The State and Revolution

Lenin on the "Withering Away'' of the State and Violent Revolution, Chapter 1, Section 4

Lenin discusses these two topics in section four of chapter one of The State and Revolution (1917). This section begins with a long quote from Engels’ 1870’s work Anti-Dühring. The quote begins with “The proletariat seizes state power and turns the means of production into state property to begin with. But thereby it abolishes itself as the proletariat, abolishes all class distinctions and class antagonisms  and abolishes the state as state.”

There is a problem with this formulation. Article 11 of the Soviet Constitution (1977) clearly stated “State property, i.e. the common property of the Soviet people, is the principal form of socialist property.” This was the basis of the Soviet system (there were other forms of property– individual, collective, etc., but this was the basis). Also in Cuba about 90% of the economy is under state control. The problem is that in no country in which the working class actually came to power and turned the means of production into state property did it also abolish itself as a class as well as abolish the state as state. On the face of it this quote from Engels seems not to be correct.

Lenin, of course, in 1917, could not foresee the future course of events in the development of socialism. Nevertheless, his reasons for accepting the truth of the above quote and his defense of Engels’ views are both interesting and pertinent to the ongoing  struggle for socialism today.

Lenin agreed with Engels’ position that “The first act by which the state really comes forward as the representative of the whole of society — the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society— is also its last independent act as a state.”

This can only make sense if we have a particular definition of “the state” in mind. This definition includes the notion that a “state” is an organ used  to “hold in subjection” another social class or classes. The “state” is therefore a “special coercive force.”  For Engels, when the productive forces of society are taken from the capitalists and turned into social property, the capitalists cease to exist as a separate class distinguished by its ownership of the means of production. This ex-class is so tiny compared to the working people that it will, in effect, disappear and there will be no need for a “special coercive force” to hold down and exploit another class. Khrushchev’s imaginary “state of the whole people” will be a reality and the state as state will gradually melt (“wither”) away as the self governing people create new forms of association based on the common ownership of the means of production.

Engels realized all this would take time.  He never thought this would take place overnight. “The state is not ‘abolished’,” he says. “It withers away.” We should note that Engels was basing his views on the assumption that the socialists would come to power in the most advanced capitalist states where production and class consciousness of the working people were fully developed. His views were directed not only at the so-called anarchists  (who were demanding “the state be abolished overnight” but also, Lenin points out, at opportunists who used the “withering away” concept to argue that the state could slowly evolve into socialism without the sturm und drang of revolution.

We have just reviewed Lenin’s introductory remarks to this section. He now wants to emphasize five major themes that were mentioned above. First: Engels said that when the workers take power they abolish “the state as state.”  Lenin tells us, “It is not done to ponder over the meaning of this.”  Socialist leaders in Lenin’s day (and ours) would rather forget about this comment— attributing it to a “Hegelian weakness” in Engels’ thought.

This won’t do. Lenin says these words sum up “one of the greatest proletarian revolutions”; i.e., the 1871 Paris Commune. Lenin will discuss the meaning of the Paris Commune in Chapter Three. For now he wants to stress that what Engels was saying was that when the workers seize [or otherwise get hold of] the power of the bourgeois state the first thing they do is abolish it! A bourgeois state has noraison d’être in a worker’s society. The state (“or semi-state”) that withers away is the workers’ state after the completion of the socialist revolution. No socialist revolution has ever matured to this extent.

Second: Lenin extols the “utmost lucidity” and “profound definition” of the bourgeois state given by Engels; i.e., as “the ‘special coercive force’ for the suppression of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie.” It is the mechanism by which the 1% holds the 99% in thrall. This coercive force must be replaced by its opposite so that the 99% can keep the 1% from oppressing it. Lenin says the bourgeois dictatorship over working people (whatever its guise) will be replaced by the “dictatorship of the proletariat” over the bourgeoisie (i.e., a working people’s state). The word “dictatorship” appears to present a problem to some nervous Nellies on the left, so I propose an acceptable alternative term might be “worker’s super-democracy.” Socialism will replace the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie with worker’s super-democracy (ceteris paribus ).

Three: Super-democracy is a concept fully in accord with Lenin’s ideas. He refers to the socialist state as “the most complete democracy.” This is not “Hegelian weakness” on Lenin’s part even though it may seem paradoxical to equate the dictatorship of the proletariat with the most complete democracy. “Dictatorship equals democracy” only appears Orwellian to those unfamiliar with Hegelian dialectical logic.

Another consequence that Lenin thinks “never enters the heads of opportunists” is that democracy itself will disappear under socialism. A charge all to familiar coming from the right and the bourgeoisie who only think of “democracy” in bourgeois terms. But when Engels talks of the “withering away” and “the dying down of itself” of the socialist state we must remember that “democracy” is a state form and it also dies away “when the state disappears.” We will leave it to a future generation to figure out what a post-democratic socialist world will look like, only noting that it will be one without human exploitation and free of the tortured political definitions and concepts of the bourgeois era.

