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Why read State and Revolution
by Camilla Royle, February 2013
Lenin finished writing State and Revolution in September 1917. At the time the fate of the Russian Revolution hung in the balance. After the February Revolution overthrew the Tsar, the country was run by a provisional government involving socialists in coalition with bourgeois forces.
Workers across Europe continued to be sent to the trenches in their millions in a seemingly endless imperialist war.
Lenin was aware of the desperate need for workers to take power in Russia, but also for revolution to spread beyond Russia. He aimed his arguments at Karl Kautsky, who had been the leading theoretician of the influential pre-war German Social Democratic Party (SPD). The key question was whether the existing state under capitalism could be taken over and used to advance the interests of workers.
Lenin returned to the ideas of Marx and Engels to argue that the state arises as the result of the fundamental antagonism between an exploiting class and an exploited class. The whole repressive apparatus at the core of the state - laws, prisons, police force and army - is there to defend the interests of the exploiters. The division of the world into separate states and the policing of the population of each is not a "natural" situation but one that flows out of a specific form of society.
So the state is a feature of class society. However it is also able to act as if it is separate and stands above that society. The state gives the impression that it is a neutral body, there to defend everyone's interests equally. But when the state acts it never does so neutrally. The police attack workers and students on demonstrations but they don't try to stop bosses from destroying jobs. The state is on the side of big business.
As Lenin put it, "The state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another."
By contrast, Kautsky and his followers held a very different view. The SPD had grown to over a million members before the start of the war in 1914 and it had over 100 members of parliament.
But the SPD leadership had tended to accept opportunist and reformist ideas. They thought they could use the framework of capitalist democracy to win socialism. Although they criticised some aspects of the bourgeois state the SPD dismissed talk of trying to overthrow it as anarchism. Instead the existing state could be reformed and made into an instrument for the transition to socialism.
But this accommodation to the capitalist state meant that the SPD came increasingly to identify with the interests of the German state against its rivals. This resulted in 1914 in the SPD leadership siding with their own ruling class and state in the First World War in the name of "defence of the fatherland".
In State and Revolution Lenin argues that the existing capitalist state cannot be reformed, but must be overthrown.
He writes, "The liberation of the oppressed class is impossible not only without a violent revolution, but also without the destruction of the apparatus of state power which was created by the ruling class...it is this conclusion which Kautsky has 'forgotten' and 'distorted'...all previous revolutions perfected the state machine, whereas it must be broken, smashed."
To do so, and to crush the continued resistance of the capitalists, workers need their own state, backed by an armed working class to enforce their rule. This is the "dictatorship of the proletariat".
"The proletariat needs state power, a centralised organisation of force, an organisation of violence, both to crush the resistance of the exploiters and to lead the enormous mass of the population - the peasants, the petty bourgeoisie, and semi-proletarians - in the work of organising a socialist economy."
Instead of oppressing the working class, a worker's state would oppress the capitalists. After the revolution had been won, Lenin argued that the state would wither away as class antagonisms increasingly disappeared.
But would the "dictatorship of the proletariat" be undemocratic?
In fact, Lenin was deeply concerned with the question of democracy (he uses the word "democracy" nearly 100 times in State and Revolution). His vision of the dictatorship of the proletariat is based on Marx's descriptions of the Paris Commune of 1871, when workers organised a new type of state based on elected officials paid a workers' wage and recallable.
This is a vast improvement compared to the bourgeois system of democracy where the population votes every few years for people over who it has little control and who sit in parliaments that are subordinated to the interests of the ruling class.
But Lenin saw even the most progressive forms of democracy as a form of state apparatus. He wanted democracy ultimately replaced by a world defined by new kinds of relations between people - a classless society where the state would no longer be needed.
State and Revolution deals with many of the most important questions facing revolutionary socialists. Lenin had planned to write a second part of the pamphlet but never completed it - preferring to take part in actual revolutions as well as write about them.
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