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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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On Lenin’s The State and Revolution (1)

Over the following blogposts, I want to undertake a critical appraisal of Lenin’s The State and Revolution which, for better or worse, has constituted a fundamental reference point in Marxist thought for the past century. In this first post I’ll examine the genesis and significance of the text drawing heavily on Marian Sawer’s essay ‘The Genesis of State and Revolution’ – and I hope to extrapolate a particular significance of the pamphlet that I don’t think is often grasped. In the post that follows I’ll look a little bit more closely at some of the tensions and incoherences in the text and focus too on what I take to be the core myth of the Bolshevik Revolution – the frequently encountered claim/assumption, rooted in the major precept established by Lenin in The State and Revolution in relation to the necessity of the destruction of the bourgeois state apparatus, that the Bolsheviks under Lenin really did ‘smash’ the extant state institutions and replace them (however fleetingly) with soviet power. In the final post I hope to examine one of the most celebrated and conceptually sophisticated defences of the arguments Lenin establishes in The State and Revolution (and closely associated polemical texts such as The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky) – Etienne Balibar’s The Dictatorship of the Proletariat. I want to show in particular how this defence fails to overcome the incoherences in the original and indeed shows up more clearly some fundamental problems of ‘Leninist’ thought in relation to state power.


Lenin’s The State and Revolution is, as Ralph Miliband once remarked, one of the ‘sacred texts’ of Marxist thought – ‘sacred’ in the sense that the argument Lenin develops in relation to the question of the state and the socialist exercise of power has ‘enjoyed an exceptionally authoritative status for successive generations of socialists’ and indeed is ‘commonly held within the Marxist tradition, to provide a theoretical and indeed a practical solution’ to this question. Always something of an embarrassment for the Stalinist regimes given the relatively ‘libertarian’ (though this dimension of the text is often overstated and many have pointed to its at most only half-submerged authoritarian qualities) vision Lenin presents of a commune type workers’ state founded on mass participation, the text has been embraced much more enthusiastically, and with much less bad faith, by anti-Stalinist revolutionary socialist currents. Indeed we might say that the State and Revolution is the core canonical text within the ‘Leninist’/ Trotskyist tradition today – a text to which socialists of this type return again and again as the major point of reference for their strategic perspective.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that the historical significance of the text goes well beyond its status as a key point of orientation within Marxist thought and debate. It is surely no exaggeration to say that The State and Revolution is one of the few texts that fundamentally changed the course of modern history since it was in the process of preparing this pamphlet (he did the library research for it, it seems, in the first two months of 1917 in Zurich, only writing these up a few months later while in hiding in Finland after ‘the July days’ – the text was not published until early 1918) that Lenin made the core conceptual leaps and political breaks with his earlier assumptions without which the October seizure of power in Russia would almost certainly not have happened.  Lenin’s turn to the idea that the soviet organs that had spontaneously proliferated during the course of the February Revolution manifested revolutionary workers’ power and that , as such, Bolshevik strategy must pivot on the aim of transferring the entirety of state power from the institutions of the Provisional Government to the soviets was first enunciated publicly (much to the shock and disorientation of many of his party comrades) in his ‘April Theses’. But the genesis and gestation of this turn in his strategic orientation was clearly bound up with the research and thinking he put into the notes he made in Jan/Feb 1917 that would eventually be published as The State and Revolution.

Indeed the provenance of this text and what it reveals about Lenin’s changing thought is fascinating. Marian Sawer’s essay, ‘The Genesis of State and Revolution’ traces this process in detail, locating the development of Lenin’s thinking in relation to contemporary controversies among key figures in the Second International. As Sawer argues, the background to Lenin’s theoretical reappraisal of Marxist theory in relation to the state is to be found in the debates among socialists in the wake of the 1905 Russian revolution. For the left of the German SPD in particular, the organs of mass, participatory democracy that had spontaneously emerged in 1905 pointed the way toward forms of extra-parliamentary struggle on which socialists should orient their revolutionary strategy. Rosa Luxemburg took up this argument, of course, in The Mass Strike. But mainstream social democratic thought (before the first world war of course ‘Marxism’, ‘socialism’ and ‘social democracy’ were more or less synonymous terms) – epitomised by that of ‘the Pope of Marxism’, Karl Kautsky – rejected this, arguing that revolutionary struggle had taken the course it had in Russia, precisely because of the backwardness of autocratic Russian conditions and the absence of parliamentary institutions. As such the events of 1905 were ‘proof that political conditions in Russia were not yet ripe for proletarian revolution, rather than being a manifestation of a proletarian form of struggle or the form that a socialist revolution would take’ (Sawer).

As Sawer continues, in ‘1912 the theoretical differences between orthodox German social democracy and its left wing were clarified and sharpened in the course of debate conducted between… Anton Pannekoek and Kautsky on the relationship between the socialist movement and the state’. Pannekoek argued that in focusing its efforts on parliamentary representation, German social democracy ‘was fetishising organisational forms to which Marx had lent his authority in the pre-Paris Commune era’ (Sawer) – while these may have been appropriate while capitalism was still in its ascendant phase, in the ‘period of the decline of the bourgeois order, signalled by the growth of imperialism’ an orientation on parliament should now be seen a positive hindrance to proletarian struggle. Instead the workers’ movement should now focus on the construction, in the course of struggle, of a proletarian power structure that would constitute a real alternative to the bourgeois state – indeed it should seek the destruction of the bourgeois state. In response Kautsky (again, speaking for the orthodox view) stated that:

The goal of our political struggle remains the same as it has been up to now. The conquest of state power through winning a majority in parliament and raising parliament to be the master of government. Not, however, the destruction of state power. (Kautsky, cited in Sawer)

Sawer remarks that Lenin appears not to have been very attentive to this 1912 debate (though he would have been aware of it), but is also clear that Lenin regarded Kautsky’s views as Marxist orthodoxy right up until 1917. There is no evidence at all that before 1917 Lenin held any disagreement with Kautsky’s general position that the revolutionary process would involve the capture of the extant institutions of the bourgeois state by proletarian forces which would then use those institutions to build socialism. Indeed in a polemic with Nikolai Bukharin, Lenin stated in a piece published in December 1916 that:

Socialists are in favour of using the present state and its institutions in the struggle for the emancipation of the working class, maintaining also that the state should be used for a specific form of transition from capitalism to socialism. This transition is the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is also a state. (Lenin, cited in Sawer)

So here, less than a year before the October Revolution (and merely a few months before the ‘April Theses’ called for power to be transferred to the soviets), Lenin quite clearly envisages a very Kautskyan type revolutionary process. But, as Sawer shows, it was in the course of this polemic with Bukharin that Lenin came to a fundamental reappraisal of his thought hitherto on state power and socialist revolution.

The theory of imperialism Bukharin had elaborated in Imperialism and World Economy (1915) – foreshadowing, as Sawer points out, Lenin’s more famous pamphlet on the same theme, published the year after (and, actually, all of the best and most innovative ideas contained in the ‘classical Marxist’ approach to Imperialism were originally Bukharin’s and Hilferding’s not Lenin’s) – led Bukharin to work further on drawing out the implications of his concept of ‘state capitalism’ for socialist strategy. He seems to have worked quite closely with Pannekoek at this time and it was perhaps this connection that  convinced Bukharin that the proletariat could not capture the bourgeois state machine, but should instead seek to ‘smash’ it. It was possibly via this route, then, that what were originally fairly marginal left communist ideas as articulated by Pannekoek first really entered the Bolshevik imagination – it was almost certainly the route by which these ideas first significantly impinged on Lenin’s. Bukharin presented his ideas to Lenin in an essay in 1916 entitled ‘Towards a Theory of the Imperialist State’, to be met with scornful hostility. Already suspicious of Bukharin’s ‘Semi-anarchist ideas’, Lenin complained that Bukharin’s ideas on the state were ‘entirely muddled’, ‘un-Marxist and un-Socialist’ and indeed it was in a rejoinder to Bukharin’s essay that Lenin reiterated the orthodox Kautskyan view on the state quoted above. In the same rejoinder Lenin announced his intention to publish a full article on the subject and, as Sawer shows, it was in the course of conducting the research for this article in Zurich in early 1917 that Lenin became converted to Bukharin’s views and thus underwent a 180 degree reversal in his approach to state power. That is, it was the notes that Lenin produced in preparation for an intended refutation of Bukharin’s ‘semi-anarchist ideas’ that went on to form the basis of what was eventually published as The State and Revolution (and, not for the first time, Lenin was to take the credit for ideas that he’d originally encountered via Bukharin with a pamphlet that would overshadow the latter’s prior publication!!)

According to Sawer, Lenin’s conversion emerged from a re-reading – a rediscovery – in January/February 1917 of Marx’s and Engels’ writing on the state in the wake of the Paris Commune. None of Lenin’s writings or speeches up until this point seem to show any awareness, for example, of the famous rider attached to the 1872 edition of the Communist Manifesto which states ‘… this programme has in some details become antiquated. One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” Nor does he seem to have paid much attention to the text from which Marx and Engels quote in that rider – Marx’s The Civil War in France. Nor, indeed does Lenin appear previously to have attached much importance to the last chapter of the Eighteenth Brumaire in which Marx, much earlier (1851-2), makes his first comments indicating the necessity of ‘smashing’ the bourgeois state machine – “All revolutions perfected this machine instead of smashing it”. Sawer comments that throughout the notebook Lenin used during his (re)reading of Marx and Engels on the state:

one finds Lenin heavily emphasising and annotating the comments he discovers in Marx and Engels on the need for the proletarian revolution to smash the existing state machine and substitute for it their own form of state, which is already only a ‘half state’ (substituting popular forms of administration for the old bureaucracy, etc.) and which will itself wither away as full communism is reached.

Further, there “are constant references to Kautsky’s (and to a lesser extent Plekhanov’s) suppression or over-looking of the need to smash the existing state apparatus”.

Lenin would, of course, go on to draw heavily on these texts in the middle chapters of the State and Revolution in which he brilliantly traces the trajectory of Marx’s thought on the state as it evolved in response ‘to the solid ground of historical experience’ (S&R, p 27) – ‘it was not logical theorising, but the actual course of events,… living experience’ of revolutionary struggle that allowed Marx to make his theorising in relation to the state and to the necessary form of the dictatorship of the proletariat progressively more and more concrete. In this respect ‘as everywhere, his teaching is the summing up of experience‘. What Lenin says he is doing in this text is presenting a ‘resuscitation’ of these teachings (‘our first task is to resuscitate the real teachings of Marx on the state’ (p. 7)) which have, over time, been obscured and adulterated by opportunism and in particular ‘by the present predominant Kautskyism’. He says of the 1872 rider that the real meaning of Marx’s and Engels’ comments (since, ‘distorted by the opportunists’) ‘probably, is not known to nine-tenths, if not ninety-nine hundredths, of the readers of the Communist Manifesto‘ (p. 33). But it is important to remember, here, as we have seen above, that Lenin himself seems to have been among these ninety-nine hundredths – and, indeed, was himself essentially a follower of the ‘present predominant Kautskyism’ right up until December 1916. There’s no indication of this at all in what Lenin says in The State and Revolution among all the (characteristically) invective denunciation of ‘opportunists’, ‘petty bourgeois democrats’ and so on hurled in the manner of a vengeful prophet returning from the wilderness. Lenin’s ‘resuscitation’ of these ideas came only after a very recent discovery of them on his part for the first time.

As we’ve seen figures such as Bukharin and Pannekoek and (to some extent) Luxemburg had already held to something like the ‘real teachings of Marx on the state’ before Lenin’s sudden conversion, but it was only with his conversion in the wider context of the developing revolutionary process in Russia that these ideas in relation to the necessary destruction of the bourgeois state really make an impact. Where Lenin goes beyond Bukharin and Pannekoek (and Marx) is that he explicitly identifies the soviets as ‘structurally akin to the Commune’ (Sawer) and thus as the historically discovered (core) institutional form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Interestingly, Sawer argues that at the time Lenin was preparing the materials that would go on to become the State and Revolution he had not yet received news of the reappearance of soviets in Russia – and thus the theoretical leap he makes in drawing a connection between Marx’s analysis of the Commune and soviets specifically was informed by a reappraisal of the 1905 revolutionary process. The other major innovation Lenin makes at this time (though foreshadowed somewhat by Pannekoek) was to link Marx’s propositions on the necessary destruction of the bourgeois state with the emergence of dual power as the process that would build toward this outcome. Nevertheless it’s worth pointing out that soviets make only relatively fleeting appearances in Lenin’s pamphlet (far more references to ‘the communes’) – and, indeed, (as Sawer points out) Lenin’s (always rather ambiguous) enthusiasm for soviets would not last long beyond the October Revolution. In fact (as we shall see in a following post) little power was vested in soviet institutions even before their general atrophy during the civil war – within a few weeks of the October insurrection, government power was heavily concentrated in ‘commissariats’ (essentially the old state ministries, renamed and headed up by an appointed ‘commissar’) and by Lenin’s ‘cabinet’ of commissars, Sovnarkom.

