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In the Platform adopted at the First Congress of the ICC in January 1976, the question of the relationship between the proletariat and the state in the period of transition remained "open":

The experience of the Russian Revolution has shown the complexity and seriousness of the problem of the relationship bet-ween the class and the state in the period of transition. In the coming period, the proletariat and revolutionaries can-not evade this problem, but must make every effort to resolve it.[1]

It is in the context of this effort that the Second Congress of Révolution Internationale has approached the question and tried to formulate a resolution which sums up the point reached in the discussion so far. But the question which has been raised is of a programmatic character. Since the ICC Platform is the only programmatic basis for all sections of the Current, it goes without saying that only the general Congress of the ICC has the competence to decide about any possible changes in the Platform. Thus by taking up a position on the resolution on the period of transition, the Second Congress of RI will not be altering the programmatic basis of RI; just like any other section of the ICC, RI does not have a distinct programmatic basis from the Current as a whole.

The limits of the discussion

Before going into the complex problems of the period of transition, it would be useful to distinguish three main areas of discussion:

  • The general specificities which characterise the period of transition from capitalism to communism and which distinguish it from other historical periods of transition.
  • The relationship between the revolutionary class and the rest of society during the period of transition; in other words the problem of what is meant by the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and, consequently, what must be the relationship between the revolutionary class and the state during the transition period.
  • Questions about all the concrete “economic” measures for the transformation of social production.

Revolutionaries must try to give an answer to all these problems. However, ever since Marx and Engels first laid down the bases of “scientific materialism”, revolutionaries have been aware that they must be conscious of the tremendous limitations imposed by the very limitations of proletarian experience in this area. Otherwise they risk losing themselves in the kind of speculations which Marx dismissed contemptuously as "recipes for the dishes of the future". The extent of these limitations was underlined by Marx in 1875 in his Critique of the Gotha  Programme:

…what transformation will the nature of the state undergo in communist society? In other words, what social functions will remain in existence there that are analogous to present functions of the state? This question can only be answered scientifically, and one does not get a flea-hop nearer to the problem by a thousandfold combination of the word people with the word state.

This same awareness was expressed by Rosa Luxemburg in 1918 in her pamphlet on the Russian Revolution:

Far from being a sum of ready-made prescriptions which only have to be applied, the practical realisation of socialism as an economic, social, and juridical system is something which lies completely hidden in the mists of the future. What we possess in our programme is nothing but a few signposts which indicate the general direction in which to look for the necessary measures, and the indications are mainly negative in character at that... (socialism) has as its pre-requisite a number of measures of force against property, etc. The negative, the tearing down, can be decreed; the building up, the positive, cannot. New territory. A thousand problems. Only experience is capable of correcting and opening new ways.

Beyond these general limitations, the resolution is bound by the objectives it sets for itself. It does not claim to make a synthesis of everything that has been clarified by revolutionaries on the period of transition. In particular, the resolution does not go into the question of the economic measures for the transformation of social production. On the one hand, it includes the positions which were acquired by the workers' movement before the experience of the Russian revolution and which have shown themselves to be genuine class frontiers: on the other hand it includes a number of positions concerning the relationship between the dictatorship of the proletariat and the state in the period of transition. These positions have been derived mainly from the Russian revolution, and although they are not in themselves class frontiers, they are lessons sufficiently developed by historical experience to be an integral part of the programmatic basis of a revolutionary organisation. These fundamental class frontiers are: the inevitability of a transition period, the primacy of the proletariat's political activity as the precondition and guarantee of the transition towards a classless society; the world-wide character of this transformation; the specificity of the power of the working class, in particular the fact that the proletariat, in contrast to other revolutionary classes in history, has no economic basis within the old society, and therefore does not fight for political domination in order to consolidate itself as an economically ruling class, but in order to put an end to all economic domination by abolishing classes themselves; the impossibility of the proletariat using the bourgeois state apparatus and the necessity for its destruction as a precondition for the establishment of proletarian political power; the inevitability of a state during the period of transition, even though this state will be profoundly different from all other states in history. These positions already represent a categorical rejection of all the social democratic, anarchist, self-management, and modernist conceptions which have always been present in the workers' movement, but which are today pillars of the counter-revolution.

