The texts we are publishing here are contributions to discussion on the period of transition, which has always been an open question in the workers’ movement, and one to which revolutionaries must address themselves without making ‘recipes for the future’, or oversimplifying such a complex question, or drawing up class lines around problems which the practical experience of the class has not yet settled.
The debate within the ICC on this question began as soon as the ICC was formed, and the following texts are a continuation of the discussion initiated in the first issue of The International Review. The debate is still going on within the Current, and we have not yet come to a homogeneous position, particularly on the question of the state in the period of transition which is dealt with in these texts.
The period of transition
I. The nature of transition periods
Human history is made up of different stable societies based on a mode of production, with corresponding stable social relations within that society. These societies are based on the dominant economic laws by which they are defined, are composed of fixed social strata, and are supported by the appropriate superstructure (primitive communism, Asiatic productive mode, Ancient, feudal, and capitalist).
Every mode of production has an ascendant phase during which it is able to develop the productive forces, and a decadent phase, in which the mode of production becomes a brake on this development, and finally leads to its exhaustion and decomposition.
A period of transition begins after a more or less lengthy period of decadence during which the seeds of the new mode of production develop to the detriment of the old, thus enabling the old contradictions to be resolved and transcended, and leads finally to the establishment of the new dominant mode of production. The transition period has no mode of production of its own, but the old and the new modes both exist, entangled together. This period of transition is an absolute necessity, because the decay of the old society doesn’t automatically bring about the maturation of the new, but merely produces the conditions for this maturation. Thus, capitalism tended to socialize production on a world scale - to create a real community - but, at the same time, this would have immediately abolished the raison d’etre of commodity exchange and directly posed the realization of communism. But, with the creation of the world market which placed definite limits on accumulation, capital undermined the basis for the complete socialization of humanity: it destroyed modes of production in the non-capitalist world but wasn’t able to integrate them into capitalist production. Capitalism had entered its decadent phase.
II. Communist society
All periods of transition are born of the same conditions which give rise to the new society which will follow. In order to analyze the nature of the transition period between capitalism and communism and to see what distinguishes this period from all previous periods we must describe the nature of communist society or rather how it’s distinguished from all other societies:
- Contrary to past societies - with the exception of primitive communism - which have all been class divided and based on property and the exploitation of man by man, communism is a society without classes and without any kind of property; it is a unified and harmonious human community.
- The other societies in history were founded on the insufficient development of the productive forces in relation to the needs of man: they were societies of scarcity, dominated by natural forces and blind socio-economic laws. Communism is the full development of the productive forces in relation to the needs of man, the abundance of production capable of satisfying human needs: it is the world of liberty, the liberation of humanity from the domination of nature and the economy.
- All previous societies carried with them the anachronistic vestiges of economic and social relations, of ideas and prejudices of past societies, because they were all founded on private property and exploitation. In contrast to this, breaking with all these characteristics, communist society cannot tolerate within itself any surviving elements of the preceding society.
- The low level of development of the productive forces in past societies brought with it the uneven development of different sections of society: as well as being based on class divisions, these societies were divided into regions and nations. Only the productive forces developed by capitalism since its zenith allow for the first time in history a true interdependence between different parts of the world. Communism is universal from its inception or it is nothing; it demands that all parts of the world develop together simultaneously.
- There is neither exchange nor the law of value under communism. Production is socialized in the fullest sense of the word: it is planned completely according to the needs of the members of society and for their satisfaction. And such production, based on use-values, and where distribution is direct and socialized, excludes trade, markets, and money.
- All past societies - with the exception of primitive communism - have been divided into classes with antagonistic interests and have only been able to exist and survive by creating a special organ which seems to stand above classes, but which in fact imposes the domination of the ruling class over society; this organ is the state. Communism, knowing no such divisions, has no need of a state. Moreover inasmuch as it is a human community no organism for the government of men can exist within it.
III. Characteristics of the period of transition
Up until now all periods of transition in history have had this in common, that they developed inside the old society. The political revolution of the new ruling class was no more than the culmination of its economic domination which had developed progressively inside the old society. This situation proves that the new society, like the old one, blindly obeys the imperatives of laws produced by the scarcity of the productive forces, and that the new ruling class simply brings with it another form of exploitation and class division.
Communism is the total break with all exploitation and all class divisions, as well as being a conscious organization of production which permits an abundance of the productive forces. This is why the transition period to communism can only begin outside of capitalism after the political defeat of capitalism and the triumph of the political domination of the proletariat on a world-wide scale. The first preoccupation of the proletariat, then, is the taking of power on a world scale and the total destruction of capitalist institutions: the state, the police, the army, the civil service etc.
Thus the transition period which then begins is an unceasing movement of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalist relations to be replaced by communist relations. The transition period must abolish all capitalist relations, for capital is a process in which every moment is inextricably linked to another, (the sale of labour-power, extraction and realization of surplus-value, capitalization etc). Therefore trade, markets, and money all disappear (and with them wage-slavery).
It is important to see that any check to the revolutionary transformation of society presents the danger of a return to capitalism. Indeed, the whole system of market relations will only definitively disappear under full communism when classes have ceased to exist, since the perpetuation of classes means the perpetuation of commodity exchange. Equally, we insist that there is no transitional mode of production between capitalism and communism. During the period of transition, “What we have to deal with .... is a communist society not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme)
IV. Economic measures
Although it is difficult to say precisely what economic measures will be taken during the transition period, we can state that we are in favour of measures which tend directly to regulate production and distribution in collective, social terms, rather than measures which demand calculation of distribution in terms of individual contributions to social work.
