From Capitalism to Communism: A Popular Outline of the Period of Transition

The period of transition from capitalism to communism is one of the most difficult areas for discussion amongst revolutionaries. In the first place we have only very limited historical experience of workers’ rule and workers’ democracy in action. The Paris Commune, and the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 are the only time when workers have given a glimpse of how they would run a new society. The ultimate failure of the October Revolution of 1917 in the early 1920s has meant that usually discussions have centred around negative aspects of the issue. Consequently a lot of emphasis has been placed on avoiding the mistakes of the past, including trying to avoid the specific circumstances which led to the degeneration of the workers’ state during the Russian Revolution. As a result, a lot of the discussion has been characterised by what should not be done, or what should be avoided, rather than laying down principles for the creation of socialism.

In the second place, for Marxists,

The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination.

Marx, The German Ideology

In short there is for Marxists a healthy scepticism about making utopian prescriptions. However, although it is impossible to draw up exact blueprints for the transition to communism (since we can have no idea of the specific conditions out of which the proletarian revolution will emerge and can set no barriers to any future discoveries the proletariat may make) it is nevertheless important to formulate broad principles for the creation of the next society. After all, one of the most important differences between ourselves and the Left of capital (1) is that our goal is a classless society made up of freely associated producers, whilst for them the struggle itself is the goal, which is why we are revolutionary and they are not. Without a vision of communism, a classless society, it is impossible to fight in the vanguard of the working class.

As a mode of production capitalism is riddled with contradictions which it finds impossible to overcome. As Marx showed in Capital, it is a dynamic mode of production which is unable to overcome its economic crises and can only survive by continuing its increasingly vicious attacks on the working class, with war as the ultimate expression of both its dominance and its bankruptcy. It has advanced scientific development to levels which could never have been imagined at its birth and yet it is still unable to feed the population it has created.

Above all, it is responsible for the creation of a global class upon which it is wholly dependent for the creation of the source of its wealth, surplus value. It realises that the working class has the potential to be its grave digger; indeed during some periods of the class struggle it appears to be more acutely aware of this fact than does the working class itself.

The situation of the proletariat is unique in history. For the bulk of its existence it remains locked within capitalism, dominated by bourgeois ideology (2). Yet it alone is capable of freeing humanity from class societies by means of revolution. Unlike previous classes, the proletariat cannot build up its power base in the confines of the old society. As Marx first noted, its unique situation makes it the only truly revolutionary class. It has nothing materially to defend under capitalism since its only means of livelihood is to sell its labour power. It has no property relations to defend. This makes it the harbinger of a propertyless mode of production, i.e. communism. Unlike the bourgeoisie, which owned workshops and coal mines etc. (i.e. the economic basis of a new means of production) and which was able to build up its economic base under feudalism long before it organised itself as a class to make political demands, the proletariat must carry out revolutionary political changes before it can implement economic ones. As a result, it must rely on its consciousness to make the revolution; it must be aware, at least for the most part, of the type of society it needs to build to replace capitalism.

The State

For Marxists the state is a “product and manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms”. It is an organ of class rule “an organ for the oppression of one class by another” (Lenin, State and Revolution)

Although this may seem obvious to those millions of workers around the globe who have faced state repression in one form or another, Marx had to fight sundry pseudo-socialists, including those in the German Social Democratic Party, who peddled the myth that the state was somehow neutral, that it stood above classes and that as a result it could be simply taken over by the working class by democratic means. This same lie is pushed by those groups who urge the working class to defend democracy and democratic “rights” today. For Engels democracy was not worth fighting for any more than absolute monarchy; “In reality” he wrote:

The state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and indeed in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy.

