Understanding State and Revolution by Lenin – Chapter I

If you’re new to socialism, you probably have come across suggested readings to understand Marxism. A classic text that remains highly relevant even today is Lenin’s State and Revolution, which was first published in August 1917. If you haven’t been able to find a copy to read, or if you’re struggling with reading or understanding it, I hope to be able to help you with chapter-wise summaries of the book.

State and Revolution itself is a brief summary of some of Marx and Engels’s key writings. In this book, Lenin quotes and correctly interprets Marx and Engels, and repeatedly mentions how their writing has been distorted by not only the bourgeoisie but also by social democrats, anarchists, opportunists, and other fake socialists, resulting in the dilution of Marxism and its revolutionary spirit.

State and Revolution is a short book of six chapters. Lenin had started the seventh chapter but never completed it. I will split the summary of State and Revolution into six parts and attempt to explain the chapters here as simply as possible.

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Chapter I: Class Society and the State

  1. The State as the Product of the Irreconcilability of Class Antagonisms
  2. Special bodies of Armed Men, Prisons, etc.
  3. The State as an Instrument for the Exploitation of the Oppressed Class
  4. The “Withering Away” of the State and Violent Revolution

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  1. The State as the Product of the Irreconcilability of Class Antagonisms

Lenin begins with stating that the first job of true Marxists is to “resuscitate the real teachings of Marx on the state” because the “bourgeoisie and opportunists within the labor movement are co-operating in this work of adulterating Marxism.” In the first section of the first chapter, Lenin defines what the state is in a capitalist society.

“The state is the product and the manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. The state arises when, where, and to the extent class antagonisms cannot be objectively reconciled.”

Marx had written in The Communist Manifesto that all of human history is the history of class struggle and that every society can be analyzed through the economic relations between the different classes to understand that society. In the past, the economic relations were between monarchs and their subjects, between feudal lords and their serfs, slave-owners and chattel slaves. Now it is the relations between capitalists (who own the means of production such as land, labor, raw materials, technology, and infrastructure) and between the working class (who are forced to sell their labor to capitalists in exchange for wages).

Every aspect of human life is an outcome of these economic relations. Our quality of life, our health, our education, our jobs, our ability to travel, and even our personal relationships are based on our finances. Racism, sexism, violence, war, terrorism, and all other social evils are a result of the historical and existing economic relations in a society.

Marx had also said that all struggle is class struggle. All conflicts in human history have been conflicts based on ownership of resources – primarily, capital and land (which bears raw materials for production). The objective of the colonization of the world by the British was to source raw materials and cheap labor to enrich British society. The British stole $45 trillion from India. Similarly, the colonization of Vietnam and Africa by France, and South America by Spain were for the same reasons. The colonization of SE Asia and China by Japan was for resources, too. The wars that America funds and wages in the Middle East, and that are leading to massive humanitarian crises today, is to benefit its military-industrial complex and to source oil. The appropriation of land from indigenous people in several countries, like in Malaysia, is economic conflict. Basically, every aspect of society is a reflection of its resources and capital.

To manage this conflict between the powerful ruling class and the weaker underdeveloped class is why the modern government was formed. This conflict can never be reconciled – the working class has not happily sold its labor and land to the capitalists, it has been oppressed into submission and this oppression has been made possible by our governments.

“According to Marx,” writes Lenin, “the state is an organ of class domination, an organ of oppression of one class by another; its aim is the creation of ‘order’ which legalizes and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the collisions between the classes.”

 

  1. Special bodies of Armed Men, Prisons, etc.

So how does the state oppress the working class? The state arises as a “power” from society but places itself “above” the society and increasingly “separates” itself from the society over time. Take the government in any capitalist country, especially in developing countries – the people feel disconnected from their governments. In comparison, people in socialist states have far greater involvement in their governance and hence feel more connected.

“A standing army and police are the chief instruments of state power,” writes Lenin. Look at the current Yellow Vest movement in France – footages of police brutality in suppressing the protests are all over the media. Police brutality against blacks in the US is a major issue for a developed country. This is because the police were not created to fight crime but to protect the property of the rich. Hence the police are so bad at fighting crime against the poor but bend over backward for the rich.

States did not always have such massive military and para-military (police) forces though. On the development of these forces, Lenin writes, “Military and naval armaments since then have grown to monstrous proportions, and the predatory war of 1914-1917 [First World War] for the domination of the world by England or Germany, for the division of the spoils, has brought the ‘swallowing up’ of all the forces of society by the rapacious state power nearer to a complete catastrophe.”

Look at the annual budgets of any country. The vast majority of the budgets are allocated to defense. Every year, the US increases its budgets for the military and from 2017 to 2019, the military budget increased from USD 590 billion to USD 686 billion. The average person cannot fathom how much money that is and how many wars it has created and prolonged. In the 2017-18 Union Budget of India, Defense was allocated INR 267,108 crores out of a total of INR 2,217,750 crores.

