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Political Power and Dissent in Post-Revolutionary Societies

Marx’s original definition concerned political power as the direct manifestation of class antagonism, coupled with its opposite: the abolition of political power properly so-called in a fully realized socialist society. But what happens in between? Is it possible to break entrenched political power without necessarily resorting to the exercise of a fully articulated system of political power?

István Mészáros 6 October 2017

Mészáros in a 2002 appearance on Brazilian television program Roda Viva.

We were saddened to learn of the death of István Mészáros on October 1st. A distinguished Marxist philosopher, Mészáros was born in Hungary in 1930 and studied with Georg Lukács before emigrating to the UK after the Soviet invasion of 1956. His many books include Marx's Theory of Alienation, winner of the 1970 Deutscher Memorial Prize, The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time: Socialism in the Twenty First Century, and The Necessity of Social Control, a collection from Monthly Review Press designed as an introduction to his thought.

Below we present an essay by Mészáros first published in New Left Review in March 1978, adapted from a talk given at the Convegno del Manifesto on "Power and Opposition in Post-revolutionary Societies," held in Venice on 11–13 November 1977.

The question of political power in post-revolutionary societies is and remains one of the most neglected areas of Marxist theory. 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." 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."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

The Ideal and the "Force of Circumstance"

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." 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.

To be sure, this double perversion is not the product of one-sided theory, though it represents an apologetic capitulation of theory to the "force of circumstance," which in its turn is brought into existence as a result of immensely complex and contradictory social determinations, including the share of theoretical failure as a significant contributory factor to the overall process. But once this process is accomplished and a uniform praise of the perverted ideal is imposed by the force of law, condemning as "heresy" and "subversion" all voices of dissent, critical reflection must assume the form of bitter, self-torturing irony. Such as the answer given by the mythical "Radio Yerevan" to the question of an anonymous listener who asks: "Is it true that we have socialism in our country?" The answer is given in an oblique form as follows: "You are asking, Comrade, whether it is true that luxurious American motor cars will be given away this Saturday afternoon on Red Square. It is perfectly true, with three qualifications: they won’t be American, they will be Russian; they won’t be motor cars, they will be bicycles; and they won’t be given away, they will be taken away." Cynically nihilistic though this may sound, who can fail to perceive in it the voice of impotence protesting in vain against the systematic frustration and violation of the ideals of socialism? Admittedly, the problems of political power in post-revolutionary societies cannot be solved by simply reiterating an ideal in its original formulation, for by their very nature these problems belong to the period of transition which impose their painful qualifications on all of us. All the same, there is a moral for us too in the story of "Radio Yerevan." It is that we should never consent to "qualifications" which obliterate the ideal itself and turn it into its opposite. To ignore the "force of circumstance" would be tantamount to living in the world of fantasy. But whatever the circumstances, the ideal remains valid as the vital compass that secures the correct direction of the journey and as the necessary corrective to the power of vis major which tends to take over in the absence of such corrective.

Political Power in the Society of Transition

Is it possible to identify the necessary socio-historical qualifications which apply the spirit of Marx’s original formulations to the concrete realities of a complex historical transition from one social formation to another? How is it possible to envisage this transition in a political form that does not become its own self-perpetuation, thus contradicting and effectively nullifying the very idea of a transition which alone can justify the continued, but in principle diminishing, importance of the political form? Is it possible to have such qualifications without liquidating Marx’s theoretical framework and its implications for our problem?

As we have seen, Marx’s original definition concerned political power as the direct manifestation of class antagonism, coupled with its opposite: the abolition of political power properly so-called in a fully realized socialist society. But what happens in between? Is it possible to break entrenched political power without necessarily resorting to the exercise of a fully articulated system of political power? If not, how is it possible to envisage a change of course "halfway through" — namely, the radical transformation of a powerful system of self-sustaining political power which controls the whole of society, into a self-transcending organ which fully transfers the manifold functions of political control to the social body itself, thus enabling the emergence of that free association of men without which the life-process of society remains under the domination of alien forces, instead of being consciously regulated by the social individuals involved in accordance with the ideals of self-determination and self-realization? And finally, if the transitional forms of political power stubbornly refuse to show signs of "withering away," how should one assess the contradictions involved: as the failure of a "utopian" Marxism, or as the historically determinate manifestation of objective antagonisms whose elucidation is well within the compass of Marx’s original project?

Marx’s assertion about the supersession of political power in socialist society is coupled with two important considerations. First, that the free association of social individuals who consciously regulate their own life-activities in accordance with a settled plan is not feasible without the necessary "material foundation, or a series of material conditions of existence, which in their turn are the natural and spontaneous product of a long and tormented historical development." The emancipation of labour from the rule of capital is feasible only if the objective conditions of its emancipation are fulfilled whereby "the direct, material production process is stripped of the form of penury and antithesis," giving way to the "free development of individualities." By implication, so long as "penury and antithesis" remain characteristics of the material base of society, the political form must suffer their consequences and the "free development of individualities" is hindered and postponed.