Now, given all of the above, here’s my (rather unformed, tentative) suggestion. I’ve already written something see below about ‘reformism’ as a kind of phantom category. My argument was that ‘reformism’ in the sense of a coherent strategic worldview (rather than as an often under-theorised/ untheorised practice – an approach to day to day methods of struggle (clearly as a practical orientation it’s much more real and substantial)) – has never been more than a minority current in the socialist movement. But what if we can go further and say that ‘revolutionary socialism’ in the sense that we understand it today (and, again, as a coherent strategic worldview – a sort of global approach encompassing more than just an orientation to certain forms of struggle, but also to a relatively substantial vision of a particular process of transition to socialism/communism) was essentially invented by Lenin in early 1917? And what if, in the process of this discovery/ invention of a revolutionary tradition (as we understand it today) the necessary ‘other’ of this tradition, ‘reformism’ was also created essentially ex nihilo?

The usual story that’s told in relation to this clear reform/revolution dichotomy is that it can be traced back to the 1890s. That is, a cleavage between revolutionary socialism and reformism begins to open up (particularly within the SPD – the largest, most powerful socialist party within and around which most of the strategic debates of the time tended be concentrated) as a layer of full time parliamentary, party and trade union officials start to drift away from a definitely revolutionary Marxist orthodoxy, pulling with them the mass of passive party members and voters. Of course it’s often acknowledged that this cleavage was only indistinctly and incompletely grasped by many of the key interlocutors involved in the relevant debates at the time – mostly because of the ‘theoretical cover’ for the rightward drift of mainstream social democracy provided more than anyone else by the dissembling arch-renegade Karl Kautsky. It was only really with the double shock of the capitulation of most of the leadership of most member parties of the Second International to the military interests of their national states followed by their hostility to the Bolshevik seizure of power and, in the SPD leadership’s case, their collusion with the Freikorps to crush the Spartacist revolt that those maintaining fidelity to the cause of revolution fully grasped the reality of this long half-submerged divergence. Of course, no one could deny that clear differences of emphasis emerged between the mainstream of social democracy and what Charlie Post calls the ‘militant minority’ of revolutionary activists in relation to political practice – emphasis on parliamentary or extra-parliamentary activity, attitude toward the tactic of the mass strike, the attitude toward socialist politicians joining bourgeois coalition governments and so on. It would be difficult to deny too that these orientations implied certain consequences too in terms of general political trajectory (as Rosa Luxemburg grasped of course in her polemic with Bernstein). But none of this adds up to a clear divergence, at this time, between two coherent strategic visions of socialist transformation. They are much more disagreements about tactics than they are really about a confrontation between different strategies. Even in Luxemburg’s case, the emphasis of her disagreement with Bernstein is that the end of socialist transformation must be kept in view – inseparable from the means chosen – it’s not really the counterposition of coherent ‘revolutionary strategy’ as such with a coherent ‘reformist’ one.

Moreover, the story that mainstream social democracy betrayed a clear and well-established and revolutionary orthodoxy is, I think, untenable. Whatever Marx’s and Engels’ not always consistent views about the possibility of a parliamentary road to socialism (there’s ample ammunition in various of their writings for either one of the ‘reformist’ or ‘revolutionary’ interpretations – although, for what it’s worth, the balance of the evidence, points much more convincingly toward the latter (and so on this Lenin, then, was absolutely right)), the idea that the major parties of the Second International were ever clearly committed in their official ideology to a non-parliamentary, insurrectionary road just isn’t true. ‘Leninist’ thought today tends to present Post’s ‘militant minority’ in the manner of a relatively small group of people holding fast to the established Marxist orthodoxy – keeping the flame of truth alive while others distorted and adulterated it in their drift toward opportunism and so on (just as Lenin tends to present himself as a stalwart of the revolutionary orthodoxy in State and Revolution, rather than somebody who actually has only very recently discovered that Marx thought that the existing state must be smashed). But when you look at the putatively ‘revolutionary’ orthodoxy of the Second International what you find is a widespread assumption that the revolutionary process would look something very like Kautsky’s description of revolution above – winning a majority in parliament, taking control of the existing state institutions and using them against the bourgeoisie and to abolish capitalism, perhaps in the process having to resort to defensive violence to put down a ‘slaveholder’s rebellion’ of the sort mentioned by Engels (referring to Marx’s comments on the US Civil War). So the longstanding ‘revolutionary’ orthodoxy apparently reneged on by the ‘reformists’ looks very much like…. the ‘reformism’ those renegades are said to have taken up. In reality the ‘reformism’ of the Second International ‘reformists’ was in many ways perfectly congruent the ‘revolutionary’ orthodoxy.

So perhaps in the course of producing the State and Revolution Lenin (brilliantly) originates the revolutionary socialist tradition as we understand it today. But in order for this tradition to be retrospectively read back as at least a definite, if not wholly complete, tendency within the Second International prior to 1917 clustering around an established orthodoxy, he must also retrospectively invent its ‘other’ cohering on a trajectory away from that orthodoxy. This is the function assigned to the figure of the renegade Kautsky.  Now whatever one thinks of Kautsky it’s almost certainly the case that, as Massimo Salvadori puts it, Kautsky is much ‘more vilified than read’ – indeed what many socialists think of Kautsky is probably coloured almost entirely by their main (very probably their only) encounter with him via Lenin’s polemic The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. In fact, as Salvadori amply demonstrates there’s very little evidence of any apostasy at all on Kautsky’s part – he remained remarkably consistent over time in his view that the parliamentary state provided the basic institutional framework for the ‘revolutionary’ transition to socialism. Even when he spoke of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ he was clear that he was referring to the exercise of proletarian class power via parliamentary institutions. Whether or not this was/is a realistic position to hold the fact is that this was the view to which Kautsky always openly cleaved – and what’s more, as we have seen, it is a position that Lenin himself seems to have had little disagreement with until a few months before he suddenly discovered Kautsky’s longstanding ‘apostasy’. Might we say then that the figure of the ‘renegade Kautsky’ provides a kind of dramatis personae in a newly innovated myth of orthodoxy and betrayal.

So, I suppose what I am suggesting overall is that the revolutionary socialist tradition (as we know it today) – and by extension its reformist other – was essentially invented by Lenin in January/February 1917 while researching a polemic against Bukharin in a Zurich library.

Main References

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

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

Post, C (2012) ‘What is Left of Leninism? New European Left Parties in Historical Perspective’, The Socialist Register 2013

Sawer, M. (1977) ‘The Genesis of State and Revolution’, The Socialist Register 1977

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Some notes on the ‘Leninist’ strategy

Toward the end of Considerations on Western Marxism (1976) Perry Anderson makes some interesting remarks about what he sees as the core problem of Lenin’s analysis of the capitalist state and bourgeois democracy in terms of its applicability in a ‘Western’ setting. They are worth quoting in full;

Lenin started his career by acknowledging the fundamental historical distinction between Western and Eastern Europe in What is to be Done? At various later dates (especially in Left-Wing Communism), he alluded to it again. But he never seriously made it an object of Marxist political reflection as such. It is notable that perhaps his greatest work, 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. In fact, the Russian state which had just been eliminated by the February Revolution 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. By failing to delimit a feudal autocracy unequivocally from bourgeois democracy, Lenin involuntarily permitted a constant confusion among later Marxists, that was effectively to prevent them from ever developing a cogent revolutionary strategy in the West. This could only have been done on the basis of a direct and systematic theory of the bourgeois-representative state in the advanced capitalist countries and the specific combinations of its machinery of consent and coercion, which were foreign to Tsarism. The practical consequence of this theoretical blockage was the inability of the Third International, founded and guided by Lenin, to achieve any mass implantation in the greatest centres of modern Imperialism in the twenties…. Another type of party and another type of strategy were needed in these societies and were not invented.

These comments are all the more remarkable given that at the time Anderson wrote them he cleaved to a more or less Leninist orientation – and indeed went on to affirm a few years later in his wonderful book Arguments Within English Marxism ‘the greater cogency and realism’, in comparison with the ‘reformism’ of figures such as Nicos Poulantzas and Geoff Hodgson at least, ‘of the tradition of Lenin and Trotsky’. Even here, though, Anderson’s affirmation is less than emphatic. Specifically he admits that ‘the critical weakness’ of this tradition is,

its difficulty in demonstrating the plausibility of counter-institutions of dual power arising within consolidated parliamentary democracies: all the examples of soviets or councils so far have emerged out of disintegrating autocracies (Russia, Hungary, Austria), defeated military regimes (Germany), ascendant or overturned fascist states (Spain, Portugal).*

So, again, the core problem with this strategic approach is the way in which the historical evidence indicates that it does not resonate in societies in which the institutions and traditions of parliamentary democracy are relatively consolidated and have sunk deep roots. Anderson is, surely, absolutely right about this. To think that it’s possible to transplant the dual power model of socialist revolution from the specific circumstances of Russia in February to October 1917 (an autocratic state in conditions of virtual collapse in a society exhausted by a disastrous war) to the very different conditions of, say, Western Europe today, simply doesn’t take the hegemonic strength of bourgeois democracy seriously – whatever the limitations of the latter and even given the advanced state of its ‘hollowing out’ in conditions of neoliberalism, crisis and austerity.

This isn’t to say, of course, that this problem necessarily validates the classical ‘reformist’ alternative (to the extent that this putative alternative orientation was ever really a coherent one – see the blog post below) – it doesn’t (and of course Anderson is clear that it doesn’t).  But it does suggest – especially given, of course, that conditions of consolidated liberal democracy now hold in almost all ‘advanced capitalist’ countries – that the dual power strategy as it’s normal conceived needs to be fundamentally revised.

You only have to observe the typical trajectory of leftist insurgency in recent times to be convinced of this. Time and time again when leftist challenges emerge, if they go beyond mere protest, they cohere in terms of some sort of electorally focused (that is, ‘reformist’ or perhaps left social democratic) mobilisation. That is to say that, over and over and over again, even in conditions of relatively heightened struggle (as in Greece a few years ago), the working class fails to perform – fails to come anywhere close to performing – its allotted functions in the revolutionary sequence envisaged in Leninist mythology. It doesn’t spontaneously throw up soviets, doesn’t provide the longed-for conditions in which x or y self-proclaimed nucleus of the future mass revolutionary party can suddenly expand its membership and active support in great leaps and bounds, while outflanking the reformists and winning leadership of the class, doesn’t begin to construct a parallel proto-state apparatus and set in train the paralysis and decomposition of the bourgeois state machine. The 1917 redux  – even a rough approximation of it in embryo – simply refuses to materialise.

Many readers will be familiar with the typical Leninist narrative today in terms of the various historical ‘near misses’ and ‘pre-revolutionary situations’ that obtained at various times (all of them a long time ago now) which are taken as signs of hope (or articles of faith) in relation to the continuing salience of the classic dual power scenario and the subterranean cunning of history which is, for some reason, sure to throw up such social explosions again in a lightning flash from the blue. Because…. Aha! Nobody expects the dual power scenario! Among the favourites here are post-WW1 Germany (an utter disaster) and Portugal 1974-5 (contained, eventually, within the limits of a broadly social democratic ‘transition’ from dictatorship to parliamentary democracy, despite the best efforts of the PCP – perhaps the only CP in the West at that time that was really serious about revolution, much to the acute embarrassment of its Eurocommunist sister parties). Most of these examples are among the list Anderson sets out above in relation to the ‘critical weakness’ of the Leninist schema.

But there’s a ‘near miss’ that Anderson doesn’t mention – probably because it didn’t throw up soviets as such beyond a few rudimentary instances. Nevertheless, this has passed into the Leninist pantheon of thwarted near revolutions and was indeed a major catalyst for the reinvigoration of the Western European revolutionary left, allowing the Trotskyist tradition in particular to win a more secure niche in the European leftist eco-system, escaping to some extent the suffocating bunker to which it had previously been confined in the days of the Old Man himself. I refer of course to the ‘May Events’ in France 1968.

France, May 1968

There’s no doubt that May was a mould shattering social eruption that completely changed the political landscape – its various significances and effects rippling out far beyond France itself. In many ways ‘the events’ sounded the death knell of the post-war social order – May presaged the coming collapse of the class compromise that had cohered in a more or less social democratic form in the context of the long boom.  It certainly heralded a crisis for the ‘new revisionism’ of the European social democratic left, which had assumed since the 1950s that serious social antagonism and upheaval had been confined to history by the arrival of the ‘mixed economy’ and Welfare State. For many, the street battles, demonstrations, massive and unprecedented general strikes of May, seemed at last to have vindicated the insurrectionary perspective of the revolutionary left. But among the really remarkable things about May was the ease, in the end, in which this apparently existential political and social crisis of Fifth Republic was contained within constitutional and electoral limits.

On 29th May de Gaulle fled Paris. Many observers believed that he had effectively been toppled by the ongoing strikes and demonstrations and that his official resignation would surely come very quickly. But the next day he announced in a televised address to the nation that he was dissolving parliament and calling a general election. That day five hundred thousand people demonstrated in support of de Gaulle – the biggest demonstration of May, delivering a rude shock to the left in that it seemed to reveal that the actual balance of forces in the country wasn’t necessarily in their favour. Far from it in fact. It was a taste of things to come.

