Louis Althusser 1977
Written: by Louis Althusser, July 1977;
Transcribed: by Dominic Tweedie.
The 22nd Congress presented itself as a historical event, and as a turning-point in the history of the Party. Why is it a ‘historic’ congress? Because, for the first time, it approached the immediate history of the class struggle in France in the name of socialism, while affirming that the transition to socialism will be democratic, and that French socialism will be democratic: ‘in liberty’. The document adopted by the Congress is indeed something out of the ordinary: it is not a concrete analysis of a concrete situation, i.e. an analysis of the state of the class struggle in France and the world, but a true Communist Manifesto, expounding to the French people, and not just to the working class, what is ‘the society the Communists want for France: socialism’. An important difference: the 21st Congress did not speak of socialism, but primarily of the Common Programme; but the whole of the 22nd Congress’s document is built round socialism. In speaking openly about socialism in this way, the intention of the 22nd Congress was to go beyond a limited, and hence tactical point of view, dealing only with the application of the Common Programme, in order to expound a true strategy which, through the Common Programme but beyond the Common Programme, would lead to socialism.
The great innovation of the 22nd Congress is to have affirmed that this whole strategy depends on democracy. In all cases the Party commits itself to respect the verdict of universal suffrage, hence political alternation. The Congress stated that the French people will not move to socialism by violence or constraint, but democratically, by universal suffrage. But at the same time the Party did not hide the fact that it is unleashing all its forces in a struggle for which the electoral outcome will only be a sanction. At this moment it is starting a great recruiting campaign, vigorously developing its factory branches, intervening openly and powerfully in every quarter in the class struggle, and doing everything to gather the masses of the people behind the slogans of their demands, of the Common Programme and of socialism. At this moment it is warning that the transition to socialism will call for the development of mighty mass struggles: ‘Nothing can be achieved without a struggle’, and insistently recalling that union ‘is struggle’.
However, as nothing is without its contradictions and problems, we should here note, alongside this very important initiative and the prospects of a socialism I shall discuss later, the inadequate character of some of the analyses to which the 22nd Congress made implicit reference, and of the formulations it derived from them. Yes, we are living in the age of imperialism or ‘monopoly capitalism’ (Lenin), under the crushing rule of the monopolies, under new forms of financial concentration and hence exploitation in which states play an unprecedented part in the service of the trusts, taking on the political and ideological armament necessary for that part. What is known as the theory of ‘state monopoly capitalism’ has provided a good description of these essential aspects of the process (extension of the state’s productive sector, diversion of savings by the state to the advantage of the trusts, crushing of democratic representation at all levels). However, by basing everything on a questionable interpretation of the ‘devaluation of capital’ and centring everything on the national state, it fails to provide any way to explain the world-wide forms of financial concentration: its ability to invest in exploitation and speculation according to the state of the class struggle throughout the world, to shift its capital (money, raw materials, machines, labour force) from one country to another, and to ‘resolve’ some of its problems precisely through the ‘crisis’ itself.
The theory may fail to explain why the monetary crisis and inflation are world-wide phenomena, affecting the imperialist countries dominated by American imperialism and its regional ‘representatives’. For, if it is true that imperialism is first rooted in each imperialist nation and its class structures, the dialectic of world finance capital, its markets and effects, is subject to laws which cannot be reduced to the existence of national monopolies. And when it is said that the crisis is a ‘global’ or ‘structural’ one, this is correct so long as it means that it goes very deep; that it involves the capitalist relation of production itself and all its forms of existence (exploitation, politics, ideology), and can hence shatter the rule of the national bourgeoisie. But it must also be realized that this crisis goes beyond our frontier, that its results will not be the same everywhere, and that if the Left wins it will have to confront this crisis not just in its national roots but also in its international effects, which are not so readily within our grasp.
And to talk politics at last, establishing that the ‘French economy ‘is dominated by twenty-five great trusts +500 auxiliaries +500,000 big bourgeois does not allow one to pose and resolve the political problem of bourgeois class power in all its breadth and complexity. For this power always takes the political and social form of what Gramsci called a ‘power bloc’ allying directly or indirectly several class fractions beneath the domination of the monopoly fraction. Thus establishing an economic fact alone does not allow one to settle the political problem of the mass base of the rule of the bourgeoisie as a class: for politics cannot be reduced to economics; and as a class the bourgeoisie cannot be reduced to its monopoly fraction, even though the latter does overwhelmingly dominate it. If as a class the bourgeoisie was reduced politically to its monopoly fraction, it would not hold out for a quarter of an hour.
