Revolution or War n°15

(May 16th 2020)

PDF - 376.2 kb

HomeVersion imprimable de cet article Version imprimable

Bilan #18 on the Proletarian State (April – May 1935, excerpts)

We publish below excerpts from an article in the journal Bilan of the Left Fraction of the Communist Party of Italy, the so-called Italian Left, from a series published over the years on the question of the state and, more specifically, on the proletarian state and the experience of the Russian Revolution. We strongly invite the readers to read the whole series, unfortunately only available in French, which can be accessed on the site of Smolny Publishing ( This article addresses only one particular dimension of the transition period between capitalism and communism, that of the initial period of the exercise of class dictatorship in a single country, or groups of countries, when the ’proletarian’ state is confronted with other capitalist and imperialist states.

Drawing on the experiences of February-March 1918 when the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty with Germany was signed, and on the experiences of the war with Poland in 1920 when the Red Army reached the gates of Warsaw, the article tries to draw general lines of principle that the Bolsheviks and all the revolutionary forces of the time could not have acquired precisely because of the lack of previous historical experience. In doing so, it rejects any idealistic or anarchistic approach, or even leftist infantilism, such as the arguments of the Bukharin fraction against the signing of the treaty, which advocated – and which some still advocate today! – that it would have been better to abandon power in the face of international isolation, that it would have been better the Russian Commune be annihilated as the Paris Commune was, and thus avoid the tragedy of infamous and bloody Stalinism. As if, when the course of a workers’ strike begins to falter and fall back, or even reach an impasse, revolutionaries could withdraw, abandoning their comrades in combat, in order to remain clean and free from any so-called compromise.

More seriously, fortunately, the text tries to address the contradiction that tends to emerge, in the absence of international extension, between the state of the transition period and the proletariat, which nevertheless remains an exploited class during this time. It rightly points out that the international opposition between the classes, of which October 1917 had been the most successful expression, tends to be replaced by the opposition between the proletarian state and the states of the imperialist powers as the perspective of international extension of the revolution is reduced and weakened. Faced with this contradiction, Bilan defends that "the only possible alternative remains proletariat/world capitalism and the proletarian state is a factor of world revolution only on the condition that it considers that the enemy it must defeat is the world bourgeoisie". We believe that it is in this sense that the question should be approached and reflected upon in order to best establish the principles that will guide the action of the party from the first days of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
[This article has been translated from French by ourselves]

Party – International – State /VII : The proletarian state (Bilan)


The principles are therefore so many foundations supporting the path of action of the world proletariat; their appearance and their consecration in statutory texts are a product of historical evolution itself and, as far as the proletarian state is concerned, we have seen again a coincidence that has always occurred before: the new tasks of the working class will have to be tackled without having all the necessary and indispensable theoretical and political elements. This zone of the unknown and unknowable is, according to Engels, the tribute that social science must pay until the productive technique has generated such a high expansion of production that the classes will have ceased to be a historical necessity and the free satisfaction of needs will allow the life of communist society.

We have already said that the understanding of a situation is only possible according to two fundamental elements: the action and the role of the proletariat, the concretization of this action in correlation with a system of principles. We have also indicated that, for the proletarian state, the impossibility had again manifested itself to establish the policy of this state on the basis of programmatic elements established in the period preceding the victory of the Russian proletariat and which could embrace a whole stage of historical evolution. It is for not having rigorously adhered – in the analysis of the situations – to the fundamental criterion of the action and role of the proletariat that the experience of the Soviet state is now ending with its incorporation into the world capitalist system. If the world proletariat had interpreted the different situations of the post-war period through its political function and the irreconcilability of its contrasts with capitalism, the objective conditions would have been realized to establish the theoretical foundations of the workers’ state in the course of the evolution of the class struggles of the world proletariat accompanying the experience of the Russian proletariat.

