Tony Cliff

Lenin 3 – Revolution Besieged

5. The Transition from Capitalism to Socialism

Lenin hoped for a breathing space after the signing of the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty. In a speech to the Moscow Soviet on 23 April 1918 he said:

We can say with confidence that in the main the civil war is at an end. There will be some skirmishes, of course, and in some towns street fighting will flare up here or there, due to isolated attempts by the reactionaries to overthrow the strength of the revolution – the Soviet system – but there is no doubt that on the internal front reaction has been irretrievably smashed by the efforts of the insurgent people. [1]

Lenin’s writings during this period all demonstrate his belief that the destructive phase of the revolution was largely over, and that the main task now was to learn how to operate industry, how to advance a measure of economic construction. However, the revolution was to be denied a breathing space of any appreciable length. Less than three months elapsed between the signing of the Brest treaty and the outbreak of a fierce civil war.

The Marxist Heritage

Lenin always looked to his teachers, Marx and Engels, to help him find his way forward. He used the international experience of the workers’ revolutionary movement from 1848 to 1871 and onwards, as analysed by Marx and Engels, to prepare himself for 1905 and 1917. What did he learn from these masters about the transition from capitalism to socialism, after taking power?

In The Civil War In France Marx explained that the workers had ‘no ready-made Utopias’, that they had ‘no ideals to realize’, but ‘to set free the elements of the new society with which the old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant.’ The workers well know that ‘they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men’. [2]

Marx referred with contempt to the imposition on the proletariat of schemes independent of its own experience. To offer a theoretical analysis of a future economic order before experience provided the material for it would be daydreaming. ‘In Marx,’ observed Lenin in State and Revolution, ‘there is no trace of any attempt to construct Utopias, to guess in the void about what cannot be known.’

But the few general remarks by Marx and Engels scattered through Capital, The German Ideology, The Critique of the Gotha Programme and their correspondence could not be readily and directly applied to the Russian revolution. Marx and Engels assumed that the overthrow of capitalism would begin in the most advanced capitalist countries, where powerful industry and a massive and cultured working class existed, and would take place in several key countries at once. Instead the revolution broke out in only one country, and that a very backward one. In such conditions socialist tasks are bound to be outweighed by pre-socialist tasks, and the implementation of both complicated by the pressures and interference of encircling imperialism.

Lenin was hard put to it to find guidelines for the building of a new society. Could he draw any lessons for the construction of socialism from the rise of capitalism? Unfortunately, there are radical differences between the way capitalism developed and the way socialism will arise.

Firstly, while the political revolution – the coming of the proletariat to power – precedes the economic and cultural evolution of socialism, the economic and cultural development of the capitalist system preceded the bourgeois revolution.

Capitalism developed from simple commodity production in the cracks and crannies of the feudal economy. Important elements of capitalism were created in the womb of the old society. Only after hundreds of years of growth did capitalism become the predominant economic form, and place its imprint on the whole of society, delineating the general trend of development.

They [the bourgeoisie] did not build capitalism, it built itself [Bukharin wrote]. The proletariat will build socialism as an organized system, as an organized collective subject. While the process of the creation of capitalism was spontaneous, the process of building communism is to a significant degree a conscious, i.e. organized process. [3]

The Communist Manifesto made it clear that the act of bringing the proletariat to power was an act of revolution. But once the proletariat was in power, its programme of action was a transitional one, which would gradually lead to socialism. The social – political revolution would open the door to a prolonged process of reform whose final result would be fully-fledged socialism (or communism). Before the revolution, the communist uses reforms to develop the self-confidence, consciousness and organization of the proletariat, so as to prepare it for the revolution, i.e. breaking the capitalist framework of political, economic and social power. After the revolution, on the foundation of a new class rule, socialist reforms are called for.

Once the dictatorship of the proletariat is established, a programme of economic transformation is to be implemented:

The proletariat will use its political supremacy in order, by degrees, to wrest all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all the means of production into the hands of the state (this meaning the proletariat organized as ruling class), and, as rapidly as possible, to increase the total mass of productive forces.

The Communist Manifesto goes on to spell out ten measures that the proletariat should take on coming to power, to transform the economy and society. None of these measures abolishes capitalism straight away; each constitutes a partial intervention by the state in the economic mechanism of capitalism, and only in the totality, and over time, are they deemed to undermine capitalism completely. Thus, for instance, the measure ‘a vigorously graduated income tax’ assumes that under the dictatorship of the proletariat there would still be marked differences in incomes – that the capitalist would not be expropriated at a stroke. ‘During the revolution, the gigantic increase in the scope of taxation may serve as an attack on private ownership; yet even in such a case taxation must be a stepping stone to fresh revolutionary measures, otherwise there will be a return to the erstwhile bourgeois conditions.’ [4]

Again, the measure ‘abolition of the right of inheritance’ assumes the existence of private property in the means of production, and so forth. The measures suggested make it clear that Marx and Engels regarded the transition from capitalism to socialism not as a single step, but as a process spread over a more or less lengthy historical period.

It must be emphasized that there is a fundamental difference between the way Marx and Engels posed partial demands and the way reformists put them. ‘Inroads upon the rights of property’ carried out by a workers’ government are radically different from reforms under a bourgeois government. In the first case the partial demands will be outstripped, leading to further encroachment upon the rights of property. In the second they are mere adjustments to capitalism and are containable within it. For Marx and Engels transitional demands were such that each constituted an essential structural change in its own right, and all together added up to the transformation of capitalism into socialism.

Changing ‘Human Nature’

For Marx, the agent for the transition from capitalism to socialism, a transition that must take not years but a whole historical epoch, was the active and conscious working class. While capitalism developed spontaneously over centuries in the heart of feudal society, socialism does not grow within capitalism; however, the proletariat, which is potentially able to create socialism, does. The clear implication is that capitalism as such does not create socialism, but that the revolutionary struggles of the proletariat to overthrow capitalism produces men with the will and ability to construct socialist society. This ability is developed in the struggle against capitalism, and is the only foundation of the new society. The centrality of the human element was made clear by Marx when he pointed out the differences between the propaganda of his group in the German Communist League and that of an opposing minority group:

What we say to the workers is: ‘You will have 15, 20, 50 years of civil war and national struggle and this not merely to bring about a change in society but also to change yourselves and prepare yourselves for the exercise of political power.’ Whereas you say on the contrary: ‘Either we seize power at once, or else we might as well just take to our beds.’ While we are at pains to show the German worker how rudimentary the development of the German proletariat is, you appeal to the patriotic feelings and the class prejudice of the German artisan, flattering him in the grossest way possible, and this is a more popular method, of course. [5]

It is essential for the creation of a socialist society that the proletariat should not only change social relations, but also change itself, so as to be able to carry out this historical task. To emphasize this, Marx wrote elsewhere: ‘The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.’ The working class is an essential part of capitalism, and potentially the victor over it. Hence the concluding sentences of the first section of The Communist Manifesto: ‘What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own gravediggers. Its fall, and the victory of the proletariat, are equally inevitable.’

The key to becoming the builder of a new society from being the subordinate class under capitalism is the proletariat’s revolutionary prowess. The changes in social human relations necessary for this transformation are dialectically united by revolutionary practice. As Marx put it in the Theses on Feuerbach:

The materialistic doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that therefore changed men are the product of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated ... The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and human activity can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionizing practice.

The difficulties of a proletarian government will be not so much in the domain of property, but rather in that of production, and of overcoming human nature as shaped by the old society. The field in which the difficulties will be most acute will be that of work discipline. The workers work because of the discipline of hunger and the threat of the sack. Of course in an advanced stage of socialist society, where working hours will be reduced to a reasonable limit and the unpleasant aspects of the process of labour eliminated, where the workplace will be hygienic and attractive, where the monotony of labour will largely be done away with, where the material inducement will be lavish, workers will work from force of habit and from the desire to serve the needs of fellow human beings. But it will take a whole historical period to change labour from a burden to a joy. How will labour discipline, so necessary for the continuation of production, be established immediately after the social revolution, with the proletariat still affected by the customs of capitalism?

Lenin on the Eve of the October Revolution

Lenin, like Marx and Engels, believed that the conquest of state power by the proletariat would have to be followed by a whole series of reforms taking place over a long period.

On the eve of the October revolution, he drew up a detailed plan for the measures to be put into effect by a Bolshevik government if it came to power in the near future. He wrote in The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It:

These principal measures are:

  1. Amalgamation of all banks into a single bank, and state control over its operations, or nationalization of the banks.
  2. Nationalization of the syndicates, i.e. the largest, monopolistic capitalist associations (sugar, oil, coal, iron and steel, and other syndicates).
  3. Abolition of commercial secrecy.
  4. Compulsory syndication (i.e. compulsory amalgamation into associations) of industrialists, merchants and employers generally.
  5. Compulsory organization of the population into consumers’ societies, or encouragement of such organization, and the exercise of control over it. [6]

These measures are designed to achieve not the once-for-all destruction of capitalist property relations, but to start off a more or less lengthy process for their gradual undermining.

The nationalization of the banks is not to be confused with their expropriation.

nationalization of the banks ... would not deprive any ‘owner’ of a single kopek ... If nationalization of the banks is so often confused with the confiscation of private property, it is the bourgeois press, which has an interest in deceiving the public, that is to blame for this widespread confusion ...

Whoever owned fifteen rubles on a savings account would continue to be the owner of fifteen rubles after the nationalization of the banks; and whoever had fifteen million rubles would continue after the nationalization of the banks to have fifteen million rubles in the form of shares, bonds, bills, commercial certificates and so on ...

Only by nationalizing the banks can the state put itself in a position to know where and how, whence and when, millions and billions of rubles flow. And only control over the banks, over the centre, over the pivot and chief mechanism of capitalist circulation, would make it possible to organize real and not fictitious control over all economic life. [7]

The nationalization of the banks will be a serious invasion of capitalist property relations and will meet tough resistance from the capitalists.

As to the state, it would for the first time be in a position first to review all the chief monetary operations, which would be unconcealed, then to control them, then to regulate economic life, and finally to obtain millions and billions for major state transactions, without paying the capitalist gentlemen sky-high ‘commissions’ for their ‘services’. That is the reason – and the only reason – why all the capitalists ... are prepared to fight tooth and nail against nationalization of the banks.

The nationalization of the syndicates (point 2 of Lenin’s programme) would also help ‘the regulation of economic activity’. No blanket expropriation is suggested, only encroachment on the wealth of the syndicates by fining heavily those which sabotage the national measures: ‘war must be declared on the oil barons and shareholders, the confiscation of their property and punishment by imprisonment must be decreed for delaying nationalization of the oil business, for concealing incomes or accounts, for sabotaging production, and for failing to take steps to increase production’. [8]

Point 3 – abolition of commercial secrecy – is another encroachment on capitalist property relations, but it does not abolish them. The abolition of commercial secrecy will mean

compelling contractors and merchants to render accounts public, forbidding them to abandon their field of activity without the permission of the authorities, imposing the penalty of confiscation of property and shooting for concealment and for deceiving the people, organizing verification and control from below, democratically, by the people themselves, by unions of workers and other employees, consumers, etc.

The establishment of workers’ control will increase the power of the proletariat as against that of the bourgeoisie, while in no way at a stroke liquidating the latter as a class.

In point of fact, the whole question of control boils down to who controls whom, i.e. which class is in control and which is being controlled ... We must resolutely and irrevocably, not fearing to break with the old, not fearing boldly to build the new, pass to control over the landowners and capitalists by the workers and peasants.

Point 4, ‘compulsory syndication (i.e. compulsory amalgamation into associations) of industrialists, merchants and employers generally’, again does not abolish capitalist property relations. ‘A law of this kind does not directly, i.e. in itself, affect property relations in any way; it does not deprive any owner of a single kopek.’ [9]

The spirit of the transitional programme elaborated by Lenin in The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It is the same as that of the Communist Manifesto. Once workers’ power has been established, the transition from capitalism to socialism, the ‘leap’, is seen as a more or less prolonged process of evolution. Capitalism, which grew up over centuries, is going to be replaced by socialism, which is going to be built over a much shorter period, but still not at a stroke.

A Long and Complicated Transition Period

In a speech on 11 (24) January 1918 Lenin declared:

We know very little about socialism ... We are not in a position to give a description of socialism ... The bricks of which socialism will be composed have not yet been made. We cannot say anything further. [10]

Socialism will have to be built by people who have been shaped by capitalism. As Lenin said in a speech on 27 November 1918:

Things would not be so bad if we did not have to build socialism with people inherited from capitalism. But that is the whole trouble with socialist construction – we have to build socialism with people who have been thoroughly spoiled by capitalism. That is the whole trouble with the transition. [11]

Again, on 20 January 1919, in a speech to the Second Trade Union Congress, he said:

The workers were never separated by a Great Wall of China from the old society. And they have preserved a good deal of the traditional mentality of capitalist society. The workers are building a new society without themselves having become new people, or cleansed of the filth of the old world; they are still standing up to their knees in that filth. We can only dream of clearing the filth away. It would be utterly Utopian to think this could be done all at once. It would be so Utopian that in practice it would only postpone socialism to kingdom come. [12]

Again, he wrote on 17 April 1919:

The old Utopian socialists imagined that socialism could be built by men of a new type, that first they would train good, pure and splendidly educated people, and these would build socialism. We always laughed at this and said that this was playing with puppets, that it was socialism as an amusement for young ladies, but not serious politics.

We want to build socialism with the aid of those men and women who grew up under capitalism, were depraved and corrupted by capitalism, but steeled for the struggle by capitalism. There are proletarians who have been so hardened that they can stand a thousand times more hardship than any army. There are tens of millions of oppressed peasants, ignorant and scattered, but capable of uniting around the proletariat in the struggle, if the proletariat adopts skilful tactics. [13]

The proletariat will have to change itself radically if it wants to lead in the establishment of a new society:

The science which we, at best, possess, is the science of the agitator and propagandist, or the man who has been steeled by the hellishly hard lot of the factory worker, or starving peasant, a science which teaches us how to hold out for a long time and to persevere in the struggle, and this has saved us up to now. All this is necessary, but it is not enough. With this alone we cannot triumph. In order that our victory may be complete and final we must take all that is valuable from capitalism, take all its science and culture. [14]

The going will be very hard:

we know perfectly well from our own experience that there is a difference between solving a problem theoretically and putting the solution into practice ... Thanks to a whole century of development, we know on which class we are relying. But we also know that the practical experience of that class is extremely inadequate. [15]

We were never Utopians and never imagined that we would build communist society with the immaculate hands of immaculate communists, born and educated in an immaculately communist society. That is a fairy-tale. We have to build communism out of the debris of capitalism, and only the class which has been steeled in the struggle against capitalism can do that. The proletariat, as you are very well aware, is not free from the shortcomings and weaknesses of capitalist society. It is fighting for socialism, but at the same time it is fighting against its own shortcomings. [16]

Though facing up to harsh reality, Lenin does not cease to be a revolutionary optimist: he sees salvation in the creative activity of the masses.

When the masses of the people themselves, with all their virgin primitiveness and simple, rough determination begin to make history, begin to put ‘principles and theories’ immediately and directly into practice, the bourgeois is terrified and howls that ‘intellect is retreating into the background’. (Is not the contrary the case, heroes of philistinism? Is it not/the intellect of the masses, and not of individuals, that invades the sphere of history at such moments? Does not mass intellect at such a time become a virile, effective, and not an armchair force?)

In the midst of the greatest hardships and tribulations – in October 1920 – Lenin quotes what he wrote in March 1906, long before the revolution.

The thing is that it is just the revolutionary periods which are distinguished by wider, richer, more deliberate, more methodical, more systematic, more courageous and more vivid making of history than periods of philistine, Cadet, reformist progress. But the Blanks turn the truth inside out! They palm off paltriness as magnificent making of history. They regard the inactivity of the oppressed or downtrodden masses as the triumph of ‘system’ in the work of bureaucrats and bourgeois. They shout about the disappearance of intellect and reason when, instead of the picking of draft laws to pieces by petty bureaucrats and liberal penny-a-liner journalists, there begins a period of direct political activity of the ‘common people’, who simply set to work without more ado to smash all the instruments for oppressing the people, seize power and take what was regarded as belonging to all kinds of robbers of the people – in short, when the intellect and reason of millions of downtrodden people awaken not only to read books, but for action, vital human action, to make history. [17]

With his usual realism, Lenin explains that the road ahead is not only difficult but bound to be very twisted and uneven, demanding continual adaptation and changes of gear.

The most difficult task in the sharp turns and changes of social life is that of taking due account of the peculiar features of each transition. How socialists should fight within a capitalist society is not a difficult problem and has long since been settled. Nor is it difficult to visualize advanced socialist society. This problem has also been settled. But the most difficult task of all is how, in practice, to effect the transition from the old, customary, familiar capitalism to the new socialism, as yet unborn and without any firm foundations. At best this transition will take many years, in the course of which our policy will be divided into a. number of even smaller stages. And the whole difficulty of the task which falls to our lot, the whole difficulty of politics and the art of politics, lies in the ability to take into account the specific tasks of each of these transitions. [18]

We are bound to make many mistakes. What does it matter! This is the price which has to be paid for the advance of socialism.

For every hundred mistakes we commit, and which the bourgeoisie and their lackeys (including our own Mensheviks and Right Socialist-Revolutionaries) shout about to the whole world, 10,000 great and heroic deeds are performed, greater and more heroic because they are simple and inconspicuous amidst the everyday life of a factory district or a remote village, performed by people who are not accustomed (and have no opportunity) to shout to the whole world about their successes.

But even if the contrary were true – although I know such an assumption is wrong – even if we committed 10,000 mistakes for every 100 correct actions we performed, even in that case our revolution would be great and invincible, and so it will be in the eyes of world history, because, for the first time, not the minority, not the rich alone, and the educated alone, but the real people, the vast majority of the working people, are themselves building a new life, are by their own experience solving the most difficult problems of socialist organization.

Every mistake committed in the course of such work, in the course of this most conscientious and earnest work of tens of millions of simple workers and peasants in reorganizing their whole life, every such mistake is worth thousands and millions of ‘flawless’ successes achieved by the exploiting minority successes in swindling and duping the working people. For only through such mistakes will the workers and peasants learn to build the new life, learn to do without capitalists; only in this way will they hack a path for themselves – through thousands of obstacles – to victorious socialism. [19]

Lenin had no illusions about the fact that the construction of socialism would take a very long time indeed. ‘We know that we cannot establish a socialist order now – God grant that it may be established in our country in our children’s time, or perhaps in our grandchildren’s time.’ [20] However, with courage and perseverance, the proletariat is bound to win.

Perseverance, persistence, willingness, determination and ability to test things a hundred times, to correct them a hundred times, but to achieve the goal come what may – these are qualities which the proletariat acquired in the course of the ten, fifteen or twenty years that preceded the October Revolution, and which it has acquired in the two years that have passed since this revolution, years of unprecedented privation, hunger, ruin and destitution. These qualities of the proletariat are a guarantee that the proletariat will conquer. [21]


1. Lenin, Works, Vol. 27, pp. 230–1.

2. K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, London 1942, Vol. 2, p. 504.

3. S.E. Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution, a Political Biography 1888–1938, London 1974, p. 90.

4. K. Marx, F. Engels and F. Lassalle, Aus dem literarischen Nachlass von K. Marx, Fr. Engels und F. Lassalle, Stuttgart 1902, Vol. 3, pp. 435–9; in D. Ryazanoff (ed.), K. Marx and F. Engels, The Communist Manifesto, New York 1963, pp. 184–5.

5. K. Marx, The Cologne Communist Trial, London 1971, p. 62.

6. Lenin, Works, Vol. 25, p. 329.

7. ibid., pp. 330–1.

8. ibid., p. 337.

9. ibid., pp. 341–2.

10. ibid., Vol. 27, p. 148.

11. ibid., Vol. 28, p. 214.

12. ibid., pp. 424–5.

13. ibid., Vol. 29, p. 69.

14. ibid., p. 74.

15. ibid., p. 206.

16. ibid., p. 208.

17. ibid., Vol. 10, pp. 253–4.

18. ibid., Vol. 30, pp. 330–1.

19. ibid., Vol. 28, pp. 72–3.

20. ibid., Vol. 30, p. 202.

21. ibid., p. 518.

Last updated on 19.9.2012