Chapter 5 - Withering Away the State (Part One)
Chapter 5 of State and Revolution has a brief introduction and four sections. Lenin opens by telling us that Marx’s major discussion of the withering way of the state is to be found in his Critique of the Gotha Program. The Gotha Program was the founding document of the SPD in 1875. Although Marx wrote it in 1875, it was not published until 1891, eight years after his death. This article covers sections 1 and 2.
1. Formulation of the Question by Marx
Lenin makes some very interesting comments in this section-- relevant to our understanding of socialism and the transition from capitalism in the twenty-first century. First, as opposed to those who maintained that Marx and Engels had different views on the nature of the state, i.e., that the Letter to Bebel and the Critique of the Gotha Program are incompatible, Lenin says that they were actually in complete agreement on the state. The two works dealt with different aspects of the state and it is only by misinterpreting these works that any so-called incompatibility arises. Engel's letter dealt with the issue of what the state is under capitalism and the incorrect notions held of its role after the socialist revolution. Marx was interested in discussing the transition from socialism to communism. Marx was dealing with the evolution of communism. "The whole theory of Marx," Lenin says, is an application of the theory of evolution ... to modern capitalism." This raises a couple of interesting points.
For instance, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) has been criticized for trying to apply the theory of evolution to modern capitalism and developing what came to be called "Social Darwinism" (although this term was not used to describe Spencer's views until the twentieth century). Darwin's theory is based on "natural selection" as applied to biological organisms and Social Darwinism has been attacked for making a category mistake, applying language appropriate to one group of things (e.g., biological organisms) inappropriately to a different group of things (e.g., non-biological social institutions.)
This critique basically did in Spencer’s views and so, it would seem, Lenin's characterization of Marxism as the theory of evolution applied to modern capitalism should also be rejected. But Lenin did not, as Spenser did, use Darwinian terminology (natural selection, survival of the fittest - coined by Spenser) when he discussed evolution. He did not see Marxism as a subdivision of Darwinism. He used the term "evolution" in a more general sense to describe systematic changes in any type of organization such that any time 2 could be understood as a result of causative factors at work at time1 for any system, biological or social. Darwinism and Marxism would both be species of the genus "evolution." The terminology of one could not be mechanically applied to the other, hence Lenin did not, while Spencer did, commit a category mistake.
So, what was the question formulated by Marx? Lenin said it was, "On the basis of what data can the future evolution of future communism be considered?" Lenin's answer is most important as it contains (although not obviously) the seeds of understanding why the twentieth-century socialist experience has been partially set back and may be temporarily in stasis. "On the basis of the fact," Lenin wrote, "that it has its origin in capitalism, that it is the result of an action of a social force to which capitalism has given birth."
Marx and Engels had no use for thinking up Utopias based on speculations about a future society. Unfortunately Lenin uses a biological analogy-- Marx is working like a biologist studying a new organism and explaining it in terms of his knowledge of other organisms out of which it developed. This is an analogy, however, and not a category mistake.
Lenin also mentions that the concept of a "people's state" was being bandied about by the SPD leadership at this time. This notion was used to justify ideas about keeping the state around under socialism. Marx thought the notion of a "people's state" was ridiculous once one understood what the role of the state was historically and that it had no function to play after the establishment of socialism. Perhaps Khrushchev's views on the former USSR as a "state of the whole people" put forth at the 22nd CPSU Congress can be better understood in light of these passages from Lenin. Subsequent events seem to suggest that the concept of "a state of the whole people" was indeed ridiculous considering the actual conditions in the former Soviet Union at the time as well as later developments.
2. Transition from Capitalism to Communism
Given Capitalism, Marxists want to end up with Communism— its negation. Marx says there will have to be a long period of transition separating these two systems. What is the role of “democracy” during the transition? Lenin says we can have “more or less complete democracy in the democratic republic.” But under capitalism the bourgeois democratic republic puts limits on the extent of democratic rights i.e., “democracy is always bound by the narrow framework of capitalist exploitation.” Only the rich fully enjoy democratic freedom while the majority of the population have the illusion of freedom; it is, Lenin says, almost the same as it was in Ancient Greece “freedom for the slave owners.”
