Printer-friendly version

The following text is an attempt to put for-ward a general conception of the state and the dictatorship of the proletariat without trying to come to any definite conclusions. It is a contribution to the present discussion on the period of transition dealing with the basic question of the form and content of the proletarian dictatorship. A more detailed explanation, especially of the more problematic points, will be under-taken in another document.

1) In his classic work, The origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Engels defined the meaning and function of the state. The state is a product of society once it has reached a certain stage of development. It is the result and expression of irreconcilable class contradictions.

The state arises in order to prevent classes  with conflicting economic interests from tearing themselves and society apart in fruitless struggles.

2) If the state arises to dampen down class conflicts, to contain them within certain limits, does this mean that it is an instrument of dialogue between the classes, a medium through which compromises can be worked out? Is it a neutral organism, outside society, which serves to arbitrate its antagonisms? Quite obviously it is not. The state could not arise, nor could it maintain itself, if different class interests could be reconciled. Then what is the precise function of the state? The oppressed classes of all historical epochs have had the answer to this question drummed into them through centuries of misery, exploitation and deportation: as a general rule the state is the state of the most powerful class, the class which has imposed its political and military domination on the historic balance of forces.[1] The state is the instrument used by the ruling class in order to set up and guarantee its dictatorship.

3) An essential principle of marxism is that the struggle between classes is decided not on a legal terrain, but through force and violence. The state is a special organ of repression: it is the centralised use of violence by one class against another. The political state, even (or rather, above all) the parliamentary democratic state, is an instrument of violent domination. The state apparatus makes permanent use of coercive methods in order to control the exploited class, even when it does not appear to resort to material force in the form of police repression, but simply uses the threat of violent sanctions or the legal code (even if unwritten) instead of having to bother with armed repression and bloodshed.

4) As an organ of violence, the state is characterised by the establishment of a public power. This power is indispensable because ever since classes arose the armament of the entire population has been an impossibility. From the very beginning every state created a coercive force, "special bodies of armed men" which could make use of the prisons and other modes of compulsion. Various historical revolutions have shown how the class that has been overthrown tries to reconstitute its former instruments of rule (the armed force which had been taken from it), and how the new ruling class sets up new organisations of this kind, or perfects the old ones, in order to prevent the restoration of the old ruling class and with it any threat to the new relations of production.

5) To sum up what we have said so far;  in every class society the ruling class exerts an open or camouflaged dictatorship over the other classes in society in order to defend its class interests and to guarantee or develop the relations of production associated to it. It is necessary to point out what is at the root of this dictatorship: a given ruling class uses it to defend its interests against the antagonistic interests of other classes in order to ensure the extension, development or preservation of its specific relations of production against the dangers of restoration or destruction. It is thus false to consider that every state must be abhorred and represents a "ruinous scourge" (we are not petty bourgeois anarchists). Indeed, even the bourgeois state in the eyes of marxists was at a certain historical moment, a progressive instrument when it stood for organised force against feudal reaction from within and against feudalism's external allies, and when it set up modern social structures on the ruins of pre-capitalist societies. The state was not simply useful but an indispensable means to enable the bourgeoisie by virtue of state decrees and violence to crush all obstacles to the development of big factories and more modern agricultural methods. Marxism has a dialectical concept of the state as being revolutionary in certain epochs, conservative or counter-revolutionary in others, because the state is simply an extension, an instrument of social classes which arise, reach maturity, and disappear. The state is closely linked to the life-cycle of a given class and thus takes on a progressive or counter-revolutionary role according to the historical relationship of that class to the development of the productive forces of society (ie whether it favours or holds back their development).

6) We have rooted the existence of the state in the division of society into classes. Just as the latter is not an innate characteristic of human society, the state has not eternally existed. There have been social formations without classes and without states and the development of the productive forces, which is now being held back by the very existence of classes, will remove any need for a state and make it gradually disappear. As Engels said: "The society that will organise production on the basis of a free and equal association of producers will put the whole machinery of the state where it belongs; into the Museum of Antiquities, by the side of the spinning wheel and the bronze axe." However, prior to the classless, stateless society, in between capitalism and communism there will be a period of transition, a period of economic transformation of society. The transitional society is still a class society and as such will inevitably give rise to a state and a dictatorship.

