In M’s 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program he states that, “Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”
This statement is summary of the essence of Marxism, of scientific socialism, of the doctrine that as a social system socialism (or communism) can be brought into being as a result of the victory of the political struggle of the exploited class within capitalist society over the exploiting class.
Why is this? Because, as M&E noted in CM, “Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another.” Without political power, without state power, the proletariat will be unable to suppress the resistance of the capitalists to the implementing the measures required to carry through the revolutionary transformation of capitalist society into a communist society, a society that, as M&E put it in 1846 German Ideology, “does away with labour, and abolishes the rule of all classes with the classes themselves”.
In CM, M&E wrote: “the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class… The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible. Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionizing the mode of production.”
The state is “merely” the organised power of one class for suppressing another. The proletarian state is the organised power of the proletariat for suppressing the resistance of the capitalists to the centralisation of the instruments of production in hands of the proletariat organised as the ruling class.
We should also note that in the CM, M&E pointed out that There are two qualitatively steps in the working-class revolution – the first being a purely political step (the organisation of the proletariat as the ruling class), and the second being the replacement of capitalist property forms with socialist property forms, through the centralization, by degrees, by steps, of the instruments of production in the hands of the proletariat organised as the ruling class, as the state power. This view has been confirmed by every successful socialist revolution, beginning with the Bolshevik-led revolution in Russia.
What is the difference and relationship between the state and a government? In the CM, M&E pointed out that “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie.” That is, at the head of the state, of the centralized organisation of force, is an executive committee for managing the common affairs of the ruling class, which is usually referred to as the government.
The state is the permanent apparatus of a ruling class’s political power, while the government., the “committee for managing the common affairs” of the ruling class, may be periodically changed. In capitalist “democracies”, for example, this happens regularly through bourgeois elections. But in some circumstances, the capitalist ruling class makes this change through the use of its centralised organisation of force.
In his 1938 article “Ninety Years of the Communist Manifesto”, Trotsky noted that, “Whenever this ‘committee’ manages affairs poorly, the bourgeoisie dismisses it with a boot” – as, for example, the Chilean bourgeoisie did in 1973 to the social-democratic Allende government. The “boot” used was the bourgeois army.
The Venezuelan bourgeoisie used its “boot” (the Venezuelan bourgeois army) on April 11, 2002, to “dismiss” the Chavez government. However,, because of the prior political work done by the Chavistas in the bourgeois army, this provoked a split in the bourgeois army along class lines, enabling the Chavez’s supporters to successfully defeat the bourgeoisie’s military coup through the April 13 revolutionary uprising of the working-class masses (including those in uniform) – a revolutionary uprising that qualitatively transformed the class character of the army and the government headed by Chavez.
Of course, the capitalist state is not reducible to the government and the military forces it directs. The capitalist state also includes other “special bodies of armed people and other institutions of coercion” commanded by the bourgeoisie – the bourgeois police forces, the secret police (the so-called security agencies like ASIO), prison guards, the judiciary (in so far as the police and prison guards enforce the judiciary’s decisions) and the “public service” bureaucracy (the privileged officials at the head of the “public service” – again, in so far as the military, the police and secret police enforce their decisions).
But the military forces, particularly the army, are the ultimate and decisive instrument of bourgeois state power. This was clearly pointed out by the Bolsheviks in their official commentary on their new 1919 party program – Bukharin and Preobrazhensly’s book The ABC of Communism, in which they wrote:
“The state power is an organisation. The bourgeois state power is a bourgeois organisation, and in that organisation people are assigned their roles in a distinctive manner. At the head of the army are generals, members of the wealthy class; at the head of the administration are ministers, members of the wealthy class; and so on. When the proletariat is fighting for power, against whom and what is it fighting? In the first place, against this bourgeois organisation. Now when it is fighting this organisation, its task is to deliver blows that will destroy this organisation. But since the main strength of the government resides in the army, if we wish to gain the victory over the bourgeoisie, the first essential is to disorganise and destroy the bourgeois army… If the opposing army remains intact, the victory of the revolution will be impossible; if the revolution be victorious, the army of the bourgeoisie will disintegrate and crumble. This, for example, is why the victory over tsarism [in February 1917 – DL] signified no more than a partial destruction of the tsarist state and a partial decomposition of the army; but the victory of the November revolution denoted the final overthrow of the state organisation of the Provisional Government and the total dissolution of the Kerenskyite army.”
