State and Revolution

July 22, 2008

Shaun Harkin introduces a classic work that takes up the question of how workers' power can be organized.

EVERY STRUGGLE aiming for genuine and fundamental transformation of society must come to terms with the role of the state.

Today, there is still much debate and controversy about how to approach the state, because these questions are intimately related to how society can be changed: Can the capitalist state be reformed through elections into something that meets the needs of the majority? Is the state as powerful as it once was or do corporations have more power? Can workers take over the capitalist state or do we need a different one? Is a workers' state a necessity to repel counter-revolution?

It goes without saying that revolutionary socialists, reformists and anarchists have different approaches to these questions. But it is important to test these approaches against the actual experience of the working-class movement historically.

The Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin wrote what became State and Revolution in the critical months immediately preceding the outbreak of the 1917 February Revolution in Russia. The arguments contained in the short book became a practical guide to Russia's working class in the period before and after the seizure of political power in November 1917.

In the preface to the first edition, Lenin writes:

The question of the state is now acquiring particular political importance in theory and in practical politics. The imperialist war has immensely accelerated and intensified the process of transformation of monopoly capitalism into state-monopoly capitalism. The monstrous oppression of the working people by the state, which is merging more and more with the all-powerful capitalist associations, is becoming increasingly monstrous. The advanced countries--we mean their hinterland--are becoming military convict prisons for the workers.

The unprecedented horrors and miseries of the protracted war are making the people's position unbearable and increasing their anger. The world proletarian revolution is clearly maturing. The question of its relation to the state is acquiring practical importance.

STATE AND Revolution addresses itself to these key political issues: the role of the state, why the working class must overthrow the bourgeois state, the "dictatorship of the proletariat" (Lenin used the term "dictatorship" to refer not to tyranny, but to the exercise of political rule; thus, the meaning of his phrase is the dictatorship of the majority, in contrast to the dictatorship of the minority that exists under capitalism, no matter what the form of government) and the transition from socialism to communism.

What else to read

But first, Lenin had to revive a Marxist approach to the state. Following the deaths of Marx and Engels and the growth of the Second International socialist parties, a reformist version of Marxism had come to replace the revolutionary ideas of its pioneers.

The leaders of the Second International supported their own nation states in the imperialist slaughter of the First World War and used Marxism to defend their actions. Marxism was completely distorted and the revolutionary socialist movement left in crisis. As Lenin wrote:

What is now happening to Marx's theory has, in the course of history, happened repeatedly to the theories of revolutionary thinkers and leaders of oppressed classes fighting for emancipation.

During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the "consolation" of the oppressed classes and, with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it.

Today, the bourgeoisie and the opportunists within the labor movement concur in this doctoring of Marxism. They omit, obscure or distort the revolutionary side of this theory, its revolutionary soul."

Thus, Lenin begins, "our prime task is to re-establish what Marx really taught on the subject of the state." To do so, he draws on the work of Marx and Engels and uses extensive quotations from their writings. As Lenin argues:

The state is a product and manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. The state arises where, when and insofar as class antagonisms objectively cannot be reconciled. And, conversely, the existence of the state proves that the class antagonisms are irreconcilable...

[T]he state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression by one class by another; it is the creation of "order," which legalizes and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the conflict between the classes...

Engels elucidates the concept of the "power" which is called the state, a power which arose from society but places itself above it and alienates itself more and more from it. What does this power mainly consist of? It consists of special bodies of armed men having prisons, etc. at their command...A standing army and police are the chief instruments of the state power.

Thus, the ruling class rules through its monopoly and control over the means of violence in society. The ruling class uses violence against other ruling classes in imperialist war and against domestic (the working class) threats to its rule at home.

THE NOTION that socialists could win elections and gradually remove capitalism through legislation had become widespread within the socialist movement before the First World War. Even now, this idea is understandable since we are brought up to believe that the "will of the people" can be expressed through democratic elections. When people don't vote we are told they are lazy, stupid or don't care.

But as Lenin put, using quotes from Engels, "In a democratic republic, Engels continues, 'wealth exercises its power indirectly, but all the more surely,' first, by means of the 'direct corruption of officials' (America); secondly, by means of an 'alliance of the government and the stock exchange' (France and America)."

This picture is familiar today. In a society based on exploitation and oppression, "democracy" is very limited--but, simultaneously, it is used to gain legitimacy for class domination. In any election, the ruling minority's control over the means of production is never up for debate.

Lenin argues that the working class can only liberate itself and humanity through a revolution, something that reformist leaders had "pruned" from Marxism.

