One of the defining moments of Lenin’s political life was the day in 1914, at the outbreak of the First World War, when news reached him that the German Social Democratic Party (as socialist parties were then called) had voted in the Reichstag to support the German imperial state in a war between plundering empires.
The shock of this betrayal was so great that Lenin initially thought news of it was fake. After all, the German Party was, and had been since the days of Marx and Engels, the largest, indeed the leading, socialist party in the world, and its leaders had repeatedly voted for anti-war resolutions at international congresses, vowing to do all in their power to stop war from breaking out.
Inevitably, their betrayal (and copycat betrayals elsewhere) raised some significant questions. How was it that the German socialists, apparently dedicated followers of the revolutionary thought of Marx and Engels, had voted to support their own state in an imperialist war? How was it that they had come to identify with, rather than oppose, their own state? And did this not point to a fatal flaw with their understanding of ‘the state’?
Those anti-war socialists who turned their minds to this ‘state question’ soon found themselves confronting a view that remains very familiar today. For this is the view that the state is an essentially neutral institution whose purpose is to safeguard the ‘common good’ or ‘common interest’ of its citizens.
We find this view daily disseminated by conservatives who claim the state serves the ‘national interest’ because, to coin that infamous phrase, “we’re all in it together”.
But we also find this view shading into a version held by reformists. They maintain that once suitable reforms have been undertaken, the neutral state can go back to doing what it was, for one or other reason, diverted from doing, that is, impartially serving the common good, if not the national interest.
So when Lenin began to turn his attention to these questions in the second half of 1916, and when he came eventually to write in the summer of 1917 what has been called his crowning achievement—his famous pamphlet titled State and Revolution–it was above all this view of the neutral state serving the common good that Lenin had in his polemical sights.
So how did he go about dismantling it?
Is the state neutral?
Quoting copiously from the writings of Marx and Engels, Lenin used three key arguments.
The first was the historical argument, the ironic subtlety of which deserves more appreciation than it generally receives.
For here Lenin pointed out that it was no mere coincidence that ‘states’ first emerged in our history when the primitive, stateless and still communal societies of early humanity—think self-governing tribal communities for a rough and ready parallel—were beginning to break apart. In other words, states emerged at the very moment that any real or meaningful ‘common good’ was becoming impossible. Why so?
Because this was also the moment in history when societies were breaking up into opposing social interests, into irreconcilably opposed classes; in other words, into those who owned the means of producing wealth and those whose labour had to be exploited to produce that wealth. How could there be any substantive ‘common good’ when social relationships had become so irreconcilably antagonistic?
Moreover, if such deeply divided societies were not to be plunged into perpetual civil war between opposing classes, a special authority would be needed to prevent what Marx called “the common ruin of the contending classes”. So to keep a lid on society’s potentially self-destructive class antagonisms, this special authority, this ‘state’, would have to deploy a separate armed force no longer loyal to the society from which it was drawn but loyal only to one small privileged part of it.
Historical analysis enables us to conclude that the state cannot serve the ‘common good’ because its very existence as a state, its raison d’être, presupposes a society whose social antagonisms have become irreconcilable. The armed state is therefore the outward expression of an essential problem—the unattainability of a common good in class-divided society.
The second argument Lenin used was the class argument, the one he is most closely (if often one-sidedly) associated with.
Here, a mere cursory glance at history shows that states have always been states of the economically dominant classes, of the owners of the means of producing wealth, a hard fact most starkly visible during crises when ‘neutrality’ is unceremoniously abandoned in favour of naked support for the oppressor.
This historical record is no accident, of course, for the class owning the means of production is best placed, materially speaking and in other ways, to engage and sustain the loyalty of state soldiers, tax gatherers, and priests.
The state is therefore the most concentrated expression of the ruling class. It is the ruling class in specially organised form managing its common affairs. It is not neutral because it cannot be neutral. By definition, the state is an organ for the oppression of one class by another.
The final argument Lenin used was the structural argument, perhaps the least appreciated of the three, but crucial to grasping his revolutionary alternative to the state.
Here Lenin argued that the very way the state operates—in a sense, its very character–means that it cannot simply be ‘taken over’ by socialists and used by the working class for its self-emancipation. Why so? Because the defining structural characteristic of the state is that its various functions are carried out by ‘special bodies of people’ separated from the rest of society, rather than by society as a whole.
For example, take the conventional view of politics. This maintains that politics is the preserve of a ‘special body of people’ known as ‘politicians’ elected to that special place where politics is said to be legitimately done called Parliament.
