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 socialismfootnote1 who continue to propose a return to the early Soviet system or its analogue,footnote2 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.

Marx and Engels wrote little about the transitional period no doubt because it is difficult to write much about what does not yet exist (though this has not inhibited religious writers). Our world has changed dramatically from Marx’s world. New societies, claiming to be transitional to, or even to have achieved, socialism cover one-third of the earth’s surface. In Poland, workers have rejected ‘existing socialist society’ as they have experienced it—a monolithic, statist, oppressive system. So far their actions have not gone beyond an attempt to defend themselves from what is supposed to be ‘their’ state through independent trade-union organization. These actions pose a question which must be clearly and concretely answered: If what exists is to be rejected as oppressive of the class it is supposed to represent, what then is the alternative? What is needed is a model not simply of what should be but also of what can be, precisely because the social forces are gathering which permit change of a fundamental sort in state socialist society. This article attempts to make a contribution to the construction of such a model. I intend to develop only one aspect of this question, the problem of democratic form or structure. I intend to discuss the structural antinomy as found in Marx and Lenin, and in the institutionalization of the Soviet system. On this basis, I will make some suggestions on how democratic forms can best express an actual revolutionary change in content, in social relations.

When Marx travelled from radical democracy to socialism in late 1843 he embraced the vision of a classless, stateless communal society developed by Saint Simon and other utopian socialists. This vision remained with him to his death—without change, without development. ‘What I did that was new,’ Marx wrote to Weydemeyer in 1852, ‘was to demonstrate: 1) that the existence of classes is merely linked to particular phases in the development of production, 2) that class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, 3) that this dictatorship itself constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.’footnote3 During this transitional periodfootnote4 the proletariat would use the political power of the state to hasten the emergence of the utopian classless society. It would do so by suppressing the old ruling classes up to and including the use of terror.footnote5 In addition, in the words of the Communist Manifesto, ‘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. . . .’footnote6 Finally, the state would use the instruments of production to bring about a huge growth in material goods, thus wiping out the economic basis in scarcity for class divisions.

It is extremely important to note that this entire process of social change rests upon a political act; it is a political revolution which forcibly hastens the social transformation. It is this which led Karl Korsch to state that the revolutionary doctrine of Marx and Engels had a ‘Jacobinic pattern’.footnote7 Certainly their writings on the revolutions of 1848 in both France and Germany expressed a preoccupation with the pattern of the French Revolution of 1789. David Riazanov notes: ‘Neither Marx nor Engels had had any other experience except that which had been provided by the Great French Revolution. Marx had studied most attentively the history of that revolution and had endeavoured to work out principles of tactics for the epoch of the coming revolution. . . .’footnote8 Marx had seen how the French Revolution, in its most radical Jacobin stage, utilized a centralized state power to ruthlessly wipe out every last vestige of feudal institutions, laying the basis for the untrammeled development of the capitalist mode of production. It was quite natural for him to see the proletarian revolution as a similar process: the proletariat would seize political power and use this political power to wipe out capitalist economic relations and hasten evolution ‘forcibly’ towards the new classless socialist society.

We must also situate Marx within the framework of contemporaneous political processes. In Europe as a whole the process of creating centralized government was far from completed. This was particularly true in Germany. The major forces resisting centralization were the forces of the ancien regime. This encouraged in both Marx and Engels the concept of a centralized state as progressive while federalism was viewed as reactionary. Both views—the primacy of the political act in the revolutionary process and the progressive nature of the centralized state—were defended in bitter polemics against Proudhon and Bakunin.footnote9 For instance, Marx writes in 1850: ‘The workers . . . must not only strive for a single and indivisible German republic, but also within this republic for the most determined centralization of power in the hands of the state authority. They must not allow themselves to be misguided by the democratic talk of freedom of communities, of self-government, etc. . . .’footnote10

This Jacobin model of the revolutionary centralized state, whose task was to forcibly hasten social processes, had to be reconciled with the stateless teleology adopted whole cloth from Marx’s utopian predecessors. In this fashion was born the idea of the ‘withering away’ of the state. There are two dimensions to this theory. First, since the proletariat is a majority class, and because its repression is aimed at only the relatively small remnants of the old classes, the new state will perforce be democratic and partially ‘withered’—as Engels stated, ‘no longer a state in the proper sense of the word’.footnote11 ‘The first act in which the state comes forward as the representative of society as a whole—the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society—is at the same time its last independent act as a state.’footnote12 The second facet is economic: as already noted, the statification of the means of production is seen as leading to a rapid development of the productive forces and this, in turn, is seen as abolishing the economic bases for class divisions. With the disappearance of classes, the state, which is simply an instrument for the repression of other classes by a ruling class, will disappear.

Already the elements of an unresolvable antinomy can be seen in Marx’s and Engels’s conception of transitional society. The centralized state as a combined repressive institution and revolutionizer of social relations appears to be inconsistent with the concept of a state as already in the process of dissolving itself into the people. More consistent with the latter view would be an image of a state decentralized and federalist in structure, permitting a high degree of local autonomy. Such a structure would place government power closer to the mass of people and in this fashion represent an important evolution towards breaking down the distinction between state and people. Yet such a view was closer to the thinking of Proudhon and Bakunin than it was to Marx and Engels. This antinomy, implicit in the earliest formulations of Marx and Engels on the transitional period, found its sharpest expression in their writings on the Paris Commune. The Paris Commune of 1871, predicted by no one and dominated by political foes of Marx and Engels—Blanquists and Proudhonists—was warmly embraced by them. This enthusiasm reflected a natural tendency for revolutionists to defend revolutionary events, particularly when, like the Commune, they are subjected to bloody suppression and vilification. Further, it was important politically for the First International to capture, as far as possible, the prestige of the Commune in the eyes of the masses, rather than to allow it to be used by political enemies on the left—particularly the Proudhonists and anarchists. While Marx nowhere specifically called the Paris Commune the dictatorship of the proletariat, Engels stated in 1891: ‘Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.’footnote13 Marx did say, however, that the Paris Commune was ‘the finally discovered political form under which the economic liberation of labor could be consummated.’footnote14