Archive for April, 2019

Charlie Post on Non Reformist Reforms

I read this article by Charlie Post in Jacobin today – What Strategy for the US Left. It’s a critique of an article by Vivek Chibber. Both were written a while back but my eyes was caught by the prominence of the concept of ‘non reformist reforms’ – Chibber advocates it and Post is a critic.

I’d love to write a full response to this if I had any confidence at the moment, but I thought I’d just scribble down some immediate thoughts.

I think Post is bang on in many of his criticisms of Chibber’s essay – *market socialism* really?? The fundamental thing Post puts his finger on is that most ‘reformist’ accounts of socialist strategy completely ignore the structural reliance of the state (and indeed *society*) on capitalist profitability – what Fred Block and Adam Przeworski refer to as ‘business confidence’. This is why there can be no unbroken line of reforms leading from capitalism to socialism.

But what annoys me about Post’s argument is:

1) Post makes absolutely no reference to the originator of the concept of ‘non reformist reforms’, Andre Gorz, who did precisely orient this concept in terms of a ruptural strategy.

2). As usual the focus is on the concrete obstacles in the way of attempting to use the capitalist state for socialist purposes but the correctness of the revolutionary strategy is simply asserted without any indication of any of the surely considerable concrete obstacles that might attend that. As usual it’s assumed that workers councils and a parallel workers’ state can and will spontaneously spring up and moreover develop to the very advanced point at which they might provide a credible total alternative in a situation of dual power in a state like the US. As usual Zero evidence for this.

3). Capital’s structural power applies to capitalist *society* in toto – not merely to the state. We are all highly dependent, in capitalist society, on capitalist investment. A mass movement outside the state in no way escapes this somehow. In a predominantly capitalist economy an investment strike, lay offs, severe inflation on consumer goods etc will cut across soviets as much as they would cut across the capitalist state. A mass movement outside the state does not somehow float free of the various problems of ‘business confidence’. The problem is private ownership of the means of production. The problem is not overcome in any other way than via expropriation – whether this is done by the existing state or something else is wholly secondary. The main problem is- how do we hope to get to the point at which expropriation (under democratic control) is actually on the agenda as an immediate possibility.

4). Gorz (and indeed Poulantzas) were simply making the (wholly obvious) observation that any process of radicalisation in an advanced capitalist democracy will not and cannot by-pass the state. Can you really imagine, against all the recent historical evidence, any process of socialist radicalisation not – at first at least – finding (partial expression) in some sort of electoral challenge? Structural Reform is simply recognition of this blitheringly obvious reality and an attempt to think through the process of harnessing it, to take it to the point where rupture becomes an actual possibility rather than an abstract orientation in a strategy of magical thinking

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A Critique of Balibar’s On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

Though there is a lot to admire in Etienne Balibar’s very lucid and sophisticated defence (and extension) of the logic of Lenin’s thought (see previous post for a summary and discussion of the key ideas), I do not, in the end, think that it overcomes some of the key problems in State and Revolution and other associated texts. Indeed, Balibar’s argument seems to me merely to repeat and reinforce some of the difficulties in the original texts and perhaps even to make them more visible – revealing more explicitly difficulties that often remain partly submerged in the classics.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Balibar’s argument, particularly as he sets it out in summary in relation to the first two of the three arguments (he argues are) advanced in Lenin, is the extreme (dare I use the terms? I can’t think of better ones…) reductionism and essentialism of his approach. State power is always the power of a single class that holds this power absolutely and as an indivisible whole (both state power and the class that holds it). The only possible alternative to the absolute hold on state power by the bourgeoisie as a whole, is an equally absolute hold on state power by the proletariat as a whole – and thus any given state apparatus, which realises this power in material form, is either, absolutely and simply, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, or, absolutely and simply, the dictatorship of the proletariat. This essentialist logic, in which the capitalist state is assumed to be wholly and in every respect bourgeois is also present in Lenin – but remains less explicitly stated. Here it is, in Balibar’s book, with bells on – which does at least perform the service of stating this logic in stark and unmissable terms and thus plainly signalling the implausibility of the fundamental assumptions on which the Leninist approach to state power is built. And this logic, thus stated, is in my view totally implausible.

For one thing, the wholly binary either/or logic here seems to leave no room conceptually for any kind of transition other than some form of instant and total transformation in the manner of flicking a light switch from off to on. State power is either absolutely bourgeois or absolutely proletarian – there can be no in-between, no grey area between these absolutes. Of course, we’ve seen that Balibar has quite a lot to say about the requirement for a long transitional process – the necessity of ‘a lengthy class struggle which is already in its preparatory stages before the revolution, and which becomes fully acute afterwards’ as he puts it. And indeed, as we’ve also seen, socialism, i.e the historical epoch of the DoP, is for Balibar, precisely, a long period of transitional struggle. But the problem here, surely, is that the very notion of transition – of an in-between period of transformation – is in sharp conflict with the stark either/or logic that underpins his theory of the state. We might ask, for example, how it makes sense to argue (along with Lenin) that a beginning to the process of ‘smashing’ the bourgeois state apparatus can begin before the seizure of power by way of putting socialist politicians into parliament to ‘disintegrate parliamentarism’ from within if, under the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, the hold of the bourgeoisie over state power is absolute and total. It’s worth noting in this respect that in his introduction to Balibar’s text, Graham Lock (offering a précis on Balibar’s argument, which he appears to accept completely) states that it is simply not the case that

even when it succeeds in electing “representatives” to the national parliament (Socialists or even Communists), the working class thereby gains the slightest grasp of State power, that it thereby holds the slightest scrap of State power. (Lock, in Balibar, p. 31)

But if it’s true that this doesn’t confer any sort of power in relation to the state under any circumstances, then how could any process of ‘disintegration’ of parliamentarism from within, such as the one that Balibar and Lenin envisage, possibly take place? Indeed, more broadly than this, it’s difficult to see, given the essentialist logic of Balibar’s approach, how any form of working class struggle could have any effect whatsoever on the integrity and functioning of the bourgeois state.

It seems to me that there’s a similar problem too in terms of what Balibar says about the DoP itself. If forms of bourgeois parliamentarism may re-assert themselves within the proletarian state apparatus and if, indeed, the bourgeois state apparatus in some sense resists the process of its own destruction even under the DoP, then this would seem to suggest that in fact the proletariat as ruling class do not necessarily hold state power absolutely under socialism. The working class, indeed, seem to possess only a rather contingent and incomplete hold over state power and the proletarian state apparatus in the period of the DoP in much of Balibar’s account. So in what sense, then, is this compatible with the underlying binary logic of absolutely either/or: either the bourgeoisie hold state power absolutely or the proletariat do? The problem here only goes deeper once we consider Balibar’s comment about every state being essentially bourgeois – even the proletarian one, since the state form is in essence a hangover from the capitalist mode of production. I guess it might be said that Balibar’s simultaneous assertion that the proletarian state is absolutely proletarian but also essentially bourgeois,  is a dialectical type of contradiction and thus not really a logical absurdity – but find it quite hard to swallow this. Indeed it seems to me, moreover, that the whole idea of socialism as an epoch of transition, of “two worlds within the same world” makes little sense in conjunction with the stark essentialist and binary logic of Balibar’s underlying theoretical premisses.

It was already noted in the previous post that what Balibar has to say in relation to the process of the destruction of the bourgeois state is opaque and indeed, rather ambiguous.  This ambiguity intersects with the difficulties of logical consistency mentioned above. It will be recalled that while Balibar seems fairly clear that the repressive state apparatus must undergo ‘immediate destruction’, he seems to allow that certain unspecified organs of the bourgeois state might survive the seizure of power to be incorporated into the DoP and then progressively opened up to mass intervention as part of the process of withering. This is problematical enough, but I have to say that I’m not even sure that his discussion of the different ‘methods’ and ‘rhythms’ by which the destruction of the various organs of the capitalist state will take place does not suggest that, in fact, particular ‘aspects’ of ‘the bureaucracy’ – i.e. parts of the repressive state apparatus in the Leninist schema – would be opened up to the progressive participatory control of the masses in the period of the DoP which would clearly contradict the particular injunctions about the necessity of immediately ‘smashing’ the apparatus of repression. Another, equally plausible reading of the section in question (pp. 99-110) would be to say that the institutional forms that Balibar envisions being progressively subjected to the direct intervention of the masses are, in fact, new organs of the state of a new type – i.e. the revolution completely sweeps away all bourgeois state institutions and substitutes new ones which are then gradually democratised in step with the advance of the practical organisational capacities of the working class.

So, overall, it seems that we have two equally plausible readings of Balibar’s ambiguous comments here – one in which the entire bourgeois state apparatus is ‘immediately destroyed’ and replaced with different one of new, proletarian type and which is then increasingly democratised, and another in which only (some?) repressive bourgeois state apparatuses are smashed initially while other organs and functions of the old regime (ideological state apparatuses?) are incorporated into the new framework and then progressively democratised. The trouble is that neither of these possible interpretations are compatible with the wider schema of Balibar’s argument. On the one hand the idea that the entire bourgeois state apparatus could be abolished and replaced overnight seems in tension with his dismissal of what he calls the ‘”ultra-left idea” of the immediate abolition of bourgeois institutions and the appearance out of the blue’ (p. 105) of new ones. But, on the other hand, the drift of his argument that suggests certain organs of the old state survive and are merged into the institutional framework of the DoP seems to be in outright conflict with the essentialist basic logic of his theory in which it is insisted that the capitalist state is wholly and in every respect bourgeois. Indeed, to the extent that the second of these two drifts within Balibar’s argument predominates (which it appears to me that it does), Balibar seems to find himself caught in the same process of oscillation between two incompatible positions that we have seen marks Lenin’s argument – a process wherein Lenin moves back and forth between, on the one hand, formulations that appear to pivot on a very stark logic pertaining to the absolutely capitalist nature of the entire bourgeois state and thus the need to destroy it totally and, on the other hand, more apparently qualified positions that seem to disrupt and undermine that logic. It’s difficult not to conclude that this indicates a fundamental problem with the whole Leninist approach to state power and the revolutionary process.

We should also note the extremely functionalist logic that seems to attend Balibar’s argument – something, again, that it shares with Lenin’s argument in State and Revolution and that, again, seems to point toward a fundamental problem in this tradition of thinking in relation to state power. Just as for Lenin, Balibar’s approach seems very strongly to imply the state necessarily performs a particular function determined by the class structure in which it is embedded, with very little indication of how precisely this function is (always-already) accomplished. It’s as if, in the Leninist approach as in the famous criticism of the Realist approach to the state in mainstream International Relations, the state is a kind of ‘black box’ that is always assumed, mysteriously, to function with perfect coherence and efficiency in its performance of particular systemic imperatives that are always, simply, given. Indeed there is no indication at all in Balibar’s book that capitalist states might act in any way that might be sub-optimal or dysfunctional for capital – or in ways that might conflict with the interests of particular fractions of capital.

Here, of course, Balibar’s approach seems to run into the same difficulties that are often associated with so-called ‘instrumentalist’ theories of the state – i.e. if state power is held and exercised directly, somehow, by the ruling class as a whole (as indeed Balibar argues that it is) then how is it possible to explain instances of state policy on the part of the British state historically for example that seem to have favoured particular fractions of capital (financial) over and to the detriment of others (manufacturing)? Further, given that particular capitalist states have often acted in ways that conflict with the short run interests of large swathes of capital – even if this is functional for capital as a whole in the long run (Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal is often referenced as the classic case) – how can any theory of state power that pivots on the claim that the capitalist class, especially as an undifferentiated whole, directly possesses state power account for this?

What all of these essentialist, functionalist and instrumentalist elements inherent in Balibar’s perspective together imply of course, is a vision of the capitalist state as a perfectly coherent entity. In fact Balibar’s perspective is, we might say, in this respect the ne plus ultra of the ‘Leninist’ perspective on the state so roundly dismissed as almost useless by Nicos Poulantzas in State, Power, Socialism. Poulantzas’ main criticism of the ‘Leninist’ approach, of course, is that it pivots on the untenable, and in the end fundamentally absurd, assumption that ‘the State is not traversed by internal contradictions, but is a monolithic bloc without cracks of any kind’ (Poulantzas, 2000, p. 254). Isn’t Balibar’s apprehension of bourgeois state power as something held in an absolute way by the bourgeoisie as a whole, without regard to the internal divisions within that class, and to the total and absolute exclusion of the working class exactly a vision of the state as ‘monolithic bloc without cracks of any kind’?

