Socialist Transition Essay

In classical Marxist theory, the transition to socialism is the period between the overthrow of capitalism and the achievement of communism. Although there is a sketch in Marx’s writings of what communism will look like, the institutional and social features of the socialist transition were not comprehensively outlined by Marx or his successors. According to Marx, communism, which also is called the second or higher stage of socialism, will be achieved when there is an end to social alienation. An end to alienation would be achieved when there are no social differences—which are created by economic inequality—and human beings enjoy mastery over themselves and nature. When this condition is achieved, there no longer will be any need for the political management of social division, and consequently, the state will wither away and political conflict will cease.

The socialist transition is, in the revolutionary tradition, the stage before this higher stage of socialism is reached. Coming as it does between the end of capitalism and the achievement of communism, it contains some elements of both. However, Marx did not specify how elements of communism and the capitalist past were to be reconciled and the latter transformed, and he did not work though how his ideas on the political organization of socialist transition might fit with his ideas about economic management. Indeed, Marx’s analysis of socialist transition was coincidental. His main description of the economic nature of the transition came in a polemic, the Critique of the Gotha Programme, against opponents in the German Social Democratic Party, and his main description of the political form of transition came in an extended piece of political journalism on the 1870 Paris Commune uprising, The Civil War in France.

Economic And Political Aspects Of Transition

Economically, Marx simply noted that the first stage of socialism would see a continuation of unequal rewards for work. This, Marx argued, was necessary because socialism would still bear the “birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it has emerged.” Only later, when distinctions between different forms of labor had been eradicated and work had become an activity through which people expressed themselves, rather than a means of survival, would differentials in reward be ended and distribution take the form of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”

Politically, Marx saw the socialist transition as being governed by a dictatorship of the proletariat, and the Paris Commune of 1870 was an example of this dictatorship. The commune was a democratic reflection of a unified and indivisible proletarian political consciousness for Marx. There were no differences between politicians and workers, and workers were politically active and could recall deputies to the commune who did not reflect the popular will. The commune represented a unified proletariat, and there was no meaningful difference between the commune as an institution and the proletariat as a class. Lenin copied this vision of socialist democracy under the dictatorship of the proletariat in his The State and Revolution, in which he described the soviets of the Russian revolution as a version of the Paris Commune. It was not a vision that recognized pluralism or dissent; such things would not exist because of the proletariat’s unity. This unity would ensure that the state, as an autonomous force of class repression, would begin to wither away as soon as the socialist transition began.

Marx’s failure to devote much time to a theory of socialist transition was not accidental. Underlying what he wrote on the subject was the assumption that the time between the collapse of capitalism and the achievement of the higher stage of socialism would be fairly brief. The demise of capitalism would occur only when it had fulfilled its historical mission and developed a high level of material wealth and a unified proletariat with a pronounced socialist consciousness. Socialism would thus emerge when the time was ripe for it so that the organization of the transition from the lower to higher stages would be minimal. As a dominant and unified socialist class, the proletariat would not require a large political organization, and economic productivity would be high so there would be no need for an extensive state role to ensure the economic abundance on which communism would rest.

No communist party took power in Marx’s ideal circumstances; indeed, most of them took power where the proletariat were a minority and the economy was underdeveloped. Therefore, communists came to power where there were no supports for socialist development. Engels had warned of the disasters that this would bring: The “worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents . . . .

Whoever puts himself in this awkward position is irrevocably lost” (1966). The result was that an already ant pluralist conception of popular democracy became even more hostile of and repressive toward political and social difference as communist parties consolidated their control as representatives of the missing proletariat and forced economic modernization to try to create the material circumstances necessary for socialism. As they did this, they created more stages of socialist transition to mark their “progress.” These new stages of socialist transition sought to excuse the state’s continued existence and vaunt the moral superiority of socialism over liberal democracy. They also were used by communist states to distinguish themselves from rivals within the socialist camp. Hence the USSR proclaimed it had built developed socialism before the rest of the socialist camp, while China proclaimed it could leap ahead of the USSR when it split from its sphere of influence in the early 1960s. In the end, the theory of socialist transition became an instrument of foreign policy and a device used by dictatorial rulers to legitimate themselves.


  1. Engels, Friedrich. The Peasant War in Germany. New York: International Publishers, 1966.
  2. Lenin,V. I. “The State and Revolution: The Marxist Theory of the State and the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution.” In Selected Works. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1968.
  3. Marx, Karl. The First International and After: Political Writings, volume 3, edited and introduced by D. Fernbach. London: Penguin, 1974.
  4. Polan, A. J. Lenin and the End of Politics. London: Methuen, 1984.
  5. Priestland, David. The Red Flag: Communism and the Making of the Modern World. London: Allen Lane, 2009.

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