Marx held that the workers (“wage-slaves”) are so crushed down by debt and poverty under capitalism that “democracy is nothing to them” and “politics is nothing to them.” Lenin gives examples from his day to back up Marx’s comments. Here are some examples from our own time. Well, there has been some advance in our consciousness since Marx wrote those words (1875). Many working people have become aware of the possibilities of using the limited democratic possibilities of the capitalist state to somewhat improve their conditions of servitude. But many are still in the condition that Marx described. In the US for instance, in midterm elections less than half of the voters bother to cast ballots. The 2018 midterms were an exception as 53% of the voters turned out.
The working people and their allies have the power in next year’s election (2022) to rout the ultra right and put in place less reactionary politicians under whom it is possible to make some gains for the majority in terms of economic and social rights. We will see how well socialists, progressives, and union activists have succeeded in making the oppressed aware of their stake in elections by the percentage of voters who go to the polls and the extent of the possible rout. I should think we have to have a greater turn out than 53% or we are doing something wrong. If there is a rout it will strengthen arguments in favor of the left wing of the Democratic Party of breaking with the center and running to the left in the primaries as well lay a basis for Communist candidates to run as well.
Lenin, following Marx and Engels, understands the need for these preliminary skirmishes, but that wars, human exploitation, and poverty can never be ended until capitalism itself is ended. We have to fight for real democratic change, i.e., worker’s democracy, in order for this to happen. Thus Lenin maintains that the way forward is NOT to start here where we are and fight for “greater and greater democracy”— this is the delusion of “liberal professors and petty-bourgeois opportunists” — the way forward is to fight to establish workers democracy [AKA the dictatorship of the proletariat; this particular choice of words can be debated: "worker's democracy" is a fine substitute as long as the concept is kept -- abolition of the bourgeoisie] which enacts laws that end the exploitation of working people and that deny to the capitalists democratic rights that they now presently enjoy which enable them to exploit other people.
Lenin stresses the fact that the first REAL democracy, democracy for the poor and oppressed, democracy for the people, is also the restriction of democracy for the rich, the exploiters, the capitalists. Freedom for the 99% can be gained only by restraining the 1%. This is the only way, Lenin says, freedom can be attained by the masses of people, by using force to destroy the power of the exploiter. This is just the way of the world. Lenin calls it “the modification of democracy during the transition period from capitalism to Communism.” For those who are less concerned with words than the concepts behind them, the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” can be replaced by “modification of democracy,” or “worker’s democracy” without any change of meaning as long we are clear about what Lenin thinks is the role of the state in the transition period. Once Communism is reached democracy will fade away along with the state structure itself since democracy is a concept relating to the form of a particular sort of state.
What Lenin means can be understood by examining the logic of a common progressive slogan in use today— i.e., “No Justice, No Peace.” People have an almost innate feeling for justice and fairness (although socially conditioned) and understand quite well when they are not being treated fairly. They will eventually fight back if the unfair treatment becomes too much for them. Since all class societies are based on the ill treatment of the vast majority by a tiny minority a state is created which keeps the majority in check. Since there is no justice there are many incidences of no peace— strikes, revolts, riots, uprisings, civil disobedience, rebellions, boycotts, civil wars, colonial wars, wars for economic dominance, demonstrations, marches, revolutions, etc. all of these are more or less calibrated to reflect the level of injustice being imposed by the ruling minority.
A successful state must keep the majority in check and (with a few exceptions in small societies) “the greatest ferocity and savagery of suppression are required, seas of blood are required, through which mankind is marching in slavery, serfdom, and wage-labour.” With the establishment of socialism a transitional period ensues with a new kind of state, one representing the majority which puts down the exploiting minority and eliminates it as a class, enabling the creation of conditions of justice for all, and thus peace. The end of the transitional period ushers in Communism “which renders the state absolutely unnecessary for there is no one to be suppressed”— in the sense of a class trying to exploit others. There will of course be ornery individuals no matter what kind of society you have but they will be dealt with by the people themselves living in communal arrangements.
Next up, we will deal with what Marx thought these two stages of post capitalist society would be like— without being Utopian Lenin says. We will resume with section 3 of chapter 5: “First Phase of Communist Society.”
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.