Communism Vol. 3, Part 4 - The 1930s: debate on the period of transition

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Having summarised the first two volumes in this series, we can now return to the chronological thread. In the course of the second volume we already touched on the phase of counter-revolution, particularly the efforts of revolutionaries to understand the class nature of Stalinist Russia in the 1920s and 30s. In the article "The Russian enigma and the Italian communist left" in International Review nº106 (as in our pamphlet The Italian Communist Left) we argued that it was the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left, around the review Bilan (Balance Sheet) which best understood the tasks of the revolutionary minority in a phase of defeat, and which developed the most fruitful method for understanding how the revolution had been lost. And now that our principal focus is the way that revolutionaries discussed the problems of the period of transition during the depth of the counter-revolution, our starting point is again the Italian Fraction.

1934: the series "Parti-Etat-Internationale"

Bilan began publication in 1933 – a year which, for the Italian left in exile, brought confirmation that the counter-revolution had triumphed and the course was open to a second imperialist war. Hitler had come to power in Germany with the connivance of the democratic state, in a context in which the Communist International had proved its total inability to defend the class interests of the proletariat. 1934 added further proof of Bilan’s diagnosis of the period: the crushing of the Vienna workers, the French CP’s endorsement of the rearmament of France, and the USSR’s acceptance into the “den of thieves” at the League of Nations.

It was in this bleak atmosphere that Bilan set about undertaking one of the main tasks of the hour: to understand how the Soviet state had in less than two decades been transformed from an instrument of the world revolution into a central bastion of the counter-revolution; and at the same time to begin a discussion within the workers’ movement about the lessons of this experience for the revolution of the future. As with all the theoretical journeys of the Italian Fraction, this task was approached with the utmost prudence and seriousness. The questions at issue were broached in particular in a long series by Vercesi,[1] "Parti-Etat-Internationale" (PEI), which was to run into a dozen articles over the next three years. Rather than being fixated on the immediate situation and looking for immediate answers, the aim of the series was to place the question in the broadest possible historical context, and to integrate into its premises the most important and relevant contributions from the past workers’ movement. The initial articles in the series thus review the classic marxist doctrine of the nature of social classes and their political instruments; the rise of the state in earlier epochs of human history; and the relationship between the International and its component parties; similarly, in order to investigate the evolution of the Soviet state it also looked into the essential features of the democratic state and the fascist state.

Equally typical of Bilan’s approach was the insistence on the need for a debate within the workers’ movement about the problems it was investigating. It did not claim to be providing definitive answers to these problems and understood that the contribution of other currents situating themselves on a proletarian terrain would be a vital element in the process of clarification. The last paragraph of the entire series expressed this hope with characteristic modesty and seriousness:

“We have arrived at the end of our effort with a full awareness of our inferiority in the face of the scale of the problem before us. We nevertheless dare to say that there is a firm coherence between all the theoretical and political considerations which we have traced in the different chapters. Perhaps this coherence will represent a favourable condition for the establishment of an international polemic which, taking our study as a point of departure, or studies by other communist currents, will finally arrive at provoking an exchange of views, a closely-argued polemic, an attempt to elaborate the programme of the dictatorship of the proletariat of tomorrow. Such an effort will of course not be able to equal the gigantic sacrifices which the proletariat of all countries has made, nor can it be compared to the grandiose tasks of the working class in the future; but still, it would represent a step in this direction. A necessary step which, if we don’t make it, would make us pay heavily tomorrow, since it would render us incapable of providing the workers with a revolutionary theory that will arm them for victory over the enemy” (Bilan nº 26, p879).

This approach – in such radical contrast to the attitude of being "alone in the world" displayed by most of the direct descendants of the Italian left today – was concretised in a public exchange of views between the Italian left on the one hand and the Dutch left on the other. This largely took place through the intermediary of A Hennaut of the Belgian group Ligue des Communistes Internationalistes. In Bilan nº 19,20, 21 and 22, Hennaut wrote a summary of the Dutch left’s most important contribution to the problem of the communist transformation of society: The Basic Principles of Communist Production and Distribution, by Jan Appel and Henk Canne-Meier. We will return to this aspect of the debate in another article. Hennaut also wrote a critique of Vercesi’s series, in particular the chapters on the Soviet state, in Bilan nº 33 and 34. Vercesi in turn replied to this critique in Bilan nº 35. Furthermore, the series of articles by Mitchell, "Problems of the Period of Transition", in Bilan nº 28,31,35,37 and 38 was also in large part a polemic with the views of those whom Bilan referred to as “the Dutch internationalists”. 

We will shortly be re-publishing Mitchell’s articles (and translating them for the first time into English and other languages). For the moment we lack the resources to re-publish Vercesi’s series and the contributions by Hennaut. But we think that it is certainly worthwhile in this present article to review the principal arguments about the lessons of the Russian experience developed in the Parti-Etat-Internationale series, while in a future article we will return to Hennaut’s critique and Vercesi’s response to it.

The "proletarian state" turns against the proletariat

For Bilan, the key issue was to explain how an organ which had arisen out of an authentic proletarian revolution, which had been constructed to defend that revolution and thus to serve as an instrument of the world proletariat, had come to act as a focal point of the counter-revolution. This was true both in Russia, where the "Soviet" state oversaw the ferocious exploitation of the proletariat through a bloated bureaucratic machinery, and internationally, where it was actively sabotaging the international interests of the working class in favour of the national interests of Russia. This was the case, for example, in China where, through its domination of the Comintern, the Russian state encouraged the Chinese CP to deliver the insurrectionary workers of Shanghai over to the Kuomintang executioners. It was equally the case within the Communist parties, where the GPU had succeeded in silencing or driving out all those who expressed the least criticism of Moscow’s line, and above all those who remained loyal to the internationalist principles of October 1917.

In approaching this question, Bilan was anxious to avoid what it saw as symmetrical errors within the proletarian camp of the day: that of the Trotskyists, who in their zeal to hold on to the tradition of October, refused to put into question the notion of defending the USSR despite its counter-revolutionary role on a world scale; and that of the German/Dutch left, which had come to characterise the USSR as a bourgeois state  - which by the 1930s was certainly correct - but in doing so had also tended to deny the proletarian character of the October revolution.

For Bilan it was of the utmost importance to define October 1917 as a proletarian revolution. This problem, they insisted, could only be posed from a global and historical starting point. The question was not whether this or that country taken on its own was "ripe" for socialist revolution, but whether capitalism as a world system had entered into fundamental, irreversible conflict with the productive forces it had set in motion: in sum, whether or not world capitalism had entered its epoch of decline. Mitchell’s series of articles was to pose this problem with particular clarity, but the basic approach can already be found in Vercesi’s PEI, in particular in Bilan nº 19 and 21 where Vercesi attacks the Stalinist notion that socialism was possible in Russia because of the "law of uneven development": in other words, that Russia could be socialist "on its own" precisely because it was already a semi-autarchic, peasant economy. But at the same time the series rejected the arguments of the Dutch/German left communists, who, echoing the old Menshevik arguments, even if with a different intent, used the same premises to argue that Russia was far too backward to have proceded towards the real socialisation of the economy. Thus the revolution failed because, as Hennaut argued in "Nature and Evolution of the Russian Revolution", Russia was simply not developed enough for socialism. In Hennaut’s terms, “the revolution was made by the proletariat, but it was not a proletarian revolution” (Bilan nº 34, p1124).

 For Bilan, by contrast, "uneven development" was simply an aspect of the way the capitalist world economy had evolved. It did not alter the fact that no country taken on its own could be considered ripe for socialism because socialism could only be built on a world scale once world capital had reached a certain degree of ripeness.

As Bilan was arguing in other articles written during this period, once capitalism is treated as a global unity, it becomes evident that the system cannot be progressive in some parts and decadent in others. Capitalism had been a step forward for mankind at a certain stage; but once that stage had been left behind, it became universally senile. World War One and the October revolution had demonstrated this in practice. This led Bilan to reject any support for national liberation struggles or "bourgeois" revolutions in the least developed regions. For the Fraction, the events in China 1927 provided decisive proof that the bourgeoisie everywhere was a counter-revolutionary force. For the same reasons, and in opposition to the theses of the German/Dutch left, Bilan argued that the October revolution could not have a bourgeois or a dual character. It could only be the starting point for the world proletarian revolution. 

Having laid out this fundamental starting point, the central problem was then this:  how and why did the Soviet state, an instrument that had originally been in the hands of a genuine revolution by the proletariat, escape its control and turn against it? And in responding to this question, the Italian left developed a number of vital insights into the nature and function of the transitional state. 

Here the series PEI went deep into history and to Engels’ work in particular to remind us that for marxism, the state is a “scourge” inherited from class society. Throughout the series, we are told that the state, even the "proletarian" state that arises after the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, contains the inherent danger of becoming the focal point for the forces of conservation and even counter-revolution.

From the theoretical point of view, the new instrument which the proletariat possesses after its revolutionary victory, the proletarian state, differs profoundly from workers’ organs of resistance such as the unions, friendly societies and cooperatives, and from its political organism: the class party. But this difference operates not because the state possesses organic factors which are superior to those of the other organs, but on the contrary because the state, despite its appearance of much greater material strength, possesses much less possibilities for action from the political point of view; it is a thousand times more vulnerable to the enemy than the other workers’ organs. The fact is that the state draws its greater material power from objective factors which correspond perfectly to the interests of exploiting classes but which can have no relationship with the revolutionary function of the proletariat, which will have provisional recourse to the dictatorship and will use it to accentuate the process of the withering away of the state through an expansion of production which will make it possible to extirpate the very roots of class divisions” (Bilan nº 18, p 612).

Or again: “While it is true that the trade unions, from their foundation, threatened to become the instruments of opportunist currents, this is all the more true for the state, whose very nature is to hold back the interests of the working masses in order to safeguard a regime of class exploitation; or, after the victory of the proletariat, to threaten to give rise to social stratifications which are ever more opposed to the liberating mission of the proletariat…Considering – following Engels – the state as a scourge which the proletariat inherits, we retain an almost instinctive distrust towards it” (Bilan nº 26, pp 873-4).

This was certainly one of Bilan’s most important contributions to marxist theory. It represented a step forward from the text which had, hitherto, stood as the best synthesis and elaboration of marxist theory on this question, Lenin’s State and Revolution, written in the heat of the revolution in 1917.[2] The latter had been absolutely indispensable in reaffirming the marxist doctrine of the state against the social democratic distortions that had come to dominate the workers’ movement by the beginning of the 20th century, in particular reminding the proletariat that Marx and Engels had stood for the destruction of the bourgeois state, not its capture, and its replacement with a new form of state, the "Commune state". But Bilan had at its disposal the experience of the defeat of the Russian revolution, which had emphasised how even the Commune state contained fundamental weaknesses which the revolutionary class would ignore at its peril. Above all, Bilan warned against the working class merging its own class organs – whether the party, or the unitary organs which regroup the class as a whole – into the state machine.

Party and state

In the concluding article in the series, Vercesi notes that in the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin on the post-revolutionary state, the relationship between party and state is not dealt with at all; the working class had thus been thrown into a revolution without this fundamental issue having been previously clarified by direct experience:

  Dictatorship of the state: this is how we can sum up the way the problem of the dictatorship of the proletariat was really posed at the time of the victory of the Russian revolution. It is undeniable that the central thesis coming out of the Russian revolution, taken as a whole, was that of the dictatorship of the workers’ state. The problem of the function of the party was basically falsified by the fact that its intimate liaison with the state led step by step to a radical inversion of roles, with the party becoming a cog of the state machine, which provided it with the repressive organs that allowed the triumph of Centrism. The confusion between these two notions, party and state, was all the more prejudicial in that there is no possibility of reconciling these two organs, that there is an irreconcilable opposition between the nature, function and objectives of the state and those of the party. The adjective proletarian doesn’t change the nature of the state which remains an organ of economic and political constraint, whereas the party is the organ whose role par excellence is to arrive at the emancipation of the workers not through constraint but through political education” (Bilan nº 26, p 871-2).

The article goes on to argue that the working class would not seize power in ideal conditions, but in a situation where its majority still very much remained the prey of the dominant ideology; hence the role of the communist party would be as fundamental as ever after the political overthrow of the ruling class. These same conditions would also engender a state machine, but while the “workers have a primordial interest in the existence and development of the class party”, the state remained an instrument which was “not all in conformity with the pursuit and realisation of its historic goals”.

 Another aspect of this fundamental contrast between party and state is that while the state in a proletarian bastion tends to identify with the national interests of the existing economy, the party is organically linked to the international needs of the working class. And although the PEI series, as the title suggests, does make a distinction between the International and its component national parties, the whole dynamic of the Italian left since Bordiga had been to see the party as a unified world party from the beginning. Their solution to the tendency for the national state to impose its narrow interests on the party - which had led to the very rapid degeneration of the CI into an instrument of Russian national interests - was to confer control of the state on the International rather than on the national party which happened to be present in the country where the workers had taken power.

However, this way of thinking, although motivated by a thorough-going internationalism, was wrongly conceived and was connected to a major flaw in Bilan’s position. The Fraction warned against any fusion between the party and the state; it rejected the identity between the dictatorship of the proletariat and the transitional state. But it still defended the notion of the “dictatorship of the communist party”, even if the definitions it offered remain somewhat obscure: “the dictatorship of the party  signifies, for us, that after the foundation of the state, the proletariat needs to set up a bastion (which will complement the one set up at the economic level) through which the whole ideological and political movement of the new proletarian society will take place” (Bilan nº 25, p843); “the dictatorship of the communist party can only mean the clear affirmation of an effort, a historic attempt which the party of the working class will make” (Bilan nº26, p874).

The notion of the dictatorship of the party was in part based on Bilan’s very correct critique of the concept of democracy, which we will return to at greater length in another article. Following Bordiga’s line of thought in his 1922 essay "The democratic principle", Bilan clearly understood that the revolution could not be a formally democratic process, and that very often it was the initiative of a minority which drew the majority into combat against the capitalist state. It was equally true, as Vercesi forcefully argues in PEI, (cf Bilan nº 26, pp875-877) that the working class had to make the revolution as it is and not in some ideal state. This meant that the true participation of the masses in the exercise of power was something the masses themselves would have to learn through experience. 

But Bilan’s polemics on this point were far from clear. Correctly criticising Rosa Luxemburg for arguing that the Bolsheviks should not have called for the suppression of the Constituent Assembly, Vercesi appears to draw the conclusion that the use of the elective principle is by definition an expression of bourgeois parliamentarism, drawing no clear distinction between bourgeois representation and the soviet method of elected and revocable delegates, which is different not only in form but also in content.  The party should thus “proclaim its candidature to represent the whole of the working class in the complicated course of its evolution in order to work towards – under the direction of the International – the final goal of the world revolution” (Bilan nº 26, p874). But this notion was surely in complete contrast to the Fraction’s insistence that the party had to avoid being caught up in the state machinery; that it could not impose itself on the proletariat and certainly could not use violence against the workers: “The dictatorship of the party cannot become, through some kind of logical schema, the imposition on the working class of solutions decreed by the party; above all it cannot mean that the party can rely on the repressive organs of the state to extinguish all discordant voices” (ibid). No less contradictory was Bilan’s idea that there could only be one party, because at the same time it was a convinced advocate of the freedom of fractions to operate within the party. This necessarily implied the possibility of more than one separate group acting on a proletarian terrain during the revolution, regardless of whether such groups called themselves parties.

The fact is that Bilan was already aware of the contradictions of its position, but tended to see these as simply reflecting the contradictory nature of the transition period itself: “The very idea of the transition period does not make it possible to arrive at totally finished notions and we have to admit that the contradictions exist at the very bases of the experience that the proletariat is going to go through, reflected in the constitution of the workers’ state” (Bilan nº 26, p875). This is not wrong in itself, since to a large extent the problems of the transition period remain open, unresolved questions for the revolutionary movement. But the question of the party dictatorship is not one of these open questions. The Russian revolution has demonstrated that it cannot be a reality unless the party resorts to the very things that Bilan warns against: the use of the state machine against the proletariat, and the fusion of the party with the state machine, which is injurious not only to the unitary organ of the class but to the party itself.  Nevertheless, it is clear that this process of reflection by Bilan, for all its limitations, certainly marked an important advance from the position of the Bolsheviks and the CI, which, certainly after 1920, tended to deny that there was a problem in the party fusing with the "workers state" (despite important insights from Lenin and others). The argument that the needs of the state and the needs of the party were antagonistic provided the essential breakthrough; it established the premises for further clarifications, for example by the Belgian left, which in 1938 was already writing that the party was “not a completed, immutable, untouchable organism; it does not have an irrevocable mandate from the class, nor any permanent right to express the final interests of the class” (Communisme nº 18). This was particularly the case with the French left after the war, which was able to make a real synthesis between the method of the Italian left and the most advanced insights of the German and Dutch left. Thus the Gauche Communiste de France was finally able to bury the notion of the party ruling "on behalf" of the proletariat; the idea that the party should exert power was a hangover from the period of bourgeois parliaments and had no place in a soviet system based on revocable delegates.

The need for proletarian "antidotes"

In any case, it is already explicitly affirmed in PEI that for Bilan the vigilance and programmatic clarity of the party was not enough; the class also needed its unitary organs of self-defence faced with the conservative weight of the state machine. To a certain extent, Bilan here was still within the framework of Lenin’s critique of Trotsky’s position at the 10th Congress of the Russian party in 1921: the proletariat would have to maintain independent trade unions to defend its immediate economic interests even against the demands of the transitional state. Although Bilan had already begun to criticise the absorption of the trade unions into capitalism (especially a minority around Stefanini), they were still seen as workers’ organs and there clearly was an idea that they could be given new lease of life by the revolution[3]. Other organs of the class actually created by the evolution in Russia were only dealt with cursorily. The factory committees tended to be identified with the anarcho-syndicalist deviations associated with them in the early days of their evolution, although PEI recognise the need for them to remain as organs of class struggle rather than of economic management. The most important weakness was in failing to understand all the implications of Lenin’s crucial observation that the soviets were the finally discovered form of the dictatorship of the proletariat:

As for the soviets, we don’t hesitate to affirm, for the considerations already given on the subject of the democratic mechanism, that while they have an enormous importance in the first phase of the revolution, that of the civil war to overthrow the capitalist regime, later on they will lose their primal importance, since the proletariat cannot find in them the organs that can accomplish its mission for the triumph of the world revolution (this task falls to the party and the proletarian International), nor the task of defending its immediate interests (this can only be realised through the trade unions, whose nature must not be falsified by making them into channels of the state). In the second phase of the revolution, the soviets could nevertheless represent an element for controlling the action of the party which has every interest in the masses regrouped in these institutions exerting an active surveillance over it” (Bilan nº 26, p878).

Nevertheless the basic premise was clear, and this provided the foundations for future theoretical advances by the communist left: the working class could not abandon its independent organs because of the existence of a state that was labelled proletarian. In case of a conflict, the duty of communists was to be with the class; hence the radical position they already defended on the question of the Kronstadt rising, totally at odds with Trotsky who continued to defend his role in the crushing of Kronstadt even in the 1930s:

The conflicts in Ukraine with Makhno, as well as the Kronstadt uprising, while they ended in victory for the Bolsheviks, were far from representing the best moments of soviet policy. In both cases, we saw the first expressions of this superimposition of the army over the masses, of one of the characteristics of what Marx called the ‘parasitic’ state in The Civil War in France. The approach which holds that it is enough to determine the political objectives of an adverse group in order to justify the policy applied towards it (you are an anarchist and thus I crush you in the name of communism) is only valid to the extent that the party manages to understand the reasons for movements which could be oriented towards counter-revolutionary solutions by the manoeuvres which the enemy will not fail to use. Once you have established the social motivations which push strata of workers and peasants into action, it is necessary to give a response to this problem in a manner that allows the proletariat to penetrate the state organism all the more profoundly. The first frontal victories obtained by the Bolsheviks (Makhno, Kronstadt) over groups acting within the proletariat were realised at the expense of the proletarian essence of the state organisation. Assailed by a thousand dangers, the Bolsheviks believed that it was possible to proceed to the crushing of these movements and to consider them as proletarian victories because they were led by anarchists or because the bourgeoisie would make use of them in its struggle against the proletarian state. We don’t want to say here that the attitude the Bolsheviks should have taken was necessarily opposed to the one they did take, since the factual elements are lacking, but we do want to note that they show a tendency which was to show itself openly later on – the dissociation between the masses and the state, which was more and more becoming subjected to laws which took it away from its revolutionary function”.

In a later text, Vercesi pushed this argument further, saying that “it would have been better to have lost Kronstadt than to have kept it from the geographical point of view, since substantially this victory could only have one result: that of altering the very bases, the substance of the action carried out by the proletariat” ("The question of the state", Octobre, 1938). In other words, there was now an explicit recognition that the suppression of Kronstadt was a disastrous error.

Flaws in the notion of the proletarian state 

In retrospect, it may seem hard to understand Bilan’s view that even in 1934-6 the USSR was still a proletarian state. In the article in IR nº 106, we explained that this was partly the result of Bilan’s insistence on the need for a methodical and cautious approach to the question: in understanding the defeat of the revolution, it was essential not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as the German/Dutch left had done (a path also followed by the group Reveil Communiste which had begun life as part of the Italian left). But there were other theoretical bases for this error. In the most immediate sense, Bilan remained wedded to Trotsky’s mistaken view that the state in the USSR maintained its proletarian character because the private ownership of the means of production had not been restored; the bureaucracy, therefore, could not be characterised as a class. The difference with the Trotskyists being that on the one hand Bilan did not deny that the workers in the USSR were still subject to capitalist exploitation; they merely saw the degenerated Soviet state as an instrument of world capital rather than the organ of a new Russian capitalist class. And because this state played a counter-revolutionary role on the world arena, where it acted as part of the global imperialist chess-game, they saw straight away that defending the USSR could only lead to an abandonment of internationalism.

 There are more historical roots to the error as well. These can be traced by going back to the first articles in the PEI series, where there is an overemphasis on the state as the organ of a class, rather as if the state began life as the organic secretion of a ruling class. This misses out on Engels’ view that the state was originally the spontaneous emanation of a class divided situation, which then became the state of the economically dominant class. The destruction of the state by the October revolution had in a sense re-created the conditions of the first period of the state in history: once again a state emerged spontaneously out of the class contradictions of society. But this time there was no new economically dominant class for the state to become identified with. On the contrary, the new Soviet state had to be used by an exploited class whose historic interests were fundamentally antagonistic to it – hence the inaccuracy of describing even a properly functioning transitional state as proletarian in nature.   Failing to see this tied Bilan to the notion of the proletarian state even when their arguments more and more showed that the proletariat’s authentic organs could not identify with the transitional state, that there was a difference in quality in the proletariat’s relation to the state as compared to its relationship with the party or its unitary organs.

Bilan’s idea of the "proletarian economy" supplied further theoretical support to the idea of the proletarian state. As we have seen, Bilan insisted on the need to “reject any possibility of a socialist victory outside the victory of the revolution in other countries”; but it went on to say “we should talk more modestly not of a socialist economy but of a proletarian economy”. (Bilan nº 25, p841). This is wrong for the same reasons as the notion of the proletarian state. As an exploited class the proletariat could not have an economy of its own. As we have seen, this notion also made it harder for Bilan to see the emergence of state capitalism in the USSR and break with Trotsky’s view that the elimination of private capitalists conferred a proletarian character on the state which had expropriated them.

Nevertheless, PEI does make a careful distinction between state property and socialism and warns that the socialisation of the economy could in no way be a guarantee against the degeneration of the revolution:

In the economic domain, we have explained at length that the socialisation of the means of production is not a sufficient condition to safeguard the proletariat’s victory. We have also explained why it is necessary to revise the central thesis of the IVth Congress of the International which, after considering the state industries as ‘socialist’ and all the others as ‘non-socialist’, arrived at this conclusion: the condition for the victory of socialism resides in the growing extension of the ‘socialist sectors’ at the expense of the economic formations of the ‘private sector’. The Russian experience is there to show that at the end of a socialisation which has monopolised the whole Soviet economy, we see not an extension of the class consciousness of the proletariat and of its role, but the conclusion of a process of degeneration leading the Soviet state to integrate itself into world capitalism” (Bilan nº 26, p872).

Here again, as we also showed in our article in IR nº 106, other insights by Bilan about capitalism in the rest of the world were certainly heading in the direction of a deeper understanding of the notion of state capitalism (for example the Plan de Man introduced by the Belgian state). In the same vein, the article from the PEI that deals with the fascist state argued that, in the epoch of capitalist decline, there was a general tendency for the state to absorb all expression of the working class. Such insights would also allow Bilan’s heirs in the communist left to recognise state capitalism as a universal tendency in capitalist decadence, and thus to understand that the form it had taken in the USSR, even though it had its own unique characteristics, was by no means different in essence from the forms it took elsewhere.

The question of foreign policy      

Bilan’s awareness of the conflict between the needs of the state and the international needs of the proletariat was also concretised in the way they dealt with the question of the relationship between an isolated proletarian power and the external capitalist world. There was no rigid utopianism in their approach. Lenin’s position on Brest Litovsk was supported, especially against Bukharin’s idea of spreading the revolution through ‘revolutionary war’. The experience of the Red Army’s advance into Poland in 1920 had convinced it that the military victory of the proletarian state over a capitalist state could not be equated with the real advance of the world revolution. By the same token, and unlike the German left, the Fraction did not reject in principle the provisional resort to an NEP-type economic policy as long as it was guided by general proletarian principles: thus, the possibility and even probability of trade between the proletarian power and the capitalist world was accepted. But a fundamental distinction was made between these inevitable concessions and the betrayal – usually in secret – of fundamental principles, as exemplified in the Rapallo treaty where Russian arms were used to quash the revolution in Germany.

The solution which the Bolsheviks came to at Brest did not imply an alteration of the internal character of the Soviet state in its relations with capitalism and the world proletariat. But in 1921, at the time of the introduction of the NEP, and, in 1922, with the Treaty of Rapallo, there had been a profound change in the position occupied by the proletarian state in the class struggle on a world scale. Between 1918 and 1921 the revolutionary wave that burst upon the entire world made its appearance and was then reabsorbed; in the new situation the proletarian state encountered enormous difficulties, and the moment came when – no longer able to rely on the natural support of revolutionary movements in other countries – it had either to accept a struggle in extremely unfavourable circumstances or avoid this struggle and, as a result, accept compromises that would gradually and inevitably lead it along a path that would first adulterate and then destroy its proletarian function, culminating in the present situation where the proletarian state has become part of world capitalism’s apparatus of domination” (Bilan nº 18, p611).

 Here the Fraction was highly critical of some of Lenin’s views which contributed towards this involution -in particular the idea of temporary and tactical "alliances" between the proletarian power and one set of imperialists against other imperialist powers: “The directives exposed by Lenin, where he considered it possible for the Russian state to play off the imperialist brigands against each other, and even to accept the support of one imperialist constellation in order to defend the frontiers of the Soviet state from the threat of another capitalist group, testifies - in our opinion – to the gigantic difficulties encountered by the Bolsheviks in establishing the policy of the Russian state,  given the lack of any prior experience that could have armed them to lead the struggle against world capitalism and for the triumph of the world revolution” (Bilan nº 18, p609).   

The economic policy of the proletariat

We have seen that Bilan opposed the idea of trying to work out whether each country taken separately was "ripe" for communism, since this question could only be posed on a world scale. They thus categorically rejected any notion of overcoming capitalist relations of production in the confines of a single country – an error to which the Dutch/German left was constantly prone. “The error which in our opinion the Dutch left communists and with them comrade Hennaut make is that they have taken a basically sterile direction, because it is basic to marxism that the foundations of a communist economy only present themselves on the world terrain and can never be realised inside the frontiers of a proletarian state. The latter can intervene in the economic domain to change the process of production, but in no way can it place this process definitively on communist foundations, because the conditions for realising such an economy only exist on the world scale… We will not move towards the realisation of the supreme goal by making the workers believe that after their victory over the bourgeoisie they could directly manage the economy in a single country. Until the victory of the world revolution the conditions for this don’t exist, and to take things in the direction which will allow the maturation of these conditions, you have to begin by recognising that it is impossible to obtain definitive results in a single country” (Bilan nº 21, p717).

This did not mean that they were indifferent to the question of economic measures to be taken in a proletarian bastion. As with the question of the state, they approached this question from the standpoint of the concrete needs of the working class.

If communists were to stand with their class, then the economic programme they defended in a transitional regime also had to put proletarian interests above those of the "general" (ie national) interests defended by the state. Hence the total rejection of all the hymns to Soviet economic growth which were rife not only among the Stalinists but also the Trotskyists. For Bilan, despite the existence of a "socialised economy", this was still the production of surplus value, still capitalist exploitation, although as we have seen they tended to see the Russian state bureaucracy as the servants of "world capital" rather than as the representatives of a specifically Russian ruling class in a new form.

Against the subordination of proletarian living standards to the development of heavy industry and an economy geared to war, they called for the logic of accumulation to be reversed by focusing on the production of consumer goods. We will look at this problem in more detail when we study Mitchell’s text, which concentrates much more on the economic questions of the transition period. But again the basic principle is sound: the worst thing communists can do in a revolution is to present the immediate situation as the ideal goal, which was the mistake made by many during the period of "War Communism". Exploitation and the law of value cannot be abolished overnight and any claim to the contrary would be a new cover for capitalism. But concrete measures could be taken which would put the immediate needs of the workers at the forefront. And this was a further reason why workers needed to be able to defend their immediate economic interests, against the state if necessary.  Progress would not be measured by the vastness of the workers’ sacrifices, as in Stakhanovist Russia, but in the real amelioration of workers’ living conditions, which includes not only a greater number of consumer goods but also the time to rest and to take part in political life.

This is how Vercesi poses the problem in Bilan 21, (p719-20):   

While the proletariat can’t immediately institute a communist society after the victory against the bourgeoisie, while the law of value continues to subsist (and it could not be otherwise), there is nevertheless an essential condition to fulfil if the state is to be oriented not towards its incorporation into the rest of the capitalist world, but in the opposite direction, towards the victory of the world proletariat. Against the formula which represents the key to the bourgeois economy and which provides the rate of surplus value, s over v, ie the relationship between the totality of unpaid labour and paid labour, it is necessary to defend this other formula which does not contain any limits to the satisfaction of the needs of the producers and through which both surplus value and the very payment of labour will disappear. But if the bourgeoisie bases its bible on the necessity for a continuous growth of surplus value in order to convert it into capital in the ‘common interests of all classes’ (sic), the proletariat must work for a constant diminution of unpaid labour, which will inevitably lead to a rhythm of accumulation that is much slower than in comparison to the capitalist economy.

"As far as Russia is concerned, it is notorious that the rule instituted has been precisely the one of proceeding towards an intense accumulation in order to defend the state, which is presented as threatened at all times by an intervention of the capitalist states. The state has to be armed with a powerful heavy industry in order to give it the best possibility of serving the world revolution. Unpaid labour thus receives a revolutionary consecration. Furthermore, in the very structure of the Russian economy, the growth of socialist positions as against the private sector is supposed to be expressed through an ever-growing intensification of accumulation. But as Marx has proved, accumulation is founded on the rate of exploitation of the working class, and it is through unpaid labour that the economic, political and military power of Russia has been constructed. But because the same mechanisms of capitalist accumulation have continued to operate, the gigantic economic results have only been obtained through the gradual conversion of the Russian state, which has finally joined the other states on a path which is leading inevitably to the precipice of war. The proletarian state, if it is to be conserved for the working class, must therefore make the rate of accumulation depend not on the rate of wages, but on what Marx called the ‘productive forces of society’ and be converted into a direct amelioration of workers’ conditions, into an immediate increase in wages. Proletarian management thus implies the diminution of absolute surplus value and the almost total conversion of relative surplus value into wages paid to the workers”.

Some of the terms used by Vercesi here are open to question – is it still appropriate to talk about "wages" even while recognising that the fundamental roots of the wage system cannot disappear immediately, for example? This question will be taken up in further articles. But the essential thing for the Italian left was the principle that enabled them to resist the near-overwhelming tide of the counter-revolution in the 1930s and 40s: the necessity to analyse every question from the simple starting point of defending the needs of the international working class, even when to do so seemed to fly in the face of the "great victories" which Stalinism and democracy claimed for the proletariat. For the victories of "socialist construction" in the 30s, no less than the triumphs of democracy over fascism in the decade that followed, were for the proletariat, the worst kinds of defeat.


[1] Vercesi, real name Ottorino Perrone, was one of the founding members of the Fraction and without doubt one of its most important theoreticians. For a brief biographical sketch, see The Italian Communist Left p52-3.   

[2] See "Lenin’s State and Revolution: a striking validation of marxism", in International Review 91  

[3] The position on the unions defended in PEI showed the strengths and limits of Bilan’s position at the time.

“What happened before the war, and what is happening now with the trade unions, has been verified for the Soviet state. The trade union, despite its proletarian nature, faced a choice between a class policy which would have put it in constant and progressive opposition to the capitalist state, and a policy of appealing to the workers that they should improve their lot by the gradual conquest of ‘points of support’ (reforms) within the capitalist state. The overt passage of the trade unions, in 1914, to the other side of the barricade, proved that the reformist policy led precisely to the opposite of what it claimed: it was the state which progressively took hold of the unions, to the point where they became instruments for the unleashing of imperialist war. It’s the same now for the workers’ state, faced with the world capitalist system. Once again, two paths: one a policy of winning on its territory, and externally, in connection with the Communist International, more and more advanced positions in the struggle for the overthrow of international capitalism; or the opposite policy, consisting of calling on the proletariat of Russia and the rest of the world to support the Russian state’s progressive penetration into the world capitalist system, which will inevitably lead the workers state to throw in its lot with capitalism when its logic leads to imperialist war”  (Bilan 7, p238).

The method is perfectly correct: proletarian organs that join in the war campaigns of the bourgeoisie “pass to the other side of the barricades”. But then they cease to maintain a proletarian character and become integrated into the capitalist state. This was the correct conclusion drawn by Steffanini and others.


Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: 

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