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This text originates from the discussion going on throughout the ICC, and in particular from a recent meeting in London, which seemed to this writer, at least, to throw a number of points of disagreement into sharp relief. Up till now it has generally been agreed that there are two positions on the state: the “majority” position adopted in the resolutions of Révolution Internationale, World Revolution and Internationalisme at their Congresses, and the “minority” position defended primarily by S. and M. of Internationalisme. However, since the appearance of S. and M.'s text, further discussions and a text from comrade YB of Internationalism have made it clear that wider disagreements exist. While S. and M. insist on the proletarian nature of the state in the transitional period (ie, that it is a “workers' state”), YB appears to be suggesting that the workers' councils are the repositories of state power when he answers "no" to the question "is there a state outside the workers' councils?" since "the dominant power in society is held by the proletariat whose mode of organisation is the workers' councils". These are two apparently different positions – one claiming the proletarian nature of the state, the other claiming the state nature of the councils – but, in fact, each represents the reverse side of the other. They spring from the same mistake, which was so disastrous in Russia, that of confusing the revolutionary, transforming role of the workers' councils with the reactionary, conserving nature of the transitional state. This text will try to consider three aspects of the problem:

  1. historical comparisons with previously existing states;
  2. the relationship of the proletariat to the transitional state;
  3. the relationship of the proletariat to other classes and strata.


2) To what extent can historical comparisons be made between the transitional state
and states existing in other epochs?

Much of the discussion between “minority” and “majority” bas revolved around the historical question of whether the state is reactionary or not “by nature”. To each side of the argument, the other appears to be adopting a mechanistic viewpoint. Those who say, for example, that the state "must be defined concretely as the instrument of a ruling class which is either progressive or reactionary according to the historic epoch" (Internationalism/Toronto) consider that the state cannot be thought of as an abstract “thing in itself”, while those who defend a view of the state as being inherently conservative reply – with equal justice – that its relationship to the ruling class is not such as to make it automatically “progressive” when the ruling class is so.

However, this discussion, though of interest, can degenerate very quickly into sterility; it can never be resolved and, in fact, does little to clarify the nature of the transitional state. We must be absolutely clear that there is no precedent for the period of transition and that the state in this period will be fundamentally different from all other states.

First, in the relationship between the state and the rest of society. The bourgeois state is rooted in capitalist society, and is at one with it. It is the social relationships of capital which give form and substance to the state. In this sense, it is an expression of the whole of society, because the whole of society is organised around the capitalist mode of production. As Internationalism/Toronto put it: "Capitalism is an exploitative social system which is violent at its heart" and if the bourgeois state is essentially violent, it is because the production relations of capital are essentially violent. This is not the case in the period of transition; here the relations of production, while still at first dominated by the law of value, are not subsumed under a dominant class. On the contrary, for the first time in history, an exploited class holds political power, which it must constantly assert against the tendency of the law of value to re-establish itself. There is thus a fundamental disunity between the existing relations of production and the ruling class, such as has never existed in any previous society. The bourgeois state, for example, knew no transitional period; the bourgeoisie seized political power only when its economic power, its mode of production, was already firmly established.

Given this disunity, it is clearly wrong to say as S. and M. do, that: "A given ruling class rules through the state and uses it to defend its interests against the interests of other classes, to ensure the spread, the development, the preservation of its particular relations of production, against the danger of the restoration of the former relations, or the destruction of its own" (my emphasis). The working class does not have its own relations of production. On the contrary, its sole aim is to overthrow completely those very relations which define its existence. The workers' aim in the transitional period, far from being to solidify society in its immediately post-revolutionary form, is to engage in a permanent revolution against that society, to replace the domination of value and commodity exchange with the free association of producers in a society without classes. Thus we can readily see that there is a separation between the ruling class and the rest of society. The proletariat is totally opposed to the society over which it exercises political control. The two tendencies will find their appropriate forms in the state and the workers' councils.

3) The proletariat’s relationship to the state

Although we must be wary of facile historical comparisons, they can nevertheless give us some idea of the functions of the state in the transitional period. Basically, we can say that the transitional state will, like all states, embody the existing social relations in a concrete juridical form. But what are these social relations? Immediately after the revolution they will essentially be those of capitalist society; to be sure, the bourgeoisie will no longer exist as a class, the proletariat will no longer be exploited – but production will still be dominated by exchange and the law of value, and other classes will still exist, not yet integrated into the productive process. All those forces tending to drag society back into the nightmare of capital will find their expression in the state, which – by virtue of its “legalisation” of existing forms, will naturally tend to maintain and strengthen them – in other words, to return to state capitalism.

As the workers' councils act to undermine the capitalist mode of production, to transmute its leaden substance into communist gold, the state will, of course, crystallise new advances in suitable legal shapes. But clearly, as long as the proletariat is able to maintain its political control, it will always be in advance of the state. Thus the class will, of necessity, find where it is in permanent conflict with where it was – that is to say, the state. Since the councils represent a principle diametrically opposed to that represented by the state it is confusing and dangerous in the extreme to label the state “proletarian” or to attribute the state's specific juridical functions to the councils. It freezes the class into what can only be a temporary moment; the period of transition is unstable – it is possible to go forward or back, but never to stand still.

4) The relationship of the proletariat
to other classes/strata.

In many of the texts produced by the “minority” far too much emphasis is placed on the role of violence in the workers' relations with other classes. While the whole of bourgeois society is based on the continual violence of exploitative relations of production, the same cannot be said of the proletariat. Its aim is to integrate the whole of society into productive labour – and this can't be done at the point of a gun. The political dominance of the workers is not primarily a matter of armaments (after all, during the civil war, the councils will have to dominate politically a state with a Red Army far more powerful than the workers' militias), but of its greater ability to see into both future and present, to understand them, and to convince the peasants and petty bourgeois that their interests lie in the same direction (although as individuals, rather than as classes).

There must, therefore, be an arena in which, so to speak, the delegates of the councils can meet the delegates of other strata elected from the territorial sections. Although the territorial delegates will not be organised as class representatives, and the state will give no juridical recognition to other classes, it is nevertheless obvious that other classes will be present in the state apparatus. Thus despite the workers' hegemony over the state, it is again misleading and dangerous to label it proletarian.

5) Finally, why does the ICC discuss so exhaustively what at first sight may appear to be a mere semantic difference of definition?

In the end, it is because the question of the 'workers' state' has been of crucial importance  in the workers' movement, and will be so again. The confusion between the state and the dictator- Ship of the proletariat was merely a part of the  horrible disaster of substitutionism – whose other side was the identification of the dictatorship of the party with that of the class. In the years to come, we will see increasingly frenetic leftist propaganda for the establishment of a “workers' state” to consolidate capital's control over the workers. In the transitional period, the idea of the “workers' state” will be used in many attempts to draw the councils under the hegemony of the state. It is vital that the ICC should prove itself capable of “pointing the way forward” by defending the firm distinction between the revolutionary organs of the working class – the councils – and the essentially conservative state over which the councils must exercise their control, and whose basis they will continually subvert and destroy.

Len Black World Revolution/Great Britain May-1977