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To begin with, we must recognise the importance of the problem of the period of transition. The platform itself points this out in the section concerning the dictatorship of the proletariat:

The experience of the Russian revolution has shown the complexity and seriousness of the problem of the relationship between the class and the state in the period of transition. In the coming period, the proletariat and revolutionaries cannot evade this problem, but must make every effort to resolve it.

It is obvious that the fundamental questions of the period of transition will be resolved by the proletariat in the course of the revolution, and that the questions which revolutionaries debate today can only be resolved in the period of transition itself. As Marx always held, there are no recipes for dishes of the future and no blueprints that can be worked out today; however, revolutionaries must endeavour to reach the clearest possible understanding of vital questions – such as the period of transition – today. And the only basis on which to develop any of the questions on which class lines have been drawn, or where there have been important acquisitions made as a result of workers' struggles, is the concrete historic experience of the working class.

As a basis for the present discussion, Rosa Luxemburg's The Russian Revolution where she wrote on the period of transition in relation to the Russian revolution, is very useful:

Far from being a sum of ready-made prescriptions which have only 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 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. Thus we know more or less what we must eliminate at the outset in order to free the road for a socialist economy. But when it comes to the nature of the thousand concrete, practical measures, large and small, necessary to introduce socialist principles into economy, law and all social relationships, there is no key in any socialist party programme or textbook. That is not a shortcoming, but rather the very thing that makes scientific socialism superior to the utopian varieties. The socialist system of society should only be, and can only be, a historical product,, born out of the school of its own experiences, born in the course of its realisation, as a result of the developments of living history, which just like organic nature of which, in the last analysis, it forms a part, has the fine habit of always producing along with any real social need the means to its satis-faction, along with the task, simultaneously the solution. However, if such is the case, then it is clear that socialism by its very nature cannot be decreed or introduced by ukase (proclamation). It has as its prerequisite 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. Only unobstructed, effervescing life falls into a thousand new forms and improvisations, brings to light creative force, itself corrects all mistaken attempts.[1]

It is only the living experience of the proletariat that can give revolutionaries any guide-lines for understanding the period of transition, and this concrete expression is the Russian revolution, which has bequeathed certain lessons to the proletariats which can and ought to be incorporated into the platform of the proletariat's revolutionary organisation. However, these lessons on the state do not constitute class lines separating the bourgeoisie and the proletariat (it should be obvious that the experience of the proletariat is too limited and fragmented to draw class lines in this case), but there are lessons of the working class's experience which revolutionaries must draw out.

In the case of the period of transition, beyond the class lines which have been drawn in our platform, there are certain lessons which are a result of thorough discussion and analysis of the concrete experience of the Russian revolution, and these lessons basically constitute a warning to the proletariat against false conceptions and a guide for it as it begins a new period of revolution.

One of the dangers that an organisation of revolutionaries can fall prey to, and one which must be guarded against is any kind of dogmatism on the question of the period of transition. The dogmatism of the Communist Workers' Organisation (Great Britain), which insists that the blueprint for the period of transition exists in Marx's Critique of the Gotha Pro-gramme, and that the dictatorship of the proletariat is the proletarian state, bars any discussion of the concrete experience of the Russian revolution and sees any departure from that dogma as the crossing of class lines. It is this type of approach which must be  guarded against, for any dogmatic outlook which disregards the concrete experience of the working class is condemned to failure, and failure in one of the most important tasks for which the revolutionary organisation of the proletariat exists: to provide a warning to the proletariat, to provide signposts, to argue for a revolutionary programme, which is based on the experience of the proletariat within the workers' councils.

The fundamental outlook revolutionaries must have at the beginning of this discussion is that there is no dogma, there are no blueprints, there is only the proletariat's experience.


Between two modes of production there has al-ways been a period of transition. To define more clearly this period:

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 the point at which 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 exhaustion of the conditions necessary for the existence of the old society does not automatically imply the maturation and ripening of the conditions of the new society. In other words, the decline of the old society does not automatically mean the maturation of the new society, but is only the conditions for this maturation to take place.[2]

The bourgeoisie, in the period of transition from feudalism to capitalism, acquired its economic basis within the shell of feudal society and the bourgeois revolution was only the culmination of that period of transition. In the case of communism and for all the reasons that the above text points out, for all the reasons that constitute the fundamental difference between communism and all other societies, it is clear that the period of transition from capitalism to communism only begins with the seizure. of political power by the proletariat – with the overthrow of the bourgeois state – and culminates with the creation of communism.

