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Some of our recent discussions seem to have lost track of the aim of this whole debate. With all the different exegeses on "gentile" society, the dissertations on absolute monarchy and the scholastic war of quotes back and forth, we risk losing sight of the fact that the ICC did not embark on these discussions to show off our reading notes or to rival academic treatises on “the state”. We are trying to shed some light on questions which will become extremely urgent and tangible in a moment of revolution and we do this from a direct commitment to the revolutionary process.

At this point, it would be useful to restate the central point at issue in the debate: Should the working class (the workers' councils) consider its class' interests identical to the state which it will dominate in the post-revolutionary period?

To eliminate a certain ambiguity which has cropped up: the ICC Draft Resolution affirms the inevitable appearance of a state in the transitional society, a state which will in no way be "separate" from the working class. On the contrary, it will be under the domination of the working class. The Resolution does not talk about a "mediator-state" or an "inter-classist" state. These formulations alien to the Resolution itself have been used by some comrades to defend it, but these formulations are entirely incorrect. They undoubtedly crept in because comrades wanted to stress that the workers' councils are not the only constituent elements of the new society and therefore of the new state. However, these formulations implicitly deny the proletarian dictatorship over the state and completely confuse the fact that only the proletariat will be represented in the state as a class (the other members of the transitional society will only have a geographical representation through territorial councils or soviets). These confusions over terms are very significant because they show how any exaggeration in a theoretical debate can quickly undermine any attempt to deal with complexity. As others have already pointed out, there is a ruling class in the transitional state, the proletariat, but it is not a ruling class just like all the others in history because it does not dominate its own economy but seeks to destroy all "economy". Nor will the proletariat passively allow the state to "mediate" against its decisions and interests. The proletariat will have to use the state as far as possible to further its interests while taking into account the realities of immediate social organisation and its needs. Here is the crux of the problem: why introduce the idea of "as far as possible"? Why isn't the state necessarily the proletariat's willing handmaiden? If "inter-classism" and "mediator-state" now are clearly agreed not to be the position stated or defended by the Resolution, we can, on the one hand, stop attacking this straw man, and on the other, move on to more rigorous thinking. At the heart of the Resolution is the recognition of the difference between the workers' councils, organs of the working class, indissolubly linked to the realisation of the communist programme, and the territorial “soviets”, organs of the transitional state, regrouping the whole of society without the exploiters, and within which the workers' councils will intervene to impose their class dictatorship. In this context the following questions have to be posed:

  • should we erase this distinction by diluting the class in the whole membership of the transitional society (all the non-exploiting toiling strata)?
  • or, should we insist that the proletariat, faced with the transitional state, will say "The state – c'est nous."?
  • or, on the contrary, should the proletariat be on guard against the identification of its class interests with the state?
  • should the proletariat attempt to dominate the state or are the socialist revolution and the state identical?

These difficult questions are new to the workers' movement since the experience of the October revolution. Of course marxists before 1917 wrote about the state in general and about the state in the period of transition, but these  precise questions were never really posed in marxist literature before 1917 and could not have been; still less can we find a complete answer to these questions right now.

Taking the draft Resolution as a point of departure, we would like to reply to some of the objections comrades have raised.

The objections

1. This is not a new question. “Orthodox” marxism has an answer to the problems of the state in the period of transition.

Marx and Engels wrote about the state as a social institution in the different stages of history to concretise the theory of historical materialism. Their main aim was to denounce mystifications about the state being “the reality of the moral Idea”, the incarnation of “Reason” in Hegelian terms, the incarnation of “Evil” in anarchist terms, or more generally a social abstraction which existed eternally. In The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Engels attempted to show that the state was not eternal but:

"the product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it is cleft into irreconcilable  antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel."

The state is the superstructural expression of a lost and now alienated social unity. It is the official sanction, the legalisation of social relations in favour of the economically dominant class.

But Marx and Engels never made a systematic synthesis of the state in history (except to some extent in relation to its origins); the richness of their thought lies essentially in the answers they made to political adversaries and the analysis of the historic events of their time. Although they developed a general vision of the state in exploiting societies – and we shall come back to this in order to reply to comrades who reduce this to unilateral simplifications – on the state in the period of transition to socialism we will only find a few scattered passages in their writings, the main aim of which was to draw the lessons from the struggles of 1848 and from the Commune.