7) The state is the special organisation of power, the organisation of violence which serves to keep a given class in subjugation. The proletariat needs the state to suppress the resistance of the bourgeoisie. This repression can only be carried out by the proletariat since it is the only revolutionary class, the only class able to unite the whole labouring and exploited population under the banner of the revolution. Thus the revolutionary activity of the proletariat must lead to its political rule, to its dictatorship – the conquest of power which the proletariat does not share with anyone and which is based directly on the armed strength of the class itself. The bourgeoisie can only be overthrown if the proletariat becomes the ruling class, liquidates the inevitable resistance of the exploiters, and organises all the labouring and exploited masses for the socialist transformation of the economy. The proletariat needs a state apparatus, a centralised organ of violence, both to suppress the desperate resistance of the bourgeoisie and to lead the overwhelming majority of the population – peasants, petty-bourgeois, “new middle classes”, semi-proletarians – in the struggle for communism.

8) Since the state arose out of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms, since it is a power "more and more alien" to society, it is clear that the emancipation of the oppressed class is impossible not only without a violent revolution, but also without the suppression of the state power created by the ruling class which is the manifestation of this "alien" character. This is because the proletarian struggle is not a struggle inside the state and its organs, but a struggle outside of, and against, the state – against all its manifestations and forms. The proletarian revolution begins with the annihilation of the bourgeois state. However, after this act of destruction there will still be a need for a form of political state. It is one of the new forms of proletarian rule necessary for a working class faced with the task of violently extirpating the privileges of the bourgeoisie and organising the productive forces so as to liberate them from their capitalist fetters. Contrary to the position of the anarchists – who (while having the undeniable merit of proposing the destruction of the bourgeois state) thought it was possible to do without any form of organised power once this had been achieved – the Russian revolution has demonstrated the necessity of a political state (a structure of social violence). Since the communist transformation of society will be a long drawn-out process and not an immediate achievement, the suppression of the exploiting class and the integration into socialist production of all the non-proletarian classes and strata will also take a long time and cannot be achieved through physical massacre. During the period of transition the revolutionary state will have to operate, which means – as Lenin had the honesty to say to the pacifists and other petty-bourgeois romantics with their nostalgia for democracy – that it will have an army, a police force, and prisons. Obviously this also means that there can be no confusions about the character of this transitional state, which cannot defend the interests of several classes but of one only, and which cannot be the instrument of a vague conglomeration of several classes and social strata, but is the specific tool of one single class, of the ruling class. It is for this reason that one can and must speak of a proletarian state which is one of the indispensable forms of the proletarian dictatorship. With the progressive elimination of private property and commodity relations the need for political restraint will be diminished and the proletarian state will tend to disappear.

9) We now have to look at the actual form of the proletarian state. There are certain similarities between the proletarian state and the states which have preceded it in history – similarities which allow us to use the word state in all these cases – while at the same time there are important differences in the proletarian state, differences which make it a moment in the disappearance of the state. As we have seen, the proletarian state is the instrument the proletariat uses to repress the enemy class. The proletarian state will also give the transitional society the administrative framework which, since it is still a class society, it cannot spontaneously generate. The revolutionary state, in such a way as to prevent any confusions about its class character, will enable the non-proletarian classes and strata to express their immediate interests to the exclusion of the bourgeoisie which will be deprived of all its rights and means of expression. These tasks presuppose the existence of armed bodies and functionaries. Therefore there is a formal identity between the operation of the proletarian state and that of previous states. However, there are substantial differences between the state of the proletariat and the state of previous class societies, differences which have their origin in the proletariat's specific mission. The proletariat does not exert its dictatorship in order to build a new society of exploitation and oppression, nor to defend any economic privileges. The proletariat has no economic privileges to defend and its only interest as a class is in the real socialisation of production and the creation of communism. These characteristics affect the form and content of the proletarian state:

  1. The lack of any economic base in society makes the proletariat "the class of conscious-ness". It is impossible for the proletariat to delegate responsibility for its political dictatorship to a body of specialists. The working class as a whole wields political power (and military power, ie the general armament of the proletariat) through its own class organs, its centralised organs of poli-tical rule: the workers' councils. Thus the proletariat itself carries out state functions. Moreover, it builds a state in its own image: it suppresses all the privileges that were inherent in the operation of all previous states (through the equalisation of remuneration and rigorous control of functionaries who are elected and revocable at any time), as well as eliminating the separation between representative and executive organs which is a characteristic of parliamentarism. For all these reasons – the state functions of the councils and absolute control over the state by the class as a whole both of which tend to eliminate the "alien" character of the state apparatus – we can talk about a proletarian semi-state.
  2. From the beginning of the transition period the proletariat undertakes the economic transformation of society. There is a correlation between the development of communism and the disappearance of the state. As Engels said about the state:

When ultimately it becomes really representative of society as a whole, it makes itself superfluous As soon as there is no longer any class of society to be held in subjugation; as soon as, along with class domination and the struggle for individual existence based on the anarchy of production hitherto, the collisions and excesses arising from these have also been abolished, there is nothing more to be repressed which would make a special repressive force, a state, necessary (…) The interference of the state power in social relations becomes superfluous in one sphere after another, and then ceases of itself. The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things and the direction of the processes of production. The state is not 'abolished', it withers away[2]

It is only in a communist society when the resistance of the capitalists has finally been liquidated, when the capitalists have disappeared and there are no more classes (ie distinctions between members of society based on their relationship to the social means of production), only then will the state cease to exist, and only then will it be possible to talk about freedom. However, the process of withering away of the state begins as soon as the proletariat undertakes the integration of other social strata into socialised production, the "communisation of social relations". This is why we can characterise the proletarian state as a semi-state that is in the process of withering away.

10) The cries of alarm among anarchists and councilists as soon as they hear the word “state”, claiming that it is impossible to prevent state functionaries from having a “lust for power” and privilege, from trying to become a new ruling class – all this shows their incomprehension of historical dynamics and of social and economic phenomena. Society and the state are not just abstract entities. Marxism has decisively refuted bourgeois mystifications about the “eternal essence” of the state by analysing it as a social form within the materialist framework of economic development and class confrontation. In this way marxism has evolved a dialectical conception of the state: revolutionary when the class that controls it is also revolutionary; counter-revolutionary when it is an instrument used for the preservation of a decadent class. By its form and content, which are directly determined by the tasks and programme of the proletariat, the proletarian state is essentially of the ruling class that makes use of it in order to abolish class contradictions and thus to abolish the proletarian state itself. It is not an organ of the status quo, still less a structure which serves to conciliate the interests of antagonistic classes. It is an instrument of social violence used by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie and the relations of production personified by the latter. The proletarian state is also an organ which the proletariat uses in order to give a lead to all the other exploited classes and strata of society.
11) We now have to consider the problem of the possible degeneration of the state. It is quite obvious that in the last analysis no formal measure can prevent the degeneration of the state or of any other proletarian organ. But degeneration never occurs from any so-called formal flaws some-how intrinsic to the state apparatus. Such a metaphysical and subjectivist concept of his-tory is quite foreign to marxism. Concerning the Russian revolution – all the various “substitutions” that took place in the long process of revolution and counter-revolution (the identification between the party and the state, the state and the proletariat, the party and the proletariat), were not the cause of the degeneration of the revolution, but the result of it. While it is necessary to struggle resolutely against all the substitutionist tendencies that confuse the various forms of the proletariat dictatorship (all of which have specific functions to fulfil), it would be an illusion to think that this struggle is enough to prevent any possibility of degeneration. Even the councils could come under the influence of the counter-revolution. There is no formal or constitutional “immunisation” against this danger which depends solely on the internal and world-wide development of the balance of social forces. The internal decomposition of the proletarian state also presupposes that the centralised organisation of the proletariat has begun to disintegrate and lose its revolutionary content. As the ICC never tires of repeating, the only real guarantee against the threat of degeneration is the consciousness of the proletarian class in close connection with the progress of the revolution.


Extracted from an article in the International Review n°6 (July 1976)


[1]"'By way of exception, however, periods occur in which the warring classes balance each other so nearly that the state power, as ostensible mediator, acquires for the moment, a certain degree of independence of both.' Such were the absolute monarchies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Bonapartism of the First and Second Empires in France, and the Bismarck regime in Germany" (Lenin, State and Revolution, quoting Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State).

[2]Engels, Anti-Dühring