Engels, Introduction to The Civil War in France

Marx saw that bourgeois democracy was merely an instrument whereby the oppressed were given the chance every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class should represent and repress them in Parliament. The modern state has become an extremely sophisticated form of class domination and the age of global communications has given the bourgeoisie more opportunities than ever to draw the working class into its arguments and its completely irrelevant and useless ways of dealing with the horrendous mess it continually creates. Whatever forms of trickery it uses to lull the proletariat into believing the present state means freedom and democracy. Lenin’s statement still stands:

Bourgeois states are most varied in form, but their essence in the same: all these states, whatever their form, in the final analysis are inevitably the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

Lenin, State and Revolution

The Dictatorship of the Proletariat

Marx deduced from the whole history of socialism and the political struggle that the state was bound to disappear and the transitional form of its disappearance would be the “proletariat organised as the ruling class”.

Lenin, State and Revolution

Since the Russian Revolution the bourgeoisie and their hangers-on have used the phrase “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” to try to convince workers that communism means autocratic rule, with Stalinism being held up as the ultimate example. The bourgeoisie are extremely skilled at using communist phraseology and turning it to mean its exact opposite. For Marx and Engels all states were the dictatorship of one particular class over society, and for them the Dictatorship of the Proletariat meant the dominance of the revolutionary working class over its class enemies and over society as a whole. Little wonder then that the bourgeoisie take such exception to it.

For both Marx and Engels the Paris Commune of 1871 provided the first real glimpse of how the dictatorship of the proletariat would look. They had previously believed that the working class would be able to take over the running of the bourgeois state and use it to introduce communism. However in the Commune a revolutionary form of democracy was discovered: that of delegatory democracy. Unlike parliamentary democracy where the representative is elected for a number of years and can do what she or he likes for that time, delegatory democracy subjects every delegate to the mandate of those who sent that delegate to the class-wide body (in 1871 this was the Commune, in 1905 it was the Soviet). If a delegate fails to carry out the mandate then and cannot satisfy those who voted for her/him then that delegate can be recalled and another sent as replacement.

The Paris Commune provided another significant historical experience for the working class. Although it was organised on the old Parisian ward system, it nevertheless provided Marx and Engels with the insight that the working class, once it had come to power, could not survive by managing the old state machine and that to hold onto power it must do away with the old repressive machinery which the bourgeoisie had previously used against it.

One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz, “the working class cannot simply lay hold the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes."

Marx and Engels 1872 Introduction to the German edition of the Communist Manifesto

The bourgeois state apparatus must be smashed. The Soviets of 1905 and 1917 were to show revolutionaries how the delegatory system could be the key to the disappearance of the state.

The workers' “state” is like no other state throughout history, since it can only ever be a semi-state. From its very beginning it moves towards its own abolition by working for the abolition of class antagonisms. Although some previous states have been progressive (such as the French state during the Revolution of the late eighteenth century) the proletarian semi-state will only continue to exist as long it needs to defend itself against its class enemies. For the first time in history the state will represent the interests of the propertyless majority over the minority and it will thus have no property relations to defend. It is this latter difference which explains for Lenin why the proletarian state is “no longer a state in the proper sense of the word” (Lenin, Marxism and the State). Its democracy is based on the election of delegates from workplace (and, in future, possibly area-based) committees who are given a mandate by those who have elected them and are instantly recallable. This means that they cannot become a political class separate from the rest of society and they receive no special rewards in terms of privileges etc. for carrying out this duty.

A basic rule of the proletarian state is absolute eligibility of all offices and the recallability of all functionaries at any time with no exception. The bourgeoisie as a class will necessarily be excluded from all political participation. Only as they cease to be bourgeois and become integrated into the working class (which is itself being abolished through the elimination of all class distinctions) will the former bourgeois be integrated into the soviets. And unlike any other system of government in history the new democracy positively demands the fullest possible participation of the entire adult population in the process both of making decisions and carrying those decisions out. The technological developments in mass communications which are weapons of the bourgeoisie under capitalism will be transformed into instruments of global proletarian emancipation enabling direct participation of millions in the debate about the future of society.

