Before the experience of the revolution in Russia, marxists had a relatively simple conception of the relationship between the proletariat and the state in the period of transition from capitalism to communism.
It was known that this period of transition would begin with the destruction of the political power of the bourgeoisie and that this phase could only precede and be a preparation for a communist society in which there would be neither classes, nor political power, nor a state. It was known that during this period the working class would have to establish its dictatorship over the rest of society. It was also known that, since this phase still bore with it all the birthmarks of capitalism, especially material scarcity and the division of society into classes, there would inevitably be some kind of state apparatus; finally, largely thanks to the experience of the Paris Commune in 1871, it was known that this apparatus could not be the bourgeois state ‘conquered’ by the workers, that in its form and content it would be a transitional institution essentially different from all previous states. But as for the problem of the relationship between the dictatorship of the proletariat and the state, between the working class and this institution inherited from the past, it was felt that the question could be answered quite simply: the dictatorship of the proletariat and the state in the period of transition are one and the same thing, the armed working class is identical to the state. In a way, the proletariat in the period of transition could take up Louis XIV’s famous dictum “L’Etat, c’est moi!”.
Thus, in the Communist Manifesto, this state is described as “the proletariat organized as the ruling class”; similarly, in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx wrote:
“Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. There corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”
Later, on the eve of October 1917, Lenin, locked in a struggle against social democracy, which had hurled itself into the mire of World War I by participating in the government of the belligerent bourgeois states, vigorously reaffirmed this conception in State and Revolution:
“ ... (the marxists) recognize that after the proletariat has conquered political power it must utterly destroy the old state machine and substitute for it a new one consisting of an organization of the armed workers ...”
“Revolution consists in the proletariat destroying the ‘administrative apparatus’ and the whole state machine, replacing it with a new one, consisting of the armed workers.”
From this it followed naturally that the state in the period of transition could only be the most complete and effective expression of the working class and its power. The relationship between the state and the proletariat appeared to be so simple because they were one and the same thing. The state bureaucracy? It would not exist, or it would not pose any major problems because the workers themselves (even a cook, as Lenin said) would take over its functions. Could one seriously envisage the possibility of antagonisms or conflict between the working class and the state on the economic level? Impossible: How could the proletariat go on strike against the state, since it was the state? How could the state impose anything contrary to the economic interests of the working class, since the state was the direct emanation of the class? It seemed even less possible to envisage any antagonism on the political level. Was the state not the highest expression of the dictatorship of the proletariat? How could it express any counter-revolutionary tendencies when it was by definition the spearhead of the proletariat’s battle against the counter-revolution?
The Russian Revolution shattered this simplistic viewpoint -- a viewpoint which was inevitably predominant in the workers’ movement of that time, since apart from the two months of the Paris Commune, the movement had never really confronted the problems of the transition period in all their complexity.
Thus, after the seizure of power in October 1917, the state was called the ‘proletarian state’; the best workers, the most experienced fighters, were put in charge of the main organs of the state; strikes were forbidden; all decisions of the state organs had to be accepted as expressions of the overall needs of the revolutionary struggle. In short, the oft-proclaimed identity between the working class and the state was inscribed in the laws and the flesh of the new revolution.
But, right from the beginning, the necessities of social existence began to systematically contradict the premises of this identification. In face of the difficulties posed to a revolution that was being progressively smothered by its isolation from the international movement of the class, the state apparatus showed that it was neither a body identical to the ‘armed workers’, nor the highest incarnation of the dictatorship of the proletariat; it was a body of functionaries clearly distinct from the proletariat, and its innate tendencies did not lead to the communist trans formation, but to conservatism. The bureaucratization of the functionaries charged with the organization of production, distribution, the maintenance of order, etc, took place in the very first months of the revolution; and no-one -- not even the leaders of the Bolshevik Party at the head of the state, who certainly tried to fight against it -- could do anything about it. Above all, since the state was ‘proletarian’, the state bureaucracy was not recognized as a counter-revolutionary force.
On both the economic and political levels, the gulf between the working class and what was supposed to be ‘its’ state grew wider and wider. As early as the end of 1917, economic strikes broke out in Petrograd; as early as 1918, the left communist tendencies denounced the state bureaucracy and its opposition to the interests of the working class; in 1920-1, at the end of the civil war, these antagonisms exploded openly in the Petrograd strikes and the Kronstadt insurrection, which was crushed by the Red Army. In short, in its struggle to maintain power, the proletariat in Russia did not find that the state was the instrument it thought it would be. On the contrary, it was something that resisted its efforts and quickly transformed itself into the main protagonist of the counter-revolution.
Of course, the defeat of the Russian Revolution was, in the last instance, the product of the defeat of the world revolution and not of the activities of the state. But the experience of the struggle against the counterrevolution in Russia showed that the state apparatus and its bureaucracy was neither the proletariat, nor the spearhead of its dictatorship, and still less an institution to which the armed proletariat had to subordinate itself on account of its so-called ‘proletarian’ character.
It is true that the experience of the proletariat in Russia was condemned to failure the minute it failed to extend internationally. It is true that the strength of this antagonism between the proletariat and the state was an expression of the weakness of the world proletariat and of the nonexistence of the material conditions which would have allowed the proletarian dictatorship to flourish. But it would be illusory to think that the extent of these difficulties can entirely explain this antagonism, and that in more favourable conditions the identification between the dictatorship of the proletariat and the state in the period of transition will still be valid. The period of transition is a phase in which the proletariat will confront a fundamental problem: it will have to establish new social relations when, by definition, the material conditions for these relations to grow can only be instigated by the revolutionary activity of the armed workers. This problem was particularly extreme in Russia, but in essence it was the same problem the workers will confront tomorrow. The grave obstacles encountered by the proletarian dictatorship in Russia do not make this experience the exception which confirms the rule about the identity between the proletariat and the transitional state. On the contrary, the Russian experience has shed a particularly sharp light on the inevitability and nature of the antagonism between the revolutionary power of the proletariat and the institution which has to maintain order during the transition period.
Since its foundations, the ICC, following the work of the Italian Left (Bilan) between the wars and the group Internationalisme in the forties, has taken on the complicated but indispensable task of developing, reexamining, and completing a revolutionary understanding of the relationship between the proletariat and the transitional state, in the light of the Russian experience (see nos. 1,3, & 6 of the International Review).
As part of this effort we are publishing here a letter from a comrade who reacted critically to the theses elaborated on this question in the resolution adopted at its Second Congress by Revolution Internationale, section of the ICC in France (see International Review no.8); the reply to this critique then follows.