We noted a broad similarity in relation to Poulantzas’ and Balibar’s approach to state power – specifically state power, for both theorists, manifests a kind of social relation. As Balibar puts it the state ‘rests on a relation of forces between classes, which it develops and reproduces’ (p. 88). But here, the superiority of Poulantzas’ approach becomes very clear in my view. Balibar’s conceptualisation of this relational basis is an extremely static one in which proletarian and popular forces are always-already subordinated to bourgeois forces and always-already totally excluded from the terrain of state power.  As such, Balibar tends to focus merely on one dimension of the relation of forces that the state is seen to embody, as if the social relation in question (the balance of class forces as crystallised by the state) was one in which only a single side in this relation ever has any agency and as if this struggle was always one-way traffic. In other words, the relational dimension of Balibar’s theory is not, in the end, all that relational. The idea of a relation of forces, and certainly the idea of class relation of forces, surely connotes a process of interaction between more than one antagonistic force – and suggests, moreover, that these forces are, precisely, forces rather than merely passive recipients of pressure exerted by external agencies. Further, the idea of a relation of forces also surely implies some degree of contingency – and thus a conflict in which no particular outcome is ever wholly guaranteed and in which no specific balance of forces is ever permanent. All of this is absent from Balibar’s schema.

Poulantzas’ great insight was to understand that if state power (like all forms of power) is (class) relational, then we must grasp the mode in which struggle between classes (and class fractions) is inscribed in the institutional structure and functioning of the state. If the state is a ‘specific material condensation of a relationship of forces among classes and class fractions’ (Poulantzas, 2000, p. 129) then we must be attentive to the ways in which class antagonisms permeate the entirety of the state’s’ institutional materiality’. This means that the state cannot ever be absolutely the possession of one class (fraction) to the total exclusion of all other forces. For Poulantzas, the state as social relation, must be understood as a strategic terrain that is perpetually battled over by antagonistic social forces that are in some sense ‘present’ on that battleground – and that, as such, we must also grasp that the struggles of the working class permanently traverse the institutional materiality of the state. For Poulantzas, state structures are constantly shaped and reconfigured in response to working class struggles and therefore working class power is always to some extent manifested and embedded within the state and their interests reflected in aspects of state policy. The state’s internal class divisions become most obvious when public sector workers strike, for example, but it is also clear that state policy is moulded in response to class pressures that are brought to bear on it – including those emanating from the working class. It’s hard to explain the provision of ‘welfare’ measures, for example, without reference to working class interests, demands and mobilisation (even if ‘welfare’ measures are subordinated to the imperatives of capital accumulation).

Balibar’s one dimensional account of state power – in which that power is always exerted by one force against another passive (non) force – does not grasp any of this. Indeed, Poulantzas’ critical description of the way in which Leninist approaches to the state tend to treat power as ‘a quantifiable substance held by the State that must be taken out of its hands’, as if the state was ‘a thing-instrument that may be taken away, …[or] a fortress that may be penetrated by means of a wooden horse,.. [or] a safe that may be cracked by burglary’ (Poulantzas, 2000, 257-8) seems to apply with full force in respect to Balibar.

Interestingly, Poulantzas did seem to have Balibar in mind as a chief proponent of the crude approach to state power that he was seeking to demolish once and for all in State, Power, Socialism (SPS). There are a couple of glancing references to Balibar’s On the dictatorship of the Proletariat – one toward the beginning of Poulantzas’ book and another toward the middle and both are really pretty contemptuous! It’s worth drawing out what Poulantzas has to say about Balibar’s book specifically. One of the major targets of Poulantzas’ ire in SPS is what he calls the ‘formalist theoreticism’ of those approaches (and again the Leninist approach is the main culprit here) that treat the state as a transhistorical phenomenon and which thus assume the possibility and legitimacy of a ‘general theory of the state’ taken as an epistemologically distinct object across different modes of production. For Poulantzas, the concept of the state could not ‘have the same extension, field or meaning in the various modes of production’, or indeed across different phases of the same mode of production, because the position of the political field of the state vis-a-vis the economy has changed as relations of production and exploitation have shifted over time. In addition, the terrain of political domination varies ‘with the precise form and regime assumed by the State within each stage or phase [of capitalism]: be it a particular form of parliamentarian, or of presidential rule, fascism or military dictatorship’ (Poulantzas, 2000, p. 124). Thus, only a conjunctural type analysis of state power that was sensitive to the stage and phase of capitalism and to the particular form taken by a given state within these stages and phases would pass muster. This is what Poulantzas argues that Balibar signally fails to do.

For Poulantzas, Balibar was a key exponent of a ‘stupendous dogmatism’ (Poulantzas, 2000, p. 20) which ‘treats the general propositions of the Marxist classics as a ‘General Theory’ (the “Marxist Leninist” theory) of the State, reducing the capitalist State to a mere concretization of ”the State in general”‘. ‘With respect to political domination’, he continues, ‘this results in little more than the following kind of dogmatic banality: every State is a class State; all political domination is a species of class dictatorship; the capitalist State is a State of the bourgeoisie.’ (Poulantzas, 2000, p. 124). As Poulantzas, then remarks:

Obviously such an analysis is incapable of advancing research by a single inch. It is completely unserviceable in analysing concrete situation since it cannot account for the differential forms and historical transformations of the capitalist State except by the “tweedledum and tweedledee” kind of observation. (Poulantzas, 2000, pp. 124-5)

This, it seems to me, is an absolutely devastating observation that nails a key problem with Balibar’s approach. The logic of Balibar’s perspective is indeed to suggest that there is very little difference at all between different forms of capitalist state, since all are in essence absolutely the same – the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. State power is either in the hands of the bourgeoisie absolutely or in the hands of the proletariat absolutely – these are the only two meaningful alternatives; and of course, this dichotomous logic squeezes out of the frame of analysis any further (sub) variations or at least strongly implies that these must be insignificant. This is important because, as Poulantzas further points out:

The failings of this analysis have incalculable political consequences:… it has led to a number of political disasters, especially in the inter-war period when a strategy had to be adopted in the face of the rise of fascism. It found expression in the Comintern’s so-called ‘social-fascism’ strategy, which was based quite precisely on this conception of the State and on the inability to distinguish between the parliamentary-democratic form of State and the quite specific form that is the fascist State. (Poulantzas, 2000, p. 125)

Indeed it’s hard to see how the reductionist and essentialist approach espoused by Balibar could be inoculated against this sort of logic.*

What Poulantzas’ criticism of the ‘formalist theoreticism’ of Balibar’s book draws our attention to is that it’s Balibar’s attempt to derive a ‘General Theory’ – a ‘Marxist-Leninist theory of the State’ – from a series of general propositions in the classics that is the root of many of the problems we have encountered above in relation to the stark essentialism and functionalism of his theory. His argument boils down to the assertion of certain Leninist axioms as self-evident truths – just as Lenin’s argument, in my view, ultimately rests on the assertion as an axiom of the view he draws from Marx that the state is ‘an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another’. But no matter how sophisticated Balibar’s argument, at its core is a defence of certain articles of faith – the capitalist state is wholly and absolutely bourgeois; while it exists it will only ever function to oppress the proletariat; it is wholly and absolutely impermeable for proletarian forces; it can only be ‘smashed’ in a frontal assault by forces wholly external to it and must be replaced with a new type of state that will be wholly and absolutely proletarian – that can only really be re-stated in the essentialist and functionalist terms that define them.

It’s worth saying, in conclusion to this discussion, that over the last 40 years since the publication of On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat Balibar has fundamentally changed his view and indeed abandoned the positions he defended in the 1970s. As he remarks in an essay (‘Communism and Citizenship: On Nicos Poulantzas’) included in his 2010 edited collection of writings, Equaliberty (published in English in 2014), his defence of the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat was ‘in hindsight, derisory’ and a manifestation of ‘”eschatological and prophetic dogmatism”‘ (Balibar, 2014, p. 146). Further, he goes on to comment: ‘I will… say, when it comes to the “condensation of the relation of forces” or the “relational concept of the state,” that I have long since conceded this point to Poulantzas’ (Balibar, 2014, p. 147). Class struggles he now admits do indeed traverse the state as a kind of strategic terrain and further, he says that it is necessary to reject ‘the myth of the exteriority of revolutionary forces (parties or movements) in relation to the functioning of the state in advanced capitalism’ (Balibar, 2014, p. 147). This second point in particular seems to bring Balibar into line with the fundamental coordinates of Poulantzas’ conception of the ‘democratic road to socialism’ in SPS (or better, as he put it elsewhere, the ‘revolutionary road to democratic socialism’) – an approach which seeks to articulate extra-parliamentary mass struggle with a parallel (and dialectically intertwined) struggle within the state to reconfigure and transform its ‘institutional materiality’.

And it’s surely significant that the author of one of the most sophisticated defences of the logic of Lenin’s State and Revolution, should end up wholly abandoning it and conceding the argument to his erstwhile rival – the principal opponent of the ‘Leninist’ approach to the state and to the associated approach to strategy in those 1970s debates within and around the PCF – Nicos Poulantzas.

*We should note here that Poulantzas levies very similar criticisms against Balibar that were directed previously by Ralph Miliband against what he saw as Poulantzas’ ‘structural abstractionism’ in the celebrated debate between the theorists across several issues of New Left Review. Indeed Poulantzas’ excoriation of the ‘stupendous dogmatism’ he saw among the contemporary Marxist left was just as much self-criticism of his own earlier positions as it was a broadside against thinkers such as Balibar.


Balibar, E. (1977) On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (London, NLB)

Balibar, E. (2014) Equaliberty: Political Essays (Durham, Duke University Press)

Poulantzas, N. (2000) State, Power, Socialism (London, Verso)

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Etienne Balibar’s On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

In this post I want to summarise and discuss Balibar’s text – regarded now as something of a Marxist classic, and certainly a very impressive defence of the fundamental logic of the argument Lenin sets out in State and Revolution in particular. In the post that follows this I’ll move to a critique of Balibar, informed in part by Nicos Poulantzas’ perspective in his later work.

Etienne Balibar’s On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat is almost certainly one of the most, if not the most, conceptually sophisticated defences of the arguments Lenin establishes in The State and Revolution (and closely associated texts such as The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky). First published in 1976, Balibar’s book was very much a product of specific political circumstances. It was written as a political intervention in the debate within the French Communist Party (PCF) over the party’s decision at its 22nd Congress to expunge references to ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ from official party aims (and indeed to renounce this concept entirely as outdated and unsuitable for modern French conditions) and to substitute for this the objective of a ‘democratic road to socialism’. The book can be regarded as part of a wider theoretical dialogue over the ‘Eurocommunist’ trajectory of Western European CPs at the time. Indeed the PCF’s decision to drop the objective of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ should be seen in the specific context of the turn to a strategy of ‘broad’ electoral alliances on the part of the French, Spanish and Italian CPs (from 1972 the PCF had oriented its political strategy on a ‘Common Programme’ with the Socialist Party and Left Radicals) and their concurrent attempts to distance themselves from the USSR.

The other major text to emerge from this conjuncture – and from the debate within and around the PCF in particular – was Nicos Poulantzas’ State, Power, Socialism, first published two years after Balibar’s book. Indeed, we can see these two texts as polarised antagonists in this confrontation – Poulantzas elaborating a theoretical justification for a ‘democratic road to socialism’ (although we should be careful to remember that Poulantzas was well to the left of the PCF leadership – his ‘Left’ Eurocommunist conception of the transition to socialism was by no means shared by Georges Marchais), while Balibar sought to defend classical ‘Leninist’ principles. As with State, Power, Socialism, however, On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat retains a very sharp relevance today that rises above the specific historical context in which it was written. It’s an attempt – an extraordinarily rich and lucid one at that – to articulate, in a rigorous way, the logic of Lenin’s thought in relation to state power and the transition to communism and I don’t think Balibar’s sophisticated interpretation/defence of ‘Leninist’ precepts in these respects has ever been surpassed. As such, it’s well worth investigating Balibar for what his text has to tell us about the continuing salience of Lenin’s thought as formulated particularly in State and Revolution.

