Saturday 22 August 2009

Marx, Engels, Lenin and the State

Over 150 years have lapsed since Marx and Engels unleashed the Communist Manifesto on the world. In the time since this programmatic document made its entrance generations of socialists have grappled with the political barriers thrown up by capitalism in the course of its development. The initial conflict in the workers movement between its reformist and revolutionary wings gradually gave way after the split between the Second and Third (Communist) International to a consideration of the problems of hegemony, particularly the ways hegemonic struggle tips the balance of class struggle in favour of the working class, up to the point where it has captured state power. The aim of this chapter is to examine the views of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Gramsci, and Althusser so that a model of the Marxist view of power can be read off from their writings. This enables the critique Foucault's critique of statist political theory to be explored, including the alternative understanding of power he proposes and the kind of strategies that can be employed to resist it. This chapter is concerned with establishing the divide between Marxism and Foucault so that the problems of an encounter between the two can be identified.

The classical Marxist theory of the state can be said to begin with this famous phrase from the
Manifesto: "The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie". This succinctly expresses the positions Marx and Engels set down in the German Ideology – that history is a story of continual class struggle across successive modes of production, of which capitalism is merely the latest. But what marks capitalism out from the previous modes of production is its tremendous development of the forces of production, providing a material basis for a society in which the fruits of labour can be enjoyed by all as opposed to a tiny minority. As such, the state "is a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. But in order that these antagonisms, these 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" (Engels 1978 The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, p. 151) For Engels, the state is concerned with managing the contradictions of capitalist society as well as defending the social order.

Because of the close intellectual relationship between Engels and Marx, it could reasonably be assumed Marx would have concurred with these views that post-dated his death. Indeed, a cursory examination of the evolution of Marx’s views on the state reveals a gradual evolution toward this position. The most significant sea change in his mature outlook occurs around the time of the 1848 revolutions that broke out across Europe. Prior to this time the views of Marx and Engels, argues Lenin in
The State and Revolution were abstract propositions. Marx’s 18th Brumaire was his first concrete study of state power. In his famous letter to Kugelmann on April 12, 1871, Marx wrote
If you look at the last chapter of my 18th Brumaire, you will find that I declare: the next French Revolution will no longer be an attempt to transfer the bureaucratic-military apparatus from one hand to another, but to smash it, and this is the real precondition for every people’s revolution on the continent. (Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence. Moscow: Progress Publishers, p.247)
In other words, the workers must dispense with the existing bourgeois state apparatus and raise their own organisation that can effectively defend its power from counterrevolution. These findings were reinforced for Marx in his investigation of the 1871 Paris Commune in The Civil War in France, where the armed workers failed to decisively move against the old regime and paid a blood price with thousands of dead communards. Marx was keen these lessons were not lost on the German workers' movement over which he and Engels exerted some influence. Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme attacked the programme of the newly unified Social Democratic Party. He argued it masked the nature of capitalism and obscured the immediate political tasks in front of the German proletariat. As part of his polemic, Marx discusses his theory of the transition to communism. He notes that "(B)etween capitalist and communist society lies the period of revolutionary transformation of one to the other. There corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat" (Karl Marx 1966, New York: International Publishers, p.18). The key word here is transition. If the state is the result of irreconcilable class antagonisms, then the creation of a workers' state marks the beginning of the end for state power per se. Provided the emerging socialist order is victorious against counter-revolutionary reaction, the development of socialism (understood here as massive thoroughgoing democratisation of society) destroys the economic basis of class. Therefore, the state – understood as an instrument by which one class oppresses another – is rendered superfluous. The state withers as it gives way to the general administration of things.

The degree of clarity achieved by Marx and Engels in relation to the state became muddied in mainstream Marxist circles after their deaths. In 1899 Bernstein published his
famous work on the possibility of a peaceful reformist road to socialism, sparking off the revolution vs. reform debate. He argued developments in capitalism had rendered the need for insurrection redundant. The development of the cooperative movement, the important role trade unionism occupied in challenging the absolutism of capital in industry, and the extension of the franchise that saw social democracy increasing the number of deputies sent to the Reichstag meant, for Bernstein, that socialism could come about gradually through reform of the economy and state. This position implies the state is a neutral institution; a machine that can either defend or displace capitalism by whatever party is in office. Secondly the state is viewed a source of power - albeit one which rises above class interests. Despite departing significantly from the views of Marx and Engels, Bernstein fundamentally agreed with the emphasis they placed on the state. Unsurprisingly the debate that enveloped the international workers movement after the publication of Bernstein’s views were kept strictly within the limits of the Marxist tradition. The primacy of the state was not challenged; the points of contention were over the content of the concept, while other forms of power tended to be neglected.

The debate itself was cut short by the outbreak of war in 1914. Up until this point the majority of the Second International had gone against the Bernstein heresy. However, for the left this veneer of Marxist orthodoxy covered for the reformist daily practice and outlook of social democracy. In her famous pamphlet,
Reform or Revolution, Luxemburg argued Bernstein’s theoretically expressed already existing practice and therefore the roots of reformism ran very deep. This was confirmed at the outbreak of war – both the reformist and orthodox Marxist mainstream immediately sought to protect their political organisations by pandering to the genuine upsurge of nationalist fervour. Despite resolving at the 1913 Basle conference to launch a general strike at the outbreak of war, the International broke off into its national components with each supporting its own country’s war effort, and voting for war credits where possible. There were few but ultimately important exceptions to this rule. It is at this conjuncture of war and the collapse of social democracy in the face of it that Lenin ‘rediscovered’ the Marxist theory of the state.