Against the idea that socialists could simply and gradually take over the state, Lenin argued, based on the experience of the Paris Commune in 1871, that workers would have to replace the capitalist state machine with a new state, based on institutions of workers' democracy (workers' councils). The capitalist state would not simply "wither away" through successive pieces of legislation.

In support of this argument, Lenin quoted from Engels: "The proletariat seizes state power and turns the means of production into state property to begin with. But thereby, it abolishes itself as the proletariat, abolishes all class distinctions and class antagonisms, and abolishes the state as the state."

However, to defeat the resistance of the bourgeoisie and begin the construction of a new socialist society, the working class needs a workers' state. As Lenin argues:

The theory of the class struggle, applied by Marx to the question of the state and the socialist revolution, leads as a matter of course to the recognition of the political rule of the proletariat, its dictatorship, i.e., of undivided power directly backed by the armed force of the people.

The overthrow of the bourgeoisie can be achieved only by the proletariat becoming the ruling class, capable of crushing the inevitable and desperate resistance of the bourgeoisie, and of organizing all the working and exploited people for the new economic system.

The proletariat needs state power, a centralized organization of force, an organization of violence, both to crush the resistance of the exploiters and to lead the enormous mass of the population--the peasants, the petty bourgeoisie, the semi-proletarians--in the work of organizing a socialist economy.

Thus, the "dictatorship of the proletariat" would replace the "dictatorship of the capital."

WHILE THE reformists denied the need for a revolution that would destroy the power of the exploiters, anarchists, on the other hand, rejected the need for any kind of workers' state. The brutal experience of Stalinist dictatorships has given added life to the argument that all forms of authority and the state need to be opposed and abolished for workers' power to survive.

But how, then, can the counter-revolution be fought? In Russia, the working class took political control over society and over the means of production. In response, there was violent resistance by the expropriated ruling class. It was necessary for the new Russian workers' state to organize a defense of the revolution. This defense failed, not because a workers' state was a mistake, but because revolution didn't spread internationally and allow Russia to overcome its isolation and economic backwardness.

This is how Lenin took up the question:

It was solely against this kind of "abolition" of the state that Marx fought in refuting the anarchists! He did not at all oppose the view that the state would disappear when classes disappeared, or that it would be abolished when classes were abolished. What he did oppose was the proposition that workers should renounce the use of arms, organized violence, that is, the state, which is to serve to "crush the resistance of the bourgeoisie."

To prevent the true meaning of his struggle against anarchism from being distorted, Marx expressly emphasized the "revolutionary and transient form" of the state which the proletariat needs. The proletariat needs the state only temporarily. We do not at all differ with the anarchists on the question of the abolition of the state as the aim. We maintain that, to achieve this aim, we must temporarily make use of the instruments, resources and methods of state power against the exploiters, just as the temporary dictatorship of the oppressed class is necessary for the abolition of classes.

However, the workers' state would be very different from those based on minority rule. In State and Revolution, Lenin answers the question of what is to replace the state machine of the old order by referring to the Paris Commune:

The Commune, therefore, appears to have replaced the smashed state machine "only" by fuller democracy: abolition of the standing army; all officials to be elected and subject to recall. But as a matter of fact, this "only" signifies a gigantic replacement of certain institutions by other institutions of a fundamentally different type. This is exactly a case of "quantity being transformed into quality"...

The organ of suppression, however, is here the majority of the population, and not a minority, as was always the case under slavery, serfdom and wage slavery. And since the majority of people itself suppresses its oppressors, a "special force" of suppression is no longer necessary! In this sense, the state begins to wither away.

Like Marx and Engels, Lenin never attempted to set out a blueprint for what a future socialist society would look like. However, State and Revolution contains a very useful and important discussion of the transition from capitalism to communism.

Lenin believed it would be impossible to say exactly when the state would ultimately disappear, but that it would be a lengthy, drawn-out process and a struggle. A new society must emerge out of capitalism and will be marked in all respects by birthmarks from the old society--economically, morally and intellectually. For human beings to fully free themselves from the marks of class society will take generations.

But society will become progressively more equal, and democracy will become fully meaningful, when more and more people take direct control over the running of society. The continual expansion of the means of production will end the material basis for competition, fear and want.

To explain the higher phase of communist society, Lenin quotes Marx:

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual division of labor, and with it also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished, after labor has become not only a livelihood but life's prime want, after the productive forces have increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of the cooperative wealth flow--only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois law be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

In State and Revolution. Lenin synthesizes many aspects of Marxist theory with a brilliant grasp of the dialectical method to make a powerful case for revolutionary socialism. It should be required reading for all.

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