Balibar’s book begins with his core argument (and the major thrust of his intervention in the debate within the PCF) – that the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ is not (as Graham Lock puts it in his introduction to Balibar’s text) ‘a policy or a strategy involving the establishment of a particular form of government or institutions but, on the contrary, an historical reality’ (Lock, in Balibar, 1977, p. 8). It is, as Balibar later puts it, ‘the reality of an historical tendency‘ – ‘a reality, just as objective as the class struggle itself, of which it is a consequence’ (Balibar, 1977, p. 134). Indeed, the dictatorship of the proletariat is nothing other than socialism itself understood as the historical period of transition between capitalism and communism. As such, it is ‘not a matter of choice, a matter of policy: and it therefore cannot be “abandoned”, any more than the class struggle can be “abandoned” except in words and at the cost of enormous confusion’ (Lock, in Balibar, 1977, p. 8).

The first chapter is a very interesting critique of the way in which, as Balibar sees it, those proposing that the concept should be dropped tend to present the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ [henceforth DoP] as a particular regime, or a particular set of tactics that may well have been unavoidable given ‘Russian conditions’, but which would be unnecessary and inappropriate for an advanced bourgeois democracy such as 1970s France. Here, Balibar extrapolates an amusing kind of complicity between the ‘Tankie’ faction of the PCF and their Eurocommunist opponents. Both fundamentally agree that the DoP is ‘what existed in Russia’ (the authoritarian one party state etc.) – but while the former maintain that this provides a ‘model’ to be implemented elsewhere too, the latter reject it based on a simplistic counterposition between ‘dictatorship’ (appropriate for ‘backward’ conditions) and ‘democracy’ (possible and appropriate to the Western European context). This latter Eurocommunist position, as Balibar further suggests, allows the party leadership to pull off a dextrous manoeuvre in which it can distance itself from the USSR and proclaim its own (parliamentary) democratic credentials while also appearing to maintain some kind of fidelity to the October Revolution and (perhaps more importantly) side-stepping any potentially awkward questions about its historic support for, and formerly ultra-loyalist justification of, Stalinist practices in Russia (and beyond).

But there’s another kind of complicity between Eurocommunism and Stalinism too. In a really fascinating section Balibar recounts what he sees as an historical antecedent of the PCF’s abandonment of the DoP – ‘it was the Soviet Communists themselves, under Stalin’s direction, who first historically “abandoned” the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat’ (Balibar, 1977, p. 49 [hereafter, all references are to this text unless otherwise indicated]). Specifically in 1936, on the occasion of the introduction of the new Soviet Constitution, it was proclaimed that the class struggle was over in Russia, and that as such ‘socialism in one country’ had been achieved. It was not claimed that classes had been abolished, but that relations of antagonism between them had been eliminated and that, consequently, the Soviet state was now the ‘state of the whole people’. What this implied, of course, was that the period of DoP (the period in which a specifically proletarian state had been necessary to suppress the old ruling class) had been superseded in Russia and, further that the DoP constituted a temporary stage of transition toward socialism which was itself a distinct historical stage of transition toward communism and indeed a discrete mode of production in its own right characterised by state ownership of the means of production.

The complicity here with the PCF’s Eurocommunist perspective was that the latter adopted similar assumptions in relation to the DoP and socialism – namely, the DoP was simply an historical mini-phase of dictatorial transition to socialism understood as a mode of production in which a universal state of the ‘whole people’, shorn of its class determination and in some sort of direct control of the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy, would superintend a society in which class antagonisms had been overcome. The only difference is that the Eurocommunists imagined that they could move straight to ‘democratic socialism’ (at least after an initial preparatory period of reform under ‘advanced democracy’) without the need for an intervening phase of ‘dictatorship’. But socialism, Balibar argues, is nothing other than a phase of heightened class struggle – a contradictory and dialectical terrain in which two modes of production (capitalism and communism) overlap and fight it out and in which the embryonic communist potentialities thrown up within capitalism are made progressively more and more real (or not – it’s a conflictual struggle and as such the outcome is not pre-ordained) – and a phase of transition, moreover, that has to be understood to be synonymous with the DoP. Further, the Eurocommunists’ (essentially bourgeois) counterposition of ‘democracy’ and ‘dictatorship’ as distinct alternatives rests, for Balibar, on a fundamental misrepresentation of classical Marxism’s understanding of these terms. More than anything this misrepresentation obscures the reality, from the classical Marxist perspective, that parliamentary democracy is itself a type of dictatorship. Specifically it is a particular form taken by the ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’.

The main interest of Balibar’s book for me, however, is his account of what he takes to be the basis of the theory of the DoP as you find it in Lenin, and Balibar’s subsequent elaboration of a ‘more complete analysis’ (p. 63) on these foundations. The theory of the DoP, Balibar remarks, ‘can be summed up in outline in three arguments, or three groups of arguments, which are ceaselessly repeated and put to the test by Lenin’ (p. 59). These three theoretical arguments, as articulated by Balibar, are really very striking and boldly stated. The first deals with state power. Balibar sums it up thus: ‘State power is always the political power of a single class, which holds it in its capacity as the ruling class in society’ (p. 59). This implies that in capitalist society, as Balibar goes on to make plain, ‘State power is held in an absolute way by the bourgeoisie, which does not share it with any other class, nor does it divide it up among its fractions’ (p. 59). He goes on to point out that this thesis ‘has the following consequence: the only possible historical ‘alternative’ to the State power of the bourgeoisie is an equally absolute hold on State power by the proletariat’ (pp. 59-60).

The second argument focuses on the state apparatus and can be summed up ‘by saying that the State power of the ruling class cannot exist in history, nor can it be realized and maintained, without taking material form in the development and functioning of the State apparatus’ (p. 60). The core of this ‘State machine’ is constituted by the repressive state apparatus(es), though Balibar also remarks that Lenin never claimed that this core was the only aspect of this ‘State machine’. This repressive core Balibar comments, comprises ‘on the one hand, the standing army, as well as the police and the legal apparatus; and, on the other hand, the State administration or “bureaucracy”‘ (p. 60). This second thesis, he goes on to say, implies that ‘the overthrow of the State power of the bourgeoisie, is impossible without the destruction of the existing State apparatus in which the State power of the bourgeoisie takes material form’ (p. 60).

These first two arguments, Balibar argues, were not ‘discovered’ as such by Lenin – they were explicitly present in the writing of Marx and Engels. But Lenin’s contribution was, first, to ‘rescue’ these arguments from deformation and obscurity in the context of the opportunist drift of Second International social democracy and, second, to insert them ‘for the first time in an effective way into the field of practice’ (P. 61). The third argument, however, though not without its precedents, was much more Lenin’s own contribution and was discovered by him as the product of class struggles in Russia in the revolutionary period (and thus this discovery post-dates the writing of State and Revolution). This argument is the one that we have already encountered, partially, in the first chapter – that it is only communist social relations that are really incompatible or irreconcilable with capitalist ones and that socialism is a contradictory phase of transition from one mode of production to the other. This, Balibar, says ‘implies that socialism is nothing other than the dictatorship of the proletariat’ – further, the DoP ‘is not simply a form of “transition to socialism”, it is not a “road of transition to socialism” – it is identical with socialism itself’ (p. 62).

Having identified these three core arguments Balibar then sets out, over the three chapters that follows, to elucidate them in more detail and draw out their further implications. One of the fundamental components of the first argument is the (strikingly Poulantzas-like) view that state power is relational – the state ‘rests on a relation of forces between classes, which it develops and reproduces’ (p. 88). Like Poulantzas, too, Balibar makes an analytical distinction between ‘state power’, on the one hand, and the ‘state apparatus’ (or what Poulantzas refers to as the state’s ‘institutional materiality’) on the other. This conceptual move (and its attribution to Lenin as a distinction at least implicit in his thought) allows Balibar to develop a very interesting interpretation of some of Lenin’s writing though I am not at all convinced that Lenin really does work on the basis of this conceptual framework. For example, Balibar suggests that the rather notorious line in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky that the ‘revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is rule won and maintained by the use of violence by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, rule that is unrestricted by any laws’ is not so much, as it is often interpreted, a statement celebrating arbitrary violence without limit or restraint, but instead a statement indicating the extra-legal (or pre-legal), a priori status of the class balance of forces. Just as, for classical Marxism, bourgeois law and state apparatus, in the final analysis, are rooted in a particular set of class relations that exist prior to that law and that state apparatus (and which the latter two both reflect and reproduce), so the DoP must rest, too, on a particular balance of class forces that, in the final analysis, boils down to force. Class exploitation under capitalism is a relationship of force – whether or not the state apparatus takes a parliamentary democratic or authoritarian form. In the same way the DoP – whether or not it takes a highly repressive political institutional form – rests, in the end, on the class supremacy of the proletariat. Now, perhaps, this is an entirely obvious reading of Lenin, but I have to say that it never occurred to me before that this was what he meant – and I also have to say that I’m not really very convinced by it. I’m not convinced, that is, that this is what Lenin is really getting at in the passage just quoted and I’m sceptical that he does in fact make the wider analytical conceptual distinction Balibar says he does. Nevertheless it is food for thought.

State power belongs, absolutely, to a single class, Balibar argues, because the state is fundamentally rooted in class antagonism and in ‘the reproduction of the whole of the conditions of this antagonism’ (p. 77) – there is no third way between the maintenance and extension of this exploitation (i.e. the class interests of the bourgeoisie) and the struggle for its abolition (i.e. the class interests of the proletariat). Thus state power is either the possession of the bourgeoisie (the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie) or the possession of the working class (the DoP). It also follows from this, Balibar comments, that because state power is rooted in, and reproduces, class exploitation and domination it is thus the possession of the ruling class as a whole and not merely or mainly any of its internal fractions. Further, there is no part of the state, or any of its functions, that lies outside the field of class determination. Balibar draws here on Lenin’s polemic against Vandervelde (that we’ve encountered in a previous post). He has in mind those Eurocommunist arguments that seem to suggest, like Vandervelde, that certain state apparatuses or functions manifest or serve a ‘general social interest’ – the state in ‘the broad sense’, in distinction from class repressive apparatuses (the state in ‘the narrow sense’) – and might thus, once the worst bits of the state are ‘lopped off’ (Engels!), serve a post-capitalist ‘universal social interest’. The whole of the state under capitalism is always absolutely the political power of the (whole) bourgeoisie.

What this in turn implies, of course, as we have seen, is that the whole of the existing state apparatus (which is the material form taken by the state power of the bourgeoisie, but not purely the same thing as the underlying balance of forces) must be overthrown by the proletariat and a new one, manifesting the material-institutional form of their state power constructed in its place. Balibar insists, as Lenin does of course, that the essential pivot of opportunism is its position on the state apparatus in this respect. It’s not necessarily that opportunism deviates from classical Marxism on the abstract question of the exercise of power, or denies that the proletariat must ‘take power’, or even that it refuses to use the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ – ‘Social-Democratic opportunism, from Kautsky to Plekhanov to Leon Blum, always formally referred to the “dictatorship of the proletariat”‘ (p. 89). But they did so, while ‘at the same time emptying it of its practical content, the destruction of the State apparatus’ (p. 60).

