Lenin on class society and the state
In the latest in a series on Marxist classics, Ryan Aldred reviews Lenin’s ‘State and Revolution’
Lenin’s State and Revolution was written during the revolutionary upheavals that were taking place in Russia in 1917. By necessity it had to be cut short, as Lenin explains at the end of the book, because of the developing revolution that would go on to see the Bolsheviks propelled to power in October of that same year on the promise of peace, land and bread.
It remains a vital work for socialists, rich in political lessons that still stand true today.
The state as an oppressive force
A great deal of time is spent explaining that the institutions that make up the state are not there as an independent arbiter to reconcile the opposing interests of the bosses and the working class. Instead, the role of the state and its institutions, such as the police and armed forces, is ultimately to enforce the interests of the ruling class, which in a capitalist society means enforcing the interests of the bosses.
The Covid outbreak has helped to underline this issue as legislation brought in under the auspices of protecting the public during the pandemic has been used to break up strike actions and limit protests and demonstrations. The police have even used the threat of fines of up to £10,000 to clamp down on, for instance, NHS staff and student rent strike protests, in a poorly veiled attempt to curtail protest rather than protect public safety.
Counterpose this to the fact that the police came under immense pressure before taking any action over the ‘Partygate’ scandal, and even then only issued a single fine to the prime minister, among fines to others, despite there being an established pattern and culture of parties and snubbing of the rules the government set themselves.
This is an indication that the institutions that make up the state are not arm’s-length arbiters that exist outside of class antagonisms, but are inherently bound up in them, protecting the interests of the capitalist class first and foremost.
With the cost-of-living crisis pushing workers to take industrial action, as well as an upswing in struggle on social issues, such as Black Lives Matter and marches against violence against women, it is not coincidental that the Tories have been beefing up the powers of the state to clamp down on protests and strikes by introducing new measures such as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, and the Nationality and Borders Act.
Such moves, along with talk by the government of further limiting the right to strike, despite draconian anti-trade union laws already in place, are a calculated move to prepare for the class battles which loom ahead.
Socialism or anarchism?
Lenin points out the need for workers to take power so that society can be shaped anew, without the immense exploitation and poverty caused by the overwhelming inequality inherently built into the capitalist system. However, he also takes up the somewhat utopian idea anarchists put forward of dismantling the state within 24 hours. Lenin points out that while workers taking power is a step on the road to a socialist society, it is not the finished article, and there is a danger of the capitalists doing all they can to sabotage a workers’ government. It is because of these reasons that there is a need for a workers’ state apparatus for a period of time.
We saw the lengths the capitalists were prepared to go simply to thwart a Corbyn-led government, with threats of capital strikes, a run on the pound, and even less-than-veiled threats of a ‘mutiny’ from an army general. If a workers’ government was prepared to go much further, nationalising large sections of industry, bringing the banks into public ownership and introducing a democratically planned economy, it would face a barrage of attacks from capitalists both at home and internationally.
There would still be a need for a state but it would be fundamentally different in character, as it would be a means for workers to counter those attacks, to seize the assets of the super-rich, and to reorganise society, rather than a tool of oppression to keep the bosses in control. Similarly, a workers’ state would be a means of blocking the flight of capital as the bosses would undoubtedly try to smuggle out their ill-gotten gains to safe havens abroad.
Against gradual reform: a workers’ state
While Lenin highlights that the state cannot be dismantled within 24 hours along anarchist lines, he similarly argues against his social democrat contemporaries on the issue of gradualism.
Socialists certainly aren’t opposed to winning reforms; in fact our determination to fight for a socialist world can assist in winning the most concessions.
However, it would be practically impossible to roll out socialist policies piecemeal when the international capitalist community would be doing all it could to sabotage a government trying to implement those policies.
For instance, a workers’ government would need to introduce immediate measures which would fundamentally change the character of the state along socialist lines. These measures would include requiring elected representatives to only take the average workers’ wage and introducing the right of recall. Such measures would deter careerists, interested only in representing their narrow self-interest by maintaining the status quo.
It would also provide an important check and balance to ensure that representatives can be held to account and, if need be, removed from post if they no longer represent the interests of those they have been elected to represent. Likewise, measures would need to be taken to democratise the judiciary and the armed forces which would again ensure that they are accountable, and transformed to serve working-class interests.
Another danger of gradually trying to implement socialist measures is that a workers’ government would be doing so against the backdrop of hostile international capitalist classes internationally doing all they could to undermine and sabotage a transition to socialism. Stopping the flight of capital abroad, introducing a state monopoly of foreign trade, gaining control of the banks through their nationalisation, bringing the commanding heights of the economy under workers’ control and management – these are among the actions that would be needed to begin the process of democratically planning an economy.
These are measures which cannot be gradually introduced, because to do so would give the capitalist class ample opportunity to prepare to counter or undermine them. Such measures would need to be implemented to counter the capitalists internationally being able to inflict severe economic damage in an attempt to strangle a workers’ state at birth, until the time that they are prevented from doing so by the working class in their own countries, who would be keen to follow the example of socialist transformation. State and Revolution provides many important political lessons which will be invaluable as we enter a period of heightened class struggle. With such a turbulent period ahead, if this book is not on your reading list already, be sure to add it to prepare for the mighty class battles to come.