Michel Pablo

Democracy, Socialism,
and Transitional Programme

(Spring 1959)

From Fourth International (Amsterdam), No. 6, Spring 1959, pp. 32–35.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The spectacular collapse of the French Fourth Republic and the installation of a Bonapartist regime producing a de facto abolition of parliamentary democracy should normally have aroused among the Communist Parties at least a critical reexamination of their theses about “democracy,” the “democratic” bourgeoisie, and the possibility of “going over to socialism by peaceful paths.”

Nothing of the sort has occurred. For example, we shall hunt in vain among the labors of the XXIst Congress of the CP of the USSR for even the most slightly serious analysis of the events in France and of the present situation of the international workers’ movement. On the contrary, all the emphasis is laid on the advances of the USSR and the other workers’ states, by which advances socialism will tomorrow make its break-through into the entire world. The “French episode,” in this perspective, is naturally not worth pausing over very long.

As for the French Communist Party, the organization principally affected by the events in France, which has had its parliamentary representation cut down to a minute number of deputies in the new phantom parliament, it still finds a way in the draft theses for its XVth Congress to claim credit for having since 1946 pointed out that “a peaceful going over to socialism was not excluded” and to reaffirm that its perspectives remain “the possibility of going over to socialism by peaceful paths, including the use of the democratic parliament”!

In the days of Lenin’s Third International, such “stupidities” were the suitable attribute of Second International Socialists. But for a long time now official Communism, having sunk into the Stalinist Menshevik school, has been repeating and aggravating the “stupidities,” crimes, and betrayals of the reformist Social-Democracy.

Before the stubborn logic of facts, however, the embarrassment of the Stalinist “theoreticians” is now visible. In various of their recent writings, attempts have been made to reconcile the criticism of “bourgeois democracy” with the struggle for “renovated democracy,” and, across the latter, to extend a bridge toward socialism. There is no “democracy in general,” V. Joannes [1] teaches us, suddenly remembering Lenin’s theses on bourgeois democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat. “Democracy” is a class regime, a form of domination by the bourgeoisie. V. Joannes then lets himself go in an analysis of the economic and political evolution of industrial capitalism and monopoly capitalism, to show why, at the present stage, the “monopolist big bourgeoisie” can no longer exercise its dictatorial domination in the form of classic parliamentary democracy.

Having thus established “the ultra-reactionary evolution of bourgeois democracy,” V. Joannes tackles the part concerning the conclusions to be drawn from this analysis. The question, he writes, is the following:

Who is going to win: fascism, the goal of the reactionary authoritarian rule (as in France for example), or democracy, the vital condition for progress and regeneration?

Thus, after a minute analysis where our author fiercely demonstrates the inanity of “pure democracy,” the class character of “democracy,” and its inevitable crisis in the present evolution of the capitalist regime, he unexpectedly resuscitates abstract “democracy” and sets it up in opposition to fascism! Marxist realism gives way to petty-bourgeois fantasying, which wears itself out in powerless logical constructions of a regime midway between monopoly capitalism and socialism, called “democratic republic,” or “renovated democracy,” or “progressive democracy,” etc.

If the crisis of bourgeois democracy is taken as starting-point, for the same reason given by V. Joannes, the logical conclusion to be drawn should be to set up, in opposition to the strong state (Bonapartist or fascist) toward which the bourgeoisie necessarily heads, not “democracy,” the bourgeois regime which the bourgeoisie, also necessarily, abandons, but socialism, the democratic regime of the masses exploited by the bourgeoisie.

In the case of the crisis of bourgeois democracy, such is the alternative, and no other.

“The most important point,” Lenin wrote in his theses on bourgeois democracy for the 1st Congress of the Third International,

which the Socialists do not understand and which constitutes their theoretical myopia, their imprisonment within bourgeois prejudices, and their political treason toward the proletariat, is that in capitalist society, as soon as the class struggle that underlies it becomes aggravated, there is no middle point between the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and the dictatorship of the proletariat. All dreams of an intermediary solution are only petty-bourgeois reactionary laments.

