I have been asked by my Swedish comrades to write a brief preface to Lenin’s State and Revolution – a task which I readily agreed to, given the enormous importance of this work for the worldwide struggle for socialism. Strangely enough, the question of the state, despite its colossal significance, is something that does not normally occupy the attention of even the most advanced workers.
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This is no accident. The state would be of no use for the ruling class if people did not believe that it was something harmless, impartial and above the interests of classes or individuals—something that was "simply there" and could be taken for granted.
For this very reason, it is not in the interests of the Establishment to draw the attention of the masses to the real content of the institutions that we call the state. The constitution, the laws, the army, the police or the "Justice" system—all these things are practically taboo within the present system that calls itself a "democracy". It is almost never asked why these institutions exist, or how and when they could be replaced. Any serious discussion about them is considered out of place, unacceptable, or in bad taste—rather like swearing inside a church. At the end of the day, the state is "the property of all of us". Isn't it?
But things are rarely what they seem. Marxism teaches us that the state (that is to say, every state) is an instrument for the oppression of one class by another. The state cannot be neutral. Already in the Communist Manifesto, written over 150 years ago, Marx and Engels explain that the state is "only a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” And this really is the case. Whoever controls this system of production ultimately controls the state power. The origins of state power are rooted in relations of production and not in personal qualities.
In early human societies the authority of the tribal chief depended on his bravery in battle, that of the tribal elders on their wisdom, etc. But nowadays the state is run by an army of faceless individuals, anonymous bureaucrats and functionaries whose authority is conferred upon them by the office they hold and the titles they are given. The state machine is a dehumanised monster that while theoretically serving the people, in reality stands over them as their lord and master.
The state power in class societies is necessarily centralised, hierarchic and bureaucratic. Originally, it had a religious character and was mixed up with the power of the priest caste. At its apex stood the God-king, and under him an army of officials, the Mandarins, the scribes, overseers, etc. Writing itself was held in awe as a mysterious art known only to these few. Thus, from the very beginning, the offices of the state are mystified. Real social relations appear in an alienated guise.
This is still the case. In Britain, this mystification is deliberately cultivated through ceremony, pomp and tradition. In the USA it is cultivated by other means: the cult of the President, who represents state power personified. Every form of state power represents the domination of one class over the rest of society. Even in its most democratic form, it stands for the dictatorship of a single class—the ruling class—that class that owns and controls the means of production.
The question of the state has always been a fundamental issue for Marxists, occupying a central place in some of the most important texts of Marxism, such as The Origin of the Family, State and Private Property by Frederick Engels, and The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte by Marx. Summing up his historical analysis of the state, Frederick Engels says:
“The state is, therefore, by no means a power forced on society from without; just as little is it 'the reality of the ethical idea', 'the image and reality of reason', as Hegel maintains. Rather, it is a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. But in order that these antagonisms, these classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power, seemingly standing above society, that would alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of 'order'; and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state." (F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State)
After Engels’ seminal work, without doubt the book that best explains the essence of the Marxist theory of the state is Lenin's State and Revolution, one of the most important works of the twentieth century. Written in the summer of 1917 in the heat of the Russian Revolution, it is a key work of Marxism. Here Lenin explains that stripped of all non-essentials, the state is in the final analysis “groups of armed men”: the army and the police. It represents an organ of repression of one class over another.
The reformists and the state
Bourgeois legal theory regards the state as an impartial arbiter standing above classes and particular interests. This view is shared by the reformists of all varieties. But it ignores the fundamental fact that the essence of every state, with its armed bodies of men, police, courts and other trappings, is that it serves the interests of one class in society, in the case of capitalism, the capitalist class.
The celebrated French author Anatole France wrote: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” Centuries earlier Solon the Great, the author of the constitution of Athens who knew a thing or two about constitutions and laws, made the following observation: "The law is like a spider's web; the small are caught, and the great tear it up." These words show the reality of bourgeois legality with pitiless realism.
