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Red Theory: The Leninist theory of the state

Analysis by J. Sykes |
October 2, 2022
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The central point of the Marxist-Leninist understanding of the state is that it is always and everywhere the product of antagonistic class contradictions. It arose from such contradictions, and as long as classes exist, so too will the state. Marx and Engels were the first to understand the state in this way, and it was Engels, in his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, who did the most to develop the materialist understanding of how and why and the state arises in human history. 

The state arises historically due to material conditions in society, namely due to the development of classes with opposing class interests. Engels says, “But in order that these antagonisms, these classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power, seemingly standing above society, that would alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’; and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state.”

Engels goes on to explain that the state not only arises in order to hold class antagonism in check but arises out of those class struggles themselves. This means that the state is controlled by the class that makes up the principal, or dominant, aspect of that contradiction. “Because the state arose from the need to hold class antagonisms in check,” writes Engels, “but because it arose, at the same time, in the midst of the conflict of these classes, it is, as a rule, the state of the most powerful, economically dominant class, which, through the medium of the state, becomes also the politically dominant class, and thus acquires new means of holding down and exploiting the oppressed class.”

In our earlier article on the superstructure, we looked at how the political and legal institutions, along with repressive apparatuses of the police and military, arise from the economic base of society, in order to reproduce and reinforce the economic base. The state is the legal system and the political institutions of the dominant class, and it is also the “special bodies of armed men” who defend the interests of that class. When Mao Zedong said that “political power grows from the barrel of a gun,” he meant precisely the ability of a class to take and hold state power. In the case of the capitalist class, the guns that enforce their political power are in the hands of the military and the police, who wage war on working and oppressed people at home and abroad on their behalf. 

Basically, every state is a dictatorship of one class. The ancient slave societies, even the ancient “democracies,” were dictatorships of slaver owners over slaves. The feudal kingdoms and principalities were dictatorships of the landlords over the peasants. And modern bourgeois democracy is the dictatorship of the capitalist class over the working class. Each of these historic states is a product in the superstructure of the fundamental contradiction between the forces and relations of production within the base.

How does a supposedly “democratic” capitalist state exercise its class dictatorship? When the United States was founded, it was very clear who the state existed for. The only people who could vote were wealthy, white, male landowners. The struggle of working and oppressed people, including armed struggle, such as in the Civil War to abolish chattel slavery, extended the democratic rights once held by this small group to larger and larger sections of the population. But even then, the capitalist class maintains its monopoly on economic and political power. With its money it controls not only the economy, but the press, the government, and the police and military as well. 

If the failure of Bernie Sanders' bids for the Democratic Party presidential nomination tells us anything, it is that the capitalist state is designed from top to bottom to serve the interests of the rich and resist any fundamental change in that status quo. We can look at Chile in 1973 as another good example of this. Even though Salvador Allende was able to come to power through the democratic structures of the bourgeois state, he was unable to retain that power. The capitalist class maintained their control of enough of the military to overthrow Allende in a bloody, U.S.-backed coup. 

According to Lenin in The State and Revolution, “The supersession of the bourgeois state by the proletarian state is impossible without a violent revolution. The abolition of the proletarian state, i.e., of the state in general, is impossible except through the process of ‘withering away’.” What does this mean? This is an important point. If the state is the product of class antagonism, and arises from those class antagonisms, then so long as class antagonism exists, so too will the state. The only way to get rid of the state is to get rid of class antagonism all together. A revolutionary struggle to smash the capitalist state is necessary, but the only way to abolish the state as such is to abolish classes altogether. 

The bourgeois state cannot be democratically reformed. The “democratic” institutions of that state exist in the service of the ruling class. It must be smashed outright and replaced by the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat. The dictatorship of the proletariat has a number of interrelated tasks. First, it must oppress the overthrown bourgeoisie and their agents who want to restore the old order. It likewise must defend itself from hostile imperialist powers who want to dominate and control it. Second, it must construct socialism, a society based on the progressive elimination of all class antagonism. As Lenin says, the goal of socialism is communism. Once internal class antagonism has been done away with, and the external threat of imperialist war and intervention no longer exists, the socialist state will “wither away,” since the material forces that necessitate and give rise to it no longer exist to reproduce and reinforce it. The step-by-step, planned and organized transformation of class society into a classless society, coupled with the tenacity of imperialism, cause this to be a slow, protracted process. 

The state cannot be abolished in one blow, as the anarchists would have it. Neither can the institutions of its rule, such as the military and the police. The apparatuses of the state arise necessarily from class antagonism, which cannot be uprooted overnight. Even if we managed somehow to abolish the police, for example, without abolishing the capitalist ruling class itself, then the capitalists would simply replace them with privatized police, which would essentially function as extrajudicial death squads. There are no shortcuts here. The entire state apparatus of the capitalists must be smashed, the expropriators must be expropriated, and the working class must have the power of its own state in order to systematically uproot class exploitation and oppression once and for all.

To sum up, the Leninist theory of the state is that it is a product of class antagonism. The superstructure arises from and enforces the material base of society. This means that the state, as the product of class antagonism, serves to reinforce and reproduce the class antagonism that gave rise to it, so that the exploiting class in power can conduct its exploitative business as smoothly as possible. But the proletariat has the distinction of being the first class in history that doesn’t exploit any other class. This means that the proletarian state has a historic mission that no state before it could achieve. The goal of the proletarian state is not to maintain itself at the expense of other classes, but to get rid of class antagonism, exploitation and oppression altogether, thus creating the material conditions needed to wither away.

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