 

  1. The State as an Instrument for the Exploitation of the Oppressed Class

“For the maintenance of a special public force standing above society, taxes and state loans are needed.”

Under the feudal system, under monarchies, and under modern capitalist states, taxes have always been extracted from the public. Taxes are effectively extracted from the meager earnings of the working class whereas the ruling class easily evades vast amounts of taxes. There are countless examples of corporate frauds and government scams. (Remember the Panama Papers and the 1MDB scandal?) Yet these taxes, collected from the working class, are not effectively spent on improving public infrastructure and basic facilities like education, healthcare, and sanitation for the working class in developing nations because the government officials are corrupt themselves and embezzle funds.

In this section Lenin writes, “In a democratic republic [i.e. a capitalist country], Engels continues, ‘wealth wields its power indirectly, but all the more effectively,’ first by means of ‘direct corruption of the officials’; second by means of ‘the alliance of the government with the stock exchange.

The omnipotence of ‘wealth’ is thus more secure in a democratic republic, since it does not depend on the poor political shell of capitalism. A democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism, and therefore, once capital has gained control of this very best shell, it establishes its power so securely, so firmly that no change, either of persons, or institutions, or parties in the bourgeois republic can shake it.”

This is why voting in national level elections in capitalist countries means nothing if the contesting parties are capitalist in their ideology. The best example of this is the US, where the Democratic and the Republican parties are two sides of the same coin though nearly every other capitalist country has the same failings, including India.

 

  1. The “Withering Away” of the State and Violent Revolution

Now that it is established that the state in a capitalist society itself is the organ of oppression of the working class, what should the working class do to win its class struggle against the ruling class? The working class must smash the state and it is only possible through an armed revolution because the state itself is heavily armed with the military and the police, which it will ruthlessly deploy if the working class revolts.

Let us take a step back and understand what the objective of such class struggle is. The ultimate objective is a classless society. A society in which everyone is equal and no group exploits other groups for resources because the access to resources and amenities is given to all. The root of all conflicts is solved in a socialist state. Obviously, the ruling class in a capitalist society will not part with its wealth on its own because of an ideological awakening and work towards ending class distinctions. The ultra-rich are literally killing the planet and the poor because they cannot part with their wealth and are conditioned to continue accumulating wealth. And because the state is their instrument in hoarding wealth and resources, the state must be smashed to end inequality.

So if the working class in a society succeeds in smashing the oppressive state, what happens next? Does the society become classless immediately after a revolution? Of course not. This is where anarchists and communists differ in their ideology. Anarchists want to smash the state and free everyone immediately but communists understand that it is impossible to not have a state after a revolution because the bourgeoisie will start a counter-revolution when their wealth is threatened. Further, no state exists in isolation. We live in a world dominated by imperialist and capitalist countries like the US and history has shown us that these countries will stop at nothing to extract resources from less developed countries. Hence, a socialist society needs a state to defend itself from both external attacks and internal sabotage.

After smashing the state that was a dictatorship of the ruling class, the working class must constitute a new state, a state which is the dictatorship of the proletariat. The dictatorship of the proletariat as a government is the true representation of the working class and it uses its power to only control the former ruling class and prevent counter-revolutions and external aggressions. Capitalist states will attack socialist states because the success of socialism anywhere in the world is a massive threat to capitalists. This is why the US has been constantly trying to subvert and destabilize, through war and propaganda, socialist states like China, Cuba, Venezuela, and the DPRK. Syria, Libya, Guatemala, Bolivia, and the tens of other countries that have tried socialism have met disastrous fates because of the US.

The governments of China, Cuba, and the DPRK are truly governments of the working class, the dictatorships of the proletariat and have delivered incredible reforms for the public. In Marxist theory, this is the first phase in communism, i.e. socialism. When the world achieves full communism, the state will “wither away” on its own because the state will no longer be required to oppress any class since there will be no class distinctions in a communist world. And if all countries turn communist, no country will attack another for resources for their will be complete harmony among all nations. This, of course, is a far-off possibility in the future, one that may take centuries to be realized and if we survive the current climate change.

In the final section of this chapter writes Lenin, “The replacement of the bourgeois by the proletarian state is impossible without a violent revolution. The abolition of the proletarian state, i.e., of all states, is only possible through ‘withering away.’”

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2 thoughts on “Understanding State and Revolution by Lenin – Chapter I

  1. Pingback: Our Right to Vote in Elections is not a Sufficient Measure of Democracy | Socialism Simplified

  2. Pingback: Understanding State and Revolution by Lenin – Chapter II | Socialism Simplified

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