Revolutionaries must analyse what the concrete tasks of the period of transition from capitalism to communism will be, not in a dogmatic way nor through a vague sense of the construction of the human community but concretely. And as a basis to this analysis it can be said,  that there are three basic tasks which proletariat must face after its seizure of political power on a world scale and they are:

  1. to eradicate the remnants of class society and to integrate all of the non-exploiting strata and classes into socialised production;
  2. to develop the productive forces on a world scale so that they are adequate to the satisfaction of all the needs of humanity – not only the biological needs, but all vital needs;
  3. to organise the production and distribution of use-values on a socialised basis.

As a word of warning, it is important to note that these tasks cannot primarily be carried out through violence. The overthrow of the bourgeoisie and all bases of its power is a question of violence and this lesson is burned into the hearts and souls of the working class But to undertake the Herculean tasks which face it during the period of transition, the working class cannot rely on violent measures. The concept held by the Communist Workers' Organisation that the proletariat will integrate non-exploiting classes, and order the development of the productive forces at the point of a gun, reflects a real misunderstand-ing of the role of violence in the construction of communism. The use of violence against these strata is unfortunately something the proletariat may have to engage in, always with great hesitation and care. It may have to use it occasionally; it may have to use it against the peasants and the lumpen-proletariat, but it is never something that constitutes the basis for carrying out the tasks of the period of transition.

There are two basic characteristics to the period of transition which revolutionaries have to recognise and which indicate the course which the proletariat has to take. The first is that the basis of the political dominance of the proletariat – or the dictatorship of the proletariat – has to be concretised through some organised or institutional expression of the proletariat, some expression of its historical existence and some institution or body which will constitute the very basis for the thrust towards communism. These bodies are the workers' councils, which constitute the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the proletarian party which plays an indispensable role within the dictatorship of the proletariat. The second characteristic of the period of transition is the persistence of the divi-sion of society into classes – classes which have antagonistic and divergent interests. No matter what weight this or that stratum of society will have on the morrow of the insurrection – of the civil war – there will be a class society which will persist through-cannot out the period of transition. Capitalism cannot, as the modernists urge, create a universal class, it cannot proletarianise everyone so that even the functionaries of capital become wage slaves and proletarians, and it is because of the persistence of classes with antagonistic interests that a state will arise. These are the two basic characteristics of the period of transition that the proletariat and revolutionaries will have to contend with.

To better understand the nature of the state in the period of transition, it is beneficial to see what marxists such as Engels have written on the question. His Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State shows that the state arises within all class societies and that it has two basic functions. The first is coercion: it is the organ for the oppression of the majority by the minority. Secondly, the state has the task of preserving the status quo, of preventing society from tearing itself apart and disintegrating under the weight of the class antagonisms which exist within it. It is important to stress, as Engels did, that the state is a conservative institution, the conservative institution par excellence quite apart from its coercive functions.

When marxists have discussed the state in the period of transition – from the experience of the Paris Commune onwards – they have referred to it as a semi-state. The Commune-state was in fact a semi-state because the coercive task of a state was largely removed from it in the sense that it was no longer the organ of the exploitation or oppression of the majority by the minority. The Commune-state was a semi-state because the whole apparatus of coercion passed into the hands of the overwhelming majority, because its functionaries were elected and revocable and their remuneration and consumption were at no higher a level than that of the average worker. All of these measures create a state which is qualitatively different from any state which has existed in the past, but nonetheless, even a Commune-state must carry out the historic function of a state: the preservation of the status quo.

The Commune-state was an institution elected not only by the working class, but by all the citizens of Paris on the basis of geography, of neighbourhoods. While the bourgeoisie was barred from participation, the petty-bourgeoisie and artisans were not, and its extension throughout France would have also brought with it the peasants. From this it is clear that the Commune-state was certainly not the sole expression of the proletariat.