Once other strata have been assimilated into the proletariat and its class enemies have been defeated, the semi-state will wither away since it has no further reason to exist. Only then can communism, in the fullest sense of the word, become possible. There will gradually be no role for a political state once global revolution has ended class antagonisms and eventually the state will be reduced to the role of a rational administrator of human activities. The state will then cease to exist, as Engels noted:

Society, which will reorganise production of the basis of a free and equal association of the producers, will put the whole machinery of the state where it will then belong: into a museum of antiquities, by the side of the spinning wheel and the bronze axe.

Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

The Armed Working Class

The whole working class will be armed, since the military defence of the revolution will rest with the working class itself and not with a standing army. The lack of a professional army is one of the reasons why the proletarian state is already a semi-state. In previous states professional armies have been instruments in the hands of a ruling class which through its control of the means of production has been able to use the wealth of society to create a force to conserve its own rule against the rest of society. In the proletarian state the armed workers' councils are the defenders of the revolution and act as such.

The revolution can only advance through the development of an internationalist class consciousness. It will not spread at the point of bayonets as the bourgeois revolution could at the time of Napoleon. The proletarian revolution has to be carried out by the workers themselves and therefore the communists struggle for the extension of the revolution through the development of class consciousness and organisation. The defeat of the Red Army at Warsaw in 1920 shows that the workers in any given area must be politically prepared to fight against their own bourgeoisie if the revolution is to advance. The proletariat from one area can assist their comrades elsewhere when called upon for support but armed intervention is no substitute for revolutionary consciousness.

Party and Soviet Relationship

The proletarian revolution is unique since it is necessary for the revolutionary class to be conscious of its historical role almost from the start. Yet it will make the revolution carrying much of “the old shit” (Marx), or the ideology which has been drummed into it for generations, in its head. As capitalism has decayed, the bourgeoisie everywhere has systematically destroyed independent working class culture, and its state has increasingly come to administer every area of social activity. The Party’s role in giving back to the class the lessons of its own history has become thus even more vital. The Party through the activity of its individual militants has an international role in leading and organising the working class as it carries out its historical tasks. But the Party as a separate body in itself cannot take this role over; it cannot become the state in the revolutionary period but must remain separate and distinct from it. The Party remains the guardian of the communist programme which the militants try to develop within the class wide organs.

In this respect the working class has to learn from its past errors. During the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks made a crucial error when they created a separate executive of the Party (the so-called Council of People’s Commissars or Sovnarkom) which took precedence over that of the Soviets, the VtsIK. This error was the product of the situation. Never before in history had the working class given such ambiguous support to a proletarian party. The only models were those of bourgeois parliaments and Cabinets. This separation of the executive from soviet control was not so apparent when the revolution was progressing. However, by late 1920, the Bolsheviks found themselves in a situation where the bulk of the revolutionary working class had been killed in the civil war, where the revolution was isolated and where the work of the Party itself was suffering (due to the efforts of many of its more active cadres to breathe life back into the Soviets).

The Party could not abandon the revolution once it began to decline, and by virtue of the role of Sovnarkom, the Bolshevik Party apparatus increasingly became synonymous with the state, with disastrous consequences for future communists everywhere. The emergence of the Stalinist dictatorship and the rise of a new ruling class beholden only to this Party which was no longer proletarian has been a dead weight for three generations of communists to fight against and its impact has not been shaken off even now.

This is one of the most important lessons of the Russian Revolution. The Party’s first role is to push for the intensification of the consciousness of the proletariat, and those Party members working inside the Soviet will push forward workers’ expectations by putting forward revolutionary demands and organising the fight for a new society. The relationship between the Party and its members in the Soviets will not always run smoothly. This is not necessarily unhealthy, since debate is the lifeblood of revolution. As long as the revolution is going forward this will not endanger either party or state. And if the revolution is in retreat no amount of formal guarantees can save the state. The Party’s role of defence of the communist programme means it has to remain separate from the state at such points. In every way and at all times the Party leads and guides the proletariat in its bid to rid itself of the “muck of ages”, the ideology of the enemy class.

