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.

After its 2014 publication, this article was also included in a dossier entitled “Comrades, Rally Around Your Soviets!”: The Centenary of the October Revolution.


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.