The second consideration is closely linked to the first. Since overcoming the conditions of "penury and antithesis" necessarily implied the highest development of the forces of production, successful revolution had to be envisaged by Marx in advanced capitalist countries, and not on the periphery of world capitalist developments (although he touched upon the possibility of revolutions away from the socio-economically most dynamic centre, without however entering into a discussion of the necessary implications of such possibilities). Inasmuch as the object of his analysis was the power of capital as a world system, he had to contemplate a breakthrough, under the impact of a profound structural crisis, in the form of more or less simultaneous revolutions in the major capitalist countries.

As to the problems of political power in the period of transition, Marx introduced the concept of the "dictatorship of the proletariat"; and in one of his later works, The Critique of the Gotha Programme, he addressed himself to some additional problems of a transitional society as manifested in the politico-legal sphere. While these elements of his theory certainly do not constitute a system (the sequel to Capital which was supposed to develop the political implications of Marx’s global theory in a systematic way was never even sketched, let alone fully worked out), they are important signposts and must be complemented by certain other elements of his theory (notably the assessment of the relationship between individual and class, and of the structural interdependence between capital and labour) which have a significant bearing on the strictly political issues, as we shall see in a moment.

It was Lenin, as we all know, who worked out the strategy of revolution "at the weakest link of the chain," insisting that the dictatorship of the proletariat must be considered as the only viable political form for the entire historical period of transition that precedes the highest stage of communism, in which it finally becomes possible to implement the principle of freedom. The most significant shift in his analysis was envisaging that the "material foundation" and the supersession of "penury" will be accomplished under the dictatorship of the proletariat in a country which sets out from an extremely low level of development. Yet Lenin saw no problem in suggesting in December 1918 that the new state will be "democratic for the proletariat and the propertyless in general and dictatorial against the bourgeoisie" only. 6

There was a curious flaw in his usually impeccable reasoning. He argued that "thanks to capitalism, the material apparatus of the big banks, syndicates, railways, and so forth, has grown" and "the immense experience of the advanced countries has accumulated a stock of engineering marvels, the employment of which is being hindered by capitalism," concluding that the Bolsheviks (who were in fact confined to a backward country) can "lay hold of this apparatus and set it in motion." Thus the immense difficulties of a transition from one particular revolution to the irrevocable success of a global revolution (which is beyond the control of any one particular agency, however class-conscious and disciplined) were more or less implicitly brushed aside by voluntaristically postulating that the Bolsheviks were capable of taking power and "retaining it until the triumph of the world socialist revolution." 8

Thus, while the viability of a socialist revolution at the weakest link of the chain was advocated, the imperative of a world revolution as a condition of success of the former reasserted itself in a most uneasy form: as an insoluble tension at the very heart of the theory. But what could one say in the event the world socialist revolution did not come about and the Bolsheviks were condemned to hold on to power indefinitely? Lenin and his revolutionary comrades were unwilling to entertain that question, since it conflicted with certain elements of their outlook. They had to claim the viability of their strategy in a form which necessarily implied anticipating revolutionary developments in areas over which their forces had no control whatsoever. In other words, their strategy involved the contradiction between two imperatives: first, the need to go it alone, as the immediate (historical) pre-condition of success (of doing it at all); secondly, the imperative of the triumph of the world socialist revolution, as the ultimate (structural) precondition of success of the whole enterprise.

Understandably, therefore, when the actual conquest of power in October 1917 created a new situation, Lenin exclaimed with a sigh of relief: "It is more pleasant and useful to go through the 'experience of the revolution' than to write about it." And again: "The October 25 Revolution has transferred the question raised in this pamphlet from the sphere of theory to the sphere of practice. This question must now be answered by deeds, not words." 10 But how deeds could themselves answer the dilemma concerning the grave difficulties of accomplishing all the necessary "material groundwork" which constitutes the prerequisite of a successful socialist transformation, without "words" — without, that is, a coherent theory soberly assessing the massive potential dangers involved, and indicating at the same time, if feasible, the possibilities of a solution to them — Lenin did not say. He simply could not envisage the possibility of an objective contradiction between the dictatorship of the proletariat and the proletariat itself.