Although it is inevitable that the left wing of capital will attempt to sabotage the work of the Soviets and try to hamper the working class (as did the German Social Democratic Party during the revolutionary outbreaks in Germany), the damage they do can be limited as long as the revolution is moving forward. As Marx saw in an earlier epoch,

In every revolution there intrude … mere bawlers, who, by dint of repeating year after year the same set of stereotyped declamation against the Government of the day, have sneaked into the reputation of revolutionist of the first water … As far as their power went, they hampered the real action of the working class, exactly as men of that sort have hampered the full development of every previous revolution. They are an unavoidable evil. With time they are shaken off.

Marx, The Civil War in France

There can be little doubt that our enemies will be more sophisticated than ever in the revolutionary period. One of the main tasks of the international revolutionary party will be to expose the empty rhetoric of pseudo-revolutionary phrase mongers and, at every step, point clearly and practically the way forward.

The Economy

Unlike all previous revolutions that of the proletariat has to be global or it will fail quickly. The experience of the Russian Revolution has shown that a single proletarian bastion, even when it has been successful militarily, cannot survive alone in a hostile capitalist economy. For the revolution to have any chance of success it must take place in several of the main capitalist states simultaneously. As we wrote in Revolutionary Perspectives 13:

Although there is certainly armed struggle and even pitched battles during the communist revolution, there is no possibility of the workers engaging and defeating capital in a global civil war; on this terrain the defeat of the proletariat would be short and the curtain-raiser for barbarism… Certainly workers in any area must intervene to help adjacent communist uprisings, but the creation of the first steps of a communist economy are a better potential weapon and help than any amount of military support given by one group of workers to another.

The period of transition must start wherever the proletariat has seized power. Some might argue that in this period we are still at the “civil war stage” when fighting for the political defeat of the bourgeoisie on a world scale is more important than any measures of socialisation that might be possible. Whilst it is true that the proletariat is prepared is a priority, this does not mean that the victorious working class will not be forced to carry out some measures which will initiate the period of transition to communism.

This is not speculation but is based on the actual experience of the working class in Russia in 1917-18. The Bolsheviks led the revolution in Russia on the premise that this was the first step in a world revolution. They knew in 1917 that the revolution had to spread. Their attitude was that until it did there was little point in trying to advance too far down the road towards socialism. This sounded logical but reality was to teach them differently. Not only did the capitalists not take a neutral attitude to the soviet power they did everything in their power to sabotage the economy. It is thus necessary immediately to seize the means of production from both private individuals and the capitalist state in order to run them in the interests of society. Contrary to the propaganda of the left wing of capitalism, this socialisation is not the same as nationalisation since nationalisation (“it’s for the good of the country” as the Labour Party would say) benefits one national section of the ruling class in direct opposition to the global working class. Socialisation will need to be planned and coordinated as far as possible by the soviets themselves.

In the first six months of the Russian Revolution various experiments were attempted by the working class, most with serious weaknesses (including self-management of the railways, where workers allocated themselves the rolling stock as housing!). The important lesson here is that socialisation of the means of production must be coordinated by the elected organs of the class for the whole class. Both production and administration must take place collectively as a general social function; if every locality decides its own production asks in isolation then the result will be chaos, and inevitably competition between producers will arise. Likewise with administration; if it does not take place collectively then the costs will be borne by each separate distribution cooperative and it will fail.

The councils will have to ensure that all those who are able are integrated into the production process. This has a two-fold purpose; if unproductive elements including the unemployed are integrated into the productive process then the working class will be strengthened and the burden of work eased for everyone; this allows more time for workers to participate fully in its debates, and the old distinctions between work and control over social issues will disappear. The proletariat will be unable to survive unless it absorbs other strata into itself; those deemed to be “professionals” should be integrated also as a safeguard against them joining with the counter-revolution. It should also be noted that technology now allows the proletariat to carry out much of the work which was previously so technical it was left to “experts”. Many of the technicians and white collar workers described by Lenin are increasingly becoming part of the working class as a result of the deskilling process and many of the strata previously cushioned by capitalism now find themselves under attack and increasingly being pushed towards the working class (3). Technology now available could enable the proletariat to carry out not only previously skilled work (such as some medical functions) but it can also be used for much of the dirty and dangerous work unsuitable for human beings (such as mining).