The first thing to note about Lenin’s
The State and Revolution is its pedagogical and polemical nature. Lenin recapitulates the arguments of Marx and Engels on the state, particularly emphasising the necessity of worker’s power and using it as a foil for attacking Bernstein-inspired revisionism and ‘mainstream’ Marxists (particularly Kautsky, the Marxist ‘pope’) for "forgetting" the classical teachings. By doing this Lenin was able to win the brand of orthodoxy for revolutionary politics. Secondly, it was a common practice of Lenin’s to ‘bend the stick’ in his writings to emphasise a particular point. Therefore because he analytically prioritises the coercive character of the state and the political goal of an insurrection, it does not mean that the problems of political struggle and hegemony were of no concern. In this light the argument should be viewed as a heuristic device aimed at bringing attention to the repressive character of the state that was ignored/forgotten by mainstream and revisionist Marxism.

For Lenin the state is the most important institution for the maintenance of bourgeois class power.
A state arises, a special power is created, special bodies of armed men, and every revolution, by destroying the state apparatus, shows us the naked class struggle, clearly shows us how the ruling class strives to restore the special bodies of armed men that serve it, and how the oppressed class strives to create a new organisation of this kind, capable of serving the exploited instead of the exploiters (in Selected Works in One Volume, Moscow 1969, p.270).
This passage expresses the importance of the state for Marxism and advances the thesis that the ability of a class to rule ultimately rests on its monopoly of the means of violence via the machinery of the state. Having established the state’s class character he moves on to the discussion of the dictatorship of the proletariat - dictatorship in this sense is used to refer to the rule of a class, which can take many different forms. Briefly arguing that one can only really be a Marxist if one recognises it as a necessary moment on the path to socialism, the workers' state nevertheless "will for the first time create democracy for the people, for the majority, along with the necessary suppression of the exploiters – of the minority. Communism alone is capable of providing really complete democracy, and the more complete it is, the sooner it (the state) will become unnecessary and wither away of its own accord" (ibid, p.328). The dictatorship of the proletariat therefore lays the basis for the disappearance of the working class as a class, thereby rendering state power increasingly superfluous, gradually vanishing as socialism advances toward a communist future.

The whole contents of
Toward a Marxian/Foucauldian Encounter can be viewed here.


Alderson Warm-Fork said...

to your knowledge, does any of this discussion offer or presume a definition of the word 'state'? I mean, there's a lot of 'pointing' - we all know which particular set of exisiting institutions people have in mind when they say 'state' - and there's a lot of characterising - saying of that recognised thing, that it is essentially just such-and-such (e.g. a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie). But neither of those is the same as a strict definition.

I ask because although there are definitions floating around, I think people often place different degrees of emphasis on different bits, or just include different features.

Dave Riley said...

OK -- that's what the books tell us, esp State and Revolution but in the world of historical examples and challenges the template isn't always so clear cut (as it was in 1917).Among Marxists (although maybe not CWI Marxists but perhaps International Marxist Tendency Marxists), there has been a lot of debate over the nature of the state in Venezuela.

What kind of state it is and what may be happening to it is a key dot point in ruling what is actually happening in that country.

At issue here is whether the nature of the state changes like instant coffee or is a more complex process involved that is not so self evident as it was in Moscow a few years back. (In similar mode is the question of the unravelling of the Soviet state).

Among a section of the left a socialist revo is occurring in Venezuela ; among another, it's merely bourgeois dross. The latter POV is dominant among the British left parties such that very few sectors in the UK orientate to Venezula.

While this may seem a rather exotic topic, the old adage still rules: what kind of socialist party is it that cannot recognise a revolution when they see it?

Phil said...

I don't define the state completely, Alderson. For the purposes of this discussion I'm really only interested in establishing what it meant for the classical Marxists, and the supplementary arguments applied by Gramsci and Althusser. This is so a model of the Marxist theory of power is arrived at, which is then interrogated by Foucault's approach so as to establish a clear line of demarcation between them.

Phil said...

Good point, Dave. We've discussed this a few times in our branch and the consensus view is Venezuela requires ever greater masses of workers to be thrown into the political process for the state to fundamentally change its class character. The argument goes that if the Chavistas do not move to expropriate the Venezuelan bourgeoisie then there is a danger they can use the organs of the state that remain in opposition hands as bases of counterrevolution of one kind or another.

I guess this position nods toward seeing it as a transitional state finely balanced on the knife edge of class struggle. However unlike Bonapartist states that assume a large degree of independence from the struggle, this is so overwhelmed by it that it is a battleground for the contending classes and one that will swing either way depending on the outcomes of ongoing struggles.

I didn't get enough cuddles from mother said...

Can you please engage all other socialists in this conversation so that all normal people can ignore your outpourings and be exempted from your various class struggles/definitions/futuroligistic meanderings and be void of yourselves and build a just world?

Or is that too much to ask.

Call me 'A person who has listened to your crap for 300 years or so.

Phil said...

I think the name says it all.

Mr. Divine said...

To what extent do you agree with Marx, that the working class will take over the state. I can't see it happening. I can't see two distinct groups in society .. I see all sorts of different groups that Marxism can't account for.

I can't understand why people think Marxism has got something to say about modern society. In short it doesn't describe how society is today.

Phil said...

Mr Divine, I submit to you that what you think Marxism is is very different from how us Marxists view it. In my opinion there is no social theory that explains how capitalist society works better than the body of thought developed by the millions of activists and thinkers that have stood in the Marxist tradition. And if you look at a lot of contemporary sociological theory you cannot help but notice Marx's nose pop out from the pages of books, even if the authors themselves are avowedly anti-Marxist.

I know I'm not going to be able to convince you of the merit of Marxism during the course of a debate. But what I and other commenters here is answer your questions and point out where we think you're interpretation is mistaken.