The state apparatus performs two essential and intertwined functions Balibar argues (again, not unlike Poulantzas) – first it organises and unifies an otherwise fractious ruling class, and second, it organises the domination of society under that single ruling class. But the precise forms that this general double function takes will differ according to the mode of production. This leads Balibar to remark that it is imperative that we ‘grasp a very important fact, which Lenin constantly emphasised’, which is ‘the fact that each great historical epoch, based on a determinate material mode of production, comprises tendentially one type of State, i.e. one general determinate form of State’ (p. 95). ‘A ruling class’, he continues:

cannot make use of any type of State apparatus; it is obliged to organise itself in historically imperative forms, which relate to the new forms of class struggle in which it is held fast. The feudal-ecclesiastical type of organisation is completely ineffective as a means of organising the class rule of the bourgeoisie. The same general point is true of course with respect to the dictatorship of the proletariat. If the class struggle fought out by the proletariat is of a different kind from that of the bourgeoisie, it follows that, even if it does need some kind of State apparatus, it cannot purely and simply make use – as if they were instruments which could be manipulated at will – of the standing army, the law courts and their judges, the secret and special police forces, the parliamentary system, the administrative bureaucracy, immune from practically any form of control by the people…, etc.. (p. 95)

Rather a lot here seems to ride on the phrase ‘purely and simply’ (reminiscent in this sense of the famous ambiguity in Marx’s ‘cannot simply lay hold’ phrase!) and as we shall see Balibar seems to muddy the waters a little bit in his discussion of the forms that the ‘smashing’ of the bourgeois state apparatus will take, but the main thrust of his argument is the emphasis on the ‘absolute’ hold of the ruling class over ‘its’ state. A new ruling class must replace the entire old state apparatus (that manifests-reflects a particular class balance of power and particular forms of exploitation) with an entirely new type of state apparatus. Just as state power is either the state power of the bourgeoisie or that of the proletariat, a particular form of ‘state machine’ (set of apparatuses) is either a capitalist machine or a working class one. The main, defining characteristic of the proletarian state apparatus, Balibar argues, is that it institutionalises mass proletarian democracy – it functions as a sort of vector and fulcrum for the direct intervention of the masses on the political scene. In this way there is a qualitative difference between bourgeois democracy and proletarian democracy and this is also an indication of the way in which the institutions of the bourgeois state apparatus – especially its core ones – are incompatible with the DoP.

This intervention of the mass of the people in the state apparatus and in the exercise of state power as it increases is also, simultaneously, the main vector for the process of the state’s ‘withering’. Since the communist mode of production which socialism, as an historical epoch of transition, takes as its objective and destination is a classless and thus stateless society, however, the state machine of the DoP must be regarded as a hangover from the capitalist mode of production with which it is still entangled. In this sense, Balibar suggests, every state apparatus – even a ‘state of a new type’ under the DoP – is always bourgeois, even when workers use it against capitalist social relations. This argument (though not I think unproblematic for his wider thesis) allows Balibar to be clear, in a way that I don’t think Lenin is in the key writings we’ve looked at, that the proletarian state at all times necessarily represents a potential threat to the working class that they must constantly guard against (as we’ve seen Lenin tends to assume an absolute synonymity between the proletariat and its state). Since the proletarian state is proletarian, but also in some sense always bourgeois – a hangover from a dying mode of production – Balibar comments that ‘the notion of the proletarian State itself designates… a contradictory reality, as contradictory as the situation of the proletariat in its role as the “ruling class” of socialist society’ (p. 122). But what overall ‘defines the dictatorship of the proletariat is the historical tendency of the State which it establishes: the tendency to its own disappearance, and not towards its reinforcement’ (p. 122).

Some of the most interesting passages in Balibar’s book (but for me also some of the most frustratingly opaque) are to be found in the section where he discusses ‘[w]hat has to be “destroyed”‘ in relation to the bourgeois state apparatus (pp 99 – 110). He is (fairly) clear, along with Lenin (at least in theory rather than in practice) that the repressive apparatus (which comprises, remember, ‘the bureaucracy’ in addition to the organs of direct coercion) must undergo ‘immediate destruction’ as ‘both the condition and a first consequence of the revolution’ (p. 99). But this does not mean that ‘all aspects of the bourgeois State apparatus can be destroyed in the same way, by the same methods, and at the same rhythm’ (p. 99). The ‘destruction of a whole State apparatus, and its replacement by new political forms of organization of the material and cultural life of society, cannot be carried out immediately, it can only be immediately begun‘ (p. 102). In this sense ‘this process of destruction’ can take no other form ‘than that of a lengthy class struggle which is already in its preparatory stages before the revolution, and which becomes fully acute afterwards’ and here Balibar takes aim at what he calls the ‘”ultra-left” idea of the immediate abolition of bourgeois institutions and the appearance out of the blue of new, “purely” proletarian institutions’ (p. 105) which he says is a myth that Lenin explicitly repudiated.

Now there’s a lot here that’s not exactly very clear. He appears to be saying that while the repressive institutions must be destroyed immediately, other organs of the bourgeois state apparatus (although I’m not certain about this…. what does he mean, precisely, by the word ‘aspects’ in the phrase ‘aspects of the bourgeois state apparatus’??) might be incorporated in the DoP – although he gives no indication of what these might be. He also appears to be saying that institutions of mass democracy cannot be set up overnight and that the institutions of the DoP must provide, in a sense, a period of apprenticeship for the working class – a phase of experimental political education which begins in advance of, and which must also extend beyond, the moment of the revolutionary seizure of power – before they can fully develop. He also appears to be saying that the bourgeois state apparatus resists destruction in as much as forms of parliamentarism and the wider social division of manual and intellectual labour are allowed to reproduce themselves within soviet type institutions (are these the ‘aspects’ of the bourgeois state apparatus that survive the initial revolutionary ‘smashing’ process rather than specific organs as such – or perhaps they are additional aspects that survive alongside these organs??). Things are not really made much clearer in this respect by the one relatively concrete example Balibar chooses to illustrate this longer term process, which is a remark from Lenin about the need to get ‘”pro-Soviet politicians into parliament'” for the purposes of ‘”disintegrating parliamentarism from within“‘ (Lenin, in Balibar, p. 106) – but this is clearly a tactic to be implemented before the seizure of power and tells us nothing about the survival of specific institutions afterwards.

The final part of Balibar’s argument (though the book also contains a ‘dossier’ comprising extracts from contributions to the debate at the PCF’s 22nd Congress – including a really interesting contribution from Althusser – and also Balibar’s postscript) focuses on the third key argument identified above. We’ve encountered the major dimensions of this argument previously, but Balibar supplements this with some interesting additional considerations. Among these he argues (along with Marx of course – but I think Balibar puts it particularly well) that communism should be seen as a ‘real tendency, already present in capitalist society itself’ and that this is true in ‘two senses, which are not originally directly related’ – on the one hand ‘in the form of the tendency to the socialisation of production and the productive forces’ and, on the other, ‘in the form of the class struggles of the proletariat, in which first the independence, and then later the ideological and political hegemony of the proletariat are manifested’ (p. 135). The particularly sharp and fascinating bit of Balibar’s argument here, however, is where he points out that while under capitalism these tendencies remain quite distinct (standing, in fact in mutual opposition – acting on each other in a conflictual relationship), under the DoP, to the extent that the working class take control of the process of the development and socialisation of the productive forces, these tendencies begin to merge. And to the extent that they merge, ‘the socialization of production tendentially ceases to take the capitalist form’ (p. 136) and segues into communism. ‘The history of the dictatorship of the proletariat’, as Balibar remarks, ‘is the history of the development and of the resolution of this contradiction’ (p. 136).

It’s in this ‘economic’ sense, then, in addition to the ‘political’ dimension of the proletarian state (though of course these two dimensions are not wholly distinct and the tendential movement toward communism also progressively merges ‘political’ and ‘economic’ relations), that socialism/the DoP represents a contradictory reality that expresses within itself a battle between two different modes of production. In this way, as Balibar rather nicely puts it, socialism is ‘two worlds within the same world, two epochs within one single historical epoch’ (p. 146). The transition from one to the other can only take the form of a long process of struggle, but moreover, this process can only unfold if, from the start, it is understood that ‘the effective realisation of socialism is only possible from the standpoint of communism’ (p. 63). That is, communism should not be treated as a distant ideal – i.e. the idea that first we consolidate socialism and only then, beyond that, does communism come on to the historical agenda. Instead, Balibar argues, socialism is nothing other than a process in which communism – already present as a ‘real tendency’ – is progressively instantiated.


Balibar, E. (1977) On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (London, NLB).



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The Bolsheviks did not ‘smash’ the old state

Whatever the ambiguities, silences and tensions in Lenin’s vision of the (withering) proletarian state to come in State and Revolution (see previous posts below) the core argument of the text is hard to miss – the old state must be destroyed and replaced with a new one manifesting the dictatorship of the proletariat. ‘The workers,’ Lenin is clear,  ‘having conquered political power will break up the old bureaucratic apparatus, they will shatter it to its very foundations, until not one stone is left upon the another and they will replace it with a new one’ (pp. 91-2). ‘A revolution’, he emphasises ‘must not consist in the new class ruling, governing with the aid of the old state machinery, but in this class smashing this machinery and ruling, governing with the aid of a new machinery’ (p. 96) – and further, this process of breaking up the old apparatus he indicates more than once in State and Revolution can and must begin immediately, within 24 hours of the seizure of power. We’ve seen that what specifically Lenin means by the bourgeois ‘state machinery’ (its boundaries, the exact range of its institutional components) is left rather imprecisely stated, but he is certainly clear that what is to be destroyed comprises two core elements – the standing army and what he calls ‘the bureaucracy’.

Most Marxists today seem to agree that whatever the later compromises, retreats and forms of degeneration, this is precisely what happened in the early phase of the Russian revolution under the leadership of Lenin’s Bolsheviks. In this sense then Marxists today tend to take Lenin at his word in State and Revolution, regarding the text as a more or less accurate guide to the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary practice. That is, it is often taken as an established fact, a truism indeed repeated time and time again, that the old Russian state was ‘smashed’ and replaced with a new one based fundamentally on soviet power. Take for example, Ernest Mandel’s comments in his (highly readable) Introduction to Marxism:

The old state apparatus and the Provisional Government collapsed. The Second Congress of Soviets voted by a large majority for the coming to power of the workers’ and peasants’ soviets. Over the vast territory of a great country a state on the model of the Paris Commune had been set up for the first time – a workers state. (Mandel, 1979, p. 109)

Or take Joseph Choonara’s and Charlie Kimber’s Arguments for Revolution where, after echoing Lenin’s argument that the capitalist state must be smashed and replaced ‘with a new kind of state’, it is stated; ‘[t]his is what existed for a period after the Russian Revolution of 1917’ (Choonara & Kimber, 2011, p. 63).

Of course, as the story normally continues the early hopes and intentions of the Bolsheviks were dashed with the revolution’s failure to spread internationally and under the weight of isolation, blockade, foreign intervention, and the brutalising consequences of famine and civil war – not the least of these, the drafting of many of the most committed Bolshevik workers into the Red Army and the wider militarisation of the regime, the exodus of vast numbers of the proletariat to the countryside (with the declassing effects this implied) and the atrophy of the soviets. The general degeneration of the regime it’s often added was directly reflected in its grim trajectory toward ever intensifying bureaucratic centralisation and top down authoritarian statism – a process that reached its apogee with Stalin’s consolidation of his grip on power in the years after Lenin’s death. Whether the Stalinist bureaucratic state apparatus is seen in orthodox Trotskyist terms as a ‘degenerated workers’ state’ or as an instance of ‘state capitalism’ (in Tony Cliff’s sense of this term rather than Lenin’s), it’s widely agreed that this was qualitatively different from what had gone before. And what had gone before was a definitely workers’ state modelled closely on the Paris Commune, with soviet power as its key characteristic – a ‘new kind of state’ built upon the smashed ruins of the old.

But whatever the merits of the argument that there was a qualitative difference between the practice and intentions of the Old Bolsheviks under Lenin on the one hand, and Stalinism on the other (an argument I largely agree with incidentally), the central claim here – that the old state was ‘smashed’ in 1917 and a new one based (however fleetingly) on soviet institutions set up in its place – is a myth.