In 1917-18 and 1921, at both turning points in the world situation, the Russian party gave tactical solutions to the problems of the Soviet state on the basis of analyses of situations in which it was impossible for it to make the policy of the workers’ state derive from the position that the latter should have had on the struggle of the world proletariat; the lack of historical experience that could instruct it in this respect did not allow it to grasp the reality of the situation in which it were acting. In both eras, the Bolsheviks concluded that it was necessary to retreat, to deal with the enemy, while affirming that they would have acted quite differently if one could expect revolutionary movements on the other fronts of the struggle of the workers of all countries. And each time, the retreat or the compromise found a complementary justification in the need to safeguard the proletarian state, not as a particular conquest of the Russian proletariat, or as a position ’in itself’, but as an instrument that could have intervened later when the working class of other countries had conquered new possibilities of struggle: The Bolsheviks thus believed they were fulfilling their internationalist duty, because they were safeguarding the proletarian state and preventing the enemy from destroying it, through a contingency that was temporarily favourable to it. But this whole tactic did not take into account the essential element, namely that the position occupied by the proletarian state acts directly on the process of struggle of the proletariat of each country and that the whole consists in taking the path that will favour the position of the working class in the mortal struggle that it must deliver to world capitalism.

In 1917-18, at Brest-Litovsk, the Bolsheviks had the choice between two fundamental criteria: either to link their policy to the maturation of revolutionary movements in other countries, or to exploit the war between the Central Empires and the Entente by bargaining for Russian support in either of the two constellations. It is obvious that this is the second path that the Bolsheviks should have taken if they had limited themselves to the photographic snapshot of the power of the German bourgeoisie, which was strong enough to surge its armies to attack the Soviet borders and the immediate inability of the proletariat of that country to break the scheme of capitalism. The other policy of the workers state could only emerge if one did not limit oneself to the political moment that accompanied the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and considered the perspective of contingency and the possibility of revolutionary movements in Germany. Indeed, ten months after the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, powerful revolutionary movements swept through Germany first, Hungary, Italy and, in general, all the other countries, giving the Russian revolution the only proletarian significance it could have, namely the first victory obtained by the world working class over the Russian sector, prologue to the victory on the world front. The events of 1919-21 made it clear that because the historical premises of October 1917 were solely international, it was only on the basis of the world working class struggle that the defense of the Soviet state against the attacks of German imperialism and all other countries could be envisaged. Of the two tendencies of the Bolshevik Party that clashed in the time of Brest-Litovsk, the one of Lenin and the other of Bukharin, we believe that it was the former that was oriented towards the objectives of struggle for world revolution. The positions of the Bukharin-led fraction that the function of the proletarian state was to deliver the proletariat of other countries through ’revolutionary war’ brutally clashes with the very nature of proletarian revolution and the historical function of the proletariat. It can in no way follow the path of the bourgeoisie that was able to triumph on the world stage with Napoleon building the French state through the victorious trekking of his armies whose real objective – from the historical point of view – was not to establish a European and world empire of France, but to accelerate the maturation of political conditions in other states in order to establish the French capitalist state in an international environment that would allow the victory of capitalism from the global point of view. The proletariat cannot, on the other hand, follow the other path followed by Bismarck and consisting not in a program of military expansion and conquest (Napoleon), but in rallying the ’German nation’ around the centralized bourgeois state. In the case of both Napoleon and Bismarck, we are witnessing a course of events that had as its axis the construction of capitalist states repeating, on the world stage, the opposition that is unleashed on the capitalist market between companies or trusts. These two contrasts have their origin in the contradiction revealed by Marx in his theory of value, in the capitalist mode of production, which leads to the impossibility of the realisation of the value of labour in a regime based on the division of society into classes. We do not have in mind here the particular case of Brest-Litovsk where the essential criterion which was to prevail was the one defended by Lenin making the attitude of the Soviet state depend on the position occupied by the German proletariat and also affirming that, in case of necessity, the Bolsheviks would withdraw to the Urals, in Siberia, until a resumption of the revolutionary struggle in Europe. A further verification of Lenin’s central point of view can be found in his analysis of the policy followed during the Red Army operations in Poland in 1920, which led him to conclude that Soviet policy at that time had facilitated the manoeuvre of the Polish bourgeoisie, which tended to mobilize the different classes in a front of nationalist resistance against the Soviet attack, and which was successful. But the guidelines set out by Lenin, where he considered it possible for the Russian state to weave between imperialist brigands and even accept the support of an imperialist constellation to defend the borders of the Soviet state threatened by another capitalist group, these general guidelines testify – in our opinion – to the enormous difficulty the Bolsheviks faced in establishing Russian state policy when no previous experience could arm them to lead the struggle against world capitalism and for the triumph of the world revolution.

