Lenin on Class Society and the State by Thomas Riggins

State and Revolution Chapter One "Class Society and the State".

1. "The State-- A Product of the Irreconcilability of Class Antagonisms"


Lenin begins by remarking that the great leaders of oppressed humanity are reviled and hated by the rulers of the day but after their deaths attempts are made "to convert them into harmless icons." Martin Luther King was reviled in his day as a trouble maker because of his civil rights work and as a traitor because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. Now he has schools named after him and his birthday is a national holiday. His fiery rhetoric against racism and  imperialism forgotten. Malcolm X has suffered a similar fate. Once hated by the establishment and mass media he now has streets and housing projects named in his honor and his image graces postage stamps. His ideas virtually forgotten. 


Just recently we have seen the arch "terrorist" and communist agent Nelson Mandela rechristened as the grandfatherly "Madiba" an advocate of nonviolence-- his call for the oppressed to arm themselves and fight for their liberation lost among the platitudes of the world figures who rushed to his funeral to heap praises on the man they tried for so many years to undermine and destroy.


Just so was the fate of Karl Marx according to Lenin. Many left wing politicians and labor leaders of Lenin's day praised Marxism and even called themselves Marxist-- along with university professors and public intellectuals (then as now their name is Legion)-- but their real purpose was "to omit, obscure or distort the revolutionary side of this theory, its revolutionary soul." 


Lenin wants to reverse this trend-- which is even more prevalent today than in Lenin's time-- at least on the socialist left and among those he called "petty bourgeois intellectuals." He sees the main purpose of his book "is to re-establish what Marx really taught on the subject of the state." My purpose is to establish what Lenin actually thought Marx's teaching was-- not decide on its correctness or the truth or falsity of the teaching --at least we will be able to tell the difference between those who only give lip service to Marxism and those who take it it more seriously.


Lenin's procedure is to look up the passages that Marx and Engels devoted to the state and to clearly present them so that, he thinks, no one can be confused about what their ideas really where. He starts off with passages from "the most popular of Engels's works"-- namely The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Popular as this book may be, I don't think it is today Engels's most popular work-- I doubt if, outside of the socialist left, any of Engels's works are considered "popular."


In any event, in this work Engels tells us that the state appears at a particular time in the history of social development. It is not present in bands of hunter gatherers, or in clan or tribal societies but arises when social development has led to specialization of functions in city states where there are food producing peasants, and a ruling upper strata has evolved with professional armed "peace keepers" at their disposal. What has appeared are "classes" of people with different economic functions who find their interests are not always harmonious and they are often in conflict with each other. These developments began during the late new stone age (the Neolithic Revolution) as a result of the creation of agriculture which allowed for the production of a surplus food supply which called for management and storage.


In order for the society in question to maintain social peace and not tear itself apart a power needed to be created that could enforce "order" or social peace and, Engels says, "this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state." 


But why was it that social peace was disrupted by the creation of an agricultural surplus? Because the management and distribution of the surplus was delegated to a group of individuals who were relieved from the daily work of actual production. In times of scarcity conflicts arose between the actual producers and those responsible for distribution of the surplus. These two groups each had one important goal in mind-- group survival-- and thus  ultimately found themselves at loggerheads over the distribution of the social surplus. This resulted in an irreconcilable contradiction between the classes and is the basis for the proposition enunciated in the Communist Manifesto that history, as we know it, is a history of class conflicts.


"The state," Lenin writes, " is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. The state arises where and insofar as class antagonisms objectively cannot be reconciled."  According to Lenin this fundamental  Marxist principle means that where we have state power-- that is wherever we find societies based on classes -- we will find that the education system, the mass media, and the political system in general is dedicated to the view that "the state is an organ for the reconciliation of classes." The class in power knows better but, at least in modern times, their pundits, press, and propagandists preach this doctrine incessantly.


 "According to Marx," however,  "the state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another." No harmonious society here. If you have ever wondered why the government can't (or won't) control the banks and big corporations, why it doesn't end  fracking, why it won't act on climate change or really protect the environment, why food companies and restaurant chains can sell us junk to eat, why women, workers, immigrants, minorities and the poor always get the short end of the stick, the cops always bust up the strikers and protestors demonstrating for their rights, why the interests of the 99% can't democratically get anywhere with respect to the interests of the 1% and whistleblowers go to jail and hypocrites to the state house all you need remember is that it's the 1%'s state not the 99%'s. 


"That the state," says Lenin, "is an organ of the rule of a definite class which cannot be reconciled with its antipode (the class opposite to it) is something the petty-bourgeois democrats will never be able to understand." If Lenin is correct this could have long term implications for left-center unity. The left could make tactical alliances with the center on definite issues but how could the left make long term strategical alliances with people who will never be able to understand what's really going on? This is a question we will hopefully get back to later.


Lenin ends this section by referring to Kautsky's views which are relevant here. There are some who, like Kautsky, agree in theory with what Lenin has explained is Marx's theory of the state but they distort it and do not draw the proper conclusions in practice which are, according to Lenin, "that the liberation of the oppressed class is impossible not only without a violent revolution, but also without the destruction of the apparatus of state power which was created by the ruling class and which is the embodiment" of the "alienation"  of the state from the society it dominates.


Well this is indeed a radical conclusion which cannot  be drawn from  the evidence Lenin has so far put forth from the quotes he has produced from Marx and Engels.  Lenin is aware that he has jumped the gun here and tells us that he will demonstrate the truth of the above conclusions later in his work. We shall see. One of the laws of dialectics is the  unity and reconciliation of opposites so it will be interesting to see why this does not apply to the organ of one class and its "antipode."


SR Chapter One will continue.

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  • I find Riggins' comments on State and Revolution so far to be a refreshing antidote to stale nostrums laden with the faint aroma of inevitability. Regarding that last sentence about the reconciliation of opposites, it is my understanding that the reconciliation referred to carries no implication of gradual reform or violent revolution in the attainment of a higher unity i.e. socialism. In any case the idea of dialectical laws somehow guiding history a la Hegel while finding some qualified resonance in the writings of Marx is off-set by Marx's insistence that history itself does nothing; that, in fact, it is human beings themselves who within certain conditions make history. Lenin, of course is noted for for his emphasis on political decisions within a larger framework of economic determinants. A strong case can be made, I believe, that dialectics serves as a much better tool of analysis than the static categories of traditional logic.

    Posted by john mackoviak, 01/29/2014 5:22pm (5 years ago)

  • Although true, the state does not exist in an ossified, alienated form in tribal communities, its origin is in these very communities, this was recognized and elaborated on by both Marx and Engels; Engels in his work on the ancient gens, in Origen of the Family, Private Property, and the State, and Marx in his recognition of the works of the American anthropologist Morgan, with his revolutionary ideas on human family development using the Native American as a reference.
    Leninism, like Marxism offers no patented formulas for social change or revolution, but only reveals patterns, modern, yet with ancient origins, allowing the social scientist to, within these, creatively and collectively, to plan and act for change.
    Prior to Lenin practicing his famous extension of Marxism, based on its clear principles, Marx's planning and activities had already established a crop of North American Generals, leaders in the American Civil War-Willich, Weydemeyer, and perhaps Siegel and Sorge, which, with the politics of Lincoln and Fre'mont, had helped make in a real sense, the "maturing" working class in North America, which was sufficient to secure what John Brown-the no "pie in the sky" revolutionary Christian, who truly struck the first blow against chattels in the United States of America, freeing it from the fetters of the social system of the Slavocracy-as part of the state-whose, transformation was aided prior to Leninism, with the tool of the Marx/Engels dialectical materialism.
    More later.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 01/27/2014 6:03pm (5 years ago)

  • With Thomas Riggin's submission here and his 01/21/14 follow-up to his 01/14/14 submission, allow the present writer submit some points on Lenin's use of "maturing"(for the working class)and its significance in Leninism.

    1) Consider Lenin's Introduction to the American John Reed's book, Ten Days that Shook the World(this proves a world "maturation").

    This proves it(the working class' "maturing") in, at least a double sense:

    A) Reed, from his experience on the other side of the Atlantic saw its significance from and for his CPUSA
    B) Lenin saw that to understand the Russian event of
    1917, as early as 1919 in his introduction that" ..I should like to see published in millions of copies and translated into all languages", (this Ten Days by Reed). This prophesy of Lenin is almost eerie-this is exactly what has happened and is not, one might add "pie in the sky, or a dogmatic "second coming of the mighty Jesus.

    2) Consider W. E. B. Du Bois's WWI work around a developing or "maturing"world African peasantry with both his Pan-Africanism and his NAACP, and its (WWI's) fight for proletarian rights to the ballot, education, political and social equality(also, we might consider 1919 as our centennial approaches, the CPUSA's contribution to this same struggle).

    3) Consider the epochal meaning of hundreds of millions in the United States, Europe and Africa having positioned themselves to fight for human and economic rights like they had never before, and how Marx and Engel's historical materialism gave all of these peoples a new weapon of action and theory, at least starting from being partisans in the Civil War, advocating for African American liberation as labor in the "black skin".

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 01/22/2014 6:12pm (5 years ago)

  • Reform or Revolution:
    As Thomas Riggins demonstrates, Marx and Lenin provide some astute insights into the nature of the state and how it functions to advance particular class interests. The implication of the state as an organ of repression and not an organ to reconcile class differences and conflicts is that the bourgeois state can only be destroyed not reformed. There can be no neutral state apparatus that serves the interests of all classes fairly and equally. The bourgeois state can only be destroyed, not reformed, to make way for a state that truly serves the interests of and is truly government of, by, and for working people. Those who argue for capturing the bourgeois state and its dominant institutions to make them serve the interests of and advance the cause of ‘socialism’ are only fooling themselves. Conversely, even the capitalist classes do not recognize the state as a neutral organ that can serve the interests of all. FDR’s social and legal reforms were characterized as attempts to ‘save’ capitalism, but it was the capitalists, the very people whose butts he was attempting to ‘save,’ that were its (the New Deal) most fierce critics. When does that type of resistance end and outright counterrevolution begin? Lenin’s State and Revolution is as relevant in today’s climate of Right-Wing backlash as it was the day it was written. On the other hand, ‘reform’ of the repressive organs and institutions of capitalism should not be confused with ‘reforms’ that strengthen working class consciousness. These types of reforms for civil liberties and civil rights within capitalism make transparent the inability of capitalism to truly satisfy the demands for equality among marginalized outcast groups. NT

    Posted by Nat Turner, 01/22/2014 10:51am (5 years ago)

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