The Specific Nature of the Proletarian Revolution
The urgent necessity for communists to fight for maximum clarity and coherence concerning the revolutionary tasks of the proletariat derives from the unique nature of the proletarian revolution. Whereas the bourgeois revolution (England, France etc.) was fundamentally a political confirmation of the bourgeoisie's economic domination of society, which grew steadily and progressively out of declining feudal society, the proletariat has no economic power under capitalism, and in the period of capitalist decadence has no permanent organisations of its own. The only weapons available to the proletariat are its class consciousness and its ability to organise its own revolutionary activity; having wrested power from the bourgeoisie it has the immense task of consciously constructing a new social order.
Capitalist society, as all class societies, grew up independent of men's wills, as a long drawn out unconscious process, regulated by laws and forces not subject to human control. The bourgeois revolution merely swept away the feudal superstructure which prevented those laws from generalising themselves in an unfettered way. Today it is the very nature of those laws, their blind, anarchic, commodity character, which is threatening to lead human civilisation to ruin. But despite the apparently immutable character of these laws, they are, in the end, only the expression of a social relationship which men themselves have created. The proletarian revolution is a systematic onslaught against the social relationships which give rise to the remorseless laws of capital. It can only be a conscious onslaught, because it is precisely the unconscious and uncontrolled character of capital which the revolution is attempting to destroy; and the social system which the proletariat will construct on the ruins of capitalism is the first society in which mankind exerts a rational and conscious control over the productive forces, of the whole of human life-activity.
What forces the proletariat to confront and destroy the social relations of capital: wage-labour, generalized commodity production - is the fact that the latter have entered into violent conflict with the productive forces, both with the material needs of the proletariat and the productive forces of human society as a whole. The decadence of the social relations which dominate the proletariat implies that the primary task of the proletariat in this epoch is to destroy them and initiate new ones. Its task then is not to govern, reform or organize capital but to liquidate it forever. Decadence means that the productive forces simply cannot be developed in the interests of humanity as long as they remain under the dominion of capital, that real development can now only take place under communist relations of production. Historical materialism leaves no room for a transitional mode of production between capitalism and communism.
"What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges". (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme).
Here we have a transition period in which communism emerges with violent birth pangs out of capitalist society, a communism in constant struggle against the remnants of the old society and continually striving to "develop on its own foundations" towards the reign of freedom, the classless society.
The Revolutionary Civil War
But the movement towards the abolition of classes is a consciously directed one, and the consciousness which guides the movement towards its final goal is that of the only communist class, the proletariat. Communism is not simply an unconscious urge to negate commodity relations, which discovers as if by accident that these relations, are guarded by the capitalist state and that to realize communism the state must be smashed. Communism is a movement of the proletariat which throws up a political programme, a programme which clearly recognizes in advance that capitalist social relations are defended by the bourgeois state and which systematically advocates the destruction of bourgeois political power as a precondition for the communist transformation. Thus the proletarian revolution is opposite in pattern to the bourgeois revolution in that the social revolution undertaken by the proletariat can only take flight after the political conquest of power by the working class. Because capital is a world-wide relation, the communist revolution can only unfold on a world scale. The global nature of both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat implies that the seizure of power by the workers in one country initiates a world civil war against the bourgeoisie. Until this world civil war has been won, until the proletariat has conquered power on a world scale, we cannot really speak of a period of transition or a communist transformation. In the period of the world civil war, production, even when directed by the proletariat, is not primarily production for human needs (which is the hallmark of communist production). In this period, production, as every-thing else, is subordinated to the demands of the civil war, to the iron necessity to extend and deepen the international revolution. Even though the proletariat may dispense with many of the formal characteristics of capitalist relations while it is arming itself and feeding itself for the civil war, one cannot call an economy which is orientated towards war a communist mode of production pure and simple. As long as capitalism exists anywhere in the world its laws will continue to determine the real content of productive relations everywhere. Thus if the proletariat of one country rid themselves of the form of wage labour and begin to ration all they produce without any kind of monetary intermediary, the rhythm of production and distribution in that proletarian bastion still remains under the merciless domination of global capital, of the global law of value. At the least reflux of the revolutionary tide these formal measures would quickly be undermined and begin to revert back to capitalist wage relations in all their naked brutality, without at any time the workers having ceased being part of an exploited class. To pretend that it is possible to establish islands of communism while the bourgeoisie still holds power on a world scale, is to try to mystify the working class and to divert it from its fundamental task - the total elimination of bourgeois power.
This does not mean that in its struggle for political power the proletariat abstains from taking economic measures aimed at undermining the power of capital; still less does it mean that the proletariat can simply take hold of the capitalist economy and wield it for its own purposes. Just as the Paris Commune showed that the proletariat cannot take hold of the capitalist state machine and use it for its own ends, the Russian Revolution revealed the impossibility of the working class indefinitely maintaining power on top of a capitalist economy. In the final analysis this means that the working class must engage in a process of destroying global capital if it is to retain power anywhere, but this process begins straight away: the working class has to be aware that the struggle against capital takes place at all levels (even though not uniformly) because capital is a total social relation.
