Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Workers' State

I used to think of the State in very abstract terms. The State was an idea represented by a flag and arbitrary borders; a symbolic existence that has largely outlived its usefulness. While all this is all true, there is also a much more tangible aspect to it. The State is also involved in governing, providing services, taxation, etc. But, as anyone who has been through our justice system can attest, the State is not neutral. Naturally, the State is controlled by the ruling class. It is, at its roots, a tool for one class to dominate another.

This is where confusion sets in and tempers flare. Traditionally, the main disagreement between Anarchists and Marxists is on the question of the State. While Anarchists insist on immediately abolishing it, Marxists argue for taking State power in order to implement Socialism. It was fairly easy for me to understand the Anarchist position (although not so easy to understand what they would replace the State with). It was, however, a bit more difficult for me to understand the Marxist position. By taking State power wouldn't a "red bureaucracy" form, as what happened in the Soviet Union? Instead of Capitalist cops beating us over the head, are we now to have "Marxist" cops beating us over the head?

To answer these questions first we have to understand what Marxists, from Marx and Engels to Lenin and Trotsky, understand as the State. While writing on the Paris Commune, Marx tells us a State controlled by the working class would have to be fundamentally different than a Capitalist controlled State. This has always been the case from one historical epoch to another, with those in charge of the State using it to further their interests:

But the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.

The centralized state power, with its ubiquitous organs of standing army, police, bureaucracy, clergy, and judicature – organs wrought after the plan of a systematic and hierarchic division of labor – originates from the days of absolute monarchy, serving nascent middle class society as a mighty weapon in its struggle against feudalism. Still, its development remained clogged by all manner of medieval rubbish, seignorial rights, local privileges, municipal and guild monopolies, and provincial constitutions. The gigantic broom of the French Revolution of the 18th century swept away all these relics of bygone times, thus clearing simultaneously the social soil of its last hinderances to the superstructure of the modern state edifice raised under the First Empire, itself the offspring of the coalition wars of old semi-feudal Europe against modern France.

During the subsequent regimes, the government, placed under parliamentary control – that is, under the direct control of the propertied classes – became not only a hotbed of huge national debts and crushing taxes; with its irresistible allurements of place, pelf, and patronage, it became not only the bone of contention between the rival factions and adventurers of the ruling classes; but its political character changed simultaneously with the economic changes of society. At the same pace at which the progress of modern industry developed, widened, intensified the class antagonism between capital and labor, the state power assumed more and more the character of the national power of capital over labor, of a public force organized for social enslavement, of an engine of class despotism.

After every revolution marking a progressive phase in the class struggle, the purely repressive character of the state power stands out in bolder and bolder relief. The Revolution of 1830, resulting in the transfer of government from the landlords to the capitalists, transferred it from the more remote to the more direct antagonists of the working men. The bourgeois republicans, who, in the name of the February Revolution, took the state power, used it for the June [1848] massacres, in order to convince the working class that “social” republic means the republic entrusting their social subjection, and in order to convince the royalist bulk of the bourgeois and landlord class that they might safely leave the cares and emoluments of government to the bourgeois “republicans." (Marx, The Civil War in France, Chapter 5)


So, what would this State controlled by the workers look like? How would it operate? How would it be different from the State controlled by the "bourgeois republicans"? Marx outlines a Workers' State when he describes the Paris Commune later in that same chapter:

The first decree of the Commune, therefore, was the suppression of the standing army, and the substitution for it of the armed people.

The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.

Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible, and at all times revocable, agent of the Commune. So were the officials of all other branches of the administration. From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workman’s wage. The vested interests and the representation allowances of the high dignitaries of state disappeared along with the high dignitaries themselves. Public functions ceased to be the private property of the tools of the Central Government. Not only municipal administration, but the whole initiative hitherto exercised by the state was laid into the hands of the Commune.

Having once got rid of the standing army and the police – the physical force elements of the old government – the Commune was anxious to break the spiritual force of repression, the “parson-power", by the disestablishment and disendowment of all churches as proprietary bodies. The priests were sent back to the recesses of private life, there to feed upon the alms of the faithful in imitation of their predecessors, the apostles.

The whole of the educational institutions were opened to the people gratuitously, and at the same time cleared of all interference of church and state. Thus, not only was education made accessible to all, but science itself freed from the fetters which class prejudice and governmental force had imposed upon it.

The judicial functionaries were to be divested of that sham independence which had but served to mask their abject subserviency to all succeeding governments to which, in turn, they had taken, and broken, the oaths of allegiance. Like the rest of public servants, magistrates and judges were to be elective, responsible, and revocable. (Marx, The Civil War in France, Chapter 5)


In many aspects, particularly in my more abstract understanding, a Workers' State isn't much of a State at all. The army and police are to be disbanded and replaced by armed citizens; the governing bodies are to be made up of worker councils; all public officials are not to receive a higher wage than an average worker; all laws protecting corrupt clergy are to be abolished; all public officials are to be recallable at any time; and so on. Lenin, who is still a boogieman to many, also talked about such measures in his writings about a Workers' State (e.g., The State and Revolution). The following is Lenin writing in 1917, a few months before the October Revolution:


What is the class composition of this other government? It consists of the proletariat and the peasants (in soldiers’ uniforms). What is the political nature of this government? It is a revolutionary dictatorship, i.e., a power directly based on revolutionary seizure, on the direct initiative of the people from below, and not on a law enacted by a centralised state power. It is an entirely different kind of power from the one that generally exists in the parliamentary bourgeois-democratic republics of the usual type still prevailing in the advanced countries of Europe and America. This circumstance often over looked, often not given enough thought, yet it is the crux of the matter. This power is of the same type as the Paris Commune of 1871. 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; they not only become elected officials, 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. (Lenin, The Dual Power, Marxists Internet Archive)

Obviously, both Lenin and Marx had similar ideas. It is also obvious that neither man advocated any sort of "red bureaucracy" or "bureaucratic totalitarianism." (It is worth noting Lenin's use of the word "dictatorship" is different than our modern usage. It essentially means majority rule. In a Workers' State there would be a true majority rule, a "dictatorship of the proletariat." In a Capitalist State, like the United States today for example, there is a "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.") Most of all, by quoting Marx and Lenin side by side like that, I wanted to point out that neither of them invented the Workers' State! This is extremely important. Both men based their ideas on the Paris Commune. Once again, the ingenuity of the working class comes up with a solution for their situation. In the hands of leaders like Marx and Lenin, these solutions became a formulated plan of attack.

Now, with an understanding of a Workers' State, it isn't hard to see how nationalization has a completely different meaning. This is another topic that many on the left seem to be confused about. Of course nationalization of any industry under a Capitalist State, or a State run by a bureaucratic caste, is not going to give workers control over that industry. This is not what Marxists advocate. In fact, I'm personally not too thrilled with even describing the working class seizure of industry as "nationalization." In many respects it isn't any sort of "nation" taking over industry, but a worldwide class. This brings up another extremely important part of worker control: Internationalism. The Workers' State has no interest in chest-thumping, flag-waving chauvinism. As Marx and Engels so famously said, "Workers of the world unite!"

Unfortunately, due both to Western and Stalinist governments, much of the history of the Workers' State has been distorted or suppressed. Many Stalinist States claimed, among other things, that they had achieved Socialism and were building Communism. In reality, Stalinism, in all its different variations, has little to do with a Marxist conception of Socialism or Communism. Western governments were quick to point out the shortcomings of these bureaucratic caricatures of Socialism in order to discredit anyone advocating a worker controlled society. Tellingly, both the "Communist" and the Capitalist parts of the world didn't have to stretch the truth to come up with horrible abuses committed by the other side.

So is a Workers' State possible? This seems to be the central question. The few times there have been genuine attempts, they have not succeeded. What is to say it ever will? It helps to remember that the bourgeois State is a relatively new invention. And like all inventions, it had to be created. Imagine a commoner arguing for the same political rights as the royalty in feudal Europe. No doubt they were considered radical, "out there" so to speak. But they not only argued for political rights, they fought and took them. They failed many times, but in the end succeeded. There was a material and social basis for this new society. Feudalism was historically rotten. The same applies for Capitalism. Capitalism, and bourgeois society in general, have long ago stopped playing a progressive historical role. They are rotten to the core. Capitalism has continued to "work" because of State intervention, but hardly a decade can go by without a major crisis. These crises are not simply caused by bad policies, or bad leaders, but instead are a result of the internal contradictions of Capitalism itself. (The current crisis, a crisis of overproduction, was explained by Marx well over a century ago.)

It is obvious that a Workers' State is not going to come about overnight. It is also obvious it is not going to form by itself. Of course those who control society today will use all the power they have to fight against any threat to their rule. But despite all their weapons and propaganda, they are on the wrong side of history. This is what convinced me to get involved. I urge you to do the same.