Lenin on the State and Revolution: Engels' Comments by Thomas Riggins

Review of Chapter IV of State and Revolution

Lenin on the State and Revolution: The Paris Commune (1871)-- Comments by Engels

Thomas Riggins

This is a review of Chapter IV of Lenin's State and Revolution (1917, 1918). The chapter is entitled "Supplementary Explanations by Engels" and is divided into six parts. These parts build on Marx's definitive analysis of the Commune and are based on later observations made by Engels which Lenin discusses separately.

1. The Housing Question

This question deals with the provision of housing for all members of society. In reflecting on how the Commune dealt with this problem Engels explains how a working people's state differs from the bourgeois state on this issue. The capitalist state relies on "supply and demand" to take care of the housing problem and as a result some have no housing and others have greater housing resources than their needs.

Engels maintains that any large city already has the housing space necessary to solve any housing shortage-- if only it were used "rationally." Since "people before profits" is a motivational axiom of a people's (socialist) state the rational solution for such a state would be the expropriation of all housing space and its redistribution on the basis of need.  A bourgeois state would be incapable of such an action.

The worker's state would own the housing stock [and all other major instruments of labour] and, at least during the transition period to full socialism (i.e., communism) would set reasonable and fair rents. Thus Engels wrote that, "The actual taking possession of all instruments of labour by the working people therefore by no means excludes the retention of rent relations" (The Housing Question, 1872).

This contrasts with anarchist views (Proudhon) that suggest that the workers will become individual owners of capitalist housing stock rather than owning it as a class through their state (again, at least in the transitional period).  Free housing (housing without rent) will have to await the "withering away of the state." Marxism has always maintained that the abolition of classes and the abolition of the state are concurrent processes.

2. Polemic Against the Anarchists

The definitive position of Marx and Engels  on the state with respect to the anarchists, Lenin says, took place in 1873 in a series of articles published in the Italian press. Die Neue Zeit got around to publishing them in 1913. They are still relevant today.

Marx did not disagree with the anarchists (Proudhonists and others) about the need to abolish the state along with the abolition of classes. It was the timing that was at issue. The anarchists wanted to abolish the state practically overnight the day after the revolution, while Marx and Engels thought the state still had a role to play during the transition from capitalism to socialism and then to communism. Marx, according to Lenin, did not think "the workers should deny themselves the use of arms, the use of organized force, that is, the use of the state, for the purpose of 'breaking down the resistance of the bourgeoisie.'" The Communists and the Anarchists have the same aim-- but the Communists want the use of the state "for a while."

The problem of the transition is exceedingly difficult. The Soviets had the use of the state for over 70 years and yet were overthrown. The lessons of how they were able to last so long and how they were overthrown have yet to be learned.

Engels polemicized against the anarchists on the issue of their antiauthoritarianism. Engels used to give arguments such as can a ship's captain be authoritarian when the ship is in danger. Would you obey Sully Sullenberger  if he was your pilot and the airplane was in trouble? These are clearly examples of justified acts of authoritarian behavior. The anarchist response was that  these individuals were given "commissions" by the people not "authority." This led Engels to remark, "These people think that they can change a thing by changing its name." Unfortunately this name changing "magic" is still at work. Secretaries of War have become Secretaries of Defense, yet their job descriptions  have remained the same. Romani ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.

Engels said that if the anarchists had been realistic about the need for authority to be given to specialists when in modern industry and production it was inevitably, within limits, needed it would have been possible for the Marxists and anarchists to work together but "they fight passionately against the word." Still in our own day we see political discussions degenerate into fights over words and the concepts at issue lost sight of.

The anarchists want to abolish authoritarianism as the first act of the revolution, Engels says and he asks "Have these gentlemen ever seen a revolution?"  Fear, intimidation (terror if you like) and rifles, bayonets and canons are used to impose the will of one class on that of another. The Paris Commune would "not have lasted a day" if had not applied violence and force against the bourgeoisie. Those advocating the abolition of authoritarian measures the day after the revolution either don't know what they are talking about or are spreading confusion: "In either case they serve only the interests of reaction." Lenin says Engels used the experience of the "last revolution" (the Paris Commune) to arrive at his conclusions. That was a long time ago. Have the times changed?

