Lessons for Building a Democratic Workers’ State

El Tercer Mundo (Wilfredo Lam, 1965 )
El Ter­cer Mundo (Wil­fredo Lam, 1965 )

We asked sev­eral con­trib­u­tors to write on the theme of the state and rev­o­lu­tion­ary strat­egy, for a round­table dis­cus­sion revolv­ing around the fol­low­ing prompt:

“In the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies the social­ist move­ment spilled a great deal of ink debat­ing the ques­tion of state power. Lenin’s work was per­haps the most influ­en­tial, but it also pro­voked a wide range of crit­i­cal responses, which were arguably equally sig­nif­i­cant. But whether or not Lenin’s con­cep­tion of the cor­rect rev­o­lu­tion­ary stance towards the state was ade­quate to his own par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture, it is clear that today the real­ity of state power itself has changed. What is liv­ing and what is dead in this the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal legacy? What would a prop­erly rev­o­lu­tion­ary stance towards state power look like today, and what would be the con­crete con­se­quences of this stance for a polit­i­cal strat­egy? Does the “seizure of state power” still have any mean­ing? Does the party still have a place in these broader ques­tions?”

This essay is one con­tri­bu­tion to the round­table. Please be sure to read the oth­ersGeoff EleyPana­gi­o­tis SotirisJoshua Clover and Jasper BernesJodi DeanNina Power.


The Crisis of Social Democracy

The fail­ure of social­ism in the early 20th cen­tury is a pro­duct of the inter­nal con­tra­dic­tions of bour­geois democ­racy, which per­mit­ted inde­pen­dent work­ing-class orga­ni­za­tions on con­di­tion that they did not pose a chal­lenge to the cap­i­tal­ist state.1 In this way, the most sig­nif­i­cant his­toric frac­ture on the Left, one which remains with us today, fol­lowed the eager embrace of lib­eral democ­racy by Sec­ond Inter­na­tional reformist social­ists. The rise of social democ­racy in Ger­many dashed any prospect of a tran­si­tion to work­ing class power in Europe by instead appeal­ing to the base sen­ti­ment of nation­al­ism. But even more impor­tantly, the rise of social democ­racy under cap­i­tal­ism was a dec­la­ra­tion of war against the rev­o­lu­tion­ary Left that advo­cated a social­ist break with cap­i­tal­ism. Social democ­racy is still more a dec­la­ra­tion of war by the lead­ing work­ers’ orga­ni­za­tions of the impe­ri­al­ist coun­tries, as well as their fol­low­ers, on the oppressed nations of the Third World. From the late nine­teenth cen­tury and increas­ingly until today, it is only the unre­quited trans­fer of wealth from the lat­ter to the for­mer that has pro­vided the ris­ing incomes nec­es­sary to sus­tain a mass work­ing class base for social democ­racy.2

Lenin as intel­lec­tual and rev­o­lu­tion­ary always rec­og­nized the state as a coer­cive appa­ra­tus in Tsarist Rus­sia and the cap­i­tal­ist west. Fol­low­ing Marx, Lenin also rec­og­nized that social­ist rev­o­lu­tion would bring about a work­ers’ state that would main­tain power through coer­cion. Deci­sively, the social­ist state, under attack from national and inter­na­tional cap­i­tal­ists, would oper­ate at the direc­tive of the work­ing class and peas­ants. Lenin sees the state as per­ma­nently repres­sive. The for­ma­tion of the work­ers’ state fol­low­ing the Bol­she­vik Rev­o­lu­tion did not trans­form the fact that state power remains rooted in class power. By rais­ing an ide­al­is­tic unob­tain­able bar for a work­ers’ state as an idyl­lic par­adise of democ­racy and equal­ity far above the present bour­geois lib­eral democ­racy is sheer fan­tasy rooted in pre­tense and chi­canery. Georg Lukács under­scores the rev­o­lu­tion­ary nature of the his­tor­i­cally grounded state:

Work­ers’ Sovi­ets as a state appa­ra­tus: that is the state as a weapon in the class strug­gle of a pro­le­tariat. Because the pro­le­tariat fights against bour­geois class rule and strives to cre­ate a class­less soci­ety, the undi­alet­i­cal and there­fore unhis­tor­i­cal and unrev­o­lu­tion­ary analy­sis of oppor­tunism con­cludes that the pro­le­tariat must fight against all class rule; in other words, its own form of dom­i­na­tion should under no cir­cum­stances be an organ of class rule, of class oppres­sion. Taken abstractly this basic view­point is Utopian, for pro­le­tar­ian rule cold never become a real­ity in this way; taken con­cretely, how­ever, and applied to the present, it exposes itself as an ide­o­log­i­cal capit­u­la­tion to the bour­geoisie.3

Of course, in 1918 the dis­tinc­tion was that the state would oper­ate in the inter­ests of the work­ing class. This did not denote that the state would cease to be a coer­cive and vio­lent force, even if it would be far less destruc­tive than the bour­geois-lib­eral state that has oper­ated and con­tin­ues to oper­ate in the form of a vio­lent dic­ta­tor­ship. The lib­eral-demo­c­ra­tic state is a vio­lent class dic­ta­tor­ship. The tar­gets of this vio­lence and the forms it takes change over time. The main­te­nance of social peace and inter-class national sol­i­dar­ity in the devel­oped coun­tries has typ­i­cally come about by dis­plac­ing vio­lent class antag­o­nisms onto oppressed nations and peo­ples. Thus, for exam­ple, whilst pla­cat­ing the mil­i­tant (and largely Jim Crow) white work­ing class at home, the Roo­sevelt pres­i­dency of the 1930s stepped up repres­sion of the Puerto Rican inde­pen­dence strug­gle. As such, the vio­lent class dic­ta­tor­ship of bour­geois soci­ety can be seen most clearly in the colo­nial world. There, as Marx said, is dis­played the “pro­found hypocrisy and inher­ent bar­barism of bour­geois civ­i­liza­tion [that] lies unveiled before our eyes, turn­ing from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.” In the same arti­cle, he wrote that cap­i­tal­ist pro­gress resem­bled a “hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nec­tar but from the skulls of the slain.”4

Lenin cer­tainly rec­og­nized that the state was an instru­ment of class power and would be wielded in the inter­ests of the class that seized power. As Lenin states: “The main thing that social­ists fail to under­stand and that con­sti­tutes their short-sight­ed­ness in mat­ters of the­ory, their sub­servience to bour­geois prej­u­dices and their polit­i­cal betrayal of the pro­le­tariat is that in cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety, when­ever there is any seri­ous aggra­va­tion of the class strug­gle intrin­sic to that soci­ety, there can be no alter­na­tive but the dic­ta­tor­ship of the bour­geoisie or the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tariat. Dreams of some third way are reac­tionary, petty-bour­geois lamen­ta­tions.”5 Impe­ri­al­ist cap­i­tal­ism, of course, by dis­plac­ing class con­tra­dic­tions onto a world scale, allows these dreams to become a real­ity for a minor­ity of the world’s work­ers (and, ini­tially, only a minor­ity of the met­ro­pol­i­tan work­ers, too). Fur­ther rev­o­lu­tion­ary work­ers’ states have not cyn­i­cally asserted that they were an abstract force for free­dom, equal­ity, and a means of guar­an­tee­ing social rights, as was the case in every lib­eral-demo­c­ra­tic regime.

Given the fail­ure of Euro­pean social­ist rev­o­lu­tions in the early 20th cen­tury, Lenin was most eager to develop the forces of pro­duc­tion for the Soviet work­ers state. To do so also required the dom­i­na­tion of the work­ing class. The notion of the state as a trans­mis­sion belt is a recog­ni­tion that the seizure of power by work­ers and peas­ants would not trans­form the state straight­away into a social­ist par­adise.

The act of seiz­ing state power does not alter the land­scape and appa­ra­tus of the repres­sive state, which, under work­ers’ con­trol, rep­re­sents and defends the class inter­ests of the pro­le­tariat; the orga­nized trade unions which formed under lib­eral democ­racy must alter their stance to defend the project of social­ist trans­for­ma­tion in oppo­si­tion to cap­i­tal and sup­port of the pro­le­tar­ian state, which at times inevitably will lead to con­flict within the labor orga­ni­za­tion. Lenin makes this patently obvi­ous in in “Role and Func­tions of the Trade Unions,” upon launch­ing the New Eco­nomic Pol­icy in 1922.