Under a regime of formal bourgeois democracy like Sweden, anyone can say (more or less) what they wish, as long as the banks and big monopolies decide what happens. In other words, bourgeois democracy is just another way of expressing the dictatorship of big business. This assertion can easily be demonstrated by the experience of social democratic governments for decades.
In Sweden the Social Democracy still has a mass base. It has held power for the majority of the past century and has carried out many important reforms. This was possible because Swedish capitalism was in a position to make concessions, while the Swedish working class with its powerful organisations could and did demand such measures. But the Social Democracy was always careful to leave the management and control of society in the hands of the bankers and capitalists. But now that the conditions have changed, the future facing the Swedish working class is not one of reforms, but counter-reforms.
Over the decades, particularly in periods of prosperity and relative class calm, a thick crust of bureaucracy forms, which acts as a powerful brake on the workers’ movement and is therefore the main line of defence of the capitalist class. This is particularly the case in Sweden. In the same way that the state raises itself above society, so the reformist bureaucracy of the Social Democracy and the trade unions raises itself above the working class and dominates it.
The Swedish Social Democracy is closely linked with the bourgeois state, which it guards jealously. In fact, the bureaucratic apparatus of the Social Democratic Party, the SSU and the trade union confederation LO, are the mirror image of the bourgeois state. On the surface they are “democratic”, but in reality they are the very antithesis of democracy. The Social Democracy constitutes a repressive apparatus acting as a policeman that has a long history of ruthlessly repressing all serious dissent and opposition, persecuting and expelling revolutionary Marxists with a zeal and efficiency that would be the envy of the KGB.
The fanatical zealousness in witch hunting opposition tendencies is not the product of any devotion to the principles of democracy. Rather it is the reflection of a fervent desire to protect the material interests of a bloated and pampered caste of officials that exercises control over the party and the youth. In this respect also the Social Democracy closely resembles the bourgeois state that it so loyally serves.
The Left Party was formed in 1917 when the left wing of the Social Democratic party was expelled for being critical of the right-wing shift of the party. The youth section was accused of being a “party within the party” when they refused to accept a ban on internal criticism. Under the influence of the Russian Revolution, the newly formed party initially moved quickly in a Marxist direction. The Left Party has long since lost its revolutionary origins, however, and for decades was reduced to a faithful follower and parrot of the Soviet Union and the Moscow Stalinists.
More recently they have increasingly acted as a support for the Social Democrats, and helped them by providing their cuts with a left cover. Ironically it is now in the Left Party that there have been threats against revolutionary Marxists for their criticism of the policies of the leadership. After decades of work in the bourgeois parliaments, they have adapted to the conditions of bourgeois politics, and often have more in common with the professional politicians of the Social Democrats than the workers that at one time formed the backbone of the party.
The state in Sweden
Whereas the British ruling class conceals its domination behind a thick curtain of tradition, pomp and ceremony inherited from medieval barbarism, the Swedish bourgeoisie has a more sophisticated and “modern” approach. The Swedish state appears to be more homely, more humane and democratic. It is not an accident that Swedish authorities were the first in the world to abolish formal addressing between bosses and “ordinary workers”, and just addressing each other with the informal “du” (you) or by first name.
But, politeness notwithstanding, the bosses remain bosses and the workers remain workers. The “politeness” of form is intended to conceal the real content of class division, oppression and exploitation. It is just as much a deception and an illusion as is the mediaeval garbage that embellishes the British state to disguise its true nature.
In Sweden the illusions in democracy run deep. This fact is grounded in material conditions. Swedish capitalism has experienced a long period of economic growth that permitted it to grant certain concessions to the working class, and thus blunting the class struggle and creating the illusion of a peaceful democratic society.
In reality the state is organised violence. That is just as true of a democratic state such as in Sweden as it is anywhere else. The only difference is that the reality has been skilfully concealed behind the smiling mask of bourgeois democracy. But this illusion will not survive in the turbulent period that now opens up internationally, from which Sweden cannot remain isolated.
