Printer-friendly version

Definition: When the class conscious world proletariat has overthrown the bourgeois order on a world scale, when all states have been over-thrown, when all opposing armies have been defeated, in short, when the “civil war” has been won, then, by definition, the so-called period of transition has begun.

Caveat: The period of transition is so far ahead of us that we should not expect to be able to guess at its detailed characteristics with great precision. Much of our discussion must inevitably be based on supposition, conjecture and surmise. The speculative nature of the question, its historical remoteness and its potential divisiveness, all argue for a slow and careful approach to the discussions.

Specific suggestions 

1) A thorough discussion of the civil war period is a logical precondition to a systematic discussion of the transition period. This is because the legacy of the civil war period strongly shapes the possibilities for the transition period and because some of the transition period's problems will be posed in an embryonic way during the civil war period. Furthermore, the discussions of the transition period which are now occurring, all begin, (as they must) with various assumptions about the state of the world (a scenario) at the opening of the transition period, but to the extent that there has been no systematic discussion of the civil war, these assumptions come from a vacuum.

2) The time-consuming nature of the discussion process, confounded as it is with delays due to the slowness of the international mails, the time needed for digesting material and composing a coherent view, and so on, makes it necessary to avoid haste, and to avoid committing the organisation to an 'official position' before the discussion has time to mature. Fortunately, the press of historical events does not impel the world proletariat, nor us, to an immediate pronouncement on the state in the period of transition, just yet.

The “State”

The institution we call “the state” has a long evolutionary history. The precise form and function of the “state” differs as society evolves so that it would be un-historical to say "the state is always thus and never else”. Nevertheless, we know that at the heart of the “state” lies of the notion of class 'domination over society as a whole, thus when we come to the period of transition, the important question will be "what are the classes and who has power over society as a whole?".

The state in the period of transition

When the proletariat “wins” the civil war, it would seem fair to say that the proletariat exists as a class, that is:

  1. it has a specific economic function (it is the source of all value);
  2. it has a historic mission (to develop fully the forces of production – to end the reign of scarcity, to institute production for use, etc);
  3. it has at least some degree of class consciousness (by virtue of the fact that it posed the question of proletarian power on a world scale);
  4. and it has an organisational expression (the workers' councils or soviets, if the past is any guide, but perhaps some new form will emerge through struggle).

What powers will be in the hands of the working class? Surely a monopoly of “the means of violence” will belong to the victorious proletariat. (This is almost a matter of definition since it is assumed that all opposing armies have been defeated.)

It seems fair to assume that the proletariat will occupy and hence control all factories, and will directly control most transportation such as railways, buses, trucks, etc. Control of production of fuel, spare parts, maintenance and other indirect control will vastly add to the proletariat's power.

Telegraph, telephone, TV, major radio stations and major newspapers will also be in the hands of the proletariat. Control of fuel, access to machinery, fertiliser, transportation, silage, processing and distribution will in-sure control over most of whatever portion of the agricultural sector is not already con-trolled directly by proletarians working in 'farm-factories'.

So, if the question is: "Is there a state in the period of transition?", we answer: "Yes, the dictatorship of the proletariat wields state power". If the question is: "Is there a state outside of the workers' councils?", we answer: "No, the dominant position of power in society is held by the proletariat, whose mode of organisation is the workers' councils."

Problems of the period of transition 

Does the picture of proletarian power painted above add up to “instant communism”? Are there no threats to proletarian power or serious obstacles in the path to communism?

Establishing production for use is a formidable undertaking. The best will in the world will not enable the proletariat to reorganise production and distribution so that the material needs of all can be satisfied at a high level with perfect equity, all in the twinkling of an eye. Such things take time. If there are serious delays, bunglings, equivocations and ineptitudes in the basic tasks of reorganising production and fully integrating the other strata, then there is a danger that the high level of class consciousness needed for such a task might not be maintained and developed. If the working class grows apathetic, if the workers' councils are “captured” by self-serving cliques or by local or region-al interests, if measures antithetical to the working class as a whole and to the historic mission of totally re-organising production are taken and allowed to stand unchallenged, then it is possible that the workers' councils can cease to be in fact workers' councils, and can be transformed into organs of state power over the proletariat, a counter-revolutionary development.