On the basis of these fundamental class positions, the resolution goes on to define, primarily from the experience of the Russian revolution, certain aspects of the relationship between the proletariat and the state during the transition period. Thus we have an understanding of the inevitably conservative nature of the transitional state; the impossibility of the proletariat or its party identifying themselves with this state; the necessity for the working class to conceive of its relationship to this state (in which it participates as a politically ruling class) as being a relationship of force: "domination over society is thus its domination over the state"; the necessity for the existence and armed strength of the working class' own specific organisations: only the working class is organised as a class in this period and the state can have no coercive power over the proletariat's own organisations. These positions enable us to reject the mystifications which served as a basis for "the counter-revolution which developed in Russia under the direction of a degenerating Bolshevik Party" and which are defended today by all the Stalinist and Trotskyist currents as a theoretical justification for identifying state capitalism with socialism. The content of this resolution thus represents a real safeguard against all the erroneous conceptions which the proletariat could encounter in its coming world-wide assault on the capitalist system. However, no matter how important these positions might be for the future struggles of the class, we must under-stand the real limits of this acquisition today.

The historic experience which gave rise to these positions dealing with the relationship between class and state in the transition period are still much too rare and specific for the conclusions that can be drawn from them to be considered class lines by revolutionaries today. Class lines are positions which establish a clear point of demarcation between the bourgeois camp and the proletarian camp. They cannot be drawn up by revolutionaries on the basis of insufficient historical experience or in anticipation of the future; they can only arise on the empirical basis provided by the very history of proletarian struggle, which must be sufficiently clear to supply us with lessons that are “beyond discussion”.[2]

It is therefore necessary to underline how very limited are the points which we can consider as definite gains on this question: the rejection of the identification of the proletariat or its party with the transitional state; the definition of the relationship between the dictatorship of the proletariat and the state as being one of the dictator-ship of the class over the state, and never the state over the class; the defence of the autonomy of the proletariat's own organisations in relation to the state, as being the precondition for the real autonomy and strength of the proletarian dictatorship.

These points are still inevitably abstract and general. They are simply "a few main signposts which indicate the general direction in which to look for the necessary measures, and the indications are mainly negative in character at that". The precise forms in which they will be put into practice inevitably remain “new territory” which only experience will allow us to open up. A precondition for the effectiveness of a revolutionary organisation is not only understanding what it knows and can know, but also what it does not and cannot know. This can only come from its ability to show a real programmatic rigour and to grasp the fundamental lessons provided by the living struggle of the proletarian masses.

The problem of the relationship between class and state in the history of the workers' movement

The general lack of knowledge about the history of the workers' movement, which has been aggravated by the organic break between the revolutionaries of today and the former political organisations of the class, have led some to think that the analysis presented in this resolution is somehow a “discovery” or an “originality” of the ICC. A brief summary of the way this question has been tackled (one might even say “discovered”) by revolutionaries since Marx and Engels will soon show how wrong this view is.

In the Communist Manifesto, which did not yet make use of the term “dictatorship of the proletariat”, the "first step in the revolution of the working class" is defined as raising "the proletariat to the position of ruling class, [winning] the battle of democracy". This conquest refers in fact to the apparatus of the bourgeois state which the proletariat must use in order: "…to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the-hands of the state, ie of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible". Even if the idea of the ultimate disappearance of the state was already put forward in The Poverty of Philosophy; even if the idea of the inevitable existence of a state during the "first step of the revolution of the working class" is present in the Manifesto, the actual problem of the relationship between the working class and the state during the period of transition was hardly touched upon. It was the experience of the Paris Commune which really began to allow the problem to be more fully understood through the lessons that Marx and Engels drew from it: the necessity for the proletariat to destroy the bourgeois state apparatus, the setting up of a completely different apparatus which was "no longer a state in the proper sense of the word" (Engels), since it was no longer an organ for the oppression of the majority by the minority. That this apparatus was still burdened with the weight of the past was clearly underlined by Engels who defined it as a "necessary evil":

…an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, whose worse sides the victor-ious proletariat, just like the Commune, cannot avoid having to lop off at once as much as possible until such time as a generation reared in new, free social conditions is able to throw the entire lumber of the state on the scrap heap.[3]

However, despite an intuitive awareness of the necessity for the proletariat to distrust this apparatus inherited from the past (the proletariat, Engels said, "must safeguard itself against its own deputies and officials, by declaring them all, without exception, subject to recall at any moment"), and probably because the extremely short and circumscribed experience of the Paris Commune did not make it possible to really pose the problem of the relationship between the proletariat, the state, and the other non-exploiting classes in society, one of the ideas which came out of the Commune was the identification of the proletarian dictatorship with the transitional state. Thus, three years after the Paris Commune, Marx wrote in his Critique of the Gotha Programme:

Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. There corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.