If one wishes to form an accurate idea of the nature of the Swedish state, it is necessary to ask the immigrants who have been on the receiving end of police violence. What is immediately evident is that the police is by no means impartial in its dealings with immigrants, nor is it impartial in its treatment of fascists and anti-fascists. The facts speak for themselves.
In Malmö in 2014, the police violently attacked a peaceful antifascist demonstration. The demonstration was given no warning by the police before they rode horses and drove armoured buses into the unsuspecting crowd. Ten demonstrators were later convicted of rioting, among other things for having thrown a plastic bottle at the police and pushing them – relatively mild crimes as compared to riding horses into a crowd. Meanwhile, the preliminary investigation of the police was, of course, closed down. This was one in a series of demonstrations (Jönköping, Stockholm, etc.) in which small groups of fascists have been protected by the police. Moreover, repeated attacks on mosques and refugee accommodation have so far met with no response from the police.
While anti-fascists are subjected to police violence and harsh sentences for alleged breaches of the peace, the fascists who provoke violence on the streets are merely given a slap on the wrist. The attempted murder of the left-wing activist Showan Shattak in 2014 led to one conviction of "assault", and only three years imprisonment for one fascist, while the other was acquitted of all charges. From the point of view of bourgeois law, stabbing a person in the back is “self-defence” – if you are a fascist. Meanwhile a large number of anti-fascists have been given fines and imprisonment for up to five and a half years precisely for defending themselves against similar fascist and police attacks.
Of course, at this stage the Swedish ruling class has no immediate use for fascist gangs. The interests of the Swedish bankers and capitalists are very well protected by other more respectable forces, namely the leaders of the Social Democracy and the Swedish trade unions. The Nazis and fascists represent miniscule forces, which the ruling class for the most part regards as an irritant to be put down. However, in recent years they have begun to give them an increased room to manoeuvre, and to a certain extent have even encouraged them. The ruling class knows that it may need their services in the future.
It is necessary to point out that the violence used by the police against immigrants today will be used tomorrow against the Swedish workers and youth. Sweden’s privileged position within world capitalism will not last for ever. The cold winds of capitalist crisis will blow away the last vestiges of comfortable prosperity, causing a sharpening of the class struggle.
When the ruling class can no longer hold the working class in check by ‘normal’ means, they will not hesitate to use violence. It would be fatal to entertain any illusions on that score. To the degree that the global crisis of capitalism begins to seriously affect Sweden, that mask will be cast aside to reveal the reality of police repression and state violence. The illusions in democracy will be knocked out of people’s heads by a policeman’s truncheon.
The “dictatorship of the proletariat”
In describing the transitional state between capitalism and socialism Marx spoke of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” This term has led to a serious misunderstanding. Nowadays, the word dictatorship has connotations that were unknown to Marx. In an age that has known the horrific crimes of Hitler and Stalin it conjures up nightmarish visions of a totalitarian monster, concentration camps and secret police. But such things did not yet exist even in the imagination in Marx’s day.
For Marx the word dictatorship came from the Roman Republic, where it meant a situation where in time of war, the normal rules were set aside for a temporary period. The idea of a totalitarian dictatorship like Stalin’s Russia, where the state would oppress the working class in the interests of a privileged caste of bureaucrats, would have horrified Marx. In reality Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat” is merely another term for the political rule of the working class or a workers’ democracy.
Marx based his idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat on the Paris Commune of 1871. The Commune was a glorious episode in the history of the world working class. For the first time the popular masses with the workers at their head overthrew the old state and at least began the task of transforming society. With no clearly-defined plan of action, leadership or organization, the masses displayed an astonishing degree of courage, initiative and creativity. Yet in the last analysis, the lack of a bold and far-sighted leadership and a clear program led to a terrible defeat.