Comrades E’s letter
To the extent that marxism is the scientific comprehension of the successive modes of social reproduction in the past, it is also a prediction of the fundamental stages towards the final social formation -- communism -- from the society we are living in now. Economic forms have transformed themselves in an uninterrupted process in the history of human society. But this process has taken the form of convulsions, of struggles in which the armed political confrontation of classes has broken the fetters holding back the development of new formations. This is the period of the struggle for power, which culminates in a dictatorship of the forces of tomorrow over the forces of yesterday (or vice versa until a new crisis breaks out). Socialist revisionism prior to World War I claimed that it had got rid of Marx and Engels’ theory of dictatorship, and it was Lenin who had the merit of setting this theory back on its feet: in State and Revolution he completely restored the marxist position by showing the need to destroy the bourgeois state. In perfect accord with marxist theory, Lenin thus set out a framework which made it possible to distinguish the successive phases in the transition from capitalism to communism.
Once the proletariat has conquered political power, it will, like all previous classes impose its own dictatorship. Being unable to abolish other classes at a single blow, the proletariat will set them outside the law. This means that the proletarian state will control an economy which in one sector is not only based on mercantile distribution, but also on private ownership of the means of production, whether through individuals or associations; at the same time, through its despotic interventions, the proletarian state will open the way to the lower state of communism. As we can see, contrary to RV’s assertions about the supposed complexities of Lenin’s conception of the state and its role, the essence of his position is very simple: the proletariat makes itself the ruling class and creates its own state organ, which differs in form from previous states, but which has essentially the same function: the oppression of other classes, violence concentrated against them for the triumph of the interests of the ruling class, even if these interests are those of humanity in the long term.
The lower stage of communism
In this phase, society will already be carrying out the distribution of products to its members in a planned way; there is no need for money or exchange. Distribution is organized centrally without any exchange of equivalent values. At this stage there would not only be an obligation to work, but labour time would be accounted for and certificates attesting how much labour has been performed would be given out -- the famous ‘labour-time vouchers’. These would have the characteristic that they could not be accumulated -- any attempt at accumulation would be a pure loss, since an aliquot part of labour would receive no equivalent. The law of value would have been destroyed because society “does not accord any value to its products” (Engels). After this second stage comes the higher stage of communism which we won’t go into here.
As we have seen, marxism sees the necessary pre-condition of the transition period to be an initial violent political revolution, whose inevitable outcome is the class dictatorship. By exerting this dictatorship through its despotic intervention and a monopoly of armed force, the proletariat will carry out the profound ‘reforms’ which will destroy the last vestiges of capitalism.
So far it seems that there are no disagreements. The difficulty comes in when you affirm that “the state has a historic nature which is anti-communist and anti-proletarian”, that it is essentially conservative, and that therefore the proletarian dictatorship “cannot find its authentic and total expression in a conservative instrument par excellence, the state.” Here, if you will pardon the brutality of my words, we see anarchism coming through the window after being chased out the door. You accept the dictatorship of the proletariat but you forget that ‘state’ and the exclusive dictatorship of a class are synonymous.
Before criticizing more specifically some of the affirmations contained in the text, I want to return to the fundamental lines of the marxist theory of the state. For Engels every state is defined by a precise territory and by the nature of the ruling class. It is thus defined by a place, the capital where the government meets; this government being for marxism “the executive committee for the interests of the ruling class”. In the transition from feudal power to bourgeois power, we see the development of a political theory -- typical of bourgeois mystifications -- which in all historic bourgeois revolutions has accompanied the passage from feudalism to capitalism. The bourgeoisie with its mystified consciousness claimed that it was destroying the power of one class not to set up the rule of another class, but to build a state based on the harmonious accord of ‘the whole people’. But in all revolutions a series of facts have highlighted the correctness of the marxist view of classes, that since the dictatorship of one class has always been accompanied by the violation of the liberty of other classes, violence directed against other classes, even terror, has always been an inseparable aspect of bourgeois revolutions.
In the proletarian revolution, one of the first acts to carry out is the destruction of the old state apparatus; once the class is in power it must do this without hesitation. This was the lesson Marx drew from the Paris Commune which on being installed at the Hotel de Ville opposed the state with its own state power and before being itself crushed, crushed even individual members of the enemy class by terror. And if there was any fault, it wasn’t that of being too ferocious, but of not being ferocious enough. (Marx)
From this important experience of the proletariat, Marx drew a fundamental lesson which we can’t ignore; that exploiting classes need political rule to maintain exploitation and that the proletariat needs it to do away with exploitation once and for all. The destruction of the bourgeoisie can only take place when the proletariat becomes the ruling class. This means that the emancipation of the working class is impossible within the limits of the bourgeois state. This has to be defeated in the civil war and its whole machinery dismantled. After the revolutionary victory, another historic form will arise until socialist society emerges and the state withers away.
After this brief affirmation of what are to me pillars of marxist theory on the state and on the passage from one society to another, and more specifically from capitalism to communism, I will now deal with the present Resolution on the period of transition. What is striking about this text is the contradictory character of some of the things it affirms.
On the one hand it affirms that “the political seizure of power over society by the proletariat precedes, conditions and guarantees the process of economic and social transformation”, but it doesn’t say that taking political power means setting up a dictatorship over other classes and that the state is and always was the organ of dictatorship by one class over another (even though it may be different in its characteristics -- functions, division of powers, system of representatives and so on -- according to the mode of production and the classes whose rule it stands for).
Moreover, when it is affirmed that “this whole state organization categorically excludes any participation in it by exploiting classes and strata, who are deprived of all political and civil rights”, it doesn’t point out that all the characteristics of this state, correctly expressed in other parts of the same paragraph and above all the part just mentioned (about the political representation of one class only), are not just formal differences but destroy all the basic characteristics of the bourgeois state and prove the much-maligned identity between the state and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
But on what basis can one affirm the absolute necessity for the proletariat not to identify its own dictatorship with the state in the period of transition? Mainly because it is asserted that the state is a conservative institution par excellence.
Here we are joining up with the anti-historical viewpoint of anarchism with its opposition to the state on principle. The anarchists base their convictions on the need to be free of the yoke of ‘authority’. RI doesn’t go that far, obviously, but just like the anarchists it judges the state to be conservative and reactionary no matter what social epoch or geographical region, no matter what direction it is oriented towards and thus no matter what kind of class rule it is the expression of, or the historical period in which that class rule is situated.
Marxism doesn’t see things in this way. For marxism the state is a different institution in different epochs, both in relation to its formal characteristics and its functions.
