Italian Left 1936: Problems of the period of transition

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The following article was originally published in the November-December 1936 edition of Bilan (n°37), the theoretical journal of the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left. It is the fourth article in the series "Problems of the Period of Transition" by the Belgian comrade who signed his contributions "Mitchell". The previous three have been published in the last three issues of the International Review.

The article takes as its starting point the proletarian revolution in Russia - not as a rigid schema applicable to all future revolutionary experiences, but as a living laboratory of the class war, requiring critical assessment and analysis in order to provide reliable lessons for the future. Like most of the best marxist works, it presents itself as a polemical debate with other interpretations of this experience, judged to be inadequate, dangerous or frankly counter-revolutionary. In the last category it places the Stalinist ("centrist", to use the somewhat misleading term still used by the Italian left at the time) argument that socialism was being constructed in the confines of the USSR. The article does not dwell long on refuting this claim - it is sufficient to show that the theory of "socialism in one country" is incompatible with the most fundamental principles of internationalism, and that the practice of "building socialism" in the USSR required the most ferocious exploitation of the proletariat. More significant is the article's criticisms of the views put forward by the Trotskyist opposition, which shared with the Stalinists the idea that the "workers' state" in the USSR could prove its superiority to the established capitalist regimes by engaging in economic competition with them - indeed Mitchell points out that Stalin's post-1928 programme of rapid industrialisation had actually been plagiarised from the policies of the Left Opposition.

For Mitchell and the Italian left, the proletarian revolution can only begin a real economic transformation in the direction of communism once it has conquered political power on a world scale. It was therefore an error to judge the success or failure of the revolution in Russia on the basis of the economic policies it undertook; at best, the victorious proletariat in one country could only conduct a holding operation at the economic level, focusing all its energies on the political extension of the revolution to other countries. The article is highly critical of any notion that the measures put through under the heading of "war communism" represented a real advance towards communist social relations. For Mitchell, the virtual disappearance of money and the forced requisitioning of grain in the years 1918-20 were no more than contingent necessities forced on the proletarian power by the harsh reality of the civil war, and were accompanied by a dangerous bureaucratic distortion of the soviet state. In Mitchell's view, it would be far more accurate to look at the "New Economic Policy" of 1921, despite its various flaws, as a more "normal" model of a transitional economic regime in one country.

The polemical element of the text also extends to other currents in the revolutionary movement. The article takes up the debate with Rosa Luxemburg, who had criticised the agrarian policy of the Bolsheviks in 1917 ("land to the tiller"), but who in Mitchell's view had underestimated the political necessity of the Bolsheviks' recognition of the seizure of land by the small peasants as a way of strengthening support for the dictatorship of the proletariat. It also returns to the discussion with the Dutch internationalists of the GIK which we commented on in the last issue of the International Review. In this text Mitchell argues that the Dutch comrades' exclusive focus on the problem of workers' management of production led them to conclude falsely that the principle of centralism was the main cause of the revolution's degeneration, while at the same time entirely evading the problem of the transitional state, which in the marxist outlook is an inevitability as long as classes have not been abolished.

In the concluding part of the article, dealing with the problem of the "proletarian state", Mitchell shows both the strengths and weaknesses of the Italian Left's framework of analysis. Mitchell reiterates the principal conclusion the Italian Left drew from the Russian experience in this regard, which to us remains one of its most important contributions to marxist theory: the understanding that while the transitional state is an unavoidable "scourge" that the working class will have to utilise, for this very reason the proletariat cannot identify itself with this state, but will have to maintain a permanent vigilance to ensure that it does not turn against it, as had been the case in Russia.

On the other hand, the article also reveals some of the inconsistencies in the positions of the Italian left of the time. Their keen awareness of the necessity for the communist party led them to defend the notion of the "dictatorship of the party", a view that ran counter to their insistence on the need for the party and other proletarian organs to remain independent of the transitional state. And Mitchell also insists that the existing soviet state in Russia still had a proletarian character, despite its counter-revolutionary orientation, because it had eliminated the private ownership of the means of production. In the same sense, he does not consider the new bureaucracy to be a new bourgeoisie. This position, in some ways close to the analysis developed by Trotsky, did not however lead to the same political conclusions: unlike the Trotskyist current, the Italian left always placed the international interests of the working class above all other considerations and rejected any defence of the USSR, which they already saw as being integrated into the sordid game of world imperialism. Furthermore, we can already see in Mitchell's article elements that would eventually make it possible for the Italian left to arrive at a more consistent characterisation of the Stalinist regime. Thus, in a previous section of the article, Mitchell warns that "collectivisation" or nationalisation was by no means a socialist measure in itself, even quoting Engels's prescient passage about state capitalism. It would take some years and some searching debates for these inconsistencies to be ironed out by the Italian left, partly through discussion with other revolutionary currents such as the German/Dutch left. Nevertheless, the article provides further proof of the depth and rigour of the Italian left's approach to the development of the communist programme.


Bilan n°37, November-December 1936

IV: Some elements of a proletarian administration

The Russian revolution of October 1917 must without doubt be regarded as a proletarian revolution because it destroyed a capitalist state from top to bottom and replaced bourgeois domination with the first fully achieved proletarian dictatorship (the Paris Commune having merely created the premises for such a dictatorship).[1] It is on this basis that it has to be analysed by marxists, as a progressive experience (despite its later counter-revolutionary evolution), as a step along the way that leads to the emancipation of the proletariat and the whole of humanity.

Material and political conditions for the proletarian revolution

From the considerable mass of material accumulated by this gigantic event it is not yet possible, given the state of our research, to put forward definite orientations for future proletarian revolutions. But a confrontation with certain theoretical notions, with certain marxist deductions from historical reality, will make it possible to arrive at the fundamental conclusion that the complex problems posed by the attempt to construct a classless society must be intimately linked to a series of principles founded on the universality of bourgeois society and its laws, and on the predominance of the international class struggle.