It is necessary to criticize the system of ‘labour time vouchers’ which perpetuates the division of the working class into an aggregate of individuals who obtain the means to live on the basis of their individual work. Under this system, each worker receives, in exchange for one hour of work, a voucher representing one hour of work with which he can get a number of products, equal to the time he has given. It is a wage form without the wage content. In such a system, concrete work, real time, the effort crystallized in a product are of little importance; only abstract work time, necessary labour time determined by the global productivity of society is taken into account and this divides the workers on the basis of their productivity. But above all this system is impracticable: indeed, in order to calculate an ‘average hour’ of labour, productivity would need to be uniform in each branch of production; and even if this could be achieved, then a form of calculation on a world scale would need to be developed which was able to continually keep track of the changing levels of productivity throughout the period of transition. It would necessitate a monstrous bureaucracy on a scale previously unknown in the history of man in order to prevent each producer or production unit from ‘cheating’, from declaring unworked hours, etc. This system also runs the risk of an easy degeneration into money wages during a moment of reflux in the revolution.
All measures taken must, be guided by the need to tend towards collectively controlled production for the satisfaction of social needs based on use-values and real labour: towards the reduction of working hours and the assimilation of other strata into associated work. It is necessary to insure that all the good, essential for human life are collectivized and freely distributed as quickly as possible, especially in industrialized sector where socialization will be able to proceed more quickly.
V. The revolutionary civil war
Because the proletariat and the bourgeoisie are both world classes, when the workers take power in one country t this will lead to a world civil war against the bourgeoisie. Until it is victorious, until the proletariat has conquered world power, we can’t really talk about a period of transition or a communist transformation of society.
During the world civil war everything wi1l be subordinated to the interest of the civil war: production still won’t be based principally on human need, which is what define communist production, but on the urgent need to extend and consolidate the international revolution. Even if the proletariat is able to eradicate the formal characteristics of capitalism while it is arming itself and producing for the civil war, one can’t refer to an economy oriented towards war as ‘communism’. As long as capitalism exists in any part of the world its laws continue to determine the real content of productive relations everywhere else. Nevertheless, as soon as it has taken power in one area, the proletariat must begin the assault on capitalist relations of production:
a. Because any blow struck against capitalism will result in a profound disintegration of world capital which will deepen the world-wide class struggle.
b. In order to facilitate the political direction of a zone under the control of the proletariat. Because the political power of the workers will depend on their capacity to simplify and rationalize the processes of production and distribution, a task which is impossible in an economy totally dominated by market relations.
c. In order to lay the foundations of the social transformation which will follow the civil war.
Moreover it is important to note that, if the communist transformation of society can only be fully embarked upon after the establishment of the world-wide political power of the proletariat - after the world civil war has been won - it is nevertheless the case that the proletariat will set up its organs of power immediately after taking power in one area of the globe. In this area these organs have the same character as during the entire period of transition; this applies not only to the workers’ councils, but also to the state which is already the state of the period of transition.
VI. Principal aspects of the period of transition
Here we can only enlarge upon the tasks that the proletariat will have to accomplish during the transition period; they are enormous and many. The proletariat will have an entire society to build.
1. The dictatorship of the proletariat
Several classes will still exist in the transition period. But the proletariat is the only one whose interest is communism. Other classes can be drawn into the struggle that the proletariat wages against capitalism, but they can never, as classes, be the bearers of communism. It is for this reason that the proletariat must constantly guard itself against blurring the distinction between itself and other classes or dissolving itself into other classes. It can only ensure the forward movement towards a classless society by asserting itself as an autonomous class with political domination over society. This is because economically the proletariat remains exploited since the world is still dominated by the law of value. It must keep all political power and all its armed force in its own hands. It is the working class in its entirety that has the monopoly of arms.
While the working class must take other classes into account in economic and administrative life, because in the beginning these classes will constitute the majority of society, it must not allow these classes the possibility of autonomous organization. These numerous classes and strata will be integrated into the territorial soviet administrative system as citizens, not as classes. These classes will progressively be dissolved and integrated into the working class. Of course this only applies to the non-exploitative classes; the whole capitalist class and all of the old upper classes of capitalist society will be directly excluded from political life.
The proletariat in order to assert its dictatorship must give itself two organizational forms: the workers’ councils and the revolutionary party.
If in all other previous class societies, the ruling class exercised its dictatorship openly or hypocritically over the other classes, the dictatorship of the proletariat is different from previous class dictatorships:
- Its dictatorship is directed solely against the old classes of society. It doesn’t bring with it new privileges, or new exploitation, but suppresses all privileges and all exploitation. Far from being a guardian of the status quo, its aim is the uninterrupted transformation of society.
- For this reason unlike other classes it has no need to conceal its aims, to mystify oppressed classes by presenting its dictatorship as the reign of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.
- It sets itself the task of destroying all specializations and hierarchical divisions within society. It. must guarantee that the whole of the working class has the right to strike, to bear arms, to have complete freedom of assembly and expression, etc. All relations of force and all violence inside the proletarian camp must be rejected.
2. The Workers’ Councils
The workers’ council is the historic form for the self-organization of the proletariat in revolutionary struggle; it is an autonomous organization regrouping the entire class, the form of power developed for the dictatorship of the proletariat. The councils are assemblies of delegates elected and revocable at all times by general assemblies of workers, carrying out the decisions taken by these assemblies. The councils centralize themselves on a worldwide basis for they must enforce the worldwide dictatorship of the proletariat, the proletariat’s world political power and the whole revolutionary transformation of society.
- Therefore, political power is exercised through the workers councils and not through a party.
- The councils are the autonomous organization of the working class. Of the two dangers which can arise in the formation of the councils, the infiltration of bourgeois elements and the containment of the workers within the rigid confines of the factory, the second has shown itself to be the most dangerous. The danger of infiltration by bourgeois elements was the reason given by German Social Democracy for refusing Rosa Luxemburg access to the workers’ councils. The party is a fraction of the class and so intervenes freely within the councils.
- The councils are not organs of self-management. The isolation of workers in ‘councils’ composed simply of productive units can only serve to reinforce the divisions imposed on the working class by capitalism and leads to certain defeat. The councils are above all instruments of centralized political power.
- The councils are not an end in themselves: they are the best means the proletariat can use to bring about the communist transformation of society. If the councils become an end in themselves this will simply mean that the process of social revolution has been arrested, which means the beginning of a return to capitalism.
3. The Revolutionary Party
The revolutionary party, formed by revolutionary fractions during a. revolutionary period, is a fraction of the class which has a clear vision of the communist aims carried by the proletariat. Its only task is the generalization of revolutionary consciousness within the class. In no case can it take power ‘in the name of the class’, or organize the class.
The party will have an active role to play within the class until communism is achieved and, therefore, the practical realization of the communist programme. Right through the period of transition the party will express the unity of proletarian consciousness while there is still heterogeneity of consciousness within the class, and will continue to pose the problem of class autonomy, thus fulfilling its role as the party.
4. The State
The class antagonisms which are fermenting within society constantly threaten to explode into struggles which put at risk the equilibrium and indeed the very existence of that society. To prevent this, the bourgeoisie, like the classes which preceded it, has been forced to create institutions and a superstructure of which the state is the highest expression and whose basic function is to maintain class struggle within an acceptable framework, and to safeguard and strengthen the existing social order. This is why as a general rule, the state remains the expression of the ruling class par excellence and is identified with that class.
The period of transition to communism is still a society which is divided into classes. Therefore this super-structural organism, this unavoidable evil - the state -will inevitably arise to prevent the violent disintegration of this hybrid society. The proletariat as long as it is the politically dominant class will use the state to maintain its power and to defend the gains of the communist transformation of society. This state will be different from all states in the past. It will in fact be a semi-state. For the first time the new ruling class, the proletariat, will not ‘inherit’ the old state machine and use it to serve its own interests, but will overthrow and destroy the bourgeois state and build its own organs of power. This is because the proletariat does not use the state to exploit other classes, but to defend a social transformation which will lead to the disappearance of exploitation forever, which will abolish all social antagonisms and lead to the state becoming extinct.
But the proletariat will continue to be the exploited class in society for its domination of society is entirely political and not economic. Because of this it cannot identify with the state, the instrument of social preservation which reflects the obstacles to social development posed by other classes who are vestiges of the past, and which expresses the continued existence of class society and therefore of exploitation. It is because the function and the interests of the bourgeois state are closely bound to those of the economically dominant class, ie the preservation of the existing social order that the bourgeois state can and must identify with that class. This is not at all the case with the proletariat which does not try to preserve the existing state of affairs, but to overthrow and continually transform it. This is why the historic dictatorship of the proletariat cannot find its true expression in that institution of preservation par excellence the state. There can be no such thing as a ‘socialist’ or a ‘communist’ state. Communism is the real development of the historic interests of the proletariat, and by definition there cannot be an identification between communism and the state. As a result, in so far as one speaks of a communist proletariat, one cannot speak of a ‘workers’ state’ or a 'proletarian state'. There are arguments which support this conception of the state in the period of transition:
- To identify the proletariat with the state - as the Bolsheviks did - leads at a time of reflux to the disastrous situation in which the state, considered as the ‘embodiment of the working class’, is allowed to do anything to maintain its power while the working class as a whole remains defenceless.
- On a world scale, the proletariat is only a minority of the population. The majority of the world population (peasants, artisans, etc, mainly in the third world) cannot be integrated into the workers’ councils by the proletariat as the proletariat would lose its class autonomy. Neither can they be suppressed, nor ignored. This majority will have to be allowed to organize itself (with the exception of the bourgeoisie), and to form councils. The negative example of the Russian Revolution has shown us that violence must not be employed against classes, other than the bourgeoisie, except as a last resort. But just as the other strata will only be integrated into associated production as individuals, so the proletariat will only allow them to express their interests as individuals and not as classes within civil society. This implies that the representative organs, through which these interests are expressed, in contrast to the workers’ councils, will be based on territorial units and forms of organization. All this allows us to say that while making use of the state, the proletariat expresses its dictatorship not through the state but over the state. In order to ensure the subservience of this state, a certain number of measures will have to be taken:
- The workers organized in councils have ultimate authority with regard to all measures taken by the state; no measure is taken without their agreement and active participation
- The workers have a monopoly of arms and are ready to/use these arms against the state if necessary.
The workers are represented in the state in maximum proportion, that is, in relation to the balance of forces at any time.
- All members of the state are elected and recallable at any time; the workers’ representatives report to the councils on all measures and steps which are taken.
- The councils can decide to make any changes which are necessary in the state and also in society taking account of the evolution of the balance of forces.
(Treignes – 1975)
State and dictatorship
The following text is an attempt to put forward a general conception of the state and the dictatorshiip of the proletariat without trying to come to any definite conclusions. It is a contribution to the present discussion on the period of transition dealing with the basic question of the form and content of the proletarian dictatorship. A more detailed explanation, especially of the more problematic points, will be undertaken in another document.
1. In his classic work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels defined the meaning and function of the state. The state is a product of society once it has reached a certain stage of development. It is the result and expression of irreconcilable class contradictions. The state arises in order to prevent classes with conflicting economic interests from tearing themselves and society apart in fruitless struggles.
2. If the state arises to dampen down class conflicts, to contain them within certain limits, does this mean that it is an instrument of dialogue between the classes, a medium through which compromises can be worked out? Is it a neutral organism, outside society, which serves to arbitrate its antagonisms? Quite obviously it is not. The state could not arise, nor could it maintain itself, if different class interests could be reconciled. Then what is the precise function of the state? The oppressed classes of all historical epochs have had the answer to this question drummed into them through centuries of misery, exploitation and deportation; as a general rule the state is the state of the most powerful class, the class which has imposed its political and military domination on the historic balance of forces.1 The state is the instrument used by the ruling class in order to set up and guarantee its dictatorship.
3. An essential principle of marxism is that the struggle between classes is decided not on a legal terrain, but through force and violence. The state is a special organ of repression: it is the centralized use of violence by one class against another. The political state, even (or rather, above all) the parliamentary democratic state, is an instrument of violent domination. The state apparatus makes permanent use of coercive methods in order to control the exploited class, even when it does not appear to resort to material force in the form of police repression, but simply uses the threat of violent sanctions or the legal code (even if unwritten) instead of having to bother with armed repression and bloodshed.
4. As an organ of violence, the state is characterized by the establishment of a public power. This power is indispensable because ever since classes arose the armament of the entire population has been an impossibility. From the very beginning every state created a coercive force, “special bodies of armed men” who could make use of the prisons and other modes of compulsion. Various historical revolutions have shown how the class that has been overthrown tries to reconstitute its former instruments of rule (the armed force which has been taken from it), and how the new ruling class sets up new organizations of this kind, or perfects the old ones, in order to prevent the restoration of the old ruling class and with it any threat to the new relations of production.
5. To sum up what we have said so far: in every class society the ruling class exerts an open or camouflaged dictatorship over the other classes in society in order to defend its class interests and to guarantee or develop the relations of production associated to it. It is necessary to point out what is at the root of this dictatorship; a given ruling class uses it to defend its interests against the antagonistic interests of other classes in order to ensure the extension, development, or preservation of its specific relations of production against the dangers of restoration or destruction. It is thus false to consider that every state must be abhorred and represents a “ruinous scourge” (we are not petty-bourgeois anarchists). Indeed, even the bourgeois state in the eyes of marxists was at a certain historical moment, a progressive instrument when it stood for organized force against feudal reaction from within and against feudalism’s external allies, and when it set up modern social structures on the ruins of pre-capitalist societies. The state was not simply useful but an indispensable means to enable the bourgeoisie by virtue of state decrees and violence to crush all obstacles to the development of big factories and more modern agricultural methods. Marxism has a dialectical concept of the state as being revolutionary in certain epochs, conservative or counter-revolutionary in others, because the state is simply an extension, an instrument of social classes which arise, reach maturity, and disappear.
The state is closely linked to the life cycle of a given class and thus takes on a progressive or counter-revolutionary role according to the historical relationship of that class to the development of the productive forces of society (ie whether it favours or holds back their development).
6. We have rooted the existence of the state in the division of society into classes. Just as the latter is not an innate characteristic of human society, the state has not eternally existed. There have been social formations without classes and without states and the development of the productive forces which is now being held back by the very existence of classes, will remove any need for a state and make it gradually disappear. As Engels said: “The society that will organize production on the basis of a free and equal association of producers will put the whole machinery of the state where it belongs into the Museum of Antiquities, by the side of the spinning wheel and the bronze axe.” However, prior to the classless stateless society, in between capitalism and communism there will be a period of transition, a period of economic transformation of society. The transitional society is still a class society and as such will inevitably give rise to a state and a dictatorship.
7. The state is the special organization of power, the organization of violence which serves to keep a given class in subjugation. The proletariat needs the state to suppress the resistance of the bourgeoisie. This repression can only be carried out by the proletariat since it is the only revolutionary class, the only class able to unite the whole labouring and exploited population under the banner of the revolution. Thus the revolutionary activity of the proletariat must lead to its political rule, to its dictatorship - the conquest of power which the proletariat does not share with anyone and which is based directly on the armed strength of the class itself. The bourgeoisie can only be overthrown if the proletariat becomes the ruling class, liquidates the inevitable resistance of the exploiters, and organizes all the labouring and exploited masses for the socialist transformation of the economy. The proletariat needs a state apparatus, a centralized organ of violence, both to suppress the desperate resistance of the bourgeoisie and to lead to the overwhelming majority of the population - peasants, petty-bourgoisie, ‘new middle classes’, semi-proletarians - in the struggle for communism.
8. Since the state arose out of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms, since it is a power “more and more alien” to society, it is clear that the emancipation of the oppressed class is impossible not only without a violent revolution but also without the suppression of the state power created by the ruling class which is the manifestation of this ‘alien’ character. This is because the proletarian struggle is not a struggle inside the state and its organs but a struggle outside of and against the state, against all its manifestations and forms. The proletarian revolution begins with the annihilation of the bourgeois state. However, after this act of destruction there will still be a need for a form of political state. It is one of the new forms of proletarian rule necessary for a working class faced with the task of violently extirpating the privileges of the bourgeoisie and organizing the productive forces so as to liberate them from their capitalist fetters. Contrary to the position of the anarchists who (while having the undeniable merit of proposing the destruction of the bourgeois state) thought it was possible to do without any form of organized power once this had been achieved - the Russian Revolution has demonstrated the necessity of a political state (a structure of social violence). Since the communist transformation of society will be a long drawn-out process and not an immediate achievement, the suppression of the exploiting class and the integration into socialist production of all the non-proletarian classes and strata will also take a long time and cannot be achieved through physical massacre. During the period of transition the revolutionary state will have to operate, which means, as Lenin had the honesty to say to the pacifists and other petty-bourgeois romantics with their nostalgia for democracy, that it will have an army, a police force, and prisons. Obviously this also means that there can be no confusions about the character of this transitional state, which cannot defend the interests of several classes but of one only and which cannot be the instrument of a vague conglomeration of several classes and social strata, but is the specific tool of one single class, of the ruling class. It is for this reason that one can and must speak of a proletarian state which is one of the indispensable forms of the proletarian dictatorship. With the progressive elimination of private property and commodity relations the need for political constraint will be diminished and the proletarian state will tend to disappear.
9. We now have to look at the actual form of the proletarian state. There are certain similarities between the proletarian state and the states which have preceded it in history - similarities which allow us to use the word state in all these cases – while at the same time there are important differences in the proletarian state, differences which make it a moment in the disappearance of the state. As we have seen the proletarian state is the instrument the proletariat uses to repress the enemy class. The proletarian state will also give the transitional society the administrative framework which, since it is still a class society, it cannot spontaneously generate. The revolutionary state, in such a way as to prevent any confusions about its class character, will enable the non-proletarian classes and strata to express their immediate interests to the exclusion of the bourgeoisie which will be deprived of all its rights and means of expression. These tasks presuppose the existence of armed bodies and functionaries. Therefore there is a formal identity between the operation of the proletarian state and that of previous states. However, there are substantial differences between the state of the proletariat and the state of previous class societies, differences which have their origin in the proletariat’s specific mission. The proletariat does not exert its dictatorship in order to build a new society of exploitation and oppression, nor to defend any economic privileges. The proletariat has no economic privileges to defend and its only interest as a class is in the real socialization of production and the creation of communism. These characteristics affect the form and content of the proletarian state:
- the lack on any economic base in society makes the proletariat “thee class of consciousness”. It is impossible for the proletariat to delegate responsibility for its political dictatorship to a body of specialists. The working class as a whole wields political power (and military power, ie the general armament of the proletariat) through its own class organs, its centralized organs of political rule: the workers’ councils. Thus the proletariat itself carries out state functions. Moreover, it builds a state in its own image: it suppresses all the privileges that were inherent in the operation of all previous states (through the equalization of remuneration and rigorous control of functionaries who are elected and revocable at any time), as well as eliminating the separation between representative and executive organs which is a characteristic of parliamentarism. For all these reasons - the state functions of the councils and absolute control over the state by the class as a whole both of which facts tend to eliminate the “alien” character of the state apparatus - we can talk about a proletarian semi-state.
- from the beginning of the transition period, the proletariat undertakes the economic transformation of society. There is a correlation between the development of communism and the disappearance of the state. As Engels said about the state:
“When ultimately it becomes really representative of society as a whole, it makes itself superfluous. As soon as there is no longer any class of society to be held in subjugation; as soon as, along with class domination and the struggle for individual existence based on the anarchy of production hitherto, the collisions and excesses arising from these have also been abolished, there is nothing more to be repressed which would make a special repressive force, a state, necessary…………The interference of the state power in social relations becomes superfluous in one sphere after another, and then ceases of itself. The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things and the direction of the processes of production. The state is not ‘abolished’ it withers away.” (Engels, Anti-Duhring)
It is only in a communist society when the resistance of the capitalists has finally been liquidated, when the capitalists have disappeared and there are no more classes (ie distinctions between members of society based on their relationship to the social means of production), only then will the state cease to exist, and only then will it be possible to talk about freedom. However, the process of the withering away of the state begins as soon as the proletariat undertakes the integration of other social strata into socialized production, the ‘communization of social relations’. This is why we can characterize the proletarian state as a semi-state that is in the process of withering away.
10. The cries of alarm among anarchists and councilists as soon as they hear the word ‘state’, claiming that it is impossible to prevent state functionaries from having a ‘lust for power’ and privilege, from trying to become a new ruling class - all this shows their incomprehension of historical dynamics and of social and economic phenomena. Society and the state are not just abstract entities. Marxism has decisively refuted bourgeois mystifications about the ‘eternal essence’ of the state by analyzing it as a social form within the materialist framework of economic development and class confrontation. In this way marxism has evolved a dialectical conception of the state: revolutionary when the class that controls it is also revolutionary; counter-revolutionary when it is an instrument used for the preservation of a decadent class. By its form and content, which are directly determined by the tasks and programme of the proletariat, the proletarian state is essentially an organ of the ruling class that makes use of it in order to abolish class contradictions and thus to abolish the proletarian state itself. It is not .an organ of the status quo, still less a structure which serves to conciliate the interests of antagonistic classes. It is an instrument of social violence used by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie and the relations of production personified by the latter. The proletarian state is also an organ which the proletariat uses in order to give a lead to all the other exploited classes and strata of society.
11. We now have to consider the problem of the possible degeneration of the state. It is quite obvious that in the last analysis no formal measure can prevent the degeneration of the state or of any other proletarian organ. But degeneration never occurs from any so-called formal flaws somehow intrinsic to the state apparatus. Such a metaphysical and subjectivist concept of history is quite foreign to marxism. Concerning the Russian Revolution - all the various ‘substitutions’ that took place in the long process of revolution and counter-revolution (the identification between the party and the state, the state and the proletariat, the party and the proletariat), were not the cause of the degeneration of the revolution, but the result of it. While it is necessary to struggle resolutely against all the substitutionist tendencies that confuse the various forms of the proletarian dictatorship (all of which have specific functions to perform), it would be an illusion to think that this struggle is enough to prevent any possibility of degeneration. Even the councils could come under the influence of the counter-revolution. There is no formal or constitutional ‘immunization’ against this danger which depends solely on the internal and world-wide development of the balance of social forces. The internal decomposition of the proletarian state also presupposes that the centralized,organization of the proletariat has begun to disintegrate and lose its revolutionary content. As the ICC never tires of repeating, the only real guarantee against the threat of degeneration is the consciousness of the proletarian class in close connection with the progress of the revolution.
A contribution to the study on the question of the state
Only the historical experience of the proletariat can provide revolutionaries with a real basis for the elaboration of the communist programme. Against the philistines, the armchair intransigents and the alchemists of the revolution, revolutionaries affirm the fundamental unity of the theory and practice of the working class. Only by referring to concrete examples of class struggle can they trace the long-term perspectives of the revolutionary movement, put the proletariat on guard against many dangers awaiting it and theoretically clear away the obstacles which will undoubtedly arise along the path to revolution. If revolutionaries cannot definitively settle the questions which concrete proletarian experience has not yet decided in practice, they can nevertheless, on the basis of historical lessons, try to develop the theoretical groundwork for the understanding of certain problems.
Far from being confined to mere mental activity and speculation, the communist programme is a real problem linked to the development of consciousness in the proletariat, a development of consciousness which can really only be the practical and theoretical destruction of capitalist social relations. That is why the theoretical work undertaken by revolutionaries is constantly enriched by both the proletariat’s historical experience and present-day actions. It is from these struggles that revolutionaries draw the lessons for the elaboration of general perspectives and predictions for the workers’ movement:
“To predict is therefore not to invent but to reveal the new content which lies buried in the old society, by going beyond phenomenological appearances. Only in this way can theory become an active factor and a guide for action and socialism become the conscious transformation' of society.” (Parti de Classe, no.1)
It was by drawing the lessons from the experience of the insurrections of 1848 and, more important, of the Paris Commune of 1871, that Marx and Engels were led to abandon the perspective they developed in the Communist Manifesto that the proletariat was to take over the bourgeois state. In the same way, revolutionaries today must analyze the revolutionary wave of 1917-23, (the first large-scale attempt of the proletariat to affirm itself as a revolutionary class conscious of its historical role, the taking of power), so that all the lessons about the organization of the proletariat and the taking of power can be assimilated.
The Russian Revolution has taught us that the working class must affirm its autonomy and must organize in workers’ councils. For the first time in the history of humanity, the concrete objective basis of the conscious transformation of capitalist social relations by an exploited and revolutionary class was posed. But, to simply say that the material economic conditions of capitalism’s decline ‘permit’ or ‘determine’ the proletarian revolution is not sufficient:
“The objective economic premises are not enough to determine the victory of communism because communism cannot develop independently of the growth of proletarian consciousness; it cannot come as the result of a pre-ordained mechanistic process going on behind the back of the proletariat.” (Parti de Classe, no.1)
Right from the outset the communist revolution is a conscious dialectical process sweeping away the concrete obstacles in the way of the development of the productive forces. Theory and practice are therefore indissociable. From its beginnings, the proletariat as an exploited class has shown its violent opposition to the existence of the capitalist system; the proletariat has always affirmed the need to create the essential instruments of the development of its consciousness. The experience of the Russian Revolution confirms the need of the working class to acquire an overall consciousness of society as a whole and of its place within it. The role of the Bolshevik Party, its inability to solve a series of problems which proletarian practice had not yet decisively clarified, its degeneration into the counter-revolution, are all essential elements towards forging the understanding and clarity of revolutionaries participating in the process of consciousness today.
To claim to preserve the lessons of the Russian Revolution while at the same time using the substitutionism and many other serious errors of the Bolshevik Party to deny the decisive role of the Bolsheviks in that revolution is to engage in futile ‘purism’, and to fall into the emptiest bourgeois sociology. Revolutionaries do not deliver moral judgments about the past, nor do they mechanistically imitate the past; sociological ‘objectivity’ is not their instrument either. Revolutionaries theorize the experiences of the past in relation to the final goal; that is why they form revolutionary organizations to intervene in the workers’ movement, and do not form ‘discussion groups’:
“The task of theory is not to reflect immediate reality (which would imply that theory only comes after the fact and would therefore have no active role to play) but to predict the major historical tendencies which are evolving within this reality.” (Parti de Classe)
Only through the fullest understanding of the Russian Revolution and its degeneration into state capitalism and all the implications flowing from this can we develop any general perspectives about the dictatorship of the proletariat, and specifically the state, in the period of transition.
The dictatorship of the proletariat in the period of transition
The political position that the dictatorship of the proletariat must be exercised through workers’ councils, centralized on a world scale, is a fundamental tenet of the revolutionary movement today. In the past the slogan “All power to the Soviets” expressed the understanding revolutionaries had of the seizing of political power by the proletariat and the rejection of any class collaboration or compromise with the bourgeoisie.
But the dictatorship of the proletariat is not an end in itself, nor a definitive answer to all the problems raised by the transformation of the capitalist mode of production into communism. The dictatorship of the proletariat is an indispensable precondition of this transformation but it is not a panacea. The conscious action of an entire class to change outdated social relations cannot be condensed into the imposition of political power over other classes. In the last analysis, the dictatorship of the proletariat is but the transition to the abolition of all classes, to the establishment of a mode of production without classes. The historical mission of the proletariat cannot be limited to the simple political domination of society. As both a revolutionary and exploited class, the proletariat’s mission is to lead humanity to make the leap from “the reign of necessity to the reign of liberty” and to free it from all forms of exploitation. In itself the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be a guarantee of this mission; it is only an instrument in a complex process which requires the conscious intervention of the working class as a whole. After the proletariat’s seizure of power, the change from capitalism to socialism cannot be carried out by decree; it requires a long period of transition during which the proletariat will eliminate the vestiges of the old society, and integrate other classes into the productive process, in sum, begin to create a new society.
This period of transition between capitalism and communism is burdened with “the traditions of all the dead generations which weigh like a nightmare on the minds of the living” (Marx); this period will still bear the traces of capitalist society: “What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme)
This means concretely: the continued existence of social classes and class antagonisms, the subsistence of the law of value (even though it will undergo profound changes in its very nature so as to be progressively eliminated), and the existence of social intermediaries destined to disappear but necessary for the maintenance of social cohesion. Thus the proletariat will have recourse to the state, the embodiment of social coercion: “an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, whose worst sides the victorious proletariat, just like the Commune, cannot avoid having to lop off at once as much as possible until such time as a generation reared in new, free social conditions is able to throw the entire lumber of the state on the scrap heap.” (Engels, ‘Introduction’, (1891), The Civil War in France, (Marx)) The state is an evil which is necessary and unavoidable because of the continued existence of social classes.
But the existence of this state must never be a hindrance to the dictatorship of the proletariat or to the conscious transformation of society. The dictatorship of the proletariat must affirm its autonomy in relation to other classes and must stand resolutely against any dictatorship of the party and any form of substitutionism, concerning either the state and the party, the class and the state or the party and the class.
By refusing to let a minority of ‘professional’ revolutionaries exercise power in its place, the working class organized in workers’ councils affirms the fact that the dictatorship of the proletariat is the conscious activity of the working class as a whole. Although the revolutionary party continues to play a decisive role during the period of transition, it remains distinct from the councils2 and does not seek to exercise a separate power within them:
“The communist party of the future will have no other weapons than its theoretical clarity and its active commitment to the communist programme. It cannot seek power for itself but must fight within the general organs of the class for the implementation of the communist programme. It can in no way force the class as a whole to put this programme into action or implement it itself because communism can only be created by the conscious activity of the entire working class.” (‘The Proletarian Revolution’, International Review, no.1)
The problem of the state in the period of transition
When the proletariat is victorious and the revolution has spread to the entire world, a state will arise in the period of transition between capitalism and socialism. It will be a very different state to the bourgeois state (which the proletariat has destroyed during the civil war) but one which still maintains a fundamental characteristic of all states: coercion. In this context, how can we explain the apparent contradiction between the existence of a conservative social form (the state) and the need for the proletariat to proceed with a radical transformation of society? The answer is to be found in the ambiguous nature of the period of transition itself. The proletariat will have only two weapons against this ambiguity: its class consciousness and the power of its workers’ councils.
1. Destruction of the Bourgeois State
“The proletariat appears as the first revolutionary class in history which must destroy the ever-more-centralized bureaucratic and police machine which all exploiting classes have, up to now, used to crush the exploited masses. In his Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx emphasized that ‘all political revolutions have only perfected this machine instead of destroying it’. The centralized power of state goes back to the absolute monarchy; the rising bourgeoisie used it to fight against feudalism; the French Revolution rid the state of the last feudal fetters and the first Empire completed the creation of the modern state. Developed bourgeois society transformed the central power into an oppressive machine against the proletariat.” (Mitchell, ‘Problemes de la Periode de Transition’, Bilan)
The proletariat, the first revolutionary exploited class in history, cannot take over the bourgeois state but must attack it directly and destroy it completely so as to impose its class power through the workers’ councils created by the proletariat in arms.
(The class as a whole will be armed and not simply a specialized body, a ‘Red Army’.) But this process of destruction is not only directed against the elimination of the bourgeois state. The proletariat will have a second task: the gradual destruction of the state in the period of transition. This state is necessary for a certain time but nonetheless it constitutes an expression of the conservation of the status quo. The dictatorship of the proletariat does not therefore consist of taking over the bourgeois state nor of destroying it to create a ‘workers’ state’ identified with the class.
The proletarian revolution is fundamentally a political one which affirms the power of the entire, conscious, revolutionary class. But, although the seizure of power by the proletariat opens the way to the overthrow of capitalist social relations and to the beginning of communist society, this new society will not develop spontaneously or automatically from the old:
“The working class is not separated from the old bourgeois society by a wall of China. When the revolution breaks out, things do not happen as they do when a man dies and his body is simply taken away and buried. When the old society declines, its remains cannot be nailed into a coffin and put in the grave. It decomposes in our midst; it rots, and its decay affects us all. No great world revolution has happened in any other way, nor can it. That’s why we must fight to protect and develop the seeds of the new society in the midst of this atmosphere infested with the poisoned air of decaying corpses.” (Lenin.)
2. The Need for a State in the Period of Transition
As we have seen, when the proletariat takes power, social classes will not have been completely eliminated. As long as classes exist a state will arise to contain class antagonisms and prevent the society from tearing itself apart. The proletariat will not use this state to exploit other classes but to gradually integrate other sectors of the society into the productive process. The proletariat will have absolute control over the state and will use it to regulate relations with other classes and sectors of the population. Generalizing from this statement to assume that the proletariat and the state are identical is only a small step but it must not be taken. To identify the state with the proletariat is to confuse the issue and pose the problem very badly. The confusion of the class with the state in fact reveals a misunderstanding of the profoundly political nature of the proletarian revolution and of the motor force which propels it.
The period of transition is therefore completely encapsulated within this contradiction: that on the one hand the proletariat possesses political power through the armed workers’ councils; but on the other hand, other classes still exist, as does the law of value, and the proletariat remains an exploited class, a class which possesses no particularistic economic power within the society.
It is this apparent contradiction which stimulates the revolutionary dynamic towards the elimination of commodity relations, towards the socialization of production and the gradual forging of new social relations. This conscious transformation cannot be carried out unless the proletariat integrates all of society into itself. This process not only takes place outside of the state but is profoundly-antagonistic to the state in that it tends to destroy the state, to render it more and more unnecessary. The proletariat thus remains an exploited class during the period of transition and this exploitation is inversely proportional to the destruction of the state and of other social classes.
Unlike past revolutions which used a political revolution to consummate an already established economic power, the proletarian revolution and the passage from the capitalist mode of production to communist production requires an overall consciousness of the nature of the transformation. Although the bourgeois state was progressive during a certain period because it uprooted feudal relations and confirmed capitalist ones, by its very nature the state in the period of transition expresses an unavoidable conservatism. Although it does not put the dictatorship of the proletariat in question, it expresses the whole social context of the period of transition, a turning point in history when, little by little, the proletariat will destroy the capitalist corpse, the last decaying vestiges of commodity production.
3. The proletariat must remain independent of all other classes and must consciously transform all of society. The state, however, incarnates the existence of social classes. It is the concrete expression of the need for regulation and exchange between the proletariat and the remaining social classes; it concretizes the coercion necessary in this period, after the taking of power, when other classes will still exist. To some extent the state is the super-structural materialization of the existence of exploitation (linked to exchange and the social division of labour) of the proletariat during the period of transition. Even if negotiations between the proletariat and other classes will be done in the interests of the working class and under the control of the councils, the state tasks during the period of transition on the one hand, and the conscious transformation of social relations on the other, while being parts of the same overall process - the dictatorship of the proletariat - are two different things:
“The proletariat alone contains within itself the seeds of communist social relations; the proletariat alone is capable of undertaking the communist transformation. The state at best helps to guard the gains of this transformation (and at worst becomes an obstacle to it) but it cannot, as a state, undertake that transformation. It is the social movement of the whole proletariat in creative self-activity which actually ends the domination of commodity fetishism and builds up a new social relationship between human beings.” (‘The Proletarian Revolution’, International Review, no.1)
We must not confuse the instrument with the person who uses it.
4. It is essential for the development of proletarian consciousness that the state be distinct from the class because the proletariat must always act in accordance with the final communist goals of its movement. These goals are not the maintenance of exploitation and of social classes nor are they the dictatorship of the proletariat as an end in itself but rather the abolition of all classes through a conscious change in production relations. These final goals of the proletariat are in contradiction with the very function of the state and its conservative nature. As the old popular saying affirms, an enemy known as an enemy is better than too many unknown friends. In distinguishing itself clearly from the state, the proletariat becomes conscious of the existence of this useful ‘enemy’ over which it must exercise vigilant control. (Only something separate from oneself can be controlled; if it is not separate in some way, control is no longer possible.) Only a clear idea of what to destroy and what to build constitutes a guarantee that the proletariat will indeed change social relations in a conscious way.
Thus the state is a necessary social form but it must be progressively destroyed:
“We must keep in mind that the hypothesis of the withering away of the state is bound to become the touchstone of the content of proletarian revolutions. We have already indicated that the revolution breaks out in a historical milieu which obliges the proletariat to tolerate the existence of a state. But this can only be a ‘state in the process of withering away, that is, a state so constituted that it begins to wither away from the start and cannot but wither away’ (Lenin)”. (Mitchell, ‘Problemes de la Periode de Transition’, Bilan)
The apparent contradiction between the essentially dynamic character of the period of transition, (the dictatorship of the proletariat), and the need for the state, (the guardian of the status quo); the apparent contradiction between the existence of this state and the goal of the proletariat which is the destruction of this historically conservative institution and the abolition of all classes - all these ambiguities go to the heart of the nature of the period of transition and reveal the fundamentally difficult and painful character of this period as well as the immense tasks which the proletariat will have to undertake. This is the.sine qua non of the proletariat’s awareness of its class interests, and of the ever-present danger of a return to capitalism, a danger which arises because the seeds of communism will have to develop in an atmosphere infested by the poisoned air of the decaying corpse of capitalism.
1 “By way of exception, however, periods occur in which the warring classes balance each other so nearly that the state power, as ostensible mediator, acquires for the moment, a certain degree of independence for both. Such were the absolute monarchies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Bonapartism of the First and Second Empires in France, and the Bismarck regime in Germany.” (Lenin, State and Revolution, quoting Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.)
2 This is true even if the influence of revolutionaries grows enormously, even if the unity of theory and practice during this period becomes such that the proletariat considers the organization of revolutionaries as the spokesman of their goals.