Although Lenin claimed, in his 1918 polemic against Karl Kautsky (in between colourful insults) that in Russia ‘the bureaucratic machine has been completely smashed, razed to the ground’ and, in place of the bourgeois parliamentary state, ‘far more accessible representation has been given to the workers and peasants; their Soviets have replaced the bureaucrats, or their Soviets have been put in control of the bureaucrats’, later pronouncements were quite different.* While it was true of course that the Constituent Assembly had been dispersed (January 1918), in reality much of the old state apparatus remained almost unchanged. A later statement by Lenin from 1923 is quite instructive in this respect (and completely at odds with his earlier declaration that the old bureaucratic machine had been razed to the ground):

Our state apparatus, with the exception of the People’s Commisssariat for Foreign Affairs, represents in the highest degree a hangover of the old one, subjected to only the slightest extent to any serious change. (Lenin, cited in Rigby, 1979, p. 51)

Indeed, as T. H. Rigby demonstrates in his (highly recommended) study of the formation of the ‘Soviet’ system of government in Russia, Lenin’s Government: Sovnarkom 1917-1922, Lenin’s later comments here provide a much more accurate guide to the reality of the system put in place after the revolution than his comments in State and Revolution or the Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. As Rigby comments, there was a ‘high level of continuity in the central administrative machine of the Russian state’, before and after the revolution – so much so, that ‘the structural changes’ put into effect by the Bolsheviks ‘were scarcely greater than those sometimes accompanying changes of government in Western parliamentary systems’. ‘The personnel changes were greater,’ he continues, ‘and could perhaps be compared with those occurring in Washington in the heyday of the “spoils system”‘ (Rigby, 1979, p. 51). While it’s certainly more than plausible to say that the old ‘standing army’ was smashed during the revolution (though, of course, a new one was soon built by Trotsky very much along the lines of the old, incorporating many of the same personnel and chains of command) that other core instrument of the old state Lenin identifies – ‘the bureaucracy’ – was not.

As Rigby shows, despite Lenin’s stress in State and Revolution on the non-bureaucratic character of the new proletarian state, ‘equipping itself with an effective bureaucracy was in fact the main preoccupation of the Soviet state during its initial phase’ and moreover, ‘predominantly this expressed itself in efforts to “take over” and “set in motion” the old ministerial machine’ (Rigby, 1979, p. 14). This, of course, was something that could not be achieved immediately and for the first few weeks after the insurrection the first steps toward asserting the authority of the new regime were coordinated by the body that had organised the seizure of power in the capital – the Military Revolutionary Committee. By December 1917, however, with the abolition of the MRC, central authority had passed to what would now form the political nucleus of the revolutionary state: Sovet Narodnykh Komisarov (Council of People’s Commissars) – known as Sovnarkom. Set up by decree of the Second Congress of Soviets within hours of the insurrection, Sovnarkom was tasked with ‘administration of the country up to the convening of the Constituent Assembly’ as a ‘Temporary Worker and Peasant Government’. Membership of Sovnarkom would comprise the chairs of various commissions, or commissariats, that would constitute governmental branches of the revolutionary state, with Lenin as the chair of this central council. Sovnarkom was to operate under the sovereign authority of the Congress of Soviets and its Central Executive Committee (CEC).

Even at this very early stage, at the time of this decree, the similarities between the proposed structure of commissariats and the old ministerial structure inherited by the Provisional Government from the Tsarist regime are very striking. For one thing the division of responsibilities between the various commissariats was virtually identical to that between the old ministries, and further, there seemed little to distinguish Sovnarkom from the pre-revolutionary government executive. Sovnarkom was essentially a ‘cabinet’ of ministers along surprisingly conventional lines. As Rigby comments only two (apparently) important innovations were incorporated into the new structure of government. Firstly, the head of each government department (‘People’s Commissar’) would share authority with a ‘commission’ of which he would be a chairman (and they were all men) – but in reality commissariats rarely functioned in this way. The second major innovation was in terminology. As Rigby puts it:

In calling their government the ‘Council of People’s Commissars’, the Bolshevik leadership were seeking to de-emphasise formal and structural similarities to ‘bourgeois’ governments and to proclaim and dramatise the revolutionary role and class content they believed it to embody (Rigby, 1979, p. 6)

But even here – at the level of mere terminology – differences with the old regime can be exaggerated. As Rigby comments:

That the title of the new government contained the word ‘soviet’ (sovet) some have seen as designed to identify it with the new revolutionary institutions of the masses, as the topmost soviet in a hierarchy of soviets. This supposition seems highly dubious, since sovet is simply the usual Russian word for ‘council’, and the pre-revolutionary government executive had been called Sovet Ministrov (Council of Ministers). Rigby, 1979, p. 7).

The similarities with the pre-revolutionary, Tsarist structure at the apex of the revolutionary state were even further enhanced within a few weeks of the seizure of power with the emergence of ‘Little Sovnarkom’ – a committee set up to deal with minor administrative and financial matters in order to reduce the workload of ‘Full Sovnarkom’. Little Sovnarkom was a carbon copy of the ‘Little Council’ set up to perform a similar function on behalf of the Council of Ministers under the old regime – indeed, Little Sovnarkom may well have been set up on the advice of senior officials who had served in the Imperial government. The core organs of the revolutionary state were also serviced by a Chancellery – its role was mostly to provide secretarial services – not unlike the Chancellery that had performed similar responsibilities under the old system.

But it’s not just at the level of formal similarity that the revolutionary government was structured to conform to the main divisions of the pre-revolutionary administrative machine. Within a few months the new government had also moved literally to incorporate the extant administrative apparatuses (including most of their personnel) left over from the old regime. At first the various commissariats of the new government operated almost entirely from the Smolny Institute (where Sovnarkom was also based and where Lenin had his office) – but this only served as an initial headquarters from which the various People’s Commissars ventured out to seek to establish control over ‘their’ ministries (i.e. the old government departments), at first accompanied by Red Guards. The main task of the commissars at this time was persuade and cajole the old government officials – or at least significant sections of them – to return to work in the ministries under Bolshevik control (now renamed ‘commissariats’). With the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in early 1918, most of the initial resistance among old officials melted away and the People’s Commissars were able to transfer their offices and core support staff from Smolny to the old government department buildings – merging this new staff with the old one. This arrangement did not last long, since with the German advance in the period before Brest-Litovsk, followed by the territorial concessions made under the terms of that Treaty, the decision was made to move the seat of the government from Petrograd to Moscow – much further away from the German army. However, if anything, the shared experience among new and old staff of this transfer in March 1918 and of setting up offices in the new capital seems to have bound them closer together. The main point, here, is that what was transferred to Moscow and re-established there were, for all intents and purposes, the old ministries – their existing structures and much of their personnel more or less in toto.

None of this, of course, is to say that there were no significant changes to the state structures seized by the Bolsheviks. In the months following the revolution there were substantial reorganisations in several commissariats (including the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs mentioned in the 1923 Lenin quotation above) and, in addition, two new organs of government were set up which, as Rigby puts it, ‘were destined before long to assume great importance’ (p. 50)  – the Cheka (which first cut its teeth in bloody suppression of ‘anarchists’ in Moscow – against the vigorous protest of local soviet authorities – to establish ‘order’ in preparation for the transfer of the seat of government) and the National Economic Council (NEC). But even here in the case of the NEC, there were strong lines of continuity with the old Ministry of Trade and Industry in terms of its functions and structures. Several of the old institutions of the old imperial state were, of course, destroyed – the monarchy key among these of course. But, as Rigby puts it, when ‘it came to the apparatus of the executive arm of the government, however, destruction was far less apparent’ (p. 51).

What of the soviets though – those organisations of the masses thrown up by the revolutionary struggle? As we have seen, the decree setting up Sovnarkom declared that this organ and the commissariats it coordinated should have been answerable to the Congress of Soviets (represented between congresses by its executive arm, the CEC). Indeed the 1918 Constitution defined the Congress of Soviets as the ‘supreme authority’ of the new Republic. But in practice as Rigby demonstrates, the Congress was soon sidelined by Sovnarkom and indeed, in reality, the former ‘can scarcely be said to have acted as a constraint or even as a serious influence’ (p. 162) on the latter. As the new structures of government solidified after an early period of flux and a kind of power struggle between the CEC and Sovnarkom (resolved in favour of the latter in the first half of 1918 when various departments set up by the CEC were abolished on the grounds that they duplicated the functions of the People’s Commissariats), the role of the Congress had been reduced to that of merely rubber stamping the decisions promulgated by Sovnarkom and as a source of legitimacy for those decrees.

The onset of the civil war further reduced the vitality of the Congress and CEC. In part this reflected the atrophy of local soviets under civil war conditions (and the ascendancy of the Cheka, Defence Council and Trotsky’s Military Revolutionary Council as ’emergency’ organs of power), but it also reflected of course the emergence of single party dictatorship making it extremely difficult for other parties to gain representation in the soviets (incidentally, Sovnarkom initially included a small number of Left SRs – but they withdrew in protest at the terms of Brest-Litovsk). An attempt was made at the end of the civil war to revitalise the soviets which involved significant empowerment of the CEC vis-a-vis Sovnarkom (since it was realised that the latter had lost much of its legitimacy, particularly in the eyes of the peasantry, given that it was associated with the widely hated Cheka) – but as Rigby points out, the chief beneficiary of the decline in Sovnarkom’s power was the Communist Party which more and more began to act as an institutional factor of cohesion binding central government to local organs of power and increasingly imposing cohesion too in relation to the bureaucratic dysfunction of the central organs of the political executive of Lenin’s state. By 1921 the party’s Central Committee and its two chief inner organs, the Politburo and Orgburo, were ‘well on the way to becoming the true government of the Soviet Republic’ (p. 178) – a development that reached its culmination of course after Lenin’s death with Stalin’s consolidation of power.

It’s often assumed that the soviets were workplace organisations and that as such their proliferation in 1917 represented the beginnings of a new form of socialist political economy in which the bourgeois distinction between ‘politics’ and ‘economics’ began to break down, and in which these organs of proletarian power started, in embryonic forms at least, to displace the prerogatives of capital in terms of investment and production decisions. In fact, as Carmen Sirianni (1982) points out, though there was some overlap between them, the soviets were usually distinct from the organs of power that emerged within workplaces to challenge capitalist ownership and control – the factory committees. As Sirianni documents (see also Brinton 1975 for a Left Communist perspective), in the first months of the revolution hundreds of firms were taken over spontaneously from below by groups of workers forming factory committees, increasingly coordinated by a central organ – the Central Council of Petrograd Factory Committees (whose aegis in practice extended well beyond that city). Indeed, Sirianni argues that the evidence shows that the factory committees had notable successes in terms of improving productivity. But as we’ve seen in a previous post the Bolshevik leadership sought very vigorously to hold back and reverse this wave of spontaneous expropriations from below, informed by Lenin’s view that the immediate task of the revolution was to organise a transitional economy on the basis of ‘state capitalism’ – a situation in which a ‘workers’ state’ would superintend an economic base in which ‘the bourgeoisie would still retain most of the formal ownership and effective management of most of the productive apparatus’ (Brinton, 1975, p. 13).

In fact (after the October seizure of power at least) the Bolshevik leadership was overwhelmingly hostile toward the factory committee movement – Lenin wanting to restrict the involvement of workers in tasks of economic coordination to basic functions of ‘accounting and checking’ rather than anything approaching substantial decision-making power. Indeed the main function of the NEC (one of the new organs of government power mentioned above) was to rein in the factory committees, bringing them under the domination of the much more conservative and pliable trade unions, in a struggle to stamp out what the Bolshevik leadership regarded as deviant ‘syndicalist’ tendencies among the proletariat. The organs of mass struggle manifesting workers’ control of industry, then, fared even worse under Lenin than the soviets. Neither soviets nor (much less) factory committees constituted the real heart of power in the early months and years of the revolution – the major seat of power in this the ‘heroic period’ of the revolution was Sovnarkom and the commissariats.

The main structures of the ‘workers’ state’, then, that emerged under Lenin’s leadership looked very little like the description in State and Revolution. At its core were institutions and structures inherited directly and often more or less wholesale from the overthrown old regime. What might explain this? It’s very hard to account for it in terms of forced and reluctant compromises in response to civil war and the failure of the revolution to spread, because, as we have seen, the new regime’s efforts to consolidate itself were focused from the start on getting control of the extant machinery of government power and setting them in motion under a new leadership. Indeed as Rigby remarks, a ‘Russian revolutionary intent on “destroying the entire old state machine” might reasonably be expected to move quickly to the abolition of the august ministries inherited from the Tsars’ (p. 13) – but this is precisely what Lenin did not do. Of course one way of explaining all of this might be to say, along with the usual libertarian communist critique, that Lenin’s apparent turn toward a soviet, commune inspired vision in 1917 was merely a duplicitous ruse to broaden support for the Bolshevik party – part of a wider libertarian rhetoric soon dropped after the seizure of power once it no longer suited Bolshevik purposes.