Fourth: Engels’ statements are directed at both the opportunists and the anarchists, but especially against the opportunists. From Lenin’s point of view the opportunists are always harping about the benefits of engaging in bourgeois politics and down playing the revolutionary aspects of Marxist theory, especially when it comes to educating working people about socialism. “We are in favor of a democratic republic as the best form of state for the proletariat under capitalism,” Lenin writes. “But,” he adds, “we have no right to forget that wage slavery is the lot of the people even in the most democratic bourgeois republic.”

Fifth: Lenin emphasizes what he calls Engels’ “panegyric on violent revolution.” He points out that none of the socialist leaders (outside of the Bolsheviks) ever mention this aspect of Marxist theory “and it plays no part whatever in their daily propaganda and agitation among the people” even though it is part and parcel of the theory of the withering away of the state.  Mutatis mutandis the same is true today as then.

Lenin was living in a revolutionary period of history — indeed a violent revolution had just brought him and his party to power in Russia — so it is natural that he should have been very keen on this aspect of Marx and Engels’ thinking. While the period of history we are currently living through is fraught with injustice, crimes against humanity, the resumption of neocolonial wars and occupations, state repression, racial profiling, voter suppression, enforced austerity measures against the working people, official corruption, and high crimes and misdemeanors of every imaginable kind perpetrated by bourgeois states from America to Zimbabwe, we are, I don’t know why, not living in a revolutionary period anywhere near the intensity of Lenin’s time, although the handwriting is on the wall (just as cursive is being dropped in the U.S.).

Lenin not only supports violent revolution but believes it is “inevitable.” He quotes Engels (Anti-Dühring) on the role of violence that “in the words of Marx, it is the midwife of every old society which is pregnant with a new one, that it is the instrument with which social movement forces its way through and shatters the dead fossilized political forms.” However, Engels goes on to say that in Germany it may so happen that violence will “be forced on the people.”

But “may be” and “inevitable” are not the same concepts. Engels in no way shied away from the notion of revolutionary violence but Lenin may not be justified, at least from the quote he reproduces in this chapter of State and Revolution, in drawing the conclusion that violence is “inevitable.” It is possible for the workers to be so overwhelmingly organized and prepared to assume power that the bourgeoisie will be prevented from violently resisting (cf. Lenin quote at end of article). If they do resist and there is violence and the workers fight back, it is a violence of self defense and not due to some inevitable Aristotelian necessity (??????).

In questioning the inevitability of violent revolution I don’t want to be accused of replacing dialectics with eclecticism. I am just trying to interpret Engels and Lenin by considering the logical implications of their comments. Lenin, himself, right after stating that a violent revolution is inevitable says the bourgeois state “cannot be superseded by the proletarian state (the dictatorship of the proletariat [or worker’s super-democracy]) through the process of “withering away”, but, as a general rule, only through a violent revolution.”

But a “general rule” means “usually”, or “for the most part” and allows for an exception — it does not entail “inevitability.” Yet Lenin goes on to say that violent revolution is inevitable  and “the necessity of systematically imbuing the masses with this and precisely this view of violent revolution lies at the root of the entire theory of Marx and Engels.”

This is fine for 1917 but how could we preach this to “the masses” today when a quarter of the workers in the U.S. vote Republican and we don’t even have sufficient class consciousness to form a Labor Party.  Would a party trying to “imbue” the working class with this outlook in the present circumstances not be accused of ultra-leftism, of suffering from an infantile disorder? In fact, in 1920, when Lenin realized there was no world proletarian revolution on the horizon coming to save Soviet Russia, he changed his tune, at least with regard to practice, in his work “Left Wing” Communism An Infantile Disorder.

Indeed theory is one thing and practice is another. These two works by Lenin, State and Revolution and “Left Wing” Communism should not be seen as contradicting one another, or if they are, they should be viewed as parts of a greater whole expressing the synthesis and unity of opposites — they are not isolated stand alone works. The theoretical concerns of the first need not be stressed to the detriment of the practical considerations of the everyday practice of class struggle and the social, economic and political realities dealt with by the second.

Lenin realizes that so far he has only made general claims and will now proceed to back up his assertions by a “detailed and concrete elaboration” of the views of Marx and Engels on this topic as they expressed them by analyzing the two greatest European revolutionary events of the 19th century– namely the uprising of 1848 and the Paris Commune. Their historical analysis is “undoubtedly the most important part of their theory” of revolution.

But before taking leave of this section, I want to quote Lenin himself presenting a non-violent transition to power of the working class in Russia — just to point out how views fluctuate on this issue. Here is Lenin on June 4, 1917 speaking to the First All-Russia Congress of Soviets: “You know that revolution is not made to order, that revolutions in other countries were made by the hard and bloody method of insurrection, and in Russia there is no group, no class, that could resist the power of the Soviets. In Russia, this revolution can, by way of exception, be a peaceful one [CW:25:23].”

This was June 1917 — three months before Lenin started to write State and Revolution. Lenin changed his mind, obviously, but revolutions are not made to order and there may always be an exception to a general rule.

• Next up is Chapter II of S & R– “The Experience of 1848-51”.

Thomas Riggins is currently the associate editor of Political Affairs online. Read other articles by Thomas.