Part 2 Frank Watters' memoirs
Lenin on the state and revolution
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“The State and Revolution”
by V I Lenin
It is significant that Lenin’s introduction to this work is dated August 1917, only weeks before he led the successful Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. He was in hiding at the time and thinking hard about how the capitalist class uses force, in the form of the state, against change and how revolutionaries should handle that.
The world war then raging had changed everything. The opportunist trend in socialism, having supported the war, was now seeking to benefit from this politically. Of course when Lenin was writing, few of the world’s people had the right to a vote on what the government should be. Even in Britain, most working class men had only been voting for a single generation and no women yet had the vote.
Lenin reminds us that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels had already done much to establish understanding that any particular form of state rule was “the product of society at a certain stage of development”. A state is the product of the “irreconcilability of class antagonisms” in that society. But it doesn’t reconcile these conflicts, standing above the fray, it’s an organ for the rule of a dominant group.
States have what seems like `natural’ territory. There’s generally no citizen army but a “special body of armed men” and a distinct “public power” that grows as it conflicts with “self-acting” groups of the population. Sometimes, struggle between specific class groups can cause a sort of stand off. But normally, the great wealth of a dominant class can cause it to exercise power over state officials. This works best in a `democratic’ society, since self-interest is the motor. Voting is a “gauge of the maturity of the working class” at any one moment but in itself it doesn’t change much.
Contrary to many misconceptions, Communism doesn’t seek a ruthlessly powerful state but actually wants it to “wither away”. But this can only happen if there are no longer any irreconcilable class interests. The first step is to take control of the means of production, the last step will be to end the historic role of the state. Eventually, the “government of persons” will be replaced by “the administration of things”, the state will effectively be abolished.
This doesn’t mean some sort of reformist evolution, not now at any rate. The capitalist type state has to be abolished by working people taking power. An election alone doesn’t do this, since the state is not ours to merely `capture’, no one is going to merely hand it over. We need our own form of “political rule” in a state to “abolish all exploitation … in the interests of the vast majority of the people”. Previous to socialist revolutions, transformations have only “perfected the state machine whereas it must be broken”. A new state machine is required, one that is the working class “organised as the ruling class”, or in the phrase current at the time “dictatorship of the proletariat”, perhaps better now rendered as `absolute rule of working people’, or even popular sovereignty.
So far, Lenin has been grappling with these questions as they actually affect the struggle going on in Russia at the time. He ridicules the antics of phoney socialists, for the coming struggle will be intense. There will be a need for a state that is democratic “in a new way”. Capitalist states vary in form but their essence is the same – exploitation of wage labour and production for commodity sale not for the needs of the people.
Looking back on the takeover of Paris by workers in 1871, Lenin hails this as the first attempt at real democracy. But the rebellion was ruthlessly crushed by armed force with great loss of life, even though a new state power had been erected locally with officials from the people. The lesson is clear, don’t imagine that you can simply use the existing state machine for your own purposes. Lenin reminds us that Marx estimated that, exceptionally, in Britain there was a time when this might even have been possible due to the size and power of its working class. But things have moved on, states have now become massive repressive instruments.
The question of precisely what form the replacement state will take will be answered by “the experience of the mass movement”. As we `workerise’ business, the question of who has the power can be solved. Such an action has to take place nationally, their needs to be central authority; there can be no utopian islands of socialism. Unlike anarchists, Marxists understand the need for state authority until the final victory.
Creating a truly democratic state requires a new approach. Putting state officials on workers’ wages is one way of `flattening the pyramid’. Socialist ministers change nothing if the old bureaucratic machine carries on. Civil servants really run the show, so converting state assemblies from talking shops into “working bodies” is a key step.
Even Engels once `conceived’ of a peaceful transition in Germany, if there had been the development of full democracy; but where real power lies away from a parliament this presents problems. Nonetheless, democratic republics are getting nearer to what we are looking for. Even if capital has not been abolished, it opens up possibilities for struggle.
The use of the federal form can be positive or negative. Britain would benefit from what we now call devolution, Lenin tells us. But some states need more unifying not less. The important question is: does it aid the future transition to a workers’ state? Of course, recognising the needs of national minorities is important. But states need a unifying `democratic centralism’ in the final analysis, however much local democracy there is.
But the abolition of the state, by gradually diminishing aspects of authority, also means the abolition of democracy – in itself a form of state rule. This withering away will be a lengthy process and will constitute a special stage of transition from capitalism. There’s no point speculating about the nature of society as this happens. Developed states across the world are diverse. The only thing that is clear is that the state “develops historically from capitalism”, so hangovers are certain. But capitalist democracy trends towards excluding especially the poor from involvement. This will change but, as realists, Communists also understand the “inevitability of excesses of the part of individual persons”.
In the first stage of communism or socialism, equality is not possible between individuals who are all very different. But exploitation has come to an end and capitalist property rights have been converted into common property. The principle of “he (or she!) who does not work, neither shall he eat” will generally apply. There’s still strong control over the distribution of goods.
The higher phase of communist society applies a different principle, of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. The development of productive forces will need to reach a very high level. The nature of labour itself is transformed. A culture of such sophistication can be attained, so that society no longer needs to “regulate the quantity of products to be received by each” (the market mechanism). This isn’t utopianism; it just naturally follows from a change to social ownership and the marginalisation of the class that currently controls the commodity production system.
The difference between these two stages is tremendous. It is the process of refining socialism into communism that should provide the great strength of the new system - until it no longer needs a state. Real democracy is achieved through actual participation, similar to the workplace group discipline and atmosphere found amongst close-knit groups of workers,. This will replace the need for armed bodies of control.
After scathing attacks on opportunists and revisionists who distort the essence of the Marxist understanding about the role of the state, Lenin `ends’ the book with a chapter heading but no words; in fact, he never managed to finish `State and Revolution’, being “interrupted by a political crisis – the eve of the October Revolution of 1917”. As he says, it was more useful to experience revolution than to write about it!