To set democracy up against fascism (or Bonapartism) means from the Marxist sociological viewpoint to imagine the possibility of fighting against one bourgeois regime by means of another bourgeois regime, by staking on a supposedly fundamental contradiction between the monopolist big bourgeoisie and the “national” and “democratic” middle bourgeoisie, to which the workers’ movement would serve as a contributory force.

It is needless to insist on the flagrant unreality of such a basic intra-class contradiction between the big bourgeoisie and middle-bourgeois strata.

The crisis of bourgeois democracy is the sure reflection of a deep social crisis that puts the bourgeois social regime in danger – which means that the interests of the capitalist class as a whole take priority over its undeniable intra-class divisions; which also means that in fact only incurable petty-bourgeois dreamers can imagine the possibility of an intra-class struggle setting up, in opposition to the strong state sought by the big bourgeoisie, the state of the “democratic republic” of a middle bourgeoisie aided by the proletariat.

In reality the periods of crisis of bourgeois democracy, i e, of acute social crisis, show themselves also by an extreme polarization to right and left, the bourgeois parties of the parliamentary democracy becoming empty shells.

The recent French experience has once more wholly confirmed this implacable logic of the class struggle which clearly traces the outline of the real alternative: Bonapartist or fascist strong state of the bourgeoisie, or proletarian power.

Naturally the struggle for the latter, the struggle for socialism, is inseparable from the struggle for democratic liberties.

These, however, do not form an end in themselves, and even less the attributes of a social regime intermediate between capitalism and socialism, but are the by-product of the revolutionary struggle of the masses, within the framework of the capitalist regime, for socialism.

It is perfectly true that the working class in this basic struggle for socialism needs democratic conditions in order to develop its action and organization. But what is still more wholly true is that these conditions of democratic liberties have to be wrested by the proletariat’s steady revolutionary struggle against the anti-democratic evolution of the bourgeoisie. That is to say, it is the basic fight for socialism, the revolutionary struggle against the capitalist regime, that determines and guarantees successes in the field of democratic liberties, and not action for abstract “democracy.”

It is the might of the proletariat as a class, finding itself and fulfilling itself in the revolutionary struggle, that wrests and preserves the conditions of democratic liberties, while any class-collaborationist policy for “democracy” can only aid the destruction of these conditions.

The question therefore comes back to the nature of the programme to be put forward, and the character of forces in alliance to fulfill it.

The struggle for socialism can be conceived within the framework of a programme of prior struggle for “democracy.” That is the usual case with the present minimum programmes of the Communist Parties which set as their goal a “renovated” or “progressive democracy” and which all involve a prior stage of struggle essentially on that level.

The necessary struggle for democratic liberties can. on the contrary, be conceived as a subordinate part of the basic fight for socialism, guided by that perspective, within the framework of a transitional programme. Such a programme would dialectically enumerate slogans that were simultaneously democratic, transitional, and socialist, topped by the transitional slogan of a government of the workers’ parties.

Certain Stalinist theoreticians have been led to skirt this conception, but without wholly reaching it. Far from it. The Italians are sometimes a vanguard in this field, the school of Togliatti, for example, distinguishing itself from the quite Statistically rigid school of Thorez by a great elasticity in its conceptions and organization.

In his article Democracy and Socialism [2], Pietro Ingrao on several occasions touches lightly on the question of the dialectic and the struggle for socialism. He concedes that it is not a question here “of two different struggles, first to win democratic liberties, then to build a new social regime, but of one and the same struggle.” But his “new social regime” is only a “progressive democracy,”

which, by proceeding to modify the most backward structures of Italian society, and by giving a new social content to democratic liberties, would cut the roots of fascism and render impossible the reappearance of a regime of open reaction.

In his conception, it is a question here of an intermediate regime, a transitional regime, as he terms it, toward socialism.

The confusion on this question is the following: transitional demands are mixed up with the goal of a transitional political regime, distinct from the proletarian regime and, as a result, still, socially speaking, bourgeois in essence.