Marx and Engels drew a thorough balance sheet of the Commune, pointing out its advances as well as its errors and deficiencies. These can almost all be traced to the failings of the leadership. The leaders of the Commune were a mixed bunch, ranging from a minority of Marxists to elements that stood closer to reformism or anarchism. One of the reasons the Commune failed was that it did not launch a revolutionary offensive against the reactionary government that had installed itself at nearby Versailles. This gave time to the counter-revolutionary forces to rally and attack Paris. Over 30,000 people were butchered by the counter-revolution. The Commune was literally buried under a mound of corpses.
Marxism and anarchism
The modern state is a bureaucratic monster that devours a colossal amount of the wealth produced by the working class. Marxists agree with the anarchists that the state is a monstrous instrument of oppression that must be eliminated. The question is: How? By whom? And what will replace it? This is a fundamental question for any revolution.
Anarchists simply reject the state in general and on principle. At first sight this position seems very revolutionary. But in practice it turns out to be precisely the opposite. To prove this point we must pass from the theory of anarchism to its practice. In 1936 the anarchist workers – the most courageous and revolutionary section of the Spanish working class – rose up in the insurrection in Barcelona and smashed the fascists who were preparing to join Franco’s counter-revolutionary rebellion.
In a short space of time the workers were in control. The factories were occupied under workers’ control and the only power in Barcelona were the armed militias of the anarchist CNT and the left-wing POUM. The old state power was destroyed, and the bourgeois nationalist government of the Generalitat was suspended in mid-air. In effect power was in the hands of the working class.
This fact was recognised by Companys, the president of the Generalitat. He invited the anarchist leaders into his office and addressed them in the following terms: “Well gentlemen, it seems you have the power. You ought to form a government.” The anarchist leaders indignantly rejected this proposal on the grounds that they were opposed to all governments. This was a fatal mistake that destroyed the revolution.
In reality, it would have been very easy for the anarchists to establish a workers’ government in Catalonia. All that was needed was to call a congress of delegates elected by the factory committees and workers’ militias which would then constitute itself as a revolutionary workers’ government that could have appealed to the workers and peasants of the rest of Spain to follow its example.
If the anarchists did not like the word government or state, they could have called it a commune or anything else they pleased. But the only way to guarantee the success of the revolution was to give an organised form to the de facto power of the working class. This they refused to do. The result was disastrous. In a few months, with the aid of the Stalinists, the bourgeoisie reconstituted the old state and moved to abort the revolution. In May 1937 the Stalinists staged a provocation and crushed the proletariat of Barcelona.
What role did the anarchist leaders play in all this? Having refused to form a workers’ government in Catalonia, they then proceeded to join the bourgeois government of the Republic, which was in the process of liquidating the gains of the Spanish revolution and preparing the way for the victory of Franco. The anarchist ministers (yes, there were anarchist ministers!) actively participated in suppressing the revolution in Barcelona. Federica Monseny personally went to the barricades to persuade the workers to surrender. They laid down their arms and the Stalinists immediately launched a ferocious offensive against the anarchists and the POUM. This was the beginning of the end of the Spanish revolution.
This is not an isolated case. Before the First World War the French trade unions were dominated by the anarcho-syndicalists. They advocated a general strike against war. But as soon as war broke out in 1914 the anarcho-syndicalist leaders forgot their principles and joined a patriotic coalition with the bourgeoisie, the so-called government of “Sacred Unity” (Union Sacrée).
All this proves the correctness of what Trotsky wrote when he said that the anarchist theories of the state were like an umbrella full of holes – useless precisely when it rains. In a speech on anarchism during the Civil War that followed the Russian Revolution, Trotsky summarized very well the Marxist position on the state:
“The bourgeoisie says: don’t touch the state power; it is the sacred hereditary privilege of the educated classes. But the Anarchists say: don’t touch it; it is an infernal invention, a diabolical device, don’t have anything to do with it. The bourgeoisie says, don’t touch it, it’s sacred. The Anarchists say: don’t touch it, because it’s sinful. Both say: don’t touch it. But we say: don’t just touch it, take it in your hands, and set it to work in your own interests, for the abolition of private ownership and the emancipation of the working class.” (Leon Trotsky, How The Revolution Armed, Vol. 1, 1918. London: New Park, 1979)
Generalising from the experience of the Paris Commune, Marx explained that the working class cannot simply base itself on the existing state power, but must overthrow and destroy it. The basic position was outlined in State and Revolution, where Lenin writes: "Marx’s idea is that the working class must break up, smash the ‘ready-made state machinery,’ and not confine itself merely to laying hold of it."
