properly grasp the dynamic of this period, they will be guilty of the most serious mistakes.

Although the only function of the transitional society's state will be to fulfil the most practical of tasks to ensure this society's survival, this will not prevent it from being marked by the most reactionary and tendencies towards stasis; it could become an active organ of the counter-revolution. It is precisely the struggle against its counter-revolutionary tendencies that makes it absolutely necessary that the working class does not "relax", that its maturity, strengthening, radicalisation, and unification continue to develop within its councils. The working class must be on the alert to parry the slightest sign of counter-revolution, must ensure that the revolution stays on the right course, and must, if need be, be prepared to take up arms again against this very state.

It seems obvious that to guarantee the submission of this state, a certain number of measures have to be taken:

  • the workers organised in councils have the power of decision over all the state's measures; none are taken without their agreement and active participation;
  • the workers have a monopoly of arms, and must be prepared to use them against the state if necessary;
  • the workers are represented in the state in the highest proportions that the balance of class forces makes possible;
  • all members of the state are delegated and instantly revocable; the workers' representatives account before the councils for every action they carry out;
  • the workers' councils decide on the changes to be carried out within the state, and within society itself, taking account of the evolution of the balance of class forces. Their attitude towards other classes might be described as: "We make compromises with you because for the moment we cannot do otherwise. But our aim is to eliminate the conditions of your existence as a class as rapidly as possible".

This "destruction" of the other strata in society will be possible all the more quickly as the productive forces are developed. The working class' first concern will be to integrate all strata of society into socialised production as rapidly as possible. It goes without saying that this integration will not be a matter of forcing everybody to work in the kind of factories that exist today, but that the nature, the aims, and the forms of production will-have to be profoundly altered immediately after the seizure of power.

Thus, although it will not be possible to set up the classless society immediately after the revolution, and although it will be necessary to take account of other, non-revolutionary classes, it will be possible – and necessary – to take socialist measures (ensuring the path to socialism) straight away; as many "points of no return" will have to be passed as rapidly  as the situation permits. For example, while in the first stages the distribution of products may unavoidably be carried out under some kind of monetary form – as long as non-socialised sectors persist – the primary concern will be to aim at the collectivisation of distribution, the suppression of the market, of wage-labour, and, obviously, of the law of value.

We criticise the system of "labour vouchers"[2] (a kind of "money" representing a given labour time, and which an individual might use to acquire consumer goods, also priced in labour time) since this system tends to perpetuate the idea of the working class as a mass of individuals who receive the necessities of life as a function of their individual labour. In fact, whatever the measures taken during the transition period, what matters is above all their orientation and the break they represent with the old system.

The guiding orientation for every measure taken must be the tendency towards production for the satisfaction of needs and not for accumulation as under capitalism, towards a constant rise in workers' living standards, and the reduction of labour time through the integration of other strata into associated labour. Labour must cease to be a scourge, a "buying back of your own life", and instead encourage relationships of solidarity among workers. We think that it is necessary to establish as quickly as possible the collectivisation and free distribution of all articles necessary to human life (food, clothing, etc), above all in the industrialised sectors where the working class is strong, and where the socialisation of consumption will necessarily be able to proceed more quickly.

The best guarantee against an eventual degeneration of the revolution are those economic and political measures that tend more and more to subject the economy and the productive forces to immediate human need. This is the guiding light that must constantly orientate the period of transition, the only one that can show us the way towards the "reign of freedom", towards the society of man.


Printed in the Bulletin d'Etudes et de discussion de Révolution Internationale, n°8 (July 1974) Notes: 1.  2.


[1]This account only allows us to begin a discussion on certain essential aspects of the transition period. We cannot here go into the details of the Russian experience, and the decisive lessons of this period, but refer to the articles on "The State in the Period of Transition" in numbers 1 and 2 of this Bulletin and to the articles on the period of transition in Révolution Internationale. We intend to continue this discussion in coming issues of the Bulletin.

[2]Set out by Marx in the Critique of the Gotha Programme and taken up and elaborated by the Dutch Left in Principles of Communist Production and Distribution.