Concerning the post-revolutionary state, Marx and Engels established the general framework of the discussion without being able to clarify all its aspects. In the first place their writings after the Commune established the fundamental point that it was necessary to completely des-troy the bourgeois state, to reject the illusory idea that the proletariat could seize hold of the old state machine. This was the "precondition for any peoples' revolution" wrote Marx in April 1871. Marx and Engels posed the historical necessity of a period of transition from capitalism to socialism, which would be opened up by the proletarian revolution. In this period of transition, when society was still divided into classes, a state would inevitably arise and it would not disappear until classes disappeared. During this period of social transformation, the proletariat would constitute itself as the ruling class: "The state, ie the proletariat organised as the ruling class" (The Communist Manifesto). However, Engels wrote that:

"the state is… at best, an evil inherited by the proletariat"

Furthermore, this state referred to was only a 'semi-state', a 'Commune-state' to the extent that it was the state of the 'immense majority', the realisation of democracy. Marx and Engels were led to make their ideas more precise in the analysis of the Commune, but this brief experience in one city was not sufficient to provide answers to all the problems. If the Commune had generalised across France, the vague idea of territorial 'Communes' would have made way for more precise formulations about the relationship be-tween the proletariat – a minority class – and the immense majority of the population.

In Marx and Engels' work we find a general framework, ideas about economic policy, certain warnings about the state, but it would be a waste of time to try to find even in their clearest thoughts a complete answer to the problem of the state after revolution.

In State and Revolution, Lenin reaffirmed marxist thought on the state as it had been formulated up to 1914; he makes a resume of it, highlighting certain aspects, but he didn't go beyond it and couldn't have gone beyond it prior to the experience of the October revolution. The whole book is aimed against the IInd International; against the idea of the gradual and peaceful conquest of the bourgeois state. While we must recognise the importance of this work, the debate in the ICC at the moment is not about whether or not we should destroy the bourgeois state! As for the transitional state, Lenin relied on Engels and saw it essentially in the light of the struggle against the bourgeoisie:

Engels: "As, therefore, the state is only a transitional institution which is used in the struggle, in the revolution, in order to hold down one's adversaries by force, it is pure nonsense to talk of a free peoples' state."

Lenin: "The toilers need a state only to suppress the resistance of the exploiters, and only the proletariat is in a position to direct this suppression."

Lenin: "The proletariat absolutely must wield state power in order to suppress the resistance of the exploiters."

In the light of the experience of the revolutionary wave of 1917 we can see that the sole raison d'etre of the transitional state is not just the struggle against the bourgeoisie. On the contrary, the insurrection is actually carried out by the proletariat alone, by the armed workers' councils, without a full "state". And even though the necessity for an extended civil war poses the question of the state, it would be wrong to conclude that during the civil war the state is simply a military question or that once the civil war is over the whole problem will be resolved. On the relationship between the proletariat and the other members of transitional society, Lenin only had some general formulations:

"the proletariat must organise all the toiling and exploited economic order."

"democracy for the immense majority of the people."

He talked quite correctly about "the political rule of the proletariat, its dictatorship, power shared with none", but added that this would “rely directly on the armed force of the masses”, or on "…the combined force of the majority 2L the people, of the workers and the peasants". The erroneous idea of "the workers' and peasants' state", the "democratic state" was not gone into in any depth in Lenin's book. The distinction between the proletariat and the other members of society was not dealt with theoretically because its importance had not been shown in practice. or Because of such omissions, or rather because of the hazy theoretical conception about the relationship between the dictatorship of the proletariat and the general population, Lenin could have a lot of illusions about the “easy” functioning of the transitional state. His ideas about the simplification of the functions of state power, about a state which would lose all hierarchical and privileged characteristics, now seem, alas, very naive in the face of historical experience.

Again, Lenin based himself on Engels in Anti-Dühring:

"The proletariat seizes state power and turns the means of production into state property. But in doing this, it abolishes itself as proletariat (!) the first act by virtue of which the state really constitutes itself the representative of the whole of society – the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society – that is, at the same time, its last independent act as a state."

Lenin remarked that this was the proof that the state would wither away of itself! Later on, this same erroneous idea would serve to support the use of state capitalism by the “workers' state” in Russia (as Lenin had already said in State and Revolution: "a single state trust").

