Introduction by Alan Woods
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, Private Property and the State by Friedrich Engels, and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte by Marx.
Yet, strange though it may seem, despite its colossal significance, the question of the state is something that does not normally occupy the attention of even the most advanced workers. 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 explained 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.
Summing up his historical analysis of the state, Friedrich 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, this is 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 Britain, the USA or 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.
Over a long historical period, particularly during 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. 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 task of this bureaucracy is not to uphold the principles of democracy but rather to protect the material interests of a bloated and pampered caste of officials that exercises control over the workers and the youth. In this respect also the Social Democracy closely resembles the bourgeois state that it so loyally serves.
How the ruling class conceals the nature of the state
The British ruling class, which has perfected the state as an efficient organ of domination, cunningly conceals its domination behind a thick curtain of tradition, pomp and ceremony inherited from medieval barbarism. The monarchy, for example, is presented as an innocent institution that stands above social class and politics, like an old picture over the mantlepiece that has been there for so long that nobody bothers to look at it any more.
The most advanced people on the Left have failed to understand the real nature of the British monarchy, regarding it as a harmless anachronism. Even those who profess to hold republican views usually confine their criticisms to stating the obvious: that it is a shameful waste of money. But these superficial criticisms completely fail to grasp the real reactionary essence of the monarchy.
It is necessary to understand that the monarchy is not simply a harmless anachronism with no powers. It is an important reserve weapon of reaction. The Queen has significant reserve powers, which can be brought into play at a time of national crisis. Such powers would undoubtedly be used against a left Labour government that attempted to challenge the power and privileges of the big banks and monopolies that own and control most of Britain. Although most people do not realise it, this is the main role of the monarchy and the reason why it has been kept in being by the ruling class for so long.
Recently, the real powers of the British monarchy were shown when the Queen, following the ‘advice’ of the reactionary Tory, Boris Johnson, prorogued parliament ( that is, suspended it). An unelected prime minister and an unelected monarch jointly decided to suspend an elected parliament! It caused a bit of a stir and was eventually overturned by a panel of (equally unelected) judges. But this little incident served to expose the real nature of the monarchy. It is a warning for any future Labour government that tries to carry out a fundamental change in society.
This fact was explained in admirably frank terms by the nineteenth century author of the best-known work on the English Constitution, who, referring in unflattering language to Queen Victoria and Albert Prince of Wales, asked why the British people should pay a large amount of money every year in order to maintain “a retired widow and an unemployed youth.” And he answered in the following way:
For the educated thousands there is the ‘efficient’ aspect, the whole system of Parliaments, Cabinets, Party Government, and the rest. For the unintelligent millions there is the ‘dignified’ aspect (described also as ‘theatrical’, ‘mystical’, ‘religious’, or ‘semi-religious’), which delights the eye, stirs the imagination, supplies motive power to the whole political system, and yet never strains the intellectual resources of the most ignorant or the most stupid. It is, of course, bound up with the Monarchy; indeed, to all intents and purposes it is the Monarchy. (Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, p. xviii.)
We have no slaves to keep down by special terrors and independent legislation. But we have whole classes unable to comprehend the idea of a constitution – unable to feel the least attachment to impersonal laws. Most do indeed vaguely know that there are some other institutions besides the Queen, and some rules by which she governs. But a vast number like their minds to dwell more upon her than upon anything else, and therefore she is inestimable. A Republic has only difficult ideas in government; a Constitutional Monarchy has an easy idea too; it has a comprehensible element for the vacant many, as well as complex laws and notions for the inquiring few. (Ibid., p. 34.)
This is very clear. The ‘ignorant masses’ do not understand politics and cannot really be trusted with the vote. But, since they have conquered the right to vote, we must devise a kind of pantomime to keep them happy, while the real exercise of power is kept firmly in our hands:
Lastly. Constitutional royalty has the function which I insisted on at length in my last essay, and which, though it is by far the greatest, I need not now enlarge upon again. It acts as a disguise. It enables our real rulers to change without heedless people knowing it. The masses of Englishmen are not fit for an elective government; if they knew how near they were to it, they would be surprised, and almost tremble. (Ibid., p. 48.)
It is worth spending a certain amount of hard cash on ceremony and glitter in order to divert attention away from the real state of affairs. It is essential that the masses believe in the monarchy, and therefore this is a worthwhile investment, just like any other. It is also a necessary insurance policy, in case things go badly wrong. Unlike other countries, Britain does not have a written constitution, and most laws are based upon custom and practice. But for that very reason, there are many grey areas. For example, what would happen in the case of an elected government, which attempted to take over the banks and monopolies? Bagehot answers with his customary frankness:
It may perhaps be replied that, if a majority of the House of Commons want a revolution they ought to have one; and no doubt if the House of Commons on this point fully represented the settled convictions of the community the reply suffices. But if not? Is there any means of ensuring that in these extreme cases the House of Commons would represent the settled will of the community? Is there any ground for expecting that our Cabinet system, admirably fitted to adjust political action to the ordinary oscillations of public opinion, could deal with these violent situations? Could it long survive the shocks of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary violence? I know not. The experiment has never been tried. Our alternating Cabinets, though belonging to different Parties, have never differed about the foundations of society. And it is evident that our whole political machinery pre-supposes a people so fundamentally at one that they can safely afford to bicker; and so sure of their own moderation that they are not dangerously disturbed by the never-ending din of political conflict. May it always be so. (Ibid., pp. xxiii-xxiv.)
A reserve weapon of reaction
Under normal circumstances, the contradictions in British society can be safely channelled through the institutions of parliamentary democracy. But what happens when this no longer applies? What happens when the class struggle reaches such extremes that it transcends the limits of bourgeois parliamentary democracy? More importantly, what happens if Parliament itself, under the pressure of the masses, tries to implement revolutionary change?
In such a situation, Bagehot explains the role of the monarchy. After all, the army swears an oath of allegiance to the ruling monarch, not to the elected parliament. The Queen’s signature is necessary before any decision of parliament becomes law. By withholding her signature, the Queen would automatically provoke a constitutional crisis. Whom would the army, police and civil service obey? In other words, we would have all the conditions for a ‘legal’ coup d’état.
The Queen could suspend parliament and rule through the Privy Council, an organ of state that is not often referred to, but prefers to remain in the shadows – until a ‘national emergency’ gives it the green light to show its real face. The reserve powers of the monarchy are like the dagger that the assassin keeps hidden in his sleeve. They are all the more dangerous because they are unseen. Here is what Trotsky writes on the subject:
Royalty is weak as long as the bourgeois parliament is the instrument of bourgeois rule and as long as the bourgeoisie has no need of extra-parliamentary methods. But the bourgeoisie can, if necessary, use royalty as the focus of all extra-parliamentary, i.e. real forces directed against the working class. (Leon Trotsky, Writings on Britain, vol. 2, pp. 40-41.)
And Bagehot makes exactly the same point:
The king, too, possesses a power, according to theory, for extreme use on a critical occasion, but which he can in law use on any occasion. He can dissolve; he can say to his minister in fact, if not in words, “This parliament sent you here, but I will see if I cannot get another parliament to send someone else here”. (Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, p. 71.)
In such a moment, when the reserve powers of the monarchy are finally wheeled out, it is imperative that the monarchy should command the unswerving obedience of a large part of society. This is the real reason for the maintenance of the monarchy and all the mystique that – at least until recently – surrounded it. As Bagehot points out:
The mystic reverence, the religious allegiance, which are essential to a true monarchy, are imaginative sentiments that no legislature can manufacture in any people. These semi-filial feelings in government are inherited just as the true filial feelings in common life. (Ibid., p. 3.)
When a monarch can bless, it is best that he should not be touched. It should be evident that he does no wrong. He should not be brought too closely to real measurement. He should be aloof and solitary. As the functions of English royalty are for the most part latent, it fulfils this condition. It seems to order, but it never seems to struggle. It is commonly hidden like a mystery, and sometimes paraded like a pageant, but in neither case is it contentious. The nation is divided into parties, but the Crown is of no party. Its apparent separation from business is that which removes it both from enmities and from desecration, which preserves its mystery, which enables it to combine the affection of conflicting parties – to be a visible symbol of unity to those still so imperfectly educated as to need a symbol. (Ibid., p. 40.)
And finally, the most famous quotation of all:
A secret prerogative is an anomaly – perhaps the greatest of anomalies. That secrecy is, however, essential to the utility of English royalty as it now is. Above all things our royalty is to be reverenced, and if you begin to poke about it you cannot reverence it. When there is a select committee on the Queen, the charm of royalty will be gone. Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic. We must not bring the Queen into the combat of politics, or she will cease to be reverenced by all combatants; she will become one combatant among many. (Ibid., p. 53.)
With astonishing cynicism, this consummate representative of the ruling class lays bare the inner mechanism and secrets of the British monarchy. Bagehot’s book deserves to be studied carefully by every socialist and every thinking worker.
The “dictatorship of the proletariat”
In reality the state is organised violence. That is just as true of a democratic state 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.
The working class will fight for the most advanced democratic demands and resist any attempt to curtail those democratic rights and liberties that have been conquered in struggle in the past. In Britain, that means the fight to abolish the monarchy and the unelected House of Lords, to clear away all the accumulated rubbish of feudalism.
The same is true of every other country. In Spain, the workers and youth are faced with the task of liquidating the anti-democratic 1978 Constitution that was imposed upon them by the sell-out of the communist and socialist leaders, who betrayed the heroic struggles of the workers and youth against the Franco dictatorship.
Without the day-to-day struggle for advance under capitalism, the victory of the socialist revolution would be impossible. That includes the fight for democratic demands, in order to bring about the most favourable conditions for the fullest development of the class struggle. At a certain point, defensive struggles can become transformed into offensive ones. The limitations of formal bourgeois democracy will be exposed to the degree that it is tested by the class struggle.
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 organisation, 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 programme 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 Montseny 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 summarised 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.)
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 organise 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 Britain 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 programme 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 organisation 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 specialised military technical organisation, but in no case a privileged officer caste. The party programme 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’ organisations 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 than 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 that 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 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. (V.I. 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 naive 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, police, 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 organised 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 organised and mobilised 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 mobilised, no force on earth can stop it.
The labour movement represents an enormous power with the potential to change society. Powerful union organisations exist that would be more than capable of overthrowing capitalism if the millions of workers they represent were mobilised 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 lead to 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 central task facing the Marxists internationally 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 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, 15 November, 2019