Smashing the state versus the "state machine"

As part of the work on revising AFAQ, I've spent some time recreating the Marxist theory of the state and comparing it to the anarchist one as well as the version Lenin expounded in "State and Revolution". As noted, I've come to the conclusion that the SPGB (and its sister parties) are right -- Lenin distorted Marx's theory.

A close (often, a not so close!) reading of Marx and Engels shows that this the case. Essentially, Lenin confused the notion of smashing the state (as advocated by anarchists) with smashing the "state machine". While the former automatically implies the latter, the latter does not imply the former. Thus, a workers' party could, via elections, take political power in a republic and then pass reforms which would destroy the "state machine" while radically democratising the republic.

This is what happened in the Paris Commune, for example. Post-insurrection, elections were organised and the existing town council seized (for discussion, see my recent article on this very subject). Significantly, when discussing the Commune Marx pointed to his essay 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. in which he discusses the need to smash the "state machine".

As will be seen from this extract, this state machine existed before the republic and so was not considered to be identical with the bourgeouis state. As such, it does not indicate how this machine would be smashed... Given the repeated equation of universal suffrage with working class political power, the old "social democratic" position Lenin attacks as being a distortion of Marx and Engels seems to be most consistent with their actual position.

Still, I doubt this will change how Leninists, for example, view Marx, Engels or Lenin... but it may be of interest to those genuine socialists seeking to understand Marx and learn lessons from the past 150-odd years... Or is it just too specific, just revolutionary archaeology (anarcho-archaeology) with little bearing to modern struggles? Ultimately, does it matter what Marx and Engels actually thought or is the "modern" (if incorrect) position of most Marxists the important one?

From the next release of the FAQ

Similarly, Lenin quotes from Engels' writings on the nature of the state during a socialist revolution. Engels talks about the proletariat seizing "state power" and nationalising the means of production, an act by which it "abolishes itself as proletariat" and "abolishes the state as state." Significantly, it is Lenin who has to write that "Engels speaks here of the proletarian revolution 'abolishing' the bourgeois state, while the words about the state withering away refer to the remnants of the proletariat state after the socialist revolution." Yet Engels himself makes no such differentiation and talks purely of "the state" and it "becom[ing] the real representative of the whole of society" by "taking possession of the means of production in the name of society." Perhaps Lenin was right and Engels really meant two different states but, sadly, he failed to make that point explicitly, so allowing Marxism, to use Lenin's words, to be subjected to "the crudest distortion" by its followers, "prune[d]" and "reduc[ed] . . . to opportunism." [Op. Cit., pp. 320-2]

This explains Engels 1887 comments that in the USA the workers "next step towards their deliverance" was "the formation of a political workingmen's party, with a platform of its own, and the conquest of the Capitol and the White House for its goal." This new party "like all political parties everywhere . . . aspires to the conquest of political power." Engels then discusses the "electoral battle" going on in America. [Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 26, p. 435 and p. 437] Six years previously he had argued along the same lines as regards Britain, "where the industrial and agricultural working class forms the immense majority of the people, democracy means the dominion of the working class, neither more nor less. Let, then, that working class prepare itself for the task in store for it -- the ruling of this great Empire . . . And the best way to do this is to use the power already in their hands, the actual majority they possess . . . to send to Parliament men of their own order." In case this was not clear enough, he lamented that "[e]verywhere the labourer struggles for political power, for direct representation of his class in the legislature -- everywhere but in Great Britain." [Op. Cit., vol. 24, p. 405] In 1870, Engels commented that in Britain "the bourgeoisie could only get its real representative . . . into government only by extension of the franchise, whose consequences are bound to put an end to all bourgeois rule." [Marx-Engels Selected Works, p. 238]

All of which, of course, fits into Marx's account of the Paris Commune where, as noted above, the Commune "was formed of the municipal councillors" who had been "chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town" in the municipal elections held on March 26th, 1871. Once voted into office, the Commune then smashes the state machine inherited by it from the old state, recognising that "the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes." The "first decree of the Commune . . . was the suppression of the standing army, and the substitution for it of the armed people." Thus the Commune lops off one of the "ubiquitous organs" associated with the "centralised State power" once it had inherited the state via elections. [Op. Cit., p. 287, p. 285, p. 287 and p. 285] Indeed, this is precisely what was meant, as confirmed by Engels in a letter written in 1884 clarifying precisely what Marx meant:

"It is simply a question of showing that the victorious proletariat must first refashion the old bureaucratic, administrative centralised state power before it can use it for its own purposes: whereas all bourgeois republicans since 1848 inveighed against this machinery so long as they were in the opposition, but once they were in the government they took it over without altering it and used it partly against the reaction but still more against the proletariat."
[The Socialist Revolution, p. 266]

It is, of course, true that Marx expressed in his defence of the Commune the opinion that new "Communal Constitution" was to become a "reality by the destruction of the State power" yet he immediately argues that "the merely repressive organs of the old government power were to be amputated" and "its legitimate functions were to be wrestles from" it and "restored to the responsible agents of society." [Op. Cit., pp. 288-9] This corresponds to Engels arguments about removing aspects from the state inherited by the proletariat and signifies the "destruction" of the state machinery (its bureaucratic-military aspects) rather than the state itself.

In other words, Lenin was right to state that "Marx's idea is that the working class must break up, smash the 'ready-made state machinery,' and not confine itself to merely laying hold of it." This was never denied by thinkers like Karl Kautsky, rather they stressed that for Marx and Engels universal suffrage was the means by which political power would be seized (at least in a republic) while violent revolution would be the means to create a republic and to defend it against attempts to restore the old order. Essentially, then, Lenin was utilising a confusion between smashing the state and smashing the state machine once the workers' party had achieved a majority within a democratic republic. In other words, Lenin was wrong to assert that "this lesson . . . had not only been completely ignored, but positively distorted by the prevailing, Kautskyite, 'interpretation' of Marxism." As we have proved "the false notion that universal suffrage 'in the present-day state' is really capable of revealing the will of the majority of the working people and of securing its realisation" was not invented by the "petty-bourgeois democrats" nor "the social-chauvinists and opportunists." It can be found repeatedly in the works of Engels and Marx themselves and so "Engels's perfectly clear, concise and concrete statement is distorted at every step" not only "at every step in the propaganda and agitation of the 'official' (i.e., opportunist) socialist parties" but also by Engels himself! [Op. Cit. p. 336 and pp. 319-20]

Significantly, we find Marx recounting in 1852 how the "executive power with its enormous bureaucratic and military organisation, with its wide-ranging and ingenious state machinery . . . sprang up in the days of the absolute monarchy, with the decay of the feudal system which it had helped to hasten." After 1848, "in its struggle against the revolution, the parliamentary republic found itself compelled to strengthen, along with the repressive, the resources and centralisation of governmental power. All revolutions perfected this machine instead of smashing it. The parties that contended in turn for domination regarded the possession of this huge state edifice as the principal spoils of the victor." However, "under the absolute monarchy, during the first Revolution, under Napoleon, bureaucracy was only the means of preparing the class rule of the bourgeoisie. Under the Restoration, under Louis Philippe, under the parliamentary republic, it was the instrument of the ruling class, however much it strove for power of its own." It was "[o]nly under the second Bonaparte does the state seem to have made itself completely independent." [Selected Works, pp. 169-70]

Obviously, then, what the socialist revolution had to smash existed
before the parliamentry republic was created and was an inheritance of pre-bourgeouis rule (even if the bourgeoisie utilised it for its own ends). How this machine was to be smashed was left unspecified but given that it was not identical to the "parliamentary republic" Marx's arguments cannot be taken as evidence that the democratic state needed to be smashed or destroyed rather than seized by means of universal suffrage (and reformed appropriately, by "smashing" the "state machinery"). Clearly, Lenin's attempt to equate the "parliamentary republic" with the "state machinery" cannot be supported in Marx's account. At best, it could be argued that it is the spirit of Marx's analysis, perhaps bringing it up to date. However, this was not Lenin's position (he maintained that social democracy had hidden Marx's clear call to smash the bourgeois democratic state).


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