As soon as the proletariat takes power in one area it will be forced to begin the attack on capitalist relations of production, firstly to strike a blow at the global organisation of capital, secondly to facilitate its political direction of the area it controls, and thirdly, to lay the basis for the far more developed social transformation which will follow the civil war. The expropriation of the bourgeoisie in one area will have a profoundly disintegratory effect on the organisation of world capital if it takes place in an important centre of capitalism, and will therefore deepen the world-wide class struggle; the proletariat will have to make use of all the economic weapons it has at its disposal. With regard to the second reason (which is of no lesser importance), it is impossible to imagine the political unification and, hegemony of the proletariat if it does not begin a radical assault on all the divisions and complexities imposed by the capitalist division of labour. The political power of the workers will depend to no mean degree on their ability to simplify and rationalise the process of production and distribution, and this rationalisation is impossible in an economy totally dominated by commodity relations. One of the main impulses pushing the proletariat towards the production of use, values is that such a method of production is far more suited to the tasks facing the proletariat in a revolutionary crisis - tasks such as the general arming of the workers, the emergency rationing of supplies the central direction of the productive apparatus, and. so on. Finally, provided the revolution is victorious on a world scale, these crude measures of socialisation could, under certain specific conditions, establish a continuity with the real, positive reorganisation of production which takes place after that victory, in so far as they help to neutralize and undermine the domination of commodity relations, thus lessening the 'negative' tasks of the proletariat in the period of transition.
The depth and extent of these measures will depend on the balance of forces in any given situation, but we can foresee that they will go the furthest where capitalism has already advanced, in its brutal, decadent and blind way, the process of material socialisation. Thus the collectivisation of the means of production will surely be effected the quickest in those sectors where the proletariat is most concentrated - in the big factories, mines, docks, etc. The socialisation of consumption will likewise proceed most easily in those areas which are already partly socialised: transport, housing, gas, electricity and other services, could be supplied free of charge almost immediately, subject only to the total reserves controlled by the workers. The collectivisation of these services would make deep inroads on the wage system. As for the direct distribution of individual articles of consumption, the total suppression of monetary forms, it is difficult to say how far this process could proceed as long as the revolution remains in one region. But we can say that we are for the maximum possible assault on the wage form, and no doubt the revolutionary workers will not be well disposed towards paying themselves wages once they have seized power. To be more concrete, we are in favour of measures which tend to regulate labour and distribution in social, collective terms (measures such as rationing combined with a universal obligation to work subject to the demands of the workers' councils) - rather than measures which involve a calculation of each individual contribution to social labour. The system of labour-time vouchers, advocated by Marx in The Critique of the Gotha Programme and by communists after Marx, by which individuals are given goods in return for a definite amount of labour performed, has a number of disadvantages and dangers, precisely because it does not really go beyond the capitalist notion of labour as an 'exchange' between the individual, atomised worker and 'society'. The system of labour-time vouchers would tend to divide those proletarians who are able to work from those who are not (a situation which may well be intensified in a period of international revolutionary crisis), and would furthermore drive a wedge between proletarians and other strata, inhibiting the process of social integration. Such a system would demand an immense bureaucratic supervision of each workers' labour, and would most easily degenerate into a form of money-wages at a downturn of the revolution (these drawbacks apply both to the period of the civil war and to the transition period itself).
A system of rationing under the control of the workers' councils would more easily lend itself to democratic regulation of the total resources of a proletarian bastion and to the encouragement of feelings of solidarity among all members of the class. But we have no illusions that this or any other system will represent a 'guarantee' against the return of wage slavery in its, most naked form. At root, the subjection to time and scarcity and to the pressure of global commodity relations still exists - it is simply borne by the whole proletarian bastion, as a kind of collective wage. Any temporary system of distribution is open to the dangers of bureaucratisation and degeneration as long as commodity relations exist - and commodity relations (including labour power as a commodity) cannot entirely disappear until classes have ceased to exist, because the perpetuation of classes means the perpetuation of exchange. There can be no pretence that any such method of distribution, either in the early stages of the revolution or the period of transition itself, represents "to each according to his needs", which can only be achieved in the higher stage of communism.
The assault on the wage form goes hand in hand with the assault on the capitalist division of labour. First and foremost the divisions imposed by capital within the ranks of the proletariat itself must be ruthlessly criticized and opposed. Divisions between skilled and unskilled, men and women, between proletarian sectors, employed and unemployed, must be confronted within the mass organs of the class as the only way of cementing the fighting unity of the workers.
Similarly, the proletariat, right from the beginning, embarks upon a process of integrating other social strata into its ranks, beginning with those semi-proletarian strata who will have demonstrated their capacity to support the revolutionary movement of the workers: one can envisage a rapid integration of certain layers who have already shown an ability to fight collectively against their exploitation, for example, large sectors of nurses and of white collar employees.
But it must be re-emphasised that all these inroads on commodity relations and the capitalist division of labour are in fact only a means to an end, to which they must be strictly subordinated: to the extension of the world revolution. While it does not shirk from attacking commodity relations from the start, the proletariat must regard as a snare and a delusion the idea of creating exemplary models of communism this or that region. While beginning the integration of non-exploiting classes into its ranks, the proletariat must constantly be on its guard against diluting itself with strata who cannot as a whole share the communist goals of the working class and who, after having been ostensibly integrated into the proletariat, would constitute a dangerous fifth column in its ranks at the first signs of a recession in the world revolutionary wave. The unification of all the workers of the world must take precedence over all attempts to begin the creation of the human community. All these advances towards socialisation are really stop-gap measures, emergency contingencies. They may be part of an attack on commodity relations but they in no way represent the abolition of fundamental capitalist laws. The real, positive supercession of commodity relations can only be achieved after the world-wide destruction of the bourgeoisie, after the construction of the international proletarian dictatorship. Here the period of transition proper begins.