Obviously this question goes far beyond the coming elections and their results. This is not an ‘abstract’ or ‘theoretical’ remark; at stake are concrete realities which have already found their sanction in the famous electoral ‘barrier’ and other failures to advance, slightly too quickly put down to various secondary causes (’television’, etc.), whereas it is a matter of limitations, functions and effects of class politics, definite and hence definable andanalysable in every case. It is a matter of realities which will cleafly find their sanction in other difficulties than the electoral ‘barrier’, if it can be removed; other difficulties and rather more formidable ones. For if the ‘monopolies’ are beaten at the polls and the bourgeoisie loses power for a time, it will not give up the fight. Then everything will depend on the popular forces: their unity, their lucidity and their courage...
The 22nd Congress has taken up a new position in respect to the crisis of the international Communist movement. The paradox is that the Congress discussed this allusively, without providing any analysis of this crucial question; and its silence cannot but weigh on the history it wants to make. The paradox is that the crisis of the international movement has been dealt with obliquely, indirectly: in the guise of ‘abandonment of the dictatorship of the proletariat’. Here is a case where it is essential to step back and not be content with taking these decisions and formulations literally. For what is at issue is far more important than the explanations provided.
In fact, it was said: ‘After Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, etc., the word dictatorship has become intolerable.’ It was said: ‘The proletariat, the hard core of the working class, is too narrow a notion for the broad popular union we want.’ Now, the notion that the working class (or the proletariat) is at the head of a broad popular alliance, indispensable, vital for its class struggle, descends directly from Marx and Lenin. The 22nd Congress was only repeating a classical thesis in speaking of the ‘leading role’ of the working class in a broad popular alliance. Thus there is no serious problem on this point. On the other hand, it is difficult to take seriously the argument about the word dictatorship, for it is incomplete. It lacks something very important, in the very perspective of the 22nd Congress. The list of examples provided to show that the word ‘dictatorship’ is intolerable includes Mussolini, Franco, Pinochet etc. It forgets to mention Stalin: not just the individual Stalin as such, but the structure and the confusion of the Soviet Party and state; the line, ‘theory’ and practices imposed by Stalin for forty years, not just in the USSR but on Communist Parties the world over.
I am not pretending that this is a simple matter, and not for a moment can one reduce the social reality of the USSR to Stalinist practices. But fascism is fascism: the workers rapidly realized what they could expect from it. On the contrary, they expected from Soviet socialism, in which they had placed all their hopes for emancipation and liberation, something quite different from the regime of mass terror and extermination which held sway beneath Stalin after the 1930s, and the practices that persist in the USSR sixty years after the Revolution and twenty-two years after Stalin’s death. Yes, there were the Red Army, the Partisans and Stalingrad, unforgettable. But there were also the trials, the confessions, the massacres and the camps. And there is what still survives.
The commentators on the abandonment of the dictatorship of the proletariat said: ‘Dictatorship = Hitler + Mussolini, etc.’ Really, they were also saying something else, without saying it: ‘Dictatorship = Stalinism’. Really they were saying: ‘We want no more of that kind of socialism, ever’ At any rate, that is how the words made their way into their hearers’ heads. For it is not words that determine their meaning, but their echoes.
That is why there is little doubt that in the ‘abandonment’, or rather symbolic sacrifice of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the 22nd Congress was killing two birds with one stone. While adopting a new strategy of democratic socialism (a different socialism), it in fact adopted a new position with respect to a decisive aspect of the crisis of the international Communist movement (relations with the USSR). The advantage of this new position is that the 22nd Congress gave reasons for thinking that it is now at least in part possible to get out of this crisis and its dead ends. Despite its immediate limitations, this initiative may bear fruit. In this perspective, the ‘abandonment’ of the dictatorship of the proletariat has played its part as a symbolic act, making it possible to present in spectacular fashion the break with a certain past, left vague verbally, while opening the road to a different socialism (from that reigning in the USSR).
All this obviously took place ‘over the head’ of the concept, i.e. of the theoretical meaning of the dictatorship of the proletariat. For the ‘abandonment’ of a theoretical concept (which — need it be said? — cannot be thought by itself, all alone, but is bound up with a set of other concepts) cannot be the object of a political decision. Since Galileo every materialist has known that the fate of a scientific concept, which is the objective reflection of a real problem with many implications, cannot be the object of a political decision. The dictatorship of the proletariat can be ‘abandoned’: it will be rediscovered as soon as we come to speak of the state and socialism.
Here, too, things were not openly stated by the 22nd Congress, but they are important and must be deciphered. This is the question of the slogan ‘union of the people of France’, that George Marchais had proposed before the 21st Congress and that the 22nd Congress readopted in its strongest form. This slogan is not synonymous with the slogan of the Union of the Left. It is broader than it, and different in nature; for it does not designate just the union or united action of the political organizations of the Left, parties and trade unions. How are we to understand the slogan of the union of the people of France?