On this view, organisations like Stop the War, CND, and the People’s Assembly just don’t cut it as ‘real’ politics. At best, condescendingly acknowledged as ‘pressure groups’; at worst, treated as politically illegitimate, the conventional objection is not only to what these organisations say, it is also, crucially, to their demonstration of the fact that politics should be a mass affair that extends way beyond the narrow confines of Westminster.
Here Lenin’s own focus was the state’s coercive powers. In particular, he observed how society’s defence was undertaken by a ‘special body of armed people’ called an army (commanded, it should be said, by a still more special body of people called generals), an army both separate and distinct from wider society (just think of how soldiers are uniformed and barracked away). Defence is not, as it once was, the administrative function of an entire society; it is now the political function of an alien state.
In this way, the army serves as a special weapon in the hands of the ruling class, ready for deployment against the working class whenever the need arises. Which is why, in every revolutionary situation, one question has urgently to be answered: what can be done to break the army from the state so as to shift its allegiance to society at large, to the people? Indeed, for ruling classes the world over, there is no sight more terrifying than an army discarding its special and separate status by fraternising with a people in revolt.
The very way the state works, therefore, its very character as the functional preserve of ‘special bodies of people’, raises crucial questions: can a state, conventionally understood, ever really serve the interests of the working class? If workers took power in a revolution, how would they be able to exercise it if power continued, in practice, to be exercised by ‘special bodies of people’ performing the special functions of the state? Wouldn’t workers just end up relinquishing their revolutionary power to yet another alien state?
In highlighting this essential, indeed genetic, incompatibility between the state and a workers’ democracy, Lenin argued that a decisive and irresistible political conclusion followed—if workers were indeed to take power into their own hands, they would have to destroy or “smash” the state.
This sounds dramatic, which it is, but it is dramatic only because it is unsparingly democratic. And it is unsparingly democratic because it envisages society as a whole re-appropriating the functions it once exercised before ‘special bodies of people’ collectively known as ‘the state’ transformed them into the exclusive preserve of the few.
This raises a key question: what, concretely speaking, did Lenin think should replace the state?
What is a socialist revolution?
In February 1917, the Tsar was overthrown. A Provisional Government took power announcing its intention to rid Russia of its feudal autocratic system of government and introduce a Western-style liberal democracy.
At the same time, a very different power was emerging in the working class districts of Russia’s industrial cities in the shape of workers’ councils (soviets), or democratically elected workplace assemblies. Increasingly, workers’ councils took control of factories and surrounding localities, while the authority of the state shrank correspondingly away.
Despite the emergence of workers’ councils, the moderate Bolsheviks directing Party policy immediately prior to Lenin’s return from exile refused to call for the removal of the Provisional Government. Instead, they offered it conditional support. They saw workers’ councils less as the embryonic institutions of a new system of popular self-government and more as a means of holding the Provisional Government to the liberal democratic promises it had made upon assuming power.
Lenin’s return to Russia in April was therefore decisive. He rejected this accommodating attitude to the Provisional Government. Instead, he argued for uncompromising opposition to the state and eventually for workers’ councils to take power from it, a demand encapsulated in the slogan of “all power to the soviets”.
In essence, then, Lenin advocated the transformation of a liberal bourgeois revolution into a socialist one, or the re-appropriation by workers’ councils of the powers and functions the state had originally expropriated from society. Relying in particular on support from the lower ranks of the Bolsheviks, Lenin won the Party round to a position that was crucial for the development of the revolution beyond its bourgeois limits—into the October Revolution.
It was this revolutionary experience that Lenin then distilled, via a thorough study of Marx and Engels, into the pages of State and Revolution, where a key message is that ‘state’ and ‘revolution’ are closely interrelated opposites. You can’t understand what a revolution is (and act accordingly) without understanding what a state is, nor can you understand what a state is (and respond accordingly) without understanding what a revolution is.
All of which brings us back to the notorious betrayal of the German socialists of 1914, whose history offers us the reverse mirror-image of Lenin’s take on state and revolution; for the more the Germans identified with the state, the more they abandoned revolutionary principle, and the more they abandoned revolutionary principle, the more they identified with the state. Lenin’s intervention in April 1917 was critically decisive because it put paid to a similar, essentially reformist, logic gaining ground among the Bolsheviks themselves.
From a longer term, post-revolutionary perspective, the popular self-government that Lenin envisaged emerging during a workers’ revolution would, he argued, no longer be a state in any accepted sense of the word. For how could it be, if its former functions were in the hands of democratically elected workers’ councils? Nevertheless, Lenin described such revolutionary self-government in distinctly transitional terms, as a “semi-state”, as a “non-political state” or simply as a “proletarian state”. Such transitional thinking was important for two practical reasons.
