What is the nature of the state? Can it be reformed? Can it be turned into an instrument of social transformation, or must it be overthrown and replaced through revolutionary action?
These questions are always fundamental for activists seeking radical change. They are especially urgent in time of revolution. The relationship between state and revolution is a live issue for activists in Cairo right now. It may well become so for anti-austerity activists across Europe in the near future.
In fighting for change in the early 21st century, we are able to draw on a Marxist tradition of analysing and participating in the class struggle stretching back more than 150 years. The accumulated experience and understanding can provide a valuable guide to action in the present.
A good approach is to take a series of classic Marxist texts as our starting-point. Though the language is sometimes a bit old-fashioned, and the contemporary references can seem obscure today, the best of ‘the classics’ are succinct theoretical summaries written by revolutionary activists who faced many of the same issues and problems as we do.
We see further if we stand on the shoulders of giants. The value of reading a book like Lenin’s State and Revolution is that we do not make mistakes and waste effort by failing to learn lessons from the past. That is why we are launching a new series of Marx 101 – combining talks, pamphlets, web-text, and online videos – designed to introduce the Marxist classics to early 21st century activists.
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (1870-1924) – known as Lenin – wrote the final draft of his famous pamphlet State and Revolution while in hiding inside Russia during August and September 1917 (though most of the work had been done the previous winter). He never finished it. In October 1917 the Bolshevik Party led a successful insurrection to seize power, and Lenin spent the rest of his active life in the leadership of a new revolutionary government. ‘It is more pleasant and useful to go through the experience of revolution than to write about it’ was his comment on the unfinished condition of the manuscript.
Although not published until early 1918, some months after the October Insurrection, the book was intended as a contribution to debates about whether or not revolutionaries should aim to overthrow the state. History – the history made by the workers, soldiers, and peasants of Russia – gave a far more emphatic answer to that question than any Marxist text could ever do. But this, of course, is what gives State and Revolution its exceptional importance: it is the theory that explains the reality.
Lenin’s intention was to arm the activists of his own party – and of other European socialist parties – with the understanding they needed to act effectively in a revolutionary crisis. Two things made this an urgent historical task.
First, the First World War (1914-1918), an imperialist war for the re-division of the world that cost ten million lives, was fast bringing class conflicts across Europe to boiling point. Indeed, no sooner had Lenin finished the first draft of his book than the Russian working class exploded into action. During five days of revolutionary insurrection in Petrograd, the Tsarist capital, they won over the soldiers sent to shoot them down and toppled the 400-year-old regime of the Romanovs. Two years later, all Europe would be ablaze.
Second, despite the huge potential for social transformation that the emerging mass movements represented, the leaders of Europe’s mainstream socialist parties had abandoned the Marxist theory of the state and now had no intention of attempting to overthrow the bourgeois parliamentary system. The centrality of this contemporary political problem became clear in Russia during 1917 as ‘socialist’ politicians rushed to occupy seats around the cabinet table of successive ‘Provisional Governments’.
The ‘socialist’ ministers lined up with their liberal colleagues to defend both state power and private property. They argued for continuing the imperialist war and for upholding the authority of the officials and police inherited from the Tsar. They opposed the democracy of the soviets – the network of workers’, soldiers’, and peasants’ councils that represented the will of the common people. They defended traditional state authority ‘from above’ against revolutionary soviet authority ‘from below’. And they did this in order to protect the status quo and the private property of bankers, industrialists, and landlords. They opposed workers’ control in the factories, peasant seizures of the land, and the democratisation of relations between officers and men in the armed forces.
The Russian politicians were of a general type. Lenin’s primary political target was the leadership of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) – the biggest socialist party in Europe at the time, and therefore the dominant voice in the recently defunct ‘Second International’. The largest party in the German Reichstag (parliament), the SPD had voted unanimously to support the German government’s decision to go to war in 1914. The decision had stunned the Left, shattered the unity of the Second International, and left Europe’s socialists divided into nationalist fragments.
Lenin’s condemnation was vitriolic. ‘Opportunists’, he calls them: politicians who sell their principles to advance their careers. ‘Chauvinists’: supporters of nationalism and war. ‘Philistines’: people ignorant of Marxist theory and of working-class history.
His counterattack in State and Revolution was an uncompromising reassertion of the analysis of the state developed by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in the middle of the 19th century. He drew on a number of key texts, mainly those concerned with revolutionary events in France in 1848-1851 and 1870-1871, often making use of extended quotations.