Moreover, the first proletarian revolution did not, contrary to expectations, break out in the richest countries, the most materially and culturally developed ones, countries "ripe" for socialism, but in a backward semi-feudal area of capitalism. From which we derive the second conclusion - although it's not an absolute - that the best conditions for revolution came together in a situation where a material deficiency corresponded to a lesser capacity of the ruling class to cope with social conflicts. In other words, political factors prevailed over material factors. Such an affirmation, far from being in contradiction with Marx's thesis about the conditions needed for the advent of a new society, merely underlines the profound significance we accorded to this factor in the first chapter of this study.

The third conclusion, the corollary of the first, is that the essentially international problem of the building of socialism - the preface to communism - cannot be resolved in the framework of one proletarian state, but only on the basis of the political defeat of the world bourgeoisie, at least in the vital centres of its rule, the most advanced countries.

While it is undeniable that a national proletariat can only undertake certain economic tasks after installing its own rule, the construction of socialism can only get going after the destruction of the most powerful capitalist states, even though the victory of a "poor" proletariat can take on a huge significance if it is integrated into the process of development of the world revolution. In other words, the tasks of a victorious proletariat with regard to its own economy are subordinated to the necessities of the international class struggle.

It is noteworthy that while all genuine marxists have rejected the theory of "socialism in one country", most of the criticisms of the Russian revolution have focused essentially on the modalities of the construction of socialism, looking at economic and cultural criteria rather than political ones, and forgetting to go to the logical conclusions imposed by the impossibility of any kind of national socialism.

This is a key question because the first practical experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat has to dissipate the fog, which still surrounds the notion of socialism. And an essential lesson of the Russian revolution is surely - and this in the most exacerbated form, given that we are talking about a backward economy - the historic necessity for a proletarian state, temporarily isolated, to put very strict limits on its programme of economic construction.

The global balance of forces determines the rhythm and modalities of the construction of socialism

The rejection of "socialism in one country" can only mean that it cannot be a question of the proletarian state orienting the economy towards a productive development that will encompass all areas of manufacture, that will respond to the most varying needs and build up an integrated economy, so that, juxtaposed to other similar economies, this will make up world socialism. At the most it is a question - and this only after the victory of the world revolution - of developing the branches of each national economy which have a specific function and can be integrated as such into the future communist society (it is true that capitalism has realised this in a very imperfect way through the international division of labour). With the less favourable perspective of a slow-down in the revolutionary movement (the situation of Russia in 1920-21), it is a question of adapting the processes of the proletarian economy to the rhythm of the world-wide class struggle, but only in the sense of strengthening the class rule of the proletariat as a reference point for the new revolutionary upsurge of the international proletariat.

Trotsky in particular has often lost sight of this fundamental line, even though he has sometimes made it clear that for him the proletarian objective is not the realisation of integral socialism, but only the preparation of the elements of a world socialist economy as a means of politically strengthening the proletarian dictatorship.

In fact, in his analyses of the development of the Soviet economy, while beginning from the correct premise that this economy is dependent on the capitalist world market, Trotsky often approaches the question as if it was a "match" at the economic level between the proletarian state and world capitalism.

While it is true that socialism can only affirm its superiority as a system of production if it produces more and better than capitalism, such a historical verification can only be established after a long process that has taken place in the world economy, after a bitter struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie and not as the result of a clash between a proletarian economy and the capitalist economy, since it is certain that on the basis of economic competitiveness, the proletarian state would inevitably be obliged to resort to capitalist methods of the exploitation of labour which would prevent any transformation of the social content of production. Fundamentally, the superiority of socialism cannot reside in its capacity to produce more "cheaply" - although this is certainly the consequence of an unlimited expansion of labour productivity - but has to express itself through the disappearance of the capitalist contradiction between production and consumption.

Trotsky, it seems to us, has definitely supplied centrism with theoretical weapons by starting off from such criteria as "the economic race with world capital"; "the allure of development as a decisive factor", "the comparison between rates of development", "the criterion of the pre-war level", etc, all of which bear a strong resemblance to the centrist slogan about "catching up with the capitalist countries". This is why the monstrous industrialisation which has been founded on the misery of the Russian workers, while being the direct product of centrist policies, is also the "natural" child of the Russian "Trotskyist" Opposition. What's more this position of Trotsky is the result of the perspectives he traced for the evolution of capitalism after the retreat of the international revolutionary struggle. Thus his whole analysis of the Soviet economy as it evolved after the NEP is, by his own admission, deliberately abstracted from the international political factor: "it is necessary to find practical solutions for the immediate period, by taking into account, as much as possible, all the factors in their momentary conjunction. But when it comes to perspectives of development for a whole epoch, it is absolutely necessary to separate the ‘salient' factors, that is to say, the political factors above all" (Towards capitalism or towards socialism?). Such an arbitrary method of analysis naturally leads one to examining the problems of the management of the Soviet economy "in themselves" rather than in function of the evolution of the world balance of class forces.

The question that Lenin posed after the NEP: "which one will win?" is thus transposed from the political terrain - where he had placed it - to the strictly economic terrain. The emphasis was put on the necessity to bring prices in line with those on the world market through reducing the sales price (and thus, in practice, essentially through reducing the paid part of labour, i.e. wages). Which amounts to saying that the proletarian state should not limit itself to putting up with a certain exploitation of labour power as an unavoidable evil, but on the contrary should adopt policies that sanction an even higher level of exploitation by making this the determining element of the economic process, which would thus acquire a capitalist content. In the end, the question goes back to the idea of a kind of national socialism from the moment you envisage the prospect of "outdoing" capitalist production on the world market with the products of the socialist economy (i.e. the USSR), when you see it as a battle between "socialism" and "capitalism". With such a point of view, it is evident that the world bourgeoisie can rest assured about the future of its system of production.