The Period of transition
We cannot discuss here at great length the tasks of the proletariat during this period. We can only outline them briefly in order to emphasise the immensity of the proletariat's project. While liberating the productive forces from the fetters of capital, while liquidating the system of wage labour, national frontiers and the world market, the proletariat will have to establish a world-wide system of production and distribution geared solely to the satisfaction of human needs; it will have to direct the new productive system towards the restoration and revival of a world ravaged by decades of capitalist decadence and also the revolutionary civil war. The feeding and clothing of the poverty-stricken, the elimination of pollution and waste production together with the wholesale reorganisation of the global industrial infrastructure, the battle against the innumerable psychological alienations left-over from capitalism in work and social life as a whole - these are merely the preliminary tasks. They are simply the preconditions for the construction of a new civilisation, a new culture, a new humanity, the marvels of which can scarcely be imagined this side of capitalism, and which can mainly be grappled with in negative terms: the elimination of the antimony between economy and society, between work and leisure, between individual and society man and nature, and so on. And all the while the proletariat is laying the foundations of this new way of life it must be progressively integrating the whole of humanity into the ranks of associated labour and so creating the classless human community - but not without guarding against abolishing itself too rapidly, without ensuring, that there is not the slightest possibility of a return, to generalised commodity relations and thus to capitalism. The transition period will be the background of a gigantic struggle to maintain an irreversible movement towards the human community and against all the vestiges of the old society.
Those who portray this period as presenting no problems to the proletariat, as a stage which can quickly be superseded, are deceiving both themselves and the working class as a whole. We do not know how long this period will last but we do know that it will pose problems of a kind and magnitude unknown in the whole of human history, that the proletariat's task has no precedent in any other epoch, and that to think that this task can be carried out overnight is at best utopian and at worst a reactionary mystification. All we can be sure of is that the period of transition will not allow the proletariat or the social transformation to stand still. Any let up in the constant revolutionising of the social fabric will signify an immediate danger of a return to capitalism, and thus ultimately to barbarism. At no time will the proletariat be able to rest on its laurels and wait for communism to arrive on its own; either the proletariat struggles towards the higher stage of communism in a constant state of movement which is it self based on a conscious generalisation of communist relations, or it will find itself once again an exploited class being mobilised for some final catastrophe. There is no third way.
The Form of the Proletarian Dictatorship
It is a truism that the precise organisational forms through which the proletariat will carry out the communist transformation cannot be spelled out in advance by revolutionaries. It is impossible to foresee all the various organisational arid practical problems which will confront the working class all over the world, problems which will only finally be resolved by the class itself in its revolutionary struggle. The creativity of the class will almost certainly go beyond its own past achievements and. supersede many of the speculative formulations which revolutionaries can put forward at the present time.
Nevertheless, revolutionaries can in no way avoid discussing the question of the form and structure of the proletarian dictatorship. To do so would be to deny the whole experience of the revolutionary working class in this epoch, experience which has given rise to certain lessons which the proletariat simply cannot afford to ignore. To dismiss these lessons, especially those of Russia, is to leave the way open for a repetition of past defeats. It is no accident that the capitalist 'left' (Stalinists, Trotskyists, etc), is incapable of either appraising the past mistakes of the workers' movement or of clearly spelling out its own 'programme' for what they call the revolution. Behind this ambivalence, this reluctance to 'draw up blueprints', there lurks a class standpoint utterly opposed to the revolutionary self-activity of the working class.
These 'practical', 'realistic' leftists often hide behind Marx's own reluctance to speculate on the organisational form of the proletarian dictatorship. But the reluctance evinced by Marx was a necessary reflection of his own epoch, a period in which the material preconditions for the communist revolution did not yet exist. Any statements made by Marx and Engels on the form of the dictatorship were determined by the maturity of the class, by the degree to which it could present itself as a force capable of taking the leadership of society. But in the ascendant period of capitalism, with the proletariat still small and unformed, the possibility of its seizing power was extremely limited, and. in any case it could not have maintaineed power in that epoch at all.
Nevertheless, there were enough experiences of proletarian uprisings in that era to allow Marx and Engels to make certain vital statements about the nature of the proletarian power. Because they based their analysis on the methods of historical materialism, they were able to learn from the living experiences of the class and were thus able to revise some fundamental conceptions they had formulated with regard to the seizure of power by the working class. Thus the experience of the 1848 insurrection in Paris, and even more the Paris Commune of 1871, led them to abandon the perspective elaborated in The Communist Manifesto that the proletariat should organise to take over the bourgeois state machine. Henceforth it was clear that the proletariat could only smash this machine and set up its own organs of power, which could alone serve its communist aims. In learning this lesson Marx and Engels were carrying out the fundamental communist task of basing a proletarian political programme solely on the historical lessons discovered by the working class, and this is til1 the only way of developing the communist programme today. But today we are living in the epoch of capitalist decadence and thus of the proletarian social revolution, and we can and must apply the experience of the class in this epoch, and particularly of its great revolutionary wave of 1917-1923, to the task of elaborating the organisational elements of that programme in a way that was impossible for Marx and Engels to do.
For while Engels described the Commune itself as the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat; while Marx called it the political form for the social emancipation of labour; while certain fundamental lessons were laid down for all time by the Commune (the need to smash the bourgeois state, to arm the workers, to ensure direct control over workers delegates, etc); the Commune cannot stand by itself as the model for the proletarian dictatorship today. The Commune was the expression of a young working class which was not only not fully a world class but which even in the urban centres of capitalism was still fragmented and not yet fully distinct from other urban classes such as the petit bourgeoisie. This fact was reflected clearly in the Commune. Despite its desire for the universal social republic, the Commune could not extend itself on a world scale. The membership of the Commune's central organs was made up of Jacobins and Proudhonists as well as Communists, and its electoral bases were the geographical wards of Paris and universal suffrage, not a distinctly proletarian or industrial system of election. Above all the Commune could not have initiated a socialist transformation because the productive forces had not developed to the point at which communism was both possible and immediately necessary. As the ascendant period of capitalism cane to a close, the global extension and concentration of industrial capitalism had already rendered many features of the Commune obsolete, but none of the revolutionaries of the 1890s and early 1900s were clear as to what would supersede the Commune as the model for the dictatorship and their utterances on this question were necessarily vague.