While in March and April 1917 Lenin was still advocating "a state without a standing army, without a police opposed to the people, without an officialdom placed above the people," 11 and proposed to "organize and arm all the poor, exploited sections of the population in order that they themselves should take the organs of state power directly into their own hands, in order that they themselves should constitute these organs of state power," 12 a significant shift became visible in his orientation after the seizure of power. The main themes of The State and Revolution receded further and further in his thought. Positive references to the experience of the Paris Commune (as the direct involvement of "all the poor, exploited sections of the population" in the exercise of power) disappeared from his speeches and writings; and the accent was laid on "the need for a central authority, for dictatorship and a united will to ensure that the vanguard of the proletariat shall close its ranks, develop the state and place it upon a new footing, while firmly holding the reigns of power." 13 Thus, in contrast to the original intentions which predicated the fundamental identity of the "entire armed people," 14 with state power, there appeared a separation of the latter from "the working people," whereby "state power is organizing large-scale production on state-owned land and in state-owned enterprises on a national scale, is distributing labour-power among the various branches of economy and the various enterprises, and is distributing among the working people large quantities of articles of consumption belonging to the state." 15 The fact that the relationship of the working people to state power manifested as the central distribution of labour-power was a relationship of structural subordination did not seem to trouble Lenin, who bypassed this issue by simply describing the new form of separate state power as "the proletarian state power." 16 Thus the objective contradiction between the dictatorship of the proletariat and the proletariat itself disappeared from his horizon, at the very moment it surfaced as centralized state power which determines on its own the distribution of labour-power. At the most generic level of class relations — corresponding to the polar opposition between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie — the contradiction did not seem to exist. The new state had to secure its own material base and the central distribution of labour-power appeared to be the only viable principle for achieving this, from the standpoint of the state already in existence. 17 In reality, however, it was "the working people" themselves who had to be reduced to and distributed as "labour-power": not only over immense geographical distances — with all the upheavals and dislocations inevitably involved in such a centrally imposed system of distribution — but also "vertically" in each and every locality, in accordance with both the material dictates of the inherited production structures and the political dictates inherent in their newly constituted principle and organs of regulation.

Lukács’s Solution

No matter how problematical his conclusions, it was Lukács’s great intellectual merit to have highlighted this dilemma in a most acute form, in one of his relatively unknown articles, written in the spring of 1919. The issue is important enough to warrant the long quotation which is needed to faithfully reproduce the train of his thought: "It is clear that the most oppressive phenomena of proletarian power — namely, scarcity of goods and high prices, of whose immediate consequences every proletarian has personal experience — are the direct consequences of the slackening of labour-discipline and the decline in production. The creation of remedies for these, and the consequent improvement in the individual’s standard of living, can only be brought about when the causes of these phenomena have been removed. Help comes in two ways. Either the individuals who constitute the proletariat realize that they can help themselves only by bringing about a voluntary strengthening of labour-discipline, and consequently a rise in production: or, if they are incapable of this, they create institutions which are capable of bringing about this necessary state of affairs. In the latter case, they create a legal system through which the proletariat compels its own individual members, the proletarians, to act in a way which corresponds to their class-interests: the proletariat turns its dictatorship against itself. This measure is necessary for the self-preservation of the proletariat when correct recognition of class-interests and voluntary action in these interests do not exist. But one must not hide from oneself the fact that this method contains within itself great dangers for the future. When the proletariat itself is the creator of labour-discipline, when the labour-system of the proletarian state is built on a moral basis, then the external compulsion of the law ceases automatically with the abolition of class division — that is, the state withers away — and this liquidation of class-division produces out of itself the beginning of the true history of humanity, which Marx prophesied and hoped for. If, on the other hand, the proletariat follows another path, it must create a legal system which cannot be abolished automatically by historical development. Development would therefore proceed in a direction which endangered the appearance and realization of the ultimate aim. For the legal system which the proletariat is compelled to create in this way must be overthrown — and who knows what convulsions and what injuries will be caused by a transition which leads from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom by such a détour? . . . It depends on the proletariat whether the real history of humanity begins — that is to say, the power of morality over institutions and economics." 18

This quotation shows Lukács’s great power of insight as regards the objective dialectic of a certain type of development, formulated from a rather abstract philosophical point of view. Lenin, by comparison, preferring "deeds" to "words," was far too busy trying to squeeze out the last drop of practical socialist possibilities from the objective instrumental set-up of his situation to indulge in theoretical anticipations of this kind in 1919. By the time he started to concentrate on the dreadful danger of an ever-increasing domination of the ideals of socialism by the "institutions of necessity," it was too late — not only for him personally, but historically too late — to reverse the course of developments. The idea of autonomous working-class action had been replaced by advocacy of "the greatest possible centralization." 19 Both the Soviets and the factory councils had been deprived of all effective power, and in the course of the trade-union debate all attempts at securing even a very limited degree of self-determination for the working-class base had been dismissed as "syndicalist nonsense" 20 and as "a deviation towards syndicalism and anarchism," 21 seen as a direct threat to the dictatorship of the proletariat. The cruel irony of it all is that Lenin himself, totally dedicated as he was to the cause of the socialist revolution, helped to paralyse the selfsame forces of the working-class base to which he tried to turn later for help, when he perceived the fateful danger of those developments in Russia which were to culminate in Stalinism. Against this background, it is pathetic to see Lenin, a genius of realistic strategy, behaving like a desperate utopian from 1923 to the moment of his death: insistently putting forward hopeless schemes — like the proposal to create a majority in the Central Committee from working-class cadres, in order to neutralize the Party bureaucrats — in the hope of reversing this dangerous trend, by now far too advanced. Lenin’s great tragedy was that his incomparable, instrumentally concrete, intensely practical strategy in the end defeated him. In the last year of his life, there was no longer a way out of his almost total isolation. The developments he himself, far more than anybody else, had helped to set in motion had made him historically superfluous. The specific form in which he lived the unity of theory and practice proved to be the limit even of his greatness.