Here we want to open a parenthesis in order to try to establish the real theoretical and historical significance of those two crucial phases of the Russian revolution: "war communism" and the NEP, the first corresponding to the extreme social tension of the civil war, the second to the end of the armed struggle and to a situation of reflux in the world revolution.

War communism and the NEP

This examination seems all the more necessary in that, regardless of their contingent aspects, these two social phenomena could well reappear in other proletarian revolutions with an intensity and a rhythm in line with the level of capitalist development of the countries in question. It is therefore necessary to determine their exact location in the period of transition.

It is certain that "war communism" in its Russian version would not be characteristic of a "normal" proletarian administration. It was not the product of a pre-established programme, but a political necessity imposed by the irresistible pressure of the armed class struggle. Theory had to temporarily give way to the necessity to crush the bourgeoisie politically; this is why economics had to be subordinated to politics, but this took place at the price of the collapse of production and trade. Thus in reality the policies of "war communism" more and more entered into conflict with the theoretical premises developed by the Bolsheviks in their programme for the revolution - not because this programme was shown to be mistaken, but because its very moderate character, the fruit of "economic reason" (workers' control, nationalisation of the banks, state capitalism) encouraged the bourgeoisie to take up armed resistance. The workers responded with massive and accelerated expropriations which the decrees on nationalisation merely codified. Lenin issued a cry of alarm about this economic "radicalism", predicting that the proletariat could not win at this level. In effect, in the spring of 1921, the Bolsheviks had to recognise not that the workers had been beaten but that they had failed in their involuntary attempt to create socialism by force of arms. "War communism" had essentially been a coercive mobilisation of the economic apparatus aimed at avoiding famine in the proletariat and feeding the combatants. It was essentially a "communism" of equal consumption which had no real socialist substance. The method of requisitioning agricultural surpluses could only cause a considerable drop in production; the levelling of wages resulted in a collapse in labour productivity; and the authoritarian and bureaucratic centralism imposed by the circumstances was a real deformation of rational centralism. As for the stifling of exchange (which was accompanied by a flourishing of the black market) and the practical disappearance of money (payment in kind and free services), this was a product of the civil war and the collapse of any real economic life. They were not the measures of a proletarian administration which has taken the historic conditions into account. In sum, the Russian proletariat paid for the crushing of its class enemy through an economic impoverishment which a victorious revolution in the highly developed countries would have attenuated considerably by enabling it to "leap over" certain phases of development, even if it would not have profoundly altered the meaning of "war communism".

Marxists have never denied that the civil war - whether it precedes, accompanies, or follows the seizure of power by the proletariat - will contribute to a temporary lowering of the economic level, because they now know just how much this level can fall during an imperialist war. Thus in the backward countries, the rapid political dispossession of an organically weak bourgeoisie was and will be followed by a long struggle aimed at disorganising the new power if this bourgeoisie still has the ability to draw strength from broad social layers (in Russia, it was the vast peasantry, uncultured and lacking in political experience, which provided this source). At the same time, in the developed capitalist countries where the bourgeoisie is politically and materially powerful, the proletarian victory will very probably follow rather than precede a more or less long phase of bitter, violent and materially disastrous civil war. On the other hand the phase of "war communism" after the revolution could well be short-lived in such countries.

The NEP, considered from an absolute standpoint, and especially as it was placed in brutal opposition to "war communism", undoubtedly appeared as a serious backward step towards capitalism through the return to the "free" market, to "free" small production, to money.

But this "retreat" was established on real bases if we examine the actual economic conditions behind it. In other words, the NEP (independent of its accentuated features and specifically Russian elements) should be seen as a re-establishment of the "normal" conditions for the evolution of a transitional economy. For Russia, it was a return to the initial programme of the Bolsheviks, even though the NEP, coming after the juggernaut of the civil war, had to go well beyond it.

In sum, the NEP, separated from its contingent elements, is the form of economic administration which any other proletarian revolution will have to resort to.

Such is the conclusion imposed on those who don't make the possibilities of proletarian administration depend on the prior abolition of all capitalist categories and forms (an idea which derives from idealism, not marxism) and who, on the contrary, recognise that this administration will have to deal with the inevitable, but temporary survival of certain expressions of bourgeois servitude.

It is true that in Russia the pursuit of an economic policy adapted to the historic conditions for the transition from capitalism to communism was carried out in the heaviest and most threatening social climate, resulting from a phase of downturn in the international revolution and an internal degree of distress expressed by famine and the total exhaustion of the workers and peasants. This is why its particular historic traits tended to hide the general significance of the Russian NEP.

Under the pressure of events, the NEP represented the sine qua non for maintaining the proletarian dictatorship which it was effectively safeguarding. For this reason it was not the result of a capitulation by the proletariat: it did not involve any political compromise with the bourgeoisie but was merely an economic retreat aimed at re-establishing the original starting point for a progressive evolution of the economy. In reality, the class war, by displacing itself from the terrain of the armed struggle to the terrain of economic struggle, by taking on other forms, less brutal, more insidious, but equally redoubtable, was not at all destined to attenuate, on the contrary.

For the proletariat, the essential thing is to constantly strengthen itself in liaison with the fluctuation of the international struggle. In its general acceptance of the transitional phase, the NEP generated agents of the capitalist enemy - no more and no less than the transitional economy itself - to the extent that it was not maintained on a firm class line. It is always the political activity of the proletariat which remains decisive. Only on this basis can we analyse the evolution of the Soviet state. We will come back to this.