Against the confused ideas of the anarchists, Marx argued that the workers need a state to overcome the resistance of the exploiting classes. But that argument of Marx has been distorted by both the bourgeois and the anarchists. The working class must destroy the existing (bourgeois) state. On this question we agree with the anarchists. But what then? In order to bring about the socialist reconstruction of society, a new power is required. Whether you call it a state or a commune is a matter of indifference. The working class must organize itself and therefore constitute itself as the leading power in society.
The working class needs its own state, but it will be a state completely unlike any other state ever seen in history. A state that represents the vast majority of society does not need a huge standing army or police force. In fact, it will not be a state at all, but a semi-state, like the Paris Commune. Far from being a bureaucratic totalitarian monster, it will be far more democratic than even the most democratic bourgeois republic – certainly far more democratic than Sweden is today.
Commenting on Lenin’s State and Revolution in his book The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky wrote:
“This same bold view of the state in a proletarian dictatorship found finished expression a year and a half after the conquest of power in the program of the Bolshevik party, including its section on the army. A strong state, but without mandarins; armed power, but without the Samurai! It is not the tasks of defence which create a military and state bureaucracy, but the class structure of society carried over into the organization of defence. The army is only a copy of the social relations. The struggle against foreign danger necessitates, of course, in the workers’ state as in others, a specialized military technical organization, but in no case a privileged officer caste. The party program demands a replacement of the standing army by an armed people.
“The regime of proletarian dictatorship from its very beginning thus ceases to be a ‘state’ in the old sense of the word – a special apparatus, that is, for holding in subjection the majority of the people. The material power, together with the weapons, goes over directly and immediately into the hands of the workers’ organizations such as the soviets. The state as a bureaucratic apparatus begins to die away the first day of the proletarian dictatorship.”
The state in 1917
The workers’ state established by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 was neither bureaucratic nor totalitarian. On the contrary, before the Stalinist bureaucracy usurped control from the masses, it was the most democratic state that ever existed. The basic principles of the Soviet power were not invented by Marx or Lenin. They were based on the concrete experience of the Paris Commune, and the Soviets that arose organically in the Russian Revolution of 1905 and 1917.
The Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies were elected assemblies composed not of professional politicians and bureaucrats, but of ordinary workers, peasants and soldiers. It was not an alien power standing over society, but a power based on the direct initiative of the people from below. Its laws were not like the laws enacted by a capitalist state power. It was an entirely different kind of power from the one that generally exists in the parliamentary bourgeois-democratic republics of the type still prevailing in the advanced countries of Europe and America. In one form or another, soviets, workers’ councils, or embryos of soviets have arisen spontaneously in more or less every revolution since.
Engels long ago explained that in any society in which art, science and government is the monopoly of a minority, that minority will use and abuse its position in its own interests. Lenin was quick to see the danger of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Revolution in conditions of general backwardness.
A genuine workers’ state has nothing in common with the bureaucratic monster that exists today, and even less the one that existed in Stalinist Russia. Lenin was the sworn enemy of bureaucracy. He always emphasised that the proletariat needs only a state that is “so constituted that it will at once begin to die away and cannot help dying away.” The basic conditions for workers’ democracy were set forth in State and Revolution:
- Free and democratic elections with the right of recall of all officials.
- No official to receive a higher wage than a skilled worker.
- No standing army or police force, but the armed people.
- Gradually, all the administrative tasks to be done in turn by all. “Every cook should be able to be Prime Minister—When everyone is a ‘bureaucrat’ in turn, nobody can be a bureaucrat.”
