The state and revolution

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no. 116 - December 1993/January 1994

The naked state violence which was used against anti-fascists on 16 October will not be forgotten. Like Grunwicks in 1977 where one quarter of the Metropolitan Police were used to break the mass picket; like the police occupation of Southall in 1979; like the brutal suppression of the 1980, 1981 and 1985 uprisings led by black youth, like the 1984-85 miners strike; like the 1990 anti-Poll Tax street fighting, the 16 October anti-fascist demonstration 1993 revealed the stark truth: behind the charade of parliament there stands special bodies of armed men, specially equipped and trained, to enforce capitalist interests through organised violence. 16 October showed that the British state is nothing other than the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Lenin, as Marx and Engels before him, argued that the real political power of a ruling class rests in its control of a coercive state apparatus. All those opposed to the growing authoritarianism, of the British state should read his celebrated and utterly relevant State and Revolution.

The bourgeois state must be smashed

State and Revolution answers two fundamental questions. Firstly, why must the old state machine be smashed? And secondly, what should be put in its place? Lenin did not start from abstract definitions but reached his conclusions about the state and revolution by summing up the experience of class struggle. Lenin follows the analysis by Marx and Engels of two revolutions. He shows that the 1848 French Revolution, and more especially the negative experience of its counter-revolution where the bourgeoisie turned traitor to democracy rather than share political power with the working class, led Marx to conclude: 'The next attempt of the French Revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it...'

In a 1852 letter to J Weydemeyer Marx stated that no credit was due to him for discovering the class struggle:

'What I did that was new was to prove: 1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production, 2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, 3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society ...'

Note that while in 1852 he posed the dictatorship of the proletariat as an historical necessity, it was not yet possible for Marx to give a precise positive content to it.

Then in 1871 the heroic workers of the Paris Commune actually took a decisive step further on the road to socialism, before they too were defeated. Albeit briefly, the Communards demonstrated for the first time in history that the proletariat can smash bourgeois rule and organise its own forms of state power.

Marx and Engels thought this experience so important that they wrote in the 1872 preface to the Communist Manifesto, originally written on the eve of 1848, that changes were necessary in the programme in view of the practical experience of the 1848 Revolution and, still more, of the Paris Commune:

'One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz, that "the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery, and wield it for its own purposes."'

Marx and Engels learnt from the class struggle and were able to re-examine their theory in the light of it. Henceforth anyone who wanted to learn what the dictatorship of the proletariat looks like could look to the Commune.

The state is a class power

Human society began without classes and without a state. The state 'is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. The state arises where, when and insofar as class antagonisms cannot be reconciled. And, conversely, the evidence of the state proves that the class antagonisms are irreconcilable.'

The state is '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'.

The state is a class instrument for the exploitation of the oppressed class. The capitalist class rules through its state apparatus. The state is tied to the ruling class by a thousand threads, by direct corruption of its officials and by an alliance between the government and the Stock Exchange which 'imperialism and the domination of the banks have developed into an exceptional art'.

'Every revolution, by destroying the state apparatus, shows us the naked class struggle, clearly shows us how the ruling class tries to restore the special bodies of armed men which serve it, and how the oppressed class strives to create a new organisation of this kind, capable of serving the exploited instead of the exploiters'.

The state is 'a "special coercive force" for the suppression of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie, of millions of working people by handfuls of the rich; it must be replaced by a "special coercive force" for the suppression of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat ... which is impossible without a violent revolution.'

What is meant by 'the dictatorship of the proletariat'?

The Paris Commune had shown in its practical measures what is meant by the dictatorship of the proletariat.

'The workers, after winning political power, will smash the old bureaucratic apparatus, shatter it to its very foundations, and raze it to the ground; they will replace it by a new one, consisting of the very same workers and other employees, against whose transformation into bureaucrats the measures will at once be taken which were specified in detail by Marx and Engels [ie from the Commune]: (1) not only election, but also recall at any time; (2) pay not to exceed that of a work-man; (3) immediate introduction of control and suppression by all, so that all may become "bureaucrats" for a time and that, therefore, nobody may be able to become a "bureaucrat".'

Marx's genius lay in articulating the essence of the Commune, thus making it available for the whole movement. Instead of the fake capitalist democracy where 'the oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representative of the oppressing class shall represent them in parliament', the Commune was a working body, it broke down the divisions between legislature, executive and judiciary. It was a real democracy which was defended by the workers, i.e. by all the workers, men, women and youth, organised in arms. The economic and political strength of the working class stems from a conscious, organised collectivity. That is why Marx was a centralist. Critics of Marxism cannot understand this, for they 'simply cannot conceive of voluntary centralism'.

Marx's analysis of 1871 celebrated the direct proletarian democracy whilst at the same time pointing to the Communards' weakness in organising for a national, people's revolution:

'History has no like example of like greatness! If they are defeated only their "good nature" will be to blame. They should have marched at once on Versailles ... [the national centre of the reactionaries] ... They missed their opportunity because of conscientious scruples. They did not want to start a civil war ... '

The sombre truth was that as soon as it regained the upper hand the counter-revolution resorted to butchering tens of thousands of workers. This was a fundamental lesson for the future.

In summary the dictatorship of the proletariat, the proletarian state, is 'the organisation of the armed people'.

The withering away of the proletarian state

The new proletarian state is a necessary stage in the transition from capitalism to communism. Lenin considered the political and economic conditions in which this new state will start 'dying down of itself' will be, firstly, when there is no longer capitalist resistance and the threat of a bourgeois counter-revolution. The dictatorship of the proletariat is a new class rule 'the proletariat needs the state, not in the interests of freedom but in order to hold down its adversaries'.

State and Revolution also examines the economic basis to the withering away of the state. A proletarian state is not only necessary for the suppression of counter-revolution, its economic role is indispensable in a society which has just broken from capitalism. The proletarian state must centralise the accounting and control of production and distribution; it must plan the economy.

Bourgeois rights, law and habits will linger for a period. For how long a period, Lenin insists, cannot be determined in advance. The people would have to learn new habits, to educate themselves through the practical experience of collective responsibility. Lenin was not a utopian, he did not impose a blueprint on future generations but understood that:

'For the state to whither away completely, complete communism is necessary ...'

What Lenin added to Marx and Engels

Lenin paid detailed attention to the theory of the state because it had become necessary to define the tasks of the proletariat in a further, socialist revolution. He grasped that imperialism had produced the objective and subjective conditions for socialism. He saw that the Russian Revolution, taken as a whole, 'can only be understood as a link in the chain of socialist proletarian revolutions being caused by the imperialist war'.

In Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism Lenin exposed the objective roots of the war as rival capitalist powers seeking to redivide the world. And imperialism, ie monopoly capitalism, had through its concentration of production prepared the economic basis for socialism.

Due to the Tsarist censor, Lenin's Imperialism only deals obliquely with consequences for political action against the state. As Lenin argued elsewhere the war had transformed capitalism to state monopoly capitalism. We see this today: every where democracy is subverted to suit the needs of the multinational companies.

The primary purpose of State and Revolution was to wage war, 'against opportunist prejudices concerning the "state"'. Lenin realised that the subjective conditions for a socialist revolution were rapidly maturing as well. Ever since his return to Russia in April 1917, Lenin had conducted a campaign urging the workers to take power based on their own mass organisations, the Soviets. He spoke thus to a soldiers meeting:

'Not the police, not the bureaucracy, who are unanswerable to the people and placed above the people, not the standing army separated from the people, but the people themselves, universally armed and united in the Soviets, must run the state ... '

The Marxists and the anarchists

From April to October 1917 the Bolsheviks and anarchists fought as revolutionary allies against the bourgeois state and bourgeois socialists. Although there were tactical disputes in those turbulent months, they were differences within the revolution and Lenin never tired of trying to win the anarchist revolutionaries to Marxism. Both trends opposed the Provisional Government because it continued the imperialist war, both trends realised that the only way to end the slaughter would be to smash the Russian military apparatus, and both sought to organise the masses on the streets.

Concrete experience backed Lenin's carefully drawn 'distinction between the Marxists and the anarchists':

'(1) The former, while aiming at the complete abolition of the state, recognise that this aim can only be achieved after classes have been abolished by the socialist revolution, as the result of the establishment of socialism, which leads to the withering away of the state. The latter want to abolish the state completely overnight, not understanding the conditions under which the state can be abolished.

(2) The former recognise that after the proletariat has won political power it must completely destroy the old state machine and replace it by a new one consisting of an organisation of the armed workers, after the type of the Commune. The latter, while insisting on the destruction of the state machine, have a very vague idea of what the proletariat will put in its place and how it will use its revolutionary power. The anarchists even deny that the revolutionary proletariat should use the state power, they reject its revolutionary dictatorship.'

Lenin was determined to learn from the weaknesses of the Commune as well as its strengths. There was no possibility that the state could be abolished overnight. Lenin, who saw that 'socialism is now gazing at us from all the windows of modern capitalism' also saw that the proletarian revolution, in whatever country it first broke out, would have to create a new type of state capable of fighting defensive wars against imperialist intervention and capitalist restoration.

State and Revolution was written for the socialist revolution, not about the socialist revolution. That is what shines through even today, and is why it should be read and reread by all seeking to oppose the British state and fight for socialist revolution in Britain.

Andy Higginbottom


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