The state in the period of transition from capitalism to communism (ii)

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Our response to the group Oposição Operária (Workers’ Opposition) - Brazil

We are publishing below our response to the article “Workers’ councils, proletarian state, dictatorship of the proletariat” by the group Oposição Operária (OPOP)1 in Brazil, which appeared in the International Review n° 148.2

The position developed in the article by OPOP essentially takes up the work of Lenin’s The State and Revolution, and it’s from this point of view that the group rejects a central idea of the ICC’s position. This position, while recognising the fundamental contribution of The State and Revolution to the understanding of the question of the state during the period of transition, uses the experience of the Russian revolution, reflections by Lenin himself during this period, and the fundamental writings of Marx and Engels, in order to draw lessons which lead us to call into question the identity between the state and the dictatorship of the proletariat classically accepted up to now by the marxist currents.

In its article, OPOP also develops another position of its own regarding what it calls the “pre-state”, that’s to say the organisation of the councils before the revolution called upon to overthrow the bourgeoisie and its state. We will return later to this question, because we think that the priority is first of all to make our divergences with the OPOP clear concerning the question of the state and the period of transition.

The main aspects of OPOP's thesis

So as to avoid the reader going backwards and forwards to OPOP’s article in International Review n° 148 we are going to reproduce the passages that we consider the most significant.

For the OPOP, the “paradoxical separation between the system of councils and the post-revolutionary state” “distances itself from the conception of Marx, Engels and Lenin and reflects a certain influence of the anarchist conception of the state” thus amounting to “breaking the unity that should exist and exists under the dictatorship of the proletariat”. In fact, “such a separation places, on the one hand, the state as a complex administrative structure and managed by a body of officials – a nonsense in the simplified design of the state according to Marx, Engels and Lenin – and, on the other, a political structure in which the councils exert pressure on the state as such”.

It is an error which, according to the OPOP, is explained by the following incomprehensions in relation to the Commune-State and its relations with the proletariat:

  • an accommodation to a vision influenced by anarchism that identifies the Commune-State with the bureaucratic (bourgeois) state”. This puts “the proletariat outside of the post-revolutionary state while actually creating a dichotomy that, itself, is the germ of a new caste reproducing itself in the administrative body separated organically from the workers’ councils”;

  • the identification between the state that emerged in post-revolutionary Soviet Union – a necessarily bureaucratic state – with the conception of the Commune-State of Marx, Engels and Lenin himself”;

  • the non-perception that the real simplification of the Commune-State, as described by Lenin in the words reported earlier, implies a minimum of administrative structure and that this structure is so small and in the process of simplification /extinction, that it can be assumed directly by the council system”.

Finally, according to OPOP, another factor intervenes in order to explain the erroneous lessons drawn by the ICC from the Russian revolution as to the nature of the state in the period of transition: it’s a question of our organisation not taking into account the unfavourable conditions with which the revolution was confronted: “a misunderstanding of the ambiguities that resulted from the specific historical and social circumstances that blocked not only the transition but also the beginning of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the USSR. Here, one ceases to understand that the dynamic taken by the Russian Revolution – unless you opt for the easy but very inconsistent interpretation in which deviations in the revolutionary process were the result of the policies of Stalin and his entourage – did not obey the conception of the revolution, the state and of socialism that Lenin had, but resulted from the restrictions of the social and political terrain from which the power of the USSR emerged, characterised among others, to recall, by the impossibility of the revolution in Europe, by civil war and the counter-revolution within the USSR. The resulting dynamic was foreign to the will of Lenin. He himself thought about this problem, but repeatedly came up with the ambiguous formulations present in this later thinking and just before his death.

The inevitability of a transitional period and a state's existence within it

The difference between marxists and anarchists doesn’t reside in the fact that the former conceive of communism with a state and the latter as it being a society without a state. On this point, there is total agreement: communism can only be a society without a state. It was thus rather with the pseudo-marxists of social democracy, the successors of Lassalle, that such a fundamental difference existed, given that for them the state was the motor force of the socialist transformation of society. Engels wrote against them in the following passage of Anti-Duhring: “As soon as there is no longer any social class to be held in subjection; as soon as class rule, and the individual struggle for existence based upon our present anarchy in production, with the collisions and excesses arising from these, are removed, nothing more remains to be repressed, and a special repressive force, a state, is no longer necessary. 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 — this is, at the same time, its last independent act as a state. State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies out of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The state is not ‘abolished’. It dies out. This gives the measure of the value of the phrase ‘a free people’s state’,3 both as to its justifiable use at times by agitators, and as to its ultimate scientific insufficiency and also of the demands of the so-called anarchists for the abolition of the state out of hand.4 The real debate with the anarchists is about their total misunderstanding of an inevitable period of transition and on the fact that they see history as an immediate and direct two-footed jump from capitalism into a communist society.

On this question of the necessity of the state during the period of transition, we are thus perfectly in agreement with OPOP. That’s why we are astonished that this organisation reproaches us for “distancing ourselves from the conception of Marx, Engels and Lenin by reflecting a certain influence of the anarchist conception of the state. In what way can our position appear to approach that of the anarchists, according to whom “it is possible to abolish the state out of hand”?

If we base ourselves on what Lenin wrote in The State and Revolution regarding the marxist critique of anarchism on the question of the state, it appears that this is far from confirming OPOP’s point of view: “To prevent the true meaning of his struggle against anarchism from being distorted, Marx expressly emphasised the ‘revolutionary and transient form’ of the state which the proletariat needs. The proletariat needs the state only temporarily. We do not after all differ with the anarchists on the question of the abolition of the state as the aim. We maintain that, to achieve this aim, we must temporarily make use of the instruments, resources, and methods of state power against the exploiters, just as the temporary dictatorship of the oppressed class is necessary for the abolition of classes.5 In a word, the ICC accepts this formulation as its own. It’s a question of Lenin’s qualification of the “revolutionary” transitory nature of the state. Can this difference be connected to a variant of anarchist ideas, as OPOP thinks, or on the contrary does it refer to a much more profound question of the state?

What is the real debate?

On the question of the state, our position effectively differs from that of The State and Revolution and of the Critique of the Gotha Programme according to which, during the period of transition, “the state will be nothing other than the dictatorship of the proletariat.6 This is the basis of the debate between us: why can’t there be an identity between the dictatorship of the proletariat and the state in the period of transition that arises after the revolution? This is the idea, which has struck many marxists, who have asked the question: “Where does the ICC get its position from on the state in the period of transition?” We can respond: “Not from its imagination but rather from history, from the lessons drawn by generations of revolutionaries, from the reflections and theoretical elaborations of the workers’ movement”. In particular:

  • successive improvements in the understanding of the question of the state coming from the workers’ movement up to the Russian revolution, of which Lenin’s The State and Revolution gives a masterly account;

  • taking into account all of the theoretical considerations of Marx and Engels on the question of the state which in fact contradict the idea that the state in the period of transition could constitute the bearer of the socialist transformation of society;

  • the degeneration of the Russian revolution which shows that the state constituted the main carrier of the development of the counter-revolution within the proletarian bastion;

  • within this process, certain critical positions of Lenin in 1920-21 which demonstrated that the proletariat had to be able to defend itself against the state and which, while remaining imprisoned by the limitations of the dynamic of degeneration which led to the counter-revolution, bring an essential illumination on the nature and role of the transitional state.

It’s with this approach that a work of weighing up the world revolutionary wave was made by the Communist Left in Italy.7 According to the latter, if the state subsists after the taking of power by the proletariat given that social classes still exist, the former is fundamentally an instrument of the conservation of the status quo but in no way the instrument of the transformation of relations of production towards communism. In this sense, the organisation of the proletariat as a class, through its workers’ councils, must impose its hegemony on the state but never identify with it. It must be able, if necessary, to oppose the state, as Lenin partially understood in 1920-21. It is exactly because, with the extinction of the life of the soviets (inevitable from the fact of the failure of the world revolution), the proletariat had lost this capacity for acting and imposing itself on the state that the latter was able to develop its own conservative tendencies to the point of becoming the gravedigger of the revolution in Russia at the same time as it absorbed the Bolshevik Party itself, turning it into an instrument of the counter-revolution.

The contribution of history to the understanding of the state in the period of transition

Lenin’s The State and Revolution constituted, in its time, the best synthesis of what the workers’ movement had elaborated concerning the question of the state and the exercise of power by the working class.8 In fact this work offers an excellent illustration of the way that light is thrown on the question of the state through historical experience. By basing ourselves on its content we take up here the successive clarifications of the workers’ movement on these questions:

  • The Communist Manifesto of 1848 shows the necessity for the proletariat to take political power, to constitute itself as the dominant class, and sees this power as being exercised by means of the bourgeois state which will have been conquered by the proletariat: “The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.9

  • In The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1851), the formulation was already becoming more “precise” and “concise” (according to Lenin’s own terms) than that in the Communist Manifesto. In fact, for the first time the question arises of the necessity to destroy the state: “All revolutions perfected this machine instead of breaking it. The parties, which alternately contended for domination, regarded the possession of this huge state structure as the chief spoils of the victor.10

  • Through the experience of the Paris Commune (1871), Marx saw, as did Lenin, “a real step much more important than a hundred programmes and arguments”,11 which justified, in his eyes and those of Engels, that the programme of the Communist Manifesto, becoming“ antiquated in some details”,12 is modified through a new preface. The Commune has notably demonstrated, they continued, that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.13

The 1917 revolution did not leave time for Lenin to write in The State and Revolution chapters dedicated to the contributions of 1905 and February 1917. Lenin limited himself to identifying the soviets as the natural successors of the Paris Commune. One could add that even if these two revolutions did not allow the proletariat to take political power, they did however furnish supplementary lessons in relation to the experience of the Paris Commune concerning the power of the working class: the soviets of workers’ deputies based upon assemblies held in the place of work turned out to be the most apt expression of proletarian class autonomy rather than the territorial units of the Commune.

Beyond constituting a synthesis of the best of what the workers’ movement had written on these questions, State and Revolution contained Lenin’s own developments which, in their turn, constituted advances. In effect, whereas they drew essential lessons from the Paris Commune, Marx and Engels had left an ambiguity as to the possibility that the proletariat would come to power peacefully through the electoral process in certain countries, ie. those that provided the most developed parliamentary institutions and the least important military apparatuses. Lenin wasn’t afraid to correct Marx by using the marxist method and put the question into the new historic context: “Today, in 1917, at the time of the first great imperialist war, this restriction made by Marx is no longer valid. [...]. Today, in Britain and America, too, ‘the precondition for every real people’s revolution’ is the smashing, the destruction of the ‘ready-made state machinery.’”14

Only a dogmatic vision could accommodate itself to the idea that The State and Revolution constituted the last and supreme stage in the clarification of the notion of the state in the workers’ movement. If there’s a work that’s the antithesis of such a vision it’s that of Lenin. OPOP itself is not afraid to distance itself from what Lenin literally said in The State and Revolution by pushing to its conclusion the idea of the preceding quote: “Today, the task of establishing the councils as a form of state organisation is not only situated in the perspective of a single country but at the international level and it’s here that the principal challenge is posed to the working class.15

Written in August/September 1917, at the outbreak of the October revolution, The State and Revolution very quickly served as a theoretical weapon for revolutionary action for the overthrow of the bourgeois state and the setting up of the Commune-State. The lessons drawn from the Paris Commune up to then were thus put to the test of history through events of a much more considerable weight – the Russian revolution and its degeneration.

Can lessons be learnt from the world revolutionary wave of 1917?

OPOP responds negatively to this question when it tells us that the conditions were so unfavourable that they didn’t allow the setting up of a workers’ state such as Lenin described in The State and Revolution. Thus they reproach us for identifying “the state that emerged in the post-revolutionary Soviet Union – a necessarily bureaucratic state – with the conception of the Commune-State of Marx, Engels and Lenin himself” and adds “Here, one ceases to understand that the dynamic taken by the Russian revolution […] did not obey the conception of the revolution, the state and of socialism that Lenin had, but resulted from the restrictions of the social and political terrain from which the power of the USSR emerged.

We are in agreement with OPOP in saying that the first lesson to be drawn from the degeneration of the Russian revolution concerns the effects of the international isolation of the proletarian bastion following the defeat of other revolutionary attempts in Europe; Germany in particular. In fact, not only can there be no transformation of relations of production towards socialism in a single country, but furthermore it is not possible that a proletarian power can maintain itself indefinitely in a capitalist world. But are there other lessons of great importance that can be drawn from this experience?

Yes, of course! And OPOP recognises one of them amongst others, although this explicitly contradicts the following passage in The State and Revolution in relation to the first phase of communism: “the exploitation of man by man will have become impossible because it will be impossible to seize the means of production - the factories, machines, land, etc.- and make them private property16. In fact what the Russian revolution and above all the Stalinist counter-revolution shows is that the simple transformation of the productive apparatus into state property doesn’t suppress the exploitation of man by man.

In fact, the Russian revolution and its degeneration constitute historic events of such significance that one cannot fail to draw lessons from them. For the first time in history the proletariat of a country took political power as the most advanced expression of a world revolutionary wave, with the appearance of a state that was called proletarian! And then something happened that was equally unknown in the workers’ movement; the defeat of a revolution, not clearly and openly beaten down by the savage repression of the bourgeoisie as was the case of the Paris Commune, but as the consequence of a process of internal degeneration which took on the hideous face of Stalinism.

In the weeks following the October insurrection, the Commune-State is already something other than the “armed workers” described in The State and Revolution.17 Above all, with the growing isolation of the revolution, the new state was more and more infested with the gangrene of the bureaucracy, responding less and less to the organs elected by the proletariat and the poor peasants. Far from beginning to wither away, the new state was about to invade the whole of society. Far from bending to the will of the revolutionary class, it became the central point of a process of degeneration and internal counter-revolution. At the same time, the soviets were emptied of their life. The workers’ soviets were transformed into appendages of the unions in the management of production. Thus the force that made the revolution, and needed to maintain its control over it, lost its political and organised autonomy. The carrier of the counter-revolution was nothing more or less than the state and, the more that the revolution encountered difficulties, the more the power of the working class became weakened and the more the Commune-State manifested its non-proletarian nature, its conservative – even reactionary – side. We will explain this characterisation.

From Marx and Engels to the Russian experience: convergence towards the same characterisation of the state in the period of transition

It would be an error to definitively stop at the formulation of Marx in The Critique of the Gotha Programme concerning the characterisation of the state in the period of transition, identified as the dictatorship of the proletariat. In fact other characterisations of the state were made by Marx and Engels themselves, later by Lenin and then by the Communist Left, which fundamentally contradict the formulae Commune-State=dictatorship of the proletariat, in order to converge towards an idea of a state conservative by nature, including here the Commune-State in the period of transition.

The transitional state is the emanation of society and not of the proletariat

How does one explain the appearance of the state? In this regard Engels left no ambiguity: “The state is therefore by no means a power imposed on society from without; just as little is it ‘the reality of the moral idea,’ ‘the image and the reality of reason,’ as Hegel maintains.18 Rather, it is a product of society at a particular stage of development; it is the admission that this society has involved itself in insoluble self-contradiction and is cleft into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to exorcise. But in order that these antagonisms, classes with conflicting economic interests, shall not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, a power, apparently standing above society, has become necessary to moderate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’; and this power, arisen out of society, but placing itself above it and increasingly alienating itself from it, is the state”.19 Lenin took this passage of Engels into account, quoting it in The State and Revolution. Despite all the arrangements put in place by the proletariat for the transitional Commune-State, the latter had in common with the states of all previous past societies the fact of being a conservative organ at the service of the maintenance of the dominant order, that is to say, of the economically dominant classes. This has implications at both the theoretical and practical levels concerning the following questions: Who exercises power during the society of transition, the state or the proletariat organised in workers’ councils? Which is the economically dominant class of the society of transition? What is the motor force for the social transformation of society and of the dying out of the state?

The state cannot by nature express the sole interests of the proletariat

Where the political power of the bourgeoisie has been overturned, relations of production remain capitalist relations even if the bourgeoisie is no longer there to appropriate the surplus value produced by the working class. The point of departure of a communist transformation is based upon the military defeat of the bourgeoisie in a sufficient number of decisive countries to give a political advantage to the working class at a global level. This is the period during which the bases of a new mode of production slowly develop to the detriment of the old, up to the point where they supplant it and constitute the new mode of production.

After the revolution and as long as the world human community has not yet been realised, ie. as long as the immense majority of the world population has not been integrated into free and associated production, the proletariat remains an exploited class. Thus, contrary to revolutionary classes of the past, the proletariat is not destined to become the economically dominant class. For this reason, even if the established order after the revolution is no longer that of the economic and political dominance of the bourgeoisie, the state, which rises up during this period as the guarantor of the new economic order, cannot intrinsically be at the service of the proletariat. On the contrary, it is up to the latter to constrain it in the direction of its own class interests.

The role of the transitional state: the integration of the non-exploited population into the management of society and the struggle against the bourgeoisie

In The State and Revolution, Lenin himself said that the proletariat needed the state to suppress the resistance of the bourgeoisie, but also to lead the non-exploited population in the socialist direction: “The proletariat needs state power, a centralised organisation of force, an organisation of violence, both to crush the resistance of the exploiters and to lead the enormous mass of the population — the peasants, the petty bourgeoisie, and semi-proletarians — in the work of organising a socialist economy.20

We support Lenin’s point of view here, according to which, in order to overthrow the bourgeoisie, the proletariat must be able to bring behind it the immense majority of the poor and the oppressed, among which it can itself be a minority. Any alternative to such a policy doesn’t exist. How was this concretised in the Russian revolution? Two types of soviets emerged: on the one hand, soviets based essentially on the centres of production and regrouping the working class, called workers’ councils; on the other, soviets based on territorial units (territorial soviets) in which all the layers of the non-exploited actively participated in the local management of that society. The workers’ councils organised the whole of the working class, that is to say, the revolutionary class. The territorial soviets,21 meanwhile, based on revocable delegates, were intended to be part of the Commune-State,22 the latter having the function of managing society as a whole. In the revolutionary period, all of the non-exploited layers, while being for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and against the restoration of its domination, have not necessarily accepted the idea of the socialist transformation of society. They could even be hostile to it. In fact, within these layers, the proletariat can be in a small minority. That’s the reason why, in Russia, measures were taken in the means of electing delegates so that the weight of the working class within the Commune-State could be strengthened: 1 delegate for 125,000 peasants, 1 delegate for 25,000 workers of the towns. But this did not take away the necessity to mobilise the largely peasant population against the bourgeoisie and to integrate it into the process of the running of society, giving birth, in Russia, to a state which was made up not only of delegates of workers’ soviets, but also delegates of soldiers and poor peasants.

Marxism warns of the danger from the state during the period of transition

In his 1891 introduction to The Civil War in France, and written on the twentieth anniversary of the Paris Commune, Engels wasn’t afraid to put forward common traits of all states, whether classical bourgeois states or the Commune-State of the period of transition: “In reality, however, the state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and indeed in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy; and at best an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, whose worst sides the proletariat, just like the Commune, cannot avoid having to lop off at the earliest possible moment, until such time as a new generation, reared in new and free social conditions, will be able to throw the entire lumber of the state on the scrap-heap.23 Considering the state as “an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy24 is an idea perfectly logical with the notion that the state is an emanation of society and not of the revolutionary proletariat. And this has heavy implications regarding the necessary relations between the state and the revolutionary class. Even if these were not able to be completely clarified before the Russian revolution, Lenin was inspired by it in his strong insistence, in The State and Revolution, on the need for the workers to submit all the members of the state to constant supervision and control, particularly the elements of the state which most evidently embodied a certain continuity with the old regime, such as technical and military “experts” that the soviets will be forced to use.

Lenin also elaborated a theoretical basis for this necessity for a healthy distrust of the proletariat towards the new state. In the chapter entitled “The economic bases of the extinction of the state”, he explained that given its role of looking after the situation of “bourgeois right”, in certain regards one could define the transitional state as the bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie”!25 Even if this formulation is more of a call for reflection than a clear definition of the class nature of the transitional state, Lenin hit on the essential: since the task of the state is to protect a state of things which are not yet communist, the Commune-State reveals its fundamentally conservative nature and that is what makes it particularly vulnerable to a counter-revolutionary dynamic.

Lenin in 1920-21: the workers must be able to defend themselves against the state

These theoretical perceptions certainly made it possible for Lenin to demonstrate a certain lucidity about the nature of the state in Russia in the debate on the unions,26 where he particularly opposed Trotsky, then a partisan of the militarisation of labour and for whom the proletariat should identify itself with “the proletarian state” and even subordinate itself to it. Although he himself was caught up by the process of the degeneration of the revolution, Lenin was then arguing in favour of the necessity for the workers to maintain organs defending their interests,27 even against the transitional state, at the same time as he repeated his warnings about the growth of state bureaucracy. At a speech to communist delegates in a meeting at the end of 1920, Lenin posed the question in the following terms:

“[...], Comrade Trotsky [...] seems to say that in a workers’ state it is not the business of the trade unions to stand up for the material and spiritual interests of the working class. That is a mistake. Comrade Trotsky speaks of a ‘workers’ state’. May I say that this is an abstraction. It was natural for us to write about a workers’ state in 1917; but it is now a patent error to say: ‘Since this is a workers’ state without any bourgeoisie, against whom then is the working class to be protected, and for what purpose?’ The whole point is that it is not quite a workers’ state. That is where Comrade Trotsky makes one of his main mistakes. We have got down from general principles to practical discussion and decrees, and here we are being dragged back and prevented from tackling the business at hand. This will not do. For one thing, ours is not actually a workers’ state but a workers’ and peasants’ state. And a lot depends on that. (Bukharin: ‘What kind of state? A workers’ and peasants’ state?’) Comrade Bukharin back there may well shout ‘What kind of state? A workers’ and peasants’ state?’ I shall not stop to answer him. Anyone who has a mind to should recall the recent Congress of Soviets, and that will be answer enough.

But that is not all. Our Party Programme – a document which the author of the ABC of Communism knows very well – shows that ours is a workers’ state with a bureaucratic twist to it. We have had to mark it with this dismal, shall I say, tag. There you have the reality of the transition. Well, is it right to say that in a state that has taken this shape in practice the trade unions have nothing to protect, or that we can do without them in protecting the material and spiritual interests of the massively organised proletariat? No, this reasoning is theoretically quite wrong […] We now have a state under which it is the business of the massively organised proletariat to protect itself, while we, for our part, must use these workers’ organisations to protect the workers from their state, and to get them to protect our state.”28

We consider this reflection luminous and of the greatest importance. Himself caught up in the dynamic of the counter-revolution, Lenin, unfortunately wasn’t up to carrying on with the deepening that he made (on the contrary he went back on his characterisation of the state as a ‘workers’ and peasants’ state’). Moreover this intervention didn’t even give rise (above all from Lenin himself) to reflection or common work with the Workers’ Opposition led by Kollontai and Shliapnikov, which expressed at the time a proletarian reaction both against the bureaucratic theorisations of Trotsky and against the real bureaucratic distortions which were eating away at proletarian power. Nevertheless, this precious reflection has not been lost to the proletariat. If fact as we previously noted, it constituted the point of departure for a more profound reflection on the nature of the state of the period of transition led by the Communist Left of Italy, which was later transmitted to following generations of revolutionaries.

The proletariat and not the state is the force of revolutionary social transformation

One of the fundamental ideas of Marxism is that the class struggle constitutes the motor of history. It is not by chance that this idea is expressed in the first phrase, just after the preamble, of the Communist Manifesto: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles29). It is not the state which can play this role of motor when its historical function is precisely “to moderate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’”.30 This characterisation of the state in class societies still applies to the society of transition where it is the working class, which remains the revolutionary force. Already, regarding the Paris Commune, Marx had clearly distinguished the revolutionary force of the proletariat on one hand, and the Commune-State on the other: “the Commune is not the social movement of the working class and therefore of a general regeneration of mankind, but the organised means of action. The Commune does not [do] away with the class struggles, through which the working classes strive to [read for] the abolition of all classes and, therefore, of all classes [class rule] [...] but it affords the rational medium in which that class struggle can run through its different phases in the most rational and humane way.31

The characterisation of the proletariat after the revolution as both the dominant political class and one still exploited on the economic level means that, both on the economic and political levels, the Commune-State and the dictatorship of the proletariat are essentially antagonistic:

  • as an exploited class the proletariat must defend its “material and spiritual interests” (as Lenin said) against the economic logic of the Commune-State representing society as a whole at a given moment;

  • it is as a revolutionary class that the proletariat must defend its political and practical orientations with the aim of transforming society against the social conservatism of the state and its tendency to self-preservation as an organ which, according to Engels “places itself above (society) and becomes more and more alien to it.32

So as to be able to assume its historic mission of transforming society in order to finish with all economic domination of one class or another, the working class must assume its political domination over the whole of society through the international power of the workers’ councils, the monopoly on the control of arms and the fact that it is the sole class of society that is permanently armed. Its political domination is also exercised over the state. The workers’ class power is moreover inseparable from the effective and unlimited participation of the immense mass of the class, from their activity and organisation, and it finishes when their political power becomes superfluous, when classes have disappeared.


We hope that we have responded to the criticisms of the OPOP on our position on the state in the most well argued way possible. We are quite conscious of not having responded specifically to a certain number of concrete and explicit objections (for example, “the organisational and administrative tasks that the revolution puts on the agenda from the beginning are essentially political tasks, whose implementation must be carried out directly by the victorious proletariat”). If we haven’t done so at this time it’s because it seemed a priority for us to present the greater historical and theoretical lines of our framework of analysis and because, very often, this constitutes an implicit response to the objections of OPOP. If necessary, we will return to them in a further article.

Finally, we essentially think that this question of the state in the period of transition is not the only one whose theoretical and practical clarification has been advanced considerably by the experience of the Russian revolution; it’s the same for the role and place of the proletarian party. Is its role to exercise power? Is its place within the state in the name of the working class? No for us, these remain errors that contributed to the degeneration of the Bolshevik Party. We also hope to be able to return to this question in another debate with the OPOP.

Sylvio (9/8/2012)

1. OPOP, Oposição Operária (Workers Opposition) is a group in Brazil. See its publication on For a number of years now the ICC has maintained a fraternal and co-operative relationship which has taken the form of systematic discussions between our two organisations, joint leaflets and declarations ( or shared public interventions (‘Deux réunions publiques communes au Brésil, OPOP-CCI: à propos des luttes des futures générations de prolétaires’, and reciprocal participation in each other’s congresses.

2. “Debate: the state in the period of transition from capitalism to communism”, International Review n° 148,

3. Note in the cited passage from Anti-Dühring: “The free people’s state, a demand inspired by Lasalle and adopted at the unification congress at Gotha, was subjected to a fundamental critique by Marx in the Critique of the Gotha Programme.”

4. Engels, Anti-Dühring. “Third Part: Socialism, Chapter II: Theoretical”,

5. Lenin, The State and Revolution, “Chapter IV, Supplementary Explanations by Engels, 2. Controversy with the anarchists.”

6. Marx. Critique of the Gotha Programme, Part IV,

7. Italian communist left. Just as the development of opportunism in the Second International gave rise to a proletarian response in the shape of left wing currents, the mounting opportunism of the Third International was to meet with resistance from the communist left. The communist left was essentially an international current with expressions in a number of countries, from Bulgaria to Britain and from the USA to South Africa. But its most important representatives were found precisely in those countries where the marxist tradition was strongest: Germany, Italy and Russia. In Italy, the communist left – which at the beginning held a majority in the Communist Party of Italy – had a particularly clear position on the question of organisation. This enabled it not only to wage a courageous battle against the opportunism of the degenerating International, but also to give birth to a left fraction which was able to survive the shipwreck of the revolutionary movement and develop marxist theory during the sombre years of the counter-revolution. At the beginning of the 1920s its arguments for abstentionism from bourgeois parliaments, against the fusion of the communist vanguard with the big centrist parties to create the illusion of ‘mass influence’, against the slogans of the United Front and the Workers’ Government were already founded on a profound assimilation of the marxist method. For more information see “The communist left and the continuity of Marxism”,

8. See our article “The State and Revolution, a striking validation of Marxism”, part of the series “Communism is not just a nice idea, it’s on the agenda of history”, International Review n° 91. Many of the themes looked at here in our reply to OPOP are developed at greater length in this article.

9. The Communist Manifesto, “II, Proletarians and Communists”,

10. The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Chapter VII,

11. The State and Revolution, Chapter III: “The experience of the Paris Commune. What made the Communards’ attempt heroic?” In fact, the expression used here by Lenin is adapted from the words of Marx in a letter to Bracke on 5 May 1875 regarding the Gotha Programme: “A single step of the real movement is worth more than a dozen programmes” (“Marx to Bracke”,

12. Preface to the 1872 German edition of the Communist Manifesto,

13. Ibid.

14. The State and Revolution, III, ibid.

15. Cf. “Debate: the state in the period of transition from capitalism to communism” International Review n° 148,

16. The State and Revolution, Chapter V, 3, “The first phase of communist society: The economic basis of the withering away of the state”.

17. This expression is taken from the following passage: “Once we have overthrown the capitalists, crushed the resistance of these exploiters with the iron hand of the armed workers, and smashed the bureaucratic machinery of the modern state, we shall have a splendidly-equipped mechanism, freed from the “parasite”, a mechanism which can very well be set going by the united workers themselves, who will hire technicians, foremen and accountants, and pay them all, as indeed all ‘state’ officials in general, workmen's wages. Here is a concrete, practical task which can immediately be fulfilled in relation to all trusts, a task whose fulfilment will rid the working people of exploitation, a task which takes account of what the Commune had already begun to practice (particularly in building up the state)The State and Revolution, Chapter III, “The experience of the Paris Commune of 1871. Marx’s analysis, 3. Abolition of parliamentarism”.

18. The note is in the cited passage from The Origin of the Family and is from Hegel, Principles of the Philosophy of Law, Sections 257 and 360.

19. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Chapter IX, “Barbarism and Civilisation”,

20. The State and Revolution, Chapter II, “The experience of the years 1848-1851”.

21. Also participating in this State, in ever-increasing numbers, were experts, leaders of the Red Army, Cheka, etc.

22. In our series of five articles in the International Review, “What are workers’ councils?”, we showed the sociological and political differences between workers’ councils and territorial soviets. The workers’ councils are factory councils. Alongside these are also found neighbourhood councils, the latter integrating workers from small enterprises and shops, the unemployed, the young, pensioners, families who are part of the working class as a whole. The factory and neighbourhood councils (workers) played a decisive role at different moments in the revolutionary process (see the articles in IR n°s 141, 142). It was no accident that, with the process of the degeneration of the revolution, the factory councils disappeared at the end of 1918 and the neighbourhood councils at the end of 1919. The trade unions played a decisive role in the destruction of the former (see the article in International Review n° 145).

23. Engels, 1891 Introduction to The Civil War in France,

24. Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.

25. The context for this expression from Lenin’s text is the following: “In its first phase, or first stage, communism cannot as yet be fully mature economically and entirely free from traditions or vestiges of capitalism. Hence the interesting phenomenon that communism in its first phase retains ‘the narrow horizon of bourgeois law’. Of course, bourgeois law in regard to the distribution of consumer goods inevitably presupposes the existence of the bourgeois state, for law is nothing without an apparatus capable of enforcing the observance of the rules of law. It follows that under communism there remains for a time not only bourgeois law, but even the bourgeois state, without the bourgeoisie!, The State and Revolution, Chapter 5, “The higher phase of communist society”.

26. See in particular our article “Understanding the defeat of the Russian revolution” in the series “Communism is not just a nice idea, it’s on the agenda of history” in International Review n° 99,

27. These are unions which at the time were seen by all concerned as authentic defenders of the interests of the proletariat. This is explained by the backward conditions in Russia, where the bourgeoisie had not developed a sophisticated state apparatus capable of recognising the value of trade unions as instruments of social peace. For this reason not all the unions formed before and even after the 1917 revolution were necessarily organs of the class enemy. There was in particular a strong tendency to form industrial unions which still expressed a certain proletarian content.

28. 30 December 1920. “The trade unions, the present situation and Trotsky’s mistakes”,

29. The Communist Manifesto, “I. Bourgeois and Proletarians”,

30. Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”.

31. The first draft of The Civil War in France,

32. Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.