'Transitional' to what?

Setting the scene for a series of articles on 'permanent revolution', Mike Macnair argues that the dictatorship of the proletariat must take the specific form of the democratic republic

This series is a response to Trotskyist comrades' polemics against the CPGB on the question of 'permanent revolution'. I was led to start work on it specifically by Gerry Downing's January article, 'The April theses and permanent revolution", and Barry Biddulph's March article, 'The CPGB and permanent revolution', in Marxist Voice. But the arguments are much more widespread; they have come up on the Weekly Worker letters page in various forms and are part of the general dogmas promoted by Trotskyist groups.

My initial reaction to these arguments was to make the point that communists today have to read Lenin and Trotsky within the framework of understanding that at the end of the day the Russian Revolution failed, so that neither Lenin's nor Trotsky's arguments can be used as dogma.

A second level of response is that the issue is simply irrelevant to present concerns. The articles by comrades Downing and Biddulph address the question whether campaigners for a Marxist party in Britain today should be campaigning for a specifically Trotskyist party. Equally, should any Marxist programme for today be minimum-maximum or 'transitional' (or similar)? The case for 'permanent revolution' is then made as part of this case: ie, the argument is that Lenin in April 1917 accepted the substance of Trotsky's arguments.

But most of the arguments around Lenin's formula, 'democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry', and Trotsky's 'permanent revolution' concerned the tasks of a workers' party in early 20th century Russia. This was a country which was (a) overwhelmingly populated by small peasant proprietors, and (b) ruled by a pre-capitalist state (tsarism) which was socially based on pre-capitalist social elites (landlords and clerisy). The tsarist regime was universally perceived to be backward relative to its neighbours, and in 1904 suffered a serious military defeat at the hands of Japan, a country which had very recently 'modernised': ie, adopted capitalism; but Russia (c) also contained a small, but highly concentrated and militant, urban proletariat.

These circumstances are quite irrelevant today, not just in Britain (where they have never been relevant) but almost anywhere. Almost everywhere states are capitalist in character; urbanisation has been massive and even where pre-capitalist elites have been able to take political power (eg, the Iranian clerisy after the 1979-80 revolution) they have rapidly turned themselves into (state) capitalists.


Nonetheless, Trotskyist comrades certainly think that the issue is relevant. Why? The answer is greatly obscured by comrades' tendency to treat the Russian Revolution as a model for the future, and to treat such part of Lenin's or Trotsky's writings as they agree with as sacred texts. But it is, I think, possible to draw out some basic claims which are being made.

In the first place, Trotsky certainly thought that 'permanent revolution' implied overcoming the difference between minimum and maximum programmes. He said so in Results and prospects (chapter 7). This idea is one of the roots of the 'transitional programme' concept.

Secondly, it was widely believed in the Second International that the political demands of the minimum programme (democratic republic and so on) were 'uncompleted tasks of the bourgeois revolution'. Though absent from Kautsky's The class struggle (1892), the idea is present in his The day after the social revolution (1902) and it is certainly present in Trotsky. Trotskyist comrades insist that this is true: that is, that the minimum programme is in some sense a programme for a better capitalism.

Thirdly, in the revolutions at the end of World War I the left wing of the German and Austrian social democrats, the 'centrists' like Kautsky, used the idea of the minimum programme - and especially the idea of the democratic republic - to justify the right social democrats' decision to set up what were in substance simply capitalist states. In the German case, this involved the right social democrats making both an alliance with the far-right Freikorps militia in order to repress the far left and the workers' movement, and a direct military alliance with the Entente imperialist states to keep German troops in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in order to keep the Russian Revolution at bay.

There was a brief period in 1918-21 in which the Russian Revolution might have spread into a Europe-wide seizure of power by the working class. In this context, the ideas of the minimum programme and the democratic republic - as interpreted by the social democrats - played a direct counterrevolutionary role in mobilising working class support for the capitalist regime.

Fourthly, the 'democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry' was used in the 1920s as an ideological cover for a (disastrous) class-collaborationist policy of support to the Kuomintang in China. After the 'people's front' turn in the 1930s, the arguments against 'permanent revolution' developed in the 1920s became part of the regular theoretical apparatus used by the 'official communist' movement to justify this class-collaborationist policy. In this ideological role these arguments associated both with the restoration of the capitalist order after World War II through CP participation in coalition governments and with a series of disasters for the workers' movement in the third world.

