I am not an expert on the state, the concept of the state or the historical lineages of the State, but I have an understanding of how poorly the North American Communist left understands the state. No, I’m not an expert, but I figure that my ability to read chapter books without any pictures whatsoever (!) provides me with an ability to learn the material enough to make bold claims about the nature of state power. Recently, Charles Bettelheim, author of the multivolume series Class Struggles in the USSR taught me a few basic, but subterranean, lessons about the nature of state power.
What we learned about the nature of state power in Bolshevik boot camp is pretty much discredited by everyone today.
Marx and Engels teaches us that the state is a class state, the instrument of domination of one class over another. The bourgeois state must be smashed. Marx, Engles, and Lenin all agree. Modern critical theory, developed by Alain Badiou, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt among others, while often antagonistic to each other, all criticize the authoritarian vision of state-directed socialism. Negri claims that the “state is the poisoned gift of the national liberation movements” and champions horizontal networks of immaterial, self-valorizing labor as the germ of the emerging Communism within Empire, late capitalist society. Badiou argues that the act of smashing the state itself (revolution) is saturated1: Politics must be constituted at a distance from the state, which always exists, irrespective of its class content. Badiou anchors his post-Leninist vision of a politics at a distance to the State within the short-lived Shanghai Commune and other experiments of mass democracy during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Indeed, Badiou differentiates the Mao of the mass movements who led the charge against the bourgeois headquarters and even flirted with the idea of overthrowing the Party altogether to the Mao of the State which instituted the Three-in-One committees which replaced burgeoning mass initiative from below.
I’m pretty sure I’ve been at a few boring parties or, god forbid, student group “plenaries”, where Communists, Marxist-Leninists, Stalinists, and Trotskyists of all stripes took pot shots at Negri, Hardt, and Alain Badiou while claiming to uphold the Dictatorship of the Proletariat and proletarian democracy2. The problem is that renowned French Marxist-Leninist, Charles Bettelheim, reached the same conclusions as Alain Badiou and Antonio Negri from an orthodox Marxist basis, using a concrete analysis of the concrete situation of the USSR from 1917 to 1923 to ground theory in reality.
Lenin’s developing thoughts on the state
In short, Bettelheim argues that Lenin’s idea of socialism originated in ideas inherited from the Second International. “Socialism is merely state-capitalist monopoly which is made to serve the interests of the whole people and has to that extent ceased to be capitalist monopoly” — Lenin argued in favor of emulating German state capitalism, which he envisioned as constituting a firm economic basis for the future of Socialism. While Lenin harbored no illusions and explicitly noted that remuneration in the state-owned factories followed bourgeois logic of awarding specialists rather than workers and that the relations of production within the nationalized enterprises remained capitalist, The Dictatorship of the Proletariat remained in control. Bettelheim asks: “can the mode of control and the forms of organization required by this mode of control be the same for both of two antagonistic classes, an exploited class and an exploiting class?” (464) Meaning, can the proletariat control state capitalism in the same way the bourgeoisie and their functionaries control state capitalism using the same methods? Can the proletariat “really exercise control over the highly centralized apparatus of state capitalism?” (Bettelheim, 464).
Lenin advocated one-man management in the state factories, coercion in the countryside by means of uniting with state capitalism against the petit producers, the promulgation of specialists within the nascent Soviet state alongside a developing democratic political thought. Bettelheim traces the development of Lenin’s thought from War Communism to the NEP. By the time of the NEP, Lenin admitted that the Soviet state was a Tsarist state “hardly anointed with Soviet oil.” , Lenin “constantly emphasized the fragility and imperfection of the form in which the dictatorship of the proletariat had been realized in Russia. He stressed that consolidation of the proletarian power necessitated close links with the masses, a correct political line, and a thorough upheaval in the existing state apparatus — even going so far as to say that it had to be smashed all over again.” (Bettelheim, 448) The Soviet state was staffed by petit-bourgeois and Tsarist bourgeois elements overwhelmingly hostile to Socialism:
Nevertheless, from day to day the party’s activity was being countered by a body of officials who were basically hostile to the dictatorship of the proletariat, by the place such officials occupied at the top of the administrative machine, and by the bourgeois practices and methods they propagated. An idea of the scale of this hostility to the Soviet state is shown by the fact that only 9 percent of the “old” officials and 13 percent of the “new” ones declared themselves favorable to the Soviet regime when, in the summer of 1922, an inquiry was made among officials possessing an engineer’s diploma. (Bettelheim, 528; my emphasis)
Contrary to the inherited knowledge passed down through the one-sided and linear history of the Soviet Union, A Short History of the CPSU(B), by 1923, Lenin suggested the Soviet state be pared down to a minimum, reasserting the libertarian theses developed in the State and Revolution. Lenin attempted to develop and breathe life into the Workers and Peasants’ inspections, argued for the development of cooperatives in the countryside as opposed to state farms which Stalin and Bukharin favored in their equation of state-centered development with Socialism. Lenin went so far as to claim that “co-operation under our conditions.. nearly always coincides fully with socialism.”
Bettelheim reveals an insurgent Lenin different from the state Lenin upheld by Trotsky and Stalin, who both continued to support the administrative excesses of War Communism and a state-centered vision of Socialism without much self-criticism.
The old Trotskyist argument proceeds along these lines: Lenin developed the NEP as a strategic retreat, state farms were on a higher order than collective or cooperative property, the Soviet state is a ‘deformed’ workers state because the commanding heights of the economy is nationalized but dominated by a bureaucracy. But, doesn’t this contradict Lenin’s very words? In 1923, Lenin said the Soviet state was essentially a Tsarist state “not worthy to be called socialist.”
ALL MODERN STATES by definition, are bourgeois states. The modern state is a bourgeois revolutionary invention. State machinery will always become independent of its economic base and escape the control of the people, sometimes even of the bourgeoisie, as the State does not simply express contradictions within the means of production and reproduction, it also provides a political infrastructure, whether that be a liberal civil society or a monarchical sovereignty, necessary for the constitution and existence of the mode of production itself, but always exceeding these very requirements such that the state remains autonomous. Socialism, which historically has rarely surpassed state-monopoly capitalism, can never permanently anchor the state by the force of its objectivity.
The problematic of state power cannot be reduced to a chicken and egg problem. Is the mode of production dominant or is the state dominant? Marxists-Leninists often view the State as a static corporeal entity. The state is not a body, but the effect produced by the intersection of multiple ideological state institutions, all subject to class struggle. Humorously, the state is like a rainbow, ideological institutions refract and condense power which appears, like the commodity appears as something other than labor power, as a tangible object, but is nothing more than a mirage, a simulacrum3. Foucault says, “‘the state is nothing more than the mobile effect of a regime of multiple governmentalities.“
In Class Struggles in the USSR, Bettelheim undertakes an investigation of the multiple governmentalities within the Soviet State and reaches the same conclusion: The administrative apparatus of the All-Russia Central Executive Committee (VTsIK) replaced the power of the Soviets which dwindled as popular organs of power, the Sovnarkom, an unelected council of People’s Commissars eventually replaced even the VTsIK, which at least nominally included prominent non-Party members of the Soviets, the Political Bureau replaced the Central Committee as the executive organ of the Party, the Factory committees were replaced by one-man management. Some of these political decisions were necessary given the dire situation the Russian Revolution found itself between 1918 and 1921, but even so, these political decisions grew a Soviet state which transformed itself from a weapon of the proletariat and the peasantry into a weapon against the proletariat and peasantry, all while still professing the mastery of the people over government.
All states are bourgeois states.
If all states are bourgeois states, regardless of which class dictates the policy of said states and the method of control used to operate its repressive machinery, how can proletarian, popular power be established and secured? The left in Cultural Revolution struggled for a Commune of China, based on the Shanghai Commune. The Democratic Union Party of Syria, PYD, inspired by U.S.-based social ecologist Murray Bookchin, exemplify revolution as subtraction: The PYD’s goal is not the establishment of a Kurdish state, but the development of democratic municipalities organized in a federation spanning state borders. The PYD, however, does not ignore the state, simultaneously participating in the legal bourgeois democratic process in order to give more space to mass initiative on the ground. Doesn’t the Bolivarian Revolution and The Plurinational Republic of Bolivia follow a similar model of utilizing the state in order to articulate space for mass movements to develop and practice politics at a distance to the state? According to an interview with Bolivian Vice-President Álvaro García Linera, the Bolivian state “does not behave as a collective capitalist in the state-capitalist sense, but acts as a redistributor of collective wealth among the working classes and as a facilitator of the material, technical and associative capacities of farmer, community, and urban craft production modes.” Instead, the Movimiento Al Socialismo (MAS) “[places hope] of moving beyond capitalism in this expansion of agrarian and urban communitarianism, knowing that this is a universal task, not just that of a single country.” Bolivian society is now on a socialist road reminiscent of the late Lenin’s political thought which emphasized the development of non-state praxis.
The State cannot be smashed, overturned, or subject to permanent proletarian political control, as the failure or degeneration of every revolution of the 20th century attests, but it can be neutralized such that social movements can build power at a distance to the state and distinct from it, eventually creating a kind of non-state society we Communists actually want. Marxist-Leninists may laugh at Zapatismo for its dispersal of state power, its focus on building horizontal mechanisms of power which they find utopian, but, can these very same Marxist-Leninists name any movement or organization which has concretely seized state power in a revolutionary mode reminiscent of 20th century Socialism? No, not one has been successful and objective conditions are not primarily to blame.
Socialismo Estado-sexual is over.
Among the North American left, the utopian impulse of Communism for a non-state society has been lost. So-called Marxists-Leninists worship the state alongside their now clearly reactionary figureheads like the pro-imperialist Bashar Assad, who operated CIA torture camps inside Syria, Libya’s Gaddafi, and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. State worship is pure cynicism articulated in machismo political realism and reveals the lack of faith that these so-called Marxist-Leninists actually have in the Communist project. The masses make history, not the State.
(1) The term saturation means that a particular political process or idea is exhausted and can no longer produce emancipatory movements or political organization. Badiou would say that revolution, party, and class are saturated ideas.
(2) Although — let’s be honest — for North American Communists, democracy appears like a distraction, even a bourgeois aberration. North American Marxist-Leninists are thoroughly authoritarian and view organizational life as a persistent self flagellation. Would you really want to live in a society where power is vested in the RCP/PCR of Canada or the Ray O Light group, USA?
(3) A simulacrum is an image which has lost its referent in reality. For example, consider the color yellow. Go into the supermarket freezer aisle. There are yellow popsicles with no label but you know very well the flavor is a variant of lemon particular to the color yellow, a chemical lemon, only slightly reminiscent of a lemon itself. This is a simulacrum. The lemon disappears; the popiscle is yellow-flavored.