If we study history, marxist materialism teaches us that, in revolutionary epochs, as soon as a class has conquered power it stabilizes the kind of state organization which best corresponds to the pursuit of its class interests. The state then takes on the function of the revolutionary class that has set it up. In other words, having crushed the resistance of other classes by terror, its despotic interventions allow the productive forces to develop -- by casting down obstacles in the way, by stabilizing and imposing through a monopoly of armed force a whole framework of laws and relations of production which allow the productive forces to grow and correspond to the interests of the new class in power. To give but one example, the French state in 1793 took on an eminently revolutionary role.
Another reason is expressed in the same paragraph of point C: “the state in the transition period bears all the marks of a class-divided society”. This is a very strange reason, because everything that comes out of capitalist society will bear its marks. Not only the state, but also the proletariat organized in the soviets, because it will have grown up and been educated under the influence of the conservative ideology of the capitalist system. Only the party, while not constituting an island of communism within capitalism, is less marked by these stigmata because it is based on “a will and a consciousness which become the premises for action as a result of a general historical elaboration” (Bordiga). (These affirmations may seem a bit summary, but I will clarify them later on.)
To conclude, I will deal with the profound contradiction your conception leads to. You say “the proletariat’s domination over society is also its domination over the state and this can only be ensured through its own class dictatorship”. I will reply with the classic words of Lenin, who, in State and Revolution once again underlined the essence of the marxist theory of the state:
“The essence of Marx’s teaching on the state has been mastered only by those who understand that the dictatorship of a single class is necessary not only for every class society in general, not only for the proletariat which has overthrown the bourgeoisie, but also for the entire historical period which separates capitalism from ‘classless society’, from communism. The forms of bourgeois states are extremely varied, but their essence is the same: all these states, whatever their form, in the final analysis is inevitably the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The transition from capitalism to communism certainly cannot but yield a tremendous abundance and variety of political forms, but the essence will inevitably be the same: the dictatorship of the proletariat.”
Thus from the marxist point of view, the state can be defined as an organ (different in form and structure according to the historical epoch, the class society, and the orientation it expresses) through which the dictatorship of the proletariat, based on a monopoly of armed force, will be exerted.
It is thus nonsense to talk about a state subjected to a dictatorship which is external to it, and which cannot therefore intervene despotically in economic and social reality in order to impose a definite class orientation on it.
The ICC’s reply
Two ideas underlie comrade E’s critique: the first is the rejection of the affirmation that the “state is a conservative institution par excellence”; the second is the reaffirmation of the identity between the state and the dictatorship of the proletariat in the period of transition, since the state is always the state of the ruling class. Let us examine these two arguments more closely. E writes:
“(RI asserts that) the state is a conservative institution par excellence. Here we are joining up with the anti-historical viewpoint of anarchism with its opposition to the state on principle. The anarchists base their convictions on the need to be free of the yoke of ‘authority’. RI doesn’t go that far, obviously, but just like the anarchists it judges the state to be conservative and reactionary no matter what social epoch or geographical region, no matter what direction it is oriented towards and thus no matter what kind of class rule it is the expression of, or the historical period in which that class rule is situated.”
Before considering why the state is indeed a “conservative organ par excellence,” let us reply to this polemical argument which integrates our position with that of the anarchists.
Our conception is said to “join up with the anti-historical viewpoint of anarchism” because it draws out a characteristic of state institutions (their conservative nature) independently of the “geographical region”, the “class rule it is the expression of” and “the historical period in which that class rule is situated”.
But why is it ‘anti-historical’ to draw out the general characteristics of an institution or a phenomenon throughout history, whatever specific forms it may take on in a given period? How can we use history to understand reality if we don’t know how to draw out the general laws which operate in different periods and specific conditions? Is marxism ‘anti-historical’ when it says that since society has been divided into classes “the class struggle is the motor force in history” whatever the historical period and whatever classes are involved?
We can see the need to distinguish what is particular and specific to each state in history (feudal state, bourgeois state, transitional state, etc). But how can we understand these particularities if we don’t know what generalities they are to be defined against? The ability to draw out the general characteristics of a phenomenon throughout history, throughout all the particular forms it may take on, is not only the basis of any historical analysis but is also a pre-condition for understanding the specificities of any general problem.
From the marxist point of view one might challenge our view that it is a general law that the state has a conservative character, but one can’t challenge the very idea of trying to define the general historical character of a phenomenon. To do this would be to deny the possibility of any historical analysis.
It is also asserted that our position is close to that of anarchism because it is based on “opposition to the state in principle”. Let us recall what is meant by the anarchists’ opposition in principle to the state. Rejecting the analysis of history in terms of class and of economic determinism, the anarchists never understood that the state was a product of the needs of a class-divided society; they saw it as an ‘evil’ in itself, which, along with religion and authoritarianism, was at the root of all the evils of society (“I am against the state because the state is accursed” as Louis Michel put it). For the same reason they considered that there was no need for a period of transition between capitalism and communism, and still less for a state. The state could and had to be ‘abolished’, ‘forbidden’ by decree the day after the general insurrection.
What has this in common with the idea that the state, a product of the division of society into classes, has a conservative essence because it has the function of holding back class conflicts and maintaining them within the limits of order and social stability? If we stress the conservative character of this institution it’s not because we advocate that the proletariat should have an ‘apolitical’, indifferent attitude to the state, or because we want to spread illusions about the possibility of making the state disappear by decree while class divisions continue to exist; it is in order to show why the proletariat, far from submitting unconditionally to the authority of the state in the period of transition -- as is suggested by the idea that the state is the incarnation of the dictatorship of the proletariat -- must subject this apparatus to a permanent relation of force, to its own class dictatorship. What is there is common between this vision and that of the anarchists who reject en bloc the state, the period of transition, and above all the dictatorship of the proletariat? To assimilate this vision to that of the anarchists is simply to play with words in the interest of polemic.
But let us go to the heart of the problem. Why is the state a conservative institution par excellence?
The word conservative means that which opposes any innovation, that which resists any overturning of the existing order. Now the state, no matter what kind, is an institution whose essential function is precisely that of maintaining order, maintaining the existing order. It is the product of the need of every class society to provide itself with an organ which can maintain by force an order which can’t be maintained harmoniously and spontaneously because it is divided into social groupings with antagonistic economic interests. It thus constitutes the force which every action aimed at overturning the existing order -- and thus every revolutionary action -- must come up against.
“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 dispel. 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 became 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.” (Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State)
In this famous formulation of Engels, which explains the needs and functions fulfilled by the state, we find a clear statement of the essential aspect of this institution: “moderating the conflict” between classes, “keeping it within the bounds of ‘order’ and a few pages further on, “the state arose from the need to hold class antagonisms within cheek”.