Thrown onto the back foot, the PCF and Socialists (and the PSU, though it also argued that the strikes should continue) agreed to participate in the elections and immediately set about urging workers to end their strikes and go back to work. Indeed the PCF is usually identified, in the left narrative, as the treacherous bad guy in this whole process – had it thrown its weight behind the uprising rather than seeking to dampen it down at every turn things may have turned out very differently. Perhaps so. But what this narrative usually downplays is precisely the relative ease with which the PCF were able to dampen down and eventually pull the plug on the events. This requires a more serious explanation than the suggestion that an otherwise insurrectionary working class was mislead by the machinations and cowardice of their reformist leaders. What this narrative misses, in other words, is the popular hegemonic pull of parliamentary democracy and its limits. When push came to shove, the working class by and large saw little alternative. The May events had taken the Fifth Republic to the brink of the precipice – but what concretely, if the process had been pushed further, would have replaced the extant order? There were no widespread workers’ councils. There was no situation of dual power or anything like it.

The results of the general elections revealed that the Gaullists had clobbered their left wing opponents at the polls – the socialists lost 61 seats, the PCF lost 39 and the Gaullists became the first party in the Republic’s history to win an absolute majority in the National Assembly. Indeed they had made serious inroads into the working class, winning more votes among them than the PCF. In his essay ‘The Lessons of May’ Ernest Mandel offers an explanation of the election result that turns on the idea that workers and young people, demoralised by the failure of the major parties of the left to offer more radical leadership, simply abstained in large numbers. People tend to side with the political forces demonstrating the most initiative, and had the major parties of the left more resolutely backed the May actions, calling for their continuation during the election campaign rather than squashing them, the election result might have been otherwise. His account is only partially convincing, however, because you can’t help the feeling that he’s simply trying to explain away the defeat in such a way that is designed to evade the rather obvious alternative explanation – which is that the election revealed that the real balance of forces in France in May 1968 turned out to be very different to the way they might have appeared to look from a barricade in the Latin Quarter.

Lurking in Mandel’s account of the failures of the left of course is the familiar argument about ‘the absence of a well implanted revolutionary party’ that pivots on the typical Leninist counter-factual claim that, had such a thing existed in some parallel universe, it would surely have been borne forward toward power by the social forces that so desperately felt its lack in our historical time-line. But of course the absence was real and requires some sort of explanation. In fact the wider, repeated absence of such an entity over and over again in each of historical ‘near misses’ in the Leninist canon of proto-revolutionary situations needs to be accounted for too – it can’t just be a run of bad luck.

Interestingly, however, Mandel admits in this essay that the conditions for immediate insurrection did not exist. The alternative course of action he suggests is the application of a modified version of Trotsky’s Transitional Programme – or ‘structural reforms’ as he terms them in this essay. As with all such strategies of transitional demands in their Trotskyist iteration, however, the large question of who or what is to implement these structural reforms – who or what is to be demanded to deliver them – is left rather undefined. The state, yes – but specifically the Gaullists in government? Are they to be expected, even under severe pressure, to deliver a series of revolutionary reforms calculated to further unbalance and undermine French capitalism? What Mandel can’t really admit, in other words, is that he needs a ‘Left Government’ to be elected for this strategy to be vaguely feasible. The logic of the strategy necessarily pivots on a combination of extra-parliamentary mobilisation, strike action and so on on the one hand, and an electoral strategy to get a Left Government in place on the other. The strategy, in other words, demands recognition of the hegemonic weight of parliamentary democracy and the determination to work with it and to probe its limits rather than to reject it as inherently a dead end.

The sort of strategy that Mandel was groping toward here, but was unwilling to fully grasp, was worked out most fully by Andre Gorz in his essay ‘Socialism and Revolution’ written indeed in the immediate aftermath of the May events and anticipated to some extent by his book Strategy for Labor (1964). I’ve written about Gorz’s iteration of the strategy of ‘structural reform’ or ‘non reformist reforms’ elsewhere. The key point is that Gorz starts from the observation that the Leninist strategy is untenable in France and is founded on the assumption that parliamentary democratic politics can’t be neatly sidestepped or evaded. The essay is a brilliant (though at times rather opaque) attempt to think through what a left-wing government, borne forward by waves of popular mobilisation, might accomplish and how this might be steered in the direction of radical social transformation.

Chile 1972

The events that unfolded in Chile between 1970 and 1973 are normally understood as a salutary warning as to the limits of parliamentary reformism – for very good reason. Indeed (as I’ve suggested in the previous post) we might in some ways see the Allende government as perhaps the only historical example of a seriously and definitely reformist socialism in office (as opposed to governments of ‘social reform’ in Miliband’s terms), and as such its eventual fate at the hands of the military forces in whose proclaimed ‘constitutionalism’ Allende put such store, is surely very significant. In the Leninist narrative the example of Chile is usually deployed as a sort of once and for all proof, not just of the limits of reformism, but of the impossibility of any sort of strategy for socialist change that doesn’t pivot on the model of 1917. But there are alternative lessons to be drawn.

For one thing when you read up on the history of the Popular Unity administration it’s impossible not be struck by the various choices and decisions of the Allende government and its supporters that might, actually, have been made differently. It doesn’t seem to me that the Chilean experiment was somehow inexorably doomed from the beginning to the bloody end that it met. Miliband’s considerations in this respect in his brilliant, angry essay, written in the immediate aftermath of the 11 September Coup is worth reading in this respect. In particular, it’s clear that the government had a very good idea that the military was plotting something from at least June 1973 and indeed received an explicit warning in August about the imminent coup from loyalist sailors and workers stationed at the Valparaiso naval base. Criminally, Allende chose to abandon these whistleblowers to the punishment meted out to them by their superiors (they were tortured) rather than acting on their warning. But things might have been done differently. Similarly Allende didn’t need to allow the October 1972 Law for the Control of Arms (that was passed during the Bosses’ Strike of that month) to go through – he could have vetoed it. The law provided the pretext for the army to start raiding factories in order to break up occupations and so on.

It might be objected here that these considerations are no less counter-factual ‘might have beens’ than the Leninist ‘if only there had been a well implanted revolutionary party’ manoeuvre criticised above. Further, wasn’t it the inherent logic of Allende’s constitutionalism arising from the parliamentary strategy to which he cleaved, that determined these choices? Well, yes. And no. It takes a little less of a leap of the imagination, it seems to me, to envisage alternative choices in Chile than it does to imagine the presence of a ‘well implanted revolutionary party’ in the various near miss situations in which this thing has always, very predictably, failed to exist.

But the most interesting thing, to me, about the events in Chile is less about the various wrong turns of the Allende administration, but the way in which it stimulated the emergence of an advanced form of popular power outside the state in (an often, but not entirely, tension-ridden) alliance with the Popular Unity government.

One of the remarkable dimensions of the Allende period was the way in which the economic crisis – a classic investment strike on the part of the bourgeoisie, supported by efforts at economic sabotage by the US in particular – that started to bite from 1971 and which was increasingly buttressed by a creeping political strategy of tension, tended overall to radicalise the movement in support of Popular Unity. The received political wisdom might suggest that a government overseeing an economy running more and more into serious problems of shortages and inflation would see its support collapse. But, in this case, not so. One of the best indicators of this is the way in which Popular Unity increased its share of the vote from 36% in 1970 (when it was first brought to power) to 43.4% in the Congressional elections of March 1973, after about a year and a half of economic crisis. Indeed it was probably this disastrous election result for the opposition that set it on the path of serious preparations for the coup – they knew by this stage that Popular Unity presented a real and serious threat to the continuation of capitalist power in Chile.

From mid 1972 a wave of mass activity swept across Chile in which workers and peasants started to build and extend articulated forms of popular power in their workplaces and communities. This process of radicalisation accelerated further from October of that year in response to the Bosses’ Strike, with the ‘expropriation from below’ under workers’ control of factories and other work places to keep the economy running in the face of concerted and acute economic sabotage. As Roxborough, O’Brien and Roddick describe these developments:

The organisations of Popular Unity’s political base which had been set up in the first year were revitalised: assemblies of workers in the factories, People’s Supply Committees in the poblaciones… Peasant’s Councils in the rural areas. Committees of action sprang up uniting these local organisations into bigger units: committees of all the factories in a given municipality, the so called industrial cordons, and joint committees of industries with neighbourhood organisations, the community commands.

This wave of ‘popular power’ was in no sense organised in conscious opposition to the government itself  – it oriented itself as form of mass mobilisation in support and in defence of Popular Unity and to some extent as a deliberate attempt to push Allende further to deliver more fully on his promises to take Chile toward socialism. Indeed, although Allende attempted to return some of the factories expropriated in October to their capitalist owners under the terms of Plan Millas, the large majority of them were nationalised or otherwise left in the hands of the workers who now ran them.

What was emerging in Chile 1972, then, was a peculiar form of dual power. But this was no ‘classic’ dual power situation of the type envisaged in the tradition of Lenin, in which either pole of the duality confronts the other as implacable enemies in a struggle in which only one of them can prevail. Here, in Chile, dual power expressed a relation of dialectical tension in which both poles constituted a source of (at least potential) strength for the other and which opened up (at least potentially) the possibility of a positive and dynamic interplay between the two. Here, a few years after Gorz had first theorised the possibility in France, was a Left Government that had (though not entirely intentionally) provided the conditions for the emergence of popular organs of power that could really challenge the capitalist order.

Had Popular Unity more consistently embraced the possibilities opened up by this form of dual power – and had it, in particular, moved more decisively against the coup plotters things might have been very different. It’s certainly hard to see how some sort of violent denouement might have been avoided, but maybe – just maybe – this might have been contained in a form that didn’t spill over into the civil war that Allende (to his great credit, in my view) dreaded more than anything else.

The key thing to grasp about this process in Chile is that these organs of radical popular democracy – the Cordons, the Peoples’ Supply Committees, the Community Commands – would not have emerged were it not for the prior election of the Popular Unity government. The situation of dual power (‘of a special type’?) that obtained in Chile by mid to late 1972 would not have emerged by any route other than via engagement with the process of parliamentary democracy in order to put a Left Government in power that could begin to probe the limits of ‘reformism’.

Here in the Chile of 1972 then perhaps we can glimpse the ‘another type of strategy’ – in broad outlines at least – that Anderson in the quotation above suggests is needed in conditions of bourgeois democracy. It’s one that requires taking parliamentary democracy seriously in order to expand its democratic promise and to find a way beyond its present limits.

* This isn’t quite true, at least to the extent that the Cordons that emerged in the industrial centres of Chile in 1972 represented soviet type organs – but more about this below.

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The Myth of ‘Reformism’?

A problem. Most overviews of the debates on strategy within (or in the vicinity of) Marxism draw a distinction between ‘reformism’ and ‘revolutionary socialism’ or some variant of these terms. Further, many of them (Miliband’s various accounts for example) draw a further distinction between ‘reformism’ and currents of ‘social reform’ or ‘social democracy’, where the latter two terms refer to an orientation toward amelioration of capitalism, whereas the former refers to a more or less gradualist strategy that aims to go beyond capitalism. There’s usually some sort of grey area in between (dismissed rather breezily more often than not) – ‘left reformism’, the Austro-Marxists and ‘the Second and a Half International’ and the ‘Marxist Centre’ of Kautsky’s time for example – but the basic pivot remains reformists vs revolutionaries. Most would go along with something like Perry Anderson’s definition of ‘reformism’ as ‘belief in the possibility of attaining socialism by gradual and peaceful reforms within the framework of a neutral parliamentary state’. Miliband would quibble with some of that – there’s nothing *necessarily* peaceful about it for example (it depends on the willingness of the opposition to stick to constitutional methods) and nothing necessarily ‘gradual’ in the sense of a smooth evolutionary process about it either for that matter – the key pivot for Miliband is the commitment to parliamentary constitutionalism as the primary focus of the process. But no matter.

The genesis of the emerging division between these two classic orientations is usually traced back in some way to the Revisionist Controversy of the late 19th century and to the increasingly apparent gap between the rhetorical commitment to revolutionary rupture on the one hand and the parliamentary orientation of day to day practice on the other of the SPD in particular. The double shock of 1914 and 1917, it is said, brought this hitherto more or less subterranean strategic bifurcation into full view – one that’s lasted ever since (notwithstanding further complications to do with the ‘degeneration’ of the Russian Revolution and so on and the drift of Moscow backed CPs toward Popular Front reformism – this, it’s usually said, was a simple retreat into more or less classic reformism rather than a further splintering of an essentially binary division).

So far so familiar. Most accounts also acknowledge that reformist parties underwent a slow (or not so slow) drift toward social democracy – symbolised perhaps by the Godesberg Programme, the ideas of Crosland, the abandonment of Clause IV. Even so, reformism (as at least partially distinct from social democracy), it’s said, remained (remains?) a major current. So Coates and Looker, for example, claim quite confidently, as if merely rehearsing a well known truism, that it’s the ‘reformist tradition’ that ‘has managed to secure a majority of proletarian support at most times and in most countries of industrial capitalism in the twentieth century’ – certainly ‘reformism’ has always won much greater mass support in these countries than revolutionaries have (Ernest Mandel says as much too when he comments that the proletariat is ‘naturally reformist’ in non revolutionary conditions – i.e. 99.999% of the time). But… has it consistently won more support than social democracy? Really? If we’re distinguishing reformism as a separate category from social democracy (i.e. an orientation toward social reform without any definite intention to transcend capitalism) the claimed ‘reformism’ of the 20th century western proletariat looks a little dubious.

