Communism Vol. 3, Part 6 - The problems of the period of transition (II)

Printer-friendly version

In this issue of the International Review we are re-publishing the second article in the series “Problems of the Period of transition” by Mitchell, published in Bilan n° 31, in May-June 1936. Having laid out the general historical conditions of the proletarian revolution in the first article in the series (re-published in IR n°128), Mitchell traces the evolution of the marxist theory of the state, linking it closely to the most important moments in the struggle of the working class against capitalism – 1848, the Paris Commune, and the Russian revolution. Following in the footsteps of Lenin’s State and Revolution (1917), he shows how the proletariat progressively clarified its relationship to the state in the course of these fundamental experiences: from the general notion that the state, as an instrument for the oppression of one class by another, would necessarily disappear in communist society, to the more concrete steps in understanding how the proletariat would progress towards this outcome, by destroying the existing bourgeois state and erecting in its place a new form of state that was destined to wither away after a more or less long period of transition. However, Mitchell’s study takes us beyond the point reached by Lenin’s book by incorporating the crucial lessons learned through the October revolution and the terrible difficulties it faced as a result of its international isolation: above all, the necessity to avoid any identification between the proletariat, its specific class organs (defined by Mitchell as soviets, party, and trade unions) and the general apparatus of the transitional state, which by its nature as an “evil” inherited from the old society is inevitably more vulnerable to the danger of corruption and degeneration. From this standpoint, the Bolshevik party had been fundamentally mistaken both in identifying the proletarian dictatorship with the transitional state, and in allowing itself to be increasingly fused with the latter.

The product of an intense process of reflection and clarification, Mitchell’s text contains some of the weaknesses of the Italian/Belgian communist left in the 1930s as well as it strengths: thus, while arguing that the party should not be merged with the state, the text still holds that the task of the party is to exercise the proletarian dictatorship; or again, while beginning with the clear statement that the collectivisation of the means of production is not identical to socialism, at the end the article continues to defend the notion that the contemporary USSR, because the economy was “collectivised”, was not a capitalist state even though it accepts that the Russian proletariat was indeed subjected to capitalist exploitation. We have examined these contradictions at greater length in previous articles (see “The Russian enigma and the Italian communist left, 1933-1946” , IR n° 106, and “The 1930s, debate on the period of transition” in IR n° 127), but these weaknesses do not detract from the overall clarity of this text, which remains a fundamental contribution to the marxist theory of the state.

Bilan no 31 (May - June 1936)
Problems of the period of transition, part ii

In our introductory study, we tried to show that there is not and cannot be a direct simultaneity between the historic maturity of the proletarian revolution and its material and cultural maturity. We are living in the epoch of proletarian revolution because social progress can now only take place after the disappearance of the very class antagonisms which, in what we might call the prehistory of the human race, have been the motor-force of all progress until now.

But the collective appropriation of the wealth developed by bourgeois society simply does away with the contradiction between the social form of the productive forces and their private appropriation. It is simply the “sine qua non” for the further development of society. In itself it doesn’t lead automatically to a higher stage of development. In itself it doesn’t contain all the constructive solutions of socialism, nor does it immediately wipe out all forms of social inequality.

The collectivisation of the means of production and exchange is not socialism - it is a point of departure, a fundamental precondition for socialism. It is still only a juridical solution to social contradictions and doesn’t eliminate all the material and spiritual deficiencies that the proletariat will inherit from capitalism. In a sense history will “surprise” the proletariat and force it to carry out its mission in an unprepared state which no amount of revolutionary idealism and dynamism can immediately transform into an ability to resolve all the formidable and complex problems the revolution will pose. Both before and after the conquest of power, the proletariat will have to make up for the historical immaturity of its consciousness by relying on its party, which will remain its guide and educator in the period of transition from capitalism to communism. At the same time the proletariat will only be able to overcome the temporary insufficiency of the productive forces bequeathed to it by capitalism by having recourse to a state, to an:

…evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, whose worse sides the victorious proletariat, just like the Commune, cannot avoid having to lop off at once as much as possible until such time as a generation reared in new, free social conditions is able to throw the entire lumber of the state on the scrap heap.”[1]

The necessity to “tolerate” a state during the transition period between capitalism and communism derives from the specific character of this period, which Marx defined in his Critique of the Gotha Programme:

What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges” (our emphasis).[2]

Later on we will examine these birth marks when we analyse the economic and social categories which the proletariat will inherit from capitalism and which are going to have to “wither away” alongside the proletarian state.