It is not easy to determine what prevailed in Brest-Litovsk: whether it was the general consideration of pacing the march of the Soviet state at the pace of the struggle of the proletariat of other countries, or the other consideration that Lenin had expressed at that time : the intervention of the Soviet state on the front of inter-imperialist contrasts to take advantage of the support that one group of them would have been forced to give to the Russian state to defeat the other imperialist group. Therefore, we cannot say definitively whether the internationalist directive inspired the decision that was adopted in Brest-Litovsk or whether it was the state of necessity that determined the Bolshevik Party to accept the conditions of German imperialism [1]. If we refer to the Red Army offensive in Poland in 1920, we must conclude that it is rather the second hypothesis which relates to Brest where the Russian state would have determined to accept the German diktat, not because of the situation which the German proletariat was going through at that time, but because of the military superiority of that country. In the end, the idea of the ’proletarian state/capitalist state’ opposition was born at the birth of the Soviet state. And this antinomy of states veils, from the outset, the opposition between classes, the only one that can inspire the action of the proletarian state in the same way as the action of other proletarian institutions: unions, cooperatives, class party.

We still have to say one more word about Brest. We have seen that, ten months after this event, revolutionary movements began in Germany and then spread to other countries, even though the Bolsheviks had decided to accept Brest mainly because the international horizon did not present prospects for insurrectionary movements. The Bolsheviks’ inability to determine the perspective of the contingency was by no means occasional, but depended on the conditions under which they acted, that is, the impossibility of drawing from the theoretical field and principles the weapons that would allow them to go beyond the vision of the political moment, and foresee the perspective arising from the driving centres of the situation, the only ones that could explain the contingency itself. The difficulty underlying the assessment of the situation in 1917-18 will become all the more apparent if we compare the extreme decision which emerges from Lenin’s theses of April 1917, in a situation where, however, the balance of forces between the Bolsheviks and the enemy (in its various forms) was otherwise unfavourable as it was in 1917-18. As soon as Lenin arrived in Russia, despite being a minority within the party itself, armed as he was with an arsenal of principles acquired through a struggle that had lasted many years, he immediately grasped the meaning of the Russian reality and, despite all the momentary appearances, did not hesitate to draw up a programme of action which seemed to isolate the Bolshevik Party from the masses and movements of the moment, but which, in reality, corresponded directly to the evolution of the situations: Five months later, events were to confirm Lenin’s plan of April perfectly. But in 1917-18 Lenin did not possess, on the problem of the Soviet State, that set of principles which had enabled him to understand the situation in the spring of 1917. We wanted to insist on this point to verify the thesis that we put forward, which consists in considering impossible the analysis of a situation if it is not based on principled considerations relating to the positions that the proletariat must occupy.