Although Lenin maintained that mass democratic assemblies like workers councils should move immediately to re-appropriate state functions, he was also keenly aware that workers would have to learn from the experience of self-government, and indeed receive training for it. In order therefore to counteract and nullify the damaging after-effects of class society, time (technically speaking, a transitional period) would be needed for workers to acquire and develop new capacities for new experiences. It would be in the course of this revolutionary process, as society re-appropriated its original powers, that the state, with nothing left to do, would wither away.
But there was also a more ominous reason why it was right to talk in transitional terms: for how would a new revolutionary government face the inevitable threat of counter-revolution? History had amply demonstrated (as the Russian Revolution would again prove) that a fallen oppressor is as dangerous as a wounded beast.
Lenin therefore argued that the state’s key function as the organ for the oppression of one class by another would still be needed, but with one crucial difference: this time, it was the proletariat that would have to repress the bourgeoisie in order to defeat the counter-revolution. Its defeat would then herald the demise of the state.
State and Revolution is a key text. Its immediate preoccupations were the betrayal of the German Social Democrats and the future course of the Russian Revolution (as reflected also in the internal struggles of the Bolshevik Party). But its enduring value, though rooted in these preoccupations, extends beyond them because of Lenin’s appreciation of the world-historical significance of workers’ councils and his confidence that here were to be found the building blocks of a new, stateless, self-governing society.
But is any of this relevant today?
It goes without saying that Britain in 2017 is very different from Russia in 1917. Nevertheless, the broad themes of what might be called the essential spirit of State and Revolution–the state isn’t neutral but an organ of class oppression; the independent strength of a mass working class movement is the best antidote to it—remain nothing if not relevant to a Britain whose mood is radicalising and whose Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn is seeking to overturn 40 years of a neoliberalism that has infected the socially corrosive logic of competition for profit into every walk of life from refuse collection to the NHS.
The neoliberal transformation of Britain all those years ago was a victory for the ruling class; its demise will be a victory for our side. It therefore follows that we want Corbyn to be as successful as he possibly can be both in opposition and, if elected, in government. Indeed, as Lenin recognised in State and Revolution for situations other than revolutionary ones, we seek the most democratic state possible under capitalism on the beneficial ground that the more democratic the state, the more favourable the conditions for working class struggle for a society beyond capitalism and the state.
At the same time, there should be no illusions about the difficulties and obstacles in Corbyn’s path. Unlike 1945, when the election of Attlee’s Labour government was part of an unfolding global consensus in favour of state intervention, Corbyn is in the very different international context of a global consensus that remains steadfastly neoliberal, indeed aggressively so (witness the devastating treatment of Greece). The rejection of neoliberalism by the fifth largest economy in the world would therefore constitute a major challenge to the current world order and the role of the British state in it.
The British state and ruling class are not going to take such a challenge to their domestic and international power lying down. And they are not going to treat a prospective Corbyn government (should it come about) like any other. On the contrary, they will do what they can to undermine and compromise Corbyn—if circumstances allow.
And it is precisely this point—if circumstances allow—that is critical here, for circumstances are always made by someone. The question is who will make them and for what purpose: the British state and ruling class to hinder Corbyn, or the Left to help him? This will be the specific character of the class struggle in the period ahead.
It follows that a Left that retains an overriding focus on Westminster is a Left that will fight on hostile terrain—and lose. For this will mean conducting politics in accordance with the narrow, self-serving terms of reference of the British state and ruling class. A rejection of those terms and a corresponding appreciation that it is outside Parliament that the working class movement will be able to exert its strength to the full are essential if Corbyn is to be best supported, if telling pressure on his fair-weather MPs is to be applied, and if the machinery of the British state is to be muzzled.
This is why demonstrations against the May government mounted by the People’s Assembly, for example, are crucial. By developing a mass movement now, by maintaining the extra-parliamentary momentum against the Tories now, the movement will be all the better placed to support Corbyn should a Labour government be elected.
It is also in the midst of such a mass movement that a revolutionary organisation can best find its feet. It is there that ideas such as Lenin’s theory of the state can begin to mean something concretely relevant. It is there that the best ideas for the best way forward for the movement as a whole can be tried and tested. And it is there that a revolutionary organization can begin to fulfill what Lenin saw as one of its key roles, “to elevate spontaneity to the level of consciousness”.
Dragan Plavšić is a member of Counterfire in London and of Marks21 in Serbia. He jointly edited The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (2003).