But the problem doesn’t end there. When you actually look at what the (tacit or not so tacit) ‘reformists’ of the Second International were saying it’s not really clear that many of them were ‘reformists’ in the sense defined by Anderson or Miliband. Bernstein didn’t really think this – ‘the final goal’ for him, after all, ‘was nothing’ – and neither did Kautsky whose ‘strategy of attrition’ at least up until WW1 pivoted (rhetorically at least) on the ‘accumulation of forces’ in advance of the ‘decisive day’ that would be catalysed by the final catastrophic collapse of the system – i.e. perpetual delaying tactics. The figure from this period who perhaps comes closest to Marxist ‘reformism’ as usually understood is Jean Jaures who did at times seem to envisage some sort of smooth process of evolution toward something beyond capitalism. But aside from him… who? The Fabians – the Webbs, Shaw and Wells – fit the mould fairly well in terms of the famous conception of the ‘inevitability of gradualism’, but they weren’t Marxists, and were in fact quite explicitly hostile to Marxism (at least until the Webbs discovered an admiration for the statist bureaucracy they encountered when visiting Stalin’s Soviet Union).

So who were the reformists of the Second International and beyond? Where were the figures and currents that cleaved to this classic strategic orientation? Did it ever actually exist as anything more that a phantom category – a retrospective myth?

As Miliband argues in Parliamentary Socialism the British Labour Party never really developed a strategy of reform as such, until it discovered Keynes and experienced the possibilities of state direction of the economy during World War 2. Prior to this they seemed to inhabit (or their leading figures at least seemed to inhabit) something like a ‘Kautskyan’ space in which nothing could yet be done to reform an essentially unreformable capitalism – leaving little alternative than the ‘responsible’ implementation of orthodox British Treasury policies as a sort of ‘holding tactic’ while their parliamentary forces slowly accumulated. Something similar to this orientation seemed to prevail among most other parties of the Socialist International too – with the exception of the Swedish SAP which discovered a proto-Keynesian approach relatively early, allowing it to set off on the path of ‘social reform’ (rather than ‘reformism’) a decade or so in advance of most of its sister parties.

So it wasn’t really until the 1940s that anything like ‘reformism’ as a clear, practical strategic orientation really took off – and even then the leaders, if not the rank and file, of parties like the Labour Party were clearly dominated by the perspective of ‘social reform’ by that stage. With not a little irony, then, it’s perhaps the parties of the Third International in the post war West that became the first really mass reformist formations in Marxist history. The Popular Front approach of the 30s had served as a sort of dress rehearsal for this new orientation – but it wasn’t really ‘reformism’ as such at that stage. The Popular Front was conceived quite explicitly as a purely defensive anti-fascist tactic, and the CPs were always quite convinced at this stage that meaningful reforms within what they claimed was a system in terminal decline were impossible. They supported Blum and Cabellero for example on the understanding that they were quite moderate figures who didn’t believe that a transition to socialism was anything more than a hazy, long-term prospect. The reformism proper of the Western CPs really took off in the post-war period – pioneered by the PCI in particular in the guise of Togliatti’s via italiana al socialismo. By the 1950s various ‘national roads’ to socialism (among them the CPGB’s British Road) had proliferated – all of them, very definitely, reformist. Of course, the term was never openly embraced as such by the various CPs for obvious reasons – absurdly the CPs started to redefine ‘reformism’ from this point as a position that pivoted on the support or repudiation of the ‘Imperialist foreign policy’ of the capitalist powers.

This sort of CP ‘reformism’ reached its zenith perhaps in the period of Eurocommunism – and the term describes quite accurately the strategic orientation of Berlinguer, Carrillo and Marchais (though not necessarily the left flank of Eurocommunism – Poulantzas, Claudin, Magri… but that’s another story). To the extent that this sort of strategy underpinned Berlinguer’s ‘Historic Compromise’, ‘reformism’ shaped the contours of mainstream Italian politics – at least indirectly – for a few years.

We might say, then, that ‘reformism’ dominated the workers’ movement in Italy and to some extent in France (the PCF never hegemonised the left in France the way the PCI did in Italy) from the second half of the twentieth century. But did it ever dominate the reformist ‘reformist’ parties – the formations commonly assigned as such?

Allende’s Popular Unity government probably comes the closest to a concrete example of an actually ‘reformist’ formation seeking seriously to implement an actually ‘reformist’ programme – although, again, beside Allende, the driving force behind UP’s strategy (the most scrupulously ‘reformist’ section of the coalition) was actually the Chilean CP. Much of  Allende’s Socialist Party – and indeed sections of the Christian Left that broke away from the conservative Christian Democracy – was well to the left of Allende and the CP with many misgivings about Allende’s (suicidal as it turned out) unwavering and absolute commitment (at least until the eve of the 11 September coup) to gradualism and constitutionalism.

Other candidates for the designation might include the Mitterrand administration of the early 1980s (again with the CP as a driving force in the coalition) and the SAP at the time of the Meidner Plan to gradually socialise investment capital. But I’m not sure about that – although there was some sloganeering about a ‘break with capitalism’ from figures such as Michel Rocard (!) within the French coalition it’s not clear that this signalled a real intention to move beyond a radicalised form of technocratic social democratic dirigisme. It seems to me that it’s also quite hard to argue that the Swedish wage-earner funds plan was a strategy for socialism as such rather than for a more egalitarian and democratic capitalism. Perhaps the ‘Bennite’ current within the British Labour Party in the 1970s and early 80s comes the closest in recent times to an unambiguously ‘reformist’ current within a party normally referred to in the literature as, at some time and to some extent, ‘reformist’, although, again, the appellation isn’t necessarily a perfect fit given the uncertain space that the Bennite iterations of the Alternative Economic Strategy inhabited between a vision of muscular dirigisme on the one hand and a political economy beyond capitalism on the other.

So it’s not at all clear, then, that with one or two exceptions ‘reformism’ – in the sense of the term that is usually understood – has ever been more than a minority current or an occasionally significant orientation within the Western workers’ movement. Certainly there’s an argument to be made that the usual differentiation that’s made in the literature on socialist strategy in terms of the reformism/revolutionary axis is based, in relation to the first term in this opposition at least, on a myth.


‘Structural Reform’ & the Problem of Socialist Strategy Today

Note: this is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Critique on 16th January 2018, available online:

Published as: Rooksby, Ed (2018) ‘”Structural Reform’ and the Problem of Socialist Strategy Today”, Critique, Vol. 46, No. 1, pp. 27-48.

This paper begins with the observation that the left-wing movements that have enjoyed significant political advances in Europe recently share a broad strategic orientation. They seek, that is, to combine electoral and parliamentary activity on the one hand with extra-parliamentary mobilisation on the other. Crucially, these formations seek to utilise parliamentary channels to introduce radical reforms and thus a central component of their approach is to form a ‘left government’ within the institutions of the capitalist state. Despite the failure of Syriza in office I argue that the radical left has little option but to work with these ascendant left formations and attempt to radicalise them from within. I suggest that in order to do so the radical left must transcend the twin dead ends of reformism and Leninism and the historical strategic impasse bound up with the counter-position of these strategic poles. I argue that a strategic perspective elaborated by a minority current within Syriza provides useful resources for navigating a route beyond this impasse. I then show that this perspective can be further elaborated and refined by drawing on theoretical resources associated with the concept of ‘structural reform’ developed in the late 1960s and 1970s. I argue that the work of Nicos Poulantzas and André Gorz is especially useful in this regard.

Keywords: socialism; strategy; reform; state; Poulantzas; Gorz

Despite their many differences the leftist formations that have made political headway in Europe in recent years – Syriza, Podemos, the Left Bloc, the movement that has cohered around Jeremy Corbyn within and outside the Labour Party – share a key strategic perspective in common. This is an explicit orientation on winning government power by electoral means – to form, that is, a ‘left government’ – supplemented to some extent by extra-parliamentary mobilisation, in order to implement a series of left social democratic reforms that at least some currents within these formations see as, in some sense, ‘transitional’. It is groups and movements operating on the basis of this broad strategic outlook that have most effectively been able to tap into and articulate a popular anti-austerity mood and their rise has forced the radical left in Europe to confront, for the first time in many years, concrete problems of strategy in relation to the conquest and exercise of political power. Indeed Syriza’s general election victory in 2015 posed the question in very immediate terms of how, and to what extent, capitalist state power might be utilised for socialist purposes.

This turn to questions of government power and strategic orientation in relation to the capitalist state manifested, as Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin have pointed out, a marked shift of emphasis on the radical left ‘from protest to politics’[1] which in turn reflected a deeper shift in the fundamental coordinates of the political and economic conjuncture. The focus of struggle, that is, shifted away from the ‘anti-globalisation’ and anti-war demonstrations that had defined radical left organising for the first few years of the 21st Century under conditions of ‘globalising’ capitalist expansion to a new emphasis on the possibilities of winning power directly to resist and reverse the onslaught of capitalist retrenchment in the post-2008 era of crisis and austerity. However, while this change of emphasis brought novelty in some respects, in others of course it represented a return to one of the oldest controversies in socialist thought. Indeed the debate surrounding the strategic approach of these formations – Syriza in particular – was often framed in terms of the classic reform/revolution controversy and the opposing orientations in relation to capitalist state power marked out by the key antagonists in that confrontation – Bernstein, Luxemburg, Lenin and Kautsky.

While the rise of Syriza and its election triumph may initially have seemed to vindicate the general strategic orientation of the ascendant left formations, its ultimate capitulation to the austerian demands of ‘the Troika’[2] provided a fillip to revolutionary socialist critics of Syriza’s ‘reformism’ or ‘left-reformism’.[3] Indeed Syriza’s hugely disappointing performance in office became the occasion for the reassertion of Leninist[4] axioms in relation to the necessity of remaining strictly independent of the capitalist state rather than seeking to utilise it as a tool of socialist transformation and to the associated imperative of seeking, instead, to ‘smash’ it by means of a ‘dual power’ strategy leading to revolutionary insurrection broadly along the lines of the Bolshevik revolution.

The Leninist critique of reformism is clearly not without merit in relation to the constraints, pressures and obstacles imposed by ‘parliamentary statism’ as Paul Blackledge puts it.[5] As revolutionary critics such as Blackledge point out, forces seeking to use the existing state for socialist purposes tend to encounter a logic in which they find themselves taking on responsibility for managing, rather than seriously challenging, capitalism, no matter how radical their original intentions may have been. Indeed this critique resonated closely with Syriza’s political trajectory as, on approaching electoral victory, it gradually moderated its policy proposals to present itself as a viable party of government in the eyes of the media and then, on achieving office, rowed back on most of its remaining pledges before eventually capitulating to ‘the Troika’s’ austerity agenda.

The trouble with the Leninist critique however is that, no matter how apposite its diagnosis of the constraints imposed by Syriza’s ‘parliamentary statism’, it remained unable to offer a credible concrete alternative and the political groups that cleaved to this strategic orientation (such as Antarsya) were largely bypassed, winning nothing remotely close to the degree of support that Syriza were able to gather as they approached office. Indeed while Syriza’s trajectory mapped on all too closely to the typical pattern of reformist politics, the marginalisation of Leninist politics in Greece, and thus the practical irrelevance of its strategic alternative, was even more predictable, given that Leninist ideas have never won anything close to mass support in any ‘advanced’ capitalist country.

Thus, after the Syriza experience, the radical left seems to be trapped in a strategic impasse. It is caught between an electoral strategy of reform, on the one hand, that, while it can clearly galvanise mass support, seems unable to break free of the structural limits of ‘parliamentary statism’ and a revolutionary strategy, on the other, that has very little resonance with workers today and probably never did have beyond the specific conditions of Russia in 1917.

The aim of this paper is to point to a way out of this impasse – to a strategic perspective that resonates with the general orientation of those left formations that have achieved momentum recently and which also navigates a route that avoids the twin dead ends of reformism and Leninism. In what follows I first set out in more detail the terms of the radical left’s current strategic impasse, before pointing to a minority current of thought within Syriza which has sketched out an alternative strategic perspective that was neither straightforwardly reformist or revolutionary and which might, if implemented, have worked with the grain of the concrete political dynamic in Greece as Syriza approached and took power in order to radicalise this dynamic from within. It is also a perspective, I suggest, that would have traction in other countries in which the radical left approached power in broadly similar circumstances. I then argue that this embryonic perspective can be enriched and developed by drawing on theoretical resources developed in the late 1960s and 1970s when radical thinkers were attempting to grapple with similar developments.

The Strategic Impasse: Two Forms of Socialist Bad Faith

Arguably, there is nothing particularly new about the strategic impasse of the radical left today – it is just that this predicament has made itself felt more keenly in the aftermath of the Syriza debacle. Indeed, in his survey of the history of the European socialist movement, One Hundred Years of Socialism,[6] Donald Sassoon suggests that the socialist left has always been caught in a kind of double bind. Sassoon presents the dilemma in terms of an unbridgeable gap between, on the one hand the ‘end state’ of socialism and, on the other, the immediate demands of the present – as he puts it, a ‘split between “the final aim” and the “everyday struggle”’, between the short-term and the medium- to long-term, existed throughout the socialist movement’.[7] The terms of the problem, briefly, are that there is no realistic way to move straight to the ‘final aim’, but the process of attending to immediate problems – amelioration of the worst effects of capitalism by means of reform – tends to lead to incorporation within a system that has definite structural limits and embedded systemic mechanisms to enforce these (capital flight, inflationary pressure, balance of payments crises for example). Theorists such as Fred Block and Adam Przeworski[8] have described these limits in terms of ‘business confidence’. This is the major structural mechanism that tends systematically to block attempts to transform capitalism fundamentally from within. It is rooted in capitalist control over the investment function which provides the capitalist class with what is effectively power of veto over any government policy that undermines capitalist domination. In this way any government that introduces measures that seriously undermine (or threaten to seriously undermine) capital accumulation will soon be faced with a serious crisis of disinvestment, flight of capital, attacks on the currency and so on and hence come under enormous pressure to reverse those measures.[9] Thus any government which prefers to avoid such an acute crisis and which, indeed, is not prepared to take on and attempt to expropriate big capital in a full-on and hugely risky confrontation – which, by definition, those committed to a gradual and peaceful process of transition to socialism are not – will find that there are definite limits to reform.