Since we know that the force which leads to revolutionary transformation is none other than the class struggle that it is this ‘conflict’, this ‘antagonism’ which it is the state’s task to ‘moderate’ and ‘hold in check’, then it is easy to understand why the state is an essentially conservative institution.
In societies of exploitation, where the state is overtly the guardian of the interests of the economically dominant class, the conservative role of the state in the face of any movement which challenges the existing economic order (of which the state is always, along with the ruling class, the beneficiary) appears quite clearly. However, this conservative character of the state is no less present in the state in the period of transition to communism.
At each stage of the communist revolution (destruction of the political power of the bourgeoisie in one or several countries, then throughout the world; collectivization of new sectors of production; development of the collectivization of distribution in the industrial centres, then in the advanced agricultural sectors, then in the backward ones, etc), and as long as the development of the productive forces has not reached a level which would allow each human being to participate in collectivized production on a world scale and receive goods from society “according to his needs”, as long as humanity has not attained this stage of wealth which would finally allow it to do away with all forms of rationing and to unite in a human community -- at each stage society will have to resort to uniform social rules and laws, which will enable it to live in accord with the existing conditions of production without being torn apart by the conflict between classes and while waiting to go on to a new stage.
Because we are dealing with laws which still express a stage of scarcity, that is a stage where the well-being of one still tends to be at the expense of another, these are laws which, while imposing ‘equality in scarcity’ will require an apparatus of constraint and administration which will make the whole of society respect them. This apparatus can only be the state.
If, for example, during this period of transition we decide to freely distribute consumer goods in the centres of distribution, when there is still scarcity in society, the first few thousand who got to the centres would be able to satisfy their hunger, but thousands of others would be reduced to famine. Thus even an equitable distribution demands rules for rationing and thus ‘functionaries’: the state which “supervises and records” that Lenin talked about.
The function of this state is not a revolutionary one, even if the existing political order is that of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Its intrinsic function is at best to stabilize, regularize, and institutionalize the existing social relations. The bureaucratic mentality in the transition period (and there is no state without bureaucrats) is hardly going to be characterized by a revolutionary devotion. It will inevitably tend to be the same as that of all functionaries: it will be concerned with maintaining order, the stability of the laws which it has the task of applying ... and as far as possible, with the defence of its own privileges. The longer scarcity makes the state necessary, the more the conservative force of this apparatus will grow, and with it the tendency for all the characteristics of the old society to re-emerge.
In the Communist Manifesto Marx wrote:
“The development of the productive forces is the absolute pre-condition (for communism) because without it one is merely socializing poverty and this poverty will give rise to a struggle for necessities, so that all the old dross will come back to the surface.”
The Russian Revolution, where the proletariat had to remain isolated, condemned to the most terrible scarcity, was a tragic, practical demonstration of this insight. But it also showed that the “old dross” would re-emerge precisely where it was believed that the dictatorship of the proletariat had its true incarnation: in the state and its bureaucracy.
Let us cite a witness whose testimony is all the more significant in that he was one of the main defenders of the idea that the dictatorship of the proletariat and the transitional state were identical, Leon Trotsky:
“The bureaucratic authority was based on the scarcity of consumer goods and the resulting struggle of all against all. When there were enough goods in the shops, customers could come at any time. When there weren’t enough commodities the customers had to queue at the door. When the queue became very long, there had to be a policeman to maintain order. This was the starting point of the soviet bureaucracy. It ‘knew’ whom to give things to and who had to be patient...
.. (the bureaucracy) arose at the beginning as the bourgeois organ of the working class. Establishing and maintaining the privileges of the minority, it naturally took the best for itself: he who gives out the goods doesn’t go short.
Thus society gave birth to an organ which, going far beyond its necessary social function, became an autonomous factor and a source of great danger to the whole social body.” (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed)
Certainly the next revolutionary movement won’t undergo material conditions as disastrous as those which existed in Russia. But the necessity for a period of transition, a period of struggle against scarcity and poverty on the scale of the planet, is no less inevitable than the emergence of a state structure. The fact that the proletariat will have at its disposal a greater reservoir of productive forces in order to create the material conditions for communist society will be a vital element in weakening the state and its conservative influence. But it will not eliminate this characteristic. Thus it is extremely important for the proletariat to assimilate the lessons of the Russian Revolution, and to see the transitional state not as the supreme incarnation of the dictatorship but as an organ which it must subject to its dictatorship and from which it must maintain its organizational autonomy.
A force for stabilization, not transformations
But, you say, history shows that the state takes on a revolutionary function when the class which runs it is itself revolutionary:
“... in revolutionary epochs, as soon as a class has conquered power it stabilizes the kind of state organization which best corresponds to the pursuit of its class interests. The state then takes on the function of the revolutionary class that has set it up. In other words, having crushed by terror the resistance of other classes, its despotic interventions allow the productive forces to develop -- by casting down obstacles in the way, by stabilizing and imposing through a monopoly of armed force a whole framework of laws and relations of production which allow the productive forces to grow and correspond to the interests of the new class in power. To give but one example, the French state in 1793 took on an eminently revolutionary role.” (Extract from E's Letter)
We can’t play with words here. To take on a revolutionary function and stabilize “a whole framework of laws and relations of production”....which “correspond to the interests of the new class in power” do not describe the same thing. From the moment when the struggle of a revolutionary class manages to establish a relation of force in society to its own advantage it is obvious that the legal framework, the state institution which has the function of stabilizing the existing relation of forces is obliged to translate this new state of affairs into laws and into interventions by the executive apparatus to make sure the laws are carried out. Any political action of any consequence in a society divided into classes, and thus headed by a state structure will be unable to attain its goal unless it is sooner or later concretized at the level of laws and state actions. Thus the state in France in 1793, for example, was obliged to legalize the revolutionary measures imposed by the actions of the revolutionary forces: execution of the King, law on suspects, and the terror against reactionary elements, requisitions and rationing, confiscation and sale of the goods of emigres, tax on the rich, ‘dechristianization’ and closing of the churches, etc. In the same way the soviet state in Russia took revolutionary measures, like the consecration of soviet power and the destruction of the political power of the former ruling class, organization of the civil war against the White armies and so on.
But can we say that the state really took on the revolutionary function of the classes which set it up?
The question is whether these facts show that the state is only conservative when the ruling class is conservative and revolutionary when the latter is revolutionary? In other words, is it true that the state has no intrinsically conservative or revolutionary tendencies? If so it would simply be the institutional embodiment of the will of the politically dominant class, or to use Bukharin’s formulation about the state and the proletariat in the period of transition: “the collective reason of the working class ... has its material embodiment in the highest, all-embracing organization, its state power” (Economics of the Transition Period).