But there is perhaps one fundamental line of continuity between State and Revolution and the actuality of the revolutionary state under Lenin. As we have seen, Lenin’s argument rests on a distinction between ‘politics proper’ – the domain of force and class suppression – on the one hand, and ‘non-political’ revolutionary administration on the other. This in turn seems to pivot on a utopian telos in which it is assumed that the overthrow of the old ruling class and consolidation of a workers’ state should lead eventually but inexorably (at least as long as this overthrow was generalised internationally, presumably) to communist abundance and the abolition of ‘politics’. While there seems little indication (beyond the setting up of Rabkrin, the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate, in 1920 at least) of any real attempt to transform the administrative functions of the commissariats into ‘simple operations of registration, filing and checking’ to be performed by the masses themselves, Lenin’s understanding of ‘politics proper’ may retain its relevance. As Rigby suggests (though he also says this of Marxism more broadly), Lenin was supremely uninterested in constitutional or institutional forms – what really mattered was power: who held it, and which class forces did they represent. It may well have been, then, that for Lenin, as long as the Bolsheviks/ Communist Party held state power, and used this to hold down counter-revolutionary forces, the institutional forms in and through which this power was manifested really did not matter very much.

Nevertheless, it cannot be emphasised too much that the central argument of State and Revolution – a ‘revolution must not consist in the new class ruling, governing with the aid of the old state machinery, but in this class smashing this machinery and ruling, governing with the aid of a new machinery’ – was not followed through in practice by the Bolsheviks in power. Indeed the major strategic dichotomy that has been drawn by ‘Leninists’ ever since between, on the one hand, ‘reformists’, ‘left reformists’ and so on who seek to utilise existing state institutions, and, on the other hand, ‘revolutionaries’ who seek to ‘smash’ and replace that state machinery on the basis of what Lenin’s Bolsheviks are purported to have attempted (or briefly achieved), pivots on a misunderstanding/ misrepresentation of the historical reality. As we have seen the bureaucratic apparatus of the old regime in Russia was not smashed at all – in fact Lenin’s party sought, precisely, to ‘lay hold of’ this ‘ready-made state machinery’ and to ‘wield it for its own purposes’.

* Kautsky, incidentally, has Lenin’s measure in this respect in the exchange that followed. Though he seems to agree that the Bolsheviks had got rid of the old state machine, he is clear (in a 1921 response to Trotsky) that the state apparatus presided over by Lenin looked nothing at all like the Paris Commune in any respect save one. The only way in which the Bolsheviks had remained faithful to the Commune and the Marx of 1871 had been in their merging of executive and legislative powers – and even then, as Kautsky points out, this was the worst aspect they could have copied in the circumstances of party dictatorship, ‘since the Commune’s unified powers rested on popular representation elected by universal suffrage’ (Salvadori, 1979, 270). For more on this see Salvadori, 1979, pp. 267-77.


Brinton, M. (1975) The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control 1917 to 1921: the State and Counter-Revolution (Montreal, Black Rose)

Choonara, J. & Kimber, C. (2011) Arguments for Revolution: the Case for the Socialist Workers Party (London, SWP)

Lenin, V. I. (2002) The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. Available:

Lenin, V. I. (2011) State and Revolution (Mansfield Centre CT, Martino)

Mandel, E. (1977) Introduction to Marxism (London, Inks Links)

Rigby, T. H. (1979) Lenin’s Government: Sovnarkom 1917-1922 (Cambridge, CUP)

Salvadori, M. (1979) Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution 1880-1938 (London, NLB)

Sirianni, C. (1982) Workers Control & the Socialist Democracy: the Soviet Experience (London, Verso)

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On Lenin’s The State and Revolution (3)

As suggested in the previous blogpost Lenin’s outline of the main features of the proletarian state to come is difficult to pin down. As also noted before, Lenin – as an historical materialist – could hardly be expected to draw up a detailed blueprint, but even so, his account of the major institutional forms of the proletarian dictatorship he envisages is remarkably hazy. There seem to be three basic and ambiguously intertwined forms of proletarian power in Lenin’s description – the state ‘in the shape of armed workers’ (the passages that suggest in Miliband’s terms ‘unmediated class rule’), the commune and/ or soviet institutions he mentions, and the surviving forms of state officialdom that he describes. Now perhaps I’m overthinking this, but I find it very difficult to grasp how these three forms are articulated in his description. At times he seems to suggest a synonymity between two or three of them and at other times they seem to be distinct things. So for example the officialdom he discusses, drawing on Marx’s account of the Paris Commune, seem, one would assume at least, to be officials within the ‘commune’ structures he mentions. But there’s a confusion here insofar as he seems to suggest that these ‘communes’ are more or less interchangeable with a distinct, but structurally similar alternative – the soviets (and that therefore in a proletarian state that incorporates soviet forms, state officialdom would work within these organs). The problem is that he also describes the soviets as an example of the ‘simple organisation of the armed masses‘ (p. 75) – in which case they do not seem to be part of the new (withering, semi-) bureaucracy/apparatus at all. Indeed, later on he seems to suggest that ‘workers’ deputies’ (soviet deputies??) will ‘superintend the management of the apparatus’ (p. 91)- implying an organisational distinction between soviet organs and the (withering, semi-) bureaucracy/apparatus.

At another point Lenin talks, incredibly confusingly, of:

the conversion of all citizens into workers and employees of one huge “syndicate” – the whole state – and the complete subordination of the whole of the work of this syndicate to the really democratic state of the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. (p. 80)

Here of course (and in relation to the notorious comments about the marvellous rational efficiency of the German Post Office as a model for socialism), many readers focus on Lenin’s slightly alarming enthusiasm for the proletarian state as gigantic, regimented factory (‘the whole of society will have become one office and one factory’ (p. 84)) – but what also strikes me about this passage is its logical confusion. Does it make sense for Lenin to say that the huge syndicate is the state (‘the whole state’) while also saying in the same sentence that the work of this state is subordinated to… the state which is actually the soviets?  It doesn’t make sense to me.

Neither is it really entirely clear what ‘withers’. Certainly centralised bureaucracy – presumably including all forms of officialdom – falls away and does so in proportion to increasing participation on the part of workers in the administrative business of the state as this business in turn is progressively ‘reduced to such simple operations of registration, filing and checking’ etc. etc. But do the soviets – those ‘simple organisation[s]’ of the masses – wither? As organs of class power (and thus, for Lenin, essentially organs of class violence – and he tends to emphasise that these simple organisations are specifically armed organisations) presumably they do – but this, of course, brings us squarely to the problem of institutional mediation.

Indeed Lenin’s hazy discussion of communism, drawing in the main on Engels, suggests a future in which all such permanent structures of social mediation have disappeared. Social order and coherence rests entirely on (Engels) ‘simple administrative functions of watching over social interests’ (p. 53) and on the diffusion of shared social norms – a condition in which people have ‘become accustomed to the observance of the elementary rules of social life’ (p. 74). This is not a vision of total harmony or uniformity. Lenin remarks at one point that he ‘does not expect the advent of an order of society in which the principle of subordination of minority to majority will not be observed’ (p. 68) and at another he comments: ‘[w]e are not Utopians, and we do not in the least deny the possibility and inevitability of excesses on the part of individual persons, nor the need to suppress such excesses’ (p. 75). His main point in both of these passages is that under communism ‘the fundamental social cause of excess’ which is ‘the exploitation of the masses, their want and their poverty’ will have been eliminated along with class itself and as such, ‘there is no one to be suppressed – “no one” in the sense of a class, in the sense of a systematic struggle with a definite section of the population’ (p. 75) – and, because of this, ‘no special apparatus of repression’ is needed. Suppression of ‘individual excesses’ and the subordination of minority to majority (presumably on matters of social disagreement) can be effected without the need for such specialised structures.

These are comments that Alex Callinicos, for example, makes much of (along with the well known lines from Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution pertaining to his vision of communism in which there ‘would be the struggle for one’s opinions, for one’s project, for ones’ taste’ and so on) in order to defend Lenin (and classical Marxism more broadly) from the charge that it it posits a vision of absolute harmony (see Callinicos, 1991, pp. 128-31). But while Lenin does not envisage total absence of social conflict or absolute harmony he does seem to envisage something very close to that (and note that there’s nothing in State and Revolution along the lines of Trotsky’s much more dynamic vision of creativity and disagreement – written in 1924, it might be added, at a time when the increasingly sidelined Trotsky had much cause, and quite a lot of leisure-time, to reflect on the importance of difference and meaningful debate). For one thing, even if we do go along with the idea that the abolition of class exploitation will remove a fundamental source of major social conflict, it’s hard to see that the remaining conflict would manifest merely as ‘individual excesses’. Indeed this seems to assume that much of the conflict Lenin thinks will remain is not really about disagreement as such stemming from legitimate differences of opinion or interests, but about managing individual misbehaviour and dealing with transgressions against a widely shared set of ‘thick’ social norms. Further, Lenin gives us absolutely no indication of how the majorities and minorities he speaks of will be determined/discovered (if this is a reference to public decision-making it seems to require some sort of institutional mechanism of deliberation and balloting – yet this goes against Lenin’s emphasis on the withering of permanent institutional structures) and indeed no clear sense of the matters of contention in relation to which these majorities/minorities will coalesce. Is this a reference to debate over public decision-making – or are the minorities here merely the agents of ‘individual excess’?

The problems here are compounded by Lenin’s odd arguments in relation to democracy. As we have seen, Lenin argues that democracy is essentially a form of state and thus a form of class violence and as such something that will wither alongside the state more broadly. So while majorities and minorities remain under communism – there’s no (need for) democracy. This might lend weight to the second of the two interpretations above in relation to the matters of contention that Lenin seems to think will remain. But Lenin’s whole treatment of ‘democracy’ in this text is extraordinarily confusing. The basic problem is that Lenin seems to oscillate between two different definitions of democracy that aren’t really compatible. On the one hand democracy is a form of state and a form of repression (the subjection of one class by another), but on the other hand, democracy also seems to be conceived in the terms that it would normally be understood – i.e. as a process of collective decision-making encompassing public deliberation, and contestation between alternative view points as part of the social formulation of policy etc.. Even if we allow that the latter process is heavily shaped, structured and bounded by class relations and agree that the interests of the ruling class tend to prevail, the two conceptions of democracy are surely not quite the same thing. Democracy as a process is not reducible to class repression. Here, of course, we start to encroach on the key terms of the later debate between Kautsky and Lenin – and we might indeed agree with Lenin (against Kautsky) that there is no such thing as ‘pure democracy’ in abstraction from the class context in which democratic processes are embedded and institutionalised. We might also agree that parliamentary forms tend to represent ‘the best possible shell for capitalism’ etc.. But none of this means that we can entirely reduce democratic processes to structured forms of repression. In any case, much of what Lenin says about democracy does not make sense if we stick to the stark formulation: democracy as class violence. He speaks for example (quite accurately of course) of ‘restrictions, exceptions, obstacles for the poor’ that ‘in their sum total… exclude and squeeze out the poor from politics and from an active share in democracy’ (p. 72). A little further on he remarks that the dictatorship of the proletariat will produce ‘an immense expansion of democracy’ (p. 73) for the poor. So, here it seems that democracy is not so much a form of repression but an otherwise good and desirable thing from which the poor are excluded. The repression of the poor stems at least in part from their exclusion from democracy – it does not so much stem from the thing itself. Similarly, what sense does it make to speak of the ‘immense expansion of democracy’ if democracy is merely forcible suppression? What is this substance that is to be expanded if it does not refer to some sort of process of engagement over and above and much more than the suppression of the old ruling class?

We might also note that at one point Lenin remarks that ‘where there is suppression, there is also violence, there is no liberty, no democracy’ (p 73). This makes no sense at all – where there is suppression there is no democracy – given that (a couple of pages earlier) he defines democracy, as we have seen, as ‘a state recognising the subordination of minority to the majority, i.e. an organisation for the systematic use of violence by one class against another’. So democracy is essentially violence but is also something that cannot really exist where there is any violence? Incidentally we should also note, perhaps, the sinister logic lurking in the quotation in the first line of this paragraph above – ‘where there is suppression’ (as indeed there will be under the dictatorship of the proletariat) ‘there is no liberty, no democracy’ – does this not, despite the references to expanding liberties (for the workers) elsewhere, seem pre-emptively to justify any degree of curtailment of these things in the transition period, since for as long as the (proletarian) state exists, the freedoms that it promulgates are essentially illusory and unreal anyway?