One particular text stands out: Marx’s Civil War in France – a defence of the Paris Commune published in 1871, shortly after its suppression, at a time when mainstream media coverage was a torrent of abuse and lies. For two months between March and May 1871, Paris had been controlled by a revolutionary-socialist government brought to power by working-class insurrection. The revolt had then been smashed by a counter-revolutionary army.
Marx was ecstatic about the Commune’s heroism and idealism: the Communards, thousands of whom were murdered by their class enemies after the defeat, had been ‘storming heaven’. Marx became a forthright defender of the Commune – and was duly hounded by the right-wing media as ‘the red doctor’ (he was a fully qualified philosopher).
The theoretical significance of the Paris Commune was twofold. First, it confirmed Marx and Engels’ earlier conclusion that the existing capitalist state could not simply be taken over, but had to be overthrown and replaced with a new kind of people’s state; as Marx himself put it, ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes’.
Second, the Commune revealed, for the first time in history, the kind of state that a revolutionary working-class might seek to create; or, quoting Marx again, ‘it was essentially a working-class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour’.
The theory of the state developed by Marx and Lenin – a theory based on their own revolutionary experience and practice – remains one of the essential building-blocks of any serious attempt to change the world. Again and again, when working people have moved into revolutionary action, they have found their way blocked by the forces of the capitalist state – the police, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the army – and they have been forced to create their own organs of popular power to organise their struggle.
Sometimes, if the political crisis matures, these organs of popular power have grown and spread and begun to take on the form of a possible alternative system of government. Because they develop upwards from below, and because they frame mass participatory democracy, they can evolve into a comprehensive web of councils and assemblies capable of reflecting the will of the people directly and immediately.
Here, for Marx and Lenin, is one of the central characteristics of revolution: the clash of social classes becomes a confrontation between two rival forms of state. There is an existing capitalist state, where power flows hierarchically from above, and an embryonic workers’ state, where power flows democratically from below. The outcome of this confrontation determines victory or defeat for the revolutionary movement.
The contradiction at work here was encapsulated in the famous Bolshevik slogans in 1917: ‘Down with the Provisional Government!’ and ‘All Power to the Soviets!’ This, in effect, is the theory of State and Revolution translated into the street politics of a revolutionary mass movement.
How can we summarise the key theoretical insights? I think there are five basic ideas that need to be grasped. I have tried to encapsulate them in five direct quotes from State and Revolution.
When Lenin talks about the state, he is not thinking of schools, welfare benefits, and plans for new roads. These are matters of collective social administration that would be necessary whatever kind of society we lived in. What he has in mind are the core functions of the state associated with the bureaucracy, the police, the judiciary, the prisons, and the armed forces. He is thinking of the repressive ‘law and order’ functions of the state.
He is right – and follows Marx and Engels in this respect – in seeing this as the ‘essence’ of the state. Many 19th century states in fact consisted of little more than this: taxes were low, there was no welfare provision, and virtually the entire government budget was spent on the army.
It is still the case that grotesque amounts of wealth are wasted on weapons and war, and that the role of the state in suppressing protest at home and protecting ‘national interests’ abroad remains paramount.
Look at current events in Greece, Syria, and Gaza. Who can doubt that in these cases the irreducible core functions of the state are performed by ‘special armed bodies’ acting in the interests of bankers, dictators, and imperialists? And there are countless other examples from the last century of revolutionary crises which have exposed the state – reduced to its essential core functions – as a conservative, hierarchical, military-type institution that provides the ruling class with its last line of defence against radical popular movements.
What makes the state necessary is the division of society into antagonistic social classes. Were society equal, democratic, and co-operative in character, there would be no need for coercion. More precisely, were the working majority not exploited and liable to revolt, it would be unnecessary for the ruling class to create ‘special armed bodies’ to protect its property and power.
Lenin bases this part of his analysis on Engels’ Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Engels argues that no state existed in early human societies precisely because they were based on co-operative labour, collective ownership, and equal shares. The appearance of the state amounts to ‘the admission that this society has become hopelessly entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself’. Engels is referring here to the existence of ‘classes with conflicting economic interests’. The role of the state is to contain the conflict and ensure that it does not transgress ‘the bounds of order’.
But the state, while in a sense ‘standing above society’, is not, and never can be, neutral. There are two reasons for this. First, precisely because the state’s social role is to maintain ‘order’, it is by definition an apparatus for defending the existing order – not some hypothetical socialist order of the future. Second, the class which owns society’s wealth invariably also controls the state – irrespective of whether it is a police dictatorship or a parliamentary democracy.
Here Lenin makes his own contribution. Marx seems to have believed that revolution may have been possible without smashing the existing state in countries with parliamentary democracies. Lenin rejects this (and he seems to have written State and Revolution in part to clarify the matter in his own mind). He extends Marx’s characterisation of the state as ‘the national war-engine of capital against labour’ to all forms of the capitalist state. Why did Lenin consider this updating of Marxist theory necessary?
‘Democratic’ states like Britain and France were full participants in imperialism, the arms race, and the world war. Their parliaments were deliberative only, with representation based on occasional elections, and without any effective mechanism of accountability in the interim. Real power, in any case, lay elsewhere: in the various executive arms of the state – the cabinet, the ministries, the police, the judiciary, and the army. These were organised hierarchically, with power concentrated in the hands of highly paid politicians, bureaucrats, police chiefs, judges, and military top brass; men (almost exclusively so in Lenin’s time) who were either recruited from the ruling class or quickly inducted into it once elevated to senior posts.
The Paris Commune of 1871 revealed one of the most important secrets of working-class revolution: that it necessarily involves the smashing of ‘the bureaucratic-military machine’.
But this did not mean that the state as such was immediately abolished. On the contrary: power passed from one form of state to another, from the capitalist state to what Marx called ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’.
The phrase is unfortunate: we nowadays associate dictatorship with repression, secret police, and violations of human rights. But Marx was engaged in a polemic with anarchists who believed that all forms of the state could simply be abolished overnight in favour of ‘federalism’ (a network of self-governing communes). This, he argued, was madness, for revolution in fact involved centralised, coercive power – centralised because the radical energy of the masses had to be organised to defeat the concentrated power of capital, the state, and the ruling class; and coercive because the aim was the forcible suppression of one class (the minority) by another (the majority).
Both to seize power in the first place and then to hold onto it during a necessarily protracted period of social transition, the workers would need their own state power. It would be an organisation of the overwhelming majority, internally democratic, based on mass participation; but it would have to be both centralised and coercive in relation to class enemies. Anything else would be the height of irresponsibility.
Lenin asks a simple question: ‘By what is the smashed state machine to be replaced?’ To this question he gives two answers. First he draws on Marx’s description of the Commune in The Civil War in France. The Commune abolished both the regular army and the parliamentary system. It replaced them with a city-wide network of popular assemblies and a democratic militia of the entire working population organised on a neighbourhood basis. All officials were elected, received average wages, and were directly accountable and subject to instant recall and replacement.
But then Lenin drew on his own experience of the 1905 and 1917 revolutions in Russia, arguing that the workers’, soldiers’, and peasants’ soviets embodied the same principles. He counterposed this form of mass participatory democracy to the parliamentary ‘pig-sty’ represented by the Provisional Government.
Because both Commune and soviets were embedded in popular mass movements, they were both deliberative and executive bodies. Whereas bourgeois parliaments were mere talking-shops – such that the executive arms of the state were effectively insulated from democratic control – the workers’ state was characterised by unity of decision and action.
State and Revolution is a polemic directed against both reformists and anarchists. Reformists stand condemned for wanting to preserve the existing state, making them, regardless of their intentions, opponents of revolutionary change in practice. Anarchists stand condemned for wanting to destroy all forms of the state immediately – at the expense of the needs of revolutionary self-defence in the transitional period. But Lenin is closer to the anarchists than to the reformists, for he too wishes to destroy the capitalist state immediately, and all forms of the state eventually.
‘Eventually’ means: when the old order has been swept away beyond hope of recovery; when the new socialist system is wholly secure; when a society of co-operative producers, organised democratically and with equal rights and opportunities for all, has come into existence.
At this point, argues Lenin (following Marx), a further transition becomes possible: that from a society based on the principle ‘to each according to their ability’ to one based on the far more radical principle ‘to each according to their need’.
People are different from one another, and their contributions to society are variable. Consequently, to distribute rewards ‘according to ability’ precludes true equality. This becomes possible only at a higher stage of human social development, when each person’s work is subsumed within the collective productive effort of society as a whole, and each draws from a common pool ‘according to need’. Thus would the social conditions finally arise for the complete ‘withering away of the state’.
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