These were the conditions which Lenin laid down, not for full-fledged socialism or communism, but for the very first period of a workers' state—the period of the transition from capitalism to socialism. This programme of workers' democracy is directly aimed against the danger of bureaucracy. This in turn formed the basis of the 1919 Party Programme.
The transition to socialism—a higher form of society based on genuine democracy and plenty for all—can only be accomplished by the active and conscious participation of the working class in the running of society, of industry, and of the state. It is not something that is kindly handed down to the workers by kind-hearted capitalists or bureaucratic mandarins. The whole conception of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky was based upon this fact. Anybody can see that this programme is completely democratic and the very antithesis of bureaucratic dictatorship. Socialism as understood by Marxists is democratic or it is nothing.
Communism or Stalinism?
The bourgeois and its apologists wish to confuse the workers and youth by attempting to identify the idea of communism with the monstrous bureaucratic and totalitarian regime of Stalinist Russia. “Do you want Communism? Here it is! That is Communism! The Berlin Wall is Communism! Hungary 1956 is Communism! The Soviet Gulag is Communism!” Not only the bourgeois and the reformists but also the anarchists repeat these arguments. This is a stupid calumny.
The workers’ state established by the Bolshevik Revolution was the polar opposite of the bureaucratic totalitarian monster created by Stalin. Under Lenin and Trotsky, the Soviet state was constructed in order to facilitate the drawing of workers into the tasks of control and accounting, to ensure the uninterrupted progress of the reduction of the “special functions” of officialdom and of the power of the state. Strict limitations were placed upon the salaries, power, and privileges of officials in order to prevent the formation of a privileged caste. As Lenin explained:
“The fundamental characteristics of this type are: (1) the source of power is not a law previously discussed and enacted by parliament, but the direct initiative of the people from below, in their local areas—direct 'seizure', to use a current expression; (2) the replacement of the police and the army, which are institutions divorced from the people and set against the people, by the direct arming of the whole people; order in the state under such a power is maintained by the armed workers and peasants themselves, by the armed people themselves; (3) officialdom, the bureaucracy, are either similarly replaced by the direct rule of the people themselves or at least placed under special control. Officials become not only elective, but are also subject to recall at the people's first demand; they are reduced to the position of simple agents; from a privileged group holding 'jobs' remunerated on a high, bourgeois scale, they become workers of a special 'arm of the service' whose remuneration does not exceed the ordinary pay of a competent worker.
“This, and this alone, constitutes the essence of the Paris Commune as a special type of state.” (Lenin, The Dual Power in Collected Works, vol. 24, pp. 38-9.
The early Soviet Republic was in fact not a state at all in the sense we normally understand it, but only the organised expression of the revolutionary power of the working people. To use the phrase of Marx, it was a “semi-state,” a state so-designed that it would eventually wither away and be dissolved into society, giving way to the collective administration of society for the benefit of all, without force or coercion. That, and only that, is the genuine Marxist conception of a workers’ state.
However, the regime of soviet workers' democracy established by the October Revolution did not survive. By the early 1930s, all the above points had been abolished. Under Stalin, the workers' state suffered a process of bureaucratic degeneration which ended in the establishment of a monstrous totalitarian regime and the physical annihilation of Lenin’s Party. The decisive factor in the Stalinist political counter-revolution in Russia was the isolation of the Revolution in a backward country. The way in which this political counter-revolution took place was explained by Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed.
Under conditions of appalling backwardness, poverty and illiteracy, the Russian working class was unable to hold onto the power they had conquered. The Revolution suffered a process of bureaucratic degeneration that led to the establishment of Stalinism. Contrary to the lies of bourgeois historians, Stalinism was not the product of Bolshevism but its bitterest enemy. Stalin stands approximately in the same relation to Marx and Lenin as Napoleon to the Jacobins or the Pope to the early Christians.
Fight for socialism!
