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New Left Review I/130, November-December 1981


Tim Wohlforth

Transition to the Transition

Classical Marxism’s conception of the transition period contains a central, persistent and unresolved contradiction. Marx, for example, was a strong advocate of the progressive role of the centralized state, yet he was also a partisan of the decentralized and federalist Paris Commune. Lenin later popularized Marx’s writings on the Commune, claiming that they portrayed a superior ‘proletarian’ form of democracy when contrasted to the ‘bourgeois’ parliamentary system; but Lenin also agreed with Marx on the importance of the centralized revolutionary state. The first period of Bolshevik power witnessed an effort to transform the Soviets—created by the workers themselves—into a practical governmental structure. In my opinion, the failure of this attempt exposed the impossibility of directly combining the decentralized Soviet system with the needs of a modern centralized state, as well as revealing ambiguities in the Leninist counterposition of ‘proletarian’ versus ‘bourgeois’ democracy. In contrast to some left critics of existing state socialism [1] I use the term ‘state socialism’ to characterize all existing non-capitalist countries. These countries share the following characteristics: (a) the basic means of production are state owned and directed by a centralized plan; (b) a massive bureaucratic layer exists possessing special privileges; (c) a hierarchically organized single party rules over this bureaucracy and through this bureaucracy over the society as a whole. who continue to propose a return to the early Soviet system or its analogue, [2] Cf. Ernest Mandel, ‘Ten Theses on the Social and Economic Laws Governing the Society Transitional between Capitalism and Socialism’, Critique 3 (Glasgow); and Paul Mattick, ‘Council Communism’, in Anti-Bolshevik Communism, London 1978. I believe that it is utopian to imagine the immediate establishment of decentralized direct democratic rule. On the other hand, it is essential to the integrity of the project of revolutionary socialism to continue to defend the vision and possibility of precisely such a system. What is needed to mediate the disjuncture between the immediate impossibility of pure Soviet democracy and its longer-term necessity, is a Marxist concept of the transition to the transition.

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