The only cor­rect, sound and expe­di­ent method of remov­ing fric­tion and of set­tling dis­putes between indi­vid­ual con­tin­gents of the work­ing class and the organs of the work­ers’ state is for the trade unions to act as medi­a­tors, and through their com­pe­tent bod­ies either to enter into nego­ti­a­tions with the com­pe­tent busi­ness organ­i­sa­tions on the basis of pre­cise demands and pro­pos­als for­mu­lated by both sides, or appeal to higher state bod­ies.6

Marx­ist cur­rents over the past cen­tury have selec­tively empha­sized the Marx­ist-Lenin­ist vision that they share and dis­card those doc­tri­nal argu­ments that may be uncom­fort­able and do not con­ve­niently fit in to their per­spec­tive, rooted in a puerile utopi­anism. How­ever, a human­i­tar­ian and moral Lenin­ist per­spec­tive can be drawn from the above pas­sage. To wit: Lenin under­stands the pro­found inter­nal divi­sions within the work­ing class, and the actu­al­ity that a par­a­sitic frac­tion ben­e­fits mate­ri­ally from its posi­tion in estab­lished trade unions under com­pet­i­tive cap­i­tal­ism. Trade unions forged under cap­i­tal­ism are often not engaged in class strug­gle for sys­temic change but pre­oc­cu­pied with economism that ben­e­fits indi­vid­ual priv­i­leged work­ers over the masses—first against unor­ga­nized ele­ments of the class, and then through impe­ri­al­ism and monopoly cap­i­tal­ism.

State Power Today

To under­stand the rel­e­vance of the state power in the con­tem­po­rary era we are duty-bound to begin by detect­ing the pro­found trans­for­ma­tions within cap­i­tal­ism over the past 100 years, under which the work­ing classes in the impe­rial world have gained mate­rial advan­tages through the mar­gin­al­iza­tion and col­lec­tive exploita­tion of work­ers more gen­er­ally in the Global South. As Ellen Meiksins Wood main­tains, state power was and remains cru­cial to main­tain­ing class power and priv­i­lege through­out the his­tory of cap­i­tal­ism,7 a posi­tion that is shared by French polit­i­cal econ­o­mists Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy, who doc­u­ment a class and impe­rial project under his­tor­i­cal cap­i­tal­ism.8 Today more than ever the state exerts power through direct exploita­tion of work­ers in the semi-colo­nial world.

The trans­for­ma­tion of the Chi­nese work­ers’ state to mar­ket social­ism is cru­cial to inves­ti­gate in this con­text, as it rep­re­sents a vari­a­tion of Lenin’s under­stand­ing of devel­op­ing the forces of pro­duc­tion car­ried to the extreme. The PRC and the Com­mu­nist Party of China main­tain firm con­trol of the organs of all orga­ni­za­tional and state power. Work­ers are sub­or­di­nated to the All-China Fed­er­a­tion of Trade Unions, a remote trade union orga­ni­za­tion that claims to rep­re­sent the inter­est of orga­nized labor. But we do have a dif­fer­ence: the indus­trial work­ing class in China is emerg­ing as the major­ity and is hardly a free­load­ing class prof­i­teer­ing off the exploita­tion of lower-wage work­ers in a depen­dent state. Con­comi­tantly, Chi­nese indus­trial work­ers main­tain state power in the abstract sense and would ben­e­fit from orga­niz­ing a broader class alliance within a muta­ble and ide­o­log­i­cally warped state that is coher­ing in sup­port of the upper class and for­eign cap­i­tal. Work­ers are engaged in direct strug­gle against pri­vate, mostly for­eign cap­i­tal devoid of orga­ni­za­tional power for their class.

It is fun­da­men­tal to estab­lish what we mean by the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of state power. I would argue that the nature and loca­tion of state power has not appre­cia­bly changed over the last 100 years if under­stood through the prism of a hier­ar­chi­cal sys­tem of states dom­i­nated by an impe­rial core. The for­mer colo­nial pow­ers con­tinue to dom­i­nate the world through inter­na­tional rela­tions estab­lished upon supe­rior force and eco­nomic depen­dency. How­ever, state power does vary over time and place, prin­ci­pally accord­ing to the dynamic between the polit­i­cal exi­gen­cies of class strug­gle and the eco­nomic pri­or­i­ties of its pro­tag­o­nists. Thus, for exam­ple, what Bagchi refers to as the devel­op­men­tal state is one in which gov­ern­ment pol­icy is designed to pro­mote national eco­nomic devel­op­ment.9 The devel­op­men­tal state can, of course, be one in which the national bour­geoisie rules pri­mar­ily in its own inter­ests, whether by means of par­lia­men­tary democ­racy or right-wing dic­ta­tor­ship (as, for exam­ple, in post-war Japan and Rhee’s south­ern Korea, respec­tively); one in which the work­ing masses, the peas­antry and pro­le­tariat, rule (as in the USSR under Lenin and Stalin and China under Mao); or an admix­ture of the two types (as in the USSR after Stalin and China today). Such states are rel­a­tively dis­tinct both from impe­ri­al­ist sates and colo­nial depen­den­cies. In the early 20th cen­tury the United States and a hand­ful of declin­ing Euro­pean pow­ers dom­i­nated the world through the exer­tion of eco­nomic and mil­i­tary force. Today the dom­i­na­tion of the US rul­ing cap­i­tal­ist class is more far-reach­ing than a cen­tury ago, through its increased capac­ity to demar­cate the bound­aries of inde­pen­dent state activ­ity and to sub­or­di­nate the inter­ests of smaller states to its class and geopo­lit­i­cal inter­ests. As impe­ri­al­ism has inte­grated the world econ­omy even fur­ther, any state that threat­ens to depart from the dom­i­nant inter­na­tional neolib­eral par­a­digm is scorned, pun­ished, and excluded from the inter­na­tional sys­tem.

The state remains an oppres­sive instru­ment today and is con­trolled by the cap­i­tal­ist class.

Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies must chal­lenge capital’s con­trol over the state through expos­ing its sham demo­c­ra­tic pre­tenses that main­tain and expand the power of the upper class and under which polit­i­cal com­pe­ti­tion offers no hope and only mis­ery for the work­ing class. The vio­lent sup­pres­sion and erad­i­ca­tion of polit­i­cal oppo­nents of white supremacy and cap­i­tal­ism in the United States are a tes­ta­ment to the fraud­u­lent nature of alleged “rep­re­sen­ta­tive” lib­eral democ­racy there. We must pur­sue a rev­o­lu­tion­ary strat­egy not just to chal­lenge a rapa­cious state, but also to fore­stall the growth of national chau­vin­ism which is emerg­ing due to pop­u­lar recog­ni­tion of the fail­ure of elec­toral sys­tems and the alarm­ing growth of para­mil­i­tary police and incar­cer­a­tion sys­tems. The façade of democ­racy is now exposed to the pop­u­lar masses at a time when fas­cist par­ties are emerg­ing as the only orga­nized polit­i­cal alter­na­tive. More likely is a rise of the fas­cist right, which can manip­u­late worker inter­ests in Europe and else­where far bet­ter than lib­er­als and social democ­rats. Fascism’s appeal to the met­ro­pol­i­tan work­ing class in the cur­rent cri­sis stems from its unmit­i­gated promise to main­tain and extend exist­ing pat­terns of labor strat­i­fi­ca­tion based on estab­lished national and gen­der hier­ar­chies. Social demo­c­ra­tic trade unions and their lead­ers in set­tler-colo­nial states have a his­tory of embrac­ing out­right white nation­al­ism and chau­vin­ism when the vic­tims of colo­nial-cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion appear as any form of labor com­pe­ti­tion amongst them. I would not say that work­ers whose liv­ing stan­dards have always come at the expense of the super­ex­ploited and oppressed are being “manip­u­lated” when they are encour­aged to join in a renewed drive to plun­der them fur­ther. Pro­le­tar­ian fem­i­nist rev­o­lu­tion­ary nation­al­ism, by con­trast, aims at the expul­sion of impe­ri­al­ism from oppressed nation ter­ri­to­ries by means of cre­at­ing a worker-led united front of all sec­tions of the oppressed with all patri­otic classes. Sup­port for the anti-impe­ri­al­ist strug­gles of the oppressed nations is a solid foun­da­tion for social­ist ide­ol­ogy in the cur­rent age just as much as it was a cen­tury ago. Unfor­tu­nately, it faces the same and even greater obsta­cles now as then. Poulantzas was cor­rect about the neces­sity of democ­racy under social­ism, but he also did not have a solu­tion to the greater dan­ger of cap­i­tal and its abil­ity to cre­ate the appear­ance of real power strug­gles among com­pet­i­tive par­ties, hyp­no­tize peo­ple through the media and dis­il­lu­sion most peo­ple who seek to cre­ate an equi­table democ­racy.10

A rev­o­lu­tion­ary stance must first and fore­most appear as a polit­i­cal move­ment that repu­di­ates the exist­ing bour­geois polit­i­cal sys­tem and cat­e­gor­i­cally dis­tin­guishes the far more exploited work­ers in the South from those strug­gling in the North. Occupy gained trac­tion in 2011 amid work­ing class frus­tra­tion with cap­i­tal­ist dom­i­na­tion over state, pol­i­tics, and soci­ety, not just in the West but through­out the world. But the dif­fuse move­ments lacked a dialec­ti­cal his­tor­i­cal analy­sis of class inter­est in global cap­i­tal­ism and were an expres­sion of dis­ap­proval rather than a rev­o­lu­tion­ary chal­lenge to cap­i­tal­ist hege­mony.

Imperialism and the Global South

One hun­dred and ten years ago, the Indus­trial Work­ers of the World formed in strict oppo­si­tion to the cap­i­tal­ist state. They did not believe in com­pro­mis­ing the prin­ci­ples of social­ism and believed strongly in a dis­ci­plined oppo­si­tion to cap­i­tal. The pro­vi­sional inter­ests of the work­ing class were upheld through tac­tics. The IWW was a gen­uinely pro­le­tar­ian party for a time, but the economism of the IWW was respon­si­ble for its fatal inabil­ity to con­nect US labor strug­gles to those of the oppressed inter­nal colonies.

A work­ing class and anti-impe­ri­al­ist party form ded­i­cated to the over­throw of cap­i­tal­ism and in oppo­si­tion to US and west­ern hege­monic power is indis­pens­able. Occupy was right to direct indig­na­tion at finance cap­i­tal, but failed to express its oppo­si­tion to the cap­i­tal­ist and impe­rial state as such. A social­ist strat­egy must have at its core tak­ing state power: but to suc­ceed we must chal­lenge the power of impe­rial states to dic­tate extrac­tive and unequal poli­cies around the world. We must seek a power bloc that is not the con­ven­tional set of left par­ties, but a bloc of working-class/anti-imperialist forces in the Global South, rec­og­niz­ing class inequal­ity within a divided world sys­tem. We also must rec­og­nize the sus­tained impor­tance of impe­ri­al­ism. In the 1970s to 1980s, smug West­ern Marx­ists and Euro­com­mu­nists all but jet­ti­soned the con­cept as an applic­a­ble means for under­stand­ing the real­ity of class strug­gles on a global basis. Oppo­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism with­out a grasp of the class divi­sions that cor­re­spond with national bound­aries is essen­tial.

Ever since the French Social­ists came to power in 1981 it is obvi­ous to us all that the Sec­ond Inter­na­tional social­ism idea of the Left tak­ing power is delu­sional, even if it pro­vided a momen­tary period of hope when cap­i­tal in the mod­ern state was ascen­dant and the post-war Soviet Union was fail­ing to meet its ide­als rooted in build­ing a work­ers’ state. Social­ist praise for the devel­op­ment of civil lib­er­ties and human rights in the West is highly insen­si­tive to cul­tural dif­fer­ence and rel­e­vant only to the priv­i­leged and a thin layer of the oppressed. We have no exam­ples of suc­cesses on the Left in the West that could be sus­tained for more than a short period of time with­out a coun­ter­at­tack from cap­i­tal. The growth of finan­cial­iza­tion has made it even more dif­fi­cult to rein in the power of cap­i­tal in most states. The idea of a power bloc, as in Greece and other regions, is a stim­u­lat­ing under­tak­ing for the Left, but it is also largely bereft of any con­crete evi­dence that it will achieve any gain.

Tak­ing state power is only rel­e­vant if seized by social­ists in the Third World coun­tries on a regional geo­graphic level. Yes, some­thing like a Soviet Union. In the early 21st cen­tury most states can be turned into “failed states” if opposed by cap­i­tal. Thus. we need to re-imag­ine tak­ing state power on a much wider level. The axiom of the Cold War era that impe­rial wars were to be fought over the spoils in the Third World is more pre­scient today than ever, as class strug­gles expand in the Global South and the West is extend­ing its exploita­tion from extrac­tive indus­tries to the pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties. The United States is reviv­ing its Cold War stance not in oppo­si­tion to Rus­sia or other regional states, but out of fear that a work­ing class bloc could form at a time when the West is ever more depen­dent on both nat­u­ral resources and com­modi­ties pro­duced by work­ers in the Global South.

This model is anal­o­gous to extant social­ist states that have asserted the impor­tance of devel­op­ing the means of pro­duc­tion before advanc­ing the class inter­ests. The state becomes essen­tially the rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the work­ers. The ques­tion is whether in fact the “com­mu­nist” State does rep­re­sent the inter­ests of work­ers and peas­ants. This is cer­tainly not the case in China and Viet­nam, and other states that are advanc­ing with the patina of “com­mu­nism.” The Chi­nese state could crush the “democ­racy” protests of the edu­cated mid­dle class at Tianan­men Square, and per­haps Hong Kong, but given the nature of state power, this new move­ment could gain con­trol over the state: a fate much more threat­en­ing to The City of Lon­don and Wall Street than to Bei­jing. Thus we could con­sider the poten­tial of work­ers’ states to evolve into rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the work­ing class, as direct strug­gles grow at an ever more rapid pace.

  1. I wish to thank Zak Cope for com­ments. 

  2. See H.W. Edwards, Labor Aris­toc­racy: Mass Base of Social Democ­racy (Stock­holm: Aurora, 1978). 

  3. Georg Lukács, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of his Thought (Cam­bridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971), 64. 

  4. Karl Marx, “The Future Results of British Rule in India,” in Robert C. Tucker, ed. The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed. (New York: W.W. Nor­ton 1978), 663-664. 

  5. V.I. Lenin, “The­sis and Report on Bour­geois Democ­racy and the Dic­ta­tor­ship of the Pro­le­tariat,” March 4, 1919. 

  6. V.I. Lenin, “Role and Func­tions of the Trade Unions,” Lenin’s Col­lected Works, Vol­ume 33, 2nd Eng­lish Edi­tion (Moscow: Pro­gress Pub­lish­ers, 1965), 188-196. 

  7. Ellen Meiksins Wood, Empire of Cap­i­tal (Lon­don: Verso, 2003). 

  8. Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy, The Cri­sis of Neolib­er­al­ism (Cam­bridge, MA: Har­vard Uni­ver­sity Press, 2011). 

  9. See, for exam­ple, Amiya Kumar Bagchi, “The Devel­op­men­tal State Under Impe­ri­al­ism,” in Glob­al­iza­tion Under Hege­mony: The Chang­ing World Econ­omy, ed. K.S. Jomo (Lon­don: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 2006). 

  10. Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Social­ism (Lon­don: Verso, 2014). 

Author of the article

is professor of political science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. His research focuses on working class mobilization, Global South workers, migration, resistance and social movements. Ness is author of The New Industrial Proletariat (Pluto Press, 2015); Guest Workers and Resistance to US Corporate Despotism (University of Illinois 2011); and Immigrants, Unions, and the U.S. Labor Market (Temple University Press 2005). He is General Editor with Peter Bellwood of Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration (Wiley Blackwell 2013). He is editor of the peer-review quarterly journal, Working USA: The Journal of Labor and Society.