At the present time, when the bourgeoisie on a world scale has launched a savage attack against living standards, wages, pensions, jobs and conditions, it is necessary to understand that even when the working class succeeds in extracting concessions from the capitalists, these will only be temporary. What the bosses give today with the right hand will be taken back with the left tomorrow. At a certain stage this will mean an enormous intensification of the class struggle.
It goes without saying that we must use every available democratic avenue to defend our rights and prepare the way for the socialist transformation of society, including participation in local, regional and national elections. Unlike the anarchists, we understand that without the day-to-day struggle for advance under capitalism, the fight for all sorts of partial demands and reforms, the socialist revolution would be unthinkable. Only by such means can the masses be organised and educated in the course of struggle—the only way in which the necessary weapons for transforming society can be forged.
At the same time as we fight against every attempt of the capitalists to place the burden of the crisis on the shoulders of working people and their families, we must also fight for a real workers' government that will carry out a programme of nationalising the banks, the land and the big monopolies under democratic workers' control and management. This is the only way to defend living standards and hard won rights.
Above all it is necessary to tell the truth to the working class, which is tired of lies and deceptions. The truth is that the only way to solve the present crisis is through a radical transformation of society which will put an end to the domination of the big banks and monopolies. Any other solution will turn out to be disastrous. It would be naïve to imagine that the ruling class would simply remain with its arms folded in the event of a working class government that was really determined to change society. A workers’ government will be immediately confronted with the ferocious resistance of the bankers and capitalists.
The bourgeoisie and its defenders always accuse Marxists of advocating violence. This is highly ironic, considering the vast arsenals of weaponry that the ruling class has piled up, the armies of heavily armed troops, cops, prisons, and so on and so forth. And all history shows that no ruling class ever gives up its wealth, power and privileges without a fight—and that usually means a fight with no holds barred. Every revolutionary movement will come up against this apparatus of state repression.
It is not us who are advocating violence. We are prepared to make use of each and every opening allowed to us by bourgeois democracy. But we should be under no illusions. Beneath the thin veneer of democracy there is the reality of the dictatorship of the banks and big corporations. While the people are told that they can democratically decide the direction of the country through elections, in reality, all the real decisions are taken by the boards of directors. The interests of a tiny handful of bankers and capitalists carry much more weight than the votes of millions of ordinary citizens.
The ruling class is not at all opposed to violence per se. In fact, its rule is based on violence in many different forms. The only violence that the ruling class abhors is when the poor, downtrodden, and exploited masses attempt to defend themselves against the organized violence of the bourgeois state. That is, it is against any violence directed at its class rule, power, and property. This dictatorship of big business is normally concealed behind a smiling mask. But at critical moments, the smiling mask of “democracy” slips to reveal the ugly face of the dictatorship of Capital.
The question is whether we, the people, have the right to fight against this dictatorship and strive to overthrow it. The founding fathers of the United States of America certainly thought so. They upheld the right of the people to armed insurrection against a tyrannical government. The New Hampshire Constitution of 1784 tells us that “non-resistance against arbitrary power, and oppression, is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind.” That is not a bad piece of advice.
Does revolution necessarily mean violence? That depends on a number of circumstances. The ruling class always has a monopoly on violence, which is most clearly expressed in the state itself. But there is a force in society that is far stronger than even the most powerful state or army: that is the power of the working class, once it is organized and mobilized to change society. Not a wheel turns, not a phone rings, not a light bulb shines without the permission of the working class! Once this enormous power is mobilized, no force on earth can stop it.
The Swedish Labour movement represents an enormous power with the potential to change society. Powerful union organizations exist that would be more than capable of overthrowing capitalism if the millions of workers they represent were mobilized to this end. The leaders of the trade unions and reformist parties have in their hands a power that can bring about a peaceful transformation of society. But if the trade union and reformist leaders are not prepared to use that power that could create traditions for a violent outcome in the future, and this would entirely be the responsibility of the reformist leaders.