Let us look at these events a bit more closely, beginning with “the French state of 1793, by the measures it took, the most radical bourgeois state in history” (we will look at the Russian Revolution later).
The state of 1793 was the state of the National Convention, set up at the end of 1792 after the removal of the monarchy by the Insurrectionary Commune of Paris and the terror it imposed: the Convention succeeded the state of the Legislative Assembly which had ‘organized’ the revolutionary war, but whose existence was put into question by the fall of the throne and the real power of the Insurrectionary Commune, whose dissolution it tried in vain to proclaim (on 1 September the Legislative Assembly proclaimed the dissolution of the Commune but had to revoke its decision on the same evening).
The Legislative Assembly had itself succeeded the Constituent Assembly which, after proclaiming the abolition of seigneurial rights and adopting the universal declaration of the rights of man, had refused to proclaim the removal of the King.
Before seeing how the famous radical measures of 1793 were taken, we have to say that the events leading from the conquest of power by the bourgeoisie in 1789 to the Convention of September 1792 don’t correspond to the simplistic description given by comrade E: “in revolutionary epochs, as soon as a class has conquered power, it stabilizes the kind of state organization which best corresponds to the pursuit of its class interests”.
In reality, as soon as the bourgeoisie conquered political power in 1789, a long and complex process began, in the course of which the revolutionary class far from “stabilizing” the state it had just set up, found itself forced to systematically challenge the state in order to be able to carry out its historic mission.
Hardly had the state consecrated the new relations of forces imposed by the most dynamic elements of society (abolition of seigneurial rights by the Constituent Assembly after the events of July in 1789 in Paris, for example) than the institutional framework stabilized by the state’s action showed itself to be insufficient, and became a fetter on the new developments of the revolutionary process (like the Constituent’s refusal to proclaim the elimination of the King, and its repression of the popular movement).
If between 1789 and 1793 the revolution needed three state forms (each one having various governments), it is precisely because none of these states were able to “take on the function of the revolutionary class that has set it up”. Each new step forward in the revolution thus took the form of a struggle not only against the classes of the ancien regime, but also against the ‘revolutionary’ state and its legalistic, conservative inertia.
The year 1793 didn’t bring with it a stabilization of “the kind of state organization which best corresponds to the pursuit of the bourgeoisie’s class interests”. On the contrary it corresponded to the high point of the destabilization of the state institution. For real stabilization we had to wait for Napoleon with his juridical codes, his re-organization of the administration and his cry: “Citizens: The Revolution is fixed to the principles it began with. It is f finished!”1
And how could it have been any different? How could a genuinely revolutionary class avoid coming to blows with representatives of ‘order’ (even its own) in order to force it to transcend its administrative concerns, its juridical formalities, its preoccupations, in Engels’ words, with “moderating the conflict (between classes) ... keeping it within the bounds of ‘order’”?
To think that the state institution can be the ‘material embodiment’ of the revolutionary will of a class is as absurd as imagining that a revolution can unfold in an ‘orderly’ manner. It means asking an organ whose essential function is to ensure the stability of social life to incarnate the spirit of subversion, a spirit which it is the state’s task to smother. It means asking a corps of bureaucrats to have the spirit of a revolutionary class.
A revolution is a formidable explosion of the living forces of society, who begin to take control of the destiny of the social organism, overturning without respect or hesitation all the institutions (even those created by the revolution) which stand in the way of the revolutionary process. The power of a revolution can be measured by the ability of a revolutionary class to avoid getting trapped in the legal prison of its initial conquests, to know how to deal as ruthlessly with the insufficiencies of its first steps as with the forces of the ancien regime. The political superiority of the bourgeois revolution in France to the English bourgeois revolution resides precisely in the ability of the former to avoid getting paralyzed by a fetishism of the state, to ceaselessly and pitilessly overturn its own state institutions.
But let us go back to the famous French state of 1793 and the measures it took because it is the example comrade E gives to prove the ‘revolutionary’ capacities of state institutions; actually it is a striking example of just how powerless state institutions are in this field.
The truth is that the great revolutionary measures of 1793 were not taken on the initiative of the state, but against the state. It was the direct action of the most radical factions of the Parisian bourgeoisie, supported and often carried along by the immense agitation of the proletariat of the suburbs of Paris, which forced these measures to be carried out.
The Insurrectionary Commune of Paris was a body set up after the events of 9/10 August 1792 by the most radical elements of the bourgeoisie; it had at its disposal the armed force of the bourgeoisie, the National Guard, and the armed sections, which were organs of the popular masses. It was this body, an organic expression of the revolutionary movement, which forced first the Legislative then the Convention -- whose accession it had provoked by terrorizing 90 per cent of the electors in the indirect system of universal suffrage to abstain from voting -- to carry through the most radical measures of the revolution. It was the Commune which provoked the fall of the King on 10 August 1792, which imprisoned the royal family in the Temple on the thirteenth, which prevented itself from being dissolved by the state of the Legislative, which directly set up the revolutionary tribunals and the Terror of September 1792; it was the Commune which, in 1793, imposed on the Convention the execution of the King, the law on suspects, the proscription of the Girondins, the closing of the churches, the offical establishment of the Terror, etc, etc. And, to emphasize its character as a living force distinct from the state, it also imposed on the Convention the preeminence of Paris as “guide to the Nation and tutor to the Assembly”; the right of the “people” to intervene against “its representatives” if necessary, and, finally, the “right to insurrection”!
The example of Cromwell in England, dissolving Parliament by force and putting a notice on the door saying ‘for hire’, is an expression of the same necessity.
If the events of 1792-3 show anything, it’s not that the state institution can be as revolutionary as the class which dominates it, but on the contrary that:
-- the more revolutionary this class is the more it is forced to come up against the conservative character of the state;
-- the more it has to take radical measures the more it is forced to refuse to submit to the authority of the state and to submit the state to its own dictatorship.
We said before that to take on a revolutionary function and to stabilize a whole framework of laws and relations of production ... which “correspond to the interests of the new class in power” are not the same. In revolutionary periods history has only resolved the difference between the two through a relation of force between the real revolutionary force, the class itself, and its juridical expression, the state.
Identifying with a stabilizing organ
Up to this point we have dealt with the conservative nature of the state on a general historical level. Returning to the period of transition from capitalism to communism we shall see just how much this antagonism between revolution and the state, embryonic or transient in past revolutions becomes much more profound and irreconcilable in the communist revolution. Comrade E writes:
“The difficulty comes in when you affirm that ‘the state has a historic nature which is anti-communist and anti-proletarian’, that it is essentially conservative, and that therefore the proletarian dictatorship ‘cannot find its authentic and total expression in a conservative instrument par excellence, the state’. Here, if you will pardon the brutality of my words, we see anarchism coming in through the window after being chased out the door.”
