Michel Pablo

On the Duration and the Nature of the Period
of Transition from Capitalism to Socialism

Written: June 1951
Source: Education for Socialists, Toward a History of the Fourth International, Part 4, vol. 1, International Secretariat Documents 1951–1954, pp. 12–16.
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What I wrote in my article on The Class Nature of Yugoslavia and subsequently in the article Where Are We Going? on the subject of the period of transition from capitalism to socialism, its probable duration and its nature, has called forth a series of comments and divergent reactions in our movement, that compels me to undertake a further explanation of this question which has a considerable interest, it seems to me, not only from the theoretical but also from the practical viewpoint.

I actually wrote and emphasized that this transitional period would probably take a few centuries. Comrades who find this probable duration excessive may not have paid enough attention to this precise point: that what is involved is the whole interval in which the transition from capitalism to socialism will be consummated.

The taking of power is not yet socialism in the economic and social meaning of this term in the Marxist vocabulary. I use the term socialism in its classical sense as first defined by Marx himself, in reference to the regime where the productive forces will have acquired a degree of development permitting the effective progressive abolition of the classes, of the state, of the distinction between physical and intellectual labor, and between the city and the countryside.

The consummated socialist society is the direct vestibule to the communist society in which the formula of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” will actually be applied and which will put an end to the various “birthmarks of the old society – as Marx wrote – which the society emerging from capitalism after the taking of power by the proletariat still bears “in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually.”

This period of transformation of capitalism into socialism, this latter term being understood in its economic and social content, and not simply its political significance (taking of power by the proletariat) is from all evidence an entire historical period extending over a few centuries.

The Marxist classics have conceived of this matter, it seems to me, in this general sense, independently of the nuances we may distinguish between the various exponents.

In his letter to Bracke on the Gotha program dated May 5, 1875, Marx speaks of the “period of the revolutionary transformation of capitalist society into communist society,” to which period there also corresponds “a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” One indication of the probable duration of this period, in Marx’s estimation, is contained in the key passage of the Criticism of the Gotha Program where Marx gives an economic and social analysis of the future society. Let us review the essential points of this passage which will also serve as well for a better comprehension of the specific character of this period of transition.

Marx insists on the fact that the society issuing from capitalism after the taking of power could not be immediately a “communist society such as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.”

On the economic and social level, this society is still regulated by bourgeois right, which even though being a constant improvement in respect to a thoroughgoing bourgeois right, “is nevertheless still stigmatized by bourgeois limitations. The right of the producers is proportional to the labor they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard, labor.”

Nevertheless, the needs of individuals not being equal, “with an equal output, and hence an equal share in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on.” But “these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society.” (Our emphasis.)

According to Marx, all this will disappear when the socialist phase of the post-capitalist society will be completed and the higher communist phase will begin, that is to say, when “the enslaving subordination of individuals under division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor, from a mere means of life, has itself become the prime necessity of life; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly.” (Our emphasis.)

In my opinion, it becomes clear, from these passages, that Marx, even while considering, as he says in his abovementioned letter to Bracke, that “the program (of the Party) does not now deal with this (the period of transition) or with the future state in communist society,” envisaged an entire historical period between capitalist society and its transformation into a consummated socialist society (in the economic and social sense, we repeat, of the term).

Let us now come to Lenin. He found himself both compelled and disposed by the conditions of his time to speak much more concretely on this transitional period and its character, especially after the taking of power in Russia. Trotskyists know the puerile manner in which Stalin and his school have tried to buttress their theory of “socialism in a single country” with Lenin’s name by means of quotations falsified not only in their spirit but even in their letter.

The essence of their perversion consists in giving to the term “socialism” that Lenin actually employed in a number of his articles with the meaning of the possible “taking of political power” in a single country, the meaning of completing the economic and social content of socialism, a completion in a possible socialist society which can be built in a single country.

In reality, both in the spirit and the letter of innumerable writings on this question Lenin does not envisage the possibility of achieving a socialist society except on a world scale.

And in what time intervals? Here are some typical quotations: “It is hardly to be expected that our next generation, which will be more highly developed will effect a complete transition to socialism.” (Report of April 29, 1918, to the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Soviet Government)

On December 3, 1919, Lenin declared to the Congress of Communes and Artels: “We know that we cannot establish a socialist order at the present time. It will be well if our children, perhaps our grandchildren, will establish it.” (Our emphasis, – Works, Vol. XVI, p. 398)

This estimate by Lenin acquires its full importance when it is added that Lenin is not here envisaging the duration of the achievement of socialism in backward and isolated Russia alone but socialism on a much more extensive scale through the victory of the revolution he expected and on which he counted in Europe, and especially in Germany.

Bu naturally, up to now it has been Trotsky who was obliged and who could express himself most concretely on the probable duration and the nature of the period of transition from capitalism to socialism.

To combat the confusion and falsifications to which the Stalinist school had subjected such fundamental conceptions of Marxism as what ought to be understood politically, economically and socially by the term socialism, Trotsky was above all forced to emphasize the material conditions which characterized a truly socialist regime.

“Socialist society can be built,” Trotsky considered, “only on the most advanced productive forces, on the application of electricity and chemistry to the processes of production including agriculture; on combining, generalizing and bringing to maximum development the highest elements of modern technology” ... Socialism must not only take over from capitalism the most highly developed productive forces but must immediately carry them onward, raise them to a higher level and give them a state of development such as has been unknown under capitalism.” (Third International After Lenin, p. 52 – Our emphasis)

Trotsky believed that the “genuine socialist development” dependent on a high development of the productive forces, advanced well beyond the levels obtained by the most advanced capitalist countries, would begin alter the victory of the proletariat, “at least in several advanced countries.” Trotsky thereby spoke “of the epoch of genuine socialist conception” which would be inaugurated only at that stage. (Third International After Lenin, p. 54)

However it is later in The Revolution Betrayed that Trotsky was able to best express his views on all these questions, the aim of the analysis set forth in this book being to grasp the real development of the Revolution in our epoch by proceeding from the concrete experience of the USSR.

What are the fundamental conclusions of this book on these points?

  1. The taking of power, which is on the order of the day for all countries in our epoch and which is therefore possible in each country separately, does not immediately establish a socialist regime, in the economic and social meaning of this term, but a transitional regime “between capitalism and socialism or preparatory to socialism.” This regime will apply “socialist methods for the [solution of] pre-socialist tasks.”
  2. The epoch of “genuine socialist development” will begin with the victory of the Revolution on an international scale, that is to say, encompassing at least a number of advanced countries, on the foundation of a level of productive forces at least equal from the start to that “to which the most advanced capitalism has attained.”
  3. Contrary to what Marx thought, and even Lenin who “based himself wholly upon the Marxist theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat,” [1] it is impossible to abolish “bureaucratic deformations” immediately after the taking of power and before having reached a certain level of productive forces much higher than the level of the most advanced capitalism, and these cannot be combated by “purely political’ measures (election and recall at any time of all plenipotentiaries, abolition of material privileges, active control by the masses). “A socialist state even in America, on the basis of the most advanced capitalism, could not immediately provide everyone with as much as he needs, and would therefore be compelled to spur everyone to produce as much as possible.” (The Revolution Betrayed, p. 53.)
  4. Bureaucratic tendencies and deformations are not confined to the development of the backward and isolated USSR alone. “The tendencies of bureaucratism, which strangles the workers movement [in capitalist countries], would everywhere show themselves even after the proletarian revolution.” (Revolution Betrayed, p. 55, our emphasis)

“But it is perfectly obvious that the poorer the society which issues from a revolution, the sterner and more naked would be the expression of this ‘law’, the more crude would be the forms of bureaucratism and the more dangerous would it become for socialist development.” (Page 55, our emphasis)

  1. “A development of the productive forces is the absolutely necessary practical premise (of Communism), because without it want is generalized, and with want the struggle for necessities begins again, and that means that all the old crap must revive.” (Marx, quoted by Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed, p. 56)

It therefore conforms to Trotsky’s spirit (if not to the very letter of his writings) that the transformation of capitalism into socialism will actually take an entire historical epoch, filled with bureaucratically deformed transitional regimes, and that these inevitable bureaucratic deformations (which have basically economic causes) will disappear only to the degree that the Revolution conquers in the advanced countries and the level of the productive forces reaches and surpasses that of the most advanced capitalism.

From this there naturally follows the prime importance of the Revolution in the advanced countries and of the international victory of the Revolution in order to speed socialist reconstruction and attain as rapidly as possible the full economic and social content of socialism.

I believe that what I wrote in my two articles on the probable duration and the characteristics of the transitional period completely conforms with these real views of Trotsky on these questions.

So far as the duration of the transitional period is concerned I added in Where Are We Going? the remark that it should not be forgotten that we are already in the second century since the publication of the Communist Manifesto which put the Socialist Revolution on the order of the day, and more than 50 years since the beginning of “imperialism, the last stage of capitalism.”

Can one seriously believe that all the rest, that is to say, the actual transformation of capitalism into socialism is no more than a matter of a few decades?

Even in the event that in the near future the Revolution succeeds in the United States, this indispensable and by far the most important sector of the capitalist system in which is concentrated the highest degree of development of productive forces capitalism has known, the consummation of a world socialist society would remain a work of long duration. [2] On the other hand, in the much more probable event at the present moment that the victory of the world proletarian revolution would yet have to undergo the experience of a third war, with all the destructions caused by it, including this time the USA itself, it would naturally have to cope with still more extended delays and supplementary difficulties.

These views have nothing “pessimistic” in them. What in our opinion would really be illogical, childlike and mechanical is a conception according to which the most profound transformation of society (emerging from its thousand-year barbarism) in all its economic, moral and intellectual relations could be miraculously effected along a straight and direct line of development.

And what is the practical importance of insisting so much on the probable duration and the character of the transitional period? It appears considerable to us. It is first of all a question of arming the communist cadres of our movement with a historical perspective and with clear notions of the aims to be attained so that they can master whatever is conjunctural and avoid any activist impatience or impressionism. It is also a question of rendering them capable of grasping the development of the Revolution in our epoch in its real and concrete manifestation unhampered by any formalistic thinking.

The developments which have taken place during and after the last war, the formation of the European buffer zone, the Yugoslav and Chinese revolutions, the other colonial revolutions now going on in Asia, have called forth divergent reactions in the revolutionary vanguard.

A number of elements have interpreted these events as the expression of a “progressive” historical role of Stalinism and have been led to “conciliation” with it, to “idealize” it or to pure and simple capitulation before it, especially in countries where the pressure of Stalinism remains exceedingly great.

Other elements undergoing a contrary class pressure, which becomes much greater to the extent that we approach the crucial testing moment, refuse to draw any distinction between the social character of the regimes and movements and their temporary Stalinist or Stalinized leaderships, and reject the one along with the others.

These elements have an “ideal” conception of the real and concrete revolutionary process in our epoch, and admit it only in its pure forms, the ’norms” described by Marx and Lenin. [3] They consider the bureaucratic deformation of the proletarian power which has marked the Russian Revolution, and, because of its degeneration, a considerable part of the revolutionary process in our time, as the pure and simple negation of all class content, different from capitalism and which has been attained only through the struggle against this latter and the destruction of its foundations, that is to say, the relations of production and of property corresponding to it.

Situated between these two tendencies, we are obliged to reaffirm and to defend the fundamental criteria of Marxist theory and the key ideas given by the Trotskyist analysis of the USSR and of Stalinism. We have patiently explained under what exceptional specific conditions the Soviet bureaucracy has been led to the economic and political expropriation of the bourgeoisie in the countries of the European buffer zone and under what exceptional conditions the Yugoslav CP and the Chinese CP were propelled to power by the powerful movement of the masses. In this light we have analyzed and demonstrated most particularly the Yugoslav experience and the crisis of Stalinism in the other countries of the buffer zone, the elements of crisis and of differentiation which exist in the expansion of Stalinism.

We have especially emphasized this fundamental idea of our theoretical arsenal, that the bureaucratic deformation of the proletarian power and particularly the monstrous form it has taken with the Soviet bureaucracy in the USSR will be eliminated only with the triumph of the revolution on an international scale embracing the advanced countries.

But whoever speaks of Revolution speaks above all of the abolition of capitalism, the abolition of its productive and property relations and the establishment of new relations. Here is the decisive factor.

The Stalinist form of the bureaucratic deformation of proletarian power has taken shape only in the case of a backward and half-barbarous country which remained for a long time isolated from new important advances of the world revolution.

The political expropriation of the proletariat and the formation of an omnipotent and uncontrollable bureaucratic caste like that existing in the USSR is excluded in the event of an international triumph of the revolution embracing the advanced countries, and especially in the event of a victory in the United States.

We have never written or wanted to suggest that the political expropriation of the proletariat after the taking of power on an international scale could be envisaged as possible, and even less that it can stretch over centuries. Such an affirmation would be theoretically equivalent to admitting the theory of “bureaucratic collectivism,” that is to say, the possibility of an historical regime intermediate between capitalism and socialism. On the contrary, we have written this word for word “... the (proletarian) power will inevitably become swiftly bureaucratized and would risk culminating in a complete expropriation of the proletariat if the revolution remains isolated in a country encircled by imperialism.” (Now emphasized) (On the Class Nature of Yugoslavia, Internal Bulletin of the IS, October 1949)

“The modifications of the norm of proletarian power,” we wrote further on, “would diminish only to the degree that the basis of proletarian power would pass beyond the framework of a single country and would embrace an ever more important sector of world economy.” (Now emphasized)

Even for the USSR we have not admitted that the development of the bureaucracy favored by powerful economic causes would necessarily and fatally transform “the Bolshevik party and through it, the whole Communist International into organs of the bureaucracy.” (On the Class Nature of Yugoslavia)

We locate the downfall of Stalinism in the unfolding of the struggle already engaged between imperialism and the Revolution in all its forms: the USSR, the “Peoples Democracies,” Yugoslavia, China, the colonial revolutions now in progress and the international revolutionary movement.

This struggle will not last for centuries but a much briefer period.

It will lead, as we have many times repeated in all our writings, through the abolition of capitalism and imperialism, also to the downfall of the Bonapartist power of Stalin and of Stalinism.

That is the foundation of our optimism and our revolutionary perspectives.

June, 1951


1. “Lenin did not succeed ... either in his chief work dedicated to this question (State and Revolution), or in the program of the party, in drawing all the necessary conclusions as to the character of the state from the economic backwardness and isolation of the country.” (The Revolution Betrayed, p. 58)

2. Were it only to raise the Level of the productive forces and economic progress of the world up to that of the USA.

3. In their writings before the Russian Revolution.

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Updated on: 10 April 2015