It would obviously be a mistake to cover up the mortal danger which the survival of this instrument of servitude, this state, will pose to the proletarian revolution, even though it’s a workers’ state. But to conclude that the revolution is bound to degenerate simply because this state will exist would be to ignore the dialectic of history and to abandon the revolution itself.

Similarly, to delay the unleashing of the revolution until the masses have fully acquired the capacity to wield power would be to run away from the reality of the historical problem, to negate the necessity of the transitional state and of the party. This idea is the logical accompaniment to the notion of basing the revolution on the “maturity” of material conditions, which we examined in the first part of this study.

Later on we will consider the problem of the ability of the proletarian masses to run the state and the economy.

The state: instrument of the ruling class

While the victorious proletariat will be forced by historical conditions to tolerate a state during a more or less prolonged period, it is important that it understands what kind of state this will be.

The marxist method allows us on the one hand to uncover the meaning of the state in class society, to define its nature; and, on the other hand, by analysing the revolutionary experiences of the proletariat last century, to determine what attitude the proletariat must have with regard to the bourgeois state.

Marx and above all Engels succeeded in ridding the idea of the state of all idealist excrescences. Laying bare the real nature of the state, they showed that it was nothing but an instrument of oppression in the hands of the ruling class of a given society; that its only function was to safeguard the economic and political privileges of this class: through coercion and violence, its role was to impose the juridical rules which corresponded to the forms of property and mode of production upon which these privileges were based. They also showed that the state was the expression of the domination of the majority of the population by a minority. The backbone of the state, the concrete expression of the fact that society was divided into classes, was its armed force and coercive organs, which were placed above and against the mass of the people, and which prevented the oppressed class from maintaining its own “spontaneous” forms of armed defence. The ruling class could never tolerate the existence of an armed force of the people alongside its own instruments of repression.

To take just one example from the history of bourgeois society: in France the revolution of February 1848 armed the workers “who were now a power in the state” (Engels). The bourgeoisie had but one concern: to disarm the workers. So it provoked them by liquidating the national workshops and crushed them during the June uprising. Again in France, after September 1870, a national guard mainly composed of workers was formed to defend the country.

…almost at once the antagonism between the almost completely bourgeois government and the armed proletariat broke into open conflict…To arm Paris was to arm the revolution. Thiers…was compelled to realise that the supremacy of the propertied classes was in constant danger so long as the workers of Paris had arms in their hands. His first action was to attempt to disarm them.”[3]

Thus came March 18th and the Commune.

But once it had penetrated the “secret” of the bourgeois state (whether monarchical or republican, authoritarian or democratic) the proletariat still had to clarify its own policy towards this state. The experimental method of marxism gave it the means to do this.

At the time of the Communist Manifesto Marx clearly recognised the necessity for the proletariat to conquer political power, to organise itself as the ruling class, but he was less clear about the fact that the proletariat had to create its own state. He had already foreseen that all forms of state would disappear when classes had been abolished, but this remained a general and somewhat abstract formulation. The French experience of 1848-51 provided Marx with the historical evidence which allowed him more firmly to grasp the idea of the destruction of the bourgeois state, but it did not enable him to trace the contours of the proletarian state which would arise in its place. The proletariat had appeared on the scene as the first revolutionary class in history destined to annihilate the increasingly centralised police and bureaucratic machine, which all exploiting classes had used to crush the exploited masses. In his 18th Brumaire Marx stressed that up till now “all revolutions perfected this machine instead of smashing it.”[4] The centralised power goes back to the absolute monarchy; the rising bourgeoisie used it to struggle against feudalism; the French revolution simply rid it of its feudal vestiges, and the First Empire completed the formation of the modern state. A developed bourgeois society transformed the central power into a machine for oppressing the proletariat. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx explained why all previous revolutionary classes had conquered the state instead of destroying it: “the means of production and of exchange, on whose foundation the bourgeoisie built up, were generated in feudal society.”[5]