We will leave the polemical argument which calls our position an anarchist one: we’ve already dealt with this. Let us see why the proletariat can’t find its “authentic and total expression” in a conservative institution.
We saw how during the bourgeois revolution there were moments in which, because of the conservative tendencies in the initial forms of its own state, the bourgeoisie was forced, through its most radical factions, to distance itself from the state institution and impose its ‘despotic’ dictatorship not only on the other classes in society, but also on the state it had just set up.
However, the opposition between the bourgeoisie and the state could only be temporary. The goal of the bourgeois revolutions, no matter how radical and popular they might be, could never be anything but the strengthening and stabilization of the social order of which the bourgeoisie is the beneficiary. However great its opposition to the old ruling class might be, it only destabilizes society and the state in order to fix it more firmly later on, when it’s political power has been assured in a new social order, when it can develop its strength as an exploiting class without further hindrance.
Thus the revolutionary storm of 1793 was followed by the submission of the Insurrectionary Commune of Paris to the government of Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, then by the execution of Robespierre himself by the ‘reaction’ of Thermidor, finally ending up with the strong state under Napoleon, when the state and the bourgeoisie were fraternally intertwined in an absolute desire for order and stability.
In fact, the more the bourgeoisie’s system developed and consolidated itself, the more the bourgeoisie recognized its own reflection in the state, the guarantor of its privileges. The more the bourgeoisie became conservative the more it identified itself with its gendarme and administrator.
For the proletariat things are quite different. The goal of the working class in power is neither to maintain its existence as a class nor to conserve the state, a product of the division of society into classes. Its declared objective is the abolition of classes and thus the disappearance of the state. The period of transition to communism is not a movement towards the stabilization of proletarian power, but towards its disappearance. It flows from this not that the proletariat must not affirm its dictatorship over the whole of society, but that it must use this dictatorship to permanently overturn the existing state of affairs. This movement of transformation has to continue right up until the advent of communism: any stabilization of the proletarian revolution means a reflux and the threat of death. Saint-Just’s famous saying, “those who make a revolution half-way are digging their own graves”, applies much more to the proletariat than to any other revolutionary class in history, because it is the first revolutionary class to be an exploited class.
Contrary to the ideas of Trotsky, who was unable to see the growth of the bureaucracy after 1917 as the main force of the counterrevolution, and talked about a ‘proletarian Thermidor’, there can be no ‘Thermidor’ in the proletarian revolution. For the bourgeoisie, Thermidor was a necessity which corresponded to its attempt to stabilize its own power. For the proletariat, any stabilization is not a culminating point or a success, but a weakness, and before long, a retreat in its revolutionary task.
The only moment when the stabilization of social relations can correspond to the interests of the proletariat will be when the classless society has emerged. But then there will be no more proletariat, no more proletarian dictatorship, and no more state. This is why the proletariat can never find in an institution whose function is to “moderate the conflict” between classes and stabilize the existing state of affairs “its authentic and total expression”.
Contrary to what happened with the bourgeoisie, the development of the proletarian revolution will not be measured by the strengthening of the state, but on the contrary key the dissolution of the state into civil society, the society of free producers.
But the proletariat’s attitude to the state during the course of its dictatorship -- non-identification, autonomous organization in relation to the state, dictatorship over the state -- is different from that of the bourgeoisie, not only because for the first time the dissolution of the state is a necessity but also -- and without this such a necessity is but a pious wish -- because it is a possibility.
Divided by the private property and by the competition on which its economic rule is based, the bourgeoisie cannot engender for very long an organized body which incarnates its class interests outside the state. For the bourgeoisie the state is not only the defender of its rule over other classes, it is also the only place where it can unify its interests. Because of all the bourgeoisie’s private and antagonistic interests, only the state can express the interests of the whole class. This is why, although at a given moment, both in France and in England, the bourgeoisie could not do without the autonomous action of its most radical factions against the state it had set up in order to carry out its revolution, this state of affairs could not be allowed to persist for long. Otherwise it would have completely lost its political unity and strength; (witness the fate of the Insurrectionary Commune of Paris and its leaders once their dynamic revolutionary action had been accomplished).
The proletariat will not suffer from this impotence. Not having any antagonistic interests in its midst and finding its main strength in its autonomous unity, the proletariat can exist, united and powerful, without having recourse to an armed arbiter above itself. Its representation as a class can be found in itself, in its own unitary organs: the workers’ councils.
These councils can and must constitute the one and only organ of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In these councils alone will the proletariat be able to find “its authentic and total expression”.
The proletariat as a ruling class
Comrade E takes up Lenin’s positions in State and Revolution, which are themselves based on the writings and practical experience of the proletarian movement. But he has done so by simplifying Lenin’s position in the extreme, by forgetting the political context in which it was written, and by leaving out the most important experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat: the Russian Revolution.
According to E, the greatest, richest moment in the history of the proletarian struggle hasn’t given the slightest reason to modify the formulations put forward by revolutionaries before October. The result is a gross simplication of the inevitable insufficiencies of revolutionary theory prior to 1917, in an area where the only experience to go on was that of the Paris Commune. E writes:
“ ... the essence of his (Lenin’s) position is very simple: the proletariat makes itself the ruling class and creates its own state organ, which differs in form from previous states, but which has essentially the same function: the oppression of other classes, violence concentrated against them for the triumph of the interests of the ruling class, even if these interests are those of humanity as a whole.”
It is true that the essential function of the state has always been to maintain the oppression of the exploited classes by the exploiting class. But if you transpose this definition to the period of transition to communism, its insufficiency soon becomes apparent for two main reasons:
1. Because the class exerting its dictatorship is not an exploiting class but an exploited class.
2. Because of the reason given above and because of the reasons we have already seen, the relationship between the proletariat and the state can’t be the same as it was with exploiting classes.
In State and Revolution Lenin was obliged to put forward this simple conception of the state, because of the polemic he was engaged in with Social Democracy. The latter, in order to justify their participation in the government of bourgeois states, claimed that the state (and the bourgeois state in particular) was an organ of conciliation between classes: from this they concluded that by participating in it and by increasing the electoral influence of workers’ parties you could transform the state into an instrument of the proletariat for the building of socialism. Lenin insisted that the state in class society was always the state of the ruling class, an apparatus for keeping that force in power, its armed force against other classes.
