Basic Texts 4: Problems of the Period of Transition (April 1975)

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It is always with the greatest caution that revolutionaries have raised the question of the period of transition. The number, the complexity, and above all, the newness of the problems the proletariat must solve prevent any elaboration of detailed plans of the future society; any attempt to do so risks being turned into a strait-jacket which will stifle the revolutionary activity of the class. Marx, for example, always refused to give "recipes for the dishes of the future". Rosa Luxemburg insisted on the fact that with respect to the transitional society we only have "sign posts and those of an essentially negative character".

If the different revolutionary experiences of the class (the Paris Commune, 1905, 1917-20), and also the experience of the counterrevolution clarify a certain number of problems that the period of transition will pose, it is essentially regarding the general framework of these problems and not the detailed manner of solving them. It is this framework that we will attempt to bring out in this text.

The Nature of Periods of Transition

Human history is made up of different stable societies linked to a given mode of production and therefore to stable social relations. These societies are based on the dominant economic laws inherent in them. They are made up of fixed social classes and are based on appropriate superstructures. The basic stable societies in written history have been: slave society, Asiatic history, feudal society and capitalist society.

What distinguishes periods of transition from periods when society is stable is the decomposition of the old social structures and the formation of new structures. Both are linked to a development of the productive forces and are accompanied by the appearance and development of new classes as well as the development of ideas and institutions corresponding to these classes.

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 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 sapping of the basis of the existence of the old society does not automatically imply the maturation and ripening of the conditions of the new. In other words, the decline of the old society does not automatically mean the maturation of the new, but is only the condition for it to take place.

Decadence and the period of transition are two very distinct phenomena. Every period of transition presupposes the decomposition of the old society whose mode and relations of production have attained the extreme limit of their possible development. However, every period of decadence does not necessarily signify a period of transition, in as much as the period of transition represents a step towards a new mode of production. Similarly ancient Greece did not enjoy the historical conditions necessary for a transcendence of slavery; neither did ancient Egypt.

Decadence means the exhaustion of the old social mode of production; transition means the surging up of the new forces and conditions which will permit a resolution and transcendence of the old contradictions.

The Differences Between Communist Society and Other Societies

To delineate the nature of the period of transition linking capitalism and communism and to point out what distinguishes this period from all preceding periods, one fundamental idea must be kept in mind. Every period of transition stems from the nature of the new society which is arising. Therefore, the fundamental differences which distinguish communist society from all other societies must be made clear:

a) All earlier societies (with the exception of primitive communism which belongs to prehistory) have been societies divided into classes. Communism is a classless society.

b) All other societies have been based on property and the exploitation of man by man.

Communism knows no type of individual or collective property; it is the unified and harmonious human community.

c) The other societies in history have had as their basis an insufficiency in the development of the productive forces with respect to man's needs. They are societies of scarcity. It is for that reason that they have been dominated by blind economic, social and natural forces. Humanity has been alienated from nature and as a result from the social forces it has itself engendered.

Communism is the full development of the productive forces, an abundance of production capable of satisfying human needs. It is the liberation of humanity from the domination of nature and of the economy. It is the conscious mastery by humanity of its conditions of life. It is the world of freedom and no longer the world of necessity which has characterised man's past history.

d) All past societies brought with them anarchronistic vestiges of past economic systems, social relations, ideas and prejudices. This is due to the fact that all these societies were based on private property and the exploitation of the labour of others. It is for this reason that a new class society can and must necessarily be born and develop within the old. It is for the same reason that the new class society, once it is triumphant, can continue with, and accommodate, vestiges of the old defeated society, of the old dominant classes. The new class society can even associate elements of the old dominant class in power. Thus slave or feudal relations could still exist within capitalism and for a long time the bourgeoisie could share power with the nobility.

The situation in a communist society is completely different. Communism retains no economic or social remnants of old society. While such remnants still exist one cannot speak of communist society: what place could there be in such a society for small producers or slave relations, for example? This is what makes the period of transition between capitalism and communism so long. Just as the Hebrew people had to wait forty years in the desert in order to free themselves from the mentality forged by slavery, so humanity will need several generations to free itself from the vestiges of the old world.

e) All previous societies, just as they have been based on a division into classes, have also necessarily been based on regional, geographic, or national-political divisions. This is due primarily to the laws of unequal development which dictate that the evolution of society--while everywhere following a similar orientation--occurs in a relatively independent and separated fashion in different sectors with gaps of time which can last several centuries. Thus, unequal development is itself due to the feeble development of the productive forces: there exists a direct relation between the degree of development and the scale on which this development occurs. Only the productive forces developed by capitalism at its zenith, for the first time in history, permit a real interdependence between the different parts of the world.