Once again, however, it was the concrete experience of the class itself which provided an answer to this problem. Thus in Russia in 1905 and again in 1917, and throughout the whole revolutionary wave which followed in other countries, the Soviet or Workers' Council appeared as fighting organs of the revolutionary class struggle. The councils, assemblies of elected and revocable delegates from industrial units, were first and foremost expressions of the collective organisation of the proletariat united on its own class terrain and thus were a higher form of proletarian power than the Commune had been. As soon as the world union of workers' councils presented itself as the immediate goal of the proletarian revolution the slogan all power to the Soviets marked a class line between revolutionary and bourgeois organisations. No revolutionary organisation could reject the Soviet power as the form of the proletarian dictatorship. Since then every insurrectionary movement of the class from China in 1927 to Hungary in 1956 and so on has exhibited a tendency to express itself through the council form of organisation, and despite all the weaknesses of these movements nothing has fundamentally altered. in the nature of the class ,to justify the conclusion that in the next revolutionary wave the councils will not arise again as the concrete form of the proletarian dictatorship.
Today we are assailed by a host of modernists and innovators (e.g. Invariance, Negation, Kommunismen), who argue that workers' councils simply reproduce the capitalist division of labour and are therefore unsuitable instruments of a communist revolution, which they define as ±he immediate overthrow of all the categories of capitalist society. The class standpoint of these tendencies betrays the undialectical and unmarxist nature of their conception of revolution. For them the working class is no more than a faction of capitalism which can only become part of the 'revolutionary subject' or the 'communist movement' by immediately negating itself into a universal 'humanity'; whereas the marxist vision of revolution can only be that the proletariat must assert itself as the only communist class prior to integrating the whole of humanity into associated labour and so ending its own separate existence as a class. The workers councils are adequate instruments for the self-assertion of the proletariat against the rest of society, as well as for the process of integrating other social strata into the ranks of the proletariat, for the creation of the human community. Only when that community has been definitively realized will the, workers councils finally disappear. Linked city by city and across the world, the workers' councils will be responsible for the military, economic, and ideological tasks of the civil war and for the direction of the communist transformation in the transition period. In this period the councils will be under-going a continual expansion of their social base as they integrate more and more of humanity into communist relations of production.
But the affirmation of the council form by revolutionaries today in no way precludes a thorough-going critique of previous council movements and of the proletarian political tendencies which were thrown up by, or drew their inspiration from these movements. This critique is absolutely indispensable if the working class is to avoid making the same mistakes that it made in the past; and it can only base itself on the bitter lessons which the proletariat has learned through its most militant struggles in this epoch.
The most important lessons can be summarised as follows:
1. Political power is exercised through the councils themselves and not through a party. In Russia and elsewhere in the past it was assumed that the proletarian dictatorship was exercised through the communist party, the latter constituting the 'government' when it had a majority in the soviets, just as in bourgeois parliaments. Furthermore delegates to the soviets were elected on party slates rather than operating as mandated delegates to carry out the decisions of workers assemblies (often delegates did not come from factories at all, but were representatives of parties, unions, etc). This in itself was an immediate concession to bourgeois forms of representation and parliamentarianism, tending to leave power in the hands of political experts rather than in the mass of workers themselves; but more important, the idea that the party exercised power rather than the class as a whole (an idea endemic to the workers' movement at the tine) became a direct vehicle of the counter-revolution and was used by the Bolshevik Party in decay to justify their attacks on the class after the failure of the revolutionary tide. By identifying the power of the party with the dictatorship of the proletariat the Bolsheviks were provided with an ideological mantle for what quickly became the dictatorship of capital in a new guise. The old Social Democratic idea of the party which represented and organised the class was decisively refuted by the Russian experience.
In the soviets of the future, the most important decisions, those concerned with the overall direction of the revolution, must be fully discussed and arrived ,at in the general assemblies of the class at the base, in the factories and. other workplaces, so that delegates to the soviets serve primarily to centralize and carry out the decisions of those assemblies. These delegates will often be members of the party or other fractions but they are elected as workers and not as representatives of any party. It may even be that at any given time the majority of delegates are members of the communist party but this in itself is not a danger providing the proletariat as a whole is actively participating in its class wide organs and retains an overall control of them. In the last analysis this can only be safeguarded by the radicalisation and energy of the workers themselves, by the success of the revolutionary transformation which is in their hands; but certain formal measures will have to be taken to inhibit the formation of a bureaucratic elite around the party or any other body. These, will include the constant revocability of delegates, maximum rotation of administrative tasks, equal access of delegates to use values as for all other workers, and in particular the complete separation of the party from the state functions of the councils. Thus, for example, it is the workers' councils which control the arms and which supervise repression against counter-revolutionary elements, and not some military wing or special commission of the party.
The communist party of the future will have no other weapons than its theoretical clarity and its active commitment to the communist programme. It cannot seek power for itself, but must fight within the general organs of the class for the implementation of the communist programme. It can in no way force the class as a whole to put this programme into action, or implement it itself, because communism can only be created by the conscious activity of the entire working class. The party can only seek to convince the class as a whole of the correctness of its analysis through the process of discussion and active education which will go on within the assemblies and councils of the class, and it will pitilessly denounce any self-professed revolutionary tendency which abrogates gates to itself the task of organising the class and of substituting itself as the revolutionary subject.