Conversely, if the victorious proletariat rapidly provides itself and all of society with real improvements, if the unleashing of progressive social forces is felt everywhere, then optimism and enthusiasm will feed on itself. The improvement in general conditions after years of slow decay and after the disruptions and upheavals of the civil war period will certainly help take the wind out of the sails of whatever opposition forces still exist, and will add to the stability and energy of the new regime.

Who will have the final responsibility and authority to close a factory, to open a factory, to institute a new work method, or to institute a new product? Surely only the proletariat. In the period of transition, therefore, it seems likely that one class, the proletariat, which has an objective economic function, subjective class consciousness, and a historical mission, will have predominant power over society as a whole by virtue of its military, economic and political strength. An-other name for the dominant position of the proletariat over all of society is the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

In short, the tasks are difficult, the dangers real, and the best hope lies in as rapid and thorough a re-organisation of production as is feasible.

Comments on some ideas under discussion

The notion that there must be some state apparatus which is in some sense outside the dictatorship of the proletariat is vague, confusing and contradictory. It is vague because the constituency, powers and relationship of such a creature to the proletarian dictatorship is never clear. It is confusing because the hypothetical state is sometimes seen as subservient to the proletarian dictatorship and at other times a creature of unspecified other classes. It is contradictory because in a struggle between opposed classes, preponderant power can belong to none or to one, but never to both; thus the existence of the proletarian dictatorship logically excludes a non-proletarian state, given that the civil war is finished.

Another problem under discussion is the possibility of the apparatus of proletarian dictatorship assuming such a degree of autonomy that the revolution is undermined. There is, of course, some degree of autonomy in any human institution; the question is how much and what correctives are available? The insistence on thorough-going democracy, an egalitarian characteristic of the working class in motion, seems to be the discovered form of the class's approach to the problem of keeping its organisations thoroughly its own. In the end, no merely formal rules,'or bureaucratic devices, can substitute for enthusiastic and highly developed class consciousness.

In establishing the alleged danger of institutional autonomy, it is argued that the demise of the Russian revolution was due, in large part, to the behaviour of the Russian state, which is conceived to have been contrary to the intention, and outside the control of, the Bolshevik Party. Whatever the merits of this remarkable thesis, it deserves to be discussed in its own right in the context of the Russian revolution, not simply taken as 'proved' and plunked down into the context of the state in the period of transition, a stage which the Russian revolution never attained. Some say that in the period of transition the proletariat will "still be an exploited class and will not derive economic power directly from the productive process". How can the proletariat, which controls production, fail to derive economic power from the productive process? Possession of the factories, a monopoly of arms and class conscious organisation add up to overwhelming economic and political power in the hands of the proletariat. A victim may be exploited if he is confronted with overwhelming force or superior cunning. Surely no one will have the advantage over the victorious proletariat in either area.

Some propose that the “state” will consist of “regional councils” which have “no power whatsoever in society”. How a creature with no power whatsoever in society can hope to either repress or mediate is not explained. Why the term “state”, which usually carries with it some notion of rulership, should be applied to such a flaccid organ is also not explained. It is claimed that "the state can only belong to an exploiting class". Historically, the only states which ever existed belonged to exploiting classes, but we are postulating the rule of the proletariat, a non-exploiting, though ruling, class.

A state, insofar as it has a universally applicable definition, is the sum of all the institutional forms which express and maintain the class domination of the ruling class over society as a whole. The sum of all the institutions which express and maintain the dictatorship of the proletariat are, by definition, the proletariat's state. To say that there there is no such thing, then, as a proletarian state, is either to deny the possibility of the dictatorship of the proletariat, or to drastically redefine the meaning of the word “state” in mid-sentence.

Y.B.-E.M. Internationalism/USA-Canada (April 1977)