“Bourgeois revolutions, such as those of the eighteenth century, storm quickly from success to success. They outdo each other in dramatic effects; men and things seem set in sparkling diamonds and each day’s spirit is ecstatic. But they are short lived; they soon reach their apogee, and society has to undergo a long period of regret until it has learned to assimilate soberly the achievements of its period of storm and stress. Proletarian revolutions, however, such as those of the nineteenth century, constantly engage in self—criticism, and in repeated interruptions of their own course. They return to what has apparently already been accomplished in order to begin the task again; with merciless thoroughness they mock the inadequate, weak and wretched aspects of their first attempts; they seem to throw their opponent to the ground only to see him draw new strength from the earth and rise again before them, more colossal than ever; they shrink back again and again before the indeterminate immensity of their own goals, until the situation is created in which any retreat is impossible, and the conditions themselves cry out: Hic Rhodus, hic salta! Here is the rose, dance here!” (Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852).
On the basis of this incessant movement and constant self— criticism, the proletarian revolution pursues a jagged path towards communism. In fact,
- The communist revolution is not the culmination of an economic process, but merely the precondition on a political level for an economic and social transformation. It is the point of departure for a whole process of transformation of the old society. In the past, the economic power of a class and its capacity to impose a new system of social relations were practically synonymous. The new social structures, which embodied social progress and were imposed on society by force or persuasion, found their justification in the particular economic interests of the revolutionary class. To illustrate this, it is sufficient to recall how feudal society was destroyed by the bourgeoisie.
From the 15th and 16th centuries, the great bourgeois families, particularly in Southern Europe, were incontestable masters of trade and commerce. Along the trade routes over land and sea, flowed an incessant tide of metals, textiles and spices… A sea of gold flooded the towns, amid the new routes that joined the new trade centres. The arts, sciences, letters, and ideas all flourished. Scientific and technical discoveries multiplied, like the industrial cities. It would not be long until Copernicus developed his theory of the movement of the celestial spheres. Extraordinary advances occurred on the level of human understanding: everywhere the need for speed and precision was evident, as much in matters of finance and commerce as in those concerning industrial production. A social class was in the process of overturning society and conquering the world. For this it possessed one essential force: the power of finance and money. Without directly challenging the political power, which remained in the hands of time feudal aristocracy, the bourgeoisie imposed its own laws on society.
“The struggle of the bourgeoisie against the feudal nobility is the struggle of town against country, industry against landed property, money economy against natural economy; and the decisive weapon of the bourgeoisie in this struggle was its means of economic power, constantly increasing through the development of industry, first handicraft, and then, at a later stage, progressing to manufacture, mind through the expansion of commerce. During the whole of this struggle, political force was on the side of the nobility…” (our emphasis) (Engels, Anti-Duhring)
For the transition from capitalism to communism, the abolition of all forms of exploitation, the proletariat does not possess this kind of economic power. It will have no money, property or industrial power to aid it in its struggle. There is no economic power that can bring about the dissolution of the power of capitalism, and a gradual transition to communism. What material power could the proletariat gain through the possession of the instruments of labour, machines, or even whole factories, within the general framework of the domination of capitalist social relations? The idea of the possession or even partial possession of the means or fruits of production by the proletariat within a capitalist framework is an objective impossibility, a trap, a mystification. Only a violent, worldwide revolution can provide the basis for the collective appropriation of the means and fruits of production.
To the extent that the proletariat is not based on any particular economic interest, or any form of property, it cannot envisage setting up a new kind of exploitative society. It is precisely as the last exploited class in history, which “has nothing to lose but its chains”, that the proletariat is led, objectively, towards the construction of a classless society, a society without exploitation. The proletariat will remain an exploited class after the revolution, after the seizure of political power. Between this seizure of power — the installation of the proletarian dictatorship — and communism, a period of transition will be necessary. In this period the proletariat will be obliged to generalise its own condition throughout the whole of society, by integrating other social classes and strata into productive labour. Without this social transformation, without this progressive elimination of classes, the proletariat will remain an exploited class (producing surplus value for the parasitical consumption of other social strata) even after the worldwide political revolution.
Very often the following questions arise in connection with the communist revolution: “there is nothing to prove that once it has seized power the proletariat will not (to take revenge) begin to exploit some other class: look what happened in Russia!” ... or “power corrupts even those with the best of intentions” etc. The very way these questions are posed betrays their faulty reasoning.
They are based on an inability to understand the nature of the proletariat as both an exploited and a revolutionary class. They fail to take into account:
— the absence of any material basis for the economic power of the working class, which is the only possible basis of class oppression.
— the necessity and objective possibility of a classless society as the only possible basis for the continued development of the productive forces.
Those who fail to see this are led very easily into such platitudes, which are in fact an apology, a justification for the maintenance of capitalist social relations. This myopia, characteristic of bourgeois ideology, cannot see that if, after the revolution, one section of the working class began to exploit the others (it is clearly absurd to imagine the whole of the working class exploiting itself), this would signify nothing less than the retreat of revolution, i.e., the re—emergence of capitalism. The “exploiting workers” would have become, in a real and objective sense, representatives of the bourgeoisie (not of a new class). The revolution and the destruction of capitalism would only have been postponed.