The thought of a revolutionary class, and especially that of an exploited revolutionary class, can never develop in the peaceful world of scientific research. Since it is a weapon in its overall struggle, it can only express itself in violent opposition to the ruling ideology, the falsity of which it is constantly trying to demonstrate. This is why you will never find a revolutionary text which doesn’t take the form of a critique or a polemic in one way or another. Even the most ‘scientific’ parts of Capital were written in a spirit of critical struggle against the economic theories of the ruling class. Thus when we use revolutionary texts we have to see them in the context of the struggle they were a part of. Real, living polemic always leads to a polarization of thought around particular aspects of reality because they are the most important elements in a given struggle. But what is essential in one discussion not automatically essential in another. To take, word for word, formulations from a text dealing with a particular problem, and to apply them to other problems without situating them in their proper context usually leads to aberrations; what was a necessary simplification in a polemic is, when transposed elsewhere, transformed into a theoretical absurdity. This is why exegesis is always an obstacle to revolutionary thought.
To transpose formulations from the polemic against Social Democracy for its participation in the bourgeois state and its rejection of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and replant them in the problem of the relationship between the working class and the state in the period of transition to communism, is an example of this kind of error. It was an error which was committed quite often by Marx, Engels and Lenin, and by all the revolutionaries who were united in struggle against the treason of Social Democracy during World War I. It was understandable prior to October 1917, but not today.
The experience of the Russian Revolution has shown that the relationship of the proletariat in power to the state is quite different from that of exploiting classes. The proletariat affirms itself as the ruling class in society by exerting its dictatorship. But the term ruling class here has a very different content from when it is applied to past societies. The proletariat is the ruling class politically, but not economically. Not only can the proletariat not exploit any other class in society; to a certain extent it remains an exploited class itself.
Economically exploiting a class means deriving benefit from its labour to the detriment of its own satisfaction; it means depriving a class of part of the fruits of its labour and thus preventing it from enjoying them. After the seizure of power by the proletariat the economic situation will have the following two characteristics:
1. In relation to human needs (even using a minimum definition of not suffering from hunger, cold, or curable diseases), scarcity will reign over two-thirds of mankind.
2. The most essential elements of world production will be carried on in the industrial regions by a minority of the population: the proletariat.
In these conditions, the movement towards communism will demand an enormous effort in production, which will be aimed on the one hand at satisfying human needs, and, on the other hand, (and linked to this first necessity) at integrating the immense mass of the population into the process of production. The majority of the population is unproductive either because it carries out unproductive functions under capitalism (in the advanced countries); or because capitalism has been unable to integrate them into social production (as with the majority of the third world). Now, whether we are talking about increasing production of consumer goods or about producing means of production in order to be able to integrate the unproductive masses (the peasantry in the third world won’t be integrated into socialized production with wooden or metal ploughs, but with the most advanced industrial techniques which have still to be created) -- in either case, the weight of this effort will be on the shoulders of the proletariat.
As long as scarcity exists in the world and as long as the proletariat remains a fraction of society (as long as its condition has not generalized to the entire population of the planet), the proletariat will have to produce a surplus of goods (both consumer and producer goods) from which it will only benefit in the long term. Thus we can see that not only is the proletariat not an exploiting class -- it will still be an exploited class.
In past societies, the state tended to identify itself with the ruling class and the defence of its privileges to the extent that this class was economically dominant, that is, benefiting from the maintenance of the existing relations of production. In a society of exploitation, the state’s task of maintaining order is inevitably the maintenance of exploitation and thus of the privileges of the exploiter.
But during the period of transition to communism, although the maintenance of the existing economic relations can in the short term be a way of preventing a regression from what the proletariat has already achieved (and this is why there will inevitably be a state in the period of transition), it also means the continuation of an economic situation in which the proletariat bears the brunt for the subsistence and development of society.
Contrary to what happened in the past when the politically dominant class was a class which directly benefitted from the existing economic order, during the dictatorship of the proletariat there will be no economic basis for a convergence between the state and the politically dominant class. What’s more, as an organ which expresses society’s need for cohesion and the need to prevent the development of class antagonisms, the state will inevitably tend to oppose the immediate interests of the working class on an economic level. During the Russian Revolution the state increasingly insisted on a greater and greater effort in production by the proletariat in order to meet the demands of exchange with the peasants or with the foreign powers. This state of affairs led right from the beginning to workers’ strikes being repressed which clearly showed how great an antagonism can arise between the proletariat and the state.
This is why the proletariat cannot see the state, in Bukharin’s terms, as “the material embodiment of its collective reason”, but as an instrument of society which won’t be ‘automatically’ subjected to its will, as was the case with exploiting classes once their political rule had definitely been assured; an instrument which it must ceaselessly subject to its control and dictatorship if it doesn’t want to see it turn against it, as it did in Russia.
A dictatorship over the state
But, says the last argument of comrade E, a state which is subjected to a dictatorship outside itself won’t have the means to carry out its role. If state and dictatorship are not identical, there is no real dictatorship.
“You accept the dictatorship of the proletariat, but you forget that state and the exclusive dictatorship of a class are synonymous ... It is thus a nonsense to talk about a state subjected to a dictatorship which is external to it, and which cannot therefore intervene despotically in economic and social reality in order to impose a definite class orientation.”
It is true that there cannot be a class dictatorship of any kind without the existence of a state institution in society; first because the division of society into classes implies the existence of a state, secondly because any class in power requires an apparatus which will translate its power in society into a framework of laws and constraint: the state. It is also true that a state which does not have any real power is not a state. But it is wrong to say that class dictatorship is identical to the state and that “a state subjected to a dictatorship which is external to it” is “nonsense”.
The situation of dual power (that of a class on the one hand and of the state on the other) has, as we have seen, already existed in history, particularly during the great bourgeois revolutions. And, for all the reasons we have seen, it will be a necessity during the period of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Such a situation cannot last indefinitely without leading society into inextricable contradictions which will devour it. It is a living contradiction which must be resolved. But the way it is resolved differs fundamentally according to whether we are dealing with the bourgeois revolution or the proletarian revolution.
In the bourgeois revolution the situation of dual power is quickly resolved by an identification between the power of the ruling class and the state power, which emerges from the revolutionary process strengthened and invested with supreme power over society, including over the ruling class.
In the proletarian revolution, on the other hand, it is resolved by the dissolution of the state, the taking over of the whole of social life by society itself.
There is a fundamental difference here, which expresses itself in a different relationship between the state and the ruling class in the proletarian revolution -- a difference not only of form but also of content.
In order to see these differences more clearly, we have to try to draw a broad outline of the forms of proletarian power during the period of transition in so far as they have been revealed by the historic experience of the proletariat. Without trying to go into the institutional details of this period -- because if there is one major characteristic of revolutionary periods, it is that all institutional forms can be reduced to empty shells which the living forces of society fill up or overturn according to the needs of class struggle -- it is possible to put forward the following general outline.