The correct idea is that which recognizes the need of organically and dialectically linking together in the programme elementary democratic demands with economic transitional slogans comprising reforms of the structure of capitalism.

The error consists of then limiting oneself to this part of the programme, of not completing it by socialist slogans (for example, statification of the means of production, etc.), and especially of confusing transitional slogans with a transitional political regime other than the regime of the government of workers’ parties.

What it is essential to understand is that the transitional political solution determines the structure, spirit, orientation, and dynamics of the transitional programme to be worked up, and that this solution cannot be a regime of collaboration with the bourgeoisie, within the framework of classic bourgeois institutions, but in fact a new regime.

Elementary democratic demands and structural reforms acquire this or that content, this or that effectiveness, only in relation to the nature of the political power. They must consequently be formulated and enunciated in a programme so as to aid the accession of a political power outside the control of the bourgeoisie, to lead thereto as it were by their own internal logic.

This power will not yet be the dictatorship of the proletariat, but a sort of direct antechamber leading to it.

In the concrete currently existing conditions, particularly in the advanced capitalist countries, this transitional political power will be able to take on the form only of a government of the workers’ party or parties, supported by the revolutionary organization of the masses in committees.

We thus reach the question of the forms and means for arriving at such a new political power that goes outside the framework of bourgeois political power. Lenin and the Third International of his time had conceived the fight for workers’ power in the advanced capitalist countries as the result of the extra-parliamentary revolutionary action of the masses, the necessary participation in bourgeois parliaments having as its aim only to use them so as to give a hand to this action by the masses and to destroy right from the inside any illusions about bourgeois parliamentarianism.

It was the sort of “new, unaccustomed, anti-opportunist, and anti-careerist” workers’ parliamentarianism that Lenin was preaching to the “Left Communists” in the Infantile Malady. Today the Khrushchevs have reached the conclusion that this thesis is out of style, for the “new situation created by the victories of the socialist world and the defeats of imperialism” permit of reaching socialism by the use of parliament.

But elsewhere these same “theoreticians” never stop emphasizing that the grip of monopoly capitalism on the state apparatus in all the advanced capitalist countries is greater than ever. The logical conclusion from this fact ought naturally to be that never was the working class in reality farther removed from the driving wheels that determine the control and management of the state and the economy, and that consequently never was the need so urgent to smash up the old state machine now dominated by the monopolists.

The conclusions that Lenin drew in his theses on bourgeois democracy not only still remain valid but are strengthened by the fact that monopoly capitalism has increased its power in all the advanced capitalist countries. He wrote:

It would be the greatest stupidity to believe that the most profound revolution in the history of humanity, that the transfer of power, for the first time in the world, from a minority of exploiters to the majority of the exploited, can take place within the old framework of bourgeois and parliamentary democracy, can occur without clear breaks, without creating new institutions incarnating the new living conditions, etc.

Such, however, is not the opinion of the present “renovators.” The French CP, which staked its honor on defending the Fourth Republic forsaken by the masses, is filled with an admirable courage. Relying on France’s “old democratic traditions,” and without being at all affected by the Gaullist “episode,” it is preparing to claim the place that must belong to the working class in the democratic and parliamentary institutions of the “renovated democracy” of tomorrow. [3] For the “struggle for socialism,” it gravely tells us in its theses for its XVth Congress, “lies in the perspectives of the struggle for democracy and its continued progress.” (Our italics in both quotations.)

In reality, it is the outright opposite that is true. In our period, democratic liberties, as well as an effective resistance against the evolution toward the strong state of the bourgeoisie, could be the result, the by-product as it were, only of the revolutionary fight of the proletariat for its own power. The struggle for “democracy” in reality is included in that for the socialist perspective.

In this perspective the use of the bourgeois parliament occupies only a place clearly subordinate to the extra-parliamentary struggle of the masses.

Some Stalinist theoreticians who understand to what a degree the French experience renders now untenable the position of the “parliamentary road to socialism” would like to put the emphasis on the extra-parliamentary presence “of a powerful mass movement” and the interrelations that must exist “between action in the parliament and action in the country.”

Pietro Ingrao, already quoted, writes in this connection:

We have always considered erroneous and one-sided the definition according to which the road toward socialism in Italy could be only the “parliamentary road.”

It must never be forgotten that the strength and effectiveness of the workers’ opposition in parliament depends precisely on its ability to intervene in the developments of the class struggle in the country in such a way as to establish a dialectical liaison between its own activity and the renovating revolutionary struggle of the working class and all the workers.

It is this idea of the dialectic liaison between the activity in parliament and “the renovating revolutionary struggle of the working class and all the workers” that must be further deepened. The Stalinist theoretician on several occasions just touches on the question of the dialectical liaison between democracy and socialism, between democratic and transitional slogans, between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activity, but without succeeding in getting outside the framework of a fundamentally reformist orientation and practice. He foresees for example that extra-parliamentary action may produce a change in the correlation of forces in parliament “in favor of the working class and the people,” probably alluding to the possibility of detaching a wing from the Christian-Democracy that would join the Communists and Socialists on the parliamentary level.

In reality the goal of the extra-parliamentary revolutionary action of the masses could not be to bring about a parliamentary government of a coalition between the workers’ parties and one wing of the bourgeoisie, but to impose a government of the workers’ parties, and to support it in the application of its transitional programme.

By educating and mobilizing the masses for a whole period of years on the basis, of a transitional programme oriented toward workers’ power of the workers’ parties in the advanced capitalist states, it would turn out to be possible to impose this political solution, either by winning the parliamentary majority or by forcing the bourgeoisie to accept the government of a coalition of workers’ parties.

In both cases, the parliamentary origin of the workers’ government would in fact be the result of the revolutionary united-front mobilization of the masses. This mobilization, as well as the adequate organization of the masses, would then be the guarantee that a workers’ government might apply its transitional programme against the inevitably fierce resistance of the bourgeoisie.

A consistent class policy on the basis of a concrete transitional programme adapted to the conditions in each country, and a united front of the parties claiming to be of the working class, would be able also in certain cases to win a parliamentary majority, and in others to impose a government of the workers’ parties even if were minoritary from the viewpoint of parliamentary representation. Then, beginning with the formation (however it came about) of a workers’ government, everything would depend on the degree of extra-parliamentary mobilization and organization of the revolutionary masses, enabling the workers’ government to begin to act by going outside the bourgeois framework.

The ‘new road” to socialism in each advanced capitalist country, i.e., the concrete transitional road to socialism, depends on three conditions: the working up of a transitional programme adapted to the peculiarities of the country; a systematic united-front policy of the workers’ parties; the orientation of the programme and the front toward the government of the workers’ parties applying this programme and backed by the extra-parliamentary mobilization and organization of the masses.

This road is the only one that is realist and able to enthuse and mobilize the masses. In the moments of grave crisis in bourgeois democracy which will not fail, as in France, to occur in all countries, broad masses of the petty-bourgeoisie of town and country, as well as the backward layers of the proletariat, will desert the centre bourgeois formations and move toward the extremes. These are the moments that can permit the workers’ parties to polarize either an absolute majority or the active and decisive political majority of the masses and impose their government.

Everything depends on their programme and their determination to fight for workers’ power.

The discomfitures being accumulated by the Communist and Socialist Parties, faced by re-heartened bourgeois reaction, are in reality the price they are paying for their class-collaborationist policy at the service of “democracy,” and of their division.

There will be no “renewal” save by the rediscovery of united struggle transitional to socialism.


1. In his Concerning Certain Tendencies in Bourgeois Democracy, published in the March 1959 World Marxist Review.

2. World Marxist Review, January 1959.

3. V. Joannes, for his part, in the above-quoted article, formulates the general strategy of the CPs in the advanced capitalist countries at the present stage as follows: “To lead the masses by means of concrete action to the demand for action and broader participation in the political and economic management of the country at all levels.”

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Michel Pablo
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Updated on: 29 January 2016