The preceding considerations could easily be dismissed as abstract and worthless elucubration, since the whole problem would be reduced to very modest proportions and the retreat or offensive of the Red Army would be decided only by the military balance of power between the two armies in battle. In Brest, for example, an answer should have been given to an immediate problem and not in relation to the rise of the revolutionary movement in Germany, which was not to be declared until ten months later. We see in this the repetition of the old refrain that one always opposes to the Marxist currents: ’Here is the situation, it is necessary to answer with a yes or a no, and especially to consider that the rejection of a compromise can bring down a proletarian institution, whereas its safeguard would allow tomorrow the struggle for the final objectives which would thus have been provisionally set aside only to better struggle and win in the new circumstance’. This realism has always accompanied the deviations and betrayals: in front of it, it is necessary once again to oppose the firm response of the communist proletariat which reveals the game of the opportunist: it is not a question of making the revolution at any moment; it is not a question either of refusing to recognize the necessity of a retreat when the circumstances impose it; it is simply a question of never linking the proletariat to forces which are fundamentally opposed to it. When a situation arises where the very existence of a proletarian organisation is at stake and the enemy can take advantage of circumstances that are favourable to it to deliver an attack directed towards its destruction, the real option before the working class is: either struggle or capitulation. In the first hypothesis, the victory of the enemy is only momentary because it results only from contingent balances of power, and capitalism cannot introduce – thank to its success – its agents into the proletarian movement. In the second hypothesis, it is not only the contingent situation that is prejudged, but also the future situation, and capitalism will have achieved the greatest possible victory because its reinforcement will no longer be quantitative and contingent, but qualitative and long-lasting; its apparatus of domination will have increased by one mesh – and the most dangerous one for the proletariat – because it will have installed a fortress within the proletarian movement itself.

The solution given by the Bolsheviks in Brest did not involve an alteration of the internal characters of the Soviet state in its relations with capitalism and the world proletariat. In 1921, with the introduction of the NEP and in 1922, with the Treaty of Rapallo, a profound change was to be seen in the position occupied by the proletarian state in the field of class struggle on a world scale. Between 1918 and 1921, the revolutionary wave that swept through the whole world was to be declared and then reabsorbed; the proletarian state was facing enormous difficulties in the new situation and the moment had come when – no longer being able to rely on its natural support, the revolutionary movements in other countries – it had to either accept a struggle in conditions that had become extremely unfavourable for it, or avoid the struggle and, by this very fact, accept a compromise that would gradually and inevitably lead it on a path that would first adulterate and then destroy the proletarian function that belonged to it, to bring us to the present situation where the proletarian state has become a mesh of the apparatus of domination of world capitalism.

We want immediately to speak out against the crude position of delineating, in personal responsibility, the root causes of the reversal that has taken place between the revolutionary position held by the Russian state in 1917-21 and the counter-revolutionary position it now holds in 1935. Far be it from us to underestimate the consequences of the death of the leader of the revolution, but we are sure that it would be an insult to the memory of the great Marxist Lenin to affirm that the reversal of the position of the proletarian state and its passage to the service of capitalism depends on the fact that at its head was no longer a leader with exceptional and brilliant qualities, but Stalin, the envoy of the demon of degeneration and perversion. The real tribute to Lenin, on the other hand, is to say that even if he had been able to continue to live to work for the salvation of the world revolution, the same problems would have appeared, the same difficulties would have arisen: Lenin’s last articles on cooperation reflect the new situation resulting from the defeats of the world proletariat, and it is not surprising that they could have been of use to the falsifiers who sketched out the theory of ’socialism in one country’. In front of Lenin, if he had survived, centrism would have had the same attitude it took towards the many Bolsheviks who paid through deportation, prison and exile the loyalty they wanted to keep to the internationalist program of October 1917. Lenin, his genius, his intransigence, his political firmness could not have overcome the social forces generated by a serious modification of the situation and centrism, in the person of Stalin, would have been able to overcome him also in the case – which has unfortunately been verified – where the world proletariat had to bite the dust in front of the enemy who could straighten the edifice of its regime through the support that its agents within the proletariat provided it.

These two positions are equally false: the one that would like to find in October 1917, in the very principles of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the original vices that should inevitably lead to the current situation, and the other one that would like to formally separate the two periods of life of the proletarian state: the first one in Lenin’s time, where everything worked perfectly, and the other one, which would have been corrupted by Satan, Stalin. The distinction between the two periods exists, but in no way according to the personal qualities of the men who expressed them, but by the opposition between the very nature of these two situations, one of which is countersigned by the blossoming of revolutionary movements in all countries, the other by the resorption of the revolutionary wave and by the victory of the enemy who could – thanks to the defeats of 1918-21 – victoriously resist the revolutionary battles of Germany in 1923, of China in 1927, to mention only the most important ones.

