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The state and revolution

Faline Bobier

July 7, 2014

 “Freedom in capitalist society always remains about the same as it was in ancient Greek republics: Freedom for slave owners.” — Vladimir Lenin
The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin wrote a little book between August and September of 1917 called State and Revolution. He never finished the book because the October Revolution, which saw the overthrow of centuries of Tsarist oppression, intervened. As Lenin put it, “It is more pleasant and useful to go through the ‘experience of the revolution’ than to write about it.”
Lenin wrote the book to try and clarify the role of the state in capitalist and pre-capitalist societies. It attempts to answer questions such as whether the state is neutral and how we can achieve a socialist and more just society. Can this be done by taking hold of the currently existing state and modifying it gradually until it becomes an entirely different kind of society, or do we need a thoroughgoing revolution to smash the existing state and replace it with workers’ power?
To answer this question he looked to the writings of Marx and Engels themselves, as well as to his own experience with the Tsarist state in Russia.
Origin of the state
Friedrich Engels, in his ground-breaking work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, argued that in pre-class societies (mostly hunter-gatherer societies) the state did not exist. There was no need for a body to sit at the top of society and mediate between different classes since the clans or tribes did not have such structures. Survival depended on the work and participation of every member of the clan: women, men and children included.
Whatever food the group was able to procure for its survival was shared equally among members. These were societies of scarcity where there was little or no surplus to allow the creation of a class that could separate itself out from the rest of the clan.
Things gradually changed (over thousands of years). As societies became more stable with the development of agriculture it became possible for the first time in human history for people to produce more than they needed for survival. It’s in this context that a small group of people came to own and control wealth—initially those that happened to have the richest and most fertile pieces of land.
There wasn’t enough for everyone to be wealthy but those who did come to own and control this wealth became separated into a different class with different interests than the majority. With the development of private property and ownership of wealth it became important to be able to pass this wealth on to your offspring, which also meant the end of the collective practice of child-rearing, which had been so much a part of hunter-gatherer societies.
Engels also refers to this transition as the “world historic defeat of the female sex” since it became crucial for the men (who largely controlled this new wealth because of the role they played in agricultural society) to ensure inheritance through their children.
The state developed at the same time as private property and the division of society into classes, essentially to protect the wealth of the new ruling class. But in order for the rest of society to accept this structure it was necessary that the state appear to be neutral. As Engels wrote: “in order that these antagonisms and 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.”
As organization of violent suppression
In modern society for most of the time it can appear that the state is indeed neutral, representing the interests of all citizens, or at least this is the ideology of the bourgeois state. However, whenever the interests of the ruling class are threatened, it becomes apparent that this neutrality is a sham.
The armed bodies of men (and now some women) that protect the ruling class state are not there to protect us all equally. This becomes clear in certain situations: when workers go on strike and are attacked by the police, when our governments become involved in wars where they send working class kids to die in order to protect their interests, whether that be for territory or resources that do not belong to them.
The army and the police, the two institutions of force that “serve and protect” the interests of the ruling class and their corporate buddies, cannot be underestimated or easily turned to serve the interests of other classes in society.
This is a lesson that revolutionaries in Egypt have been learning at a very hard cost: “Perhaps the most important lesson of this counter-revolution is that to underestimate the strength and power of your enemies is a fatal mistake. Whatever we might call el-Sisi—pimp, traitor, murderer—he is a formidable opponent.”
Lenin also looked to the writings of Karl Marx on the experience of the Paris Commune in 1871 when ordinary working people took over the running of the city. One of the first things they did was to create a militia made up of ordinary citizens, since they realized they could not rely on the military and police of the ruling order to defend the creation of a new society, which would hopefully delegate the old rulers to the dustbin of history.
This brief experiment in people’s democracy did not last. There was not in reality a fully developed working class at that time that could sustain and defend the new structures. However, Marx saw it as an incredibly important lesson for future generations, who would hopefully take the struggle further than had been possible for the Communards.
It was also the aftermath of the Commune and the brutality of the ruling class in putting down the Communards, that made Marx see that a socialist society could only be born by completely dismantling the old state, that this state could never serve any but the purposes of the ruling class.
Lenin’s definition of the state came from this understanding of its class nature: “The State is a special organization of force: it is an organization of violence for the suppression of some class.” With Marx, Lenin recognized the impossibility of voting socialism into power: “To decide once every few years which member of the ruling class is to repress and crush the people through parliament—this is the real essence of bourgeois parliamentarism, not only in parliamentary-constitutional monarchies, but also in the most democratic republics.”
No Parliamentary road to socialism
And, in fact, the development of social democracy came out of the attempt to argue that it was possible to gradually reform capitalism, that revolution was not necessary. However, the capitalist state has proved to be far more intractable than social democrats could ever imagine. And there have been innumerable examples of social democratic governments in power, turning their backs on the workers and oppressed who worked to elect them.
This is because the real power under capitalism does not lie in parliament but in the corporate boardrooms. They are the ones who set the agenda and the existing government works with them in their interests, not in the interests of the majority, whatever they may say to the electorate.
This means that even well-meaning politicians, who get elected on the basis of wanting to reform capitalism to make it better for the majority, end up betraying these very same people. Misunderstanding the nature of the state takes them down a very different path from the one they may have started out on, as Rosa Luxemburg noted in her Reform or Revolution: “He who pronounces himself in favour of legal reforms in place of and as opposed to the conquest of political power and social revolution does not really choose a more tranquil, surer and slower road to the same goal. He chooses a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new social order, he takes a stand for surface modifications of the old order.”
This does not mean that socialists stand by on the sidelines and wait for revolution. It means that in every struggle for reforms it is necessary to use revolutionary means that amplify the power of ordinary people to push on unwilling governments and states to give us reforms that can make a real difference in our lives. Thus the importance of recent decisions, such as The Supreme Court of Canada ruling giving First Nations “the exclusive right to decide how the land is used, and the right to benefit from those uses” or the Federal Court ruling rejecting the Tories barbaric cuts to refugee health care.
These decisions are not the result of an enlightened judiciary, however, but of years of mobilizing by Indigenous communities, immigrants and refugees, doctors, nurses and other health care workers in defense of important rights.
What we learn from Lenin and from State and Revolution is that we can never count on the capitalist state to grant us anything without a fight and that ultimately we need to get rid of the capitalist state in order to achieve socialism—a society where all our gains will not constantly be pushed back or threatened, in order to protect the interests of the tiny minority who own and control all wealth in society.
If you agree with these ideas, join the International Socialists

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