V.I. Lenin, The State and Revolution. The Marxist Theory of the State and the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution. Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975. Originally written, but not finished, August, 1917. Available on-line

In 2009, as this is written, sincere activists are watching developments throughout the world but especially in the Western Hemisphere, where a trend toward progressive governments is underway. Several of them profess the goal of socialism. Without getting into any arguments about what they should or shouldn't do in 2009, we should at least be familiar with what the great revolutionaries who preceded us thought about how to transform a capitalist state into one that is democratically controlled.

Lenin’s pamphlet was written immediately before the great workers’ revolution in Russia in October, 1917. Tsarism had been overthrown earlier that year. The Kerensky government that took its place claimed to be an improvement, but they were determined to continue to take part in World War I. The Menshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party tended to embrace the Kerensky government, and some of them took posts within it. Lenin's Bolsheviks said it had to be overthrown so that a workers' government could take power.

Russia had come into a pre-revolutionary period. Certain well-known leaders, branded as “opportunists” by Lenin, argued that they could take over the Russian state apparatus -- such as the army, police, prisons, and court system -- and run it successfully on behalf of the workers. Lenin said that the capitalist state had to be destroyed, and that a workers state had to be put in power. Even after the Bolsheviks were successful, the argument did not end. When the Soviet Union came to an end seventy-plus years later, some intellectuals argued that it should never have been established and that Lenin had been completely wrong.

Without claim to developing new theory, Lenin quoted Marx and Engels to explain the nature of a state and what workers had to do to complete their revolution against the capitalists. Revolutionary developments of Marx and Engels’ time, especially the Paris Commune of 1871, were the main sources of historical examples.

We have had a great many more experiences with successful and failed revolutions since 1917. Many among us today can remember governments that came and went in our own lifetimes. It is our responsibility to try to understand what a state is, how it is transformed, and what elements contribute to success or failure. Lenin’s little pamphlet makes our responsibility easier. At the same time, it is also necessary that we remember that successful strategies flow only from successful evaluations of the period we are in. Who would argue that their situation is exactly like Russia in 1917?

What is a state? Where does it come from? What function does it serve? Could capitalist society exist without state power? Does a state, the U.S. for example, stand above our individual and class struggles so that it can mediate for the common good? Is a state designed by well-intentioned people, as described in Tomas More’s “Utopia,” for everyone’s benefit? Does it exist as Jean-Jacques Rouseau described it: “Each of us puts in common his person and his whole power under the supreme direction of the general will, and in return we receive every member as an indivisible part of the whole?”

In earlier modules, particularly in our study of the Communist Manifesto, we learned that modern society is naturally divided into classes with irreconcilable interests. The two main classes, workers and capitalists, have fundamental disagreements, such as the amounts of wages, that cannot be bridged in any permanent sense. Lenin, and serious thinkers since Lenin, knew that workers must come to power over capitalists if humanity is to advance.

What is the nature and role of the capitalist state in the great class struggle? For that matter, how were states first created? Certainly, bands of savages didn’t have states.

States came into being at the same time that class society was born, at the time that cattle were domesticated and agriculture reached such a refined level that a surplus could be produced. Once there was a surplus to be guarded and controlled or “owned” by someone, states were necessary.

The opportunists liked to quote Frederick Engels on the idea of a “withering away of the state.” While agreeing that this “withering away” was our goal, Lenin pointed out that it could not be accomplished while capitalists retained power. It would come about when, and only when, class antagonisms had been completely overcome. The revolution that was coming in Russia was not a cessation of class antagonisms, but a heightening of them to intolerable levels. The opportunists’ “withering away” argument was, thus, just a way of daydreaming their way past the real task at hand – overcoming capitalism!

After extensively quoting Engels, Lenin defined a state:  “Engels elucidates the concept of the ‘power’ which is called the state, a power which arose from society but places itself above it and alienates itself more and more from it. What does this power mainly consist of? It consists of special bodies of armed men having prisons, etc., at their command.”

It's Their State, Not Ours

States arise because the irreconcilability of class struggle makes them necessary. The state is the ultimate arbiter that decides matters of class differences. Ultimately, it makes its decisions not “objectively” nor “fairly,” but on behalf of the ruling class. In the U.S., the state rules for the capitalists. From the point of view of the workers, the state is an oppressive force. This is still true under a capitalist democratic republic as it would be under a fascist dictatorship. The form of state rule is not the same thing as knowing what class is running the state.

Here is a simple fact of which we are all aware: Imperialist war is against workers’ interests and is repugnant to workers, and yet the U.S. state is often and forever invading someone. Capitalists direct the American state into war for their own reasons and in their own interests. Their success in convincing the working class to carry out their invasions has been phenomenal, but they make the decisions on their own. People put it simply, "Rich man's war, poor man's fight!"

So, a state is an organ of class rule. It is a machine that works for the ruling class and oppresses the other classes. It cannot be simply reversed or turned around. Marx, Engels, and Lenin said that it has to be replaced.


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