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Engels on the withering away of the state

I have been doing some research on resource rent taxes and became so immersed in statised views of taxation as a social goal and the social democratic idea of progressive redistribution that I began again to think about the real role of the capitalist state. And that led me, via Lenin’s State and Revolution, to this quote for Engels in Anti-Duhring:

“The proletariat seizes from state power and turns the means of production into state property to begin with. But thereby it abolishes itself as the proletariat, abolishes all class distinctions and class antagonisms, and abolishes also the state as state. Society thus far, operating amid class antagonisms, needed the state, that is, an organization of the particular exploiting class, for the maintenance of its external conditions of production, and, therefore, especially, for the purpose of forcibly keeping the exploited class in the conditions of oppression determined by the given mode of production (slavery, serfdom or bondage, wage-labor). The state was the official representative of society as a whole, its concentration in a visible corporation. But it was this only insofar as it was the state of that class which itself represented, for its own time, society as a whole: in ancient times, the state of slave-owning citizens; in the Middle Ages, of the feudal nobility; in our own time, of the bourgeoisie. When at last it becomes the real representative of the whole of society, it renders itself unnecessary. As soon as there is no longer any social class to be held in subjection, as soon as class rule, and the individual struggle for existence based upon the present anarchy in production, with the collisions and excesses arising from this struggle, are removed, nothing more remains to be held in subjection — nothing necessitating a special coercive force, a state. The first act by which the state really comes forward as the representative of the whole of society — the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society — is also its last independent act as a state. State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies down of itself. The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The state is not ‘abolished’. It withers away. This gives the measure of the value of the phrase ‘a free people’s state’, both as to its justifiable use for a long time from an agitational point of view, and as to its ultimate scientific insufficiency; and also of the so-called anarchists’ demand that the state be abolished overnight.”

The entrenchment of the Stalinist states means either that Engels was wrong about their withering away or it  wasn’t the working class in charge of those states and nationalised industry.

What do you think about what Engels wrote?

Lenin pointed out that the state Engels was referring to as withering away was the workers’ state. It was necessary to smash the capitalist state; the workers’ state that did this would wither way. Thus Lenin says in State and Revolution:

“In the first place, at the very outset of his argument, Engels says that, in seizing state power, the proletariat thereby “abolishes the state as state”. It is not done to ponder over over the meaning of this. Generally, it is either ignored altogether, or is considered to be something in the nature of “Hegelian weakness” on Engels’ part. As a matter of fact, however, these words briefly express the experience of one of the greatest proletarian revolutions, the Paris Commune of 1871, of which we shall speak in greater detail in its proper place. As a matter of fact, Engels speaks here of the proletariat revolution “abolishing” the bourgeois state, while the words about the state withering away refer to the remnants of the proletarian state after the socialist revolution. According to Engels, the bourgeois state does not “wither away”, but is “abolished” by the proletariat in the course of the revolution. What withers away after this revolution is the proletarian state or semi-state.”



Comment from Dr_Tad
Time October 24, 2010 at 6:01 pm

Gramsci, also drawing on the Hegelian heritage, makes an argument that the state must be understood more widely than simply the state apparatus. Rather, it is the ensemble of relations of domination and hegemony exercised by a ruling class… what he terms “the integral state”. For the working class to overcome this two things are essential. First a struggle to win hegemony — i.e. the leadership of other subaltern groupings on a consensual basis — through the forging of alliances counterposed to the interests of the ruling class. Second a replacement of the current state with “state that is not a state” (akin to what Engels and Lenin talk about).

Interestingly, Gramsci sees this latter event as relatively simple in advanced capitalist countries because the difficult task is for the proletariat to develop its own hegemonic movement and hegemonic apparatus opposed to the complex systems of bourgeois hegemony. Once that is done, the social basis for continued bourgeois rule is fatally undermined and that leaves only a narrow coercive apparatus that is relatively easy to push aside.

Comment from John
Time October 24, 2010 at 8:55 pm

Thanks Tad. Re the state apparatus idea, Harman has an article in ISJ on the various left theories of the state too. It’s from1991 but only reprinted online in 2007 and called the State and capitalism today.
I think the first task of the working class in countries where it is the majority class is to win the majority to the idea of socialism. That means the vanguard forming a party of their own. The ‘leadership of other subaltern groups’ can flow from that. That is being played out in France now, i think. The lack of a vanguard party with strong roots and credibility in the working class may delay or fatally wound the struggle there. The NPA is trying to take that role but is as yet too small, I suspect.

Comment from Dr_Tad
Time October 24, 2010 at 10:17 pm

I read the Harman article when it first came out and it was a revelation, prefiguring the “globalisation” debate on the Left.

Nevertheless, the issue of hegemony is an important one because it speaks to the theoretico-practical activity of any “vanguard” (a term so abused I feel the need to use quotation marks). I am therefore in disagreement with your statement that the “the first task of the working class … is to win the majority to the idea of socialism” as you seem to be counterposing a kind of educative function to the struggle for hegemony, which necessarily involves a certain kind of reflective practice.

The majority need to be won not to the “idea” of socialism, but to the conscious practice of revolutionary transformation. That process of struggle, wherein collective action also shapes consciousness, necessarily involves broader alliances than just within the working class. The argument for the revolutionary party is that, by being the conscious and collective organic intellectual of the class, it can play the leadership role in that process.

There is another reason why a strategic orientation on leading other subaltern groups is an issue for the here and now: In any mass struggle different social actors can at times play an objectively anti-capitalist role and come into alliance (potential or actual) with the working class. But for that to be translated into a coherent, general movement against the system requires the leading role of the working class. The revolutionary party must therefore be able to manage alliances that spring up, arguing for a United Front approach rather than any number of mistaken alternatives, e.g. the Popular Front. In other words, I take issue with the idea that the leadership of other subaltern groups flows from the formation of a vanguard party. It is equally true that a revolutionary party is formed from those organic intellectuals who have already been carrying out the practice of such leadership.

Comment from John
Time October 25, 2010 at 5:03 am

I think that the first task of the working class is to build a party that is the ‘revolutionary transformative’ (as you put it) wing of the working class. Revolutionary transformation is ‘the idea’. Revolution is the practice. To talk of alliances before that wing exists in any concrete sense is, I believe, to imagine such a transformative wing already exists.

That is not to say that ‘united fronts’ are not a goal. But why would others unite in action with a class that is not sufficiently for itself to create its own political expression yet? Given that that political expression does not exist in Australia, a united front is only a goal. I’d love nothing more than to be able to argue for a united front with the ALP or the Greens over specific issues. Until the class builds its own political organisation that is not going to happen.

The role of organic intellectuals is an important one. They will play a role in party building.

While they exist in Australia today they are not coalesced in that political organisation, or perhaps even conscious yet of their role given the lack of class struggle in Australia today.

I’d be interested in understanding this debate in the context of real class struggle, especially France. I might concretise the argument in the context of France if I can again have a look at and understand the recent interview with Olivier Besancenot from the NPA.

Comment from Dr_Tad
Time October 25, 2010 at 6:32 am

My difference is with what I see as a linear stages approach in what you’re arguing here — i.e. the “idea” comes before the action, the party must be built before the struggle for hegemony, there must be a party of a certain size before united fronts become relevant, etc.

France in recent years is a good example of how these processes occur simultaneously rather than one after the other, although at a level of development that falls short of actual revolution. Formation of organic intellectuals occurs in struggles with which conscious, organised revolutionaries (like those in the NPA) have no contact, because their formation is a product of self-activity. Profoundly radical actions take place despite the conservative ideas in those workers’ heads, thereafter transforming the ideological terrain regarding what is possible. Alliances between workers and students develop, apparently spontaneously. Reactionary union leaders and Socialist Party officials back radical industrial action despite careers spent opposing such measures. Sections of the middle class are radicalised and start campaigning on progressive issues. This is the process of the struggle for hegemony writ large, but with the missing element of a large and self-conscious proletarian hegemonic apparatus (i.e. a mass revolutionary party).

Sure the NPA may only be able to engage in relatively small united front type activity in practice, but in order to make sense to the layers of radicalising workers and students it needs to be able to articulate more than a “build the party now for later” line. It needs to position itself — in its ideas and practice — to demonstrate, in however small a way, that it is trying to organise the organic intellectuals to deepen and broaden the hegemonic struggle.

I am not saying that a small socialist group can do the same things as a mass party. But unless it sees its project as a hegemonic one, it risks developing only by an internal logic of accumulating members towards some future point of “critical mass”. Whatever the problems the NPA has had since its formation, I think the way its forerunners in the LCR decided to open themselves out to a wider layer of independently developing organic intellectuals was a bold move in such a direction. Risky, but then what aspect of revolutionary strategy isn’t?

Building a party and the wider struggle for hegemony are part of the same process. They don’t happen one after the other.

Comment from noni
Time October 25, 2010 at 9:44 am

You really need to read Trotsky, Soviet Union was a transitional state in a backward society encircled by capitalist countries.

Comment from John
Time October 25, 2010 at 6:43 pm

Thanks Noni. Trotsky was wrong. It was state capitalist. You should read Cliff et al from the international socialist tendency as to why… Otherwise socialists end up supporting the form of state ownership over its substance, whether the working class controls its state. And you end up supporting the idea that revolution can be made by the red Army and not by the working class. This of course is a contradiction of Marx’s basic idea that the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class.

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