We are posting this article, written by Marc Mulholland and first posted by Weekly Worker. We  we feel that it makes a valuable contribution to the debate around the important but often under-theorised topic of the Transition from Capitalism to Communism via Socialism. It emphasises the general point of the importance of a thorough going democratic approach. (The author uses the term ‘extreme democracy’ which we think is an error, there being nothing extreme about democracy). Amongst a number of points, the article proposes two practical steps that a proletarian party, once in power, might enact in order to undermine the ruling classes and enable the transition. These are firstly:

the abolition of private property in land and the appropriation of all rents by the state 

and secondly

for heavy, progressive or graduated income tax……. a means of dispossessing the bourgeoisie by stages – a means of expropriation.

These measures could decisively shift the balance of power away from the bourgeoisie in favour of the proletariat and its allies.


 In my first article I said something about the usages of riot, the armed demonstration and the insurrection as a means by which the popular classes might throw their weight on the scales of political life and seek to dictate to their masters.1

As we have seen, the political aim adopted by the bourgeoisie, as a means to restructure society along the lines of bourgeois interests, was parliamentarianism. How was this to relate to the popular ‘right to riot’? At all times, liberals were intensely aware of the downside of parliamentarianism, and the struggle for civil and political liberties more generally, because it could easily lead to a revolutionary escalation. So a mode of liberalism that was anti-parliamentary still had considerable intellectual kick in it.

The physiocrats (bourgeois economists) in France were generally hostile to elected representative assembles, but felt that the state could be made to conform to rational capitalist interests by restructuring its tax-base. If taxation was restricted to land, the state would leave capitalist enterprise untouched – laissez-fairelaissez-passer. It was claimed that simply taxing the land would give the state sufficient autonomy to be able to regulate society, whilst allowing for capitalist innovation.

This is not in fact what happened following the French Revolution – or in Europe generally in the revolutionary period – partly because state expenses increased so much as a result of a whole succession of wars across the continent. Napoleonic armies were marauding across Europe and partly sustaining the state by stealing property in other countries, but Britain committed itself in 1799 to the introduction of an income tax.

Following the defeat of Napoleon and the ‘restoration of Europe’ in 1815, an interesting situation developed. The regimes which emerged were fearful of revolution and did not want to start a new revolutionary process. That meant they did not want to set up parliaments, even though they knew their absence would make it very hard to increase taxation. What arose was the existence of states which had insufficient funding and therefore were very unambitious when it came to foreign policy.

But Britain was an exception, with both a capitalist economy and a parliamentary system, and the Napoleonic wars had shown that it could raise a huge amount of money. While Britain’s direct military contribution to the war against Napoleon was significant, what was overwhelming was its ability to fund a generation-long war against France by paying its allies to fight. This was possible because of its modern bourgeois parliamentary state.

The reactionary states were able to suppress revolution by ganging up together in the counterrevolutionary ‘holy alliance’. But this began to break down with the revolutions in the 1830s. Once again the bourgeoisie began to militantly assert its own class interests by demanding effective parliaments. The 1832 Reform Act in Britain consolidated Britain as a bourgeois parliamentary representative state.

However, the next wave of revolutions, in 1848-49, were rather different: for the first time the proletariat began to play a significant, independent role. When the popular classes attempted to dictate to the revolutionary governments which briefly emerged in 1848, for the first time this dictation had a very strong proletarian element, most notably in France. And, of course, it was at this time that Marx and Engels provided theoretical guidance, notably through the Communist manifesto and their revolutionary journalism.

So how did they see the modern state operating and what did they think the proletariat should be doing? Well, according to Engels, the first fundamental condition for the political liberation of the proletariat was a democratic constitution. But, going further than that, in a preparatory work for the Communist manifesto Engels emphasised the importance of the state employing a substantial number of proletarians in national enterprises – the aim here being to put an end to competition among workers themselves by setting up minimum standards for wages and working conditions.


The Communist Manifesto itself included 10 specific demands. What we need to remember is that Marx and Engels saw themselves as being on the radical left of the Chartist movement in Britain, so in this sense the manifesto did not have just 10 demands – it had 16, because implicitly the first six demands of the manifesto are really those of the Chartists, including the introduction of universal suffrage. They also included point 6 from the Charter – the important demand for annual parliaments, which is the only one that has never been conceded.