The agrarian issue is rather more complex. As we stated in Internationalist Communist Review 7:

The historical development of capitalist farming has not led to the predominance of pure wage labour-capital relations. A rural proletariat does exist in the advanced capitalist states and the rural semi-proletariat and small peasantry of the periphery can all be integrated into the proletariat. But the bulk of the world’s food is currently produced by highly developed capitalist farming. In the US in 1980 2 million out of 2.4 million farms were farmed by the farmer and his family with only a handful of labourers. These “high-level technology peasants” are heavily subsidised by the US state and naturally highly reactionary. No programmatic or political concessions can be made to capitalist farmers to win their support.

It is important to stress here that as with the nationalisation of other capitalist concerns, nationalisation of the land is not a step towards socialism. To socialise the land is to return it to the community of associated producers; to nationalise it, as Lenin states, is merely to transfer rent to the state. As with other sectors there can be no national solution: the abolition of imperialist relations with the destruction of capitalism is the only guarantee that land will be used to produce food for humanity as a whole.

It could take several generations for the means of production to become fully socialised. As Lenin pointed out, during the lower stage of communism the working class lays down the new rules of production in an “undemocratic” way by exercising its economic dictatorship. Although Marx wrote very little on the socialist economy he did indicate a method of social regulation and accounting according to the average social labour time. In the Critique of the Gotha Programme he stated:

The individual producer receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such and such an amount of labour (after deducting his labour for the common funds) and with this certificate he draws from the social stock of the means of consumption as much as costs the same amount of labour. The same amount of labour which he has given society in one form, he receives back in another.

Every member of society who performs socially necessary work gets a labour voucher which can be used to withdraw goods from the public store of a corresponding quantity. An amount is deducted for the fund for education, health care, care of the elderly and administration, replacement of machinery, etc. Those who are able but refuse to contribute will be excluded. Labour vouchers are not money; they cannot be accumulated or used to hire other labour. It is quite likely that others forms of distribution could also take place immediately including a system of rationing (for goods like fuel) and free distribution where possible (including the abolition of rents).

In the State and Revolution Lenin pointed out that in the lower stage of communism inequality will continue to exist, since labour time vouchers cannot take into account the different needs and circumstances of individuals. Only in the higher stage of communism can freedom really exist, since only then will humanity be free from both the state, and class antagonisms. It is at this stage that the rule “from each according to his ability to each according to his need” will become possible. Society will then be able to produce and distribute for the needs of humanity rather than for the profit of a small number of individuals. By this time the law of value will have been destroyed along with the commodity, money and the exploitation of labour. The artificial sectioning of the globe into nation states will have been redressed and production and distribution will take place on a global basis. The needs of imperialism will no longer be the dictatorial force over society and mankind will be able to plan its own society in a rational manner. The alienation of working people from the product of their own labour and from society as a whole will have disappeared and those distinctions which stifle life today (such as that between manual and physical labour or between urban pollution and rural poverty) will have disappeared. The productive forces will then be able to develop to an extent hitherto unknown and the era of truly human history can begin.



(1) In which we include all those (Stalinists, Maoists, Trotskyists and Social Democrats) who believe that state capitalism is somehow an advance for the working class rather than a product of a decaying social system attempting to head off the worst consequences of its own contradictions.

(2) For our views on this see Class Consciousness in the Marxist Perspective. This text was originally published in Revolutionary Perspectives 21 (Second series). It is now out of print but will be edited and republished in RP4.

(3) See Internationalist Communist Review 12 and 13. (£3, plus postage, from the CWO address)

Friday, March 1, 1996

Revolutionary Perspectives

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