But democracy – certainly in the sense of class power, but also (it seems?) in the sense of collective deliberation and decision-making on the basis of alternative conceptions of potential courses of action (which is itself essentially a form of class violence??) – seems to disappear under communism, withering alongside the state, with which it is intrinsically bound up. Here again, is a vision of communism in terms of (something close to) the classic utopian myth of ultimate and complete social harmony.

Of course, Lenin is clear that (the higher phase of ) communism lies in the far distant future. But similar problems seem to lurk in his account of the immediate post-revolutionary period too. What’s very striking about his discussion of the institutions of proletarian power is that their function (other than repression of the old ruling class) seems to be reduced entirely to processes of technical administration. Delegates, officials and other participants within them engage in ‘simple operations of registration, filing and checking’, ‘accountancy and control’, ‘watching, recording and issuing receipts’ and so on – but there’s absolutely nothing about mass participation in the formation and revision of policy. In fact there’s little indication that the soviets or other organs of proletarian power are sites of discussion or debate (there’s a brief line in this respect (p. 41) – ‘[t]he venal and rotten parliamentarian of bourgeois society is replaced in the Commune by institutions in which freedom of opinion and discussion does not degenerate into deception…’) and very little indication at all to suggest that they are arenas of deliberation or of consensus formation, or to facilitate democratic mediation of popular differences or even that different ideological and political currents will operate within them. There’s certainly no indication that these organs are a terrain of competition between different parties. Famously, indeed, Lenin hardly mentions even the vanguard party in State and Revolution, let alone gives any sense that party pluralism continues under the dictatorship of the proletariat. The institutions of the proletarian state seem curiously lifeless, sterile and uniform places in which participants simply ‘get on with the job’ of administrating society as if this was some straight-forward, value-free process about which there can be no disagreement or differences of judgement.

Indeed Lenin’s whole approach seems ultimately to rest on a distinction between ‘politics proper’ on the one hand, and a ‘non-political’, ideologically neutral form of technical administration, on the other. Following Marx and Engels, as Sirianni points out, Lenin ‘narrowly delimits the category of “politics” to the struggle between hostile classes’ and so (just as the state in his analysis is entirely collapsed into repressive force) ‘[p]olitics and political power in the transition are thus defined solely in terms of the suppression of the class enemies of the proletariat’ (Sirianni, 1982: 278). It follows from this that there are no properly political differences among the proletariat – and thus little basis for significant divisions between them. Indeed this view seems to underpin Lenin’s assumption of an absolutely identity of interest between the working class and ‘their’ proletarian state (in fact, to the extent that there seems to be little institutional mediation at all, an absolute identity full stop – the proletarian state is the proletariat). As Sirianni among many others has pointed out, it does not seem to cross Lenin’s mind that this state might ever develop interests opposed to, or act against the wishes of, the mass of the proletariat or even significant sections of it. This blindspot in Lenin’s thinking would of course, come back to haunt the Bolsheviks not long after the revolution forcing them to come up with ever more elaborate ways to justify a party dictatorship that clearly could not rely, to say the least, on the absolute support of the entire working class:  (Trotsky, 1921: ‘The party is obliged to maintain its dictatorship regardless of the temporary wavering in the spontaneous moods of the masses, regardless of the temporary vacillations even in the working class’). Incidentally, Kautsky absolutely nails Lenin on this matter in his 1918 critique of the Bolsheviks’ practice – The Dictatorship of the Proletariat.  Here Kautsky points out that that Lenin simply asserts a summary identification of the working class with the Bolsheviks and the Soviet government but provides no indication of how the purported support of the former for the latter two might be verified. He also points out, quite rightly, that the working class is heterogenous and that class interests can be formulated and represented in various different ways. These points, by the way, are studiously ignored in Lenin’s blisteringly caustic response, The Proletarian Revolution and The Renegade Kautsky.

But, back to the distinction between ‘politics proper’ and revolutionary administration…. The institutions of the dictatorship of the proletariat thus perform a dual task – only one of which is properly ‘political’. Its political function is to organise the suppression of the old ruling class via the application of force. But its other (‘non political’) function is to train and educate the proletariat in the business of revolutionary administration. In time the first function becomes more and more unnecessary and falls away while the second one eventually produces a society in which all can take part in a process of post-political, post-democratic (and post-institutional??) governance conceived in terms of a sort of mass participatory technocracy. Sirianni (see, Sirianni, 1982: pp. 261-88) argues convincingly that Lenin’s argument here is informed by a utopian telos. Lenin, that is, (like many figures of the Second International) believed that the origins of the state and ‘political’ conflicts more broadly lay solely in the existence of material scarcity and the division of society into classes and also appears to have believed (again, like many others) that these conflicts would inevitably disappear with the abolition of capitalism and the advent of communist ‘abundance’. Thus there was little reason to fear the solidification of new relations of political domination once the old ruling class was overthrown  – the proletarian state after all could be nothing other than temporary and would, at any rate, be a semi-‘state’ in an advanced condition of decomposition from the start. All that remained to be done was the continued application of revolutionary violence for a relatively short period to hold down the bourgeoisie as it exited the historical scene, while the masses were trained up in the simple skills necessary to administer a society of more or less harmonious uniformity.  As Sirianni puts it:

Lenin’s tendency to conceive of mass participation in the construction of socialism largely in terms of technical administration is theoretically contiguous with his conception of communist society as an administrative utopia where the need for democracy itself vanishes and all individual and social interests are harmonised more or less automatically. (Sirianni, 1982: 282).

From this perspective, indeed, Lenin’s (temporary) enthusiasm for soviets from mid 1917 rested not on the view that these institutions represented ideal vehicles for working class emancipation on the basis that they provided democratic fora for the collective formulation of, and control over, policy – Lenin wasn’t really very interested in that – but simply because they provided a way to involve the masses in administrative tasks. Lenin is often presented by his admirers as a radical democrat – and he was, in a sense. The democracy he envisaged was a form of governance in which participation would be generalised as widely as possible – all would eventually be involved equally in the various remaining tasks of running post-capitalist society. But mass participation is not quite the same thing as democracy in the sense that most of us would understand that concept.

Major references

Callinicos, C. (1991) The Revenge of History: Marxism and the East European Revolutions (Cambridge, Polity)

Lenin, V. I. (2011) State and Revolution (Mansfield Centre CT, Martino)

Sirianni, C. (1982) Workers Control & the Socialist Democracy: the Soviet Experience (London, Verso)

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On Lenin’s The State and Revolution (2)

I was going to write a single blogpost (the second in a planned series of three) on the ambiguities and tensions in State and Revolution and also argue, with reference to the actual process of revolution in Russia (drawing on T H Rigby’s brilliant study), that the commonly held belief that the Bolsheviks ‘smashed’ the state (however briefly) is a myth. In retrospect this was over-ambitious and the blogpost became a bit of a beast. So I’m probably going to have to break this one down into three – and expand the series to five(!!!) Here’s the first bit.

The major arguments Lenin advances in the State and Revolution are well known. Carmen Sirianni provides a usefully succinct summary:

The basic premiss of [Lenin’s] new position was taken primarily from Marx’s writings on the Commune: the proletariat cannot simply lay hold of the existing state apparatus and use it for its own purposes. Rather, this apparatus has to be smashed (zerbrechen), and an entirely new one created, fully responsive to the control of the people. The political instrument for the oppression of labour by capital cannot be the instrument for emancipation from this oppression. The main characteristics of such a state – which immediately begins to wither away since it no longer stands as an independent force above the people – are: full election and instant recall of all officials, the right to vote to working people only [Note: Sirianni is not quite correct here – as Lenin points out in his later polemic against Kautsky there is no mention of restricting the franchise in S&R], full publicity of all governmental affairs, the unity of executive and legislative functions, the suppression of a standing army and civil bureaucracy (though not of the technically trained experts within them), the payment of workers’ wages to all officials, and the enlistment of all working people in the business of state administration. Such a state would be dictatorial in relation to the old ruling classes and counter-revolutionary resistance. But it would be democratic in a new way in that it would truly represent the majority of the population. (Sirianni, 1982: p. 267)

A number of further points should be added to this summary. Lenin emphasises that ‘Two institutions are especially characteristic’ (p. 26) of the bourgeois state machinery – the bureaucracy and the standing army. This is why it is particularly important that these institutions must be suppressed by the revolutionary proletariat. These structures seem to constitute the core of the bourgeois state machinery for Lenin, but it is not quite clear in State and Revolution whether they together constitute the capitalist state in its entirety.

Certainly, state power seems to be more or less wholly reducible to the exercise of force – and, more specifically, the organisation of class repression. As Lenin puts it in one of his many very similar formulations: ‘The state is a special organisation of force; it is the organisation of violence for the suppression of some class’ (p.22). As such the main function of the proletarian state will be to organise the suppression of the old ruling class  (though he also adds, somewhat ambiguously, a second function – ‘guiding the great mass of the population – the peasantry, the petty-bourgeoisie, the semi-proletarians – in the work of organising Socialist economy’ (p. 22)). But since this state will manifest the power of the majority in society over the minority it will no longer exist as a separate and distinct organ of power – it will be transformed from ‘a state of bureaucrats’ into a ‘state of armed workers’. Indeed Lenin is most emphatic that, in essence at least, the proletarian state is simply the workers armed – while it is ‘a state machine nevertheless’ it manifests ‘in the shape of armed workers who proceed to form a militia involving the entire population’.  ‘What is involved here,’ Ralph Miliband comments, ‘to all appearances, is unmediated class rule’ (Miliband, 1983: 157) and certainly there are passages in State and Revolution that seem to indicate that little or no political or institutional mediation of working class power will be necessary, but these seem in rather awkward tension with those passages that indicate the survival of some form of governmental officialdom. True, Lenin is clear that all working people should take part in the business of societal administration, thus merging to a some extent government with the people (and, it seems evident, the more advanced this process of merger, the more the state withers), but it is also clear that there will be representative officials (subject to election and instant recall) and further Lenin discusses the hiring of technical experts to work under the supervision and control of the armed workers. Additionally we should note that Lenin’s discussion of the proletarian state clearly indicates that soviets and/or ‘communes’ (he does not seem to think that these two forms are synonymous) will play an important role in the new order (though note also that soviets specifically are only very fleetingly mentioned).

Finally we should add that though Lenin indicates that democracy (for the majority) will immensely expand under the dictatorship of the proletariat, it (democracy) will also begin to wither away in lockstep with the withering of the state. This is because for Lenin democracy is ‘not identical with the subordination of the minority to the majority’ – rather it is ‘a state recognising the subordination of the minority to the majority, i.e., an organisation for the systematic use of violence by one class against another, by one part of the population against another’ (p. 68). This striking (and rather odd) aspect of Lenin’s argument, in my view, is often glossed over or ignored in the commentary on him – particularly by his admirers who tend to be rather more keen to stress the expansively democratic part of his vision of socialism than they are to dwell on his emphatic comments that actually democracy is a form of class violence and that as such communism will entirely dispense with it.

As is often noted (and as the summary above indicates) State and Revolution is riddled with tensions and ambiguities. Indeed reading it can be a thoroughly confusing and frustrating experience. Lenin can seem to be saying one thing in one passage and then almost the complete opposite in the next. Indeed there are single passages that are so ambiguous that they might plausibly be interpreted in starkly opposed ways (see Miliband pp 159-60 for example). I can’t (I hope) be the only person to have read State and Revolution through several times and still not be entirely sure what the hell he’s arguing! Some of the ambiguity and vagueness of the text of course is clearly determined by the historical context in which it was written and by the particular purposes of Lenin in writing it. We should not forget that it was no part of Lenin’s perspective to imagine that he could or should, in Marx’s phrase, write recipes for the cook-shops of the future. Even if, at the time of writing State and Revolution, this future for Lenin was not necessarily so far off, he did not see it as a legitimate part of his work at that time to draw up a detailed blueprint setting out the institutional structures of a post revolutionary society and we should not expect to find one in the text. Even so, for a ‘sacred text’ that is, in Miliband’s words ‘commonly held within the Marxist tradition, to provide a theoretical and indeed a practical solution’ to the question of the state and the socialist exercise of power it is remarkably vague and unclear in many fundamental respects (and not all of these have to do with future institutional forms).

