To Smash or be Smashed? Lenin’s Theory of the State

March 15, 2014 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

In Chapter Two of State and Revolution, Lenin discusses the lessons of the European revolutionary movement of 1848-51. There are three sections to this chapter.

The first section is entitled: The Eve of the Revolution

In this section, Lenin points out that the first “mature” works of the Marxist world view were created on the “eve” of the 1848 upheaval: namely Marx’s 1847 work ‘The Poverty of Philosophy’ and Marx and Engel’s joint work ‘The Communist Manifesto’. Many educated people have read the latter work but the former is not as well known.

It was composed by Marx to confute the ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) whose Philosophy of Poverty appeared in 1846 and put forth an anarchist program for the working class, namely that the working class should abstain from politics and concentrate on economic struggles leading to the abolition of the state. However, this is not the place for a discussion of this work by Marx and I will only reproduce the quote Lenin uses to illustrate Marx’s first “mature” view on the state: “The working class, in the course of development, will substitute for the old bourgeois society an association which will preclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power proper, since political power is precisely the official expression of class antagonism in bourgeois society.”

I don’t think Proudhon would disagree with this even though he and Marx had deep disagreements about how to bring about this aim. The Communist Manifesto came out in November of the same year (1847) that Marx’s book did. Here Lenin quotes from it that after the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie by a workers’ revolution, the workers will “raise the proletariat to a position of a ruling class” and this will allow it “to win the battle of democracy. The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hand of the state” (i.e. of the proletariat organised as the ruling class).

Lenin calls this quote an expression of one of the central tenets of Marxism – the concept of “the dictatorship of the proletariat” (or workers’ super democracy for those uneasy with the word ‘dictatorship’). The term itself was coined by Joseph Weydemeyer (1818-1866) who was a supporter of Marxism and a colonel in the Union Army during the American Civil War. Weydemeyer’s phrase was adopted by Marx and Engels to describe the Paris Commune of 1871. Lenin says this formulation of workers control from the Communist Manifesto “is a slap in the face for the common opportunist prejudices and philistine illusions about the ‘peaceful development of democracy’.”

Lenin drew four conculsions from these quotes:

First, while socialists can participate in electoral struggles and parliaments, they cannot be ministers in bourgeois governments.

Second, only that part of the working class engaged in large-scale production (the proletariat proper) “is capable of being the leader of all the working people” since workers scattered about in small scale works “are incapable of waging an independent struggle for their emancipation.”

Third, Marxism is the educational tool by which the workers’ party is educated to become the “vanguard of the proletariat” which can lead the workers to their true liberation once they take power.

Fourth, opportunism is a tendency in the working class which actually represents “the better-paid workers, who lose touch with the masses, [and] ‘get along’ fairly well under capitalism.” The leaders of this tendency renounce revolution and “sell their birthright for a mess of potage.” Lenin then moves on to the second section this chapter.

The Revolution Summed Up
Marx summed up his conclusions about the revolutionary upheaval of 1848-51 in a work entitled The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte in 1852. The title refers to the date in the French Revolutionary calendar when Louis Bonaparte’s uncle, Napoleon, seized power in a coup d’etat – 18th Brumaire, Year VIII of the Republic (9th November 1799).

Lenin thinks this work made a great theoretical advance on the Communist Manifesto written five years earlier. What this means practically is that the Communist Manifesto must be read in conjunction with the Eighteenth Brumaire if we are not to be led astray and end up misunderstanding Marxism.

In the Manifesto, Lenin states that Marx and Engels showed that the workers must get state power into their hands if they are ever to get rid of the capitalists and put an end to exploitation, but they did not explain how to do this. “The question as to how, from the point of view of historical development, the replacement of the bourgeois by the proletarian state is to take place is not raised here” (i.e. in the Manifesto).

The question of “how to” is answered by Marx in the Eighteenth Brumaire. The short answer is to “Smash the State.” This is a catchy slogan misappropriated today by anarchists of all stripes and I do not intend to discuss their use of it. Lenin explains that after careful study of the actual course of the revolutionary events of 1848-51, how the workers were deceived by the bourgeoisie and the methods by which the revolutionary advances were commandeered by the bourgeoisie to strengthen their own class position at the expense of the workers (Lenin also uses examples from the history of the Russian Revolution), Marx concluded that the workers could not use the bourgeois state to attain their objectives.

In revolutionary situations such as 1848, Lenin says that Marx believed that the workers would be compelled to use the destructive power of the revolution, “to concentrate all its forces of destruction” in Marx’s words, “against the state power, and to set itself the aim, not of improving the state machine, but of smashing and destroying it.”

Lenin arrived at the same conclusion by studying the history of the revolutionary movement in Russia, not only the period 1905-07 but especially the six months he had just lived through covering 27 February to 27 August 1917. He stresses that these conclusions are not “logical deductions” made from Marxist theory but the result of empirical observations of the actual on going historical process.

We come now to an extremely important question asked by Lenin. He asks if it is proper to generalise Marx’s conclusions regarding his study of the French revolutionary experience of 1848-51. We can go further now and ask if we can generalise Lenin’s own conclusions based on his experience of conditions in Russia. What gives us the right to make conclusions based on the specific historical conditions in these two European states and conclude that all socialist revolutions must eventuate in a violent establishment of a proletarian dictatorship?

Lenin himself criticised Engels’ view of France as the “classical” model of revolution. Engels’ comment that in France “the struggle of the upward-striving proletariat against the ruling bourgeoisie appeared here in an acute form unknown elsewhere” is considered “out of date” since the revolutionary struggle in France had been in “a lull” since 1871 (some 46 years earlier from Lenin’s perspective.) Yet, Lenin thinks that Engels might be correct in the long term as this lull does not “preclude the possibility that in the coming proletarian revolution France may show herself to be the classic country of the class struggle to the finish.”

Well, the “coming proletarian revolution” hasn’t yet come about and today the French workers don’t seem to be able to come up with anyone better than François Hollande– a sorry excuse for a socialist let alone a “revolutionary.” And if the French workers were in a revolutionary lull in 1917, what can we say about the Russian proletariat of today who put up with the homophobic nationalist Putin?

Do these examples nullify the conclusions of Marx and Lenin (we will have more to say about Engels later) regarding the role of violence in establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat? In the case of Marx, Lenin didn’t think so and his reasons, pari passu, can also be applied to his own case. Here is what he had to say.

Lenin says that when we look over not just the developments that Marx noted in France, but the development of the bourgeois state in all the “advanced countries” — he lists France, America, Switzerland, Britain, Germany, Italy and Scandinavia, we see, in slower motion than in France, the development described by Marx and that “There is not the slightest doubt that these features are common to the whole of the modern evolution of all capitalist states in general.”

What are these features? These states are outwardly democratic but they are based on the powers bestowed on two basic institutions– the standing army and a enlarged state bureaucracy. Democratic parliaments become increasing weaker and dysfunctional leading to the growth of the power of the executive branch of the government. The state apparatus functions under the control of, and to further the interests of, the big capitalist national and multi-national corporations and banks leaving the working people more and more at the mercy of economic events out of their control. The state-apparatus claims to be representative of all the people and especially appeals to the middle classes by providing them with jobs and a living standard above the average of most working people. At the bottom are the workers whose productivity and creation of surplus value are responsible for all the wealth skimmed off by the capitalists at the top and grudgingly shared with segments of the middle class. Without organisation and socialist consciousness being raised within the working class, this situation will more or less tend to perpetuate itself.

This is a rough description of the capitalist world of a hundred years ago at the beginning of the 20th century, according to Lenin. His theories and interpretation of Marxism are based on this world view. Leninism today is as relevant as is the description given above to picture the capitalist world of the beginning of the 21st century.

What will the working people put in place of capitalism? Lenin says the Paris Commune gave us a basic outline. Of course we have the model of the Soviet Union and other ‘socialist’ countries to also look at but Lenin’s book was written before the October Revolution. Chapter Three of State and Revolution is devoted to the Paris Commune. I will end this article with Lenin’s short section 3 of Chapter Two. Lenin added this section to the 2nd edition of his book (1918) as it did not appear in the first edition of 1917.

The Presentation of the Question by Marx in 1852
Lenin begins this section with some quotes from a letter to Joseph Weydemeyer from Karl Marx dated March 5, 1852. Marx says that he himself deserves no credit for the theory of class struggle. “Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economists the economic anatomy of the classes.” Marx, however, does take credit for three things.

1) Noting that classes only appear in history when certain specific modes of production have developed.

2) That the class struggle “necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

3) That the dictatorship is merely a transitional phase on the road to a classless society.

Lenin says it is a mistake to think that Marxism is basically just about class struggle. The bourgeoisie knows perfectly well that they are engaged in a class struggle against the working people. Here is a quote from multi-billionaire Warren Buffett stating there is “class warfare all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning” (New York Times November 26, 2006). It doesn’t take Marxism to tell workers about the class struggle.

But it does take Marxism to tell workers what to do about it. Lenin puts it this way: “Only he is a Marxist who extends the recognition of the class struggle to the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat (‘workers’ super democracy’ for the faint of heart). This is what constitutes the most profound distinction between the Marxist and the ordinary petty (as well as big) bourgeois. This is the touchstone on which the real understanding and recognition of Marxism should be tested.”

Lenin stresses that this is not an anti-democratic position. Many progressives today balk at the word “dictatorship” making a fetish out it and thus preventing them from understanding what Lenin is saying. To abolish capitalism the working people, the vast majority of the population, must gain political power, do away with capitalist institutions (including the capitalist state) and build new institutions representing humanity at large. They must have a workers’ state to guide them along the way of the transition to a classless society. This new state “must inevitably,” Lenin says, “be a state that is democratic in a new way (for the proletariat and the propertyless in general) and dictatorial in a new way (against the bourgeoisie).”

We must remember that bourgeois rule takes many forms but in essence even the most democratic bourgeois state is a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie (of the 1% over the 99%). Until we arrive at a classless society we have only two kinds of state to live in– both of them class dictatorships, one of the 1% over the 99%, the other of the 99% over the 1%– there is no third, so in the words of the old union song “Which side are you on?”

This is Lenin’s basic theory of the State according to Marxism. It in no way precludes mass democratic reform struggles within the capitalist system, participation in elections, or another practical methods to improve conditions on the ground for the working class under capitalism. But it does make us keep our eyes on the prize and maybe that baby in the bath water as well.


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This post was written by Thomas Riggins

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