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Lenin on the State and Revolution-- Comments by Engels

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Message Thomas Riggins

Lenin on the State and Revolution: The Paris Commune (1871)-- Comments by Engels
Thomas Riggins

This is a review of Chapter IV of Lenin's State and Revolution (1917, 1918). The chapter is entitled "Supplementary Explanations by Engels" and is divided into six parts. These parts build on Marx's definitive analysis of the Commune and are based on later observations made by Engels which Lenin discusses separately.[tag]

Marx and Engels
Marx and Engels
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1. The Housing Question
This question deals with the provision of housing for all members of society. In reflecting on how the Commune dealt with this problem Engels explains how a working people's state differs from the bourgeois state on this issue. The capitalist state relies on "supply and demand" to take care of the housing problem and as a result some have no housing and others have greater housing resources than their needs.

Engels maintains that any large city already has the housing space necessary to solve any housing shortage-- if only it were used "rationally." Since "people before profits" is a motivational axiom of a people's (socialist) state the rational solution for such a state would be the expropriation of all housing space and its redistribution on the basis of need. A bourgeois state would be incapable of such an action.

The worker's state would own the housing stock [and all other major instruments of labour] and, at least during the transition period to full socialism (i.e., communism) would set reasonable and fair rents. Thus Engels wrote that, "The actual taking possession of all instruments of labour by the working people therefore by no means excludes the retention of rent relations" (The Housing Question, 1872).

This contrasts with anarchist views (Proudhon) that suggest that the workers will become individual owners of capitalist housing stock rather than owning it as a class through their state (again, at least in the transitional period). Free housing (housing without rent) will have to await the "withering away of the state." Marxism has always maintained that the abolition of classes and the abolition of the state are concurrent processes.

2. Polemic Against the Anarchists
The definitive position of Marx and Engels on the state with respect to the anarchists, Lenin says, took place in 1873 in a series of articles published in the Italian press. Die Neue Zeit got around to publishing them in 1913. They are still relevant today.

Marx did not disagree with the anarchists (Proudhonists and others) about the need to abolish the state along with the abolition of classes. It was the timing that was at issue. The anarchists wanted to abolish the state practically overnight the day after the revolution, while Marx and Engels thought the state still had a role to play during the transition from capitalism to socialism and then to communism. Marx, according to Lenin, did not think "the workers should deny themselves the use of arms, the use of organized force, that is, the use of the state, for the purpose of 'breaking down the resistance of the bourgeoisie.'" The Communists and the Anarchists have the same aim-- but the Communists want the use of the state "for a while."

The problem of the transition is exceedingly difficult. The Soviets had the use of the state for over 70 years and yet were overthrown. The lessons of how they were able to last so long and how they were overthrown have yet to be learned.

Engels polemicized against the anarchists on the issue of their anti-authoritarianism. Engels used to give arguments such as can a ship's captain be authoritarian when the ship is in danger. Would you obey Sully Sullenberger if he was your pilot and the airplane was in trouble? These are clearly examples of justified acts of authoritarian behavior. The anarchist response was that these individuals were given "commissions" by the people not "authority." This led Engels to remark, "These people think that they can change a thing by changing its name." Unfortunately this name changing "magic" is still at work. Secretaries of War have become Secretaries of Defense, yet their job descriptions have remained the same. Romani ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant, "The Romans make a desert and call it peace.".

Engels said that if the anarchists had been realistic about the need for authority to be given to specialists when in modern industry and production it was inevitably, within limits, needed it would have been possible for the Marxists and anarchists to work together but "they fight passionately against the word." Still in our own day we see political discussions degenerate into fights over words and the concepts at issue lost sight of.

The anarchists want to abolish authoritarianism as the first act of the revolution, Engels says and he asks "Have these gentlemen ever seen a revolution?" Fear, intimidation (terror if you like) and rifles, bayonets and canons are used to impose the will of one class on that of another. The Paris Commune would "not have lasted a day" if had not applied violence and force against the bourgeoisie. Those advocating the abolition of authoritarian measures the day after the revolution either don't know what they are talking about or are spreading confusion: "In either case they serve only the interests of reaction." Lenin says Engels used the experience of the "last revolution" (the Paris Commune) to arrive at his conclusions. That was a long time ago. Have the times changed?

3. Letter to Bebel
In March of 1875 Engels wrote a letter to the German Socialist leader August Bebel in which he criticized the German socialists' political document known as the Gotha Program which had been adopted that same year at their founding congress. In this letter, Lenin says, one will find one of the most remarkable observations on the state ever made in any of the works of Marx or Engels. No serious Marxist can ignore it without running the risk of talking nonsense about the nature of the state and the road to take to socialism.

In any transition from capitalism to socialism it is unlikely that the capitalist class will fail to put up resistance to the assumption of power by the working classes. When the workers do come to power the bourgeois state will fall into their hands and they must immediately begin to reshape it to reflect the interests of the working people rather than the exploiters. As socialism grows this state will gradually wither away and while it is doing so it will have a transitional existence.

It must be remembered that the function of any state is to enforce class rule so that the abolition of the state is a function of the abolition of classes. The state does not exist to guarantee freedom but to repress one class in the interests of another. The government of the U.S., for example exists, on the one hand, for the purpose of repressing working people, national minorities, immigrants, women, racial and ethnic minorities, etc., in so far as the interest of these groups coincide with those of labor, and on the other hand for enhancing and consolidating the power of the one percent (the leaders of industrial and financial capital, the big corporations, the military industrial complex, those whose income derives from privatization, etc.

Engels said that as long as the working people need to have a state "it needs it not in the interests of freedom, but for the purpose of crushing its antagonists; as soon as it becomes possible to speak of freedom, then the state, as such, ceases to exist."

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Thomas Riggins, PhD CUNY, is a retired university lecturer in philosophy and ancient history and the former book review editor for Political Affairs magazine.

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