These two periods are directly related to each other and we must clearly affirm that the fecundating germs of centrism are to be found in the conditions of ideological immaturity in which the international proletariat found itself when historical conditions presented it with the opportunity to destroy world capitalism. These conditions of immaturity are expressed by the isolation of the Bolsheviks within the proletarian movement where, nowhere else, the fractional work had been carried out that had allowed the Russian proletariat to find in the Bolsheviks the guide to their revolutionary battles. It does not seem that the lesson of the events is present today to the surviving communist militants after the devastation of centrism because, still today, apart from our fraction, in the other countries they don’t prepare to the path that allowed the victory of the proletariat.

When the new situation arose in 1921, Lenin and the Bolsheviks confronted it with conceptions which – as far as the proletarian state was concerned – were an expression of the previous situation but were in no way the result of establishing the role of the workers’ state in the reality of the world class struggle: In 1921, based on the immediate historical precedents, one had to conclude that it was necessary to defend, in spite of everything, the existence of the Russian state, since the latter had shown its revolutionary credentials by founding the Communist International. Lenin, in his study on the NEP, Trotsky in his report to the 4th Congress of the International, had to pose the central problem in the following terms: a battle is engaged between the proletariat holding – through the state – the economic levers of control and the other strata of the peasant and petty-bourgeois population: the victory will belong, in the end, to the one of the two antagonists who will manage to direct, in the way of its respective class, the indispensable economic recovery after the years of the civil war and the external war. In 1918, in his study on State Capitalism, Lenin had pushed back the exaggerations of the ultra-left on the real scope of the Russian revolution with a scientific analysis that laid bare the impossibility of obtaining great results because of Russia’s backward economic state. In 1921, these same considerations led Lenin to the opposite view of the possibility of a socialist management of the proletarian state, even without the intervention of the proletariat in other countries. Lenin also asserted the inevitability of entrusting to reborn capitalism the function of defeating small-scale artisanal production, the peasant and merchant petty-bourgeoisie, whereas he believed that he could – through the state – block the road to the restoration of capitalist power and direct the whole new economic course towards the construction of the foundations of socialism. This new conception of Lenin did not depend, as we have said, on a reduction of his internationalist conceptions, but on this consideration: the new situation taking away the natural support of the state, the world proletariat beaten by the enemy, it was necessary to keep the state during this intermediate period that separated it from a new wave of world revolution. Although we do not find in the texts of that time a theoretical demonstration of the contribution that the Russian state could make to the workers’ struggles in other countries, even with the New Economic Policy, it is absolutely certain that the intimate conviction of the Bolsheviks was that they could, through the NEP, contribute, even more effectively than with war communism, to the revolutionary effort of the world proletariat.

The events that followed after 1921 show us that the opposition proletarian state/capitalist states cannot guide the action neither of the victorious proletariat nor that of the working class in other countries: the only possible alternative remains proletariat/world capitalism and the proletarian state is a factor of world revolution only on the condition that it considers that the enemy it must defeat is the world bourgeoisie. Even temporarily, this state cannot establish its policy according to the internal problems of its management, the elements of its successes or defeats are in the progress or setbacks of the workers of other countries.

From a theoretical point of view, the new instrument possessed by the proletariat after its revolutionary victory, the proletarian state, is profoundly different from the workers’ resistance organizations: the trade union, the cooperative, (...), and from the political organization: the class party. But this differentiation does not take place because the state possesses organic factors much superior to the other institutions, but on the contrary because the state, despite the appearance of its greater material power, possesses, from the political point of view, fewer possibilities of action; it is a thousand times more vulnerable to the enemy than the other workers’ organizations. In fact, the state owes its greatest material power to objective factors which correspond perfectly to the interests of the exploiting classes but cannot have any relation with the revolutionary function of the proletariat, which will temporarily resort to dictatorship and will use it to accentuate the process of decay of the state through an expansion of production which will allow the very bases of the classes to be extirpated. In fact, the state – even proletarian – is forced to intervene in a social, economic and political environment and, as a result, is threatened to be carried away by the realization of objectives that tear it away from its function, which can only be of an international order.