Having gradually conquered economic power, the bourgeoisie had no need to destroy a political organ in which it had already installed itself. It didn’t have to do away with the bureaucracy, the police, or the armed forces, but simply to subordinate these instruments of oppression to its own interests, because its political revolution was only a juridical replacement of one form of exploitation by another.

Proletarian state and bourgeois state

In contrast to this the proletariat is a class which expresses the interests of humanity rather than any particular interest; it cannot therefore embed itself in a state based on exploitation. “The proletarians…have nothing of their own to secure and to fortify; their mission is to destroy all previous securities for, and insurance of, individual property.[6]

Despite its limitations, the Paris Commune was the first historical response to the question of the difference between the proletarian state and the bourgeois state. The rule of the majority over a minority deprived of its privileges eliminated the need for a specialised bureaucratic and military machine in the service of particular interests. The proletariat replaced this machine with its own armament - to break the resistance of the bourgeoisie - and a political form which allowed it to progressively assume the task of managing society In this sense “the Commune…was no longer a state in the proper sense of the word” (Engels). Lenin stressed the fact that the Commune had “the gigantic achievement of replacing certain institutions by institutions in principle essentially different”.

Nevertheless, the proletarian state still has the essential character of all states. It is still an organ of coercion and, although it ensures the rule of the majority over a minority, it can still only express the temporary impossibility of doing away with bourgeois right. In Lenin’s phrase it is a bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie, and unless it is constantly subjected to the direct control of the proletariat and its party it will always tend to turn against the class.


The theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat, already developed in the Manifesto but finding a historical elaboration in the Commune of 1871, juxtaposed the idea of the destruction of the bourgeois state with that of the withering away of the proletarian state. With Marx, the idea of the final disappearance of the state can be found in embryonic form in The Poverty of Philosophy; it was mainly developed by Engels in The Origins of the Family and Anti-Duhring, while later on Lenin commented on the problem brilliantly in his State and Revolution. The fundamental distinction between the destruction of the bourgeois state and the dying away of the proletarian state was rigorously drawn by Lenin and we don’t have to go into it here, especially because our previous considerations have dealt with any doubt about this question.

What we must keep in mind is that the hypothesis of the withering away of the state is bound to become the touchstone of the content of proletarian revolutions. We have already indicated that the revolution breaks out in a historical milieu which obliges the proletariat to tolerate the existence of a state. But this can only be: “a state in the process of withering away, that is, a state so constituted that it begins to wither away from the start and cannot but wither away” (Lenin).

The great achievement of marxism is to have shown irrefutably that the state has never been an autonomous factor in history, but is simply the product of a society divided into classes; the existence of classes preceded the state, and the latter will disappear when classes themselves disappear. After the dissolution of primitive communism the state has always existed in a more or less developed form, since it is inevitably superimposed on any form of exploitation of man by man; but at the same time it will inevitably die out at the end of a period of historical evolution which will make all oppression and constraint superfluous, since “bourgeois right” will have been eliminated and, in Saint-Simon’s phrase, “politics will be entirely reabsorbed into the economy”.

But marxist science has still not elaborated a solution to the problem of how exactly the state will wither away, a problem which is directly linked to the question of the relationship between the proletariat and “its” state.

The Commune was the first attempt to set up the dictatorship of the proletariat and was an experience of enormous importance, but it couldn’t avoid defeat and confusion, because, on the one hand, it took place in a period of historical immaturity; and, on the other hand, because it lacked the theoretical guide, the party. It can thus provide us only with a vague outline of the relationship between the state and the proletariat.

