The question of political power in post-revolutionary societies is and remains one of the most neglected areas of Marxist theory.footnote Marx formulated the principle of the abolition of ‘political power properly so-called’ in no uncertain terms: ‘The organization of revolutionary elements as a class supposes the existence of all the productive forces which could be engendered in the bosom of the old society. Does this mean that after the fall of the old society there will be a new class domination culminating in a new political power? No. The condition for the emancipation of the working class is the abolition of every class, just as the condition for the liberation of the Third Estate, of the bourgeois order, was the abolition of all estates and all orders. The working class, in the course of its development, will substitute for the old civil society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonisms, and there will be no more political power properly so-called, since political power is precisely the official expression of antagonism in civil society.’footnote1 And he was categorical in asserting that ‘When the proletariat is victorious, it by no means becomes the absolute side of society, for it is victorious only by abolishing itself and its opposite. Then the proletariat disappears as well as the opposite which determines it, private property.’footnote2 But what happens to political power in post-revolutionary societies when the proletariat does not disappear? What becomes of private property or capital when private ownership of the means of production is abolished while the proletariat continues to exist and rules the whole of society—including itself—under the new political power called ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’? For according to Marx’s principle the two sides of the opposition stand or fall together, and the proletariat cannot be truly victorious without abolishing itself. Nor can it fully abolish its opposite without at the same time abolishing itself as a class which needs the new political form of the dictatorship of the proletariat in order to secure and maintain itself in power.

It would be mere sophistry to try and get out of these difficulties by suggesting that the new political power is not ‘political power properly so-called’, in other words that it is not the manifestation of deep-seated objective antagonisms. For the existence of such antagonisms is painfully in evidence everywhere, and the severity of measures devised to prevent their eruption—by no means with guaranteed success—provides an eloquent refutation of all evasive sophistry. Nor is it possible to take seriously for a moment the self-justifying suggestion that the political power of the post-revolutionary state is maintained—indeed intensified—in function of a purely international determination, in that political repression is explained as the necessary consequence of ‘encirclement’ and as the only feasible form of defending the achievements of the revolution against external aggression and its complementary: internal subversion. As recent history loudly testifies, ‘the enemy within and without’ as the explanation of the nature of political power in post-revolutionary societies is a dangerous doctrine, which substitutes the part for the whole in order to transform a partial determination into wholesale a priori justification of the unjustifiable: the institutionalized violation of elementary socialist rights and values.

The task is, clearly, an investigation—without apologetic preconceptions—of the specific political antagonisms which come to the fore in post-revolutionary societies, together with their material bases indirectly identified by Marx’s principle concerning the simultaneous abolition of both sides of the old socio-economic antagonism as the necessary condition of proletarian victory. This does not mean, in the least, that we have to commit ourselves in advance to some theory of a ‘new class’. For postulating a ‘new class’ is only another type of preconception which does not explain anything—which, on the contrary, badly needs explanation itself. Nor does the magic umbrella term ‘bureaucratism’—which covers almost everything, including the assessment of qualitatively different social systems approached from opposite standpoints, from Max Weber to some of Trotsky’s followers—provide a meaningful explanation of the nature of political power in post-revolutionary societies, in that it merely points to some obvious appearances while begging the question as to their causes: i.e. it presents the effect of far-reaching causal determinations as itself a causal explanation. Similarly, the hypothesis of ‘state capitalism’ will not do. Not only because it confounds the issues with some present-day tendencies of development in the most advanced capitalist societies (tendencies very briefly touched upon already by Marx himself), but also because it has to omit from its analysis some highly significant objective characteristics of post-revolutionary societies in order to make the application of this problematic label look plausible. Labels, no matter how tempting, do not solve complex theoretical issues, only bypass them while giving the illusion of a solution.