The first thing we might note here is that Lenin does not really succeed in fully substantiating his (fundamental) argument that the bourgeois state is intrinsically, necessarily and absolutely bourgeois – in the end he merely asserts this view with reference to the correctness of particular quotations taken from Marx and Engels (and sometimes Lenin’s interpretation of these quotations seems rather questionable  – see, again, for example Miliband pp 164-5). Indeed, as Erik Olin Wright (1983, pp. 181-225) has elucidated,  Lenin sets out what is overall a highly functionalist view of the capitalist state. As I have put it elsewhere:

As Wright suggests, Lenin treats the organisational form of the state as conceptually subordinate to the question of its structural function. That is, Lenin is much less interested in identifying the specific institutional mechanisms through which bourgeois hegemony is reproduced within and through the state, than he is in arguing that the state necessarily performs a particular function determined by the class structure in which the state is embedded. His argument ultimately rests on the assertion as an axiom of the view he draws from Marx that the state is ‘an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another’. This line of reasoning, in itself though, explains very little about how, precisely, the state reforms the function that has been assigned to it and on what basis it is bound necessarily in every instance and at all times to perform this task. (Rooksby, 2018)

Further, as Perry Anderson has pointed out, “State and Revolution, is wholly generic in its discussion of the bourgeois state – which could be anywhere in the world from the way in which he treats it” (Anderson, 1976: 117). This is very strange given that at the time Lenin was writing, as Anderson goes on to point out, the Russian state “was categorically distinct from the German, French, English or American states with which the quotations from Marx and Engels on which Lenin relied had been concerned.” Lenin as master-tactician is widely admired among Marxists for his penetrating ability to grasp political conjunctures in their full complexity and to extrapolate quickly and flexibly from this in terms of tactical manoeuvres. But there’s little of this sort of sensitive conjunctural analysis in State and Revolution where the focus of his analysis often seems to hover in a strange non-place. The generic and unspecific nature of Lenin’s argument isn’t merely confined to his analysis of bourgeois states, of course – it also impinges on his account of the dictatorship of the proletariat which, again, seems to hover in a hazy nowhere in particular. It’s interesting to recall the literal definition of the term utopia here (no place) and to set Lenin’s vision in this context – perhaps, with not a little irony, the no place setting of State and Revolution reflects the (subdued, disavowed?) utopian dimension of his argument.

This vagueness in terms of geographical location becomes particularly significant once we remember that Lenin thought that the immediate tasks and possibilities of the revolution would, in very fundamental respects, be quite different in Russia to those that would pertain in more ‘advanced’ countries. Even after Lenin shifted from his essentially two-stage ‘model’ of transition (in which ‘the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ would take power in Russia in order to perform the tasks of the bourgeois revolution, limiting itself to these for the time being before – in the much further future – the struggle for socialism itself could really begin) to something very close to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, he still maintained that the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia would not be able to move immediately toward full socialisation of the economy given the industrial ‘backwardness’ of the country. Things are a little complicated in this respect given that Lenin seems to have believed that the historical stage of ‘state monopoly capitalism’ or ‘state capitalism’ that prevailed as the dominant form of capitalism internationally was contiguous with socialism. It was ‘a rung on the ladder of history between which and the rung called socialism there are no intermediate rungs‘. More than this, in fact, socialism is ‘nothing but state capitalism made to benefit the whole people’. So even in Germany or Britain, the dictatorship of the proletariat would still preside over an economy still run on lines at least broadly similar in some respects to what had gone before under the ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’. Even so, Lenin’s particular conception of ‘state capitalism’ in conditions of soviet (political) power in Russian conditions seems to have been much more limited.

Indeed Lenin’s vision for Russia appears to have been to introduce state capitalism along similar lines to the existing German model – he thought that the major economic task of the revolution would be to speed up the process of industrialisation and economic centralisation in Russia on a still fundamentally capitalist basis. Soviet organs would perform supervision and ‘control’ functions in relation to an economy in which basic relations of production remained essentially unchanged and in which private ownership was still the norm. Indeed, as Sirianni points out, soon after the seizure power, meetings were organised between Bolshevik representatives and various groups of capitalists to discuss proposals for setting up state-capitalist trusts in order to guarantee the continued flow of private investment into Russian industry. Further (as Sirianni also details – see pp. 103-4) in the first months of  the revolution the Bolsheviks sought strenuously to prevent and hold back the wave of spontaneous worker organised expropriations of capitalist property – supporting the retention of private ownership in most cases (you don’t hear much about this from present day Leninists!). Despite the much more realistic assessment of the situation by many proponents of ‘workers’ control’ among factory committees (i.e. why on earth would you expect capitalists to invest in a revolutionary regime that proclaimed that its major aim was (eventually) to make capitalists and capital obsolete?) Lenin seems to have been convinced for quite some time that big capital could be induced to finance the first period of the Russian transition to socialism. It was only very reluctantly and through sheer unavoidable necessity in conditions of near economic collapse that in June 1918 the new regime (performing one of its many u-turns) moved decisively to nationalise all large industrial enterprises. So a key ambiguity in State and Revolution, then, is whether or not we are supposed to read what he (vaguely) describes in terms of the governance of a post-revolutionary regime as something that would apply specifically in Russia or somewhere else like Germany.  Given the differences in terms of what he seems to have thought were the immediate possibilities in these different places, it’s surely a significant question – yet he gives us no clear indication of an answer.

One of the most fundamental ambiguities in the text in my view is that it is not entirely clear what he means by the destruction of the bourgeois state machine. This is particularly fundamental because of course it’s the main concern of Lenin’s polemic – the bourgeois state must be smashed. Most readers seem to think this is a relatively straightforward dimension of his argument – the entire bourgeois state must be entirely destroyed – and indeed there are passages in State and Revolution that seem absolutely unambiguous in this respect: ‘The workers having conquered political power, will break up the old bureaucratic apparatus, they will shatter it to its very foundations, until not one stone is left upon the another and they will replace it with a new one’; (pp. 91-2); ‘A revolution must not consist in the new class ruling, governing with the aid of the old state machinery, but in this class smashing this machinery and ruling, governing with the aid of a new machinery’ (p. 96); ‘revolution consists in the proletariat’s destroying the “administrative apparatus” and the whole state machinery and replacing it with a new one consisting of the armed workers’ (p. 96). These among other similar passages seem pretty clear – the old state is totally and absolutely destroyed and is also totally and absolutely replaced. And yet here too there are equivocations and ambiguities. For one thing in the section from which the latter two of the three quotations above is taken, Lenin (the context is that he’s attacking Kautsky for his ‘superstitious reverence’ for existing state ministries) appears to argue that, while it would be possible and preferable to replace existing ministries with ‘commissions of specialists’, it doesn’t in the end really matter if the ministries remain (‘this is quite unimportant’) – ‘The main thing’, he continues, ‘is whether the old state machinery (connected by thousands of threads with the bourgeoisie and saturated through and through with routine and inertia) shall remain or be destroyed and replaced by a new one’. This is very odd because it seems to suggest that the old ministries are in some way detachable from the ‘old state machinery’ – that to retain them would not necessarily mean the retention of the old ‘administrative apparatus’. This strange manoeuvre by the way becomes highly significant once we examine the structure of the ‘soviet’ state under Lenin into which the old state ministries were more less incorporated wholesale and unchanged (but renamed ‘Commissariats’) – this is for a future blogpost….

For another thing Lenin’s approving quotations of Marx and Engels on the state include Engels’ remarks from the Preface to the Civil War in France about how the state is, ‘at best, an evil, inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle… whose worst side the proletariat… will have at the earliest opportunity to lop off…’ and Marx’s comments from that text pertaining to the ‘legitimate functions’ of the ‘old governmental power’. Lenin gives no indications that these phrases throw up any complications or problems at all. Of course it might be argued that Engels is talking about ‘the state’ in a very general sense – i.e. the proletariat inherit the abstract necessity of state power (rather than taking possession of particular state organs). But it’s hard to read it in this way – and the image of ‘lopping off’ surely suggests that they take hold of the extant bourgeois machinery and get rid of the worst bits of it while (presumably) keeping hold of other parts. Marx’s reference to ‘legitimate functions’ furthermore, throws Lenin’s apparent assumption (and indeed Engels’ from whom he gets the quotation!) that the state is  ‘nothing more than a machine for the oppression of one class by another’ into some confusion. The idea of ‘legitimate functions’ on the part of the old state suggests, of course, that the activities of the state are not wholly reducible to class violence. A similar problem hovers in relation to Lenin’s occasional and fleeting reference (mentioned above) to a guidance function to be performed by the proletarian state.

Indeed, elsewhere in his writing at about this time, as T H Rigby points out, Lenin seems to introduce a qualification to his comments in State and Revolution about the destruction of the old state. ‘Lenin’, he comments, ‘distinguished between the repressive, chinovnik, aspects of the old state machine and its modern, regulative – especially economic-regulative aspects’ (Rigby, 1979, p. 13). Lenin comments in this regard:

This apparatus we need not and must not destroy. It must be wrested from subjection to the capitalists, the capitalists and their lines of influence must be cut away, sliced away, hacked away from it, it must be subjected to the proletarian soviets, it must be made broader, more all-embracing, more part of the whole people. (Lenin, cited in Rigby, 1979, p. 13)

So here, Lenin seems to allow that certain institutions of the old state, and the functions they perform, might be integrated within the new one if suitably purged and reconfigured. Of course we might remind ourselves here that Lenin seems to think that the core of the bourgeois state is constituted by the standing army and ‘the bureaucracy’ and wonder perhaps if it is his argument in State and Revolution that only these certain apparatuses that are to be smashed while others (economic-regulative) may be retained. But for one thing it is difficult to see how ‘the bureaucracy’ might be so defined as to exclude economic-regulative apparatuses (think of the modern UK Department of Transport for example – in what sense is this not part of the wider state ‘bureaucracy’). For another, this line of thought seems in tension with his rather stark formulations that state power is always definitely the political power of a particular class – the idea that some state apparatuses may (partially) escape this logic doesn’t seem to flow from this at all. Furthermore the distinction implied here between ‘good’ aspects and ‘bad’ aspects of the bourgeois state is almost precisely what Lenin later excoriates Vandervelde for in an appendix to The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. Here Lenin taxes Vandervelde for his attempt to distinguish between the state in the ‘broad sense’ and the state in the ‘narrow sense’. Vandervelde argues that when Marx and Engels spoke of the abolition of the state they meant only the state in a ‘narrow sense’ of the term  i.e. its repressive, authoritarian dimensions. They did not mean that the state in its ‘broad sense’ – as an organ of guidance and the representative of society’s general interests – should or could be destroyed. Lenin ridicules this – but isn’t this exactly the sort of distinction that differentiation between the repressive aspects of the old state and its economic-regulative apparatuses itself must turn on? So in other words, Lenin seems to oscillate between, on the one hand, formulations that appear to pivot on a very stark logic pertaining to the absolutely capitalist nature of the entire bourgeois state and thus the need to destroy it totally and, on the other hand, more apparently qualified positions that seem to disrupt and undermine that logic.

Major References

Anderson, P. (1979) Considerations on Western Marxism (London, Verso)

Lenin, V. I. (2002) The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. Available:

Lenin, V. I. (2011) State and Revolution (Mansfield Centre CT, Martino)

Miliband, R. (1983) Class Power & State Power (London, Verso)

Rigby, T. H. (1979) Lenin’s Government: Sovnarkom 1917-1922 (Cambridge, CUP)

Rooksby, E. (2018)'”Structural Reform” and the Problems of Socialist Strategy Today’, Critique, Vol. 46, No. 1

Sirianni, C. (1982) Workers Control & the Socialist Democracy: the Soviet Experience (London, Verso)

Wright, E. O. (1983) Class, Crisis and the State (London, Verso)

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