The economic programme of a proletarian revolution

In the historic limits assigned to the economic programme of a proletarian revolution, its fundamental points can be summarised as follows: a) the collectivisation of the means of production and exchange already "socialised" by capitalism; b) the monopolisation of foreign trade by the proletarian state, a decisively important economic weapon; c) a plan for production and for the distribution of the productive forces based on the structural characteristics of the economy and the specific function it is called on to assume in the worldwide socialist division of labour, but which can also strengthen the material position of the proletariat at the economic and social level; d) a plan for liaison with the world capitalist market, based on the monopoly of foreign trade and aimed at obtaining the means of production and objects of consumption which it lacks, and which must be subordinated to the fundamental plan for production, with both directives being able to resist the pressures of the world market and prevent it from integrating the proletarian economy into itself.

It is evident that while the progress and realisation of such a programme depends, to a certain extent, on the degree of the development of the productive forces and the cultural level of the mass of workers, the essential question remains the political strength of the proletariat, the solidity of its power, the balance of forces at the national and international level, even if there can never be any disassociation between the material, cultural and political factors, which are closely interpenetrated. But, we repeat, when it comes for example to the mode of appropriation of social wealth, while collectivisation is a juridical measure as necessary for the installation of socialism as was the abolition of feudal property for the installation of capitalism, it does not automatically result in the transformation of production. Engels has already put us on guard against the tendency to see collective property as a social panacea, when he showed that within capitalist society "the transformation, either into joint-stock companies, or into state ownership, does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces. In the joint-stock companies this is obvious. And the modern state, again, is only the organisation that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the general external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists. The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine, the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers - proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is rather brought to a head. But, brought to a head, it topples over. State ownership of the productive forces is not the solution of the conflict, but concealed within it are the technical conditions that form the elements of that solution" (Anti-Duhring). And Engels adds that the solution lies in the grasping the nature and function of the social forces acting on the productive forces, in order to then subordinate them to the will of all and transform the means of production from "despotic masters to docile servants".

It is obvious that the political power of the proletariat alone can determine this collective will and ensure that the social character of property is transformed, that it loses its class character.

The juridical effects of collectivisations can be singularly limited by a backward economic structure and this makes the political factor even more decisive.

In Russia there was an enormous mass of elements capable of engendering a new capitalist accumulation and a dangerous class differentiation. The proletariat could only have prevented this through a highly energetic class policy, the only one that could have kept hold of the state for the proletarian struggle.

It is undeniable that with the agrarian problem, the problem of small industry constitutes a key issue for the proletarian dictatorship, a heavy legacy left by capitalism to the proletariat, and one which can't be eliminated by decree. We can even affirm that the central problem posed to the proletarian revolution in all capitalist countries (except perhaps for Britain) is the implacable struggle against the small producers of commodities and the small peasants, a struggle made even harder by the fact that it cannot be a question of expropriating these social layers through violence. The expropriation of private production is only economically realisable in relation to the enterprises which are already "socialised" and not to the individual enterprises which the proletariat is still not capable of running at a lower cost and making more productive, and which it can only control through the means of the market; this is a necessary point of transition between individual and collective labour. Furthermore, it is impossible to envisage the structure of the proletarian economy in an abstract manner, as a juxtaposition of pure types of production, based on opposing social relations, "socialist", capitalist or pre-capitalist, and which evolve solely on the basis of competition. This is the thesis of centrism which it got from Bukharin, and which holds that everything that is collectivised ipso facto becomes socialist, so that the petty bourgeois and peasant sectors will inevitably be led into the fold of "socialism". But in reality, each sphere of production more or less bears the imprint of its capitalist origins and there is not a juxtaposition but an interpenetration of contradictory elements, combating each other under the pressure of the class struggle, developing in a very bitter manner, even if in a less brutal form than during the period of open civil war. In this battle, the proletariat, basing itself on collectivised industry, must have the aim of subjecting to its control, to the point of annihilating them completely, all the social and economic forces of capitalism, which have already been overcome politically. But it cannot commit the deadly error of believing that, because it has nationalised the land and the basic means of production, it has erected an impassable barrier to the activity of bourgeois agencies: the whole process, both political and economic, continues in a dialectical manner and the proletariat can only direct it towards the classless society on condition of reinforcing itself internally and externally.

The agrarian question

The agrarian question is certainly one of the essential elements of the complex problem of the relationship between the proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie posed after the revolution. Rosa Luxemburg showed very rightly that "even in the West, under the most favourable conditions, once we have come to power, we too will break many a tooth on this hard nut before we are out of the worst of the thousands of complicated difficulties of this gigantic task!".

It is thus not a question of settling this question, even in its basic lines, and we will limit ourselves to posing the fundamental elements: the complete nationalisation of the land and the fusion of agriculture and industry.

The first is a perfectly realisable juridical act that can be accomplished immediately after the seizure of power, parallel with the collectivisation of the large-scale means of production, whereas the second can only be the product of a process throughout the economy, a result of the worldwide socialist organisation. These are not therefore two simultaneous acts, but can only be staggered in time, with the first conditioning the second, eventually resulting in the socialisation of agriculture. In itself the nationalisation of the land or the abolition of private property in land is not a specifically socialist measure. In fact it is essentially bourgeois, the final act of the bourgeois democratic revolution.

