Chapter One Sections 2 & 3
Section 2. "Special Bodies of Armed Men, Prisons, ETC."
Still basing himself on Engel's Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,
Lenin points out that the state is the first form of society exclusively to base itself on a given territory as opposed to tribal societies and bands which can move about and change locations while searching for food and shelter. This is the first innovation of the state.
The second is that the state sets up a source of power independent of the general population. The Roman state, for example, maintained an army as opposed to tribal societies such as the Gauls and Germans in which all the able bodied men were warriors. The public power of the state includes prisons, courts, an educational system and, Engels says "institutions of coercion of all kinds." However, Lenin stresses that, "A standing army and police are the chief instruments of state power." Today we can see that while the bulk of the armed forces and police are recruited from the 99%, they are controlled by, and serve the interests of the 1%.
This is the case because every state "is split into antagonistic, and moreover, irreconcilably antagonistic classes" so that the dominant class must control the instruments of state power to remain in control. This is denied, of course, by all the ruling class factions. In the US the Republicans accuse the progressives, especially progressive Democrats, of wanting to foment "class war" when they try to put forth new taxes on the rich or criticize the right of trying to curtail voting rights of the poor. The Democrats vehemently deny that there is "class war" and that they only want fairness for the "middle class" and to help the poor advance themselves via the "American dream." Meanwhile both parties support the National Security Agency's keeping tabs on every single American citizen (as well as those of other countries) in order to protect the security of the state (i.e., class rule).
This is the context in which Lenin maintains that the "exploited class," or to use the metaphor currently in use, the 99 %, must create a new type of state "capable of serving the exploited instead of the exploiters."
Section 3. "The State -- An Instrument for the Exploitation of the Oppressed Class."
The representatives of the state demand special immunities, honors and privileges above and beyond those accorded to regular members of society. Special honor is accorded to judges to underscore the importance of the laws enacted by the dominant class. The police and military can often literally get away with murders and brutalities that would subject regular citizens to extreme state punishment. Rampant police brutality and lawlessness is well known throughout the United States as well as military atrocities carried out abroad that amount to war crimes. Breaking up strikes of working people and clamping down on protesters are regular features of the police function.
Lenin will answer the following question: "what is it that places them above society?" He quotes Engels to answer this question. "Because the state arose from the need to hold class antagonisms in check, at the same time, in the midst of the conflict between these classes." Because the state is the tool of the economically dominant class this class also becomes the politically dominant class. In the U.S. it is no accident that with the rise of progressive political movements the Supreme Court in the Citizens United ruling opened the floodgates so that unlimited amounts of money could inundate the electoral arena and allow the 1% to literally position itself to buy elections and asphyxiate the democratic aspirations of regular citizens. This is nothing new. Engels long ago remarked that "the modern representative state is an instrument of exploitation of wage labour by capital." In face of the consensus of economists, for example, that in the U.S. a living wage would come to $15.00 an hour the most the government is willing to push for is $10.10 per hour. A fine illustration of Engels' point.
How does the 1% actually exercise control by the use of wealth? Lenin gives a couple of examples after quoting Engels---i.e., "direct corruption of officials" (America) and "alliance of the government and the Stock Exchange" (France, America). Imperialism and the banks working together have perfected the methods of both direct and indirect control of the state. Democratic republics, such as the U.S. and many others as well, are the best forms of government for the capitalists. "The reason why the omnipotence of 'wealth' is more certain in a democratic republic," Lenin says, "is that it does not depend on individual defects in the political machinery or on the faulty political shell of capitalism. A democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism, and, therefore, once capitalism has gained possession of this very best shell it establishes its power so securely, so firmly, that no change of persons, institutions or parties in the bourgeois-democratic republic can shake it." This may be why "No we can't" is a more realistic political slogan than "Yes we can" for workers under the control of a bourgeois democracy (but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try!).
Elections are important and voting is important in a bourgeois-democratic republic such as the U.S. Participation in elections is an important educational tool and helps working people understand the nature of bourgeois democracy and leads to greater class consciousness. Nevertheless, Lenin insists that we "note that Engels is most explicit in calling universal suffrage an instrument of bourgeois rule."
Knowing how elections actually work, how they are corrupted by money, how the nature of bourgeois democracy is objectively structured to keep the working class under control, Lenin thinks socialists (i.e., real socialists not the phony social democrats) should not reinforce "the false notion that universal suffrage 'in the present-day state' is really capable of revealing the will of the majority of the working people and of securing its realisation." Well, the accuracy of this depends on what the meaning of what "present" means in "present-day state." Is Lenin out of date here, or not? In any event, Lenin is in favor of the struggle for universal suffrage but he is under no illusion that it will solve the problems of working class people.
Considering the US, where elections are controlled by gerrymandering, voter suppression, the role of money, and mass media disinformation it would seem that Lenin is hardly out of date on the viability of “universal suffrage” as the road to socialism. Nevertheless, this revisionist “false notion” is still widespread on the left in many countries, not only the US.
Next Up: We will finish Chapter One, section four with a discussion of the "Withering Away" of the State and Violent Revolution.
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.