Beginning with the Bolsheviks in 1917, Marxists have used the term “workers and peasants’ government’ (or “working people’s government”) to denote the class character of the political regime during the transitional stage between the “first step in the revolution of the working class”, i.e., its organisation as the ruling class, and secobd step, i.e., the replacement of the dominance of capitalist property forms with the dominance of socialist property forms.
The term was first used in Russia in 1917 by the Bolsheviks as the class characterisation of the new political regime coming out of the November 6-7 (October 24-25 in the Gregorian calendar then in use in Russia) political revolution that transferred political power from the bourgeois government headed by Kerensky to the soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies.
On November 8, 1917 (October 26) the Second Congress of the Soviets adopted a resolution “To establish a provisional workers’ and peasants’ government, to be know as the Council of People’s Commissars, to govern the country until the Constituent Assembly is convened. The management of individual branches of state activity is entrusted to commissions whose members shall ensure the fulfillment of the programme announced by the Congress, and shall work in close contact with mass organisations of men and women workers, sailors, soldiers, peasants and office employees. Governmental authority is vested in a collegium of the chairmen of those commissions, i.e., the Council of People’s Commissars.”
A week later, this government issued an appeal to the population which said, in part, “the vast majority of the people have rallied round the Provisional Workers’ and Peasants’ Government. Comrades, working people! Remember that now you yourselves are at the helm of state. No one will help you if you yourselves do not unite and take into your hands all affairs of the state.” As this, and many other declarations and speeches issued in the immediate period after the October insurrection by the head of this government (Lenin) indicated, there was never any thought by the Bolsheviks that the workers’ and peasants’ government could exist without having smashed (disintegrated) the core institution of capitalist state power, i.e., the bourgeois army.
The term “workers’ and peasants’ government” as propaganda slogan denoting a special stage in the struggle for socialism was revised at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International (November-December 1922) in connection with the united-front tactic. The congress’s Theses on Comintern Tactics stated:
“The slogan of a workers’ government (or a workers’ and peasants’ government) can be used practically everywhere as a general agitational slogan. However, as a central political slogan, the workers’ government is most important in countries where the position of bourgeois society is particularly unstable and where the balance of forces between the workers’ parties and the bourgeoisie places the question of government on the order of the day as a practical problem requiring immediate solution. In these countries the workers’ government slogan follows inevitably from the entire united front tactic.
“The parties of the Second International are trying to rescue the situation in these countries by advocating and forming a coalition of the bourgeoisie and the social democrats. The recent attempts by certain parties of the Second International (e.g. in Germany) to take part in this kind of coalition government secretly, whilst refusing to be openly involved, are nothing but a manoeuvre to pacify the indignant masses, just a more subtle deception of the working masses. In place of a bourgeois/social-democratic coalition, whether open or disguised, Communists propose a united front involving all workers, and a coalition of all workers’ parties around economic and political issues, which will fight and finally overthrow bourgeois power. Following a united struggle of all workers against the bourgeoisie, the entire state apparatus must pass into the hands of a workers’ government, so strengthening the position of power held by the working class.
“The most elementary tasks of a workers’ government must be to arm the proletariat, disarm the bourgeois counter-revolutionary organisations, bringing control over production, shift the main burden of taxation onto the propertied classes and break the resistance of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie.
“Such a workers’ government is possible only if it is born out of the struggle of the masses and is supported by combative workers’ organisations formed by the most oppressed sections of workers at grassroots level. However, even a workers’ government that comes about through an alignment of parliamentary forces, i.e., a government of purely parliamentary origin, can give rise to an upsurge of the revolutionary workers’ movement. It is obvious that the formation of a genuine workers’ government, and the continued existence of any such government committed to revolutionary politics, must lead to a bitter struggle with the bourgeoisie or even to civil war. The mere attempt by the proletariat to form such a workers’ government will from its very first days come up against extremely strong resistance from the bourgeoisie.”