The tragic irony of State and Revolution is that the two main dangers of the state which Lenin underlined in his book (thinking that the few measures of the Commune would be enough to eliminate them) – the state as an armed force separate from the population, and bureaucratisation – would be exactly the ones which developed the most after the October revolution. To summarise then, marxism is not and cannot be an “orthodoxy”. Above all, on-the question of the post-revolutionary state, it will do no good to just take the letter of all the formulations of Marx, Engels and Lenin, or to pretend that all questions on the period of transition are completely answered in their work. It's not a question of “innovating marxism”, but of completing the theoretical gaps and correcting errors of the past that are a result of the limits of the historic period prior to 1914. To try to stick to an orthodox marxism is simply to deny the debate and to imprison oneself in a sterile dead-end which is completely alien to the method of marxism.

2. You are too obsessed by the Russian Revolution.

The foundation stone of historical materialism is the capacity to synthesize the lessons of historical experience. Certain comrades think that it is enough to repeat after Marx and Engels the lessons of the Commune, but we find very little that is concrete in the objections which refer to the October revolution and, in general, to the whole experience of the revolutionary wave of 1917-27. People talk about the “Commune-state” as though there had never been such a thing as the “Soviet-state”. And for others, it's easier to turn their backs and take refuge in the sphere of abstractions.

Obsessed with the concrete experience and failure of the Russian revolution? Yes, and with good reason! What are the main aspects of the experience of Russia, of the state of transition?

a) Against the bourgeoisie, the proletariat carried out the insurrection on its own. Directly after the seizure of power we see the Congress of Workers' and Soldiers' Soviets nominate their “central committee”, essentially the emanation of the working class, although from the beginning there were soldiers of peasant origin in it. These first soviets seem to be close to the idea held by certain comrades that the state will be the emanation of one class only, but in reality this wasn't yet the state. Very quickly, at the end of 1917, the territorial soviets generalised across the country and the Congress of Soviets to which the central government was responsible became an amalgam of the whole population, without effective distinction between the working class and the whole of soviet democracy.

Later on in the Constitution of the Soviet State, delegates from the peasants were elected in the ratio of 1 to 125,000 peasants and the delegates from workers in the towns 1 to 25,000 workers. This measure did not really ensure a numerical hegemony and still less a political hegemony, which fell into the hands of a state-party. But this measure, in its spirit rather than its form, showed the concerns and difficulties of the transitional state.

The transitional state, the state of the territorial soviets, of democracy for the immense majority, will clearly not be composed solely of the workers' councils. The needs behind the formation of a state will make themselves felt very quickly and will demand a much clearer distinction of the workers' councils within the territorial soviets so that the working class can realise its pro-gramme.

b) During the course of the revolution, the unitary organs of the class (councils, factory committees) became more and more marginal in favour of the state organs; the revolutionary party of the working class became a state party, a spoke in the wheel of the territorial state. Far from seeing the concretisation of State and Revolution, the opposite happened: the strengthening of the state, of its power over the means of production outside the working class, the development of a privileged bureaucracy which managed the economy.

c) The different measures taken during the Russian revolution were evidence of an enormous confusion and of constant zig-zags. To the extent that a general line emerged, it was state capitalism under the auspices of the “workers' state”. The state of Russia embarked upon “economic emulation”, one-man management to increase productivity, and finally, the militarisation of labour. The tendency towards socialism, characterised by production to satisfy immediate needs and to raise the living standards of the working class was never able to develop, and the dominant tendency was more and more production for accumulation.

The soviet state became the Russian national state and this whole social, economic, and political process culminated in a confrontation between the state, which had come out of the revolution, and working class, in strikes and at Kronstadt. The soviet state and the party which had  been integrated into it became the stronghold of the counter-revolution.

 In the face of all of this, there are comrades who think it is enough to simply reply that the October revolution was isolated internationally and therefore condemned. They are kicking in an open door because we all agree on this; it is in the ICC platform. But to say that Russia was caught in a limited and finally impossible situation and stop there is to abandon any attempt to draw any lessons from the Russian revolution. It's a way of avoiding the problem. "How" the internal contradictions expressed themselves within the revolutionary bastion sheds some light on what we must be careful of tomorrow when, indeed, the revolution will have a chance to spread.

Other comrades think they can reply simply by saying: in Russia the Bolshevik Party took power in place of the class. Why do these comrades think they have to repeat the platform to us? We are firmly convinced of this. But is it enough?

That socialism can't be brought about by a minority of the class – this is another open door. The theoretical problem we are faced with is the following: it's not so much the Bolshevik Party which determined the degeneration of the territorial state, but rather the integration of the party into the state machine, so that it identified itself with the needs of the state, which led to the downfall of the party and will lead to the downfall of the working class tomorrow.

The fact that the class party was in the state shooting down the workers, instead of being with the working class at Kronstadt, without doubt definitively weakened the working class and the International. But the problem is still: Does the transitional state = the working class? Is it that "the state, c'est nous"?

In the debate on the unions in 1920, it was precisely this question which was really at issue. Against Trotsky who said clearly "the state is the class", and against the Workers' Opposition who said "the state will be the class if the unions are integrated into it", only Lenin, despite a completely inadequate analysis at best, said that the state – with or without the unions – is not “us”.

Obviously we can't reply to this debate in the same terms as the past… the whole debate was off-course from the outset because the working class was equated with the unions and not the workers' councils which had been emptied of most of their proletarian content by then as a result of their integration into the state, etc. But behind the "letter" of the debate there remains the general spirit: will the state be “us” by definition or must we take measures to defend the proletariat's dictatorship over the state?

We can say that today in the ICC we are all more or less agreed that the working class will be the only class armed as a class during the period of transition: this is a new idea for “orthodoxy” a new distinction in marxism which has always talked vaguely about “the general arming of the people”. Why this crucial position for protecting the autonomy of the class if it isn't against the state? One has to take one's reasoning to its conclusions.

If the problem can be resolved simply by saying that the party won't take power, why then talk about the arming of the proletariat and the rejection of relations of violence between the state and the class? If “the state, c'est nous” then Lenin was right to talk about the “general arming of the people” without any distinction, and then we are leaving the door wide open to the Kronstadts of tomorrow.

Only the resolution on the period of transition responds in a coherent way to this concern with the armed political autonomy of the working class, a condition sine qua non of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

3. "It is a given class, the most powerful class (whether it derives its power from an economic base like exploiting classes or from its consciousness and its organisation, like the proletariat) which sets up a state structure appropriate to the defence of its interests"[1]

If we follow this reasoning to its conclusion, we would end up erasing the specificity of the whole transitional state and the wholly new historical evolution opened up in the period of transition to socialism. For M. and S. it matters little whether a ruling class is an exploiting class (a class dominating the economic structure) or whether it is a class which can only rule politically! Its relationship with the state remains the same. According to them in the post-revolutionary period, the state and the workers' councils will be two different functions of the same class, functions which by definition can't be antagonistic. This idea is put forward even more clearly in the text by RC, for whom "the state is the organ, the prolongation of the class"... "The workers' state is the historically discovered form in which and through which the proletarians regroup and act to put forward their general class interests."

This is where the confusion can lead us – to an open apology for the state! If there is a “historically discovered” form for defending the immediate and historic interests of the working class, it is and will remain throughout the whole revolutionary and transitional period the workers' councils and not the state. The state will have to wither away, giving ground to the wider and wider extension of the workers' councils which will become the organisation of "free and equal producers". The workers’ councils don't wither away, they expand to integrate the whole of society and one day become "the administration of things" in a classless society. YB/EM'S idea that the workers' councils run the risk of degenerating isn't very illuminating. The working class doesn't degenerate: the workers' councils may disappear in a defeat but the counter-revolution isn't the working class. The degeneration of the revolution will be expressed by the strengthening of the state, and the weakening of the autonomy of the workers' councils.

To go back to this apology for the state as "the form of organisation of the proletariat", to this simplistic identification between class and state in all historical circumstances, let's look at what distinguishes the "semi-state" in the period of transition from other states in history.

For the first time in history we shall have a state dominated by a class that is not economically dominant, a non-exploiting class: this is a living contradiction. If there were only proletarians in post-revolutionary society, there would be no state at all. Unfortunately, the transitional society will still be divided into classes, and there will be a partial survival of the law of value, private property, and exchange. And a class which can't draw any privileges from economic laws, a class whose historic mission is to eliminate all private property in the means of production, has to dominate this society politically and be the revolutionary class. The ruling class will be the revolutionary class after as well as before its revolution! It's a situation which is completely unique in history. And people still think it's enough to say:

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[2]

It's easy enough to postulate! In the past an exploiting class necessarily dominated the social superstructure to the extent that it dominated the economic structure through blind laws of which it was itself unconscious; hence the identification between the interests of the economically dominant classes and the state. When its economic domination weakened, the exploiting class took refuge in the strengthening of the state, until the point arrived in the decadence of the last exploiting society, capitalism, when the state took on the function of managing the economy (state capitalism).

In the future, the proletarian ruling class won't have its own economy to set up, or any economic forces on which to base itself, nor any blind laws working in its favour. On the contrary, such blind laws as survive will work against the politically dominant class. The ruling class won't be the master of the economic structures but all the same it will have to politically dominate social organisation so that its dictatorship can transform everything. In this situation the interests of the ruling class, the proletariat, can't automatically be identified with the state; above all this class will have to protect itself against any errors in its economic policy, errors which will manifest themselves in the strengthening of forces antagonistic to the class, by a strengthening of the expression of these classes in the state. This class, in contrast to all previous ruling classes, must guard against the usurping of economic management by the state “in its name”. It must struggle to constantly reduce the role of, and need for, the state.

4. "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?

If we could reply with the same happy certainty that "only the proletariat" will dominate the economy, we could stop worrying our heads over the period of transition. But although we will be able to expropriate big capital and most industrial enterprises, there still remains a whole sector of small production, artisans, agriculture, still dominated by private property. However large this sector is in this or that bastion, wherever the revolution first breaks out, these sectors will still exist on a global scale and they will in some ways oppose the suppression of their privileges. Moreover, as the comrades say themselves, decadent capitalism has not created the basis for a society of abundance directly after the revolution. We have got to deal with those sectors because we can't do away with them immediately; but to avoid further difficulties in areas where some comrades see no problem, it still has to be said that the proletariat won't “own” the factories, the means of production, either individually or collectively as a class. The proletariat possesses nothing and can't create islands of socialism. On the contrary, there has to be global planning of the needs of society, and this isn't just a question of having a “monopoly on spare parts”. The proletariat will have to resist making concessions which could reverse the tendency towards the immediate satisfaction of the needs of society and lay the basis for an economy where the productive forces are developed for their own sake and we draw the benefits from this in some hazy “tomorrow”. The economic policy of the proletariat won't run on its own wheels. If the class simply plays the role of controlling the means of production such as they exist today, it won't be able to socialise the means of production for society as a whole; it can only liberate itself once all economic laws have been abolished.

When comrades S. and M. ask "from where will this third force (their way of seeing the counter-revolution coming through the state) derive its material force, from where will it derive its resources and its consciousness from a historical and determinist point of view?", they are asking, in fact, where the danger of the state opposing itself to the working class comes from. Since the policy of the class is not predetermined, but is constantly adapting itself, any error will manifest itself in a strengthening of the economic structures which the proletariat is trying to eliminate from history. The state will strengthen itself as the expression of economic structures which haven't yet been socialised, of those privileges which still remain, and as the expression of the planning of difficulties an economy which is still heterogeneous. It's fine for those who deny any problems in advance, but the difficulties of the greatest social transformation in history can't be resolved by simplistic formulas.

5. "The class = the state"

We’ve already seen that this identification of the proletariat with the transitional state, as though recent history had never happened, really can't stand up; although in the past the interests of the ruling class were completely realised within the state, this doesn't apply to the future.

But to defend their objections, the comrades have gone off in search of new axioms to add to the historical materialist view of the state in history. Thus we are told that the state is a motor-force in history – in this upside-down theory the superstructure determines the economic base – or that the state is a progressive force when the class which dominates the economy is in its ascendant phase. This theory is, in fact, linked to the first since it takes the active role of the state as proof that the state goes through ascendant and decadent phases just like classes. On the contrary, although a given form of the state can be more or less appropriate to the rule of a class (the republic being the most appropriate to the ascendant bourgeoisie, for example), the state by its nature follows the transformation in technology and the productive forces. Not only does the state remain vulnerable to retrograde classes even in an ascendant epoch, it in no way regroups the “vanguard” of the ruling class. It is constantly subjected to pressure from the most advanced sector of the ruling class linked directly to the process of production. In any case, it's hard to see why people should try to find this needle in a haystack because the period of transition won't have a stable mode of production, thus neither an ascendant nor a decadent phase.

In the hope that other comrades will complete these remarks, we can conclude by saying that it's not surprising that those who identify class and state in the period of transition, those who sing hymns to the state or who see everything as a bed of roses, should make the mistake of seeing our ideas as “anarchist”. On the contrary, while recognising the inevitability of the transitional state but affirming that it must be dominated by the working class, we don't make the state the bearer of the communist programme. The idea that “the state, c'est nous” means diluting the workers' councils in the territorial soviets; means reducing. working class autonomy instead of strengthening it, and disarming the class in the face of the dangers of the transition period. Just as there is no “proletarian, economy” or “proletarian society” or “proletarian culture”, there is no “proletarian state”.

J.A. Révolution Internationale/France June 1977


[1]According to the text by M. and S., Internationalisme