Cooking the Books: ‘Transition period’

One thing Brexit has done is to familiarise people with the term ‘transition period’. Dictionaries typically define it as ‘the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another’. Socialists were already familiar with the term in the context of the change from capitalism to socialism. Of course the transition to Brexit – which Theresa May prefers to call an ‘implementation period’ – is a trivial change compared to the social revolution that the change to socialism will be.

Marx himself used the term in some private notes he wrote in 1875:

‘Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one to the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat’ (Critique of the Gotha Programme).

This statement has been subject to various interpretations but its basic meaning is clear. The change from capitalism to socialism (or communism, the same thing), or ‘the co-operative society based on common ownership of the means of production’ as he called it elsewhere in the same notes, is revolutionary in two senses. It is a radical change in the basis of society, from class to common ownership of the means of production, and is brought about rapidly and decisively.

This second point is important in that some have imagined this ‘transition’ as lasting decades. However, once the material conditions for ending class ownership have evolved – once production has become ‘socialised’ in the sense of being the collective, co-operative effort of the whole workforce – then the change can be made rapidly. The contradiction between socialised production and minority ownership can be achieved by ending the monopoly control, whether in law or in fact, of the minority over the means of production. What is required to do this is a political decision to withdraw state protection (via the law, police, armed forces, and courts) for this monopoly. There is no reason why this should take any length of time. It just requires a political decision and its implementation; which of course assumes that the working class has won control of political power and is organised to implement its decision.

In this quote, Marx called this period during which political power would be exercised to abolish class society ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’, a term that was current amongst revolutionary socialists of his generation, though perhaps unfortunate in today’s context as ‘dictatorship’ has come to have a different connotation to the exercise of full powers that it then had. In the quote Marx prefaced the term by the word ‘revolutionary’, indicating that its aim was to revolutionise the basis of society. This done – and socialist (or communist) society established – then this period of the revolutionary transformation of one society into another comes to an end together with its corresponding political form.

This was not how Lenin and the Bolsheviks came to see it. Having seized power in a country that was not ripe for socialism, they had to justify staying in power while the conditions for socialism developed. Lenin openly said that this period would be one of state capitalism and that dictatorship meant dictatorship in its modern sense. His follower, the leading Trotskyist Ernst Mandel, went even further and made it a new system of society which he called ‘transitional society’ and which he expected to last an ‘epoch’.

This was to move away from Marx’s conception of the ‘transition period’ as a temporary, short period of rapid change brought about by political means. Perhaps we should follow Theresa May and call it an ‘implementation period’. That way it couldn’t be misinterpreted as lasting an epoch.