This was the theoretical basis which Lenin reformulated in the concept of the “proletarian state” in State and Revolution; and it was on this basis that the Bolsheviks and the Russian proletariat established the dictatorship of the proletariat in 1917.

This attempt at proletarian power confronted the most enormous difficulties – the over-whelming majority of peasants in Russian society, the immediate necessity to wage a merciless civil war, the international isolation of Russia, the extreme weakness of a productive apparatus destroyed by the First World War and then the Civil War. All this was to dramatically highlight the problem of the relationship between the dictatorship of the proletariat and the state.

The grim reality of these events was to prove that it was not enough to baptise the state as “proletarian” for it to serve the revolutionary interests of the proletariat; that it was not enough to place the proletarian party at the head of the state (to the point where it became totally identified with it) for the state machine to follow the course on which even the most dedicated revolutionaries wanted to set it.

The state apparatus, the state bureaucracy, could not be the expression of proletarian interests alone. As an apparatus whose task was to ensure the survival of society it could only express the survival needs of the moribund Russian economy. What marxists have said from the very beginning was powerfully vindicated: the imperatives of economic survival imposed themselves mercilessly on the policies of the state. And the economy was a long way from being influenced in any proletarian direction. Lenin had to admit this powerless-ness at the Eleventh Congress of the Party, one year after the NEP had begun:

You communists, you workers, the politically enlightened section of the proletariat, which undertook to administer the state, must be able to arrange it so that the state, which you have taken into your hands, shall function the way you want it to (…) the state is in our hands: but has it operated the New Economic Policy in the way we wanted in this past year? No! (…) How did it operate? The machine refused to obey the hand that guided it. It was like a car that was going not in the direction the driver desired, but in the direction someone else desired.[4]

The identification of the proletarian party with the state did not lead to the state being subordinated to the revolutionary interests of the proletariat, but to the subordination of the party to the Russian state. Under the pressure of the survival needs of the Russian state, which the Bolsheviks saw as the incarnation of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the “proletarian bastion” that had at all costs to be defended, the Bolshevik Party ended up subordinating the tactics of the Communist International to the interests of Russia (for example, alliances with the big European social-chauvinist parties in an attempt to break out of the cordon sanitaire which was strangling Russia); it was this pressure which led to the signing of the Rapallo Treaty with German imperialism; and it was to prevent any weakening of the power of the “proletarian” state apparatus and in the name of this state, that the Kronstadt insurgents were crushed by the Red Army. As for the working masses, the identification of their party with the state led to their vanguard being cut off from them precisely when they most needed it, while the idea of identifying their power with the power of the state rendered them powerless and confused in the face of the growing oppression of the state bureaucracy.[5] The counter-revolution which reduced the dictatorship of the proletariat to ashes had arisen out of the very organ which for decades revolutionaries had thought could be identified with the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The long process of drawing out the lessons of the Russian experience began right from the beginning of the revolution itself. The first theoretical reactions came in the midst of an unavoidable confusion; they were limited to attacking partial aspects of the problem and unable to grasp the essence of the question in the tumult of a revolution whose signs of degeneration began to appear right from the start. Rosa Luxemburg's pamphlet on The Russian Revolution in 1918, which criticised the identification of the dictator-ship of the proletariat with the dictatorship of the party, as well as warning against any limitation of working class political life by the state, contained already the germs of a critique of the transitional state. Rosa Luxemburg, although she still considered this transitional state as a “proletarian” state, and although she still retained the idea of the "seizure of power by the socialist party", pointed out the only way of "lopping off the worse sides" of this "evil", the state:

…the only effective means in the hands of the proletarian revolution are: radical measures of a political and social character, the speediest possible transformation of the social guarantees of the life of the masses – the kindling of revolutionary idealism, which can be maintained over any length of time only through the intensely active life of the masses themselves under conditions of unlimited political freedom.[6]

In Russia and within the Bolshevik Party itself the development of the state bureaucracy, and thus of the antagonism between the proletariat and the state power, provoked early on various reactions, such as that of Ossinsky's group, or later on the Miasnikov’s Workers' Group. These groups, by questioning the rise of the bureaucracy were already raising, albeit in a confused manner, the question of the nature of the state and its relationship to the class.

But it is probably the polemic between Lenin and Trotsky at the Tenth Congress on the question of the unions that most sharply posed the problem of the state. Against Trotsky's idea of more and more integrating the workers' unions into the state in order to deal with economic difficulties, Lenin defended the necessity to safeguard the autonomy of the proletariat's organisations so that the workers could defend themselves against "the nefarious abuses of the state bureaucracy". Lenin even went so far as to say that the state was not a "workers' state, but a workers' and peasants' state with numerous bureaucratic deformations". Even though these debates took place in a milieu of general confusion (Lenin considered his differences with Trotsky to be questions of contingency, not of principle), they were nevertheless authentic expressions of the proletariat's search for answers to the problem of the relationship between its dictatorship and the state. The Dutch and German Lefts continued along the path laid down by Rosa Luxemburg concerning the development of the state bureaucracy in Russia. Having been forced to confront the problem of the degeneration of the international policies of the Communist International, they were also led to elaborate a critique of what they called 'state socialism'. However, the work done by Jan Appel in collaboration with the Dutch Left on the Basic Principles of Communist Production and Distribution was mainly concerned with the economic aspects of the transition period. Concerning its political aspects they tended to repeat the fundamental ideas of Rosa Luxemburg. The theoretical basis for a more profound understanding of the problem was posed above all by the work of the Italian Left in exile, in particular the articles by Mitchell published from Bilan n°28 onwards (March-April 1936). While retaining a “Leninist” position on the quasi-identity between party and class, Bilan was the first to assert clearly the pernicious character of any identification between the dictatorship of the proletariat and the state in the period of transition. At the same time Bilan stressed the importance of the class and its party remaining autonomous from the state. Taking up some of Rosa Luxemburg's ideas, Mitchell saw the vitality of the proletariat's own organs as the necessary antidote to the "worst sides" of the state:

"But in the middle of the most terrible contingent difficulties, the Bolsheviks did not consider the Soviet state as 'an evil inherited by the proletariat… whose worst sides the victorious proletariat… cannot avoid having to lop off as much as possible', but as an organism which could be completely identified with the proletarian dictatorship, ie with the Party. The result of this important modification was that the foundation of the dictatorship of the proletariat was no longer to be the Party, but the state; and through the ensuing reversal of roles the latter found itself in a course of development which led not to the withering away of the state but to the reinforcement of its coercive and repressive powers. Once an instrument of the world revolution, the proletarian state was inevitably converted into a weapon of the global counter-revolution. Although Marx, Engels, and above all Lenin had again and again emphasized the necessity to counter the state with a proletarian antidote capable of preventing its degeneration, the Russian Revolution, far from assuring the maintenance and vitality of the class organs of the proletariat, sterilised them by incorporating them into the state; and thus the revolution devoured its own substance.[7]

Bilan's analysis still contained hesitations and weaknesses, in particular its analysis of the class nature of the transitional state, which it still characterised as a 'proletarian state'. These understandable hesitations and inadequacies were transcended in the analysis of Internationalisme in 1946 (see the article “The Nature of the State and the Proletarian Revolution” republished in RI's Bulletin d'Etude et de Discussion, n°1, January 1973). Basing itself on an objective analysis of the economic and political nature of the period of transition, Internationalisme clearly asserted the non-proletarian, anti-socialist character of the transitional state.

The state, insofar as it is reconstituted after the revolution, expresses the immaturity of the conditions for a socialist society. It is the political super-structure of an economic base which is not yet socialist. By its very nature it is opposed to and hostile to socialism. Just as the period of transition is a historically inevitable stage which the proletariat has to go through, so the state is for the proletariat an unavoidable instrument of violence which it must use against the dispossessed classes but with which it cannot identify itself…

The Russian experience in particular has demonstrated the theoretical falsity of the idea of the workers' state, of the proletarian nature of the state, and of identifying the dictatorship of the proletariat with the utilisation by the proletariat of this instrument of coercion, the state.[8]

Internationalisme drew from the experience of the Russian revolution the vital necessity for the proletariat to exert a strict and permanent control over the state apparatus, which at the slightest reflux would become the principal force of the counter-revolution:

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 and which, as soon as the political vigilance of the proletariat weakens, will become the stronghold, the rallying point and the expression of the dispossessed classes of a reborn capitalism.[9]

Still impregnated with certain conceptions held by the Italian Left from which Internationalisme had evolved, especially on the question of the party and on the trade unions, but clearly aware that the subject of the revolution was the working class, Internationalisme defended the necessity for total political freedom for the class and its class-wide organs (a role it still thought the unions could play) in relation to the state. In particular, Internationalisme condemned any use of violence by the state against the class. It was also the first to develop a real understanding of the link between economic and political problems during the transition period:

This period of transition between capitalism and socialism under the political dictatorship of the proletariat expresses itself on the economic terrain in an energetic policy which aims to diminish class exploitation, to constantly increase the proletariat's share in the national income, to alter the relationship between variable capital and constant capital in favour of the former. This policy cannot be based simply on the programmatic declaration of the party; still less is it the prerogative of the state, the organ of coercion and administration. This policy can only find a guarantee and a real expression in the class itself, through the pressure which the class exerts over society, through its opposition to and struggle against all other classes…

Any tendency to reduce the role of the trade unions after the revolution; any pretence that the existence of a “workers' state” means the end of freedom to engage in union activities or strikes; any advocacy of fusing the unions with the state, through the theory of handing economic administration over to the unions, which seems revolutionary but which in fact leads to an incorporation of the unions into the state machine; any position which, however revolutionary its intentions, calls for violence within the proletariat and its organisations; any attempt to stand in the way of the broadest workers' democracy and the free play of political struggle and of fractions within the unions: any such policies are anti-working class. They falsify the relationship between party and class and weaken the proletariat's position during the transition period.

The duty of communists will be to energetically denounce and fight against all these tendencies and to work for the full development and independence of the trade union movement, which is an indispensable condition for the victory of socialism.[10]

It was the achievement of Internationalisme to have provided the general theoretical framework in which the question of the relationship between the dictatorship of the proletariat and the state in the period of transition could finally be posed in a solid and coherent manner. Situated firmly within this process, the resolution presented to the Congress is to be seen as an attempt to reappropriate the principal gains of the workers' movement on this question and as an effort to continue the unending work of deepening the programmatic basis of the proletariat's revolutionary struggle. We can see that this resolution is in no way a 'discovery' of the ICC. But we must also understand the weight of responsibility which the revolutionary organisation is taking on its shoulders by attempting to assume its inheritance.

R.V. Révolution Internationale/France

Printed in the International Review, n°8, (December 1976)


[1]The Platform of the ICC, point 15 on "The Dictatorship of the Proletariat" in International Review n°5

[2]The “programmatic basis” of a revolutionary organisation is made up of all the principal positions and analyses which define the general framework of its activity. Positions that represent 'class lines' are part of this and are inevitably its backbone. But the activity of a revolutionary organisation cannot be defined in terms of class lines alone. The necessity for the highest degree of coherence in its intervention obliges it to search for the highest degree of coherence in its conceptions, and thus to define as clearly as possible the general framework which links together all the class positions and situates them in a coherent, global vision of the aims and methods of the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat.

[3]Introduction to The Civil War in France

[4]Lenin and Trotsky, Lenin's Fight Against Stalinism, ed. Russell Block, Pathfinder Press, 1975, p.75

[5]These two factors partly explain the often extreme confusion which characterised the proletariat's outbursts against the counter-revolution (eg. Kronstadt).

[6]Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution

[7]Mitchell, writing in Bilan

[8]“Theses on the Nature of the State and the Proletarian Revolution”, Internationalisme, n°9, April 1946