Without the aid of the reformist leaders it would not be possible to maintain the capitalist system for any length of time. The problem is that these leaders have no intention of leading a serious fight against capitalism. On the contrary, they fear such a fight as the devil fears holy water. That is why Trotsky said that in the last analysis, the crisis of humanity was reduced to a crisis of leadership of the proletariat. The most urgent task of the workers of Sweden is not the overthrow of the state but to fight to win back control of their own organizations.
The Swedish working class in the past had very militant and revolutionary traditions. The workers organizations were born during wave after wave of intense class struggle and strikes. The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 aroused the sympathy of the Swedish workers, provoking a wave of protests, including in the army.
Many years ago I met Anton Nilson, the well-known Swedish revolutionary. In his youth he had been sentenced to death for planting a bomb on a ship manned by strike-breakers. The sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment, and there was a mass movement to free him, culminating in the protests of 10,000 workers on 1 May 1917 who marched to the prison to release him. The demonstration failed in its objective but in October 1917, Anton Nilson and the two others were pardoned by the coalition government of Liberals and Social Democrats.
Immediately on his release Anton Nilson went to Russia where he joined the Bolsheviks, fighting as a pilot in the Civil War. Nilson helped organize the air defence of Moscow, later taking command of the air force on the Baltic Front. For his services his comrades elected him to receive an award from Leon Trotsky.
When I met him he was already an old man in his 90s, but the flame of revolution still burned brightly in his soul. His mind was as sharp as ever, his eyes were bright and his voice was strong and his faith in the socialist revolution was as firm as in the days of his youth. On his arrival in London, Anton Nilson insisted on being taken to Highgate Cemetery, to the tomb of Karl Marx. Standing in front of the tomb of his hero, he pronounced a speech that began with the words: “Well Karl Marx, here I am at last.” I do not remember the rest, except that it was a moving and inspiring reaffirmation of his revolutionary beliefs. He died not long after.
The stormy strike wave in the first half of the 1920s involved an average of 90,000 workers and four million days lost every year. Bitter disputes persisted in the early 1930s with fewer workers involved but as many days lost in strikes. In May 1931 during a general strike in Ådalen, Sweden, the Swedish military opened fire with a heavy machine gun on peaceful demonstrators. Four demonstrators and a spectator were shot dead and another five demonstrators were wounded.
The shootings provoked a massive protest movement. The County Governor was tried but acquitted. The officers in charge, Captains Mesterton and Beckman were initially convicted in a court martial, but were acquitted on appeal – a verdict that was confirmed by the Supreme Court. The soldiers who were manning the machine gun, were also put on trial. One was acquitted while the other was found guilty and sentenced to three days ‘house arrest with loss of pay’.
This leniency towards murderers contrasted with the harsh sentences handed out to demonstrators: Axel Nordström, considered to be the leader, was sentenced to 2-1/2 years' imprisonment with hard labour. No compensation was given to the wounded demonstrators or to the families of the five dead workers. Here we see the real face of the Swedish state in all its crudity. This should never be forgotten by the Swedish working class.
After a long period of class peace, industrial activity picked up again the 1970s culminating in the general strike (Storkonflikten) of 1980, when a mass lockout was met by strikes in a conflict that drew in over 800,000 workers and 4.2 million days were lost.
Unfortunately, these traditions have lain dormant for many years but they are destined to re-emerge under radically changed conditions. The conditions for maintaining the old politics of consensus between the working class and capital are long gone. An increasing number of activists will come to see the need for a consistent revolutionary programme. This can only be provided by Marxism.
The central task facing the Swedish Marxists is the building of a revolutionary tendency with a solid base in the working class and the youth. And it is impossible to build a revolutionary tendency without revolutionary theory. The revolutionary party is the memory of the working class. We have a duty to remind the workers and youth of Sweden of the great traditions of the past and to make available to them the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. And among the most important of these works is State and Revolution, a book as relevant today as when it was first written a century ago.
London, 7th July 2017