Developing the implications of this double bind we might say that the reformist way of attempting to resolve the problem of capitalist power of veto over reforms that tend to undermine capitalist profitability is essentially to kick the final aim into the long grass. Reformism, that is, busies itself with immediate reforms within the system that do not challenge capitalist limits while, at most, paying lip-service to the idea of eventual transition to socialism at some unspecified time in the future. A hazy connection between immediate reforms and the final aim may be invoked by reference to a path of gradual, incremental transformation of the system, but the process in which reforms to the system become transformation of the system – in which quantity is transformed into quality – is, typically, left only very vaguely described. Thus, for reformism the socialist goal is always-already not just yet, just over the horizon, relegated to a perpetually postponed future. This is, of course, a kind of bad faith. It is all too easy to identify this evasion characteristic of reformism in some of the thinking of key intellectual figures associated with Syriza. It is most obvious, perhaps, in Yanis Varoufakis’ comments in 2013 that he saw it as the left’s immediate task to ‘save European capitalism from itself’, given that ‘we are just not ready to plug the chasm that a collapsing European capitalism will open up with a functioning socialist system’.[10] One can also see it – whatever the merits of the sophisticated argument he puts forward – in Costas Douzinas’ argument in relation to Syriza’s predicament in office that the left must operate on ‘three different temporalities’ once it enters government.[11] He argues, that is, that a left government must operate in ‘the time of the present’ when it is forced to offer concessions and ‘to implement what they fought against’, while at the same time striving to activate two other temporalities – a medium-term one in which it seeks to create the space to implement a ‘“parallel” program’ comprising ‘policies with a clear left direction’ and a much longer-term temporality which is ‘the time of the radical left vision’. This reads very much like an elaborate rationalisation of capitulation in the present with reference to vaguely defined ‘parallel’ measures that somehow express fidelity to deferred long-term transformational socialist intent.

There is, however, a revolutionary mirror image to this reformist bad faith too – a ‘resolution’ of the dilemma that is not really a resolution. This is to avoid the problem of structural limits to reform and the attendant risk of becoming incorporated as a mere manager of the system by repudiating any responsibility for taking on government power within capitalism and, instead, to pin everything on a kind of deus ex machina, a semi-millenarianism, in which revolution (always vaguely sketched – necessarily so since the concept of ‘the revolution’ tends to function as a kind of magic bullet solution to all major problems of transition) emerges as if from nowhere. This mysterious revolutionary irruption, however, is also always-already never quite here. Again, this is a kind of bad faith.[12]

This is not to say, of course, that Leninists are unable to present any vision of the general contours of a revolutionary event. It is to say, however, that this vision remains in key respects rather ethereal. Let me explain. Typically the Leninist revolutionary sequence is conceived in something like the following terms:[13] workers’ struggle throws up soviet type institutions which, in a situation of dual power, are increasingly federated and integrated together into an embryonic workers’ state and which after revolutionary insurrection and the ‘smashing of the bourgeois state’ become the institutions of democracy through which the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ is exercised. However, there are two major problems – two areas of evasion – inherent in this typical sketch of the revolutionary process. The first of these is that the phrases ‘smashing of the bourgeois state’ and ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ are, more often than not, deployed as hand-waving generalities – they are pieces of phraseology that gloss over problems while purporting to be solutions to those problems. What, exactly, does it mean to ‘smash the state’? How, exactly, does the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ function and what are the specific institutional forms that it should take? As Nicos Poulantzas points out these phrases were for Marx and Engels at most ‘signposts’ indicating problems (the class nature of the state, the necessity of a stage of transition toward the process of the state’s ‘withering’ – another signpost)[14] but which have since become transformed in Marxist orthodoxy into apparently definitive answers in themselves to those same problems.

The second area of evasion is that it is never entirely clear how things move from the present situation within bourgeois democracies to one in which a revolutionary scenario comes onto the immediate agenda. Of course, it is true that Leninists tend to propose that revolution emerges organically out of practical struggles by workers for reforms – but there is still something of a mysterious leap here. How concretely does a revolutionary situation of dual power emerge from the day-to-day struggles of the working class? The question weighed particularly heavily at the height of Greek workers’ struggles against austerity. After all, Greece at this time was surely the site of the most intense popular struggles seen in Europe for decades, and yet nothing like soviet institutions, let alone a situation tending toward dual power, emerged.

Panagiotis Sotiris has pointed out in this regard that the revolutionary left has never managed to close the ‘distance’ between its focus on everyday tactics and struggles on the one hand and ‘an abstract defence of revolutionary strategy’ on the other.[15] Indeed, he further suggests that this abstract invocation of revolutionary intent tends to function more ‘in terms of identity rather than practice’ – that is, the putative revolutionary status of Leninist groups operates for the most part as a rhetorical mark of differentiation from reformist competitors (or those assigned as such) much more than it indicates the possession of any developed perspective on how, actually, to set a revolutionary process in motion. The concrete substance of revolutionary strategy remains at best only vaguely defined.

Underlying these problems of strategy, however, is in my view a deeper problem of theory in relation to the conceptualisation of state power. The traditional Leninist strategic orientation is rooted, as we have seen, in the view that the capitalist state cannot be utilised to any significant extent by socialist forces for socialist ends. The structural limits imposed by the institutional form and systemic functions of the capitalist state are so narrow that any attempt at using that apparatus will necessarily have the effect of reinforcing bourgeois hegemony. Thus, in the Leninist view, the capitalist state cannot be wielded (directly) for socialist purposes (although demands may be forced upon it from the outside) – it must be confronted and destroyed.

The seminal text here, of course, is Lenin’s The State and Revolution. The various tensions and lacunae in this text are well known.[16] The fundamental problem with The State and Revolution, in my view however, is – as Erik Olin Wright has elucidated[17] – that Lenin sets out what is overall a highly functionalist view of the capitalist state. As Wright suggests, Lenin treats the organisational characteristics 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. Lenin’s 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’.[18] This line of reasoning, in itself though, explains very little about how, precisely, the state performs 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. Lenin’s reasoning also carries with it an essentialist logic in which the state is assumed to be wholly and in every respect bourgeois to its core – as Nicos Poulantzas puts it, in the Leninist view, ‘the State is not traversed by internal contradictions, but is a monolithic bloc without cracks of any kind’.[19] If, after all, the state is, merely, an organ for the repression of one specific class by another then it cannot be utilised to any extent by the class it functions to repress. It follows from this that political forces seeking to advance working class power can seek to do nothing other in relation to the state than to confront it, ‘smash’ it and replace it with a completely new apparatus.

This is a view of capitalist state power, however, that has little to offer in terms of practical political guidance in the absence of any emerging organs of soviet counter-power. It provides few resources in terms of thinking about how to engage with actually existing established and rooted forms, institutions and traditions of political activity and democratic expression in advanced liberal democracies. In current circumstances – which are of course nothing like the circumstances in which Lenin wrote the State and Revolution – this is a perspective that simply reinforces the strategic paralysis and longing for an always-already not quite yet fall from the sky of a dual power situation that characterises Leninism today.

Certainly this analysis provided revolutionary groups with little political traction in the context of popular struggles as they developed and intensified in Greece. What emerged, organically, out of the day-to-day struggles of the Greek working class was not a tendency toward direct confrontation with the existing state system as such (although of course there was confrontation in the street with particular repressive apparatuses of the Greek state) but a more or less spontaneous move toward support for the idea of a left government operating within existing parliamentary institutions as the next concrete step in the process of struggle in that country. While Syriza successfully grasped this dynamic (indeed helped to galvanise it) other organisations of the left were unable to relate to it. Indeed, as Antonis Davanellos indicates, while the slogan ‘For a left-wing government!’ raised by Syriza in 2012 resonated deeply with workers (and helped to propel it on its course toward victory in 2015) Antarsya and the KKE (the Communist Party of Greece) –trapped in the logic of a more or less Leninist rejection of any strategy of seeking to take government power within existing bourgeois institutions – could only reply ‘by propagandizing various programs, which included positions on all issues except the crucial one: How were we to confront the current urgent situation?’[20] Or as Sotiris put it:

In a period when weak links of the chain opened the possibility of combining a radical left government with forms of popular power from below, and actually initiating a highly original revolutionary sequence, the position of important segments of the anti-capitalist left in Europe was practically that nothing can be done.[21]

In effect these segments simply waited for Syriza to fail so they could say, ‘told you so’ while offering no plausible alternative.

Syriza did, indeed, fail in office, but at least their failure was a failure of some significance, rather than the pre-emptive failure of effectively rejecting in the first place the very possibility of taking power and really starting to confront concrete problems of social transformation. Indeed, Syriza’s message and its approach of tapping into social movements, seeking to articulate them into a coherent political project and orienting on government resonated with the Greek population precisely because Syriza were prepared, no matter how imperfectly, to confront the question of political power rather than dodge it.

Indeed, it seems reasonable to suppose that such a perspective would resonate with workers in heightened conditions of struggle in other situations too – certainly much more than the Leninist (non) alternative. It seems likely, that is, that if further serious challenges from the left emerge in the foreseeable future, they will take a broadly similar path to that trodden initially by Syriza. Certainly, as we have seen, all other left-wing movements that have made headway recently share this general orientation. The clear organic dynamic of contemporary radicalisation across Europe where it achieves momentum is toward the formation of left governments of radical reform. Thus, it seems we have little choice, like it or not, than to seek to work with the grain of this dynamic and to identify the strategic resources that might enable us to radicalise it from within.

The key question here becomes, of course, whether it might be possible to escape Sassoon’s double bind. Is it possible, that is, to navigate between the twin pitfalls of infinite gradualism in which the end goal is endlessly kicked into the long grass on the one hand, and of longing for a hazily conceived and perpetually delayed revolutionary event to materialise on the other? I contend that such a path might have been navigated by Syriza and its base of support had a different balance of forces obtained within that party and movement and had different available choices, decisions and gambles been taken, guided by a strategic perspective present among minority elements within Syriza.

A Road not Taken: the Perspective of the Left Platform

As a relatively broad coalition of forces (even after the formal dissolution of participating groups into a unitary party in 2013) Syriza comprised a range of different currents and strategic perspectives – some of which provided a much more radical assessment of the possibilities inherent in the coming to power of a left government in Greece than the more typically reformist outlook held by Tsipras, Varoufakis and much of the core leadership. For those associated with the Left Platform, such as Stathis Kouvelakis for example, the prospect of a Syriza government raised the possibility of a dialectic between the activities of elected representatives within the state and social struggles from below. Kouvelakis hoped that Syriza in office would take initiatives to ‘open up a space for social mobilization’[22] and thus catalyse a renewed and radicalised wave of popular mobilisation that would both provide a base of support for the government while also pushing it on in the face of opposition from ‘the Troika’, forcing it to stick to its promises.

This dialectic, it was envisaged, would interact with a second dynamic in which the government’s programme of reforms would soon bring it into direct confrontation with the forces of domestic and international capital, thus necessitating the further radicalisation of this programme – and of popular struggles in support of them- if those initial reforms were to be carried through and defended. This dynamic of permanent revolution Kouvelakis argued:

would conform I think to a quite familiar in history pattern of processes of social and political change, where the dynamic of the situation, boosted of course by the pressure of popular mobilisation, pushes actors (or at least some of them) beyond their initial intention.[23]

Crucially, this dialectical process of radicalisation would be rooted in – indeed, could only begin from – an initial programme of relatively ‘modest’ policies. Indeed, the defining feature of Syriza’s programme as it entered government was that it corresponded to the immediate and pressing needs and demands of ordinary Greeks – for jobs, better wages, affordable food and housing and so on. It was precisely because of this correspondence that Syriza’s programme resonated so successfully with Greek voters, bringing the party to victory in the 2015 general election and thus putting real change on the agenda in a way that ostensibly ‘radical’ but wholly abstract revolutionary demands with little political traction never could. However, it was also clear to Left Platform thinkers that for all the eminently reasonable and sober pragmatism of the party’s programme, these measures would, if implemented, soon run up against the limits of what European capital and its political representatives would accept. In this respect, Syriza’s programme successfully located what Slavoj Žižek has called a ‘point of the impossible’.[24] This is something in the field of politics or the economy that ‘you can (in principle) do but de facto you cannot or should not do it – you are free to choose it on condition you do not actually choose it’.[25] Pressing forward on such a ‘point of the impossible’, Žižek suggests, has a kind of demystifying effect that reveals the limits of a system and the relations of unfreedom and domination that undergird it.

The vision of militants such as Kouvelakis, then, was that by carrying through on these ‘point of the impossible’ demands, a struggle for ‘modest’ reforms within capitalism would escalate organically into a more and more consciously and openly anti-capitalist struggle. Further, this process, it was hoped, would possess an internationally ‘expansive capacity’, triggering an ‘enormous wave of support by very large sectors of public opinion in Europe’,[26] thus potentially spreading this wave of radical struggle to other states in the EU’s southern periphery – and even into its core.

Clearly the leadership of Syriza did little to set in motion the dialectic that Kouvelakis and others had envisaged. Indeed in an insightful reflection on the experience of Syriza in government, [27] Kouvelakis points out that what had been tried and had failed in Greece was an entirely different strategy altogether and that, as such, the strategic vision of the Left Platform remained untested. It is impossible to know, of course, whether this perspective, if put into practice, would have been successful – but certainly Kouvelakis believes that had a different strategic outlook prevailed among the leading forces in Syriza the coming to power of a left government in Greece might have opened up a process of radical social change in that country and beyond.[28]

What is more, this strategic outlook appears to offer the prospect of a way out of the strategic impasse identified by Sassoon – it seems to provide, that is, a possible route to bridge the gulf between immediate demands and the end goal of socialist transformation, between reform and revolution. Moreover, this strategic approach resonates with the organic dynamic of contemporary leftist upsurges toward the formation of left governments – it would provide us with a way of working with this dynamic to radicalise it from within. Nevertheless, the strategic approach formulated by Kouvelakis remains fairly sketchily drawn – clearly much more work needs to be done in terms of thinking seriously about the possibilities for, and limits to, radical reform. Indeed, this may be a matter of some urgency given the volatility of the current political conjuncture. It is not beyond the bounds of reason to believe that we may see a political formation broadly similar to Syriza approaching government in the next few years, whether in Europe or beyond. Yet there is a conspicuous lack of such thinking on the left today.

However, I suggest that it is useful in this regard to draw on resources produced in what was in some ways a very similar conjuncture when a range of political currents and thinkers were forced to confront many of the same urgent questions about the possibilities of government power in the context of a deep and long-running capitalist crisis. Specifically, we can draw on ideas that gained currency in the late 1960s and 1970s. There was an attempt in this period to think creatively beyond sterile orthodoxies, and to transcend the polarity of reformism versus 1917 redux dual power perspectives. Much of this thinking cohered around the concept of ‘structural reform’, attempting to map out the possibilities of using capitalist state power to prepare the political terrain for a radical rupture with capitalism. This kind of approach took root in a range of different political formations and there were various iterations of the broad idea of structural reform. It was probably most closely associated with the strategic thinking of groups such as the PSU (Unified Socialist Party) and CERES (Centre for Socialist Study, Research and Education) in France, and with ‘left Eurocommunist’ currents within the broader phenomenon of Eurocommunism that took hold within the PCI, PCE and PCF (respectively, the Italian Communist Party, Communist Party of Spain and French Communist Party) in particular as these groups attempted to grapple with the complex question of how to formulate a revolutionary strategy applicable and adequate for conditions encountered in ‘advanced’ capitalist societies. However, two figures in particular (one of whom is commonly associated with left Eurocommunism and the other had a significant impact on the PSU) provide especially valuable conceptual and theoretical resources in this respect: Nicos Poulantzas and Andre Gorz. Let us look at some of the key ideas of these two thinkers in order to extrapolate useful resources for a left government strategy today.

Nicos Poulantzas’ ‘Revolutionary Road to Democratic Socialism’

In the last chapter of his final, and what is widely regarded as his greatest, book State, Power, Socialism Poulantzas sets out some ideas for a ‘democratic road to socialism’ (or what he perhaps rather provocatively calls the ‘revolutionary road to democratic socialism’ in his fascinating 1977 interview/argument with one time Leninist revolutionary, Henri Weber).[29] This strategic perspective flows from the theory of capitalist state power he formulates in the main part of the book.

Poulantzas’ basic point of departure in State, Power, Socialism (in contradistinction to his earlier theory – and also to Lenin’s approach) is that the practices, activities and institutional structures of the state cannot simply be read off in functional terms – i.e. the tautological method of reasoning in which the structural function of the state to reproduce the class hegemony of the bourgeoisie is first identified and then taken, in itself, as sufficient explanation for the successful performance of this imperative. Instead, Poulantzas argues that the state should be conceptualised in terms analogous to Marx’s conceptualisation of capital. He analyses the state, that is, as a social relation. It should be seen, he argues, as ‘the specific material condensation of a relationship of forces among classes and class fractions’.[30] Simplifying greatly, the state is, in effect, an ever-changing material reflection or expression of the class balance of forces – the institutional accretion of the cumulative effects of past class struggles. As such it is a terrain of struggles traversed by social antagonism. The state’s structure and internal organisation (what Poulantzas terms its ‘institutional materiality’) and indeed its activities and specific functions, are constantly battled over, modified and reshaped by struggles between classes and class fractions.

So it follows from this, of course, that the state is not a monolithic unified apparatus – it is a fractured ensemble of apparatuses, riven with contradictions and fissures. Neither is it an apparatus which is entirely controlled by, or which exclusively represents the interests of, the bourgeoisie. The struggles of the working class traverse the institutional materiality of the state, shaping and reconfiguring its structures 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, but it is also clear that state policy is moulded in response to competing class pressures that are brought to bear on it – including pressures that emanate from the working class. It is hard to explain the provision of ‘welfare’ measures, for example, without reference to working class interests, demands and mobilisation[31] (even if these measures are subordinated to the imperatives of capital accumulation).

This is not to say that the state is a merely passive entity – as Alexander Gallas points out, for Poulantzas, the ‘term “material condensation” not only implies that the state reflects class relations, but also that it has effects actively shaping these relations’.[32] There are several dimensions to this, but the overall thrust of Poulantzas’ argument is that via a process of what Bob Jessop has termed ‘structural selectivity’[33] the state tends to organise the overall hegemony of the capitalist class (while disorganising the working class) under the leadership of a constantly rearticulated and reorganised ‘power bloc’. Nevertheless, Poulantzas’ analysis suggests that this tendency to organise bourgeois hegemony is exactly that – a tendency and nothing more. It is always contingent, vulnerable and never a foregone conclusion. Indeed, the manifestation of working class power on the contested terrain of the state brings with it the threat that leftist forces might build up powerful ‘centres of resistance’ within state apparatuses in order to disrupt bourgeois hegemony and to repurpose state power, within definite limits and constraints, to advance socialist objectives.

Though certainly not without difficulties or unanswered questions, State, Power, Socialism sets out an extraordinarily rich and sophisticated analysis of the capitalist state as a contested site of power that is far superior to the Leninist approach which, as we have seen, pivots on the view that the state is simply an organ of class repression. It allows us to account for the evident contradictions and tensions that traverse the modern state while also – as against social democratic and liberal assumptions of the state’s essential ‘neutrality’ – situating the state as a set of ‘political’ apparatuses rooted firmly in the ‘economic’ context of capitalist relations of production.

Further Poulantzas’ theorisation of the ‘extensive, complex, uneven and ridden-with-contradictions character of state power as class power, as the material condensation of class strategies and resistances’, as Sotiris remarks, opens up and ‘makes necessary a more complex conception of revolutionary practice’.[34] Famously, Poulantzas rejects the traditional Leninist conception of the ‘dual power scenario’ as inadequate for advanced capitalist democracies since it operates, he argues, on the basic assumption that the capitalist state is a sort of impenetrable fortress – the ‘Thing-instrument’ of the bourgeoisie – which must (and can) be surrounded and besieged by forces wholly external to it before finally being stormed and razed to the ground.[35] Indeed, his analysis, of the state as a material condensation of social relations of force makes it plain that no political strategy could possibly bypass it – all social struggles are by definition articulated in relation to the field of state power.

Poulantzas’ sketch of the ‘revolutionary road to democratic socialism’ in the last part of the book is directly extrapolated from this analysis. It rests on the possibility that the cracks, fissures and internal contradictions within the contested terrain of the state might be amplified and exploited by socialist forces. Again, simplifying greatly, the idea of this strategic approach is to combine struggle within the state – conquering positions of strength within representative bodies and ‘centres of resistance’ (and Poulantzas is clear that a necessary part of this must be the election of a left government) – with a parallel struggle of the popular masses outside the state (that is to say, in relation to the state) ‘giving rise to a whole series of instruments, means of coordination, organs of popular power… structures of direct democracy at the base’.[36] This strategic approach, that is, ‘comprises two articulated processes: transformation of the State and unfurling of direct, rank-and-file democracy’.[37] There is, for Poulantzas, a complex dialectical relationship between these two processes. Struggle at a distance from the state helps to modify the relationship of class forces within its apparatuses, transform its ‘institutional materiality’ and opens up space for further experimentation with forms of self-management, while conquering positions of strength within the state provides a sort of protective shield for that experimentation, in part because it neutralises, disrupts and divides the core centres of bourgeois power within it.

Poulantzas is clear that the ‘revolutionary road to democratic socialism’ cannot be a smooth, gradualist one of generally tranquil transformation. On the contrary it must incorporate ‘a stage of real breaks, the climax of which – and there has to be one – is reached when the relationship of forces on the strategic terrain of the State swings over to the side of the popular masses’.[38] Poulantzas is quite open in his interview with Weber that he does not know whether this process would involve ‘one big rupture’ or, in fact, a ‘series of ruptures’.[39] However he is clear that ‘the moment of decisive confrontation’ would pass through the state. That is, it would be unlikely to take the form of the popular movement ‘confronting the state… en bloc’ (as in the classic dual power conception of revolution) – instead, he suggests, popular struggle would:

bring about a differentiation inside the state apparatuses, a polarization by the popular movement of a large fraction of these apparatuses. This fraction, in alliance with the movement, will confront the reactionary, counter-revolutionary sectors of the state apparatus backed up by the ruling classes.[40]

The revolutionary process thus involves not the ‘smashing’ of the state as such but, at most the ‘smashing’ of particular apparatuses (something akin to Engels’ remark in his introduction to the 1891 edition of The Civil War in France that the proletariat would have to ‘lop off’ the ‘worst sides’ of the state) alongside the radical reconfiguration and democratisation of other apparatuses and their increasing articulation with organs of direct democracy. Indeed, it is only such an approach, Poulantzas insists, that could set in motion a transformation of the state tending toward its eventual ‘withering away’.[41]      There is much about Poulantzas’ strategy that remains rather vaguely formulated, but there is little sense, in my view, that this springs from any deliberate evasiveness. On the contrary Poulantzas is quite frank, especially in his interview with Weber, that he remains unsure about the details of how the broad transitional process he envisages would unfold. He remains unsure, however, precisely because he does not believe it is possible to know in advance. Indeed his perspective is rooted in a lucid – and, again, openly stated – grasp of the unavoidable uncertainty of the socialist endeavour itself. There are, after all, no blueprints or fool-proof strategies – there is only, as Poulantzas repeatedly insists, knowledge of a series of ‘signposts’ and lessons from the past pointing out the various traps along the way that we must seek to negotiate. As he puts it in State, Power, Socialism ‘History has not yet given us a successful experience of the democratic road to socialism: what is has provided – and that is not insignificant – is some negative examples to avoid and some mistakes upon which to reflect’[42] – and nothing more than that.

He is lucid and direct, too, about the dilemmas and risks attendant on such a strategy – not least the danger that the bourgeoisie and the repressive apparatuses of the state might resort to counter-revolutionary repression and the strong possibility, too, of degeneration of the process into mere social democratic reformism. The only preventive against such dangers would be ‘continuous support of a mass movement founded on broad popular alliances’ linked to ‘sweeping transformations of the State’.[43] In other words, the full and consistent implementation of the strategy Poulantzas outlines would in itself generate the best defence against these latent dangers. Nevertheless, there could be no guarantees. The ‘revolutionary road to democratic socialism’ could never be considered a ‘royal road, smooth and free of risk’ – it is just that, for Poulantzas, there is no other realistic option other than, as he puts it in the remarkably candid final lines of his book, ‘to keep quiet and march ahead under the tutelage and the rod of advanced liberal democracy’.[44]

Poulantzas’ innovative and clear-sighted approach constitutes in Sotiris’ words ‘the most advanced attempt to rethink revolutionary politics not in terms of “articles of faith” but of actual apprehension of the complex materiality of political power in advanced capitalist formations’.[45] It is clear that his thinking – which represented a dramatic shift from the more orthodox Leninist perspective on transition that he cleaved to in much of his earlier work – was at least partially prompted and shaped (as brought out in interview with Weber)[46] by concrete political developments in France – the growing rapprochement between the PS (Socialist Party) and PCF and their joint formulation of the Common Programme for a government of the left in the 1970s.[47] That is, the perspective that he develops in State, Power, Socialism seems to have been significantly conditioned by the real movement of things and the urgency of the moment – the pressing need to think beyond strategic orthodoxies that provided little theoretical or practical leverage and to interrogate instead the concrete possibilities of a situation in which a left government comes to office.

There are clear parallels here with the situation today and indeed Poulantzas’ thought resonates closely with the organic dynamic of contemporary radicalisation in Europe and with Kouvelakis’ sketch of the path that might have been taken by Syriza. As such Poulantzas provides us with useful resources for the current conjuncture. In particular his analysis allows us to ground a left government perspective in a sophisticated account of state power. His theory shows us how and why the state, as a contested site of power, constitutes potentially fertile terrain upon which to focus a strategy of transformation and indeed why it would be impossible in any case to refuse to engage with this terrain in any meaningful sense. Further, his analysis reveals the crucial importance of seeking to transform the state’s internal structures and indicates how mass struggles at a distance to the state, coupled with direct intervention by socialist forces within it, could have this effect.

André Gorz and Structural Reform

While Poulantzas provides an outline of the general contours of a strategy of radical reform on the part of a government of the left, rooted in a rich analysis of capitalist state power, we should turn to André Gorz’s slightly earlier thought on structural reform or ‘non-reformist reform’ which he sketches out in Strategy for Labour[48] and Socialism and Revolution[49] to add further detail to our emerging left government perspective. Gorz provides, in particular, a more fully worked out conceptualisation of the necessary dynamic of interaction between government and mass movement and of the kinds of reforms upon which such a process must pivot.

Gorz’s thought was, like Poulantzas’, formulated in a specific conjuncture where a Provisional Union of the Left government in France was a distinct possibility. He wrote his key essay on ‘Reform and Revolution’,[50] later published in Socialism and Revolution, in the immediate aftermath of May 1968 – an event many believed at the time might have toppled de Gaulle and swept an ‘exceptional’ left-wing government to power in a sort of pre-revolutionary situation.[51] Clearly Gorz thought that a similar situation might be repeated and tries, in this essay, to think through what a government of this kind, borne forward by waves of popular mobilisation, might accomplish and how this might be steered in the direction of radical social transformation.

Gorz’s argument begins from the observation that traditional reformism and Leninism[52] are both strategic dead ends. On the one hand, reformism fails to recognise that ‘the bourgeoisie will never relinquish power without a struggle and without being compelled to do so by revolutionary action on the part of the masses’[53] while, on the other, the traditional revolutionary strategy is premised on the erroneous idea that a more or less immediate insurrectionary transition to socialism is possible. The way out of this dilemma, Gorz suggests, is to reject the prevailing assumption that reform and revolution are necessarily counter-posed alternatives and to grasp, instead, the possibility of a dialectical unity between them. Indeed, we must understand, he argues, that revolution can only emerge organically and dialectically through a process of struggle for reform. Thus socialists need a transitional strategy of reform that provides us with a bridge from the present condition to a situation in which revolution becomes actually possible.

Such a strategy must pivot on the view that socialist revolutionary consciousness can be built only through a pedagogical process of mass ‘struggle for feasible objectives corresponding to the experience, needs and aspirations of workers’.[54] At first the ‘feasible’ will, by necessity, be limited to measures of reform within capitalism, but as the working class engages in struggle, however, the anti-capitalist implications of its needs and aspirations are gradually revealed. At the same time, through its experience of struggle, the working class learns about its capacity for ‘self-management, initiative and collective decision’ and can have ‘a foretaste of what emancipation means’.[55] Thus struggle for reform can help prepare the working class psychologically, ideologically and materially for the revolutionary seizure of power – it can have the effect of ‘creating the conditions, both objective and subjective, in which mass revolutionary action becomes possible and in which the bourgeoisie may be engaged and defeated in a trial of strength’.[56]

This strategy is rooted in the observation that mobilisation ‘for the conquest of power and of socialism – abstract terms which no longer in themselves serve to mobilize the masses – must pass through the “mediation” of intermediate, mobilizing objectives’[57] which assist:

in the training and education of the masses, making it possible for them to see socialism not as something in the transcendental beyond, in an indefinite future, but as the visible goal of a praxis already at work; not a goal which the masses are supposed to wish for abstractly, but one to aim for by means of partial objectives in which it is foreshadowed.[58]

Gorz is clear that this process depends on the election of a left government – the working class require, after all, a political instrument to lead in carrying these reforms out. This, for Gorz, must be a government whose perspective is not limited to merely ‘reformist reform’. As Gorz puts it in Strategy for Labor a ‘reformist reform is one which subordinates its objectives to the criteria of rationality and practicability of a given system’.[59] In contrast ‘non-reformist reforms’ or structural reforms are designed to break out of this logic. As he explains further in Socialism and Revolution:

What in practice distinguishes a genuinely socialist policy of reforms from reformism of the… “social democratic” type is… first, the presence or absence of organic links between the various reforms, second, the tempo and method of their implementation and, third, the resolve, or absence of resolve, to take advantage of the imbalance created by the initial reforms to promote further disruptive action.[60]

Whereas ‘reformist reforms’ are designed to be inserted within the capitalist system without significantly disrupting it, structural reforms are deliberately intended to break the ‘equilibrium’ of the system. Each such reform brings concrete gains for the working class but also opens up the possibility of further changes. In fact, precisely because they destabilise capitalism, each structural reform necessitates the implementation of further measures to deal with the effects of this destabilisation – measures which themselves run counter to the logic of capitalism and which will thus, in turn, stimulate further reforms and so on in a radicalising dynamic of cumulative change. Structural reforms, Gorz remarks, must be seen as ‘means and not an end, as dynamic phases in a progressive struggle, not as stopping places’.[61]

Gorz suggests that the impetus behind the dynamic of structural reform will flow in significant part from the bourgeois resistance each reform will encounter. The reaction of the capitalist class to each reform – expressed for example through capital flight – may have the effect of further radicalising the rank-and-file of the movement as it realises that the initial reforms are insufficient and must be followed by further, more far-reaching, measures of change. In this way, the inevitable reaction of the bourgeoisie to socialist encroachment of its power and privilege can be used as a weapon against it. Eventually, Gorz suggests, the mass movement must come to the conclusion that reform is not enough and that a revolutionary rupture is necessary.

Crucially, the impetus also flows, however, from the growing empowerment of the movement outside the state. Gorz suggests that the extension and consolidation of popular power and forms of direct democracy will develop the mass movement’s confidence in relation to its own capacities for self-government, thus increasing its appetite for further democratic empowerment and encouraging it to put pressure on its leaders and representatives to drive forward and deepen the process of structural reform. Indeed Gorz emphasises that it is a sine qua non of a project of structural reform that the changes it brings in to effect must be rooted in popular initiatives. They must always involve an extension of popular power, but also – and crucially – they must, wherever possible, be ‘dictated, effected and controlled by the masses themselves based on their capacity for self-management and their own initiative’.[62] In more concrete terms, a programme of structural reform would include, then, measures to encourage, implant and empower organs of direct democracy in communities and in workplaces. It would seek to decommodify collective services and exert democratic control over the economy through forms of workers’ control, the formulation and implementation of workers’ ‘alternative plans’ for (socially useful) production, and through socialisation of the investment function for example.

Though the major driving force for the unfolding dynamic of structural reform would come ‘from below’, Gorz does not imagine, however, that this process could unfold in a wholly spontaneous manner. The raison d’être for this strategy, as we have seen, flows from the observation that socialist consciousness and revolutionary democratic capacities among the working class must be built and nurtured in struggle, but Gorz is clear that ‘the dialectical development of the struggle presupposes an already existing socialist intention’ among ‘the vanguard of the workers’ movement and among its leaders’.[63] The task of this organised section (which would encompass, of course, those representatives in government) would be to guide the process of the movement’s radicalisation, plan the reforms to be implemented and ensure that each measure is integrated into an overall strategic whole. As Gorz puts it, their major role would be to ‘grade the objectives, to raise the struggle to a constantly higher plane and to set “intermediary” targets, paving the way for worker power, which must be necessarily surpassed as soon as they have been achieved’.[64] Nevertheless this would be a vanguard that sought to abolish itself as the democratic capacities of the people developed and which sought to transfer power from the summits of the bourgeois state to the emerging organs of popular democracy. Having ‘unleashed or stimulated a mass movement’, Gorz remarks, this leadership must seek to ‘dissolve into it’ and, simultaneously, to liquidate existing institutions of state power, substituting for these ‘those organs of self-government and self-administration which the sovereign base has evolved for the perpetuation of its sovereignty’.[65] Much like Poulantzas, Gorz is here attempting to think through the process of the ‘withering away of the state’ as this might be effected by a movement that sought to utilise state power in order to build the capacities to surpass and abolish it.

Another perspective that unites Gorz and Poulantzas is their shared understanding of the radical uncertainty of any such undertaking. Gorz is clear that there can be no guarantees of success and that the strategy runs a very real risk of degeneration into reformism (i.e. ‘reformist reform’). Structural reform, after all, inhabits a space of tension between mere reformism on the one hand and revolutionary rupture on the other – indeed it is precisely a strategic perspective that seeks to negotiate a course of transition from one to the other – but there can be no guarantee of the direction of travel. The point is, however, that since immediate ‘[s]eizure of power by insurrection is out of the question’ there is no other option but to seek to seek move toward socialist transformation via a series of intermediate steps – the ‘risk must be run, for there is no other way’.[66]

Gorz’s thought manifests a radical uncertainty of another sort too. Although, as we have seen, he specifies the crucial and indispensable features of structural reform and provides some examples he is also clear, like Poulantzas, that it is impossible to know in advance in anything more than broad outline what an escalating series of reforms would comprise, at what point this process would morph into revolution or, indeed, in any detail, what a revolution would look like. This is precisely because a strategy of structural reform would be a process of experimentation, contestation and learning by doing that would pivot on the stimulation of mass participation and debate in developing organs of grass-roots democracy and the development of popular capacities for self-management, initiative and collective decision. Gorz is clear that the strategy would rely in great part on workers themselves formulating their own demands and these would, of course, be conditioned by the specific circumstances in which they were elaborated. Further it is impossible to predict exactly the limits to reform – we can know them only by pushing against them and we can only develop the means to go beyond these limits by building popular capacities for socialism in and through a process of struggle for transitional measures. Indeed the question that a strategy of structural reform pivots on is, in Wright’s words ‘less “how to make a revolution”, but rather “how to create the social conditions within which we can know how to make a revolution.”’[67]

So, like Poulantzas’ ‘revolutionary road to democratic socialism’ Gorz’s strategic vision involves dynamic interplay between a mobilised mass movement rooted in emerging organs of popular democracy and a left government operating within the structures of the capitalist state. As for Poulantzas, this process would begin with reforms within capitalism but would build toward revolutionary rupture and although Gorz seems to envisage a much more dramatic liquidation of existing state institutions than Poulantzas, both see this process as tending toward the state’s ‘withering’. Both theorists too, emphasise the unavoidable risk and uncertainty of such a project. What Gorz adds, however, is a much richer theorisation of the dynamic of structural reform, of the essential and necessary characteristics of such transitional measures and of the process by which revolutionary rupture could emerge dialectically from a pedagogical process of mass struggle for ‘intermediate objectives’ in an escalating dynamic of permanent revolution.

Moreover, it is clear that Gorz’s perspective maps on closely to the prevailing dynamic of radicalisation today. Indeed, Gorz’s account of structural reform resonates very closely indeed with Kouvelakis’ sketch of the (squandered) possibilities inherent in Syriza’s election victory. As such Gorz’s thought on structural reform, like Poulantzas’ vision, provides hugely valuable conceptual resources for us today in seeking to elaborate a strategy for socialism that coheres with the concrete tendency for radical struggle, wherever it makes significant advances, to develop toward the formation of a left government supported by a substantial degree of popular mobilisation.


This paper began by noting that the radical left formations that have made political headway in Europe recently have all shared a strategic orientation that seeks to combine electoral and parliamentary activity on the one hand with extra-parliamentary mobilisation on the other and that, crucially, a central component of this approach is to seek to form a left government within the institutions of the capitalist state. It was argued that, for the most part, however, the wider radical left – trapped in a false dichotomy of ‘reform versus revolution’ in which two forms of bad faith are pitted against each other – has been unable to grasp the opportunities opened up by the advance of these formations. I suggested that the perspective elaborated by the Left Platform in Syriza most fully grasped the anti-capitalist potential inherent within these ascendant formations and offered a way of radicalising their development from within.

It was then argued that this strategic perspective could be developed and enriched by drawing on theoretical resources developed in the late 1960s and 1970s. It was argued that Poulantzas and Gorz, in particular, provided especially valuable resources in this regard that resonate strongly with current circumstances. Poulantzas’ thought in State, Power, Socialism enables us to situate a left government perspective in a rich analysis of capitalist state power that would provide us with a sophisticated understanding of the possibilities for engagement on the contested terrain of the state and of the possibilities, too, for its (at least partial) reconfiguration in line with socialist objectives. Gorz’s thought in Strategy for Labor and Socialism and Revolution, furthermore, presents us with useful resources in relation to the concept of transitional ‘non-reformist reforms’ and in relation to the dialectical process in which revolutionary rupture might emerge from their implementation. Both theorists present us with a strategic perspective that pivots on an experimental process of probing the limits of reform that, by its very nature, can offer no guarantees of success and for which there can be no detailed route map in advance. It is a perspective, however, that could provide the radical left with a strategy for socialism that sidesteps the twin pitfalls of reformist and Leninist bad faith in which the socialist horizon is infinitely postponed to some indefinite future and provide us with traction in relation to concrete processes of political radicalisation as they are actually developing in Europe.

[1] Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, ‘Class, Party and the Challenge of State Transformation’, The Socialist Register, 2017, p. 36.

[2] That is, the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.

[3] On the utility of the latter term see Paul Blackledge, ‘Left Reformism, the State and the Problem of Socialist Politics Today’, International Socialism, 139 (Summer 2013) and my response: Ed Rooksby, ‘”Left Reformism” and Socialist Strategy’, International Socialism, 140 (Autumn 2013).

[4] I use the term ‘Leninism’ to refer to revolutionary socialist organisations that model themselves on Lenin’s Bolsheviks. There are different variants of Leninism, but it is fair to say that most share a broad strategic orientation in common.

[5] Blackledge, op. cit.

[6] Donald Sassoon, One Hundred Years of Socialism: the West European Left in the Twentieth Century (London: I. B. Tauris, 2010).

[7] Ibid., p. 23.

[8] See Fred Block, ‘The Ruling Class Does not Rule: Notes on the Marxist Theory of the State’ in Fred Block (ed) Revising State Theory: Essays in Politics and Postindustrialism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987) and Adam Przeworski, Capitalism and Social Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

[9] This was the pattern of events that accompanied, for example, the election of the government headed by Francois Mitterrand in 1981. See Sassoon, op. cit., pp. 534-571.

[10] See Yanis Varoufakis, ‘Confessions of an Erratic Marxist in the Midst of a Repugnant European Crisis’, Znet, February 2015, This is the full text of a speech first delivered in 2013. Varoufakis served as the Minister for Finance in the Syriza government from January to July 2015.

[11] Costas Douzinas, ‘The Left in Power? Notes on Syriza’s Rise, Fall, and (Possible) Second Rise’, Near Futures Online, March 2016, Douzinas is a member of the Greek parliament for Syriza.

[12] Sassoon gives remarkably short shrift to Western European revolutionary socialist groups: ‘If there is one single thread in the evolution of Western Europe it is the marked absence of any possibility of a working class revolutionary insurrection on the Bolshevik pattern’. ‘Those’, he continues, ‘who failed to appreciate this fundamental fact were condemned to the most complete political insignificance’. See Sassoon, op. cit., p. 56.

[13] See for example, Ernest Mandel, Revolutionary Marxism Today (London: New Left Books, 1979), pp. 1-66.

[14] Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism (London: Verso, 2000), p. 256.

[15] Panagiotis Sotiris, ‘How Can We Change the World if We Can’t Change Ourselves’, RS21, November 2014,

[16] For a penetrating critique see Ralph Miliband, ‘Lenin’s The State and Revolution’, The Socialist Register, 1970.

[17] See Erik Olin Wright, Class, Crisis and the State (London: Verso, 1983), pp. 181-225.

[18] V. I. Lenin, The State and Revolution, in V.I. Lenin: Selected Works, Vol. 7 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1937), p. 9.

[19] Poulantzas, op. cit., p. 254.

[20] Antonis Davanellos, ‘The Fourth Comintern Congress: “a Way to Claim Victory”’, International Socialist Review, Issue 95,

[21] Sotiris, op. cit.

[22] See Sebastian Budgen and Stathis Kouvelakis, ‘Greece: Phase One’, Jacobin, January 2015,

[23] Stathis Kouvelakis, ‘An Open Letter Regarding the Greek Left’, Socialist Worker, 29 May 2012,

[24] Slavoj Žižek ‘Addressing the Impossible’, The Socialist Register, 2017.

[25] Ibid., p. 349.

[26] Budgen and Kouvelakis, op. cit.

[27] Stathis Kouvelakis, ‘Greece: Turning “No” into a Political Front’, in Catarina Príncipe and Bhaskar Sunkara (eds) Europe in Revolt (Chicago: Haymarket, 2016), pp. 18-19.

[28] He restates his commitment to such a strategy in the aforementioned essay.

[29] See Nicos Poulantzas and Henri Weber, ‘The State and the Transition to Socialism’ in James Martin (ed) The Poulantzas Reader: Marxism, Law and the State (London: Verso, 2008), pp. 334-360.

[30] Poulantzas, op. cit., p. 129.

[31] See, for example, Ian Gough, The Political Economy of the Welfare State (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1979).

[32] Alexander Gallas, The Thatcherite Offensive: A Neo-Poulantzasian Analysis (Chicago: Haymarket, 2015), p. 40.

[33] See Bob Jessop, Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory and Political Strategy (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1985), pp. 125-128.

[34] Panagiotis Sotiris, ‘Neither an Instrument nor a Fortress: Poulantzas’s Theory of the State and his Dialogue with Gramsci’, Historical Materialism, 22.2 (2014), pp. 154-155.

[35] See, Poulantzas, op. cit., p. 253-255.

[36] Poulantzas and Weber, op. cit., p. 338.

[37] Poulantzas, op. cit., p. 263.

[38] Ibid, pp. 258-9.

[39] Poulantzas and Weber, op. cit., p. 343.

[40] Ibid, p. 341.

[41] Poulantzas, op. cit., p. 262.

[42] Ibid, p. 265.

[43] Ibid, p. 263.

[44] Ibid, p. 265.

[45] Sotiris, ‘Neither…’, op. cit., p. 155.

[46] See Poulantzas and Weber, op. cit., p. 351.

[47] See Sassoon, op. cit., pp. 536-538.

[48] André Gorz, Strategy for Labor: a Radical Proposal (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968).

[49] André Gorz, Socialism and Revolution (New York: Anchor Press, 1973).

[50] The work from which the following account of Gorz’s thought draws most heavily.

[51] See, Sassoon, op. cit., pp. 397-400.

[52] Gorz does not use this term. He writes, instead, of the ‘maximalist position’ and ‘maximalist tendencies’ (see Gorz, Socialism and Revolution, op. cit., p. 153 and p. 154 for example), but it is clear that he uses these terms to designate the same strategic approach that I have called Leninism in this paper.

[53] Ibid, p. 135.

[54] Ibid, p. 154.

[55] Ibid, p. 159.

[56] Ibid, p. 135.

[57] Gorz, Strategy for Labor, op. cit., p. 11.

[58] Ibid, p. 10.

[59] Ibid, p. 7.

[60] Gorz, Socialism and Revolution, op. cit., p. 141.

[61] Ibid, p. 148.

[62] Ibid, p. 158.

[63] Ibid, p. 154.

[64] Ibid, p. 154.

[65] Ibid, pp. 176-177.

[66] Gorz, Strategy for Labor, op. cit., p 8.

[67] Erik Olin Wright, op. cit., p. 233, n. 11. Wright is not referring to Gorz here specifically. Nevertheless Wright takes a broadly similar strategic perspective and his words seem applicable.

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Re-reading Ralph Miliband

I bought a lovely second hand hardback copy of Ralph Miliband’s Class Power & State Power (1983) a couple of weeks ago and have been dipping in and out of it for the past two or three days. It’s a fairly eclectic collection of some of Miliband’s essays, although organised into three thematic sections – ‘The Capitalist State’, ‘Marxism and the Problem of Power’ and ‘Britain’ (the second being the most wide ranging and the third feeling a little tacked on). The book contains a fair few of what it’s probably now fair to consider ‘classic Miliband’ pieces –  his powerfully angry essay on ‘The Coup in Chile’ written shortly after the overthrow of Allende, his critique of ‘Lenin’s The State and Revolution‘ (not quite as devastating as I remembered it, but still pretty sharp on some key gaps, lacunae and instances of wishful thinking in Lenin’s – in my view highly over-rated – text) and excerpts from his halves of the famous New Left Review exchanges with Nicos Poulantzas (though these feel a bit odd reproduced as an ‘essay’ in itself).

Two essays I’ve never read before and which I found surprisingly fascinating were his critical review of Perry Anderson’s Passages from Antiquity and Lineages of the Absolutist State (in ‘Political Forms and Historical Materialism’) in which Miliband takes Anderson to task for understating the autonomy of the Absolutist state from the aristocracy, and his essay ‘Political Forms and Historical Materialism’ in which Miliband attempts to account for the role of chance, accident and individual decision within the historical process and to integrate this with the focus on grander social and structural historical forces in Marxist historiography.

Re-reading Miliband directly (rather than about him) for the first time in several (probably 10 ) years, I’m struck by what a lucid and eminently readable writer he was. A writing style is, for me anyway, a kind of persona – a writer’s voice expresses itself in and carries with it a sort of character. Some are austere and unfriendly, some are buttoned up and excessively formal and others feel like they aren’t really very interested in being read by the likes of you and are doing their best to shake you off. Miliband’s writing however has a distinctly affable – almost conversational – quality to it. I want to say, in fact, that there’s something almost genteel about Miliband’s writing style in the best sense of that term – charming, relaxed and good-humoured if perhaps also slightly tweedy and old-school in its choices of diction and turns of phrase. But while he writes in what comes across as a fairly relaxed and genial manner it’s never sprawling or meandering. In fact Miliband’s key points are almost always expressed in an impressively sharp and clear way. Indeed most of the essays in this book are pretty short and to the point. How he managed to write with such precision and lucidity while also maintaining such a conversational tone, I don’t know – but what an impressive writer he was.

These qualities are much in evidence in what is for me the stand-out essay in the collection (and the reason I bought the book) – ‘State Power and Class Interests’. I really think that this is a very fine essay on the vexed question of the ‘relative autonomy of the state’ in Marxist state theory. In his characteristically lucid and accessible style, Miliband pin-points the key problems with both ‘class reductionist’ (Poulantzas and Therborn) and ‘state reductionist’ (Skocpol) accounts of state autonomy and sets out an admirably simple (though certainly not simplistic) model of ‘partnership’ between the state (or key figures within the state executive) and the capitalist class.

The problem with theorists such as Poulantzas is that they dissolve state power entirely into class power – for Poulantzas the state is fundamentally a condensate of all the contradictions between classes and class fractions. Its autonomy is thus a sort of epiphenomenal expression at the political level of conflicts and tensions between class forces. The state thus has no independent interests or sources of power of its own. As Miliband very elegantly points out however, this really won’t do. The main problem with such class reductionist perspectives is that they cannot account for ‘two powerful impulses to state action generated from within the state by the people who are in charge of the decision-making power… and [that] cannot be taken to be synonymous with the purposes of the dominant class’.

The first of these is that state actors can, clearly, be motivated by self-interest – this Miliband calls the ‘Machiavellian dimension of state action’. The ability to exercise decision-making power within the state is quite clearly very attractive in itself for some people (Miliband here cites as evidence the personality and behaviour of Lyndon B Johnson) – some people desire it and if they get it they wish to hold on to it. The actions and decisions of such people may have very little to do with the purposes of any class fraction – the Machiavellian actor here acts with a certain degree of autonomy (acts on his/her self-interest) and is certainly not simply some sort of conduit for capitalist class imperatives. Further, the upper echelons of the state are also sources of status, privilege, connections, high salaries and access to desirable positions outside the state and the state also provides, indeed, the terrain upon which the Machiavellian actor can manoeuvre to further his/her self interest. Thus the state (and the wider sphere of politics) constitutes a separate and, under normal circumstances, more or less free standing site of power in itself – one that must be, to some extent, independent of class forces.

The second impulse to state action is the idea of ‘the national interest’ – however overdetermined by ideological mystification and/or euphemism etc this concept might be , people in power are clearly motivated in good faith by this concept at least some of the time. They really are moved by what they conceive to be in ‘the national interest’. Their conception of ‘the national interest’ tends to coincide with the core interests of core sections of capital, though Miliband’s explanation of this seems to me to be a little weak. Miliband suggests that the connection here is embedded in the ‘belief’ among state actors that the national interest is bound up with the ‘well being of capitalist enterprise’ or the belief that ‘no conceivable alternative arrangement, least of all socialism, could possibly be more advantageous to the ‘national interest”. While this is true, it doesn’t quite get to the nub of the matter. Fred Block it seems to me is on stronger ground when he suggests (in what is quite a similar approach overall that stresses the independent agency of state managers) that the decisions of state actors tend to coincide with the interests of core sections of capital simply because the state is dependent on profits for its own revenue via taxation and thus has an interest in boosting (or at least not depressing) capital accumulation. Nevertheless Miliband’s approach here is similar enough. Indeed, as for Block, Miliband also suggests that it’s this ideology of the ‘national interest’ that enables state managers to rationalise capitalism – that is to go against the immediate interests of specific sections of capital (or even large swathes of it) with the intention of boosting accumulation overall and/or over the longer term. The key point here for Miliband (as for Block) is that state actors would not be able to act ‘in the long term interests of capitalism’ unless they acted on impulses that are not wholly reducible to class forces.

As against ‘state reductionists’, however, Miliband wants to insist that the state does not and cannot float entirely free of class forces. Skocpol’s model of ‘the state for itself’ tends to abstract from the ‘hard reality’ of the capitalist context in which it is situated – but as Miliband insists, no government can be indifferent to this context if it wishes to survive.

So, overall, as Miliband puts it, ‘an accurate and realistic ‘model’ of the relationship between the dominant class in advanced capitalist societies and the state is one of partnership between two different, separate forces, linked to each other by many threads, yet each having its own separate sphere of concerns’. There’s a complementarity here between Miliband’s model of the state and Harvey’s and Callinicos’s theorisation of imperialism in which the latter speak of a dialectical interplay between the ‘territorial’ and capitalist ‘logics of power’ – neither of which are reducible to the other, but which are also deeply interwoven in the complex of forces and imperatives that drives imperial expansion. Nevertheless I’m not sure that any other recent major theorist of the state (other than Block mentioned above) has given due consideration to the autonomy of state actors as a core constituent factor (indeed as the pivot) of the ‘relative autonomy of the state’.

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