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In the final part of the series on Marxism and Anarchism, Alan Woods explores the question of the state - one of the main points that has traditionally divided Marxism and anarchism. So just what is the state? Marxism explains that the state is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms in society. It arises where, when, and insofar as class antagonisms cannot be reconciled. Conversely, the very existence of the state proves that the class antagonisms are irreconcilable.

The question of the state is one of the points that have traditionally divided Marxism and anarchism. So just what is the state? Marxism explains that the state is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms in society. It arises where, when, and insofar as class antagonisms cannot be reconciled. Conversely, the very existence of the state proves that the class antagonisms are irreconcilable. (Read parts one and two)

The state

Summing up his historical analysis of the state, Frederick Engels says:

“The state is, therefore, by no means a power forced on society from without; just as little is it 'the reality of the ethical idea', 'the image and reality of reason', as Hegel maintains. Rather, it is a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. 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." (F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State)

The modern state is a bureaucratic behemoth that devours a colossal amount of the wealth produced by the working class. Marxists and anarchists agree that the state is a monstrous instrument of oppression that must be eliminated. The question is: How? By whom? And what will replace it? This is a fundamental question for any revolution. In a speech on anarchism during the Russian Civil War, Trotsky summarized very well the Marxist position on the state:

“The bourgeoisie says: don’t touch the state power; it is the sacred hereditary privilege of the educated classes. But the Anarchists say: don’t touch it; it is an infernal invention, a diabolical device, don’t have anything to do with it. The bourgeoisie says, don’t touch it, it’s sacred. The Anarchists say: don’t touch it, because it’s sinful. Both say: don’t touch it. But we say: don’t just touch it, take it in your hands, and set it to work in your own interests, for the abolition of private ownership and the emancipation of the working class.” (Leon Trotsky, How The Revolution Armed, Vol. 1, 1918. London: New Park, 1979)

Marxism explains that that the state consists ultimately of armed bodies of men: of the army, police, courts, and jails. It is an instrument of the ruling class for the oppression of other classes. Against the confused ideas of the anarchists, Marx argued that the workers need a state to overcome the resistance of the exploiting classes. But that argument of Marx has been distorted by both the bourgeois and the anarchists.

The Paris Commune of 1871 was one of the greatest and most inspiring episodes in the history of the working class. In a tremendous revolutionary movement, the working people of Paris replaced the capitalist state with their own organs of government and held political power until their downfall a few months later. The Parisian workers strove, in extremely difficult circumstances, to put an end to exploitation and oppression, and to reorganize society on an entirely new foundation.

The Commune was a glorious episode in the history of the world working class. For the first time, the popular masses, with the workers at their head, overthrew the old state and at least began the task of transforming society. With no clearly-defined plan of action, leadership or organization, the masses displayed an astonishing degree of courage, initiative and creativity. Yet in the last analysis, the lack of a bold and far-sighted leadership and a clear program led to a terrible defeat. Marx and Engels followed the developments in France very closely and based themselves upon the experience to work out their theory of the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” which is merely a more scientifically precise term for “the political rule of the working class.”

Marx and Engels drew a thorough balance sheet of the Commune, pointing out its advances as well as its errors and deficiencies. These can almost all be traced to the failings of the leadership. The leaders of the Commune were a mixed bunch, ranging from a minority f Marxists to elements who stood closer to reformism or anarchism. One of the reasons the Commune failed was that it did not launch a revolutionary offensive against the reactionary government that had installed itself at Versailles. This gave time to the counterrevolutionary forces to rally and attack Paris. Over 30,000 people were butchered by the counterrevolution. The Commune was literally buried under a mound of corpses.

Summing up the experience of the Paris Commune, Marx and Engels explained:

“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’…” (Preface to the 1872 German edition of the Communist Manifesto)

Stalinism or communism?

The bourgeois and its apologists wish to confuse the workers and youth by attempting to identify the idea of communism with the monstrous bureaucratic and totalitarian regime of Stalinist Russia. “Do you want Communism? Here it is! That is Communism! The Berlin Wall is Communism! Hungary 1956 is Communism! The Soviet gulags are Communism!” Unfortunately, the anarchists also echo these arguments.

This is a stupid calumny. The workers’ state established by the Bolshevik Revolution was neither bureaucratic nor totalitarian. On the contrary, before the Stalinist bureaucracy usurped control from the masses, it was the most democratic state that ever existed. The basic principles of the Soviet power were not invented by Marx or Lenin. They were based on the concrete experience of the Paris Commune, and later elaborated upon by Lenin.

The basic conditions for workers’ democracy were set forth in one of Lenin's most important works: The State and Revolution. Here he lays down the following conditions for a workers' state, for the dictatorship of the proletariat at its inception:

  1. Free and democratic elections with the right of recall of all officials.
  2. No official to receive a higher wage than a skilled worker.
  3. No standing army or police force, but the armed people.
  4. Gradually, all the administrative tasks to be done in turn by all. “Every cook should be able to be Prime Minister—When everyone is a 'bureaucrat' in turn, nobody can be a bureaucrat.”

These were the conditions which Lenin laid down, not for full-fledged socialism or communism, but for the very first period of a workers' state—the period of the transition from capitalism to socialism.

The transition to socialism—a higher form of society based on genuine democracy and plenty for all--can only be accomplished by the active and conscious participation of the working class in the running of society, of industry, and of the state. It is not something that is kindly handed down to the workers by kind-hearted capitalists or bureaucratic mandarins. The whole conception of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky was based upon this fact.

Under Lenin and Trotsky, the Soviet state was constructed as to facilitate the drawing of workers into the tasks of control and accounting, to ensure the uninterrupted progress of the reduction of the “special functions” of officialdom and of the power of the State. Strict limitations were placed upon the salaries, power, and privileges of officials in order to prevent the formation of a privileged caste.

The Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies were elected assemblies composed not of professional politicians and bureaucrats, but of ordinary workers, peasants, and soldiers. It was not an alien a power standing over society, but a power based on the direct initiative of the people from below. Its laws were not like the laws enacted by a capitalist state power. It was an entirely different kind of power from the one that generally exists in the parliamentary bourgeois-democratic republics of the type still prevailing in the advanced countries of Europe and America. This power was of the same type as the Paris Commune of 1871.

As Lenin explained:

“The fundamental characteristics of this type are: (1) the source of power is not a law previously discussed and enacted by parliament, but the direct initiative of the people from below, in their local areas—direct 'seizure', to use a current expression; (2) the replacement of the police and the army, which are institutions divorced from the people and set against the people, by the direct arming of the whole people; order in the state under such a power is maintained by the armed workers and peasants themselves, by the armed people themselves; (3) officialdom, the bureaucracy, are either similarly replaced by the direct rule of the people themselves or at least placed under special control. Officials become not only elective, but are also subject to recall at the people's first demand; they are reduced to the position of simple agents; from a privileged group holding 'jobs' remunerated on a high, bourgeois scale, they become workers of a special 'arm of the service' whose remuneration does not exceed the ordinary pay of a competent worker.

“This, and this alone, constitutes the essence of the Paris Commune as a special type of state.”  (Lenin, The Dual Power in Collected Works, vol. 24, pp. 38-9.)

Lenin emphasised that the proletariat needs only a state that is “so constituted that it will at once begin to die away and cannot help dying away.” A genuine workers’ state has nothing in common with the bureaucratic monster that exists today, and even less the one that existed in Stalinist Russia.

The early Soviet Union was in fact not a state at all in the sense we normally understand it, but only the organized expression of the revolutionary power of the working people. To use the phrase of Marx, it was a “semi-state,” a state so-designed that it would eventually wither away and be dissolved into society, giving way to the collective administration of society for the benefit of all, without force or coercion. That, and only that, is the genuine Marxist conception of a workers’ state.

Violence or non-violence?

The question of the state is naturally linked with the question of violence. The ruling class has at its disposal a vast apparatus of coercion: the army, the police, the intelligence services, the courts, the prisons, the lawyers, judges, and prison wardens. Many protesters have recently received a valuable education in the Marxist theory of the state—on the end of a policeman’s baton.

This should not really surprise us. All history shows that no ruling class ever gives up its wealth, power and privileges without a fight—and that usually means a fight with no holds barred. Every revolutionary movement will come up against this apparatus of state repression.

What is the Marxists' attitude towards violence? The bourgeoisie and its defenders always accuse Marxists of advocating violence. This is highly ironic, considering the vast arsenals of weaponry that the ruling class has piled up, the armies of heavily armed troops, cops, prisons, and so on and so forth. The ruling class is not at all opposed to violence per se. In fact, its rule is based on violence in many different forms. The only violence that the ruling class abhors is when the poor, downtrodden, and exploited masses attempt to defend themselves against the organized violence of the bourgeois state.  That is, it is against any violence directed at its class rule, power, and property.

It goes without saying that we do not advocate violence. We are prepared to make use of each and every opening allowed to us by bourgeois democracy. But we should be under no illusions. Beneath the thin veneer of democracy there is the reality of the dictatorship of the banks and big corporations.

While the people are told that they can democratically decide the direction of the country through elections, in reality, all the real decisions are taken by the boards of directors. The interests of a tiny handful of bankers and capitalists carry much more weight than the votes of millions of ordinary citizens. The real meaning of formal bourgeois democracy is this: anyone can say (more or less) what they like, as long as big business decides what really happens.

This dictatorship of big business is normally concealed behind a smiling mask. But at critical moments, the smiling mask of “democracy” slips to reveal the ugly face of the dictatorship of Capital. The question is whether we, the People, have the right to fight against this dictatorship and strive to overthrow it.

The answer was given long ago when the American people rose up, arms in hand, to defend their rights against the tyranny of the English Crown. It is enshrined in the Second Amendment of the American Constitution, which defends the people’s right to bear arms as a guarantee of freedom. The “founding fathers” upheld the rights of the people to armed insurrection against a tyrannical government. The New Hampshire Constitution of 1784 tells us that “non-resistance against arbitrary power, and oppression, is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind.”

Every Revolution in history—including the American Revolution—shows the correctness of Marx’s words when he wrote that “force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one.” Nonetheless, in the very first programmatic statement of Marxism, The Principles of Communism, Engels wrote the following:

Question 16: Will it be possible to bring about the abolition of private property by peaceful means?

Answer: It is to be desired that this could happen, and the Communists certainly would be the last to resist it. The Communists know only too well that conspiracies are not only futile but even harmful. They know only too well that revolutions are not made deliberately and arbitrarily, but are everywhere and at all times the essential outcome of circumstances quite independent of the will and the leadership of particular parties and entire classes. But they likewise perceive that the development of the proletariat is in nearly every civilised country forcibly suppressed, and that thereby the opponents of the Communists are tending in every way to promote revolution. Should the oppressed proletariat in the end be goaded into a revolution, we Communists will then defend the cause of the proletarians by deed as well as we do now by word.” (Engels, Principles of Communism, Marx and Engels Selected Works, Vol. I, p. 89.)

The fact is that once the working class is organized and mobilized to change society, no state, army, or police can stop it. Nine times out of ten, any violence arising during a revolutionary situation is initiated by the ruling class, which is desperate to hold on to power. Therefore, the danger of violence is in inverse proportion to the willingness of the working class to fight to change society. As the ancient Romans used to say: Si pacem vis para bellum—if you want peace, prepare for war.

However, that does not mean that we advocate sporadic acts of violence by groups or individuals: senseless rioting, breaking windows, arson, etc. Such things sometimes reflect the genuine anger and frustration felt by people, especially the unemployed and dispossessed youth, at the sheer injustice of class society. But this kinds of actions achieve nothing positive. They merely alienate the broader layers of the working class and give the ruling class an excuse to unleash the full force of the state, in order to crack down on the protest movement in general.

There is a force in society that is far stronger than even the most powerful state or army: that is the power of the working class, once it is organized and mobilized to change society. Not a wheel turns, not a phone rings, not a light bulb shines without the permission of the working class! Once this enormous power is mobilized, no force on earth can stop it.

Powerful union organizations exist that would be more than capable of overthrowing capitalism if the millions of workers they represent were mobilized to this end. The problem once again reduces itself to a problem of leadership of the working class and its organizations.

What is to be done?

The leadership of the mass organizations, beginning with the trade unions, is in a lamentable state everywhere. A panorama opens up not only of great battles, but also of defeats of the working class as a result of bad leadership. It is understandable that some young people, disgusted with the role of the current leaderships, look to anarchist ideas as a solution.

In most cases, however, those who describe themselves as anarchists have no knowledge either of the theories or history of anarchism. Their anarchism is not really anarchism at all, but it is a healthy reaction against bureaucracy and reformism. When they say: “we are against politics!” what they mean is: “we are against the existing politics, which do not represent the views of ordinary people!” When they say: “we do not need parties and leaders!” they mean: “we do not need the present political parties and leaders who are remote from society and only defend their own interests and the rich people who back them.”