We should see this demand as being part of the tradition that goes back to the 1760s and the support John Wilkes mobilised for a Bill of Rights. It aimed to keep elected representatives under continual pressure, denying them the degree of autonomy that allows them to feel independent from the people who elect them. (Of course, MPs were never actually independent of the bribes and pressure of plutocratic and landed society). The principle of annual elections maintains a continual public pressure on MPs. The demand for this (and the restoration of the old requirement that anyone accepting appointment as a minister of state must submit to a by-election) should be considered a key democratic demand for today. It would maintain the electorate as a presence en permanence, act as a countervailing pressure to corruption and press dictation, and encourage political organisation as a duty of popular citizenship.

The first demand explicitly listed in the Communist Manifesto, which we should take as following on from the Charter’s six points, called for the abolition of private property in land and the appropriation of all rents by the state (this was a radicalisation of the old physiocrat demand). The second was for a sharply graduated and heavy income tax – a radicalisation of Britain’s wartime income tax.

These two demands should be distinguished conceptually. The nationalisation of land would mean that rent would no longer go to landlords, but to the state. The state would become the new landlord of society, with its own income stream not directly dependent on capital. As such, the state would win a substantial degree of independence from the bourgeoisie. It was possible to do this – Marx and Engels reckoned by the middle of the 19th century – because the aristocracy was already more or less defeated. That meant that taxation on land would not give powers of dictation to the aristocracy, but would be a way for the state to sustain itself without having to rely upon the bourgeoisie.

Now this seems to be contradicted by the following demand, which was for heavy, progressive or graduated income tax. This surely implies that the state would be relying upon a healthy income stream for the bourgeoisie. If the state is reliant upon income tax, it would therefore be subordinate to the class which pays that tax: the bourgeoisie. But it is important to note that progressive income tax was not seen as a measure to fund regular state expenditure in the Communist Manifesto: it was rather a means of dispossessing the bourgeoisie by stages – a means of expropriation.

As the manifesto quite frankly puts it, a progressive income tax should be one of a number of “despotic inroads” into the conditions of bourgeois production and as such in isolation it would appear economically untenable. But it was not designed to keep the capitalist goose in good health, so it could lay golden eggs for the state to lay hands on: rather it was designed to economically undermine and, by degrees, dispossess the bourgeoisie.

The heavy progressive or graduated income tax, as a means of expropriation, should be held distinct in our minds from the nationalisation of land (and mineral royalties) and the application of all rent to public purposes. For Marx and Engels, it was land nationalisation (or, to put it more clearly, nationalisation of all rents) that would provide the state with the fiscal means to maintain itself through the period of revolutionary transformation. Marx and Engels argued that an entirely disempowered aristocracy should be scalped to maintain the state through land nationalisation. This would free the state from dependence on the bourgeoisie and to some extent neutralise the power of the bourgeoisie.

In itself, this is not the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is the means by which, however, such a state of affairs becomes possible for a more or less protracted period. If the state has dispossessed the aristocracy and won itself autonomy from the bourgeoisie, it can now be bent to the will of a working class mobilised en permanence by rigorous application of the Charter’s six points – in particular annual elections. This is where I differ from scholars like Lars T Lih and Hal Draper, because I think they misunderstand what Marx and Engels had in mind. When Marx’s newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, was suppressed in 1849, Marx was pretty clear about what he meant:

Did we not speak plainly and clearly enough for those dullards who failed to see the ‘red’ thread running through all our comments and reports on the European movement? … There is only one way in which the murderous death agonies of the old society and the bloody birth throes of the new society can be shortened, simplified and concentrated, and that is the way of revolutionary terror. Is that clear, gentlemen? We have no compassion and we ask no compassion from you. When our turn comes, we shall not make excuses for the terror.2

‘Terror’ is not a nice word. We should be aware of its French Revolutionary connotations. It brought to mind the guillotine, the suppression of the Vendée and the crushing of the Federalist revolt; but it also meant revolutionary insurrections and dictation by the sans culottes. Marx in this article meant to shock and to disturb. It was shocking and disturbing, but he wrote these words just as counterrevolutionaries were imposing their own White Terror and he pretty clearly wanted to say to his own side: ‘Don’t you quail, because our enemies won’t’. The dictatorship of the proletariat – or ‘dictatorship of the popular classes’ in Marx’s view of the conjuncture – was explicitly a matter of dictating via intimidation of the other classes in society and of the revolutionary government.

