The state and revolution

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A poster for the film Battleship Potemkin about the 1905 Revolution

In the weeks running up to the October Revolution Lenin took time out to write one of his most important works, a study of state power and who gets to hold it, writes Amy Leather.

State and Revolution was written by Lenin in the summer of 1917, during the momentous year of revolution in Russia. It addresses the central problem of all revolutions: that of state power and which class is to hold it. This was not an abstract question. The February Revolution had got rid of the Tsar but many of the issues that had led to it were not resolved. The new Provisional Government refused to distribute land to the peasants, continued the war, and offered little to workers. So people continued taking matters into their own hands and the revolutionary process went on during the months following February, drawing in millions of workers, peasants and soldiers.

It was not clear how this process would end. When Lenin wrote State and Revolution “dual power” existed in Russia. The February Revolution had thrown up soviets, which were far more democratic than anything previously seen and controlled much of what went on. But alongside these was the Provisional Government, dominated by those who wanted to build a capitalist state, in which ultimately the soviets would have no place.

Unstable

Dual power could not last indefinitely. One side would have to win out. This extremely unstable situation is the context for the questions Lenin is addressing in State and Revolution. How could the revolution go forward and matters be resolved in the interests of workers and all oppressed people, rather than the capitalists?

100 years on in Britain, we are not in a revolutionary situation. But the state is still with us and many of the arguments that Lenin was having in 1917 are pertinent today. This is a time of political turmoil and polarisation, with new formations being thrown up. The phenomenon of Corbynism and the possibility of the election of a left Labour government raises the question of whether it is possible to run the state in the interests of workers — and whether this process can bring more fundamental change and eventually transform capitalism into socialism.

Faced with the pressing questions of the revolution Lenin went back to the writings of Marx and Engels on the state. Their starting point is that the state is not neutral. Rather it is a means of class rule. Engels identified that the state had not always existed but became necessary at a certain stage of economic development, and when society split into classes.

Conflict is built into class society. Under capitalism the interests of capitalists and workers are fundamentally opposed. A state arises precisely because class contradictions cannot be reconciled. Since the ruling class is a tiny minority of people who exploit the vast majority of people, it needs a way to enforce its rule.

The state performs this role in a number of ways, from the laws protecting private property to the network of undemocratic institutions exercising legal force over us, such as the courts and government ministries run by unelected judges and top civil servants. Ultimately, if these fail, order is maintained by physical force and coercion in the form of the police, army and prisons. Lenin called these “special bodies of armed men”.

So the state does not stand separate from society. It is not a neutral body able to mediate between the conflicting classes. It was created by the ruling class to serve its interests. Marx and Engels were very clear: the working class cannot take hold of the existing state machinery and use it for its own purposes. Instead the working class must smash the state completely.

But what does it mean in reality to talk of smashing the state? When Marx, Engels and Lenin talk of smashing the state it is in the context of mass revolutionary upheavals. They did not advocate a few revolutionaries just going out and smashing up a court house or blowing up the Houses of Parliament.

It was the experience of the Paris Commune in 1871 that taught Marx how the state machine might be dismantled and what could replace it. The Paris Commune was born in the early hours of 18 March 1871 when a popular uprising forced the government, its troops and officials out of the city. For 72 days the people of Paris took direct control of their city. As one Communard noted in his diary, “Legally we had no more government, no police force or policemen, no magistrates or trials, no top officials or prefects, the landlords had run away in panic abandoning their buildings to the tenants, no soldiers or generals, no letters or telegrams, no customs officials, tax collectors or teachers…”

A council, known as the Commune, was formed of municipal councillors elected from every ward of the city. It was like no previous institution. Its first decree was the abolition of the standing army and the police. So it got rid of the “special bodies of armed men” and replaced them with the “armed people” in the form of the National Guard, a democratically elected militia. All officials were made subject to election and recall and paid the average wage — the state and those carrying out its functions were no longer standing separate from or above the people.

Explosion of democracy

These changes were accompanied by an explosion of democracy. Every evening “clubs” met across the city, each one drawing in over 5,000 people to debate how things should be run, and crucially to ensure decisions were acted upon. In this way the Commune was held accountable to the mass movement by direct democracy.

The workers and poor ran Paris for themselves. They ensured shops were open, the postal service worked, that rubbish was collected and water flowed. The repressive apparatus of the state had been abolished and replaced with something far more democratic — a workers’ state, run and controlled by the majority.

But this is not the end goal of socialism. A workers’ state is transitional — a phase on the way to having no state at all. We are fighting for a world with no class divisions, where there is no separation between those who own all the means of production and those who do all the work. We have already identified that the state is a product of conflict between the classes, created to enforce the rule of one class over another. So, if there are no class divisions then there is no need for any kind of state.

However, it is also clear that if the capitalist class were overthrown then they would fight back. The Paris Commune was brutally suppressed when the French army regrouped, while 13 hostile armies invaded Russia to help the White Army try to put down the revolution. Therefore in the initial period following the overthrow of the capitalist class the working class would need a centralised state, with a concentrated authority of its own to suppress the opposition to workers running society. It would be a special phase of transition to break the resistance of the capitalist exploiters and also to organise the work of the socialist economy.

A workers’ state looks completely different from a capitalist state. No longer are we talking about a tiny minority maintaining rule over the vast majority of the population. In a workers’ state the majority are organised as the ruling class in order to hold down their former oppressors. This is an inherently democratic task, “which for the first time becomes democracy for the poor, democracy for the people and not democracy for the moneybags”. The majority of people enforcing their will on a tiny minority is a lot easier than the other way round. Workers are able to enforce their rule almost without a “machine” or special apparatus - but simply through virtue of being the majority.

Wither away

However this workers’ state will immediately begin to wither away once there are no class contradictions. The need for a special machine of suppression begins to disappear “for there is nobody to be suppressed, ‘nobody’ in the sense of a class”.

Of course there will be disagreements in a classless society, but these can be debated or mediated and democratic decisions reached. Lenin is always at pains to avoid utopianism and points out that there may be what he terms “excesses” on the part of individuals and thus the need to suppress these. But this could be done by the intervention of people in the way that in society now people intervene to stop a fight in the street rather than needing some special outside force to enforce behaviour.

He also makes the point that since the underlying social causes of much destructive behaviour by individuals — exploitation, oppression and poverty — would be removed so therefore the “excesses” would also wither away.

Lenin argues that once people are freed from the “untold horrors and savagery” of capitalist slavery they “will gradually become accustomed to observing the elementary rules of community life…they will become accustomed to observing them without force, without coercion, without subordination, without the special apparatus of coercion which is called the state”.

The need for a workers’ state recedes as there are no longer any capitalists, any classes and consequently no class to be suppressed — and will wither away completely when the norm in society is “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”, by which Lenin means that everyone contributes to society what they can and takes out what they need, going beyond the bourgeois right of getting back what you put in.

So when we talk about the withering away of the state we are talking about the withering away of the workers’ state, not the existing capitalist state. Lenin’s polemic in State and Revolution is in part directed against those who distorted Marx’s teaching on the state to argue there was no need for revolution since the existing state will wither away. In fact the Marxist idea of the withering away of the state presupposes that revolution has happened and destroyed the capitalist state.

Lenin had broken off from the revolution to write State and Revolution. However, he never finished the book because, as he wrote in the postscript, “I was interrupted by a political crisis — the eve of the October Revolution of 1917.” As Lenin said, such an “interruption can only be welcomed… It is more pleasant and useful to go through the ‘experience of the revolution’ than to write about it.”

A revolution of the magnitude of Russia in 1917 has not yet been repeated, but an understanding of the state is still crucial for a socialist strategy today. Historical experience shows us that if a left wing government, perhaps one headed by Corbyn, was to try to implement a radical programme then all the weight of the capitalist state will be brought down on it. It is unlikely that the media, the bosses, the rich and all those at the top of the society would accept the democratic will of the people through the ballot box, happily agreeing to pay more tax, to hand over the rail companies and other privatised utilities to be renationalised, essentially to agree to give up their wealth and power. And their opposition against Corbyn would not be limited to a few nasty headlines in the Daily Mail. They would organise against him using all the means at their disposal. And if the pressure on the currency and through the financial markets fail then they have already revealed what they would do — remember the army general who threatened a mutiny if Corbyn was elected.

Counter-power

The power to resist this won’t come from inside parliament; indeed we know that some Labour MPs will be on the side of those undermining Corbyn. Instead we have to match the power of capital and the power of the state with a counter-power. That is the power of workers when organised not only on the streets, but in the workplaces. When workers act collectively, go on strike, stop profits being made, they hit capitalism at its heart and in the process create new forms of democratic organisation.

That is why supporting Corbyn against the right means more struggle, not less. But this will also bring us into conflict with the state. Revolutionary socialists must organise with a clear strategy that understands the nature of the state, that it can’t be taken over and used by workers because it is a tool of the capitalists. Instead we are committed not only to building struggle but to fighting for working class power, smashing the state, and seeing workers, the majority of people, running society in a completely different and profoundly democratic way.