The victory of the worldwide communist revolution, is not therefore in itself decisive, nor an absolute guarantee of the victory of communism. During the period of transition, a retreat back towards capitalist society is still possible. An immense effort will be required by the proletariat, through the development of its own consciousness and solidarity, to struggle against the possibility of such a retreat.
This is why only a limited number of weapons are available to the proletariat for this struggle. First of all it is clear that the proletarian revolution and the proletarian dictatorship cannot tolerate any vestiges of the old bourgeois power. On the contrary such vestiges will have to he progressively dismantled and destroyed during the period of transition. In the past this clean sweep of past institutions was not necessary.
The bourgeois revolution involved overturning many pre-capitalist social structures, as well as modes of thought and behaviour… but not the fundamental basis of pre-capitalist society, the exploitation of man by man, and the apparatus to enforce this exploitation. The axe of the inquisition was replaced by the ‘democratic’ blade of the guillotine. Our new masters, while ‘liberating’ the future exploited class from feudal servitude, could quite easily accommodate themselves to more ‘inoffensive’ aspects of the old regime, such as the repressive apparatus of the feudal state. They simply adapted this apparatus to suit modern requirements. Police, functionaries, inquisitors changed their uniforms. Thinkers, teachers, philosophers changed their doctrine. In certain cases, such as Germany and Russia at the start of the twentieth century, bourgeois economic power could co—exist with a farm—yard of aristocrats, Junkers, imperial officers and bureaucrats, nobles, princes, and emperors, etc.
Because it was simply a case of replacing one repressive society with another, the bourgeoisie could make good use of the old repressive structures of feudal power, which were indeed essential for the maintenance of bourgeois economic power.
Nothing of this kind is possible for the proletariat, whose position as the dominant class is only possible on the basis of the prior destruction of every aspect of the bourgeois state. The experience of the Paris Commune showed that the proletariat can not simply take over the existing state, but must destroy it from top to bottom.
The proletariat must therefore create weapons of struggle and of social transformation which are themselves appropriate to the nature of communist society. The mode of organisation of the proletariat, organised as a revolutionary class, must correspond to the nature of the social revolution and of the new form of society to be initiated by the proletariat.
“This appropriation is further determined by the manner in which it must be effected. It can only be effected by a union, which by the character of the proletariat itself can only be a universal one, and through a revolution in which, on the one hand the power of the earlier mode of production and intercourse and social organisation is overthrown and, on the other hand, there develops the universal character and the energy of the proletariat without which the revolution cannot be accomplished and in which further, the proletariat rids itself of everything that still clings to it from its previous position in society.” Marx, German Ideology, our emphasis).
The collective organisation of the working class, class solidarity, the growth of revolutionary consciousness, clear sighted and tireless action, the creative participation of the whole working class in the immense tasks which lie ahead all these are the fertile soil of revolution, the seizure of power and of communism.
The revolution of the world proletariat, besides being a collective and violent process, is above all dependent on the development of class-consciousness.
In the past objective conditions played a greater part in social transformation than the will and consciousness of men and women. The succession of different modes of production occurred to some extent “above the heads” of men and women, and of social classes. Dominated by the underdevelopment of the productive forces, the revolutionary class was forced to submit to a reality that appeared autonomous, mysterious and immutable. Historical forces appeared as natural forces: blind, violent, arbitrary, and uncontrollable.
“Communism differs from all previous movements in that it overturns the basis of all earlier relations of production and intercourse, and for the first time consciously treats all natural premises as the creatures of hitherto existing men, strips them of their natural character and subjugates them to the power of the united individuals.” (Marx, German Ideology, our emphasis).
Thus as we have noted above, communism and progress towards communism, i.e., revolution, are part of the same process, and pose the same problems. Each particular stage of this movement (stages which cannot be considered in isolation from each other) already contains the characteristic features of the final goal. In this sense, if communism means the conscious organisation of production for human needs, then the social transformation and revolution that precede communism can only be conscious actions themselves. The proletariat must thus understand reality without prejudice, because it is the first class that is really able to do so.
Revolutionary classes of the past struggled for a social order that was progressive in relation to the preceding social order, but which was nonetheless based on a new form of exploitation. The consciousness gained by these classes through their struggle could only be a mystified consciousness, since it had to hide or justify this exploitation. But the proletarian struggle does not lead to a new form of exploitation, but liberation of society from all forms of exploitation. In this sense, proletarian class consciousness is the first that can understand social reality in a really scientific way.
Certainly, the development of working class consciousness is never a completed process; far less is it the ‘spontaneous’ product of the first working class struggles. It develops gradually under the pressure of material circumstances and the historical experience of the class, a continual process of growth and enrichment. Nevertheless:
— If it is correct that the development of class consciousness never reaches the level of ‘perfection’, this does not mean in any sense that the revolution can do without revolutionary class consciousness. Neither spontaneism nor voluntarism can be the basis of the revolution.— The seizure of power by the proletariat demands that the class is fully conscious of its ‘historic mission’. It is impossible to quantify the level of consciousness required. Nevertheless, it must correspond to the needs of the revolution and of communism. Moreover, the development of class consciousness can only be a collective process. This development is the product of a conjunction of different factors, arising both from objective conditions and the subjective capacities of the class. It is to this question that we now turn.