2. The councils are not organs of self-management. In any future revolutionary situation the demand to subordinate the councils to an omnipotent party-state which will lead and educate an amorphous mass of workers and centralise capital in its own hands will come from all the various heirs of the counter-revolution in Russia: Trotskyists, Stalinists, and others. Communists will have to stand by the rest of their class and fight these conceptions tooth and nail. But the proletariat's bitter experience of state capitalism in Russia and elsewhere, and of the reactionary nature of nationalise in general, may make the class as a whole less sympathetic to calls for nationalisation than in previous revolutionary moments. But the bourgeoisie will no doubt find other rallying cries to try to tie the workers to the bourgeois state and to capitalist relations of production; one of the most pernicious of these could be the slogan of workers' self management, which could find an echo in the various corporatist, localist, and syndicalist mystifications which exist in the class. The experience of the past has given many examples of this. In Italy and Germany during the first great revolutionary wave, there was a strong tendency for the workers to simply lock themselves up in the factories and to try to manage their own enterprises on a corporate basis, to restrict the council organisation to the level of each factory rather than creating organs specifically aimed at regrouping and centralising the revolutionary efforts of all workers. Today the idea of self-management is already presenting itself as a final resort of capitalism in crisis and emasculated workers' councils are being advocated by numerous left factions of capital from the social democrats to Trotskyists and sundry libertarians. The advantage of this slogan to the bourgeoisie is that it serves to induce the proletariat to participate actively in its own exploitation and slaughter without calling into question the power of the capitalist state or capitalist commodity relations. Thus the bourgeois Republic in Spain was able to co-opt a certain amount of self-management into the war-effort against France's rival capitalist faction. (Footnote 1)
The isolation of the workers into councils composed of individual, productive units simply maintains the divisions imposed by the capitalist system and leads to certain defeat for the class. (See Cardan's Sur le Contenu du Socialisme, published by Solidarity as Workers' Councils and the Economics of a Self Managed Society for a perfect model of defeat.) Such methods of organisation divert the workers from attacking the primary target - the capitalist state - and allows the state to launch its offensive against a fragmented working class. They also serve to perpetuate the idea of autonomous enterprises and of socialism as free exchange between free collectives of workers whereas the. Real socialisation of production implies the world suppression of autonomous enterprises as such, and the subordination of the whole productive apparatus to the conscious direction of society, without the medium of exchange. (Footnote 2)
But the mystification of self management need not end with the idea of self managing productive units. It can also be extended to a national model, in which workers councils come together to plan a democratic accumulation of national capital; and it can even be accommodated to the ideal of a self sufficient communist bastion which attempts to formally abolish wage labour and trade in one country - an illusion held by many council communists in the twenties and thirties, which is appearing again in a different form in the ideas of the innovators of marxism, who demand the immediate creation of the human community. All these ideologies are linked by a common rejection of the need for the proletariat to destroy the bourgeois state on a world scale before actual permanent socialisation can begin. Thus, against all these confusions it must be asserted that the workers' councils are first and foremost organs of political power, which must serve to unite the workers not simply to administer the economy but to conquer power on a world scale.
3. The workers' councils are not ends in themselves. The international conquest of power by the working class is simply the beginning of the social revolution. In. the period of transition the workers councils are the means through which the proletariat implements the communist transformation of society. If the councils become ends in themselves this can only signify a halt in the process of social revolution and the beginnings of a return to capitalism. Unless the councils serve as instruments for the positive abolition of wage slavery and commodity production they will become hollow shells through which a new bourgeoisie will exploit the working class.
Neither in the transition period nor in the revolutionary uprising itself can there be any guarantee that the working class will engage in a continuous process of revolution until the final triumph of communism. The mere will or foresight of revolutionary minorities is not enough to prevent the degeneration of the revolution which itself reflects a material change in the balance of class forces. Between the period in which the councils are revolutionary and the period in. which they have become appendages of capital there is a delicate balance in which it remains possible to reform the councils from within: but this is only a relatively brief possibility. If that possibility is lost then revolutionaries must leave the councils and advocate the formation of new councils directly opposed to the old - in other words a second revolution. In this respect we already have before us the example of the small communist fractions in Russia who refused to collaborate in the dead soviets of the early twenties and. who advocated the overthrow of the Bolshevik state (e.g. Miasnikov's Workers Group in 1923); or the German left communists who left the reformist factory organisation to the putrid machinations of the KPD and the Social Democratic Parties.
The Question of the State
The problem of the state in the period of transition and its relationship to, the proletariat is so complex that we must deal with the question separately, even though it is closely connected to the -lessons gained from previous revolutions about the form of the proletarian dictatorship and the role of the workers councils.
As long as classes exist, we cannot speak of the abolition of the state. The state continues to exist during the period of transition because there remain classes whose direct interests cannot be reconciled: on the one hand the communist proletariat and on the other hand other classes left over from capitalism who can have no material interests in the communisation of society, (peasants, urban petit bourgeoisie and professionals, etc). As Engels wrote in The Origins of the Family Private Property and the State:
"The state is therefore by no means a power forced on society from without...it is a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it is cleft into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to expel. But in order that these antagonisms, classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in sterile struggle, a power seemingly standing above society becomes necessary for the purpose of moderating the conflict, of keeping 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."
It is important not to reduce the phenomenon of the state to a simple conspiracy of the ruling class to perpetuate its power. The state did not arise out of the mere will of any ruling class but was an emanation of class society in general and due to this it becomes an instrument of the ruling class.
"As the state arose from the need to hold class antagonisms in check, but as it arose at the same time, in the midst of the conflict of these classes it is, as a rule, the state of the most powerful, economically dominant class, which, through the medium of the state, becomes also the politically dominant class and thus acquires new, means of holding down and exploiting the oppressed class" (ibid).
In the period of transition to communism the, state will, inevitably arise, in order to prevent the class antagonisms of this hybrid society from pulling it apart; class struggle will not end with the destruction of the bourgeoisie. The proletariat, as the strongest, the dominant class, will use the state to maintain its power and to defend the gains of the communist transformation which it is putting into effect. To be sure this state will be unlike any other state in history. For the first time the newly dominant class will not inherit the old state machine and take it over for its own purposes, but will smash, destroy, and annihilate the bourgeois state, and set about systematically constructing its own organs of power; and this is because the proletariat is the first exploited class in history to be a revolutionary class, and it can never be an exploiting class. Consequently, it uses the state not to exploit other classes but to defend a social transformation that will end exploitation for ever, which will abolish all social antagonisms, and so lead to the disappearance of the state. The proletariat cannot be an economically dominant class. Its domination is political only.
In the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and many others, the idea is often put forward that in the period of transition the "state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat", that the state is simply the armed proletariat "organized as the ruling class", and that this 'proletarian' state is therefore no longer a state in the old sense of the word. But a deeper study of the nature of the state, itself based on the most profound critiques of the state elaborated by Marx and Engels, and on the historical experience of the class, leads us to the conclusion that the state in the revolution as a whole is something other than just the armed proletariat, that the proletariat and the state are not identical.
Let us summarize our main reasons for making this assertion.
1. In the period of the insurrection itself, of the revolutionary civil war, the scenarios envisaged by Marx, Engels and Lenin, can be seen to have a certain validity. At this point the main task of the working class, of the proletarian dictatorship expressed through the workers councils, is indeed a statist one: the violent suppression of the enemy class, the bourgeoisie. At the beginning of the insurrection, when the mass of workers are sweeping forward, arms in hand, and at all times when the revolutionary onslaught against the bourgeoisie is on the upsurge, delegates to the workers councils and congresses of councils will function as simple instruments of the will of the class and there will be little or no conflict between the base assemblies of the workers and the central organs they elect. Here it will be very easy to identify the armed proletariat with the state. But even at this time it is dangerous to make this identification. The moment the revolutionary tide meets with serious obstacles or set-backs the workers delegates who have been mandated to deal with the outside world (whether peasants supplying food, or even capitalist states who are prepared to barter with the workers power) (Footnote 3) would be forced to advocate certain compromises, to ask the workers to work harder, or to reduce their rations - and so these delegates would begin to appear as agents external to the workers, as functionaries of a state in the old sense of something standing above and against the workers.
There is a delicate balance reached at this point, where the workers delegates and central organs stand half way between being negotiators between the workers and world capital - and becoming definite agents of world capital and thus of capitalist counter-revolution inside the proletarian bastion, as did the Bolsheviks in Russia. This balance can only be decided in favour of the workers by a further extension of the world revolution allowing a new breathing space to the beleaguered workers and to the partially socialized sector they have created.
The existence of formal measures alone cannot prevent this degeneration from taking place, because it is a direct result of the pressures of the world market; but it is still vital that the workers are prepared for such an eventuality so that they can do all they can to fight it. That is why it is important that the proletariat is not identified with the state, either with the apparatus it sets up to mediate with non-exploiting classes within the proletarian bastion, or with the central organs which are charged with relating to the world outside that bastion, or indeed with any institution, because while any institution thrown up by the working class can become integrated into capitalism, the working class can never be integrated, can never become counter-revolutionary.
To identify the proletariat with the state, as the Bolsheviks did, leads to the monstrous situation- at a moment of reflux or defeat in which the state as the incarnation of the class is permitted to do anything to maintain its power while the class as a whole remains defenceless. Thus Trotsky argued that the workers had no right to strike against their own state, and the massacre of the Kronstadt insurgents was justified on the grounds that any rebellion against the Workers State could only be counter-revolutionary. Clearly these developments in Russia did not take place simply because the workers were identified with the state, but flowed from a material retrogression in the world revolution. Nevertheless, that ideological identification served to disarm the workers in the fare of the degeneration of the revolution. In future the autonomy and initiative of the rank and file workers vis-a-vis any central organs must be defended and backed up by positive measures, such as the renunciation of all violent methods within the proletariat, the right of all workers to strike, the possession by the base assemblies of their own means of communication and propaganda (press, etc), and above all the retention of arms by the workers in their factories and neighbourhoods, so that they will be able to resist the incursions of any emergent bureaucracy should this become necessary.
We do not advocate these precautionary measures out of any lack of conviction in the proletariat's ability to spread the revolution and to socialize production, which are the only final guarantees against degeneration, but because the proletariat must be prepared for any eventuality and not deceived by false promises that all will be well. The proletarian revolution will have far less chance of surviving temporary set-backs if the workers are not prepared in advance to deal with them.
2. Contrary to some of the expectations of Marx, the socialist revolution will not unfold in a world in which the vast majority of the population are proletarians; if that were the case one could perhaps imagine the disappearance of the state almost immediately following the destruction of the bourgeoisie. But one of the main consequences of capitalist decadence is that capital has not been able to integrate the majority of mankind directly into capitalist social relations even though it has subjected all to the tyranny of capitalist laws. The proletariat is a minority of the population on a world scale. The enormous problems posed to the proletarian revolution by this fact cannot be charmed away by the invocations of situationists and other modernists by including in the ranks of the proletariat all those who feel themselves alienated or as having no control over their lives. There are material reasons why the working class alone is the communist class: its world-wide, associative nature, its location at the heart of capitalist value production, the historical consciousness deriving from its class struggle. It is the lack of these characteristics among other classes and strata which necessitates the dictatorship of the proletariat, the assertion by the proletariat of its communist goals in distinction from all other strata of society.
In the process of conquering power itself, the proletariat will be faced with a huge mass of non-proletarian, non-bourgeois strata, who may have a part to play in the struggle against the bourgeoisie, who may even support the proletariat, but who cannot by themselves, as classes, have any interest in communism and who might equally veer towards the counter-revolution, particularly at any sign of a set-back in the proletariat's march to power. The problem of dealing with these classes will be crucial to the success of the struggle against the capitalist class; but after the defeat of the bourgeoisie it is perhaps the most central of all the proletariats tasks; indeed it is the existence of these classes which provides the necessity for a period of transition between capitalism and communism.
The idea of dispensing with the transition period by immediately integrating all other strata into the proletariat is either a hopeless fantasy or a conscious attempt to undermine the autonomy of the working, class. The task is so huge that it simply could not be done in one fell swoop; any attempt to do so would not be the diso1ution of other classes into the proletariat, but the dissolution of the proletariat into the mythical 'people' of bourgeois radicalism. Such attempts would dilute the strength of the proletariat, to the extent that any autonomy of action would become impossible. The precondition for this autonomy is that the integration of other strata takes place on the proletariat's terms and subject to the material developments of the world revolution.
Similarly, the attempt to give these strata equal representation in the workers councils, without having first destroyed them as separate strata, in other words without having made them into workers, would completely undermine the political autonomy o1 the working class. Still less can the proletariat allow these strata and classes to set up parallel organs of power equal to the workers' councils.
At the same time the working class cannot simply repress these classes and deprive them of all means of social expression. The experience of Russia, in which the proletariat during the period of War Communism was forced into a virtual civil war against the peasantry, is eloquent testimony of the impossibility of the proletariat simply imposing its will by force of arms on the rest of society. Such a project would be a terrible waste of life and revolutionary energy, and would in all probability directly help to destroy the revolution. The only civil war that cannot be avoided is the one against the bourgeoisie. Violence against other classes should be resorted to only in the most extreme circumstances. Besides, while it is re-organizing production and distribution along communist lines, the proletariat must cater for the needs not only of itself but of society as a whole, which means that there will have to be suitable social institutions for expressing everyone's needs.
The proletariat, therefore, will have to allow the rest of the population (excluding the bourgeoisie) to organize themselves and to form bodies which can represent their needs in front of the workers' councils. However, the working class will not allow these other strata to organize specifically as classes with particular economic interests. Just as these other strata are integrated into associated labour as individuals, so the proletariat only permits them to express themselves as individuals in civil society. This implies that the representative organs through which they express themselves, unlike the workers' councils, are based on territorial units and forms of organisation. Thus, for example, in the countryside, village assemblies might send delegates to rural-district and. regional councils, and in the cities neighbourhood assemblies might send representatives to urban communal councils; and these organs will, at various local and regional levels, discuss the needs of the general population with the workers' councils' delegates. It is important to note that workers (as representatives of proletarian neighbourhoods) will be present in these bodies, and indeed measures should be taken to ensure that even within these bodies a working class domination is achieved. Thus the workers' councils may insist that working class delegates have preponderant voting rights, and that working class neighbourhoods have their own militia units as well as stressing that it is the working class communal delegates who do most of the liaison and discussion with the workers' councils.
The existence of these organs in regular relation to the workers' councils constantly creates statist forms in the sense given by Engels above, whatever we call this new apparatus. For this reason, the state in the transition period is linked to, but not identical with, the workers councils and the armed proletariat as a whole. For, as Engels shows, the state is not only an instrument of violence and repression (functions which will hopefully be minimal after the defeat of the bourgeoisie), it is also an instrument of mediation between classes, an instrument which serves to keep the class struggle within the bounds of the existing society. This in no way implies that the state can ever be 'neutral' or 'above classes' (though it may often appear to be). The mediation and conciliation that is effected through the state is always in the interest of the dominant class, it always serves to perpetuate that domination. The state in the period of transition must be used as an instrument of the working class. The proletariat does not share power with any other class or strata. It will have to appropriate for itself a monopoly of political-military power, which in concrete terms will necessitate a monopoly of arms by the workers, the workers' councils' power of decision over all recommendations of any joint negotiating bodies, maximal representation of workers' delegates on all state bodies, etc. The proletariat will have to be continually vigilant so as to ensure that this state, this organ which arises to keep the transitional society together, remains an instrument of the working class and does not become the representative of alien class interests, does not become an instrument of the other classes against the proletariat. For as long as classes exist, as long as there is exchange and a social division of labour, this state will not only remain, but like all other states will, constantly threaten to, in Engels words, "increasingly alienate itself" from society, to become a power standing above society, and thus above, the proletariat.
The only way the proletariat can really prevent this from happening is for it to engage in a continuing process of social transformation, to push forward more and more measures which tend to undermine the material roots of other classes and to integrate them into communist relations of production. But until such time as there are no longer any classes the proletariat can only dominate the organisms which arise in the transition period by clearly understanding their nature and function. We use the term 'state' to describe that apparatus which serves, during the transition period, to mediate between classes in a framework of political domination by the working class. The word itself is of lesser importance; what is important is not to confuse this apparatus with the workers' councils, with the autonomous organs of the class whose function and essence is not compromise or mediation but permanent social revolution.
This brings us to our final point. By its very nature the state is a conservative force, an inheritance, from the pre-history of class society. Its very function is to preserve social relations, to maintain the balance of forces between classes - in other words to stand still. But as we have said, the proletariat in the transition period cannot afford to stand still; whatever is not part of a movement towards communism is a step backwards towards capitalism. Left to itself the state will not 'wither away' but will attempt to preserve itself, indeed to increase its domination of social life. The state only withers away to the extent that the proletariat is able to carry forward the social transformation towards the integration of all classes into the human community. The positive creation of this community undermines the social basis of the state: the "irreconcilability of class antagonisms", a social illness which has its cure only in the abolition of classes.
The proletariat alone contains within itself the seeds of communist social relations; the proletariat alone is capable of undertaking the communist transformation. The state at best helps to guard the gains of this transformation (and at worst becomes an obstacle to it) but it cannot, as a state, undertake that transformation. It is the social movement of the whole proletariat in creative self activity which actually ends the domination of commodity fetishism and builds up a new social relationship between human beings.