Together with the equal enjoyment of the land, it constitutes the most extreme, revolutionary stage of this revolution, but while being, to use Lenin's expression, "the most perfect foundation from the standpoint of the development of capitalism, it is at the same time the agrarian regime which is the most supple basis for the passage to socialism". The weakness of the criticisms Rosa Luxemburg made of the agrarian programme of the Bolsheviks (The Russian Revolution) concerns precisely these points: in the first place, she didn't underline that "the immediate seizure and distribution of the land by the peasants", while having absolutely nothing in common with a socialist society - we agree with this entirely - nevertheless represented an inevitable and transitional stage between capitalism and socialism, above all in Russia, although she does admit that this was "the shortest, simplest, most clean-cut formula to achieve two diverse things: to break down large land-ownership, and immediately to bind the peasants to the revolutionary government. As a political measure to fortify the proletarian socialist government, it was an excellent tactical move", which given the situation was obviously the most fundamental issue. In the second place, she did not make it clear that the slogan "land to the peasants", taken by the Bolsheviks from the programme of the Socialist Revolutionaries, had been applied on the basis of the integral suppression of private property in land and not, as Luxemburg declares, on the basis of the passage from large landed property to a multitude of small individual peasant properties. It is not correct to say (we only have to look at the decrees on nationalisation) that the division of the land was extended to the large technically developed exploitations, since they actually formed the structure of the "sovkozes", although it has to be admitted that these were not a major element of the agrarian economy as a whole.

Let us say in passing that Luxemburg, in drawing out her own agrarian programme, says nothing about the integral expropriation of the land, which was clearly seen as a link to further measures. She only foresees the nationalisation of large and medium-sized property.

Finally, in the third place, Luxemburg confines herself to showing the negative side of the division of the land (an inevitable evil), to denouncing the fact that it would not do away with "but would increase social and economic inequality among the peasantry and aggravate class oppositions", when it was precisely the development of the class struggle in the countryside which allowed the proletarian power to consolidate itself by drawing towards it the rural proletarians and semi-proletarian peasants, and which formed the social premise for extending the influence of the proletariat and ensuring its victory in the countryside. Rosa Luxemburg undoubtedly underestimated this political aspect of the agrarian problem and the fundamental role that has to be played by the proletariat based on its political domination and the possession of large-scale industry.

It would be pointless to ignore the fact the Russian proletariat faced an extremely complex situation. Because of the extreme dispersion of the small peasants, the effects of nationalisation were very limited. We should not forget that the collectivisation of the soil does not necessarily lead to that of the means of production attached to it. In Russia this was true of only 8% of the latter, while the remaining 92% remained in the private possession of the peasants; by contrast, in industry, collectivisation reached 89% of the productive forces, including 97% of the railways and 99% of heavy industry (the situation in 1925).

Although agricultural tools only represent about a third of the total amount of equipment, they constituted a favourable basis for the development of capitalist relations, given the enormous mass of the peasants. And it is obvious that, from the economic point of view, the central method for containing and reabsorbing this development could only be the organisation of large-scale industrialised agriculture. But this was subordinated to the general problem of industrialisation and consequently to the problem of aid from the proletariat of the advanced countries. In order to avoid getting stuck in the dilemma: perish or provide tools and consumer goods to the small peasants, the proletariat - while trying as much as possible to maintain a balance between agricultural and industrial production - had to devote the major part of its efforts towards the class struggle, both in the country and in the towns, always with the perspective of linking this to the international revolutionary struggle. Allying itself with the small peasants in order to struggle against the peasant capitalists, while at the same time trying to eliminate small-scale production, the precondition for creating a collective production: such was the apparently paradoxical task imposed on the proletariat vis-à-vis the villages.

For Lenin, this alliance alone would be able to safeguard the proletariat until other sections of the proletariat rose up. It did not imply a capitulation to the peasantry but was the only condition for overcoming the petty bourgeois hesitations of the peasants, who oscillated between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat because of their economic and social situation and their inability to develop an independent policy, and thus for pulling them into the process of collective labour. "Annihilating" the small producers did not mean crushing them violently, but, as Lenin said in 1918, "helping them to move towards an ‘ideal' capitalism, since equal enjoyment of the soil is capitalism taken to its highest ideal as far as the small producer is concerned; at the same time, they have to feel for themselves the defects of this system and thus realise the need to go over to collective cultivation". It was not surprising that during the three terrible years of civil war, the experimental method had not brought a "socialist" consciousness to the Russian peasants. If they supported the proletariat to defend their land against the Whites, this was at the cost of their economic impoverishment and vital requisitions by the proletarian state.

And the NEP, while re-establishing a more normal field of experience, also restored "freedom and capitalism", but this worked above all in favour of the peasant capitalists, a huge ransom which made Lenin say that with the tax in kind, "the kulaks can push in places where they could not push before". Under the leadership of centrism, which was incapable of resisting this pressure from a renascent bourgeoisie on the economic apparatus, the state organs and the party, the middle peasants were encouraged to enrich themselves and to break with the poor peasants and the proletariat, with the results that we now see. A perfectly logical coincidence: 10 years after the proletarian insurrection, the shift in the balance of forces towards the bourgeois elements corresponded to the introduction of the 5 Year Plans, whose realisation depended on an unprecedented level of exploitation of the proletariat.

The Russian revolution tried to resolve the complex problem of the relationship between the proletariat and the peasantry. It failed not because a proletarian revolution could not succeed in a situation where only a bourgeois revolution was on the agenda, as the likes of Otto Bauer or Kautsky claimed, but because the Bolsheviks did not arm themselves with the principles of administration founded on historical experience, which would have ensured them economic and political victory.

But because it brought out the importance of the agrarian question, the Russian revolution contributed to the historic acquisitions of the world proletariat. We should add that the theses of the Second Congress of the Communist International on this question can no longer be maintained in their entirety, and that in particular the slogan "land to the peasants" must be re-examined and limited in its significance.