These are primarily negative judgments. And they could be approached in a different way. Thus Trotsky argued that the Comintern majority was not only defending a position Lenin had abandoned in 1917, but also arbitrarily twisting Lenin's position, which had been opposed to the class-collaborationist line of the Mensheviks, into a version of the Mensheviks' class-collaborationism.

It is perfectly possible to argue that Kautsky and similar left social democratic and 'centrist' authors were equally arbitrarily twisting the idea of the minimum programme, from a programme for the immediate tasks of workers' power into a programme which excluded the possibility of workers' power; and twisting the idea of the democratic republic into undemocratic legalistic constitutionalism. There are, however, additional positive arguments for the Trotskyist position, originally made by Trotsky, which are distinct, but intertwined with each other.

The first is that the Russian Revolution shows that the natural form of the dictatorship of the proletariat (workers' power) is the form of workers' councils (soviets) growing out of generalised strike struggles.

The second is that a workers' government will be forced by capitalist resistance and continued mass workers' struggles to large-scale confiscation or expropriation of capitalists' property, and hence to planning production; and that this amounts to moving onto the implementation of the maximum programme (socialism/communism).

The third point is less obvious. It is that these objective dynamics of the class struggle in revolutionary conditions - both soviets and the dynamic towards expropriations (etc) - grow out of the nature of the movement of the consciousness of the unorganised masses. This nature of the dynamic of the consciousness of the unorganised masses in turn implies political tasks under capitalist rule which focus on 'turning the economic struggle into the political struggle', as opposed to attempting to build a party which places a major emphasis on democratic questions and directly political debates.


In this series I will argue that the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat (workers' power) is the democratic republic, as opposed to bourgeois rule-of-law constitutionalism. Workers' councils without democratic-republican principles are not a form through which the working class as a class can rule: ie, control the state. Nor is it possible for the working class to have 'social' power without political power (unlike the capitalist class).

Secondly, the concept of the 'minimum programme' as the programme of the 'bourgeois democratic' revolution or of a worker-bourgeois alliance, and the 'maximum programme' as the seizure of power by the proletariat, is mistaken. It depends on a radical misunderstanding of the bourgeois revolution and of the nature of capitalist states. It tends to produce narrow and impoverished views of both the minimum and maximum programmes. The result is that the 'transitional programme' is either utopian-socialist, or an empty cover for opportunism.

Thirdly, the argument from the movement of mass consciousness is false, and leads to a choice between leftist adventures or sectarianism and political tailism.

Minimum-maximum and transitional

In a minimum-maximum programme, the maximum part would outline the general idea of communism as a society without classes, state or family as an economic institution, in which production is collectively managed for the human good, and explain briefly why this sort of society is becoming possible, but can only begin to be attained through the working class, as a global class, taking over the running of society.

The minimum part would outline the minimum commitments to transferring political power from the capitalist class to the working class, without which a workers' party would not participate in a government (whether formed on the basis of an electoral majority or as a provisional government arising from an insurrectionary movement). It would also add some 'immediate' economic demands of a, broadly, currently agitational character.

This is, as Jack Conrad has pointed out, the character of the Communist manifesto, the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier, and the Erfurt programme. It is also the structural character of the 1919 Russian CP (B) programme.

The alternative to this view is that the programme should be a transitional programme. This expression is somewhat ambiguous. In the 1938 'Transitional programme', The death agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth International, Trotsky used it in two different and separable senses.

The first is that: "It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist programme of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today's conditions and from today's consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat."

The immediate source of this idea is the resolution 'On tactics' of the 1921 3rd Congress of the Comintern: "In place of the minimum programme of the centrists and reformists, the Communist International offers a struggle for the concrete demands of the proletariat, which, in their totality, challenge the power of the bourgeoisie, organise the proletariat and mark out the different stages of the struggle for its dictatorship. Even before the broad masses consciously understand the need for the dictatorship of the proletariat, they can respond to each of the individual demands. As more and more people are drawn into the struggle around these demands and as the needs of the masses come into conflict with the needs of capitalist society, the working class will come to realise that if it wants to live capitalism will have to die."

In this sense the programme is 'transitional' between present partial class struggles and the struggle for workers' political power. Since the minimum programme is a programme for the immediate tasks of workers' political power, the transitional programme would then be transitional from partial struggles and partial demands to the implementation of the minimum programme (in the sense used above).