In 1875, in the Critique of the Gotha Progamme Marx was still posing the question: “…what transformation will the nature of the state undergo in communist society? [Marx is talking about the period of transition here - ed. Note] In other words, what social formation will remain in existence there that are analogous to the present functions of the state. This question can only be answered scientifically, and one does not get a flea-hop nearer to the problem by a thousand-fold combination of the word people with the word state” (our emphasis - ed. note).[7] For Marx, the Commune was: “a thoroughly expansive political form, while all previous forms of government had been emphatically repressive…it was… the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour.”[8]

The Commune simply provided a framework for solving the fundamental problem of the education of the masses, who had the task of progressively freeing themselves from the burden of the state and ensuring that the state would finally disappear with the creation of a classless society. In this sense, the Commune was a signpost on the road to emancipation. It showed that although the proletariat could not immediately do away with the system of delegation, it had to: “safeguard itself against its own deputies and officials, by declaring them all, without exception, subject to recall at any moment”. And, for Marx: “Nothing could be more foreign to the spirit of the Commune than to supercede universal suffrage [in the election of deputies - ed. note] by hierarchic investiture.”[9]

The theoretical elaboration of the problem had to stay at this point. Forty years later, Lenin was unable to go any further in this sphere. In State and Revolution he was limited to a few summary and even banal formulae which emphasised the necessity to: “transform the functions of the state into functions of control and checking that are so simple that they can be carried out by the enormous majority of the population and little by little by the entire population.”[10]

Like Engels, he was limited to the assertion that the state would disappear in an era of real freedom, as would democracy, which would have lost all social meaning. As for the exact process whereby all the habits of servitude left over from capitalism would be eliminated, Lenin said that: “the question of the concrete way in which the state will die out remains an open one, since we don’t have the historical data that would allow us to settle it.[11]

Thus the problem of the management of a proletarian state and economy in the interests of the international revolution remained unsolved. In October 1917, when the Russian proletariat embarked upon the most crucial of historical experiences, the class found that it lacked the political principles to define the relationship between the state and proletariat. The Bolsheviks inevitably suffered from the crushing weight of this theoretical deficiency.

The power of the proletariat and the state in the period of transition

Taking a step back and looking at the Russian experience, it seems probable that if the Bolsheviks and the International had been able to acquire a clear vision of this fundamental question, the reflux of the revolution in the West, despite being a considerable obstacle to the October revolution, would not have altered the latter’s internationalist character and provoked it to break with the world proletariat by straying into the impasse of “socialism in one country”.

But in the middle of the most terrible contingent difficulties, the Bolsheviks did not consider the Soviet state as “an evil inherited by the proletariat… whose worst sides the victorious proletariat…cannot avoid having to lop off as much as possible”, but as an organism which could be completely identified with the proletarian dictatorship, i.e. with the party.

The result of this important modification was that the foundation of the dictatorship of the proletariat was no longer to be the party, but the state; and through the ensuing reversal of roles the latter found itself in a course of development which led not to the withering away of the state but to the reinforcement of its coercive and repressive powers. Once an instrument of the world revolution, the proletarian state was inevitably converted into a weapon of the global counter-revolution.

Although Marx, Engels and above all Lenin had again and again emphasized the necessity to counter the state with a proletarian antidote capable of preventing its degeneration, the Russian revolution, far from assuring the maintenance and vitality of the class organs of the proletariat, sterilised them by incorporating them into the state; and thus the revolution devoured its own substance.

Even in Lenin’s thought, the idea of the “dictatorship of the state” began to predominate. At the end of 1918, in his polemic against Kautsky, (The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky[12]) he was unable to distinguish between two conflicting concepts: the state and the dictatorship of the proletariat. He replied resoundingly to Kautsky on the definition of the dictatorship of the proletariat, on its basic class meaning (all power to the soviets), but he made a connection between the necessity to destroy the bourgeois state and crush the ruling class and the idea of transforming the proletariat’s organisations into state organs. It’s true, however, that this position wasn’t an absolute for Lenin, since he was referring to the period of civil war, of the overthrow of bourgeois rule, during which time the main function of the Soviets was to be instruments of oppression against the bourgeoisie and its state apparatus.

