Friday, 15 April 2011

Lenin's 'The State and Revolution'

This is my introduction to Counterfire's re-publishing of chapter 1 from Lenin's classic 'The State and Revolution' (1917)...

It is impossible to ignore the question of the state. Recently this has been brought to the fore by three particular developments.

Firstly, the revolutionary uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and popular rebellions across the Arab world, have focused attention on the role of the capitalist state: police, army, security apparatus etc. Mass movements have faced the formidable challenge of violent state repression and the obstacles posed by the existing state, prompting debate about what approach to take to different state institutions.

Secondly, while Western parliamentary democracies like Britain are in many ways different from most of the Arab regimes, the politics of policing has been a hot topic since the student protest movement emerged last November. Many newer activists and demonstrators have had their first experience of repressive policing, prompting questions about the role of supposedly 'neutral' institutions like the police.

Thirdly, Western military intervention in Libya has prompted discussion about whether powerful capitalist states are acting for benevolent reasons - or are their actions bound to be an expression of imperialist self-interest? Answering this question has to rest upon an understanding of the state and its functions.

Lenin, writing 'The State and Revolution' in 1917, was prompted to devote time to the issue of the state by the exciting and rapidly developing events in Russia at the time. In February 1917 the autocratic Tsarist regime had been overthrown, but - when Lenin was writing his short book - the successful workers' revolution of October 1917 was still in the future. Understanding the state, its role, and how it can be confronted, was a politically urgent issue.

'The State and Revolution' is subtitled 'The marxist theory of the state and the tasks of the proletariat in the revolution'. Chapter one, 'Class society and the state', is re-published below. It quotes heavily from Engels, the close collaborator of Karl Marx and author of the influential 'The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State'.

Lenin is first and foremost summarising what Marx and Engels, the founding figures of the marxist tradition, had written on the state. He also updates this with some observations on then contemporary left-wing debates about the issue.

At the core of marxist understanding, explains Lenin, is recognition that the capitalist nation state appears 'neutral' - above class and political differences - but is in fact an indispensable instrument of class rule. It gains its legitimacy from the appearance of neutrality, but this disguises its real role and purpose. Society is divided into classes, the interests of which are in conflict with each other. Lenin quotes Engels:

'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.'

Lenin explains the state's relationship to capitalist society as a whole, as well as establishing the state's defining features. This is re-capping the ideas of Marx and Engels. But he also comments on the state's development in relation to the growth of imperialism in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Since Engels' later writings:

''rivalry in conquest' has taken a gigantic stride, all the more because by the beginning of the second decade of the twentieth century the world had been completely divide up among these 'rivals in conquest', i.e. among the predatory Great Powers.'

Lenin then notes that World War One, still ongoing as he wrote, was the culmination of this process of competition between major capitalist states for 'domination of the world' and 'division of the spoils'.

Lenin also, in this opening chapter, addresses the question of how the exisiting state can be overthrown by the working class, and what will take its place. It is therefore a useful and concise summary of some of the most important and theoretically distinctive ideas in the marxist tradition.


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