The workers' movement from Marx and Engels to Lenin and even the left communists has been plagued with the confusion that the taking over of the means of production by the state has something to do with communism, that statification equals socialisation. As Engels wrote in Anti-Duhring:
"The proletariat seizes the, state power and transforms the means of production in the first instance into state property. But in doing this it puts an end to itself as proletariat, it puts an end to all class differences and class antagonisms; it puts an end also to the state as state".
Despite other conflicting (and more profound) insights into the inability of the proletariat to use the state in the interests of freedom, both Marx and Engels could make such statements as the one above in the ascendant epoch of capitalism because at that time, in that era of 'private' capitalism's anarchic sway, of crises of overproduction within national boundaries, the organisation of production by the state, even a national state, could appear as an infinitely superior mode of economic organisation. The founders of scientific socialism never wholly escaped the idea that the socialist transformation could take place within a national economy or that statification was a bridge to socialism, or even equivalent to socialisation itself; these illusions and confusions permeated both the Social Democracy and the communist tendencies which broke away from it after 1914, and were only finally laid to rest within the communist movement by the experience of Russia, of the global overproduction crisis of capital, of the general tendency towards state capitalism in the era of decadence. But the confusions about statification being somehow 'socialist' still remains as a dead weight of mystification within the working class as a whole and has to be rigorously combated by communists.
Today, revo1utiona±ies can affirm that state property remains private property as far as the producers are concerned, that statification of the means of production puts an end neither to the proletariat, nor to class antagonisms, nor to the state, (Engels' statement notwithstanding). Neither nationalisation nor statification by the world-wide state of the transition period would be a step towards social property which in a sense is the abolition of property itself. In expropriating the bourgeoisie the proletariat does not institute private property of any kind, not even 'proletarian' property. There is no such thing as 'workers' ownership of the means of production or a 'proletarian economy'. The proletariat on seizing power socialises production: this means that the means of production and distribution tend to become the property of society as a whole. The proletariat guards this 'property' in the transition period in the interests of the human community of the future, whose foundations the proletariat is laying. It is not 'its own' property because by definition, the proletariat is a propertyless class. The process of socialisation of property realises itself to the extent that the proletariat is integrating the rest of society into its ranks and so becoming one with the communist human community, with a social humanity which will come into existence for the first tine. Once again the proletariat will use the state to regulate the achievements of this process, but the process itself occurs not only independently of the state hut actively leads to the disappearance of the state.
We communists do not 'advocate' the state, nor do we hold it up as the incarnation of all evil as the anarchists do. In analyzing the historical origins of the state we simply recognise the inevitability of statist forms arising in the transition period, and in recognizing this we help to prepare our class for its historic mission the construction of a society without classes and thus free forever from the scourge of the state.
CDW, World Revolution, (April 1975). Supplementary note on the question of the state
This text expresses the views of World Revolution as a whole, but it is not meant as a final statement or a solution to the problems of the transition period. Within the framework of certain class lines, the question of the state and the transition period must remain open for discussion between revolutionaries and can only be concretely solved by the revolutionary activity of the working class as a whole. It follows that within this framework different conceptions and definitions of the state can be accommodated inside a coherent revolutionary tendency.
The class lines concerning the question of the state are as follows:
- The necessity to completely destroy the bourgeois state on a world scale.
- The necessity of the proletarian dictatorship:
- the proletariat is the only revolutionary class;
- proletarian autonomy is a precondition of the communist revolution;
- the proletariat ,does not share power with any, other class; it has a monopoly of political-military power.
- Power is exercised by the proletariat as a whole organised in councils; not by a party.
- All relations of force and all violence within the ranks of the proletariat must be rejected; the whole class must have the right to strike, to carry arms, to full freedom of expression, etc.
- The world dictatorship of the proletariat must put into effect the social content of the communist revolution: the abolition of wage labour, commodity production, nations, and classes, and the construction of the world human community.
- 2This does not mean that the revolutionary workers will tolerate foremen and despotic regimes within the factory. During the revolutionary process factory committees elected by and responsible to the general assembly of the factory will take charge of the day-to-day running of the factory. Moreover, the overall production plans adhered to by the factory committees are decided by workers' councils composed of delegates from factory assemblies, and thus are decided upon by the class as a whole. As soon as the working class begins to take over the productive apparatus (and the seizure of the factories must be seen as a moment in the insurrection) it begins the struggle to subordinate the production process to human needs. This implies profound changes in the organisation of work, so that productive activity itself tends to become a part of consumption in the broadest sense. Certain measures in this direction will have to be taken almost immediately, such as the shortening of the working day (subject to the demands of the revolution), the rotation of tasks, and the elimination of hierarohica1 relations inside the factory through the equal participation of all workers, skilled and unskilled, manual and technical, men and women, in the factory assemblies and committees. Back
do not formalistically oppose any trade or compromises between the
proletariat and other non-exploiting classes in the civil war, or even
between the proletarian bastion and sections of the world bourgeoisie
should this become unavoidable. But we must make the following points
- a. The proletariat must be able to distinguish between compromises imposed by a difficult situation, and, open capitulations amounting to class betrayals; and it must be aware of the extreme dangers inherent in all compromises, and take measures to counteract them. Any attempt to institutionalise or make permanent any deals with the bourgeoisie is a crossing of class lines, a betrayal of the civil war.
- b. In an area controlled by the workers' councils a state will arise which has the task of mediating between the proletariat and other non-exploiting classes (of the All-Russian Congresses of Workers, Soldiers, and Peasant Soviets after 1917). But the proletariat cannot use this state to mediate with its irreconcilable class enemy, the bourgeoisie. Any tactical negotiations with sectors of the world bourgeoisie outside the proletarian bastion are directly and solely the task of the workers' councils, and must be strictly supervised by the whole working class through their general assemblies. Back