From a global point of view, this risk is once again present and in increased proportions because, whether it likes it or not, what immediately opposes it is the covetousness of other states competing for markets and by no means the capitalist regime in its social bases. A victory of the proletarian state against a capitalist state (giving these terms a territorial meaning) is in no way a victory of the revolution. We have noticed what Lenin said about the entry of the Red Army into Poland, where the military victory of Russia was to correspond to the weakening of the proletarian front and a possibility for the Polish bourgeoisie to build nationalist mobilization to straighten its endangered edifice. In 1930, the victory of the Soviet army against China over the Chinese East accelerated the dissociation of the Chinese proletariat and exposed the characters of the degenerated state which, in 1934, in the face of a much more powerful enemy, in the face of Japan, had to sell for a few thousand rubles what it proclaimed to be a bastion of the world revolution and which it had defended with the same fierce determination as the imperialists making China a spoils for their covetousness.

The economic and military fields can only be secondary and a detail in the activity of the proletarian state, whereas they are of an essential order for an exploiting class. The proletarian state can only be a simple factor of the struggle of the world proletariat and it is in the revolutionary battle of the working class of all countries that it can find the reason for its life, its evolution; to have believed that it was possible to maintain it, outside the workers’ struggle of other countries, to have put forward this hypothesis, even provisionally, is to have laid the bases of the conversion which was later verified in the function of the Russian state, which became a pillar of the counter-revolution.

We have already said that the real function of the proletarian state manifested itself not in 1917, but in 1918-21, when the premises that had manifested themselves in Russia blossomed in all their magnitude and the revolutionary situation opened up all over the world; October 1917 was therefore only a harbinger of the storms that were brewing in the depths of capitalist society.

In 1921, the situation changes and we note, once again, the impossibility of proceeding to an analysis of reality outside of the considerations of principle that indicate the path that the proletariat must take in order to be a factor in the evolution of contingencies towards the objectives that are at the end of the latter. The New Economic Policy is established because of the lack of revolutionary struggles in other countries, but this perspective was absolutely false because, in 1923, Germany becomes again the theatre of powerful revolutionary movements. But between 1921 and 1923 the new policy of the Russian state could not fail to influence the course of the German revolutionary movements where we see this striking contrast : the Bolsheviks who, with Lenin, had supported in 1917 the program of violent expulsion of all democratic and social-democratic forces, in a much more mature front of struggle for initiatives a thousand times more advanced, will be more to the right in the course of the revolutionary movements in Thuringia, Saxony and all of Germany than Zinoviev and Kamenev had been in October.

From a principled point of view, Lenin’s positions contained in his study on the NEP remain today, in their entirety, with regard to the internal problems of the proletarian state. Only the events that followed it proved to us that the antagonist of the workers state is only world capitalism and that the internal questions have only secondary value. In 1921, Pannekoek wrote that the result of the NEP was a change in the internal mechanism of revolutionary struggle. It is a pity that at that time he confined himself to expressing the consequence of a political fact instead of embracing the whole situation to give the only possible conclusion: a principled basis for tactical problems, a basis that manages to build on the materials of October 1917 the positions capable of defeating capitalism in other countries. The limitation of Pannekoek’s political horizon may explain his current fall into social democracy [2].

]]. But, today, the fractions of the left have an otherwise vast horizon: it is their duty to try to prove themselves worthy of the proofs of heroism given by the workers in all countries; it is their duty to draw on the grandiose events which followed 1921, in order to guarantee the fate of future revolutions and at the same time to establish the political conditions which could make the world proletariat the economy of a war before arriving at the new revolutionary situation.

In the second part of this chapter, we still have to deal with the economic problems of the dictatorship of the proletariat, for which Marx first, then Lenin, left us some principles that we have to confront with lived experience.

(To be continued)

(Bilan, April 1935)



[1. See, for instance, RoG #13,

[2This assessment on Pannekoek will be corrected in the following article, Note from the Éditions Smolny