And, inspired by the works of Marx on the Paris Commune, further developed by Lenin, marxists have succeeded in making a clear demarcation between centralism as a necessary and progressive form of social evolution and the oppressive centralism crystallised in the bourgeois state. While basing themselves on the first, they fight for the destruction of the second. It is on this indestructibly materialist position that they scientifically refuted anarchist ideology. And yet the Russian revolution breathed new life into this celebrated controversy, which seemed to have been dead and buried.

There have been many critiques which see the origins of the counter-revolutionary evolution of the USSR in the fact that economic and social centralism was not abolished and replaced by a system of "self-determination" by the working masses. This amounts to demanding that the social consciousness of the Russian proletariat should have jumped over the transitional stage; at the same time, there is a call for the immediate suppression of value, of the market, of wage differentials and other vestiges of capitalism. In other words, there is a confusion between two notions of centralism, which are absolutely opposed to one another, and a return, whether deliberate or not, to the typically anarchist opposition to "authoritarianism" as a way of navigating the transition period. It is an abstraction to oppose the principle of autonomy to the principle of authority; as Engels remarked in 1873, these are two very relative terms linked to historical evolution and the process of production.

The economic and political centralism of the dictatorship of the proletariat

On the basis of an evolution which goes from primitive communism to imperialist capitalism and which "returns" to civilised communism, the organic forms of capitalist "cartelism" and "trustification" push away the forms of primitive social autonomy, laying the basis for the "administration of things", which is actually an "anarchic" form of organisation even if it is prepared by a system where authority persists, but "kept to strict limits as long as the conditions of production make it inevitable" (Engels). The essential thing is not to try to leap over stages in a utopian manner, or to believe that you can change the nature of centralism and the principle of authority by changing the name. The Dutch internationalists, for example, have not escaped an analysis based on anticipating social reality and the theoretical convenience such an analysis provides (cf their work cited earlier).

Their critique of centralism in the Russian experience is made all the "easier" by the fact that it relates uniquely to the phase of "war communism" which engendered a bureaucratic dictatorship over the economy, whereas we know that, later on, the NEP favoured a wide economic "decentralisation". It is argued that the Bolsheviks "wanted" to suppress the market (we know that this wasn't at all the case) by replacing it with the Supreme Council of the Economy, and thus they bear responsibility for transforming the dictatorship of the proletariat into a dictatorship over the proletariat. Thus for the Dutch comrades, because, as a result of the necessities of the civil war, the Russian proletariat had to impose an extremely centralised and simplified economic and political apparatus, they lost control of the dictatorship, even though, at the same time, they were politically exterminating the enemy class. Unfortunately the Dutch comrades don't spend any time on this political aspect of the question, which for us is fundamental.

At the same time, by repudiating the dialectical analysis and leaping over the problem of centralism, they have ended up changing the meaning of words, since what they are looking at is not the transitional period, which is the only one of interest to marxists from the point of view of solving practical problems, but the higher sage of communism. It is then easy to talk about "a general social accounting based on an economic centre to which all the currents of economic life flow, but which has no right of directing production or deciding on the distribution of the social product". And they add that "in the association of free and equal producers, the control of economic life does not emanate from personalities or offices but results from the public registration of the real course of economic life. This means that production is controlled by reproduction". In other words, "economic life is controlled by itself through average social labour time".

With such formulations, the solutions to the problems of proletarian management cannot advance at all, since the burning question posed to the proletariat is not to work out the mechanisms that regulate communist society, but to find the way that leads towards it.

The Dutch comrades have, it's true, proposed an immediate solution: no economic or political centralism, which can only take on an oppressive form, but the transfer of management to enterprise organisms which would coordinate production through a "general economic law" (?). For them, the abolition of exploitation (and thus of classes) does not take place through a long historic process involving the ceaseless growth of participation by the masses in social administration, but in the collectivisation of the means of production, provided that this involves the right of the enterprise councils to dispose of the means of production and the social product. But apart from the fact this is a formulation which contains its own contradiction - since it boils down to opposing integral collectivisation (property of all, and of no one in particular) with a kind of restricted, dispersed collectivisation between social groups (the shareholders' society is also a partial form of collectivisation) - it simply tends to substitute a juridical solution (the right to dispose of the enterprises) for another juridical solution, the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. But as we have already seen, the expropriation of the bourgeoisie is simply the initial condition for the social transformation (even though full collectivisation is not immediately realisable), and the class struggle will continue as before the revolution, but on political bases which will allow the proletariat to impose the decisive direction.

The analysis of the Dutch internationalists undoubtedly moves away from marxism because it never puts forward the fundamental reality that the proletariat is forced to put up with the "scourge" of the state until classes have disappeared, that is, until the disappearance of world capitalism. But to underline such a historic necessity is to admit that state functions are still temporarily mixed up with centralisation, even though this takes place after the destruction of the capitalist apparatus of oppression and is not necessarily opposed to the development of the cultural level of the working masses and their capacity to take charge. Instead of looking for the solution to this development in the real context of historical and political conditions, the Dutch internationalists have tried to find it in a formula for appropriation which is both utopian and retrograde and which is as not clearly distinct from "bourgeois right" as they imagine. What's more, if one admits that the proletariat as a whole is in no way prepared "culturally" to solve "by itself" the complex problems of social administration (and this reality applies as much to the most advanced proletariat as to the least cultured), what then is the exact use of the "right to dispose" of the factories and production?