This “anarchism” is in reality only the outer shell of an immature Bolshevism, of revolutionary Marxism. These are sincere young people who desire to transform society with all their heart. Many of them will come to understand the limitations of anarchist ideas and methods and will seek a more effective revolutionary alternative. The lack of an adequate leadership and a clear program for action is already being felt by an increasing number of activists in the Occupy movement.

Through painful experience, the new generation of workers and youth are beginning to understand the nature of the problems that lie before them and are gradually beginning to grasp the need for radical solutions. The best elements are beginning to realize that the only way out of the impasse is through the revolutionary reconstruction of society from top to bottom.

It will not be easy to achieve this; but then, nothing worthwhile in life is ever easy. The first and most important step is to say no to the existing society, its institutions, values and morality. In many ways this is the easiest step. It is not difficult to protest and reject. But what is also necessary is to say positively what is to be done.

This underlines the need for clarity in ideas, programs and tactics. Mistakes in theory inevitably lead to mistakes in practice. This is not an academic exercise. The class struggle is not a game, and history is full of examples where the lack of political clarity led to the most tragic consequences. Spain in the 1930s is a case in point.

The first stages of the revolution are inevitably accompanied by naivety and all kinds of illusions. But such illusions will be destroyed by events. The movement is proceeding by trial and error. It needs time to learn. If a Marxist party already existed, with roots in the masses and political authority, the learning process would undoubtedly be much shorter, and there would be fewer defeats and setbacks. But such a party does not yet exist. It has to be built in the heat of events.

Confusion, the lack of a program, and never-ending debate is no substitute for positive action. If the Occupy movement is to succeed, it must be armed with clear ideas and a consistent revolutionary program. That can only be provided by Marxism. The workers and students have shown the most tremendous resourcefulness and initiative. All now depends on the ability of the most revolutionary elements of the workers and youth to draw all the necessary conclusions. Armed with a genuine socialist revolutionary program, they would be invincible.

Fight for socialism!

Is it really true that there is no alternative to capitalism? No, it is not true! The alternative is a system based on production for the needs of the many and not the profits of the few; a system that replaces economic chaos and anarchy with harmonious planning; that replaces the rule of a minority of wealthy parasites with the rule of the majority who produce all the wealth of society. The name of this alternative is socialism.

Genuine socialism has nothing in common with the bureaucratic and totalitarian caricature that existed in Stalinist Russia. It is a genuine democracy based on the ownership, control and management of the key levers of the productive forces by the working class.

Some think it is Utopian to suggest that the human race can take hold of its own fate and run society on the basis of a democratic plan of production. However, the need for a socialist planned economy is not an invention of Marx or any other thinker. It flows from objective necessity. The potential for world socialism flows from the present conditions of capitalism itself. All that is necessary is for the working class, which constitutes the majority, to take over the running of society, expropriate the banks and giant monopolies, and mobilize the vast unused and untapped productive potential to begin solving the problems we face.

In order that humanity can be free to realize its full potential, it is necessary to free industry, agriculture, science, and technology from the suffocating restraints of capitalism. Once the productive forces are free from these suffocating limitations, society would be capable of immediately satisfying all human wants and prepare the way for a gigantic advance for humanity.

We invite all those who are interested in fighting to change society to join with us, to discuss, debate our differences, and to test the viability of ideas and programs in the practice of the class struggle. Only in this way can we put an end to the prevailing confusion and attain the ideological clarity and organizational cohesion that are necessary to achieve our final victory.

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Educate Yourself

Socialist Appeal are proud to publish this education guide to help focus your studies of Marxist theory and practice. Visit the various tabs below to find links to introductory articles, classic texts, videos and audio talks for different topics. Read More

The Fundamentals of Marxism: suggested reading

Check out this selection of writings for an excellent introduction to many of the fundamentals of Marxist theory, providing a strong basis for those wishing to equip themselves with the ideas necessary in order to fight for socialism. Read More

Dialectical Materialism and Science

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Historical Materialism

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Marxist Economics

Marxist economics is the study of the laws of motion of capitalist society, allowing us to understand why capitalism perpetually goes into crisis, where inequality comes from, and what the alternative is. Read More

The State

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Russia, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalinism

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Anarchism

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Feminism

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Fascism

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The National Question

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Imperialism and War

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Revolutionary History

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