3. Letter to Bebel

In March of 1875 Engels wrote a letter to the German Socialist leader August Bebel in which he criticized the German socialists political document known as the Gotha Program which had been adopted that same year at their founding congress. In this letter, Lenin says, one will find one of the most remarkable observations on the state ever made in any of the works of Marx or Engels. No serious Marxist can ignore it without running the risk of talking nonsense about the nature of the state and the road to take to socialism.

In any transition from capitalism to socialism it is unlikely that the capitalist class will fail to put up resistance to the assumption of power by the working classes. When the workers do come to power the bourgeois state will fall into their hands and they must immediately begin to reshape it to reflect the interests of the working people rather than the exploiters. As socialism grows this state will gradually wither away and while it is doing so it will have a transitional existence.

It must be remembered that the function of any state is to enforce class rule so that the abolition of the state is a function of the abolition of classes. The state does not exist to guarantee freedom but to repress one class in the interests of another. The government of the U.S., for example exists, on the one hand, for the purpose of repressing working people, national minorities, immigrants, women, racial and ethnic minorities, etc., in so far as the interest of these groups coincide with those of labor, and the other hand for enhancing and consolidating the power of the one percent (the leaders of industrial and financial capital, the big corporations, the military industrial complex, those whose income derives from privatization, etc.

Engels said that as long as the working people need to have a state "it needs it not in the interests of freedom, but for the purpose of crushing its antagonists; as soon as it becomes possible to speak of freedom, then the state, as such, ceases to exist."

Engels further suggests that the word "state" be replaced by the word "community" [Gemienwesen]. Lenin says that the Russian communists (the dreaded Bolshevik bugbears that some of our present day "progressives" appeal to Thomas Piketty to protect us from) are intent in learning from the works of Marx and Engels. Lenin prefers the French word "commune" to Gemienwesen (for technical linguistic reason we need not go into) and says Engels most important comment in his letter is, with reference to the 1871 French Commune: "The Commune was no longer a state in the proper sense of the word." This was because it did not exist to repress the majority of the people  for the benefit of a small minority who exploited them. Questions we can ask today are, Why did the Soviet state become stronger then became so weak it disappeared? Why does the state exist in China? Here is not the place to try and answer questions such as these.

Bebel wrote back to Engels, who was living with Marx in London at the time, and expressed his agreement with the ideas expressed by Engels. But he must have had a relapse because in 1886 he wrote "The state must be transformed from one based on class domination into a people's state." But a state is an instrument of class domination! A state of the whole people is a Marxist oxymoron. The state must be replaced by a socialist commune.

4. Criticism of the Draft of the Erfurt Programme.

The Erfurt Programme was the official policy of the Social Democratic Party of Germany which was adopted at a congress of the party in 1891. Its main thesis was that there could be a peaceful transition to socialism, that capitalism would ultimately fall due to its own contradictions, and that the party should concentrate on trying to better the conditions of the workers here and now and eschew revolutionary activity. August Bebel, Eduard Bernstein, and Karl Kautsky were the three socialist leaders behind the program.

In 1891 Engels sent a letter to Kautsky criticizing this program. However, Engels views were not made public until twenty years later, in 1911 when the party theoretical journal, Die Neue Zeit, finally published it.

Lenin says that Engels makes three important statements about the nature of the state: "first, as regards a republic; second, as to the connection between the national question and the form of state; and third, as to local self government."

We must keep in mind that Engels was discussing conditions prevailing in the German Empire of Kaiser Wilhelm II in the 1890s and that we are living in very different circumstances in the early 21st Century. I will  try, however, to see if any of Engels' or Lenin's views are à propos  today.