The Russian workers did effectively have the factories in their hands and they were not able to run them. Does this mean that they shouldn't have expropriated the capitalists and taken power? Should they have "waited" to be schooled by western capitalism and acquire the culture of the English or German workers? While it is true that the latter are a hundred times more qualified to confront the gigantic tasks of proletarian administration than were the Russian worker in 1917, it is also true that they were not able, in the pestilential ambiance of capitalism and bourgeois ideology, to develop an "integral" social awareness which would have permitted them to solve "by themselves" all the problems posed, something which can only fully appear in a higher phase of communism. Historically, it is the party which concentrates this social awareness and it can only do this on the basis of experience; in other words, it does not bring fully worked out solutions but elaborates them in the fire of the social struggle, after (above all, after) as well as before the revolution. And in this colossal task, far from opposing itself to the proletariat, the party is a part of it, since without the active and growing collaboration of the masses, it will become the prey of enemy forces. "Administration by all" is the touchstone of any proletarian revolution. But history poses a precise alternative: either we make the socialist revolution "with men as they are today and who cannot do without subordination, without control by foremen, without accounting" (Lenin, State and Revolution) or there will be no revolution.

The duality of the state in the period of transition in marxist analysis

In the chapter dealing with the transitional state, we already recalled that the state owes its existence to the division of society into classes. In primitive communism, there was no state. In the higher form of communism, there will also be no state. The state will disappear with the subject that gave rise to it: class exploitation. But as long as the state exists, it conserves its specific traits and cannot change its fundamental nature. It cannot cease to be a state, that is to say, an oppressive, coercive, corrupting organism. What changes in the course of history is its function. Instead of being the instrument of the slave masters, it became that of the feudal lords, then of the bourgeoisie. It is the perfect instrument for conserving the privileges of a ruling class. This isn't threatened by its own state, but by new privileges developing in society with the rise of a new exploiting class .The political revolution which followed was the juridical consequence of a transformation of the economic structure that had already got underway, the triumph of a new form of exploitation over the old one. This is why the new revolutionary class, on the basis of the material conditions which it had founded and consolidated inside the old system, could without shame or distrust base itself on the state, which it only had to adapt and perfect in order to organise and develop its own mode of production. This is all the more true for the bourgeois class which is the first in history to rule on a world scale and whose state is the most concentrated form of all the means of oppression built up in the course of history. There is no opposition but an intimate, indestructible link between the bourgeoisie and its state; and this solidarity does not stop at national frontiers. It goes beyond them because it has its roots in the international capitalist system.

By contrast, with the foundation of the proletarian state, the historical relationship between the ruling class and the state is modified. It is true that the proletarian state, built on the ruins of the bourgeois state, is still the instrument for the domination of the proletariat. However, this domination is not aimed at the preservation of social privileges whose material bases were laid down inside bourgeois society, but at the destruction of all privileges. The new state expresses a new relation of domination, that of the majority over the minority, and a new juridical relationship (collective appropriation). On the other hand, because it remains under the influence of the climate of capitalist society (because there can be no simultaneity in the revolution), it is still the representative of "bourgeois right". This still lives on, not only in the social and economic processes, but also in the heads of millions of proletarians. It is here that the duality of the transitional state is revealed: on the one hand, as a weapon directed against the expropriated class, it reveals its "strong" side; on the other hand, as an organism called upon not to consolidate a new system of exploitation, but to abolish all exploitation, it exposes its "weak" side because by nature and by definition it tends to become the pole of attraction for capitalist privileges. This is why, while there can be no antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the bourgeois state, such an antagonism does indeed arise between the proletariat and the transitional state.

This historic problem has its negative expression in the fact that the transitional state can quite easily be led to play a counter-revolutionary role in the international class struggle, even when it maintains a proletarian character if the social classes upon which it was built have not been modified. The proletariat can only stand against the development of this latent contradiction through the class politics of its party and the vigilant existence of its mass organisations (trade unions, soviets, etc), through which it has to exert an indispensable control over the activity of the state and to defend its specific interests. These organisms can only disappear along with the necessity which gave rise to them, i.e. the class struggle. Such a conception is inspired entirely by the teachings of marxism, since the notion of the proletarian "antidote" within the transitional state was defended by Marx and Engels as well as by Lenin, as we have already pointed out.

The active presence of proletarian organisms is the condition for keeping the proletarian state in the service of the workers and for preventing it from turning against them. To deny the contradictory dualism of the proletarian state is to falsify the historic significance of the period of transition.

Certain comrades consider, by contrast, that during this period there has to be an identification between the workers' organisations and the state. (cf comrade Hennault's "Nature and Evolution of the Russian State, Bilan p.1121). The Dutch internationalists go even further when they say that since "labour time is the measure of the distribution of the social product and the whole of distribution remains outside any ‘politics', the trade unions have no function in communism and the struggle for the amelioration of living conditions will have come to an end" (p 115 of their work).

Centrism also starts off from the conception that since the soviet state is a workers' state, any demands raised by the workers become an act of hostility towards "their" state, therefore justifying the total subordination of the trade unions and the factory committees to the state mechanism.

If we now say, on the basis of the previous considerations, that the soviet state has conserved its proletarian character, even if it is being directed against the proletariat, is this just a subtle distinction which has nothing in common with reality, and which we ourselves repudiate because we reject the defence of the USSR? No! And we think that this thesis has to be maintained above all because it is justified from the point of view of the theory of historical materialism; secondly, because the conclusions we have to draw about the evolution of the Russian revolution are not vitiated in their premises by the fact that we reject the identity between the proletariat and the state and say that there should be no confusion between the character of the state and its function.

If the soviet state is no longer a proletarian state, what is it? Those who deny this have not succeeded in showing that it is a capitalist state. But do they fare any better by talking about a bureaucratic state and discovering that the Russian state is a ruling class original in history and linked to a new mode of production and exploitation? In fact, such an explanation turns its back on marxist materialism.