Although Marx referred to the dictatorship of the proletariat and the workers' state, and the Commune-state synonymously, a closer examination will reveal that the Commune-state could not have been the dictatorship of the proletariat. This is recognised by Engels in his introduction to Marx's Civil War in France, where he wrote that the state is a scourge, an evil inherited from bourgeois society. It is a scourge the proletariat cannot do without, but a scourge against which it always has to be on guard, and Engels had no doubt that the state was not the expression of the historic interests of the proletariat in its thrust towards communism. This warning of Engels' is something Lenin overlooked in writing State and Revolution, by going directly to Marx's Critique of the Gotha Programme and The Civil War in France and continuing to refer to the workers' state and the dictatorship of the proletariat in the same words. The possible outcome of the Paris Commune and how the Commune-state would have co-existed with the dictator-ship of the proletariat we cannot tell for the bourgeoisie crushed the revolution in a few weeks, but we do have this concrete experience of the proletariat, and the wealth of experience and lessons of the Russian revolution on which to base our discussions.

In drawing the lessons of the Russian revolution one inescapable fact stands out: the state was the instrument and the organ of the counter-revolution. This fact was recognised too late by revolutionaries of the time – including the Left Communists. Within the workers' movement the counter-revolution was always seen as arising from two sources and as having its expression in two types of institutions. It was either brought from the outside through White Armies, through invasion by the other capitalist states, or as the Dutch and German Left and even Lenin himself thought, it would come from the peasants or the petty bourgeoisie, or even out of the NEP, or out of the reconsolidation of the bourgeoisie and individual property which revolutionaries were familiar with.

While the revolutionary movement expected the counter-revolution from these two sources, Rosa Luxemburg warned that the proletariat had to have independent organs to express itself, to guard its own interests, and some of the Left Communists in Russia such as Ossinsky also pointed out that the proletariat had to guard against bureaucracy and against the state apparatus. Unfortunately, there was no real development or elaboration of these warnings and it was only at the time when the state was decapitating the working class that revolutionaries began to realise that the state created by the revolution was itself the instrument of the counter-revolution, and the fact that prevented their realisation of this sooner was that they had all accepted the identification of the state with the proletariat.

The argument is possible that the Russian state could crush the working class because it wasn't a workers' state, but a party-state, and while it is true that the identification of party and dictatorship of the proletariat held by the Bolsheviks was a considerable factor in the degeneration of the Russian revolution, it would be premature to conclude that the only problem of the Russian revolution and of the future revolution is the identification of the party and the state. This argument, which holds that there is no possibility of the state becoming an instrument or organ of counter-revolution if the working class as a whole and not the revolutionary party are identified with the state, underestimates the need for the proletariat to maintain its autonomy from the state – which even Lenin recognised, as seen in his debate with Trotsky where he stated that unless the proletariat had its own autonomy, unless it had the right to bear arms and unless it had the right to strike, it would be defenceless against the state apparatus which appeared to be an organ of the working class, but which seemed to be driven by someone other than the proletariat.

While the degeneration of the Russian revolution may be attributed to the fact that the Party constituted itself as the state, it would be facile to conclude, before making a thorough analysis of the experience, that this was the only problem. What is then overlooked is that a state by its nature is a conservative institution and has to reflect the antagonistic interests which exist in objective reality. The state in the period of transition by its nature tends to con-serve and preserve the institutions and the social relations in the period of transition, while the proletariat's task is to constantly overthrow those relations. In this situation, no one organ can express those two contradictory interests: preservation of the status quo and destruction of the status quo. This leads to the conclusion that the proletariat's historical thrust towards communism cannot be expressed by a state apparatus, but only by those organs of its dictatorship, and by its party.

Unless the dictatorship of the proletariat can prevent the state from constituting itself as a coercive apparatus against the proletariat, the Russian revolution will repeat itself again, and a counter-revolution will take place again because the simple fact is that the destruction of the last bourgeois is no guarantee against counter-revolution. The capitalist mode of production can arise with-in any state bureaucracy, from within any party institution. If society is organised on the basis of the law of value and if the destruction of production based on this law does not proceed quickly then there is always the possibility of counter-revolution, and it is the state which would be the apparatus of the counter-revolution.

Because the proletariat cannot prevent the state from arising, for there is a vital need to temporarily live among the antagonistic interests in the period of transition – as much a need as the need of the proletariat to constantly overthrow the social relations which persist from class society – and because it is obvious today that the state was the instrument of the counter-revolution in Russia, revolutionaries must take seriously, and analyse fully, the possibility that the proletariat and the state cannot be identified, that the proletariat must have, not only its autonomy from other classes, but from the state apparatus itself.

McIntosh Internationalism/USA-Canada November 1976


[1]Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution

[2]“Problems of the Period of Transition”, International Review n°1