The enormous difficulty in finding the right answer to the question of the relationship between the state and the proletariat, a question which Lenin was unable to resolve, derives from this dual, contradictory necessity: the need, on the one hand, to retain the state, an organ of economic and political coercion controlled by the proletariat (and thus by the party), while at the same time ensuring a greater and greater participation of the masses in the running and administration of the proletarian social order, even though this participation can for a whole period only take place through state organs, which by their very nature tend to lead to corruption.

The experience of the Russian revolution shows just how difficult it is to produce a social climate which will allow the maximum development of the activity and culture of the masses.

The controversy about democracy and dictatorship centres round this problem, whose solution is crucial to the success of future proletarian revolutions. Here we should emphasize the fact that despite Lenin and Luxemburg’s differences about “proletarian democracy”, they showed a common pre-occupation - the desire to create the conditions for an incessant expansion of the capacities of the masses. But for Lenin the concept of democracy, even proletarian democracy, always implies the oppression of one class by another - whether it is the rule of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat, or the dictatorship of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie. And as we have said “democracy” will disappear with the abolition of classes and the state, i.e. when the concept of freedom becomes a reality.

Against Lenin’s idea of a “discriminatory” democracy, Luxemburg (in the Russian Revolution) defended the idea of “unlimited democracy”, which for her was a precondition for: “the unobstructed participation of the popular masses” in the dictatorship of the proletariat.[13] This could only be realised through the total exercise of “democratic” freedoms: unlimited freedom of the press, full political freedom, parliamentarism (even though later on, in the Spartacus programme, the future of parliamentarism was subordinated to the needs of the revolution).

Luxemburg’s overriding concern not to see the organs of the state machine getting in the way of the political life of the proletariat and its active participation in the tasks of the dictatorship prevented her from grasping the fundamental role of the party, since she ended up opposing the dictatorship of the class to the dictatorship of the party. However, she had the tremendous achievement of showing the difference in social context between the rule of the bourgeoisie and the rule of the proletariat, as Marx had done for the Commune: “the class rule of the bourgeoisie has no need for the political instruction and education of the mass of the people, or at least for no more than an extremely limited amount; but for the dictatorship of the proletariat, it is the vital element, the oxygen without which it cannot live.”[14]

In the programme of Spartacus, she dealt with the crucial problem of the education of the masses (which has to be solved by the party), saying that: “history is not going to make our revolution an easy matter like the bourgeois revolutions. In those revolutions it sufficed to overthrow that official power at the centre and to replace a dozen or so persons in authority. But we have to work from beneath.[15]

The inability of the Bolsheviks to maintain the state in the service of the revolution

Caught up in the contradictory process of the Russian revolution, Lenin nevertheless continued to emphasize the need to pose a proletarian “corrective”: organs of workers’ control, against the corrupting tendencies of the transitional state.

In his report to the Congress of Soviets in April 1918, “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government”, he underlined the necessity to constantly supervise the functioning of the Soviets and the Soviet power:

There is a petty-bourgeois tendency to transform the members of the Soviets into ‘parliamentarians’, or else into bureaucrats. We must combat this by drawing all members of the Soviets into the practical work of administration.”[16]

In order to achieve this Lenin said it was necessary:

to draw the whole of the poor into the practical work of administration, and all steps that are taken in this direction -the more varied they are, the better - should be carefully recorded, studied, systematised, tested by wider experience and embodied in law. Our aim is to ensure that every toiler, having finished his eight hours’ ‘task’ in productive labour, shall perform state duties without pay; the transition to this is particularly difficult, but this transition alone can guarantee the final consolidation of socialism. Naturally, the novelty and difficulty of the change lead to an abundance of steps being taken, as it were, gropingly, to an abundance of mistakes, vacillation - without this, any marked progress is impossible. The reason why the present position seems peculiar to many of those who would like to be regarded as socialists is that they have been accustomed to contrasting capitalism with socialism abstractly, and that they profoundly put between the two the word ‘leap’.”[17]

The fact that in the same report Lenin was led to justify giving dictatorial powers to individuals was the expression not only of the grim contingent situation which gave rise to War Communism, but also of the contradiction between a necessary coercive regime imposed by the state machine, and the need to safeguard the proletarian dictatorship, to immerse the regime in the growing activity of the masses.

The more resolutely we now have to stand for a ruthlessly firm government, for the dictatorship of individuals in definite processes of work, in definite aspects of purely executive functions, the more varied must be the forms and methods of control from below in order to counteract every shadow of a possibility of distorting the principles of Soviet government, in order repeatedly and tirelessly to weed out bureaucracy.”[18]

But three years of civil war and the vital necessity to restore economic life prevented the Bolsheviks from finding a clear political solution to the problem of the relationship between the proletariat and state organs. Not that they were unaware of the mortal dangers which threatened the whole development of the revolution. The programme of the 8th Congress of the Russian Party in March 1919 talked about the danger of a political rebirth of bureaucracy within the Soviet regime, despite the fact that the old Tsarist bureaucratic machinery had been destroyed from top to bottom. The 9th Congress in December 1920 also dealt with the question of bureaucracy. And at the 10th Congress, which saw the beginning of the NEP, Lenin discussed the question at great length and came to the following conclusion: that the economic roots of the Soviet bureaucracy were not implanted in the military and juridical apparatus as in the bourgeois state, but that they grew out of the services; that the bureaucracy had sprung out of the period of War Communism and expressed the “negative side” of this period. The price paid for the necessarily dictatorial centralisation of this period was the increasing authority of the functionaries. At the 11th Congress, after a year of the “New Economic Policy”, Lenin vigorously emphasised the historic contradiction involved in the proletariat being forced to take power and use it before being fully prepared ideologically and culturally:

We have sufficient, quite sufficient political power, we also have sufficient economic resources at our command, but the vanguard of the working class which has been brought to the forefront to directly supervise, to determine the boundaries, to demarcate, to subordinate and not be subordinated itself, lacks sufficient ability for it. All that is needed here is ability, and that is what we do not have…Never before in history has there been [such] a situation.”[19]

Concerning the state capitalism that it was necessary to put up with, Lenin urged the party thus:

You Communists, workers, you, the politically enlightened section of the proletariat, which undertook to administer the state, must be able to arrange it so that the state which you have taken into your hands, shall function the way you want it to. Well, we have lived through a year, the state is in our hands; but has it operated the New Economic Policy in the way we wanted this past year?…How did it operate? The machine refused to obey the hand that guided it. It was like a car that was going not in the direction the driver desired, but in the direction someone else desired…[20]

By saying that the task was to “build communism with non-communist hands” Lenin was only restating one of the fundamental problems of the proletarian revolution. By pointing out that the party had to lead an economy managed by “others” in the direction that it wanted it to go, he was simply showing that the function of the party is not the same as that of the state machine.

The safeguard of the Russian revolution, the guarantee that it would stay on the tracks of the world revolution, was therefore not the absence of all bureaucracy - which is an inevitable excrescence of the transition period - but the vigilant presence of proletarian organs in which the educational activity of the party could be carried out, while the party itself retained a vision of its international tasks through the International. Because of a whole series of historical circumstances and because of a lack of indispensable theoretical and experimental equipment, the Bolsheviks were unable to resolve this basic problem. The crushing weight of contingent events led them to lose sight of the importance of retaining the Soviets and trade unions as organs which could be juxtaposed to the state, controlling it but not being incorporated into it.

The Russian experience doesn’t allow us to see the extent to which the Soviets could have been, in Lenin’s phrase, “the organisations of the workers and the exploited masses which will allow them to organise and govern the state themselves”; the extent to which they could have concentrated “the legislative, the executive, and, the judiciary” into themselves if centrism had not emasculated their revolutionary potential.

In any case, the Soviets appeared as the Russian form of the dictatorship of the proletariat rather than having an international validity. What makes them an acquisition from the experimental point of view is the fact that during the phase of the destruction of Tsarist society, the soviets were the backbone of the armed self-organisation which the Russian workers put in place of the bureaucratic and military machine and the autocracy, and then used against the reaction of the dispossessed classes.

As for the trade unions their function was altered in the process of the degeneration of the whole apparatus of the proletarian dictatorship. In his Infantile Disorder (early 1920) Lenin underlined the importance of the trade unions: “by means of which the Party is closely linked up with the class and with the masses, and by means of which, under the leadership of the Party, the dictatorship of the class is exercised.

After the seizure of power: “the Party must more than ever and in a new way, not only in the old way, educate and guide the trade unions, at the same time bearing in mind that they are and will long remain an indispensable “school of Communism” and a preparatory school that trains the proletarians to exercise their dictatorship, an indispensable organisation of the workers for the gradual transfer of the management of the whole economic life of the country to the working class (and not to separate trades), and later to all the working people.”[21]

The question of the role of the trade unions really came into its own at the end of 1920. Trotsky, basing his position on his experience in the sphere of transportation, considered that the unions had to become state organs responsible for maintaining labour discipline and the organisation of production. He even went so far as to propose that the unions be done away with, claiming that, in a workers’ state, they simply duplicated the tasks of state organs!

The discussion gathered pace at the 10th Congress of the party in March 1921 under the pressure of immediate events (Kronstadt) Trotsky’s ideas were opposed both by the Workers’ Opposition led by Shliapnikov and Kollontai, who called for management of production by the unions, and by Lenin, who considered that the statification of the unions was premature and that since “the state is not a workers’ state, but a workers’ and peasants’ state with numerous bureaucratic deformations”, the unions had to defend the workers’ interests against such a state. But Lenin emphasised that his disagreement with Trotsky was not over a question of principle, but simply over contingent considerations.

The fact that Trotsky was defeated at this Congress did not mean that the confusion about the role of the unions under the proletarian dictatorship had been cleared up. In fact the theses of the 3rd Congress of the CI repeated this confusion, on the one hand saying that: “before, during, and after the seizure of power, the unions remain a broader, more massive, more general form of organisation than the party, and in relation to the latter, to some extent play the part of the circumference to the centre.”

And also that: “the communists and sympathising elements must form within the unions communist groupings entirely subordinated to the communist party as a whole.”

While on the other hand saying that: “after the seizure and strengthening of proletarian power, the activity of the trade unions will be concerned mainly with the tasks of economic organisation and they will dedicate nearly all their energy to the building of the economy on a socialist basis, thus becoming a truly practical school of communism.”

We know that, after this, the unions not only lost any control over the management of enterprises, but also became organs responsible for stimulating production and not for defending the interests of the workers. In “compensation” for this, trade union leaders were recruited into the administration of industry and the right to strike was maintained in theory. But in fact strikes broke out in opposition to the trade union leadership.


The clearest criterion which marxists can use to back up their affirmation that the Soviet state is a degenerated state, that it has lost any proletarian function and has become an instrument of world capitalism, is the historical evolution of the Russian state between 1917 and 1936. In this period the state, far from tending to wither away, has become stronger and stronger, a process which could only lead it to becoming an instrument of oppression and exploitation against the Russian workers. This is an entirely new historical phenomenon, the result of an unprecedented historical situation: the existence within capitalist society of a proletarian state based on the collectivisation of the means of production, but one in which we are seeing a social process determining a frenzied exploitation of labour power; and at the same time this exploitation cannot be ascribed to the domination of a class which has juridical ownership of the means of production. We do not think that this social “paradox” can be explained by saying there is a bureaucracy which has become a ruling class (from the standpoint of historical materialism, these two notions mutually exclude each other); it can only be seen as the expression of a policy which has delivered the Russian state into the hands of world capitalism, whose laws of evolution are driving it towards imperialist war. In the part of this study dedicated to the question of the management of the proletarian economy, we will come back to the concrete aspects of this essential characteristic of the degeneration of the Soviet state, which has meant that the Russian proletariat is at the mercy not of a national exploiting class but of the world capitalist class. Such a political and economic relationship obviously contains within it all the conditions for the restoration of capitalism in Russia in the turmoil of a new imperialist war, unless the Russian proletariat, with the aid of the international proletariat, manages to overthrow the forces which threaten to lead it into another massacre.