Although the bureaucracy has been an indispensable instrument in the functioning of any social system, there is no trace in history of a social layer that transformed itself into an exploiting class on its own account. There are however many examples of all-powerful bureaucracies within a society, but they were never confounded with the classes acting on production, except as individuals. In Capital, Marx, examining the colonisation of India, shows that the bureaucracy appeared there in the shape of the East India Company; that the latter had economic links with circulation - not with production - whereas it really did exert political power, but on behalf of the metropolitan capitalism.

Marxism has supplied a scientific definition of class. If we hold to it, we have to affirm that the Russian bureaucracy is not a class, still less a ruling class, given that there are no particular rights over production outside of the private ownership of the means of production, and that in Russia collectivisation still exists in its basics. It is also true that the Russian bureaucracy consumes a large portion of social labour. But this is true of any form of social parasitism and this should not be confused with a class exploitation.

While it is undeniable that in Russia the social relations express a colossal exploitation of the workers, this does not derive from the exercise of any right of property, group or individual, but from a whole economic and political process, of which the bureaucracy is not the cause, but only an expression, and in our view a secondary one, since this evolution is above all the product of the policies of centrism which has shown itself incapable of containing the impetus of the forces of the enemy both within Russia and on the international level. It's here that the originality of the social context in Russia lies - in an unprecedented historical situation: the existence of a proletarian state within a capitalist world.

The exploitation of the proletariat grows in proportion to the pressure of non-proletarian classes on the state apparatus, then on the party apparatus, and consequently on the politics of the party.

There is no need to explain this exploitation through the existence of a bureaucratic class living from the surplus labour pillaged from the workers, but through the influence of the enemy on the party which had integrated itself into the state machine rather than continuing its political and educational role among the masses. Trotsky (in The Third International after Lenin) underlined the class character of the pressures that were more and more being exerted on the party, and the growing links between these pressures - from the bourgeois intellectuals, the petty bourgeoisie, the kulaks - and the state bureaucracy; pressure as well from the world bourgeoisie, acting through all these forces. This is why the roots of the bureaucracy and the germs of political degeneration are to be sought in the social phenomenon of the interpenetration of the party and the state as well as in an unfavourable international situation, and not in "war communism", which took the political power of the proletariat to its highest level, nor in the NEP, which was the expression of a compromise and of a more normal regime for a proletarian economy. Souvarine, in his text "Apercu sur le bolshevisme", reversed the real relationship between the party and the state by arguing that the party was exerting a machine-like grip over the whole state apparatus. He quite correctly characterised the Russian revolution as a "metamorphosis in the regime that took place unbeknownst to its beneficiaries, without any premeditated intent or preconceived plan, through the triple effect of the general lack of culture, the apathy of the exhausted masses and the efforts of the Bolsheviks to overcome the chaos" (p245).

But if revolutionaries are to avoid falling into a kind of fatalism, diametrically opposed to marxism, derived from the idea of the "immaturity" of the material conditions and the cultural incapacities of the masses, if they are to reject the conclusion that the Russian revolution was not a proletarian revolution (when the historical and objective conditions for the proletarian revolution existed then and exist now on a world scale, which is the only valid basis for posing the question from the marxist point of view), then they have to focus their attention on the central issue: the political factor, i.e., the party, the indispensable instrument for the proletariat at the level of historic necessity. They would also have to conclude that in a revolution the only possible form of authority for the party is the dictatorial form. The terms of the problem cannot be rewritten by positing a kind of irreducible opposition between the proletariat and the dictatorship of the party, because that would mean turning one's back on the proletarian revolution itself. We repeat: the dictatorship of the party is an inevitable expression of the transitional period, whether in a country that has been highly developed by capitalism or in the most backward of colonies. The fundamental task for marxists is precisely, on the basis of the gigantic experience of the Russian revolution, to examine the political bases on which this dictatorship can be maintained in the interests of the proletariat, i.e. how the proletarian revolution can and must flow into the world revolution.

Unfortunately, the "fatalists" have never tried to deal with this problem. If little progress has been made towards a solution to this question, the difficulties lie as much in the painful isolation of the weak revolutionary nuclei today as in the enormous complexity of the problem. The essential question posed here is the relationship between the party and the class struggle, and within this context, the question of the party's mode of organisation and internal life.

The comrades of Bilan are right to attach so much importance in their research to two activities of the party, which they see as fundamental to the preparation of the revolution (as the history of the Bolshevik party has shown): the fractional struggle inside the party and the struggle within the mass organisations. The question is to know whether these forms of activity must disappear or transform themselves radically after the revolution, in a situation where the class struggle does not attenuate in the least, but develops in other forms. What is evident is that no organisational method or formula can prevent the class struggle from having its repercussions within the party, through the growth of tendencies or fractions.

The "unity at any price" of the Russian Trotskyist opposition, like the "monolithism" of centrism, fly in the face of historical reality. By contrast the recognition of fractions seems to us to be much more dialectical. But this simple affirmation does not in itself resolve the problem; it simply poses it or rather puts it in its proper context. The comrades of Bilan are certainly agreed that a few lapidary phrases don't constitute a solution. What remains to be examined is how the struggle of fractions and the opposition between programmes that goes with it can be reconciled with homogeneous leadership and revolutionary discipline. In the same way we have to look at how the liberty of fractions inside the union organisations can coincide with the single party of the proletariat. It's no exaggeration to say that the outcome of the future proletarian revolution depends on the answers to these questions.

(To be continued)


[1]. The scepticism declared today by certain internationalist communists can in no way undermine our conviction about this. Comrade Hennaut in Bilan n°34 (p1124) coldly proclaims that "the Bolshevik revolution was made by the proletariat but it was not a proletarian revolution". Such an assertion is quite stupefying when you consider that this "non-proletarian" revolution succeeded in forming the most formidable proletarian weapon that has ever threatened the world bourgeoisie - the Communist International.


Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: 

General and theoretical questions: