In the latest of his reviews of classic socialist texts James Grannell looks at Lenin’s most famous book The State and Revolution.
Lenin’s The State and Revolution, written in 1917, is widely accepted as one of the classics of Marxist theory, but what’s it all about?
In this relatively short text Lenin outlined his theory of the state and the process through which the state, as we know it, will disappear in the post-revolutionary period. Throughout the text Lenin described some key concepts: the nature of the capitalist state, the role of the state in the post-revolutionary period, and the withering away of the state.
Lenin asserted that, ‘the state arises when, where, and to the extent that class antagonisms cannot be objectively reconciled,’ and that its existence is proof that these class antagonisms are irreconcilable. It should be noted from the outset that when Lenin talks about the state he is not referring to the social aspects of the state (hospitals, schools, public buildings). These are societal institutions rather than state institutions and are necessary regardless of the existence of the state.
Lenin is instead referring to the organs of state power (police, judiciary, state bureaucracy etc.) and how they operate to maintain a hierarchical society comprising of the few who govern and the many who are governed.
Lenin referred to ‘special bodies of armed men’ whose role is to protect the status quo. These are the army and police. In Ireland the police are called An Garda Síochána (the guardian of the peace). But Lenin asks us to consider what exactly the police are guarding?
The answer to this question becomes clear during times of public revolt and protest. Their role is to maintain state dominance over the mass of people. They face the protesters armed with their batons, dogs, and riot gear, and prevent them from wrenching power from the ruling class. They stand with the parliamentarians against the proletariat.
And what of this parliamentarianism? Lenin argued that, ‘to decide once every few years which member of the ruling class is to repress and oppress the people through parliament’ was its real essence. Parliament provides a veneer of democracy. Indeed, as he pointed out, most of the decisions of parliament are made behind the scenes by the cabinet, and the vast bureaucracy that maintains various ministries – who are in turn lobbied ad nauseam by those shadowy figures who represent the interests of big business.
Lenin’s theory of the state can perhaps be summarised as follows: in a class-based society the state is a tool for the oppression of one class by another. As already mentioned, under capitalism the few subjugate the many via the mechanisms of the state machinery. But what happens to the state during and after the revolutionary period?
At the time there were two main views on the left. The Social Democrats believed that reform of the system could be achieved through the state apparatus, while the Anarchists believed that the state must be dismantled immediately. Lenin rejected both views.
Firstly, the state as it exists could never be used by the mass of people; its entire function is to oppress them. Therefore, the capitalist state must be dismantled. However, it would be naïve to believe that the ruling class would simply give up power, embrace the revolution, and start lecturing on Marxist.
Therefore, a state mechanism will be necessary for the use of the vast majority against their former rulers – this is the dictatorship of the proletariat or workers’ power. Without this it is inevitable that the counter-revolution would seek to re-impose its power over the mass of people.
Lenin was closer to the Anarchists in his view than to the Social Democrats. He believed in a stateless society, but argued that during the period of revolutionary struggle a state would be a necessary tool for the mass movement of the people to wield against their former masters.
However, there would be a new, truer, form of democracy based on collective decision making. In the Paris Commune this took the form of citizen assemblies and in revolutionary Russia it took the form of the Soviets or Workers’Councils.. As the entire population participated in decision making through workers’ councils etc., class based society would be ended. Because the state functions for the oppression of one class by another, it would inevitably wither away with this erosion of its material basis.
As Lenin stated, ‘only Communism renders the state absolutely unnecessary’ because there will be no need for oppression on the basis of class. At this point the maxim ‘From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs’ will be a reality.
This then is the crux of Lenin’s argument. That we must fight and that our fight is a fight for freedom. As he wrote in 1918 – ‘While the state exists there is no freedom. When there is freedom, there will be no state.’