By the same token, it would be somewhat naive to imagine that we can leave these problems behind by declaring that the dictatorship of the proletariat as a political form belongs to the past, whereas the present and future are to be envisaged according to the principle of political pluralism—which, in turn, necessarily implies a conception of shared power as a ‘historical compromise’. For even if we accept the pragmatic viability and relative historical validity of this conception, the question of how to constitute and exercise political power which actively contributes to a socialist transformation of society, instead of postponing indefinitely its realization, remains just as unanswered as before. There are some worrying dilemmas which must be answered. In the framework of the newly envisaged pluralism, is it possible to escape the well-known historical fate of Social Democracy, which resigned itself to the illusion of ‘sharing power’ with the bourgeoisie while in fact helping to perpetuate the rule of capital over society? If it is not possible—if, that is, the political form of pluralism itself is by its very nature a submission to the prevailing form of class domination, as some would argue—in that case why should committed socialists be interested in it in the slightest? But if, on the other hand, the idea of pluralism is advocated in the perspective of a genuine socialist transformation, it must be explained how it is possible to proceed from shared power to socialist power, without relapsing into the selfsame contradictions of political power in post-revolutionary societies whose manifestations we have witnessed on so many occasions. This is what gives a burning topicality to this whole discussion. The question of political power in post-revolutionary societies is no longer an academic matter. Nor can it be left anchored to the interests of conservative political propaganda and dismissed by the Left as such. Quite unlike 1956—when these contradictions erupted in such a clamorous and tragic form—it is no longer possible for any section of the Left to turn its shoulders to it. Facing the issues involved has become an essential condition of advance for the entire working-class movement, under conditions when in some countries it may be called upon to assume the responsibilities of sharing power, in the midst of an ever-deepening structural crisis of capital

If there has ever been a need to go back to the original sources and principles in order to examine the conditions of their formulation, together with all the necessary implications for present-day conditions and circumstances, it is precisely on these issues. But as soon as we admit this and try to act accordingly, we are immediately presented with some great difficulties. For Marx’s original definition of political power as the necessary manifestation of class antagonism contrasts the realities of class society with fully realized socialism in which there can be no room for separate organs of political power, since ‘the social life-process . . . becomes production by freely associated men, and stands under their conscious and planned control’.footnote3 But try and replace the plan consciously arrived at by the totality of individual producers by a plan imposed upon them from above, then the concept of ‘freely associated men’ must also be thrown out and replaced by that of a forced association, inevitably envisaging the exercise of political power as separate from and opposed to the society of producers, who must be compelled to accept and implement aims and objectives which do not issue from their conscious deliberations but, on the contrary, negate the very idea of free association and conscious deliberation. Or, vice versa, try and obliterate the concept of ‘freely associated individuals’—worse still, arbitrarily declare, in the spirit of whatever form of Stalinism, that such concepts are purely ‘ideological’ remnants of a ‘moralizing bourgeois individualism’, even if this means that from now on, however surreptitiously, a significant portion of Marx’s own work too has to be obliterated with the same label—and there will be no way of conceiving and envisaging (let alone practising) the elaboration and implementation of social planning except as a forced imposition from above.

Thus we witness the complete transformation of Marx’s ideal into a reality which replaces the self-determining life-activity of freely associated social individuals by the forced association of men ruled by an alien political force. Simultaneously, Marx’s concept of a conscious social plan (which is supposed to regulate, through the full involvement of the freely associated individuals, the totality of the life-processes of society) suffers the gravest reduction, becoming a one-sided, technocratically preconceived and often unfulfilled mere economic plan, and thus superimposing upon society in a new form the selfsame economic determinations whose supersession constituted the framework of orientation of scientific socialism from the moment of its inception.

Furthermore, since now the two basic constituents of a dialectical unity, the association of producers and the regulatory force of the plan, are divorced from and opposed to one another, the ‘force of circumstance’—which is the necessary consequence of this separation rather than its cause, whatever the historically changing social determinants at work—becomes the unqualified cause, indeed the ‘inevitable cause’. And since the ‘inevitable cause’ is also its own justification, the transformation is carried even further, setting itself up as the only possible form of realization of Marx’s ideal: as the unsurpassable model of all possible socialist development. From now on, since the prevailing form of political rule must be maintained and therefore everything must remain as it is, the problematical notion of the ‘force of circumstance’ is used in the argument in order to assert categorically that it could not have been otherwise, and thus it is right that everything should be as it is. In other words, Marx’s ideal is turned into a highly problematical reality, which in its turn is reconverted into a totally untenable model and ideal, through a most tortuous use of the ‘force of circumstance’ as both inevitable cause and normative justification, while in fact it should be critically examined and challenged on both counts.