What was extremely problematical in Lukács’s discourse was the suggestion that the acceptance of the need for higher productivity and greater labour discipline — as a result of the philosopher’s direct moral appeal to the consciousness of individual proletarians — might avert the danger so graphically described and render the creation of the institutions of necessity superfluous. What degree of labour discipline is high enough under the conditions of extreme urgency of the necessary "material groundwork"? Is "correct recognition of class-interest" ipso facto the end of all possible objective contradiction between individual and class interest? These and similar questions did not appear on Lukács’s horizon, which remained idealistically clouded by postulating an individualistic yet uniform moral base of social practice as an alternative to collective necessity. Nevertheless, he clearly spelled out not only the possibility of the proletariat turning its dictatorship against itself, but also the anguishing implications of such a state of affairs for the future when "the legal system which the proletariat is compelled to create in this way must be overthrown."

Was it this early thought, perhaps, which Lukács tried to amplify in much greater detail, in the light of subsequent developments, in an unpublished "political testament" he wrote in 1968, following his bitter condemnation of the military intervention in Czechoslovakia? Be that as it may, the dilemma remains as acute as ever. What were those objective and subjective determinations which produced the submission of the proletariat to the political form through which it assumed power, and is it possible to overcome them? How is it possible to avoid the potential convulsions associated with the imperative need of changing in depth the prevailing forms of political rule? What are the conditions of transforming the existing rigid "institutions of necessity," by means of which dissent is suppressed and compulsion enforced, into more flexible institutions of social involvement, foreshadowing that "free development of individualities" which continues to elude us?

Individual and Class

This is the point where we must put into relief the relevance for our problem of Marx’s considerations on the relationship between individual and class. For in the absence of a proper understanding of this relationship, the transformation of the transitional political form into a dictatorship exercised also over the proletariat (notwithstanding the original democratic intent) remains deeply shrouded in mystery. How is it possible for such a transformation to take place? The ideas of "degeneration," "bureaucratization," "substitutionism" and the like not only all beg the question, but also culminate in an illusory remedy, explicit or implied: namely, that the simple overthrow of this political form and the substitution of dedicated revolutionaries for party bureaucrats will reverse the process — forgetting that the blamed party bureaucrats too were in their time dedicated revolutionaries. Hypotheses of this kind idealistically transfer the problem from the plane of objective contradictions to that of individual psychology, which can explain at best only the question of why a certain type of person is best suited to mediate the objective structures of a given political form, but not the nature of those structures themselves.

Similarly, it would be very naive to accept that the new structures of political domination suddenly and automatically — and just as mysteriously — come into existence following the refusal of proletarians to accept an intensified labour-discipline and a self-sacrifice that have been dictated to them. On the contrary, the very fact that the question can be raised in this form is itself already evidence that the structures of domination are in existence before the question is even thought of. Admonitions and threats are empty words if they do not issue out of material power. But if they do, it is an idealistic reversal of the actual state of affairs to represent material dictates as moral imperatives which, if unheeded, would be followed by material dictates and sanctions. In reality, material dictates are internalized as moral imperatives only under the exceptional circumstances of a state of emergency, when reality itself rules out the possibility of alternative courses of action. To identify the two — i.e. to treat material dictates as moral imperatives — would mean to lock the life-processes of society into the unbearably narrow confines of a permanent state of emergency.

What are the structures of domination on the basis of which the new political form arises, which it must get rid of if it is not to remain a permanent obstacle to the realization of socialism? In discussions of Marx’s critique of the state, what is usually forgotten is that it is not concerned simply with the termination of a specific form of class rule — the capitalist — but with a much more fundamental issue: the full emancipation of the social individual. The following quotation makes this amply clear: "the proletarians, if they are to assert themselves as individuals, have to abolish the hitherto prevailing condition of their existence (which has, moreover, been that of all society up to then), namely, labour. Thus they find themselves directly opposed to the form in which, hitherto, the individuals, of which society consists, have given themselves collective expression, that is, the State. In order, therefore, to assert themselves as individuals, they must overthrow the State." 22 Try and remove the concept of "individuals" from this reasoning, and the whole enterprise becomes meaningless. For the need to abolish the State arises because the individuals cannot "assert themselves as individuals," and not simply because one class is dominated by another.