The establishment of communist society immediately has the entire world as its arena. Communism in order to be established requires the same evolution at the same time in all countries. It is completely universal or it is nothing.

f) Based on private property, exploitation, the division into classes and into different geographical zones, production in previous societies necessarily tended towards the production of commodities with all that followed in the way of competition and anarchy in distribution and consumption solely regulated by the law of value, through the market and money.

Communism knows neither exchange nor the law of value. Its production is socialised in the fullest-sense of the term. It is universally planned according to the needs of the members of society and for their satisfaction. Such production knows only use values whose direct and socialised distribution excludes exchange, the market and money.

g) Divided into antagonistic classes, all previous societies could only exist and survive through the constitution of a special organ--appearing as if above society--in order to maintain the class struggle within a framework beneficial to the conservation and the interests of the dominant class: the state.

Communism knows none of these divisions and has no need of the state. Moreover, it could not tolerate within it an organism for the government of man. In communism there is only room for the administration of things.

Characteristics of the Period of Transition

The period of transition towards communism is constantly tainted by the society from which it emerges (the pre-history of humanity) yet also affected by the society towards which it tends (the completely new history of human society). This is what will distinguish it from all earlier periods of transition.

a. Previous Periods of Transition

Periods of transition until now have in common the fact that they unfolded within the old society. The definitive proclamation of the new society--which is sanctioned by the leap that a revolution constitutes--comes at the end of the transitional process itself. This situation is the result of two essential causes:

  • Past societies all have the same social, economic basis--the division into classes and exploitation, which reduces the period of transition to a simple change or transfer of privileges but not to the suppression of privileges.
  • All these societies, and this forms the basis of the preceding characteristic, blindly submit to the imperatives of laws based on the low development of the productive forces (the reign of necessity). The period of transition between two such societies is thus characterised by a blind economic development.

b. The Period of Transition towards Communism

It is because communism constitutes a total break with all exploitation and all division into classes that the transition towards this society requires a radical break with the old society and can only unfold outside of the old society.

Communism is not a mode of production subject to the blind economic laws opposed to mankind, but is based on a conscious organisation of production which permits an abundance of the productive forces which the old capitalist society cannot attain by itself.

c. What Distinguishes the Period of Transition towards Communism?

  • The period of transition can only begin outside of capitalism. The maturation of the conditions of socialism requires as a prerequisite the destruction of the political, economic and social domination of capitalism in society.
  • The period of transition to communism can only be begun on a world scale.
  • Unlike other periods of transition, in the period of transition to communism the essential institutions of capitalism-state police, army, diplomatic corps--cannot be utilised by the proletariat. They must be completely destroyed.
  • As a result, the opening of the period of transition is essentially characterised by the political defeat of capitalism and by the triumph of the political domination of the proletariat.

"In order to convert social production into a large and harmonious system of co-operative work there must be general social change, changes in the general conditions of society which can only be realised by means of the organised power of society--the state power--taken from the hands of the capitalists and the landowners and transferred to the hands of the producers themselves" (Marx, Instructions on Co-operatives to the Delegates of the General Council at the First Congress of the First International at Geneva).

"The conquest of political power has become the first task of the working class" (Marx, Inaugural Address to the First International).

d. The Problems of the Period of Transition

The world generalisation of the revolution is the first condition for the opening of the period of transition. The question of economic and social measures necessary to particularly protect isolated socialisations in one country, one region, one factory or among one group of people is subordinated to the world generalisation of the revolution. Even after a first triumph of the proletariat, capitalism continues its resistance in the form of a civil war. In this period everything must be subordinated to the destruction of the power of capitalism. This is the first objective which conditions any later evolution.

One class and one class alone is interested in communism: the proletariat. Other productive and exploited classes can be drawn into the struggle that the proletariat wages against capitalism, but they can never as classes become the protagonists and bearers of communism. Because of this, it is necessary to emphasise one essential task: the necessity for the proletariat not to confuse itself with, or in dissolve itself into, other classes. In the period of transition the proletariat, as the only revolutionary class invested with the task of creating the new classless society, can only assure the completion of this task by affirming itself as an autonomous and politically dominant class in society. The proletariat alone has a communist programme that it attempts to carry out and, as such, it must retain in its own hands all political and armed force: it has the monopoly of arms. In order to accomplish its tasks the proletariat creates organised structures: the workers' councils based on factories, and the revolutionary party.