It should be noted that the Comintern Theses do not consider that a “workers’ (or workers’ and peasants’) government that comes about through an alignment of parliamentary forces” to be a “genuine workers’ (or workers’ and peasants’ government)”, as such a government “is possible only if it is born out of the struggle of the masses and is supported by combative workers’ organisations formed by the most oppressed sections of workers at grassroots level”. The Theses note that such the formation of such a government “committed to revolutionary politics, must lead to a bitter struggle with the bourgeoisie or even to civil war”, i.e., such a government cannot come into existence and maintain itself without the disintegration and destruction of “the main support of the bourgeois government”, the strongest instrument of capitalist state power, i.e., the bourgeois army.
This is why the 1985 DSP congress resolution on The Cuban Revolution and its extension describes the “workers’ and peasants’ government” as “the transitional form of the state power of the proletariat and its allies preceding the consolidation of a socialist state”.
By a “socialist state”, Marxists-Leninists mean a state that organises and defends a post-capitalist economy in which socialist property forms are dominant, i.e., a state in which the working class is both the ruling class and the economically dominant class.
I should point out that, as the DSP & the RSP have their ideological origins within the Trotskyist current within the world Marxist movement, that from the mid-1930s the Trotskyists generally stopped using the term “socialist state” because the Stalinist bureaucracy proclaimed in 1935 that the USSR had become a “classless socialist society” in which the socialist state represented and defended the interests of the “whole people”. The Trotskyists increasingly used the term “workers’ state” to denote a state in which the proletariat was both the ruling class and had centralized the decisive instruments of production in the hands of the state.
To return to the subject of the state and the transition to socialism. I’ve pointed out that in the Marxist view the socialist revolution involves two qualitatively different but interconnected steps. First, the raising of the proletariat to the position of ruling class, through its organisation as the state power. The second step involves the centralization of the instruments of production in the hands of the state, beginning with the most economically significant of those instruments. The completion of these two steps will mark the consolidation of a socialist state and this will open the road to a news stage in the transition to socialism – the passage from a multi-structured economy (i.e., an economy with a mix of different property forms) to an economy in which private ownership of the means of production is completely eliminated and in which the economy is directed according to a democratic plan for the satisfaction of the most pressing social needs.
In our party program, we note that: “In the first stage of building socialism there will still be an exploiting class, though dispossessed of political power and economically subordinated to the dominant socialised sector of the economy. The second stage in the transition period will be marked by the gradual socialisation of all the means of production, beginning with the remaining enterprises employing hired labour.”
Marxists, beginning with Marx & Engels, also distinguish two phases in the development of the future socialist or communist society. A first phase, which while based on a far higher level of development of the productive forces than exists under even the most advanced capitalist economy today, will not yet be fully mature economically and entirely free from the traditions and vestiges of capitalism. While all the means of production will have become collective property and all people will have become working partners in a single, worldwide, democratically centralised planned economy, in the first phase of socialism it will still not be possible to eliminate inequality in the distribution of consumer goods. Apart from the free satisfaction of the most basic needs, the distribution of consumer goods and services by and large will continue to be measured in terms of the quantity of labour given by the individual to society.
But since no two individuals are really equal in their ability to work, or in their needs, the principle of equal remuneration for equal amounts of labour gives unequal individuals equal amounts of products for effectively unequal amounts of labour. This inequality in the distribution of consumer goods and services will mean that in the first phase of socialism a state will continue to be necessary to regulate the distribution of products so as to compel people to contribute to social labour. However, since classes will have withered away this state, which consists of the armed workers themselves, will have lost its political character, i.e., it will not be a coercive instrument for the oppression of one class by another.
In the higher phase of socialism, humanity will pass to the the distribution of consumer goods and services on the basis of free satisfaction of the rational needs of each individual regardless of their contribution to social labour. Indeed, as a result of the planned development of the productive forces and the fullest possible mechanization of production, socialism in its higher phase will be able to assure society such an abundance of wealth that labour will cease to be a requirement for the satisfaction of people’s material wants. Labour will wither away disappear, being replaced free creative practice. The state, as a special apparatus of coercion separate from the community as a whole to compel people to provide labour and to regulate the distribution of the fruits of labour, will also completely wither away and be replaced by a purely technical administration of the general business of society based on people’s voluntary fulfilment of social duties.