The first point that Engels makes it that talk of a peaceful transition under the German constitution is ridiculous. Germany had no republican tradition and the Riechstag was only a cover for an undemocratic dictatorial regime headed by the Kaiser. Lenin sides with Engels and holds that the Erfurt Programme was fundamentally opportunistic and not a real socialist program. Lenin says Engels said "just because of the absence of a republic and freedom in Germany, the dreams of a 'peaceful' path were perfectly absurd."

This argument would not apply to contemporary conditions even in Germany which, like the U.S. is a democratic republic. It is even more democratic than the U.S. since it is a parliamentary democracy with a ceremonial head of state and an executive directly responsible to the parliament as opposed to our presidential system which combines the powers of head of state with those of the executive power only indirectly responsible to the parliament (Congress) which has impeachment power.

Today citizens have a sense of personal freedom and the ability to participate in the government by means of elections and freedom of speech (however illusory this may be). I therefore conclude that this first reason for rejecting the Erfurt Programme would not be applicable today for the reasons given by Engels.

Engels in fact says that in a republic or other type of free country "one can conceive of a peaceful development towards Socialism." Lenin is skeptical about this but he was writing in a time of world war and social revolution and Engels in a time of relative peace.

But Engels is all for the democratic republic and does not think that the working class can come to power in any other form of government. He  writes "our party and the working class can only come to power under the form of the democratic republic." In fact he even equates "the dictatorship of the proletariat" with the "democratic republic" writing that the democratic republic "is the specific form of the dictatorship of the proletariat."  Those who reject the concept of the dictatorship of the working class, being innocent of dialectics, unwittingly are rejecting the democratic republic as well. The use of the term, however, is another matter.

To be clear, he is not saying a democratic republic is the dictatorship of the proletariat but that the dictatorship of the proletariat is one species of the genus democratic republic. Lenin points out that a democratic republic can arise under capitalism and this would advance the class struggle which would lead "to such an extension, development, unfolding and sharpening of that struggle that as soon as the possibility arises for satisfying the fundamental interests of the oppressed masses this possibility is realized inevitably and solely in the dictatorship of the proletariat, in the guidance of the masses by the proletariat."  "Dictatorship" is not a term that goes over well in the US and there is no good reason to use it since, as the context of Lenin's quote reveals, it is equivalent to "the guidance of the masses" by the working class.

Lenin points out that Engels does not have a one size fits all view of the state and the stages of transition. Engels, according to Lenin, "tries to analyze  with the utmost care the transitional forms, in order to establish in accordance with the concrete historical peculiarities of each separate case, from what and to what the given transitional form is evolving." This is an important point to bare in mind with regard to differences between a unitary and a federal republic.

Engels thought that only the form of a unitary centralized republic was suitable for the use of the working class in a transition to socialism. But the US is not such a republic-- it is a federal republic. The difference is that each state or subdivision of a federal republic has its own government, legal system, and legislature and the federal government has two houses in its legislature-- one elected by the people based on population and the other representing the states making up the federation. The second house (in the US the Senate) is undemocratic in that a little state with a small population has the same voting power as a large state with millions of people. A unitary republic would have one house with representatives based on the population.

However, in 1891 Engels thought a federal republic was a necessity for the US due to its "gigantic territory." However, he noted, that in the more populous and developed Eastern states the federal republic was "already becoming a hindrance." It is even more of a hindrance today seeing how small and/or reactionary states can hinder the implementation of measures beneficial to the vast majority of the working people in the whole country. However, for the foreseeable future the class struggle in the US will be taking place in a federated republic along with agitation to strengthen the centralized powers of the federal government.

However, Engels does not believe in a centralized government that appoints the leadership of the local units. In this respect he lauds the American model and in general the model that exists in English speaking countries as Australia, Canada [and we might add, New Zealand] even though they have a federated structure. As Engels says,  the worker’s  party demands “Complete self-government for the provinces, districts, and local areas through officials elected by universal [male] suffrage. The abolition of all local and provincial authorities appointed by the state.”

Engels in fact says that history shows that there is a greater amount of freedom and democracy under a centralized republic than under a federated one— as was shown by the example of the French Republic between 1792 and 1798. There is some confusion here as he lauds both the French Revolution (centralized) and the “American model”  (federated). The point is, however, the freedom people have to elect their local leadership from the grassroots up to the top and not have them foisted upon them by the state.

5. The 1891 Preface to Marx’s Civil War in France

This Preface was written in 1891 and presents Engels’ summing up of the lessons to be learned from the Paris Commune of 1871 as to the nature of the bourgeois state. Lenin suggests that it is “the last word of Marxism” on this issue. We should keep an open mind about whether or not this is really the last word and we have learned nothing about the nature of the state since 1891. We should also note that almost all of the arguments against Engels and Lenin on this issue are just warmed over updates of the criticisms leveled at them more than a hundred years ago. Many of the arguments about 21st century socialism have a whiff about them more suggestive of 1914 than 2014.

Engels points out that after every  revolution in France the working class was armed and that the first objective of every bourgeois government that came to power after a revolutionary move by the workers was to disarm the workers. Lenin says the “essence” of the relation of the working class to the state resides in the answer to the question “has the oppressed class arms?” Even in Lenin’s day this was a hot potato! He says, “It is just this essential thing which is most ignored both by professors under the influence of bourgeois ideology and by the petty-bourgeois democrats.” Well, here in the USA the NRA has the  ultra-right locked and loaded, but what about the oppressed class?

Engels also makes some comments about religion in this preface that Lenin wants us to think about. Neither Engels nor Lenin saw religion as a progressive force. It fills the heads of working people with all kinds of nonsense and idiocy. Engels refers to the slogan “Religion is a private matter” and warns the social democrats of his day that it is a ‘private matter” with regard to the state NOT with regard to the worker’s party. While many people who are religious have progressive attitudes religion in and of itself fosters an unscientific and superstitious approach to reality. Any Marxist party worth of its name must “struggle against the religious opium which stupefies the people.” It is worth considering how much of this outlook is still relevant today, especially considering how religion is used by the ultra-right and the tea baggers to support their reactionary and crypto-fascist agenda.

Lenin now turns to Engels’ summing up of the lessons learned from the Commune twenty years after its downfall. Would that we had a summing up of the lessons to be learned from the downfall of  the Soviet Union from such a keen observer as Engels. Let’s see if his views holdup today.

Lesson One: the actually existing present day  state devised by the bourgeoisie to ensure its political dominance cannot be taken over by the working people and used to defend their interests. The Commune recognized this and in place of the bourgeois state instituted a new one based on the working class. Its two most fundamental characteristics were 1) all the positions were to be filled by elections (no appointed positions) and conditioned by the right of the workers to have instant recall of any elected person the minute the workers lost confidence and trust in his/her job performance; 2) all elected persons— from dog catcher to president were to be paid only the general average wages of the workers themselves.

Lesson Two: the struggle for democracy and the democratic rights of the people is inseparable from the struggle for Socialism. They are not two different stages but one concerted struggle. Lenin points out that Engels here approaches a “boundary” where “consistent democracy” becomes “transformed into Socialism” and where it “demands the introduction of Socialism.”

Thus, Lenin says, one of the basic functions involved in the struggle to bring about the social revolution is to “develop democracy to its logical conclusion, to find the forms for this development [and] to test them by practice.” A revolutionary party of advanced democracy that does not include Socialism in its platform is a contradictio in terminis.

Engels certainly would not be supportive of any view that idealized the state as a democratic institution just waiting to be put at the service of the working people as a result of free and fair elections. Electoral struggle is important as it can unify and educate the workers as to the true nature of the society and  the social system in which they find themselves. Nevertheless, “In reality,” Engels says, “the state is nothing more than a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and in deed in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy; and at best an evil, inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, whose worse sides the proletariat, just like the Commune, at the earliest possible moment will have to lob off, until such a time as a new generation, reared under new and free social conditions, will be able to throw on the scrap-heap all this state rubbish.”

Lenin makes two final points based on this quote: 1) the fact that the state is an organ of ruling class oppression whether it is democratic or dictatorial (monarchical ) is not a matter of indifference to the working people (the Anarchist view)— the more freedom available in a democratic state makes the class struggle of the workers easier to conduct; 2) why a new generation will be required to finally junk the state entirely will be discussed in the next, and final, section of this chapter— to wit:

6. Engels on the Overcoming of Democracy

In 1894 Engels published some interesting remarks not the least of which was his view that the term “Social-Democrat” was unscientific when applied to the political views of Marx and himself. Engels had never used that term in his writings and used “Communist” instead. He and Marx did not write “The Social-Democratic Manifesto.”

Nevertheless, by the time Engels wrote this reflection the Social-Democratic Party of Germany was the world’s largest working class party and, although the name was “unsuitable” he allowed that it might “pass muster” since it now had a different referent than back in the day of Marx and his most creative activity (when it was used by Proudhonists and Lassalleans).

In any case for a party whose goal and raison d’être does not end with the establishment of Socialism but pushes on to the abolition of the state and democracy as well—i.e., that wants to establish Communism, the term “Social-Democrat” is technically incorrect. Be that as it may, it is hardly worth making a fuss over. Engels remarks, “The names of real political parties are never wholly appropriate; the party develops, while the name persists.” For 21st century Communists to desire to remove “Communist” from their party’s name might raise suspicions that they were developing backwards!

Anyway, Lenin says the party’s name is “incomparably less important” than the relation to the state that the revolutionary working class movement holds. Our real problem is that there is no revolutionary working class movement (to speak of) in the US or Europe right now (not considering the rest of the world) and the relation of the working people to the state is one of impotence and subservience— a relation which Communist parties and their allies must and are working to overcome.

It is important to understand why Engels says Communism overthrows democracy as well as the state. In order to gain this understanding Lenin says we must grasp the economic basis behind the “withering away of the state. We will do this next when we analyze Chapter Five: “The Economic Base of the Withering Away of the State.”

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  • A Republic not a Democracy:
    It is easier to understand Marx and Engel’s theory of the state and the nature of the transition from capitalism to socialism by comparing it to competing theories of the state. Marx’s theory of the state is both a policy guide and a call for action. The idea of the state as an instrument by which one class dominates and represses another summarizes the goals of the transitional state or the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ The ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ decides public policy by putting people before profits. Rational decision making, not markets, are relied on. The workers state is well armed and organized to prevent a return of the capitalist class. Above all else, the workers state protects not freedom, the freedom of the market, but preserves dominate class rule. Like the physics of light which is both a particle and a wave, the transitional form of the workers’ state is both democratic and authoritarian; democratic in the rule of the majority over the 1%, and authoritarian by imposing the will of the majority over the minority. The anarchists wish to destroy the state on the day after the revolution. They have no conception of the coercion needed to prevent a return of bourgeoisie power with worker’s state power. The German Social Democrats also lack an adequate theory of the state. Instead, they would rather wait for the revolution rather than actively encouraging it. Since capitalism will fall and fail due to its own contradictions, why actively encourage the coming revolution? Instead, work to better the conditions of the workers under capitalism. In short, their goals attempt to reconcile the workers with capitalism, not to develop class conscientiousness and class struggle. 21st century Right-Wing conservatives have ideas about the state that better fit the Marxian definition. Engels noted a peaceful transition to socialism is only possible in a democratic republic. A further qualification is a unitary centralized republic is better able to institute socialism than a federal republic, which is why the conservative right wingers work so hard to gain control of state and local governments. The right wing is so fearful of real democracy that they separate the idea of a democratic republic into two. They say the founding fathers did not create a democracy but a republic and a highly decentralized one at that. A decentralized republic enables them to better frustrate democracy (voter suppress and gerrymandering). Only the Marxist definition of the state fits reality and is a serious guide to political action. NT

    Posted by Nat Turner, 08/18/2014 9:29am (3 years ago)

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