The dictatorship of the proletariat can be summarised in the following terms:

  • the programme (the proletariat knows where it is going);
  • its general organisation as a class;
  • armed force.

The relations between the proletariat and the other classes in society are as follows:

  • Vis-à-vis the capitalist class and the old rulers of capitalist society (MPs, Congressmen, high functionaries, the army and the Church): total suppression of all civil rights and exclusion from political life.
  • As regards the peasantry and artisans, that is, independent and non-exploiting producers who constitute the major part of society, the proletariat cannot eliminate them totally from political life, nor at the outset, from economic life. The proletariat will necessarily be led to find a modus vivendi with these classes while at the same time pursuing a policy aimed at the dissolution and integration of these classes into the working class.

If the working class must take account of these other classes in economic and administrative life; it must not provide them with the possibility of any autonomous organisations (press, parties, etc.). These numerous classes and strata are integrated into a system of administration based on territorial soviets. They will be integrated into society as citizens, not as a class.

With regard to those social strata which in present day capitalism occupy a distinct place in economic life, such as the liberal professions, technicians, functionaries, intellectuals (what is called the 'new middle class'), the attitude of the proletariat will be based on the following criteria:

  • these classes are not homogeneous. Their highest strata are fundamentally integrated into the capitalist function and mentality, while their lowest strata have the same function and interests as the working class.
  • the proletariat must act, therefore, in such a way as to accentuate this already existing separation.

The transitional society is still a society divided into classes and so there will necessarily arise within it that institution peculiar to all societies divided into classes: the STATE. With all the limitations and precautionary measures with which we will surround this institution (functionaries will be elected and revocable, their consumption will be equal to that of a worker, a unification will exist between the legislative and executive functions, etc.), and which make this state into a 'semi-state', we must never lose sight of the state's historic anti-socialist, and therefore anti-proletarian and essentially conservative, nature. The state remains the guardian of the status quo.

We recognise the inevitability of this institution which the proletariat will have to utilise as a necessary evil in order to: break the resistance of the waning capitalist class and preserve a united administrative, and political framework in this period when society is still rent by antagonistic interests.

But we categorically reject the idea of making this state the standard-bearer of communism. By its own nature ("bourgeois nature in its essence"--Marx), it is essentially an organ for the conservation of the status quo and a restraint on communism. Thus, the state can neither be identified with communism nor with the proletariat which is the bearer of communism. The proletariat is by definition the most dynamic class in history since it carries out the suppression of all classes including. itself. This is why, while utilising the state, the proletariat expresses its dictatorship not through the state, but over the state. This is also why the proletariat can under no circumstances allow this institution (the state) to intervene by violence within the class, nor to be the arbiter of the discussions and activities of the class organs - the councils and the revolutionary party.

On the economic plane, the period of transition consists of an economic policy (and no longer a political economy) of the proletariat with a view to accelerating the process of universal socialisation of production and distribution. But the realisation of this programme of integral communism at all levels, while being the goal affirmed and followed by the working class, will still be subject to immediate, conjunctural and contingent conditions in the period of transition which only pure utopian voluntarism would ignore. The proletariat will immediately attempt to advance as far as possible towards its goal while recognising the inevitable concessions it will be obliged to tolerate. Two dangers threaten such a policy:

  • the idealisation of this policy, presenting it as communist when it is nothing of the sort
  • the denial of the necessity of such a policy in the name of idealistic voluntarism.

Some Measures of the Period of Transition

Without pretending to establish a blueprint for these measures we can, at least, try to give a general idea:

  • Immediate socialisation of the great capitalist concentrations and of the principal centres of productive activity.
  • Planning of production and distribution--the criteria of production must be the maximum satisfaction of needs and no longer of accumulation.
  • Massive reduction of the working day.
  • Substantial rise in the standard of living.
  • The attempt to abolish remuneration based on wages and on its money form.
  • Socialisation of consumption and of the satisfaction of needs (transportation, leisure, meals, etc).
  • The relationship between the collectivised sectors and sectors of production which are still individual--particularly in the countryside--must tend towards an organised collective exchange through co-operatives, thus suppressing the market and individual exchange.

M.C. Revolution Internationale/France April 1975

Re-printed in ICC pamphlet The Period of Transition from Capitalism to Socialism (1981)

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