This is the context in which we should understand Marx’s discussion of ‘revolution in permanence’. It was a kind of standing insurrection of the proletariat in order to harden up a petty bourgeois revolutionary government. There is a tendency by Lars T Lih and others to prettify this. But, if we think about what Marx argued would be the role of the proletariat in such a revolutionary movement, basically it concerned the intimidation of other classes. I am not saying that Marx was bloodthirsty, but nor do I think he was talking about the dictatorship of the proletariat as just another term for a majority, elected working class government.

We have seen that the Communist Manifesto considered how the state could be made more independent of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, the better to open it to popular dictation, by giving it a stable and independent fiscal base. But is state independence an unproblematic thing? The rise of Napoleon III in France generated in Marx’s mind new concerns about the possibility of a state becoming too autonomous and too dictatorial. By the time we get to the end of the Napoleonic regime, when Marx writes The civil war in France about the 1871 Paris Commune, he was advocating very strongly indeed the self-government of areas such as Paris, where the proletariat was dominant.

Up until this point he had been quite hostile to the notion of federalism, which he had always suspected to be a means of preserving feudal particularism against the revolutionary state. Now, however, Marx actually alluded back to those 18th century traditions – the aristocratic liberalism of Montesquieu and the temporising of the Girondins – and said that now, in the new context, their arguments for federalism, once reactionary, had become entirely appropriate. Federalism becomes a way of mobilising centres of proletarian and popular weight in order to act as a countervailing power to the centralised state. So, when Engels used the phrase, “the dictatorship of the proletariat in action”, in relation to the Paris Commune, what he meant was not so much a national French government of the proletariat, but rather local government which is sufficiently self-possessed that it cannot be overridden by the national government. The Commune structure, generalised across France, would facilitate the popular classes – the urban proletariat primarily – in dictating to a certain degree to the national government.

Marx clearly thought that if the Paris Commune survived it would have led in short order to an equilibrium republican government – a kind of a balance between proletarian cities organised in their own communes and a national government which relied to a large degree upon the peasantry: that would provide the best circumstances for the bourgeoisie and the proletariat to battle it out.

Here I would like to touch on the First International, in whose organisation Marx was very influential. There was an interesting debate in 1869, following the report of the International’s general council on the right of inheritance. Marx’s contribution is interesting, because here he argued that if a working man’s parliament decreed that rent should be paid to the treasury instead of the landlord, the government would obtain funding at once without any social disturbance. In other words, it was an immediate demand that the land should be nationalised and this income should go directly to the state. This would limit the ability of the bourgeoisie to directly influence the state without it becoming an additional burden on the proletariat.

Marx emphasised that this would relate to a period of special transition, where, on the one hand, the present economic base of society had not yet been transformed, but where, on the other hand, the working class had gathered strength enough to enforce transitory measures calculated to bring about the ultimate radical change of society.

This was similar to the ‘revolution in permanence’ and indeed connected to the dictatorship of the proletariat. The situation would be such that the state had autonomy from the bourgeoisie, but would not have sufficient power and authority to be able to dominate society as a whole. Marx about this time – including in The Civil War in France, where he focused on the ‘commune’ – laid a lot of emphasis on maximum self-governance, particularly of proletarian local authorities. This would be a means of preventing the state from becoming too dominant. It would also lay the terrain for class struggle, as Marx said in the first draft: vested interests would certainly remain and one could expect violent reactions – and indeed revolutions – but the proletariat would be in a position to dictate to the state without yet being in direct control of it.

In due course Marx seemed to suggests that “municipal power”, as he called it, would not simply be a check on the state, but actually would become its mode of supersession: the bourgeois revolution’s cheap government would actually be taken over by the working class movement.

Later in his life Marx wrote Critique of the Gotha Programme, criticising a party platform developed by German social democracy. The Gotha programme includes a demand calling for a progressive income tax, and it is interesting that Marx was very critical of raising the straight demand for a single, progressive income tax. It was problematic, he said, because taxes are the economic basis of government machinery. Income tax presupposes various sources of income from the various social classes and hence capitalist society. In other words, a government reliant upon a progressive income tax is structurally tied to capitalist economy and must desire its good health.

Here Marx was really quite a distance away from today’s radical reformers – he is not interested in a Socialist Workers Party-type demand to ‘make the rich pay’, which he found extremely problematic. Such a demand presupposes the persistence of the bourgeoisie and it also makes the state dependent upon the bourgeoisie, because ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’.

It is notable that what Marx instead called for in the programme of the Parti Ouvrier in France, which he helped draft in 1880, was for the property of the church to be appropriated by the state and the suppression of the national debt, as a means of decoupling the state from the capitalist economy. He also called for the commune – that is, local government – to control its own administration: of course, he expected such communes, in urban areas at least, to provide proletarian local self-government. To come back to an earlier point, the demand for direct taxation on the wealthy in the Communist Manifesto should be seen as a means by which the bourgeoisie could be expropriated, rather than a long-term means by which the state should be financed.

Role of state

Towards the end of Marx’s life (and afterwards, of course) we do see the development of mass social democratic parties set up on a national basis. In a sense their democratic politics was a continuation of the old programme of John Wilkes and the radicals, going back to the 1760s. What was new in the modern social democratic party, as it emerged in the late 19th century, was that it operated a means of keeping direct control over worker representatives who were elected to parliament.

The principle of the new-style party was that the parliamentary ‘fraction’ (the diminutive name is suggestive) must always be subordinate to the party at large – it should not have autonomy. It should not decide for itself what policies to support and must certainly not dictate who the leader of the party should be. Rather it is the representatives who are dictated to. That was the form of the proletarian party as it emerged in the late 19th century – it was a means of dictating to at least a section of the political class: that section which claimed to represent proletarian class interests.

In some respects I think these parties were influenced by the Nationalist Party in Ireland under Charles Parnell, which was entirely reliant – at least in its radical form – on money raised by the rank-and-file organisation in Ireland itself and sympathisers in America. The MPs of that political fraction were completely oppositionist – that is, they did not accept the legitimacy of the current unionist state at all, calling instead for home rule for Ireland. Moreover, the party’s MPs did not have individual autonomy – they were obliged to follow the instructions of the party; if not they would be expelled. This was pretty much the model for the parties of the Second International.

The Second International was not very keen on the term, ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. Karl Kautsky did mention it, but he was clearly embarrassed by it and tended to collapse it into a kind of regular form of electoral representation, which deradicalises the whole concept.

I believe that the only political party which had ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in its programme was actually the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party – even before the split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks both sides agreed that should be in their programme. It became something of a Russian shibboleth, and in fact ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ became a major issue of contestation between Kautsky and Lenin.

It was also in the period following the October Revolution that there was a considerable amount of debate internationally about how a socialist government should organise itself, what policies it should implement – on the assumption that any such government would be unable to immediately introduce full-scale socialism. So how should it maintain itself in the interim?

There was a lot of interesting debate about this – much of which is, oddly enough, not really considered today. The new ‘Social Democratic International’ put out a request to its national components for each party to state what its programme would be if it formed a government immediately. As far as I know, the only full-length response came from Sidney Webb in Britain, who wrote a book called A constitution for the socialist commonwealth of Great Britain, which is a worthwhile read. Webb was a Fabian, but at that time the Fabians were actually socialists: they were anti-capitalist and much more radical than many people think – and certainly not like the Fabians of today at all.

What the Fabians were opposed to was basing the movement upon proletarian class struggle, but they had no problem at all with calling for the abolition of capitalism, so A constitution for the socialist commonwealth was a fairly interesting attempt to grapple with the problem of how, in fairly short order, the complete replacement of capitalism by a socialist society could be brought about.

Webb ends the book by saying: “We venture on one prophecy. The period of transition, inevitable though it is, as one social order passes into another, is necessarily a disheartening and a dangerous one for all concerned.”3 An embittered class war will continue, he believed. He did actually see it as Marx and others had seen the period of the dictatorship of the proletariat: one of tumultuous, continuing class struggle. The Fabians thought, as Webb put it, that such problems could be avoided through a rigorous, ongoing assessment and open publicity – an interesting notion that reflects the ‘managerial’ perspective of the Fabians.

Of course, the real problem was what should be done with private ownership, because it is impossible to socialise the entire economy overnight. How can you prevent a situation arising where the state becomes reliant upon the wealthy, upon the still-existing bourgeoisie? While it still exists, the bourgeoisie will have considerable control over the taxation paid – which means it will have considerable control over the state. This is a problem which socialists have always had to consider – a problem made worse by the fact that, when there has been nationalisation, it has tended to target those industries which are in crisis, and so will not produce much revenue, whereas those parts of the economy which are profitable remain in the hands of private enterprise – in the hands of the capitalists.

So how can those resources be accessed? Through taxation. However, the problem, as I have pointed out, with progressive income tax is that you become reliant upon the health of that capitalist sector of the economy and in the end your government becomes one which is addressing the needs, not of the masses, but of the bourgeoisie – the golden goose which is laying the tax eggs that you need.

This problem was recognised, at least to an extent, by someone who today is largely forgotten: one of the founders of ‘fiscal sociology’, Rudolf Goldscheid, who was on the left wing of Austrian social democracy. In the period after the ‘Great War’ Goldscheid argued that there was a problem in Marx: he completely neglected the state. That is rather hard on Marx, of course, but it is not entirely wrong: I do not think Marx ever really systematically considered the role of the state. There is a basic problem: on the one hand, so long as it exists, it must be subordinated to the interests of the proletariat (and the citizenry at large) and, on the other hand, it must not become a Leviathan monstrosity which suffocates society.

Goldscheid predicted that the decisive revolutionary battle would be fought in the field of the theory and practice of public finance. That is putting it a bit strongly, but it is interesting. What he argued was that the state must have its own resources, since only a state with resources can be made into a just state, and therefore socialists must resolve the question of the public economy. Marx had tried to deal with this issue, as I have said, by making the state a gatherer of all receipts and counteracting excessive state power by maximising local and municipal local government (with local government itself according as much as possible to class concentrations of strength).

But would ‘land nationalisation’ really give the state the wherewithal it needs any more? What Goldscheid advocated was the state taking over public enterprises, even as they operated as individual enterprises in a still basically capitalist economy, and drawing upon their profits as an alternative to taxation. In that way it would no longer be reliant upon the taxation of either the masses or the bourgeois classes.

Today there have been arguments that the state could have shares in private enterprises, which would continue to exist, so long as their profits automatically go to the state. Where such enterprises cannot be usefully socialised, the state would not attempt to manage them: it would simply cream off their profits. In that way, you would no longer be reliant on income tax – which ultimately encourages the preservation of the wealthy. This is an interesting approach – a supplement to nationalising all rents. But the most obvious pitfall is that it makes the state interested in a profitable capitalist economy, even as that economy shrinks in weight.

Obviously, therefore, Goldscheid’s approach can hardly be said to resolve matters. We are still left with a state that is at variance with societal interests to a considerable degree. In this sense, the other half of the question remains important: ‘revolution in permanence’ and the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. We might now prefer to think in terms of ‘extreme democracy’: the whole panoply of embedded elections and political association ‘dictating’ to the state.

There are, of course, problems in this which I do not think Marx resolved and which have not been resolved since. Work to be done!


This is the second of two articles based on Marc Mulholland’s talk at Communist University in January. See youtube.com/watch?v=u-PVOk4RYUE

  1. ‘A tale of two phrases’ Weekly Worker March 9: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1433/a-tale-of-two-phrases.↩︎
  2. K Marx, ‘The summary suppression of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung’ CW Vol 9, New York 1977, pp451-53.↩︎
  3. archive.org/details/constitutionfors00passuoft/mode/2up.


also see:

Emancipation & Liberation – Coverage of What Is Communism?