Class Society and the State
"Class Society and the State" is the first chapter of Lenin's book "The State and Revolution"

This chapter discusses the following:

  • The nature of the state's power
  • How the state rose to power
  • How the state should function
  • How to smash the state

The Nature of the State's Power

The state is not a power forced upon society from outside; neither is it based in ethics or reason. Rather, it is a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become caught up in a contradiction with itself, it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. But in order for these antagonisms, these classes with conflicting economic interests, to avoid consuming themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power, seemingly standing above society, that would alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ’order’. This power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, alienating itself more and more from society, is the state.”

The bourgeois, and petty-bourgeois ideologists claims the state only exists where there are class antagonisms and a class struggle. They imply that the state is an organ for the reconciliation of classes. According to Marx, the state could neither have arisen nor maintained itself if it were possible to reconcile classes.

The state's primary form of power consists of special bodies of armed men having prisons at their command.

How The State Rose to Power

The state arose from the need to hold class antagonisms in check. It arose in the midst of the conflict of these classes. Because of this, the state belongs to the most powerful, economically dominant class, which, through the state, becomes also the politically dominant class, and thus acquires new means of holding down and exploiting the oppressed class.

The state has not existed from all eternity. There have been societies that did without it, that had no idea of the state and state power. At a certain stage of economic development (with the split of society into classes), the state became a necessity owing to this split. We are now rapidly approaching a stage which the existence of these classes not only will have ceased to be a necessity, but will become a positive hindrance to production. They will fall as they arose at an earlier stage. Along with them the state will inevitably fall. Society will reorganize production on the basis of a free and equal association of the producers, and will put the whole machinery of state where it will then belong: into a museum of antiquities, by the side of the spinning-wheel and the bronze axe.

How The State Should Function

As soon as there is no longer any 'inferior' social class, as soon as class rule and the individual struggle for existence 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 unnecessary, and then dies down. 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.

Working people need the state — this is repeated by all the opportunists who assure us that this is what Marx taught. But they “forget” to add that, in the first place, according to Marx, the proletariat needs only a state which is withering away, i.e., a state so constituted that it begins to wither away immediately, and cannot but wither away.

How to Smash the State

"I declare that the next attempt [...] will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it."

The working people need "the proletariat organized as the ruling class".

The state is a special organization of force: it is an organization of violence for the suppression of some class. What class must the proletariat suppress? Naturally, only the exploiting class, i.e., the bourgeoisie. The working people need the state only to suppress the resistance of the exploiters, and only the proletariat can direct this suppression, can carry it out. For the proletariat is the only class that is consistently revolutionary, the only class that can unite all the working and exploited people in the struggle against the bourgeoisie, in completely removing it.

The exploiting classes need political rule to maintain exploitation, i.e., in the selfish interests of an insignificant minority against the vast majority of all people. The exploited classes need political rule in order to completely abolish all exploitation, i.e., in the interests of the vast majority of the people, and against the insignificant minority consisting of the modern slave-owners — the landowners and capitalists.

But since the proletariat needs the state as a special form of organization of violence against the bourgeoisie, the following conclusion suggests itself: is it conceivable that such an organization can be created without first abolishing, destroying the state machine created by the bourgeoisie for themselves?

Only he is a Marxist who extends the recognition of the class struggle to the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat. That is what constitutes the most profound distinction between the Marxist and the ordinary petty (as well as big) bourgeois. This is the touchstone on which the real understanding and recognition of Marxism should be tested.

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.

The theory of Marx and Engels of the inevitability of a violent revolution refers to the bourgeois state. The latter cannot be superseded by the proletarian state (the dictatorship of the proletariat) through the process of ”withering away”, but only through a violent revolution.

The supersession of the bourgeois state by the proletarian state is impossible without a violent revolution. The abolition of the proletarian state, i.e., of the state in general, is impossible except through the process of “withering away".

Highlights and Review

  • The state's primary form of power consists of special bodies of armed men having prisons at their command.
  • The working people need the state only to suppress the resistance of the exploiters, and only the proletariat can direct this suppression and carry it out.
  • The supersession of the bourgeois state by the proletarian state is impossible without a revolution.
  • The more the functions of state power are performed by the people as a whole, the less need there is for the existence of this power.
  • To smash the old bureaucratic machine at once and to begin immediately to construct a new one will make possible the gradual abolition of all bureaucracy--this is not a utopia, it is the direct and immediate task of the revolutionary proletariat.