In the best of cases, it is conceivable that the union of the people of France may become something quite different from the means to a new electoral balance, but is rather aimed, over and above the organizations of the Left, at the popular masses themselves. Why address the popular masses in this way? To tell them, even if still only as a hint, that they will have to organize themselves autonomously, in original forms, in firms, urban districts and villages, around the questions of labour and living conditions, the questions of housing, education, health, transport, the environment, etc.; in order to define and defend their demands, first to prepare for the establishment of a revolutionary state, then to maintain it, stimulate it and at the same time force it to ‘wither away’. Such mass organizations, which no one can define in advance and on behalf of the masses, already exist or are being sought in Italy, Spain and Portugal, where they play an important part, despite all difficulties. If the masses seize on the slogan of the union of the people of France and interpret it in this mass sense, they will be re-establishing connections with a living tradition of popular struggle in our country and will be able to help give a new content to the political forms by which the power of the working people will be exercised under socialism.
Something may come to fruition in the union of the people of France, something which has been destroyed by Stalinist practices but which is central to the Marxist and Leninist tradition, something which concerns the relationship between the Party and the masses: restoring their voice to the masses who make history. Not just putting oneself ‘at the service of the masses’ (a slogan which may be pretty reactionary), but opening one’s ears to them, studying and understanding their aspirations and their contradictions, their aspirations in their contradictions, learning how to be attentive to the masses’ imagination and inventiveness. The conditions of the current broad Party recruitment may be favourable to these mass democratic practices, as well as to other daring practices (the opening of branch and section meetings and of the Party press to workers who are not party members) or, in a general way, to everything that can assist discussions and common actions between Communists and non-Communists.
But as nothing is ever without its contradictions and problems, a danger should be pointed out here.’ the danger that the slogan of the union of the people of France will remain, if not verbal, at least tactical, not giving rise to the broad innovatory practices it implies; the danger that it will be reduced to a form of voluntarism to extend the influence of the Party beyond the Union of the Left. Not that an electoral gain would be insignificant; not that a gain in influence would be insignificant. But the Party’s gains are far from exhausting the wealth implied by the slogan of the union of the people of France. Hence there is a political battle to be joined and won to give the slogan of the union of the people-of France its strongest sense, the sense in which the future of the workers’ and people’s class struggle is at stake; its mass sense.
The 22nd Congress has taught us several times to be very careful with words. Here is much the most surprising case. Indeed, I think a paradoxical merit must be recognized in the 22nd Congress. Paradoxical, because not only did the Congress say nothing about this merit, it even — as it were — retreated before it. In deciding to abandon the dictatorship of the proletariat, which had long since become no more than a password without any theoretical content except the travesty Stalin had forced on it (and in fact no serious study of the question was published by the Party before the Congress), the 22nd Congress, for the first time since the Congress of Tours, publicly put on the agenda the theoretical and political questions of principle linked to the dictatorship of the proletariat.
In the end, it does not much matter how things went in detail. We have better things to do than subject the unusual procedure of the 22nd Congress to a legal examination. Here, too, things count much more than words. We have to reflect on the following fact: whether it intended it or no, the 22nd Congress has made it imperative to reflect on a question obscure or obscured for most militants. The 22nd Congress has already encouraged — and will do so more and more — reflection on the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat, staring with the concrete questions it discussed itself: e.g. the question of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie; the question of the state, the question of socialism, the question of the ‘destruction’ of the bourgeois state and that of the ‘withering away’ of the people’s state.
Indeed, it will not disappear from workers’ heads that the hard conditions under which they work and live described in the document of the 22nd Congress are in fact those imposed on them by the class dictatorship or class rule of the bourgeoisie. They know that the class dictatorship of the bourgeoisie cannot be reduced to its political forms alone, which are ‘democratic and parliamentary’ in France anyway, but extends from the worst forms of economic exploitation to the crudest forms of ideological pressure and black-mail, sometimes backed up by gangsterism pure and simple. The workers experience concretely every day the intervention of the bourgeois state in economic exploitation and ideological domination. Nor will it disappear from workers’ heads that the proletariat exists, whether it is called the ‘hard core of the working class’, or even the working class, or anything else. They know that behind the word there is something that exists and resists. Georges Marchais was understood when, talking recently to semi-skilled workers, he called them ‘the proletariat of modern times’.
Now it should be realized that it is this experience of the class ‘dictatorship’ or, if you prefer the old term from the Communist Manifesto, the class rule of the bourgeoisie, an experience that the working class and the mass of the people undergo every day, that holds the key to the famous formula ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ or class rule of the proletariat and its allies. I say ‘and its allies’, for never in the Marxist tradition has it been a question of the class rule of the proletariat by itself. The political form of this class dictatorship or class rule of the proletariat is ‘social democracy’ (Marx); ‘mass democracy’, ‘democracy taken to the limit’ (Lenin). But as the rule of a class, this class rule cannot be reduced to its political forms alone; it is also class rule in production and in ideology at the same time. It is this new class rule (called dictatorship of the proletariat by Marx and Lenin) that will counteract bourgeois class rule (called dictatorship of the bourgeoisie by Marx and Lenin). It will gradually transform bourgeois forms of exploitation, bourgeois political and ideological forms, by ‘destroying’ or revolutionizing the ‘state machine’ of the bourgeoisie, which is simply the state of bourgeois class rule (dictatorship).
A correct grasp of this point is the way out of the absurd dilemma: either pure theory or pure historical relativism. It will be clear that the expression can retain intact its theoretical value while helping to think relatively ‘contingent’ elements, i.e. elements subject to ‘circumstances’, in other words to the existing balance of forces. For the revolution cannot be made whenever one wants. Even when, after the bloody defeats of 1848 and the Commune, it is concluded that under imperialism the revolution is generally ‘on the agenda’ in addition a ‘revolutionary situation’ must present itself for the mass of the people to be able to conquer the bourgeois state. Hence one cannot choose the hour of the revolution, and if one cannot choose its hour, neither can one choose its forms of action. It is when the balance of forces in the class struggle shifts in favour of the masses of the people that a ‘revolutionary situation’ begins: but it is also the balance of forces that decides the forms of revolutionary action possible and necessary. When the bourgeoisie is politically in a position to use violence, when it uses it, then the masses can only respond by revolutionary violence. But if, at the end of a long class struggle and heavy sacrifices, the balance of forces is found, in some particular place, to be both highly favourable to the proletariat and united workers, and highly unfavourable to world imperialism and the national bourgeoisie, then a peaceful and even democratic transition becomes possible and necessary.
Neither Marx nor Lenin ever set up absolute and obligatory forms of action for the seizure of state power. Hence, logical in their thought, they never excluded the possibility of a peaceful transition to socialism. But short of abdicating in the face of a revolutionary situation, they recognized that in general in their own times the process of the class struggle and the balance of forces were such that the bourgeoisie would use violence and the working. class had no choice: it, too, had to resort to violence to take power. Now it is reasonable to think that today, as a function of the power of the people’s class struggle and its influence over very broad social strata, as a function of the crisis of imperialism which in places is inhibited from direct intervention, it is conceivable that as a function of the overall balance of forces in the world, a local balance of forces in some particular country may give rise to historically unprecedented political possibilities. Then the political forms of action may change: become peaceful and even democratic..
Just the same is true of the broadest alliance around the working class. This, from the Communist Manifesto to Lenin and Mao, is a constant leitmotif everywhere in the Marxist tradition, a basic and vital objective. If the proletariat had to be alone in its struggle, said Marx, this solo would be its ‘swan song’, its suicide. Moreover, if it is to be more than an incidental alliance, if it is to exist, this alliance has to be constructed at very long range, become durable, strong and as broad and deep as possible. It must go beyond the limits of political parties and become the property of all the mass of the people. Here too, however, one is not always master of all the elements of the situation. If the class struggle gives rise to a ‘revolutionary situation’ when the class alliance, however broad, is still weak, or if the counter-revolution is strong enough to break it, then the working class even in power may find itself relatively isolated and forced to resort to violent measures, not only against the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie, but also against other social strata that fall in behind it Thus the forms of action may also depend on the nature of the alliance.
To say that these two conditions — a balance of forces allowing a peaceful and democratic transition to socialism, and the broadest and deepest possible alliance around the working class — are relatively ‘contingent’ elements of the dictatorship of the proletariat, means that for all sorts of reasons these conditions may be united or may not, wholly or partially, when a ‘revolutionary situation’ breaks out. As we know, they were not really united during the 1917 Revolution in Russia, when the revolutionary situation demanded the seizure of state power. As we know, they were much more nearly united in 1949 in China. Hence the Revolution in Russia took place in non-peaceful forms, and with a worker-peasant alliance which proved weak; in China in non-peaceful forms; on the basis of a much stronger popular alliance. I shall not discuss what has happened since. I just want to point out the nature of the relations between a theoretical principle and history; how theoretical principles can be present in history, in the class struggle, when its conditions change (history changes constantly), without tailing behind history, being left behind or destroyed by it I just want to point out, vis-à-vis what have since Marx been two very sensitive points: 1. that the balance of forces may allow other forms of action, since it is ultimately that balance which imposes them; 2. that it is vital to strengthen the broadest possible popular alliance around the working class, since not only the seizure of state power but the forms and destiny of the socialism to come will depend on it, hence for revolutionaries the forms of action also depend on the power of the alliance.
On these two questions, the peaceful and democratic transition and the broadest alliance around the working class (which will perform the ‘leading role’ in it), the 22nd Congress — in the paradoxical form of the abandonment of the dictatorship of the proletariat — has dissipated some of the errors that some comrades ‘may have entertained about the seizure of state power and socialism: errors inspired by the history of the USSR, by Stalinist ‘theory’ and practices. But, short of regarding the Stalinist positions and formulations as the truth of the long tradition from Marx to Lenin, the 22nd Congress contributed nothing really new on these two questions. It simply adopted, in anew conjuncture, and with force, theses that Marx and Lenin had constantly defended (the peaceful transition is possible in principle, the broadest possible alliance is vital). Now these theses have always been part and parcel of the dictatorship of the proletariat. For the dictatorship of the proletariat is not an isolated concept that can be ‘abandoned’ to its solitary fate (an absurd notion, for in a theory every concept is part and parcel of other concepts). It thereby implies other theses which ‘suggest to us in advance, in principle, the quicksand that has to be avoided at all costs, unless the revolution is to falter, bog down and perhaps even fail. Besides, whether or not the dictatorship of the proletariat is abandoned, the essence of the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat has shifted today, i.e. it has moved to socialism and the state.
When it presented socialism as a society governed by generalized democracy and the generalized satisfaction of ‘needs’, the problem the 22nd Congress supposed resolved by these means was an imaginary one. An official who is not afraid of contradiction spoke aptly of ‘concrete utopia’. It is an imaginary problem because it does not correspond to the reality of the problems of socialism, to that reality such as we can conceive it not only in theory but by real experience. Socialism was not presented as what it is: a contradictory period of transition between capitalism and communism. It was presented as a goal to be reached, and at the same time as the end of a process. Let us say, to be clear: as a stable mode of production, and one which, like every other mode of production, finds its stability in relations of production of its own which resolve, in the classic formula, the contradiction between the ‘developed’ forces of production (and here one can appeal to ‘the scientific and technological revolution’ as a back-up) and the old, out-dated relations of production.
Now, this conception of socialism is foreign to the ideas of Marx and Lenin and, it must be said, if we are really prepared to understand them in their difficulties, to the concrete historical experience that we have of the socialist countries. For Marx and Lenin, there is no socialist mode of production, there are no socialist relations of production, no socialist law, etc. Socialism is one with the dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e. with a new class rule, in which the working class fulfils the leading role over its allies in the broadest possible mass democracy, in order to put paid to the bourgeoisie — ejected from state power but still powerful. Socialism is the ‘transition period’ (the only one discussed by Marx and Lenin) between capitalism and communism, a contradictory period’ during which capitalist elements (e.g wage labour) and Communist elements (e.g. new mass organizations) co-exist in a conflictual way. It is a period that is unstable in essence, during which the class struggle survives in ‘transformed forms’, forms which are unrecognizable for our own class struggle, hard to decipher and which may, according to the balance of forces and the ‘line’ followed, either regress towards capitalism or mark time in fixed forms, or advance towards communism. Everything we know about socialism from historical experience (and we should be very wrong if we judged the socialist countries from on high just for what, to save having to look further, are called ‘shortcomings of democracy’ and so clearly ‘to be condemned’) also proves that this historical period, far from being a society in which problems are resolved automatically (under the rule of ‘needs’), is probably one of the most difficult periods in world history, because of the contradictions which have to be unmasked and dealt with at every step in it — as if, in order at last to give birth to communism, mankind had still, even after priceless social conquests, to pay very dear in struggles, intelligence and initiative for the right to reach it.
This completely original conception of socialism, to be found in Marx and Lenin, has one crucial consequence. Unlike modes of production that are defined by their own relations of production, socialism cannot be defined by itself, by its own relations of production, because it does not have any of its own, but only by the contradiction between the capitalism it emerged from and the communism of which it is the first phase: hence as a function of its position vis-à-vis the capitalism from which it is gradually emerging and the communism which is its future. Very concretely this recalls Marx’s slogan: communism is not an ideal but ‘the real movement unfolding beneath our eyes’. Very concretely this means: the strategy of the workers’ movement must take this dialectic into account: it cannot be merely the strategy of socialism, it is necessarily the strategy of communism, or else the whole process is in danger of marking time and getting bogged down at one moment or another (and this must be foreseen). Only on the basis of the strategy of communism can socialism be conceived as a transitory and contradictory phase, and a strategy and forms of struggle be established from this moment that do not foster any illusions about socialism (such as ‘We've arrived: everybody out’ — Lenin’s ironic comment) but treat socialism as it is, without getting bogged down in the first ‘transition’ that happens to come along.
Now it has to be said that the answer given by the 22nd Congress to this very important question is a disappointing definition sustained by an exaggerated optimism. Far from stressing the decisive contradiction that characterizes the ‘transitional phase’, socialism, the 22nd Congress presented socialism, which will bring immense advantages for the workers, as the general, non-contradictory and quasi-euphoric solution to all problems. Manifestly, instead of thinking in the strategy of communism, which alone allows this contradiction to be thought and hence its forms unmasked and deciphered, in order to dominate its movement, the 22nd Congress (and this is not to deny the importance of the first initiative) thought in a pseudo-strategy, the strategy of a socialism which runs the risk of concealing contradiction and hence of handling it wrongly, not just in socialism, but as a consequence also in the period preceding it, if the United Left wins the election of 1978.
The same is true on the question of the state. Here I am not talking about the seizure of state power which can, if the national and international balance of forces allows, be peaceful and legal. Nor am I talking about the bourgeois state which, however ‘democratic’, will remain in place during the application of the Common Programme. I am talking about the state of the socialist revolution supposing that its peaceful attainment is possible. It is here that the dictatorship of the proletariat makes its inevitable effects felt, just as it does in the case of socialism. For this bourgeois state, the instrument of bourgeois class rule, as Marx and Lenin repeatedly stated, has to be ‘smashed’. And, a much more important notion, they related this ‘destruction’ of the bourgeois state to the subsequent ‘withering away’ of the new revolutionary state — a ‘withering away’ which is indispensable if socialism is not to mark time indefinitely but to give rise to communism. In other words, they thought the ‘destruction’ of the bourgeois state also on the basis of the ‘withering away’ and ‘end’ of any state. This is part of a basic thesis of Marx and Lenin: it is not just the bourgeois state that is oppressive, but any state.
Obviously, the 22nd Congress could not avoid the thesis of the ‘destruction’ of the bourgeois state. Here too we must be careful about our words, for ‘destroy’ is a strong word which, like ‘dictatorship’, may be frightening if its meaning is not grasped. Well here precisely is a concrete example which will make it clearer. Lenin said: we must ‘smash’ the bourgeois parliamentary state apparatus. In order to ‘smash’ it (or ‘destroy’ it), what does Lenin suggest? — 1. the suppression of the division of powers between the legislature and the executive; 2. the suppression of the division of labour on which it depends (theoretical, practical); and above all else, 3. the suppression of the bourgeois break between the mass of the people and the parliamentary apparatus. This is a very special kind of ‘destruction’, not at all an annihilation, but the reorganization, restructuring and revolutionization of an existing apparatus, so that the rule of a new class, profoundly linked to the mass of the people, is successfully established in it. The question is posed: it is not a simple one.
Truly, and I ask that these words be carefully weighed, to ‘destroy’ the bourgeois state, in order to replace it with the state of the working class and its allies, is not to add the adjective ‘democratic’ to each existing state apparatus. It is something quite other than a formal and potentially reformist operation, it is to revolutionize in their structures, practices and ideologies the existing state apparatuses; to suppress some of them, to create others; it is to transform the forms of the division of labour between the repressive, political and ideological apparatuses; it is to revolutionize their methods of work and the bourgeois ideology that dominates their practices; it is to assure them new relations with the masses in response to mass initiatives, on the basis of a new, proletarian ideology, in order to prepare for the ‘withering away of the state’, i.e. its replacement by mass organizations.
This requirement is part of the Marxist theory of the state. For Marx, the state apparatuses are not neutral instruments but in the true sense the organic repressive and ideological apparatuses of a class: the ruling class. In order to ensure the rule of the working class and its allies and tb prepare in the longer term for the ‘withering away’ of the state, it is impossible to avoid attacking the existing state apparatuses. This is the ‘destruction’ of the state. Without it, the new ruling class may be defeated in its victory, or forced to mark time and get bogged down in its conquests, giving up any serious prospect of the transition to communism. If you want examples in which the state has not been ‘destroyed’ and is therefore not en route to ‘withering away’, you need only look towards the socialist countries and note the consequences that follow. The Soviet leaders state: ‘With us the withering away of the state is achieved via its reinforcement..
It is a fact that the problem of the state is, as Lenin said, a difficult one, even a very difficult one; it is a fact that it deserves historical and concrete investigations and thoroughgoing theoretical reflections. But it is a real and inevitable problem which is thus signalled to us by a necessary element of the dictatorship of the proletariat. I insist that it is not just a question of the problem of the bourgeois state, but also one of the problem of the revolutionary state, which is oppressive too. And it is indisputably one of the interesting things about the 22nd Congress that it forces us to reflect on this. But it is also a fact that by abandoning, for obvious political reasons, but without serious theoretical reasons, the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat in other words, the simple and obvious notion that the proletariat and its allies have to knock down, i.e. revolutionize the bourgeois state machine in order to ‘raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class’ (Communist Manifesto); have to attack the substance of the bourgeois state they inherit — the 22nd Congress at the’ same time deprived itself of the possibility of thinking the ‘destruction’ and ‘withering away’ of the state, except in the vague and edulcorated form of ‘democratization of the state’ as if the mere legal form of democracy in general could be enough not just to handle and resolve, but even to pose correctly the very redoubtable problems of the state and it apparatuses, which are class problems and not problems of law.
Can it be said that it is contained potentially in the 22nd Congress or in the consequences foreseeable from the logic of the 22nd Congress? At any rate, we are here in the order of a historical experience which concerns all Communists and the workers’ movement and which already goes beyond the borders of this country. I have spoken of the need for Communists to take this contradiction seriously: the 22nd Congress spoke the language of freedom for the outside, but remained silent about the inside. It is therefore essential to broach the question of democratic centralism, which governs the workings of the Party and the freedom of militants in the Party. Georges Marchais has insisted on the will to change in the Party. It is obvious that the new line of the 22nd Congress will necessarily have repercussions on the inner life of the Party, on the forms of expression and freedom of Communists, hence on the current conception and practices of democratic centralism. It is clear that, in order to emerge from a past which is only too familiar and in order to enter into new struggles, certain of these practices must be modified. It is not my part to anticipate the decisions of the Party, of its militants and leaders. I should just like to attempt to make some remarks about what is not a simple question.
To what is democratic centralism a response? To the vital political necessity of ensuring the best possible unity (for ‘we do not want unity for unity’s sake’) of thought and action in the Party, so as to reply victoriously to the bourgeois class struggle. The strength of the bourgeoisie in the conduct of its class struggle lies in its whole system of exploitation, in the state and its apparatuses. The working class only has its revolutionary will, its theory and its free organization of the struggle, sealed in the unity of thought and action. The aim of democratic centralism is this ideological and practical unity. Its mechanism is simple: according to the statutes, decisions are freely discussed and democratically adopted at each level of the Party organization (branch, then section, then federation, then Congress). Once decided and voted for by Party Congress, they become obligatory for all militants in action. So long as they accept this discipline, all militants can retain their own opinion. Thus in principle things are clear: I would even say limpid. But in fact they are infinitely more complicated.
First, because this principle (democratic centralism) cannot be separated from another principle concerning not the unity but the very existence of the Party. Just as unity is not ‘an end in itself’, so the Party is not ‘an end in itself’. If its existence is vital, it is for the struggle of the working class: to provide it with a vanguard organization. Hence it is only meaningful as a function of the struggle of the working class, more broadly of the workers’ and people’s class struggle. Hence Lenin’s famous dictum: it must be one step ahead, and one step only. Now, in order to be one step ahead of the masses and one step only, the Party must be profoundly linked to the masses, attentive to their aspirations, their contradictions, to everything new and important that happens in the working class and in the social strata that join in its struggle. It must be in a state to hear and understand. In a state to understand those who speak. In a state above all to understand those who remain silent. Only on this condition can the Party take initiatives and perform its vanguard rule without falling behind, reacting from day to day to, or floating above the struggle. If this basic responsibility is not assumed, concretely and at every moment, the question of democratic centralism may become a formal one. And some of the arrangements and practices which ensure, in certain ‘inwardly’ satisfying forms, the inner unity of the Party, can block its vanguard function in the workers’ and people’s class struggle. For the inner unity of the Party only has one raison d'etre: to serve the workers’ and people’s class struggle, which essentially takes place outside the Party alone, in the broad masses.
It is at this point that things become complicated and have to be treated politically: not just as a function of the letter of the statutes, not just as a function of the principle of inner unity alone, but as a function of the vanguard role of the Party, i.e. of its policy in its close relations with the masses. For example, the question of the election of delegates to the Congress. It may be remarked that they are elected by majority vote in . . . three stages! (branches-section, sections-federation, federations-Congress). This is ‘in itself’ not particularly ‘democratic’, and in fact results in the elimination of all difference in the plenary sessions of the Congress, which produces unanimous decisions (which is not necessarily wrong ‘in itself’), but without any discussion. In the television appearance in which he evoked the abandonment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, Georges Marchais forcefully expressed the wish that the 22nd Congress would be ‘lively’ and that a ‘real discussion’ would take place at it. Georges Marchais was obviously talking about the final sessions of the Congress for as everyone knows discussions are lively in the branches, the sections and many of the federations. Now, with the structure of the Party, the apparatus controlling the process of its inner life, the habits of this apparatus and also of militants, as with this mode of election by successive elections, the wish of the General Secretary of the Party himself could only remain a wish. There was no real discussion at the 22nd Congress; detailed amendments were tabled and speakers did no more than paraphrase the document. The question of the mode of election of the delegates (it can easily be improved) is not a decisive one. But its existence can serve as an index of the existence of a certain filtration system that works ‘naturally’. It is to be feared that it does not just work in the election of delegates or officials: and also that it does not just work from bottom to top (which is an easy assumption), but also occasionally from top to bottom. Without this two-way filtration, how can one explain the fact that Georges Marchais’ publicly expressed wish remained without effect?
For my part, therefore, I shall not linger over formal considerations (important, but secondary). For the question of democratic centralism cannot be reduced to a legal question: it is above all a political and theoretical question; it is also a historical question. We know that the history of the organizations of the class struggle of the workers’ movement, and even of the Communist movement, has been a very eventful one: marked not just by conflicts between organizations, but also by splits and, within organizations, by the creation of factions and by often very violent tendency struggles. And every time, the question of the forms of organization has been more or less implicated in these struggles, occasionally directly. It was Lenin who introduced democratic centralism as the form of organization par excellence of the revolutionary party. Gramsci, who counterposed it to bureaucratic centralism’, said that democratic centralism was a ‘plastic notion’: thus signalling that it is not immutable, but can change in form. It should be realized that Lenin was against factions, and had himself to fight in a party in which there were organized tendencies. Shall we say: factions, no; tendencies, yes?
In order to be serious here, it is necessary to specify these terms. In every Communist Party that is alive, i.e. not just united but also really open towards the masses, there are necessarily differences of opinion, divergencies and even contradictions; there are currents and even tendencies, which vary moreover with the moments and problems of the day. Why? This is a matter of the diversity of the social origins of its members; the nature of their links with the masses; the echoes of the ideological struggle; and, of course, the complexity of the political problems of the hour. In certain neighbouring Communist Parties, the leaders themselves at Central Committee meetings publicly confront their different and sometimes divergent opinions on the policy to be pursued, before making their decision. Not only is a living Party not afraid of these differences, but it is their expression and confrontation that give a strong sense to the decisions taken in common. Then the unanimity is a full one and the Party, enriched by all this discussion, is strengthened by it.
Now, differences, etc., are one thing; legally recognized, stable, autonomous and hence organized tendencies are something else. Organized tendencies did, it is true, exist in Lenin’s Bolshevik Party. But in order to be serious here, it is necessary to discuss the French Party of today. Recognition of organized tendencies seems to me to be out of the question in the French Party. I am not speaking in opportunist terms here. One must know where one has come from and where one wants to go. I believe that the Party today expects something else and that it is right. Communists know or feel that in the existence of organized tendencies there is a threat to the unity and hence to the existence and effectiveness of the Party. They know or feel that this form of representation of opinions does not really correspond to their aims or to the conditions of their struggle. For two reasons. First, because the Communist Party is not constituted by individuals with particular opinions and their electoral ‘resultant’. It recruits and lives in quite a different way: on the basis of the workers’ and people’s class struggle and of Marxist theory (it represents one of the forms of their historical ‘fusion’). Second, because the Party’s goal is not in itself to represent opinions, but to unite all the most conscious workers, manual and intellectual, in a common will and strength; to give a revolutionary organization to the workers’ and people’s class struggle.
Today the party expects something else, and it is right. For if recognized and organized tendencies are rejected, it is not so as to fall behind that political practice towards less freedom or the crushing of all freedom in the Party (as under ‘Stalinism’ or its variants), it is to go beyond it, towards more freedom. Not for the pleasure of ‘freedom for freedom’s sake’, but the better to respond to the demands of the political practice of the vanguard of the working class, to ensure a closer and deeper relationship with the aspirations of the masses of the people, the better to prepare itself for the hard struggle ahead ...