The "present consciousness" with which Trotsky's 1938 "bridge" is concerned is primarily trade union consciousness. The substantive content of the demands (down to the point in The death agony at which we pass over to the 'backward countries', the USSR and the fascist regimes) is overwhelmingly addressed to the direct economic class struggle, not to the class struggle in what Marx called the political form of the struggle for general laws. There is a core strategic line of the 1938 text, and this line is to move from the trade union struggle to the struggle for workers' control, factory committees, workers' militias and soviets; and from these to the struggle for power in the form of 'All power to the soviets'.

The second interpretation is that the division between minimum programme (the immediate tasks of workers' political power) and maximum programme (the supersession of classes, state and family in the 'higher stage' of communism) was overcome: "Classical social democracy, functioning in an epoch of progressive capitalism, divided its programme into two parts independent of each other: the minimum programme, which limited itself to reforms within the framework of bourgeois society, and the maximum programme, which promised substitution of socialism for capitalism in the indefinite future. Between the minimum and the maximum programme no bridge existed. And indeed social democracy has no need of such a bridge, since the word socialism is used only for holiday speechifying."10 

The source of this idea, and the link between 'transitional programme' and 'permanent revolution', is in Results and prospects chapter 7, where Trotsky argues: "The division of our programme into maximum and minimum programmes has a profound and tremendous principled significance during the period when power lies in the hands of the bourgeoisie. The very fact of the bourgeoisie being in power drives out of our minimum programme all demands which are incompatible with private property in the means of production. Such demands form the content of a socialist revolution and presuppose a proletarian dictatorship.

"Immediately, however, that power is transferred into the hands of a revolutionary government with a socialist majority, the division of our programme into maximum and minimum loses all significance, both in principle and in immediate practice."11 

To summarise the argument for this view, Trotsky's point is that if (for example) a workers' government introduces the eight-hour day "during a period of revolution, in a period of intensified class passions", the capitalist class will respond with lockouts and capital flight. A government which is determined to enforce the eight-hour day will be forced to respond with "expropriation of the closed factories and the organisation of production in them on a socialised basis." Hence, "The very fact of the proletariat's representatives entering the government - not as powerless hostages, but as the leading force - destroys the borderline between maximum and minimum programme: that is to say, it places collectivism on the order of the day."

The question of the political form of the dictatorship of the proletariat is thus logically prior to the question of whether the party programme should be 'transitional', because 'transitional' inherently poses the question of what is meant by the dictatorship of the proletariat. This is true whether 'transitional' means transitional from present struggles to the dictatorship of the proletariat, or transitional from the dictatorship of the proletariat to socialism, or both. I will therefore discuss this issue in the rest of this article and in the next.

Democratic republic, 'commune state' and soviets

Before the Russian Revolution the tradition of the Marxist wing of the international workers' movement was to present the political regime of workers' power (dictatorship of the proletariat) as the democratic republic. The anarchist and quasi-anarchist wing posed the alternative as 'abolition of the state'. Engels in 1891 commented: "If one thing is certain it is that our party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the Great French Revolution [the Paris Commune] has already shown."12  Luxemburg in 1910 used this passage to argue, against Kautsky, for the agitational use of the slogan of a republic.13 

The Engels quote is significant. It shows that what Engels meant by the "democratic republic" was a state of the Paris Commune type - and, vice versa, that he identified the Paris Commune as a 'democratic republic'. In contrast, in the same letter Engels identified the French Third Republic as "the empire established in 1799 without the emperor".14 

After the Russian Revolution, things changed, but they did so in a complex way: it is by no means simply the case that Trotsky's argument in the 1938 Transitional programme for soviets as the political form of the dictatorship of the proletariat was early-Comintern orthodoxy.

The first phase is Lenin's arguments in spring 1917, later elaborated in State and revolution, for 'all power to the soviets' as the expression in the concrete circumstances of Russia of the principles argued for in Marx's discussions of the Paris Commune.

It is important to be clear that these arguments are not in themselves connected to the debate between 'permanent revolution' and 'democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry', and Lenin is not following Trotsky.

Trotsky had certainly written in his book 1905 that the Petrograd soviet tended to assume the character of a revolutionary workers' government.15  In 1907 he made the point in more detail in 'The soviet and the revolution (Fifty days)': "The substance of the soviet was its effort to become an organ of public authority. The proletariat on one hand, the reactionary press on the other, have called the soviet "a labour government"; this only reflects the fact that the soviet was in reality an embryo of a revolutionary government. In so far as the soviet was in actual possession of authoritative power, it made use of it; in so far as the power was in the hands of the military and bureaucratic monarchy, the soviet fought to obtain it."

And: "At the same time, the soviet was an organised expression of the will of the proletariat as a class. ... This combination was by no means an artificial tactical attempt: it was a natural consequence of the situation of a class which, consciously developing and broadening its fight for its immediate interests, had been compelled by the logic of events to assume a leading position in the revolutionary struggle for power.

"The main weapon of the soviet was a political strike of the masses ... The class that puts into motion, day in and day out, the industrial apparatus and the governmental apparatus; the class that is able, by a sudden stoppage of work, to paralyse both industry and government, must be organised enough not to fall the first victim of the very 'anarchy' it has created. The more effective the disorganisation of government caused by a strike, the more the strike organisation is compelled to assume governmental functions."

But: "The struggle for power, for public authority - this is the central aim of the revolution ... For a national task the proletariat required an organisation on a national scale. The Petersburg soviet was a local organisation, yet the need of a central organisation was so great that it had to assume leadership on a national scale. It did what it could; still it remained primarily the Petersburg Council of Workmen's Deputies."16 

However, there is little evidence that Lenin had actually read Trotsky's writings of this period. Moreover, in 1915, Trotsky insisted that "revolution is first and foremost a problem of power - not of the political form (constituent assembly, republic, European federation), but of the social content of power".17 

The idea of the 'commune form of state' is, rather, the product of Lenin's researches in Marx and Engels on the state which led to State and revolution. These researches were produced not by any confrontation with Trotsky's 'permanent revolution' ideas, but by Lenin's response to the 'anti-statism' of Bukharin and others in autumn 1916.18  In the April 1917 Letters on tactics, for example, Lenin does not in the least adopt Trotsky's idea that only the proletariat can overthrow tsarism.19  Rather he argues that the capitalists have overthrown tsarism and taken political power.20  Moreover, for Lenin, the socialist revolution is on the immediate agenda in 1917, not (as Trotsky had thought since 1905) because of internal Russian dynamics in their global context, but rather because the immediate international situation - ie, the war - immediately posed the question of proletarian socialist revolution internationally.

Within Russia, Lenin after the 'July days' drew back from the slogan of 'All power to the soviets', arguing for the party to seize power.21  It was only after the defeat of Kornilov's attempted coup, and the (related) rise in Bolshevik influence in the soviets, that 'All power to the soviets' returned, and the Bolsheviks in fact organised the October insurrection in coalition with the Left Social-Revolutionaries through the military-revolutionary committee of the Petrograd soviet, and launched it in the name of the soviets.22 

Meanwhile, the idea of soviets or workers' councils was picked up by worker militants across Europe - as far as it is possible to tell, as a result of press coverage of the Russian Revolution. But this councilism was a rather different animal. It had a markedly closer resemblance to English shop-stewardism: that is, a way to go round the dominance of the workers' organisations by the class-collaborationist bureaucracy without confronting the class-collaborationists head-on and getting rid of them. In this character, it failed: the councils could not offer an alternative leadership to that of the mass parties and trade unions, who were thus able to regain control.

After 1917

The 1919 first congress of the Comintern adopted Lenin's 'Theses and report on bourgeois democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat', which combine advocacy of the 'soviet system' with a polemic against Kautsky on 'pure democracy'.23  At this stage it could fairly be said that communists were distinguished by advocating the soviet system of government as an alternative to bourgeois parliamentarism.

There was, however, an internal contradiction. In fact, the Russian communists had not only suppressed the constituent assembly: they had also begun in spring 1918 to suppress elections to the soviets, as the defection of the Left SRs after the Brest-Litovsk treaty with Germany removed their majority support, and as a revival of working class support for the Mensheviks began.24  On the other hand, as the revolutionary movements in the west were defeated, it became clear that councils without a strong party could not offer an alternative leadership to the pro-capitalist traditional leaders of the trade unions and socialist parties, and hence could not, in fact, overthrow the capitalist regime.

The contradiction was partially resolved at the second congress of the Comintern in 1920. The 'Theses on the role of the Communist Party in the proletarian revolution', adopted then, asserted that the dictatorship of the proletariat necessarily involved the leading role of the Communist Party.25  In 'Stalinised' form, this idea has been the central concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat of the 'official communists' (and of the orthodox Maoists) ever since.

Once communists had arrived at the idea of the 'leading role of the Communist Party' as the political form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, then how to get there was posed in different ways. It might, for example, be through a workers', or workers' and farmers', government (coalition of the Communist Party with left socialists and/or left peasant parties) in which the Communist Party was the leading element, created by elections to a parliament. This was an approach offered by the 1922 4th Congress of the Comintern.26  Or it might, as Maoists (and following them Guevarists) have episodically argued, be through 'prolonged people's war': the party creates an army around itself and gradually takes territory away from the existing state.

The 'left' and 'council' communists counterposed soviets to the leading role of the party. They split from the Comintern at the 3rd Congress in 1921. Since the decline in the 1920s of their main party, the German Communist Workers Party (KAPD), they have led a shadowy life of largely ephemeral movements and longer-lasting small sects.


Trotsky did not abandon the Comintern idea of the leading role of the party. The organised movement he led grounded itself on the first four congresses of the Comintern, and therefore on the theses of the second, as well as the first, congress. In Lessons of October (1924) Trotsky devoted a chapter to polemicising against the fetishism of soviets as against the party.27 

Much later, in 1937, he wrote: "The proletariat can take power only through its vanguard. In itself the necessity for state power arises from the insufficient cultural level of the masses and their heterogeneity. In the revolutionary vanguard, organised in a party, is crystallised the aspiration of the masses to obtain their freedom. Without the confidence of the class in the vanguard, without support of the vanguard by the class, there can be no talk of the conquest of power.

"In this sense the proletarian revolution and dictatorship are the work of the whole class, but only under the leadership of the vanguard. The soviets are only the organised form of the tie between the vanguard and the class. A revolutionary content can be given this form only by the party. This is proved by the positive experience of the October revolution and by the negative experience of other countries (Germany, Austria and finally Spain) ..."28 

However, in substantive political judgment the 1938 Transitional programme moves back towards a Comintern 'first congress' or 'councilist' approach: the soviet power will provide the alternative authority. This can be seen both in the sections on factory committees and soviets29  and in that on the USSR.30 

The problem with this two-sided approach is simple. If you enter a revolutionary situation (where the state regime has fallen into acute crisis and the broad masses have entered the political stage) without a workers' party which both seeks to take political power and already has deep roots in the class, the crisis will end in defeat of the working class: this is (part of) the lesson the Comintern drew from the contrast between 1917 in Russia and 1918-21 elsewhere, and it has been repeatedly confirmed since. But constructing a party with substantial roots in the working class, outside conditions of immediate revolutionary crisis, poses different tasks to those posed by fighting for the workers' council form of organisation.

Trotskyists and new left

The result is that Trotskyists oscillate between councilist perspectives (the International Socialists/SWP's 1970s 'rank and filism', the Mandelites' 'organs of dual power' from the same period and so on), and variants on the 'leading role of the party' perspective, which tend to reduce either to supporting some other party ('Labour to power on a socialist programme' and similar formulae) or to simple 'build our party' sectarianism.

Councilism was in the ascendant in the late 1960s-early 1970s. This was in part a result of the rise of 'wildcat' unofficial strikes across Europe and the US in the 1960s, the powerful strike waves of the 1968 crisis in France, the 'creeping May' in Italy and the equivalent movement in Britain. It also resulted in part from the 'new left' looking for an alternative to 'official' communism and finding one in State and revolution, combined with the writings of Luxemburg - especially The mass strike - and of the Comintern 'lefts' - Pannekoek and Gorter, Korsch, the early Lukács and Gramsci.

As a result of this ascendancy, a great deal of theory was produced about the superiority of 'direct' or 'participatory' democracy over 'parliamentary democracy'. For the anarchists and 'libertarian communists' this was a ground to go back to Bakunin and other anarchist writers. For Maoists and Guevarists, 'participatory' democracy did not need to be democratic in the sense of allowing political liberty or the removal of officials: as long as you were allowed to 'manage' your own section of the shop-floor or your own apartment block, the fact that the state was run by an irremovable bureaucratic clique did not matter.31  The Mandelites (International Majority tendency of the Unified Secretariat of the Fourth International) came closest among the Trotskyists to adoption of the systematic arguments for 'participatory' democracy.32 

As I have indicated by my reference to their use by Maoists and Guevarists - 'participatory democracy' arguments leave out of account the problem of decision-making on a scale larger than the micro-locality. They are also problematic from the point of view of the interests of the proletariat as a class. These issues will be addressed in the next article.