It's been over 100 years since Lenin first wrote what has since become a "classic" of Marxism:The State and Revolution: The Marxist Theory of the State and the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution, hereafter referred to as SR. I propose to discuss the significance of this work for today (the beginning of the 21st Century) and so will not spend a lot of time discussing its relevance to the world of 100 years ago.
The tasks of the working class in the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 will only be touched upon and I will concentrate instead on the Marxist theory of the state. Lenin and the Bolsheviks successfully applied this theory in their day and were able to overthrow the capitalist ruling class and its supporters in Russia and surrounding areas and to found the Soviet Union in 1922. How should we understand this theory today as we struggle to advance the interests of working people around the world in their effort to free themselves from capitalist exploitation and oppression (including the workers of the former socialist countries)?
I will begin with a few remarks about Lenin's "Preface" to the first edition of SR. First, Lenin's characterization of the state is as accurate today as it was when he wrote his preface: The "oppression of the working people by the state which is merging more and more with the all- powerful capitalist associations, is becoming increasingly monstrous."
Capitalist states have by now practically completed the merge. In the US the recent economic depression initiated, among other reasons, by fraudulent lending practices and other illegal activities by banks and big corporations has seen the state bailing out the big capitalist firms while leaving the working people, the victims of the depression, to fend for themselves. The state, prior to the outbreak of the Covid-19 emergency, cut food stamps and unemployment insurance benefits for the working people while giving subsidies to big agricultural and energy interests. There is no doubt whose interest the state serves.
Meanwhile in European countries the state is either imposing regimes of extreme austerity on the working population in order to extract wealth to be turned over to bond holders and banks or pushing through measures to revamp the labor laws and retirement plans of the workers to their disadvantage in order that the corporations may more easily fire people and will not have their taxes increased to support social programs.
In the Third World from Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Indonesia, to Mexico, Haiti and Africa , and points in between, we see the state allied with commercial interests and using its police and military to break up strikes and work stoppages in support of the owners of capital.
Lenin also pointed out that those who claim to be champions of the working class, especially so-called "socialist" leaders have sided with the capitalist class against the workers of their own countries, but also internationally. The French socialist government, for example, openly supports the most reactionary elements of the US ruling class in its international quest to dominate Third World countries. This is in line with Lenin's observation that "the majority of the so-called Great Powers have long been exploiting and enslaving a whole number of small and weak nations." Is the world any different today?
One of the most effective ways the capitalist class keeps the workers in thrall and off balance is by appeals to patriotism (USA! USA!) and by pitting the workers of one country against those of another ("Buy made in America!"). The idea that the state is somehow class neutral or can be made to champion the workers against the financial and industrial interests is seen by Lenin as an obstacle to mobilizing the working people to struggle for THEIR interests rather than the interests of the exploiters. Lenin uses the term "opportunism" to describe working class leaders who work to achieve narrow short term and temporary gains at the expense of the long term interests of the working class. Opportunism is not the same as reformism which brings about substantive long term changes under capitalism which will strengthen working class consciousness (such as the struggle for civil and political rights.)
Struggles for reform increase class consciousness in the working class, while opportunism decreases it. This is why Lenin thinks understanding the nature of the state is of vital importance. "The struggle to free the working people from the influence of the bourgeoisie in general, and the imperialist bourgeoisie in particular, is impossible without a struggle against opportunistic prejudices concerning the 'state'".
The PRO-Act of the Biden administration, for example, is aimed at stabilizing the capitalist system and getting it up and running again after the COVID-19 semi-shutdown, improving the lives of working people so that the appeal of the “socialist” reforms of Bernie Sanders, DSA and “The Squad” will not gain traction and US capitalism can better compete with the EU and other advanced nations and give the appearance of “capitalism with a human face.” Progressives should support it but have no opportunistic illusions about explaining its purpose.
Up to this point I think the ideas expressed by Lenin in his preface are still applicable today. However, there are three ideas that I now turn to which have questionable merit today. 1. "The world proletarian revolution is clearly maturing." This was an overly optimistic, if understandable, position in 1917. But subsequent events actually led to the derailment of the "world proletarian revolution" which shows no sign of getting back on track anytime soon. However, events in North America and Europe, Cuba and South America, as well as Africa and the Middle East are indicative of a general malaise of the international capitalist order the outcome of which is not now predictable. 2. While there are many lessons to be learned from the Russian Revolution, Lenin was incorrect, I think, in seeing it as the first link in a chain of revolutions which would overthrow capitalism. Capitalism ultimately overthrew it, hopefully for the nonce. 3. The emphasis on refuting the ideas of Karl Kautsky, while essential in the era of WWI, may be no longer as relevant as they were in light of the march of time and the developments in Marxist theory (positive and negative) attributable to Lukács, Gramsci, Trotsky, Mao and others.
Finally, Lenin ends the preface with the following words regarding the understanding of the nature of the state and its relation to the struggle for socialism which he says "is a most urgent problem of the day, the problem of explaining to the masses what they will have to do before long to free themselves from capitalist tyranny." Well, it's a long time since Lenin's "before long" but the problem is still urgent and the explanation must still be made.
Coming up-SR Chapter One "Class Society and the State" Section One: "The State-- A Product of the Irreconcilability of Class Antagonisms" [2/12]
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.