The same consideration applies to the question of individual and class. Again, discussions of Marx’s theory as a rule neglect this aspect, and concentrate on what he says about emancipating the proletariat from the bourgeoisie. But what would be the point of this emancipation if the individuals who constitute the proletariat remained dominated by the proletariat as a class? And it is precisely this relationship of domination which precedes the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. There is no need to newly establish the domination of the proletarians by the proletariat, since that domination already exists, though in a different form, well before the question of taking power historically arises: "the class in its turn assumes an independent existence as against the individuals, so that the latter find their conditions of life predetermined, and have their position in life and hence their personal development assigned to them by their class, thus become subsumed under it. This is the same phenomenon as the subjection of the separate individuals to the division of labour and can only be removed by the abolition of private property and of labour itself." 23

To be sure, this aspect of class domination holds in all forms of class society, irrespective of their specific political superstructures. Nor could it be otherwise, given the existence of irreconcilable inter-class antagonisms; indeed, the submission of the individuals to their class is a necessary concomitant of the latter. Moreover, this condition applies just as much to advanced capitalist countries as to their more or less underdeveloped counterparts. It would, therefore, be illusory to expect that the political consequences of this objective structural contradiction could be avoided simply in virtue of some undeniable differences at the level of the legal-political superstructure. For the contradiction in question is an objective antagonism of the socio-economic base as structured according to a hierarchical social division of labour, though, of course, it also manifests itself at the political plane. Underneath any so-called "elected dictatorship of Ministers" (or, for that matter, under whatever other form of liberal democracy), there lies the "unelected dictatorship" of the hierarchical-social division of labour, which structurally subordinates one class to another and at the same time subjects individuals to their own class as well, predestining them to a narrowly defined position and role in society in accordance with the material dictates of the prevailing socio-economic system, and thus unceremoniously ensuring that, may Ministers come and go as the electors please, the structure of domination itself remains intact.

Paradoxically, this dilemma of the structural domination of individuals by their own class becomes more rather than less acute in the aftermath of the revolution. In the preceding form of society, the severity of inter-class antagonism gives an apparently — and to a significant extent also objectively — benevolent character to the subjection of individuals to their own class, in that the class does not champion only its own interests as a class but, simultaneously, also the interests of its individual members against the other class. Individual proletarians accept their subordination to their own class — though even that not without deep-seated conflict over objective sectional interests — since class solidarity is a necessary prerequisite of their emancipation from the rule of the capitalist class, although it is in an astronomical distance from being the sufficient condition of their emancipation as social individuals. Once the capitalist class is defeated and expropriated, however, the objective structural contradiction between class and individual is activated in its full intensity, since the dampening factor of inter-class antagonism is effectively removed, or at least transferred to the international plane.

It is this contradiction between class and individual which is intensified in the aftermath of the revolution to the point that it may indeed, in the absence of adequate corrective forces and measures, endanger the very survival of the dictatorship of the proletariat and revert society to the status quo ante. What we witness, however, at the level of political ideology and practice is the misrepresentation of a necessary prerequisite of class emancipation as the sufficient condition of full emancipation, which is said to be hindered only by "survivals from the past," or the "survival of the class enemy." Thus the rather intangible "enemy within" becomes a mythical force whose empirical counterpart must be invented, to fill with millions of common people the emerging concentration camps.

One cannot emphasize too strongly that the ideological-political mystification does not feed on itself (if only it did, for that would be relatively easy to overcome), but on an objective contradiction of the socio-economic base. It is because "the condition of existence of individual proletarians, namely labour," is not abolished as Marx advocated — because in other words, hierarchical social division of labour remains the fundamental regulatory force of the social metabolism — that the antagonism, deprived of its justification through the expropriation of the opposite class, intensifies, creating a new form of alienation between the individuals who constitute society and the political power which controls their interchanges. It is because the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot remove the "contradictions of civil society" by abolishing both sides of the social antagonism, including labour — on the contrary, it has to envisage enhancing the latter, in function of the absolutely necessary "material foundation" — that "the proletariat turns its dictatorship against itself." 24 Or, to be more precise, in order to maintain its rule over society as a class, the proletariat turns its dictatorship against all individuals who constitute society, including the proletarians. (Indeed, including the party and state officials who have a mandate to carry out determinate functions and not others, following the imperatives of the system in existence and not their own exclusive sectional interests, even if by virtue of their privileged location with regard to the machinery of power they are in a position to appropriate a greater portion of the social product than other groups of individuals, whether or not they actually do so.)

Since one side of the antithesis Marx speaks of — labour — cannot be preserved on its own, under the new conditions of the post-revolutionary society a new form of manifestation must be found for the other side as well. The expropriation of the capitalist class, and the radical disruption and alteration of the normal market conditions which characterize the functioning of commodity society, impose radically new functions on the proletarian state. It is called upon to regulate, in toto and in small detail, the production and distribution process, directly determining the allocation of social resources, the conditions and the intensity of labour, the rate of surplus-extraction and accumulation, and the particular share of each individual in that portion of the social product which it makes available for consumption. From now on we are confronted with a system of production in which the extraction of surplus-labour is politically determined in the most summary form, using extra-economic criteria (ultimately the survival of the state itself) which, under determinate conditions, may in fact disrupt or even chronically retard the development of the productive forces. Such a politically determined extraction of surplus-labour — which, under the conditions of extreme penury and in the absence of strictly economic regulatory forces and mechanisms, may indeed reach dangerously high levels, whereupon it becomes self-defeatingly counter-productive — inevitably sharpens the contradiction between individual producers and the state, with the gravest implications for the possibility of dissent. For under these circumstances dissent may directly endanger the extraction of surplus-labour (and everything else built upon it), thus potentially depriving the dictatorship of the proletariat of its material base and challenging its very survival.

By contrast, the liberal state, under normal conditions, has no need to regulate directly the extraction of surplus-value, since the complex mechanisms of commodity-production take care of that. All it has to do is to ensure indirectly the safeguard of the economic system itself. Therefore, it need not worry at all about the manifestations of political dissent, so long as the impersonal mechanisms of commodity-production carry on their functions undisturbed. Of course, the situation significantly changes at times of major crises, when the forces of opposition cannot confine themselves any longer to contesting only the rate of surplus-value extraction, but have to question the very mode of surplus-value production and appropriation. If they do this with any success, then the capitalist state may be compelled to assume very far from "liberal" forms. Similarly, under the conditions of present-day development, when we can witness as a trend that the whole system of global capitalism is becoming extremely "disfunctional," the state is forced to assume increasingly more direct regulatory functions, with potentially serious implications for dissent and opposition. But even under such circumstances, the respective structures are fundamentally different in that the political involvement of the capitalist state applies to an all-pervasive system of commodity-production, and the underlying aim is the reconstitution of the self-regulatory function of the latter, whether it can be successfully accomplished or not. By contrast, the post-revolutionary state combines, as a matter of normality, the function of overall political control with that of securing and regulating the extraction of surplus-labour as the new mode of carrying on the material life-processes of society. It is the close integration of the two which produces apparently insurmountable difficulties for dissent and opposition.

Breaking the Rule of Capital

All this puts sharply into relief the dilemma we have to face when we try to envisage a socialist solution to the underlying problems. In 1957 a gifted young German writer Conrad Rheinhold had to flee the DDR, where he used to run a political cabaret in the aftermath of the Twentieth Congress. After he had had some experience of life in West Germany, he was asked by Der Spiegel to describe the main difference between his old and new situations. This was his answer: "In the East political cabaret is supposed to change society, but it is not allowed to say anything; in the West it is allowed to say whatever it pleases, so long as it cannot change anything at all." ("Im Osten soll das Kabarett die Gesellschaft ändern, darf aber nichts sagen; im Westen kann es alles sagen, darf aber nichts ändern.") Is there a way out of this painful dilemma? If there is, it must be through the maturation of the objective conditions of development to which political movements can relate themselves, greatly accelerating or powerfully frustrating their unfolding. In this respect, it matters very much whether or not post-revolutionary societies represent some new form of capitalism ("state capitalism," for example). For if they do, with the advent of the revolution nothing has really happened: no real steps have been taken in the direction of emancipation, and the allegedly monolithic power of capitalism which prevails in all its forms makes the future look extremely gloomy.

Marx wrote his Capital in the service of breaking the rule of capital, not just capitalism. Yet, strangely enough, it is on the assessment of this innermost nature of his project that the misconceptions are the greatest and most damaging. The title of Book I of Capital Volume One was first translated into English, under Engels’s supervision, as "A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production," whereas the original speaks of "The Process of Production of Capital" (Der Produktionsprozess des Kapitals), which is a radically different thing. Marx’s project is concerned with the conditions of production and reproduction of capital itself — its genesis and expansion, as well as the inherent contradictions which foreshadow its supersession through a "long and painful process of development" — whereas the mistranslated version speaks of a given phase of capital production only, while confusingly conflating the concepts of "capitalist production" and "production of capital."

The concept of capital is much more fundamental than that of capitalism. The latter is limited to a relatively short historical period, whereas the former embraces a great deal more than that. It is concerned, in addition to the mode of functioning of the given capitalist society, with the conditions of origin and development of capital production, including the phases when commodity-production is not all-pervasive and dominating as it is under capitalism. On the other side of the radical socio-historical line of demarcation drawn by the breakdown of capitalism, it is equally concerned with the forms and modalities in which the need for capital production is bound to survive in post-capitalist societies for a long and painful historical period — until, that is, the hierarchical social division of labour itself is successfully superseded, and society is completely restructured in accordance with the free association of social individuals who consciously regulate their own life-activities.

The rule of capital, rooted in the prevailing system of division of labour (which cannot conceivably be abolished by a political act alone, no matter how radical and free from "degeneration"), thus prevails over a significant part of the transitional period, although it must exhibit the characteristics of a diminishing trend if the transition is to be successful at all. But this does not mean that post-revolutionary societies remain "capitalist," just as feudal and earlier societies cannot be rightfully characterized as capitalist on the basis of the more or less extensive use of monetary capital and the more or less advanced share which commodity-production, as a subordinate element, occupies in them. Capitalism is that particular phase of capital production in which 1. production for exchange (and thus the mediation and domination of use-value by exchange-value) is all-pervasive; 2. labour-power itself, just as much as anything else, is treated as a commodity; 3. the drive for profit is a fundamental regulatory force of production; 4. the vital mechanism of the extraction of surplus-value, the radical separation of the means of production from the producers, assumes an inherently economic form; 5. the economically extracted surplus-value is privately appropriated by the members of the capitalist class; and 6. following its own economic imperative of growth and expansion, capital production tends towards a global integration, through the intermediary of the world market, as a totally interdependent system of economic domination and subordination. To speak of capitalism in post-revolutionary societies, when out of these essential defining characteristics only one — number four — remains and even that in a radically altered form in that the extraction of surplus-labour is regulated politically and not economically, can be done only by disregarding or misrepresenting the objective conditions of development, with serious consequences for the possibility of gaining insight into the real nature of the problems at stake.

Capital maintains its — by no means unrestricted — rule in post-revolutionary societies primarily through 1. the material imperatives which circumscribe the possibilities of the totality of life-processes; 2. the inherited social division of labour which, notwithstanding its significant modifications, contradicts "the development of free individualities"; 3. the objective structure of the available production apparatus (including plant and machinery) and of the historically developed and restricted form of scientific knowledge, both originally produced in the framework of capital production and under the conditions of the social division of labour; and 4. the links and interconnections of the post-revolutionary societies with the global system of capitalism, whether these assume the form of a "peaceful competition" (e.g. commercial and cultural exchanges) or that of a potentially deadly opposition (from the arms race to more or less limited actual confrontations in contested areas). Thus the issue is incomparably more complex and far-reaching than its conventional characterization as the imperative of capital accumulation, now renamed as "socialist accumulation."

Capital constitutes a highly contradictory world system, with the capitalist "metropolitan" countries and the major post-revolutionary societies as its poles related to a multiplicity of gradations and stages of mixed development. It is this dynamic, contradictory totality which makes the possibilities of dissent and opposition much more hopeful than the monolithic conception of the power of capitalism would suggest. Post-revolutionary societies are also post-capitalist societies, in the significant sense that their objective structures effectively prevent the restoration of capitalism. To be sure, their inner contradictions, further complicated and intensified by their interactions with capitalist countries, may produce shifts and adjustments within their structures in favour of commodity relations. Nevertheless, the possibility of such shifts and adjustments is fairly limited. It is strictly circumscribed by the fact that the political extraction of surplus-labour cannot be radically altered without profoundly affecting (indeed endangering) the political power in existence. The systematic frustration and prevention of dissent has its complement in the extremely limited success of recent attempts at introducing strictly economic mechanisms into the overall structure of production. Post-revolutionary societies, as yet, have no such self-regulatory mechanisms which would ensure that dissenters "say whatever they please without changing anything at all." Indeed, it would be a Pyrrhic victory if dissent developed in post-revolutionary societies parallel to the reintroduction of powerful capitalistic mechanisms and institutions. Positive developments in this respect may be envisaged only if the system finds some way of achieving an effective, institutionally underpinned distribution of political power (even if very limited in the first place) which does not represent a danger to the prevailing mode of extracting surplus-labour as such — although of necessity it would question its particular manifestations and excesses. In other words, "decentralization," "diversification," "autonomy," and the like must be implemented in post-revolutionary societies as — in the first place — political principles, in order to be meaningful at all.

The dynamic, contradictory totality mentioned above is also an interdependent totality through and through. What happens at one place has an important bearing on the possibilities of development elsewhere. The demand for a much greater effectiveness of dissent and opposition in the West arises now under circumstances when the capitalist system exhibits severe symptoms of crisis, with potentially far-reaching consequences. The weakening of the essential mechanisms of control of commodity society — which in their normal functioning successfully nullify dissent and opposition without the slightest need for suppressing — offers more scope for the development of effective alternatives, and the debate on "pluralism" must be situated in this problematic. At the same time, it is not without a profound significance that virtually all forces of the left have thoroughly disengaged themselves from an earlier uncritical attitude towards the assessment of post-revolutionary developments. This attitude in the past reflected a state of enforced immobility, and could not envisage more than repeatedly reasserting its ideal as a "declaration of intent" about the future, however remote, instead of undertaking a realistic assessment of a historical experience in relation to its own concrete tasks. In a world of total interdependence, if effective achievements result from this critical examination — which is inseparably also a self-examination — that will not be without positive consequences for the development of dissent and meaningful opposition in the post-revolutionary societies.


1. The Poverty of Philosophy, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 6, London 1976, pp. 211–12 (emphasis added).

2.The Holy Family, in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 4, London 1975, p. 36 (emphasis added).

3. Capital, Penguin/NLR edition, Vol. 1, London 1976, p. 173 (emphasis added).

4. Ibid., (emphasis added).

5. Grundrisse, London 1973, p. 706 (emphasis added).

6. In a section added to the second edition of The State and Revolution, see Collected Works, Vol. 25, p. 412 (emphasis added).

7. Ibid., Vol. 26, p. 130 (emphasis added).

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid., Vol. 25, p. 412.

10. Ibid., Vol. 26, p. 89.

11. Ibid., Vol. 24, p. 49 (Lenin’s emphasis).

12. Ibid., Vol. 23, p. 326 (Lenin’s emphasis).

13. Ibid., Vol. 30, p. 422 (emphasis added).

14. bid., Vol. 23, p. 325 (Lenin’s emphasis).

15. Ibid., Vol. 30, pp. 108–109 (emphasis added).

16. Ibid., p. 108.

17. The extent to which the newly constituted state organs were structurally conditioned by the old state should not be underestimated. Lenin’s analysis of this problem in his stock-taking speech on the NEP is most revealing. "We took over the old machinery of state, and that was our misfortune. Very often this machinery operates against us. In 1917, after we seized power, the government officials sabotaged us. This frightened us very much and we pleaded: 'Please come back.' They all came back but that was our misfortune. We now have a vast army of government employees, but lack sufficiently educated forces to exercise real control over them. In practice it often happens that here at the top, where we exercise political power, the machine functions somehow; but down below government employees have arbitrary control and they often exercise it in such a way as to counteract our measures. At the top, we have, I don’t know how many, but at all events, I think, no more than a few thousand, at the outside several tens of thousands of our own people. Down below, however, there are hundreds of thousands of old officials whom we got from the Tsar and from bourgeois society and who, partly deliberately and partly unwittingly, work against us." (Collected works, Vol. 33, pp. 428–9, emphasis added.) The new state power was constituted and consolidated through such tensions and contradictions, which deeply affected its structural articulation at all levels. The old heritage, with its massive inertia, was a factor that weighed heavily on successive stages of Soviet development. Not only in the sense that "state officialdom placed above the people" could counteract the "good measures" taken at the top where political power was being exercised, but even more so in that this type of decision-making — a far cry from the originally advocated alternative described in State and Revolution, with reference to the principles of the Paris Commune — turned itself into an ideal. From now on the problem was identified as the conscious or unwitting obstruction of state authority by local officials and their allies, and the remedy as the strictest possible form of centralized control over all spheres of social life.

18. "Az erkölcs szerepe a komunista termelésben" (The Role of Morality in Communist Production). The translation here is my own, but see Georg Lukács, Political Writings 1919–1929, London 1968, pp. 51–2.

19. "Communism requires and presupposes the greatest possible centralization of large-scale production throughout the country. The all-Russia centre, therefore, should definitely be given the right of direct control over all the enterprises of the given branch of industry. The regional centres define their functions depending on local conditions of life, etc., in accordance with the general production directions and decisions of the centre." Anything short of such centralization was condemned as "regional anarcho-syndicalism." See Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 42, p. 96 (emphasis added).

20. "All this syndicalist nonsense about mandatory nominations of producers must go into the wastepaper basket. To proceed on those lines would mean thrusting the Party aside and making the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia impossible." Ibid., Vol. 32, p. 62 (emphasis added).

21. Ibid., p. 246. And again, "The syndicalist malaise must and will be cured," Ibid., p. 107.

22. The German Ideology, in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 5, London 1976, p. 80 (emphasis added).

23. Ibid., p. 77 (emphasis added).

24. As Lukács put it in the passage quoted earlier.

[book-strip index="1" style="display"]
Tactics and Ethics

Tactics and Ethics

Tactics and Ethics collects Georg Lukács’s articles from the most politically active time of his life, a period encompassing his stint as deputy commissar of education in the Hungarian Soviet Rep...
A Defence of History and Class Consciousness
In the mid 1920s Lukács wrote a sustained and passionate response to Stalin’s onslaught on his earlier seminal work History and Class Consciousness. Unpublished at the time, Lukács himself thought ...


Out of the chaos following Lenin’s death and the mounting fury against Lukács and his freshly penned History and Class Consciousness (1923), this book bears an assessment of Lenin as “the only theo...
Record of a Life
This revealing autobiography of the Hungarian Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács is centered on a series of interviews that he gave in 1969 and 1971, shortly before his death on 4 June 1971.Stimulate...
Collected Works, Volume 1
Among the most influential political and social forces of the twentieth century, modern communism rests firmly on philosophical, political, and economic underpinnings developed by Vladimir Ilyich U...

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