Tile direct organ of proletarian power will be constituted by the unitary organizations of the class, the workers’ councils. These are assemblies of delegates, elected and revocable by all the workers which include all those who produce in a collective fashion in the socialized sector -- workers of the old society and those integrated into the collectivized sector as the revolution develops. Armed in an autonomous manner, these are the authentic instruments of the proletarian dictatorship.
The state institution is constituted at the base by councils formed not on a class basis, not in relation to the place occupied in the process of production (the proletariat must forbid any class organizations except its own), but on a geographical basis. This means assemblies and councils of delegates of the population based on neighbourhood, town, region and so on culminating in a central council which will be the central council of the state.
Emanating from these institutions will be the whole state apparatus responsible for maintaining order -- the army during the civil war, the whole body of functionaries responsible for the administration and management of production and distribution.
This apparatus of gendarmes and functionaries will be more or less important, more or less dissolved into the population itself according to the development of the revolutionary process, but it would be an illusion to ignore the inevitability of their existence in a society which still has classes and scarcity.
The dictatorship of the proletariat over the transitional state is the ability of the working class to maintain the arms and autonomy of its councils in relation to the state and to impose its will on it (both on its central organs and its functionaries).
The dual power situation resulting from this will be resolved to the extent that the whole of the population is integrated into the proletariat and its councils. As abundance develops the role of the gendarmes and other functionaries will disappear, “the government of men” will be replaced by the “administration of things” by the producers themselves. As the power of the proletariat grows, the power of the functionaries and the state will diminish, and the proletariat’s absorption of the whole of humanity trill transform its class power into the conscious activity of the human community.
But for such a process to take place, not only must the material conditions exist (in particular the world extension of the revolution and the development of the productive forces), but also the proletariat, the essential motor-force of this whole process, must know how to conserve and develop its autonomy and its power over the state. Far from being nonsense, the ‘external’ dictatorship over the state by the workers’ councils is the very movement towards the withering away of the state.
The Russian Revolution did not achieve the material conditions for this to happen. But the enormous difficulties it came up against highlighted the intrinsic tendencies of the state apparatus, which grew in strength the more these difficulties multiplied.
Immediately after October 1917 in Russia there were the workers’ councils, the protagonists of October, and the state councils, the general soviets and their developing state apparatus. But, following the idea that the state could not be distinct from the dictatorship of the proletariat, the workers’ councils transformed themselves into state institutions by integrating themselves into the state apparatus. With the development of the power of the bureaucracy, a result of the absence of the material conditions for the development of the revolution, the opposition between the proletariat and the state became more and more flagrant. It was believed that you could resolve this antagonism by as much as possible putting the most experienced and resolute workers, the members of the party, in the state apparatus instead of the functionaries. The result was not the proletarianization of the state, but the bureaucratization of the revolutionaries. At the end of the civil war, the development of the antagonism between the working class and the state led to the state’s repression of workers’ strikes in Petrograd and then of the workers’ insurrection at Kronstadt, which demanded, among other things, measures against the bureaucracy and the recall of delegates to the soviets.
This does not mean that if only the proletariat had defended the autonomy of its workers’ councils from the state and had imposed its dictatorship over the state instead of seeing the latter as it’s “material embodiment” then the revolution would have been victorious in Russia.
The dictatorship of the proletariat wasn’t wiped out because of its inability to resolve the problems of its relationship with the state but because of the failure of the revolution in other countries, which condemned it to isolation. However, its experience of this crucial problem was neither useless nor a ‘particular case’ which has no significance for the proletarian movement as a whole. The Russian experience threw a vivid light on this question which was so terribly confused in revolutionary theory. Not only did the workers’ councils give a practical response to the problem of the forms of proletarian power; it also made it possible to resolve what appears to be a contradiction in the lessons Marx, Engels and Lenin drew from the Paris Commune. On the one hand these revolutionaries affirmed that the state was the embodiment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and on the other hand, they concluded from the experience of the Commune that the proletariat must guard against “the harmful effects” (Engels) of this state by subjecting all its functions to the control of the proletariat. If the state is identical to the dictatorship of the proletariat, why should the class show any distrust towards it? How can the dictatorship of a class have effects contrary to its own interests?
In fact, the need to clearly distinguish the dictatorship of the proletariat from the state and for the former to exert a dictatorial control over the latter can already be found in embryonic or intuitive form in the writings of revolutionaries before October. Thus in State and Revolution Lenin was led to talk about a distinction between something which would be “the state of armed workers” and something else which would be “the state of bureaucrats”.
“Until the ‘higher’ phase of communism arrives, the Socialists demand the strictest control by society and by the state of the measure of labour and the measure of consumption; but this control must start with the expropriation of the capitalists, with the establishment of workers’ control over the capitalists, and must be exercised not by a state of bureaucrats but by a state of armed workers.”
And in another part of the same work, where he tries to make a comparison between the economy in the transitional period and the organization of the post under capitalism, he affirms the necessity for this body of functionaries to be controlled by the armed workers:
“The whole national economy organized like the post office, so that technicians, supervisors, accountants receive, like all functionaries, remuneration which does not exceed a ‘workers’ wage’, and all this under the control and direction of the armed proletariat. This is our immediate goal.” (our emphasis)
The Russian Revolution showed tragically that what appears as a theoretical contradiction in revolutionary thought could become a real contradiction between the dictatorship of the proletariat and the transitional state: it showed clearly that “the control and direction” of the state by the armed proletariat is an absolute precondition for the existence of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Comrade E certainly considers that he is remaining loyal to the theoretical effort of the proletariat such as it was prior to October 1917, and in particular to Lenin’s State and Revolution which he has defended intransigently. But it is departing from the whole spirit of this effort when one refuses, almost on principle, to criticize these theoretical acquisitions in the light of the greatest experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat in history. To conclude we can do no better than recall what Lenin wrote in State and Revolution about the attitude revolutionaries should have to this problem:
“Marx, however, was not only enthusiastic about the heroism of the Communards who, as he expressed it, ‘stormed heaven’. Although the mass revolutionary movement did not achieve its aim, he regarded it as a historic experience of enormous importance, as a certain advance of the world proletarian revolution, as a practical step that was more important than hundreds of programmes and arguments. To analyze this experiment, to draw tactical lessons from it, to re-examine his theory in the light of it -- that was the task that Marx set himself.”
1 And the French state went though further convulsions against the Restoration which followed the Napoleonic Empire, in 1830 and in 1848.