Bearing in mind what we have said about the historic conditions in which the proletarian state is born, it is clear that the withering away of this state cannot be seen as an autonomous process limited to the national framework, but only as a symptom of the development of the world revolution.

It became impossible for the Soviet state to begin withering away as soon as the party and the International stopped seeing the Russian revolution as a step towards the world revolution and assigned to it the task of building “socialism in one country”. This explains why the specific weight of the state organs and the exploitation of the Russian workers have increased with the development of industrialisation and the economy; why the “liquidation of classes” has led not to a weakening of the state, but to its reinforcement, as expressed by the re-establishment of the three forces which have always been the backbone of the bourgeois state: the bureaucracy, the police and the standing army.

This phenomenon in no way indicates the falsity of marxist theory, which bases the proletarian revolution on the collectivisation of the productive forces and on the necessity for a transitional state and the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is simply the bitter fruit of a historic situation which prevented the Bolsheviks and the International from imposing an internationalist policy on the state, and which on the contrary made them the servants of the state against the proletariat by leading them onto the path of national socialism. In the face of economic difficulties which confronted them, the Bolsheviks were unable to formulate a policy which would have immunised them from confusing the apparatus of repression (which should only have been used against the dispossessed classes) with the class organs of the proletariat, which should have exercised control over the administration of the economy. The disappearance of these organs obliged the proletarian state, in its efforts to carry out a national programme and keep the economic apparatus going, to use its repressive organs against the proletariat as well as against the bourgeoisie. The state, that “necessary evil”, turned against the workers, despite the fact that, while the “principle of authority” will have to be recognised during the transitional phase, bureaucratic coercion can never be justified.

The whole point was to try not to widen the gap between the political and cultural immaturity of the masses and the historic necessity for them to run society. The solution that was aimed at, however, tended to exacerbate this contradiction even further.

We are with Rosa Luxemburg in saying that in Russia the question of the life of the proletarian state and the building of socialism could only be posed and not answered. It is up to the marxist fractions today to draw from the Russian revolution the essential lessons which will allow the proletariat to resolve the problem of the world revolution and of the building of communism in the next revolutionary wave.

Mitchell (to be continued)

[1]. Engels, “Introduction to The Civil War in France”, 1891. Marx, Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 27.


[2]. 1875. Marx, Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 24.


[3]. Engels, “Introduction to The Civil War in France”, 1891. Marx, Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 27.


[4]. 1852. Collected Works, Vol. 11.


[5]. 1848, Collected Works, Vol. 6.


[6]. Manifesto. Ibid.


[7]. 1875. Marx, Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 24.


[8]. The Civil War in France, 1871, Collected Works, Vol. 22.


[9]. Ibid.


[10]. 1917, Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.25.


[11]. Ibid.


[12]. 1918. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 28.


[13]. In: Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, Pathfinder press 1970.


[14]. Ibid.


[15]. “Speech to the founding congress of the German Communist Party” in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks.


[16]. 1918. Collected Works, Vol.. 27.


[17]. Ibid.


[18]. Ibid.


[19]. “Political report of the Central Committee of the RCP (B)” , 1922. Collected Works, Vol. 33.


[20]. Ibid.


[21]. Left-wing communism: An infantile disorder, 1920. Collected Works, Vol. 31






Heritage of the Communist Left: 

General and theoretical questions: