George Novack’s Understanding History

The Problem Of

Transitional Formations

The problem of transitional formations has immense methodological significance in both the natural and social sciences. It has special theoretical and political importance for contemporary Marxists, because the 20th century is preeminently an age of transition from one socioeconomic formation to another.

Each epoch in the progress of humanity has its dominant form of economy, politics and culture. In the 18th and 19th centuries this was the capitalist system in its stages of expansion. The distinctive general form of the 20th century is its transitional character. This is a period of rapid and convulsive motion from the dominion of world capitalism as the ultimate form of class society to the establishment of postcapitalist states oriented toward socialism, which will eradicate all vestiges of class differentiations.

“The old surviving in the new confronts us in life at every step in nature as well as in society”, Lenin observed in State and Revolution . He wrote this during the first world war and the Russian Revolution—the two cataclysmic events that ushered in the new epoch of history. Although that epoch is already 50 years old, it is far from maturity, and its progeny suffer from many congenital maladies of infancy.

The fundamentally transitional character of this period and the prevalence of conspicuously contradictory traits necessitate research into the essential nature of this phenomenon. The presence of transitional formations, types, and periods has been empirically noted, and their concrete characteristics analysed, in the writings of many Marxists, and not by them alone. But the topic has seldom been treated along systematic lines. This theoretical deficiency is regrettable because a host of perplexing sociological and political problems could be illuminated through a correct understanding of the peculiarities of this widespread aspect of things.

The Exceptional Duality Of Transitional States

In the unceasing cosmic process of becoming and being, all things pass from one state to another. This means that transitional states and forms are everywhere to be found in the physical world, in society, in intellectual development.

The antithesis to a transitional formation is a fixed and stable one with clear-cut characteristics which compose a definitive pattern. The distinction between the two is relative, since even the most enduring entity is subject to change and transformation into something else over a long enough stretch of time.

The dynamic polarity of physical forms is exemplified by a liquid. This is a more or less stable state of matter on earth, intermediate between a solid and a gas, being partly like one and partly like the other, yet essentially different from both. A liquid has more cohesion than a gas and more mobility than a solid. It resembles a solid by having a definite volume but differs from it and resembles a gas by the absence of any definite shape.

The qualitative transformations of H2O and other chemical compounds result from changes in molecular constitution. A solid consists of rigidly locked molecules. When these are disaggregated by changes of temperature and pressure, they pass over into a more fluid condition in which the molecules maintain a certain proximity to one another while acquiring more mobility than in a solid. Once the molecules move farther away from one another and are fully loosened from their mutual bonds, they become gaseous. Gaseousness is the state of matter most unlike the solid in respect to the interlock of its molecular constituents.

Thus a liquid is negatively defined by its relations to the solid state on one of its boundaries and the gaseous state on the other. It is positively determined by its special intermixture of cohesiveness and mobility. If the capacity of a liquid to turn into its opposite at either end exhibits its intermediate character, its combination of contrary properties brings out the intrinsic duality of its being.

But when a liquid boils, these polarities of definite volume and variable shape are sharpened to the extreme of contradiction. At one and the same time, within the system as a whole, there is both definite and indefinite volume, as well as indefinite shape. This difference is distributed over parts of the system, over different molecules. Thus, water and steam coexist; some molecules are in gaseous state, others in liquid state. But for the system as a whole, we can say neither that it is exclusively gas nor exclusively liquid; it is in fact both gas and liquid: it is boiling. This is the transitional stage between liquid and gas.

All things have a dual nature, as an example taken from geography rather than chemistry will illustrate. A beach is defined both by water and by land. Each of these opposing physical entities are essential components of its makeup. Take away one or the other and the beach no longer exists.

But transitional formations are distinguished from ordinary things by the heightened character of their dual constitution. They belong to a special kind of processes, events and forms in nature, society, and individual experience which have exceptionally pronounced, almost outrageously, contradictory traits. They carry the coexistence of opposites in a single whole to the most extreme and anomalous lengths.

These phenomena are so self-contradictory that they can embody the passage from one stage or form of existence to another. Since the major features of transitional formations belong to consecutive but qualitatively different stages of development, they must represent a combination of the old and the new.

In the life process, the first products of development are necessarily inadequately realised on their own terms. What is new makes its first appearance in and through underdeveloped forms and asserts its emerging existence within the shell of the old. The new becoming is struggling to go beyond its previous mode of existence. It is passing over from one stage to the next but is not yet mature, powerful or predominant enough to destroy and throw off the afterbirth of its natal state and stand fully and firmly on its own feet. Like a foetus, it is still dependent on the conditions of its birth or, like an infant, dependent on its parents.

In a full and normal development, transitional formations go through three phases. 1. A prenatal or embryonic stage when the functions, structures and features of the nascent entity are growing and stirring within the framework of the already established form. 2. The qualitative breakthrough of its birth period, when the aggregate of the novel powers and features succeeds in shattering the old form and stepping forth on its own account. At this point the fresh creation continues to retain many residues belonging to its preceding state. 3. The period of maturation when the vestigial characteristics unsuited to its proper mode of existence are largely sloughed off and the new entity is unmistakably, firmly, strongly developing on its distinctive foundations.

It takes time for the unique features and functions of something novel to manifest their potential, engender the most appropriate type of expression, and become stabilised in normal or perfected shape. At the beginning of their career they are trammeled, often even disfigured, by the heritage of the past.

These borderline phenomena are so significant—and puzzling—because they form the bridge between successive stages of evolution. Their hybrid nature, embodying characteristics belonging to antithetical phases of growth, casts light upon both the old and the new, the past and the future. Through them it is possible to see how and where the carapace of the old is being broken through by antagonistic forces striving to establish the groundwork, the basic conditions, for higher forms of existence.

Each turning point in the evolution of life has produced species with contradictory features belonging to different sequential forms. These betoken their status as links between two separate and successive species.

Problems Of Classification

The most momentous turning point in organic evolution was the changeover from the ape to man. Here scientists have found once living fossils with opposite characteristics. Structurally the South African Australopithecus is not altogether an ape nor altogether a man; it is something in between. He habitually stood and walked erect as ably as man and his brain volume comes close to that of man. The fact that these beings used tools, and thereby engaged in labour activity to get their means of existence, proves that they had crossed the boundary separating the ape from man and had embarked on a new mode of existence, despite the heavy vestiges of the primate past they bore with them.

Precisely because of their highly self-contradictory and unfinished traits, transitional forms present exceedingly vexing problems of precise definition and classification to scientists and scholars. They are the most enigmatic of phenomena. It is often difficult, and sometimes impossible, to tell on which side of a frontier they definitely belong.

The task is to discriminate the genuinely new from what is rooted in the preceding conditions of existence and then to assay the relative weights of the conflicting traits and tendencies of development incorporated in the specimen. Taxonomists among biologists, botanists and physical anthropologists have engaged in prolonged, bitter and sometimes inconclusive controversies over whether a given specimen properly belongs to one category or another.

What settles the locus of classification? The mere possession of one or another trait of a higher or lower type is not considered conclusive evidence. The question is decided one way or the other by the totality of characteristics in relation to what went before and what came out of it.

For example, the fossil remains of Archaeopteryx show many characteristics now found only in reptiles or in bird embryos: reptilian tail, jaws with teeth, and clawed wings. Yet it is a true bird. This superior classification is warranted by the presence of feathers and the structure of the legs and wings which fitted it for flight. Archaeopteryx had broken through the confines of the reptile state to become the first incarnation of a higher form of living creature.

The difficulties of classification arising from the contradictory characteristics of transitional phenomena are well illustrated by the current controversy among authorities on early man over the new fossil finds at Olduvai Gorge in Tanganyika. (See Current Anthropology , October 1965.) This famous site has yielded evidences of tool-using and tool-making hominoids at levels which are dated as far back as over two million years ago—the oldest yet discovered.

The problem posed by the latest finds concerns a group of fossil remains named Homo habilis . The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (1961) insisted on dividing the Hominidae into two genera: Australopithecus and Homo . It did not permit any intergeneric or ambigeneric groups.

However, Homo habilis did not fit into either one of these counterposed categories. It diverged from Australopithecus in its more humanised morphological pattern (biological traits), but even more significantly because it had taken the decisive step of making stone tools according to a regular and evolving pattern. While Australopithecus used and modified tools and may even have improvised them for immediate purposes, he did not fabricate implements according to a set pattern. On the other hand, the biological and cultural traits of Homo habilis fell short of the status of Homo .

The dilemma facing the classifiers was formulated as follows by Phillip V. Tobias, professor of anatomy at the University of Witwatersrand: “÷ the habilis group was in so many respects intermediate between Australopithecus and Homo . Were we to regard it as the most advanced species of Australopithecus or the most primitive species of Homo ?” Neither of these solutions was satisfactory. ‘We had come face to face with a fundamental weakness in classical taxonomic procedure: Our systems of classification make inadequate allowance for intermediate or transitional forms.”

How was the issue resolved? Tobias and L.B.J. Leakey concluded that, on the basis of the evidence regarding these hominid remains, it was necessary to recognise a new species of early man which they designated as Homo habilis . This species of hominid was younger and more advanced then Australopithecus yet older and less matured than Homo .

The great significance of Homo habilis as a bridge between Australopithecus and Homo is that it closes the last remaining gap in the sequence of Pleistocene hominid phylogeny. The lineage of human evolution now comprises three distinct stages: partially humanised (Australopithecus ); markedly humanised (Homo habilis ); and fully humanised (Homo ).

Professor Tobias concludes: “There will always be arguments about the names to be given to transitional forms (like Homo habilis ); but the recognition of their crucial intermediate status is of more importance than the name given to the taxon. It seems that our nomenclatural procedure is not equal to the naming of ‘missing links’ when the gaps have narrowed to such fine gradations as now exist in the hominid sequence of the Pleistocene.”

As Tobias remarks in answer to objections from his critics: “Intermediate forms (‘missing links’) always cause taxonomic headaches, although they make good phylogenetic sense.” Once it had been established that Homo habilis did not properly belong to either group, it had to be accorded a separate status. What that should be was determined by its specific place in the evolutionary ascent of man.

It was not an Australopithecus because it had attained the capacity to make tools with the aid of other tools. Yet it had not progressed sufficiently along the road of humanisation to justify inclusion with Homo . There was no alternative except to recognise it as a new and distinct species of the genus Homo .

Tobias suggests that the new group of hominids might have been designated Australopithecus-Homo habilis . The compromise of making it a subcategory would have brought out its emergent position but not its distinctive nature or subsequent destiny. It evidently has enough important attributes of its own to deserve independent status.

Like all transitional formations, the qualitative difference of Homo habilis consisted in its peculiar combination of features, one set resembling its predecessor, the other anticipating its successor. The relative weight of these contradictory features changed in the course of its development. It moved away from and beyond the antecedent genus as it more closely approached the earliest members of the next higher stage.

Hegel supplied a key to comprehending transitional formations by the concepts of determinate being and limit analysed in the first section of The Logic . Anything is what it is by virtue of the negations which set its qualitative limits. Both what it comes out of and what it passes into are essential elements of its being. This being is a perpetual process of becoming, of continual determination and redetermination through the interaction of the conflicting forces within itself. These drive it forward to becoming something other than it has been or is.

Thus Homo habilis is to be designated as a determinate being, that is, a qualitatively distinct grouping bounded on one side by Australopithecus and on the other side by Homo . This transitional species is delimited through its organic connections with both the anterior and posterior stages of human evolution. Its special standing depends on its qualitative differences from these opposing determinants. To the extent that these differences are effaced it passes over into and merges with one or the other.

The Transition From Food Gathering To Food Production

The major transitions within the development of society manifest contradictory features in as striking a manner as the transition from ape to man. Further modifications in man’s physical equipment recede in importance with the appearance of Homo sapiens . From that point on, the laws of social and historical development, which originate in labour activity and are based on the growth of the forces of production, have taken full command of the evolution of our species.

It would be possible to go through the whole course of social history, so far as it is known, and pick out for study a diversity of transitional forms in which the new is mingled with the old and struggling to replace it with more or less success. We can give only a few salient examples to clarify in broad terms the inwardly divided nature of transitional processes.

Let us start with the substructure of the first chapter of human existence, the Stone Age, which lasted for hundreds of thousands of years. Throughout that time no fundamental changes occurred in men’s economic activities. They acquired the means of subsistence exclusively through different means of food gathering: hunting, fishing (which is hunting in water), and foraging for roots, nuts, fruits, insects and small game.

This primeval state of savagery ends, and the next higher grade of social existence, barbarism, begins, with the replacement of food gathering by food production. This new stage in the creation of material wealth was brought about from 10-12,000 years ago by the domestication of animals and the introduction of cereal crops.

Since the close of the Second World War, archaeologists, teamed with other scientific specialists, have been extending their investigations in both the Old World and the New to find out how, why and, more precisely, when and where, this epoch-making changeover took place. They have unearthed many more traces of the origins of agriculture and stock raising than were known before, so that a distinct outline of the steps in the great food-producing revolution is beginning to take shape.

Agriculture may have originated independently in several places on our planet. It emerged almost simultaneously at opposite ends of the earth, in the Middle East and in Mexico, roughly around 7000 BC. More is known about the origin and spread of farming from the archaeological sites in the Middle East than as yet in Middle America.

In the former it appears that animal domestication preceded plant cultivation. At the Zarvi Chemi Shanidan, not far north of Jarmo in the hills of Northern Iraq, archaeologists from Columbia University found indications that, in shifting from cave living to open-air encampments around 9000 BC, the inhabitants, who had formerly hunted many wild goats and occasionally wild sheep, had tamed sheep.

The type of tools at similar open sites in northern Palestine and in Iraq and Iran showed that the people who lived in these camps, while hunting and collecting most of their food, possessed sickles and mortars. Taken together with the many bones of animals capable of domestication, this suggested that they may have already become regular food producers.

The oldest site yet excavated of a community on the boundary line between the Old and New Stone Age is at Jericho in Palestine, Nine thousand years ago the inhabitants of this oasis in the desert grew cereals and bred sheep and goats, in addition to hunting and collecting. However, they did not yet make pottery or use ground stone axes.

It is therefore difficult to ascertain whether the villagers of Jericho I, the most ancient settlement, simply supplemented their diet through food production, or whether they had gone so far as to make food production the foundation of their economy. In that case they would have passed beyond the borders of savagery and entered barbarism.

The situation is clearer, though not yet unmistakable, in the case of the next oldest village, Jarmo in Kurdistan, a settlement of about 30 houses which was rebuilt 15 times after its founding. Its deepest layers date back to about 6750 BC. The inhabitants had domesticated goats and sheep. They not only raised grains as cultivated plants, which implies a considerable previous history, but they possessed most of the equipment used by later neolithic farmers to make grain into bread. They had flint sickle blades, mortars or querns to crack the grain, ovens to parch it, and stone bowls out of which to eat their porridge. In the upper levels pottery had begun to replace some of the stone vessels.

All this implies that Jarmo’s residents had left food gathering behind and subsisted on what they themselves produced. They had become full-fledged food producers, genuine villagers and farmers.

An interesting sidelight on the botanical aspect of this process of transformation has been provided by the data accumulated by the archaeological botanist Hans Helbaek of the Danish National Museum. The successive changes in the details of carbonised grain and of the imprints of plant parts can tell a sharp-eyed botanist just as much as successive changes in tools and artifacts can tell an archaeologist. Domesticated plants and animals are living artifacts, products of man’s modifications and manipulations.

The Danish botanist concluded that the Jarmo wheat and barley were early cultivated varieties which had been grown for a number of generations. Their growers were several steps removed from the first farmers who would have taken the seeds from plants in their wild state. Who, then, were these pioneers? Diggers have recently come across caches of wild cereal grain in villages of hunters and seed collectors. They may possibly have started to reap wild grain before purposively planting the first wheat and barley.

Thus a hunters’ village of about 200 small stone houses excavated at Mureybat in northern Syria contained bones of wild animals at all 17 levels. Seeds of wild barley and wheat showed up at the fifth level from the bottom, along with sickle blades, mortars, flat stone slabs, and small raised fire pits filled with big pebbles and ashes. Mauritz Van Loon of the Oriental Institute of Chicago believes the pebbles were heated and used to crack the wild seeds.

It took about 2500 years to make the changeover from hunting to farming and arrive at the earliest farming villages. According to present indications, the sequence of steps in this food-producing revolution began with animal domestication about 10,000 BC, proceeded through hamlets of seed collectors, and culminated with the emergence of farming communities by 7500 BC.

This record shows that, before they could shake off dependence upon food gathering, the first domesticators of plants and animals had to pass through intermediate steps in which the primitive mode of procuring the means of subsistence was combined with either food or stock raising, or even both. In the first phase, food production remained subordinate and supplementary to hunting and foraging pursuits until the new techniques and forces of production gained predominance. Just before this crucial turning point, a period must have come when the total activities and output of communal labour were about equally divided between the two, and it would have been difficult to tell whether the group belonged to one category or the other.

This internal contradiction would be resolved by the further development of the more dynamic new productive forces. Thus, when food and stock raising were introduced into the less advanced Old Stone Age culture of Europe some thousands of years later, the Starcevo folk who lived in the Balkan peninsula learned to practice a system of rotating crops and pasture that made hunting and fishing less and less vital to their economy.

The insuperable ambiguities of the boundary separating food gatherers from food producers have been underscored in a recent account of the rise of Mesopotamian civilisation. “We cannot with the material at our disposal pinpoint the crucial passage from a food-gathering to a food-producing economy. It can be argued that hoes could be used for uprooting as well as for tilling, sickles for reaping naturally growing or cultivated wheat, querns and mortars for grinding and pounding wild seeds or even mineral pigments; and it is not always easy to decide whether bones of sheep or cattle belonged to wild or to domesticated animals. All considered, our best criterion is perhaps the presence on a site of permanent habitations, for agriculture ties man to the land. But here again, it is sometimes difficult to draw a firm line between the stone huts of hunters, for whom agriculture was an occasional activity, and the farms of fully settled peasants.” (Ancient Iraq , Georges Roux, 1964. p. 54.)

Village, Town And City

Agriculture is the basis for the permanent human settlements which have supplied the main motive forces for progress since savagery. The village, town and city are the three kinds of communities that line the road from barbarism to civilisation. The evolution of the village to the city highlights the transitional and contradictory character of the town, the second link in the sequence of human habitations.

Agriculture consolidated and proliferated, if it did not actually create, the village. This type of enduring settlement is the cell, the basic unit, of all social structures rooted in agriculture. These comprise forms of society extending all the way from the birth of barbarism up to industrial capitalism.

The problem of transitional formations is most sharply posed after the emergence of the farming community by the development of the village into the city at the beginnings of civilisation. Based on farming or mixed farming with family handicrafts, the village is common to both barbarism and civilisation. It is small in numbers, self-subsistent, with a rudimentary division of social labour.

The town is an enlarged village growing out of the expansion of the forces of production. It is an agglomeration of permanent residents situated between the village and the city and transitional between them. It is difficult to draw a clear-cut line between a village and a town, but there is a definite point at which the town grows over into a city.

The city is not only quantitatively but also qualitatively different from either a village or a town because it has a different economic foundation. It is the outgrowth of a far more advanced division of labour between the rural and urban inhabitants. The kings, priests, officials, soldiers, artisans and merchants in the cities do not produce their own food. They subsist on the surplus food coming from the output of the direct producers, farmers or fishermen, who may in some cases dwell within the city precincts but for the most part reside in village communities outside its walls or borders.

The city is the organised expression, the visible embodiment, of a highly stratified society based on the division between cultivators of the soil who provide the sustenance and those layers of consumers who produce other goods and the administrators of various kinds who serve higher social functions. The city comes to dominate the country and is the force that civilises the barbarians.

The town is an overgrown village at one end of its growth and an embryonic city at the other. It displays characteristics common to both types of settlement without being either. Unlike the village, it is not completely rural but is larger and more complex. At the same time it is smaller, less diversified, less developed, less centralised and less powerful than the city.

Neither rural nor urban, the town has an indeterminate character and an imprecise and fluctuating connotation. It is not easy to single out the ensemble of positive features which distinguish the town from the village it has come out of or from the city status it may be heading toward. This ambiguity is built into its constitution as an intermediate form of permanent settlement.

Thus the town exemplifies the congenital fluidity of a transitional form. Its structure is amorphous; its boundaries are blurred. This indefiniteness, which is inherent in its very nature, is reflected in the concept “town”, which is likewise clouded with an insurmountable fuzziness.


The transition from food gathering to food production, from the village to the city, and from communal to private property are major instances of fundamental changes in the life of mankind on the way to class society. As class society climbed from slavery to capitalism, many highly anomalous formations arose from the supersession of one basic mode of production by another. One case that has provoked considerable controversy both among academic historians and Marxist scholars concerns the nature of the social organisation in the West that issued from the downfall of the Roman Empire.

West European society from the fourth to the ninth centuries AD was situated between the ruin of the Roman slave state and the birth of feudalism. This intermediate formation resulted from the blending of elements derived from decadent Roman civilisation and disintegrating Germanic barbarism—two societies at very different levels of development—into a variegated configuration that did not conform either to the antecedent slave mode of production or the feudal form which came out of it.

The historical movement from slaveholding antiquity to European feudalism followed a more complex and circuitous path than the changeover from feudalism to capitalism. The feudal organisation did not emerge directly and immediately from its predecessor in the sequence of class societies.

The Roman Empire contained no forward moving social force that was capable of replacing the obsolescent exploitative order with a more productive economy. The slave population revolted on various occasions but did not have access to the economic and social prerequisites for establishing a new order. The slave system foundered in a blind alley which provided no way out through a progressive social and political revolution.

From the fourth century on, Roman civilisation slid downhill. The imperial government went bankrupt; the cities decayed; commerce shrank to petty proportions; the estate owners and agrarian masses vegetated in rural isolation. The general disorder and decline in the productive forces ushered in the Dark Ages.

These conditions of decomposition endured for almost five centuries. During this time, however, a slow revitalisation of economic life began to stir beneath the surface stagnation. Agriculture was the centre of the regenerative processes. To form the groundwork for a superior form of social production, two classes had to be reconstituted. One was the labouring force of the cultivators of the soil; the other was the class of landed proprietors.

The original nucleus of the subject peasantry came from the small farmers, or coloni , though not as they were under Roman rule. The coloni passed from their marginal status as semiserfs under Roman rule to the status of free farmers organised in dispersed communities until, fleeing from hunger, distress and danger, they fell in considerable numbers under the protection and therewith the domination of the landed gentry.

Their masters were also of a new breed. They were made up of the newly created nobility, military caste and church hierarchy which grew into it distinct and powerful agrarian aristocracy from 500 to 1000 AD.

The main seat of Western feudalism was not in Italy but in France and Germany. The transformation of the Germanic conquerors of Rome from barbarism to feudalism was more determinative of the future than their concomitant conversion to Christianity because of the indispensable contributions they made to the postimperial social organisation.

The dissolution of tribal and clan ties led to pronounced social differentiations among the Franks and other peoples. From more or less equalised members of tribal groupings, the mass of the agricultural population changed first into free peasants and thereafter into serfs as they became impoverished and passed into hereditary submission to their liege lord. Serfdom seems to have become widely established beginning with the ninth century.

Although feudalism depended upon large landholdings as a property form, it was not rooted in large-scale production. Cultivation of the soil was carried on by petty producers. However extensive the landlord’s manor or domain, it was tilled by a cluster of serf or peasant households. The economic transition from slavery to feudalism therefore consisted in the replacement of the slave latifundia of the Roman proprietors and the individual households of the Germanic communities by a more productive type of small farming.

The invaders provided important ingredients for raising the technical and social level of the nascent feudal regime. They introduced such new crops as rye, oats, spelt and hops, along with soap and butter. The heavy-wheeled plough permitted the development of the three-field system of tillage on which the medieval manor depended. Thanks to the stirrup, the horse collar, the tandem harness and the iron shoe, horses could be used in place of oxen for pulling the plough; they had four times the tractive power of earlier draft animals.

Another key innovation was the water wheel, which was known to antiquity but utilised only in the simplest form. The medieval water mills were large and costly installations which belonged to the feudal lords, but to which their dependents could bring their grain for grinding. The creation of a more efficient agricultural technology during the Dark Ages paved the way for increasing agricultural productivity in Northern Europe from the ninth century on. As Professor Lynn White points out in Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages : “In technology, at least, the Dark Ages mark a steady and uninterrupted advance over the Roman Empire.”

Certain features carried over from tribal collectivism were equally consequential in preparing the advent of the new order. When the lands conquered by the Germans were allotted to individual households and the hierarchy of subordinates and superiors arose, woods and pastures were reserved for common use, and many other customs of collective activity were retained. These vestiges of common possession incorporated into the agrarian economy strengthened communal solidarity, made the serfs and villeins less dependent upon their masters, and gave the mass of rural toilers some measure of control over their means of livelihood, which mitigated their servitude and enhanced their margin of freedom.

The society that stretched from the Roman to the Carolingian empires was a conglomerate of elements encompassing slavery, barbarism, peasant farming and incipient feudal relations. The feudal structure eventually crystallised out of this variegated plasma as both the Roman dependents and the Germanic settlers forfeited their positions as free peasants and entered serfdom.

The contradictory course of development which marked the prolonged period of transition from Roman slavery to the feudal age invalidates any rigid scheme of historical evolution predicated on an undeviating line of succession from one form of production to the next. The native population of the Romano-Germanic world sank to a lower level of production and culture before it went on to assemble the conditions for a higher mode of existence. This discontinuity in economic growth illustrates the dialectical nature of the concrete processes of social evolution. Far from following prescribed paths in a mechanical manner, the peoples of the past have often fallen backward before taking the next step in historical progress.

Manufacture: The Stepping Stone From The Craft Guild To Machine Industry

Capitalism did directly supplant feudalism in Western Europe and, in the course of doing so, brought forth an assortment of transitional economic phenomena. Among these was manufacture which, as the bridge between medieval and modern industry, was one of the pivotal developments in the emergence of bourgeois society.

In the urban craft guilds the master handicraftsman possessed all the means of production, from the raw materials to the shop which usually housed both his family and work force of apprentices and journeymen. He sold the finished product in a local and regulated market and pocketed the proceeds. This simple small-scale commodity production was extremely restricted, dispersed, routinised, static and monopolistic.

The manufacturing system bypassed, broke up and replaced the guild associations, going beyond this kind of industry in important respects. Unlike the guild master, who was a petty personal producer, the manufacturer brought together under one roof many propertyless workers, purchased their labour-power for wages and subjected them to the control of capital. Labour thus became social instead of individual. Every element of the entrepreneur’s operations was on a larger scale: He needed more money, greater amounts of raw materials, extensive workshops, better tools, a detailed subdivision of labour, intense supervision, more careful calculation and longer-range planning.

This quantitative growth generated many qualitative improvements in industry. Capitalist manufacture was far more productive, innovative and progressive than the guild system. Yet its artisans, craftsmen and foremen used essentially the same technical methods as their medieval predecessors. They had little or no mechanical power at their disposal and relied exclusively on hand labour using simple tools. In this rudimentary form of a capitalist economy, advanced relations of production were yoked to an ancient technology dating back to the dawn of civilisation.

The inner contradiction of this transitional type of capitalist activity was broken through and overcome with the introduction of steamdriven machinery into industry and transportation. Mechanical industry fashioned the modern proletariat; it enabled the capitalists to exploit wage labour to maximum advantage by reducing the value of commodities and thereby increasing the surplus value which the workers produced and the capitalists appropriated. On this technical basis the capitalist mode of production stood squarely on its own feet for the first time and went forward to conquer the globe. But it could not have embarked on that career unless manufacture had left the guild system behind and prepared the advent of that technology best adapted to the needs of capital accumulation.

Transitional Regimes And Societies In The 20th Century

Let us skip from the beginnings of capitalism to its concluding stage and focus upon the principal problems presented by the transformation of society in the 20th century, which is witnessing both the death agony of capitalism and the birth pangs of socialism.

The contemporary revolutionary process aims at undermining and abolishing the power and property of the capitalist owners and whatever archaic privileged classes cling like parasites to their domination. The political mechanism of this social revolution consists in the transfer of state power from these possessing classes to the primary producers of wealth, the proletariat and its allies.

Twentieth-century revolutionists must operate in three main types of transitional situations. Let us consider these in the order of progression toward the ultimate objectives of the socialist revolution.

The first extends over the period of preparation for the overturn of the old regime. The working masses are moving from a nonrevolutionary condition, where the social and political foundations of the established order are stable and strong, into a prerevolutionary period or, beyond that, toward a direct showdown with the possessors of power. At this stage, although the ruling class is losing its grip the forces destined to dislodge and replace it are not yet ready or able to challenge its supremacy.

The advance from a less to a more revolutionary situation calls for a special strategy employing a set of demands which, on the one hand, are adapted to the conditions and consciousness of the masses and, on the other, will lead them forward to the goal of the conquest of power. The recognition of the special characteristics of this interim period in the development of the class struggle—which is neither wholly nonrevolutionary nor fully revolutionary but heading in that direction—is the objective basis for the transitional demands incorporated in the program of the Fourth International adopted at its foundation in 1938.

The avowed purpose of that program is to promote and facilitate the shift of the proletariat from concern with its immediate needs to a grasp of the necessity for directing its struggle ever more consciously and energetically against the bases of the bourgeois regime. In this way a prerevolutionary state can be transformed into a revolutionary one, as the masses pass over from defensive positions to offensive action. Such a leap was taken, for example, during the French general strike of May-June 1968.

The revolutionary process of our time has a permanent character. And so, once engaged in direct revolutionary action on a large scale, the masses enter upon a second and higher kind of transitional period. The ascending class that is destined to exercise sovereignty in place of the old rulers cannot concentrate all power in its hands overnight. Even less can it effect a thorough reconstruction of social relations in its own country in a few decades. Thus, after the preceding alignment of class forces has been radically upset, there usually ensues a more or less protracted interval when the capitalist or colonialist regime has been shattered but a stable new governmental power, squarely resting on the revolutionary class forces, has yet to be securely established.

During this transitional period, when the supreme power is being transferred from the old rulers to the working masses, forms of government may arise which are extremely contradictory, inwardly divided, unstable and short-lived. The first example of such an interregnum had a classical character. It was the Provisional Government which tried vainly to rule Russia from the February to the October revolutions in 1917.

The partisans of this crippled regime sought to impose upon a nation in the flood tide of revolution a political setup which would be intermediate between tsarism and Bolshevism, between the obsolete domination of the monarchy and the landlords and the rule of the workers and peasants, between feudalised capitalism and socialism. It was a hopeless, ill-fated experiment because, under the given circumstances of the world war and the severity of the class conflicts, no such hybrid government could solve the urgent problems of peace, bread and land. The real choice lay between a counterrevolutionary military dictatorship or the dictatorship of the workers supported by the peasantry.

The Provisional Government and the soviets constituted a dual power in which the contending class camps offset each other. In order to break the deadlock, one or the other of these opponents had to be smashed and eliminated. In the ensuing test of strength, the soviets emerged victorious, thanks to the kind of leadership provided by the Bolsheviks.

Since 1917 analogous situations of dual power have appeared in numerous revolutions with varying results. Cuba and Algeria have provided the most recent and dramatic instances in the colonial countries. In Cuba, by virtue of the exceptional qualifications of Castro and the July 26th leaders, the transitional period of dual power from 1959 to 1961 eventuated in the ousting of the procapitalist conciliators, the consolidation of the revolutionary regime, and the expropriation of the native and foreign property owners.

In Algeria, on the other hand, the revolutionary process has yet to culminate in so happy a conclusion. After the winning of national independence, the drive toward socialism was interrupted by the coup d’»tat against Ben Bella and has been sliding backward under Boumedienne. Algeria is the prime example of an uncompleted revolution halted midway in its progress from colonialism and capitalism to a workers’ state.

This brings us to the third and highest category of the transitional periods in our epoch. Once the question of class power has been decisively settled with the victory of the workers and peasants, and the socioeconomic bases of the new order have been laid down by the dispossession of the capitalists and landlords, a new social formation begins to take shape. The workers’ state necessarily has a transitional character. While it has cut loose from the exploiters of labour and taken the road to socialism, it has still to develop the productive forces and create the human relations proper to the new system.

The historical task of the proletarian power is to bring the preconditions for socialism into existence on the basis of the new relations of production. This would be an arduous and prolonged job under the best conditions. Unfortunately, the world-historical setting during the first 50 years of the present transitional period from capitalism toward socialism has turned out to be far more unfavourable than the founders of Marxism anticipated, because the first victorious anticapitalist revolutions took place in countries least prepared for the new methods of production and politics.

All the peoples from Russia to Cuba that drove out the possessing classes and established a revolutionary state power of a socialist type had not previously experienced any renovation of their social and political structures along bourgeois-democratic lines. They were therefore obliged to undertake such presocialist tasks as the abolition of feudalism, agrarian reform, national independence and unification, and the democratisation of their political life along with the overthrow of imperialist domination and capitalist relations. They were overloaded with the colossal combination of presocialist and socialist tasks at one and the same time. Their construction of a new social order has been rendered still more complicated and difficult by the encircling pressures and interference of imperialism and by their inherited economic and cultural backwardness.

As a result, these transitional regimes have been subjected to varying degrees of degeneration or deformation. They exhibit bizarre blends of progressive and regressive features, the first belonging to the new society in the making, the second stemming from past conditions and imperialist pressures.

For example, the Soviet Union abounds in contradictions on all levels of its life. In this workers’ state the workers have no political power, and freedom of expression is severely restricted. In transportation huge jet passenger planes speed over the trackless wilderness and the dirt roads where peasant carts creak along in well-worn ruts as they have for centuries. A country in the front rank of technology, science and industry is weak in the very social sciences—political economy, sociology, history and philosophy—where its Marxist heritage should make it the strongest. The Soviet public had no access to any reliable history of its revolutionary origins on the 50th anniversary of October. Such anomalies are the hallmarks of the Soviet social structure shaped and misshaped during the first phase of the epoch of transition from capitalism to socialism. However, contradictions are not only stigmas and stumbling blocks but motive forces of contention and progress. The workers’ states are not stagnant but highly mobile. In the last analysis, they must either go backward to capitalism or forward to socialism. So far, none of the peoples that have abolished capitalism have restored it. In this respect 20th-century history to date has been a one-way street. This fact testifies to the immense power and vitality of the new institutions as well as to the debility and disintegration of world capitalism.

The governments of the workers’ states are equally in flux. They can either relapse into bureaucratic despotism or move ahead to greater democracy. The three stages in the political history of the Soviet Union since 1917 demonstrate this dialectic. After the seething democracy of the early revolutionary years, the country was plunged into the dreadful darkness of Stalin’s tyranny for three decades. Since then, too slowly but surely, there is developing a turn toward democratisation which must culminate in a showdown between the bureaucrats and the workers.

In Cuba, from the first, despite resistance and brief detours along the way, the main trend has been toward increased decision-making by the masses. Czechoslovakia’s break from authoritarianism and its drive toward democratisation in 1968 was halted and reversed by Moscow’s military intervention.

The program of the Fourth International likewise contains a series of transitional proposals for the struggle against bureaucratism within the degenerated and deformed workers’ states. These demands are designed to accelerate and consummate the movement toward workers’ democracy in the postcapitalist countries and the adoption of revolutionary socialist policies and perspectives which can lessen the birth pangs of the new society and shorten the interval between the abolition of capitalist power and private property and the creation of harmonious and equal relations for all mankind.

Although postcapitalist economic relations and their superstructures have existed for half a century, they are only in the elementary stage of their historical process of formation and remain subject to all the infirmities of infancy. Furthermore, they have yet to be installed in the habitat most propitious for their growth.

When bourgeois society came forth from feudal Western Europe, capitalist relations did not all at once take possession of the whole of social life. They first preempted the field of commerce where monetary wealth was accumulated. Meanwhile, the production of material wealth either continued in the old ways or else, as with industry, passed over into manufacture which retained the old handicraft techniques. The new laws of capitalist development did not break through all limitations, take full command of economic and social life, and unfold their immense potency until the industrial revolution of the early 19th century, based on the steam engine, large-scale industry and the factory system, thoroughly transformed the methods of production.

A comparable incompleteness has characterised, and even disfigured, the first period of the transition from capitalism to socialism. Since 1917 the laws of socioeconomic development bound up with the new system of production have had to function under the least favourable and most restrictive conditions. Whereas they required the most advanced productive forces for effective operation, they were confined to the poorest and most backward countries, where they had to contend with incompetent and bureaucratised regimes at home and imperialist encirclement and hostility on a world scale.

Even under such adverse historical circumstances the new mode of production based on nationalised property and the planning principle disclosed its effectiveness and registered colossal achievements.

Despite these successes, the methods of socialist development have not yet been given the chance to manifest their real potential. Implanted in poor soil, they have not had the right nutriment or atmosphere for their flowering. As Marx long ago pointed out, socialism needs a preponderant and highly cultivated working class, a powerful industry, a well-rounded economy and an international basis. None of these prerequisites for socialism prevailed in the first half-century of the international anticapitalist revolution. They have had to be created largely from scratch under forced draft and with intolerably heavy sacrifices by the working masses.

Consequently, the laws of the transition from capitalism to socialism have thus far received a mutilated and inadequate expression. Fortunately, the configuration of historical conditions responsible for this deviation does not have a permanent but a temporary character. The distortions of the workers’ states are the malign product of the confinement of proletarian power to the less developed countries and the grip of capitalism upon the most industrialised economies. These handicaps can—and will—be weakened and removed once the workers overthrow capitalist rule in one or more of the imperialist powers. This breakthrough will enable the new laws of social development to find a far more appropriate arena and broader scope for their expression and fulfilment.

The present historical conjuncture has this paradoxical character. The transitional period from capitalism to socialism has itself been obliged, because of the uneven progress of the world revolution, to pass through an agonising transitional situation in which the forces of the nascent social system have been penned up in an area least suited to their capacities. These abnormal and episodic restraints upon their growth can be eliminated provided the socialist revolution is extended to Western Europe, Japan, and, above all, to North America. Once the new tendencies of socialist development can operate freely and fully in a favourable environment, emancipated mankind will be astonished by the results.