Confused Leftists, who advocate state capitalism in the name of socialism, often speak about a so-called socialist state. Such a concept indicates a profound misunderstanding among such people about the nature of socialism.
The state is the product of class society. It is the institution with which the propertied class defends itself against those who are propertyless. The existence of the machinery of state coercion (government, police, courts, prisons) is not socially inevitable. but “is a product of society at a certain stage of development: it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms, which it is powerless to dispel”. (Engels, Origin of Family, Private Property and State). To put it simply, the state is the body which imposes the oppression of the exploiting class over the exploited class.
Every time in history that one minority class has attempted to take economic power from another it has needed to gain political control of the state. In the case of the capitalists of the last century the workers were often conned into fighting for capitalist control of the state in place of that of the feudal aristocracy. For example, in 1831-2 in Britain there were riots in several British cities in which workers fought for the right of the industrial capitalists to have representation in parliament; in France in March 1848 the Parisian workers manned the barricades for the sake of the capitalists. But the new capitalist rulers in Britain after 1832 (the Whigs) used state power to oppress the workers who had fought for them; similarly, in June 1848 the Parisian workers were slaughtered at the barricades — the capitalists had achieved power by then and were no more willing to concede the workers’ demands than their aristocratic predecessors had been. The history of the struggle for state power is a history of one elite gaining control from another.
Leftists often cite one exception to this: the Bolshevik coup d’etat of 1917. It is suggested that the so-called Russian revolution — which was in fact no more than a seizure of power by a vanguard — was the first example in history of a majority taking political control of the state. That this was not the case was even admitted by the Bolshevik leader Lenin, who stated that “200,000 members of the Bolshevik party are imposing their proletarian will on the mass . . . in the interests of the latter”. (Lenin, The New International, April 1918). The Bolshevik state reflected the rule of the minority; it was not, as Leftists foolishly assert, a dictatorship of the proletariat. but a tyranny of the party over those forced by state coercion to obey it. Stalinism was not an aberration which emerged in the late 1920s — as Trotskyists pretend, without the slightest evidence — but was a continuation of the undemocratic statism of Leninism.
With the Bolshevik coup, enacted in the name of socialism, the idea of a socialist state gained popularity. It was suggested that the Russian state was controlled by the workers and peasants. The Leftists of Europe argued that workers’ states should be set up in other countries.
Let us consider the confusion of such an idea. If the function of the state is to defend the legal power of the exploiting class, and if the working class is, by definition, the exploited class, then a workers’ state would be one in which the exploited control their own exploitation. Such a proposition defies logic. Quite obviously, once the exploited majority are in a position to take power away from the exploiting minority there will be no need for a state. As Engels explained, “As soon as there is no longer any social class to be held in subjection . . . nothing more remains to be repressed, and a special repressive force, a state, is no longer necessary.”(Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific)
A distinction is always made by Marxists between the state — a body of class coercion — and administration. Of course, socialism will require administration. This will be organised democratically, without the need for an elite or bureaucracy who would be in a position to administer the lives of others. When we refer to the state we are not referring to merely administrative features, such as social services for the old or traffic control.
Leftists sometimes claim that the state will gradually die out under socialism. This view is based to some extent on the ideas of Marx and Engels about the need for a transition period between capitalism and socialism in which the state would be used to develop the productive forces so as to make socialism feasible. The Socialist Party does not endorse Marx and Engels’ ideas on this matter, which may have been appropriate to the less developed state of capitalism of the last century, but have no applicability in the modern age of potential material abundance. There need be no transition period between capitalism and socialism: once a majority of workers understand, want and take democratic political action for socialism the new system will be established at once. It is the Leftists’ failure to understand the possibility of the immediate creation of a classless society which leads them to talk nonsense about the gradual decline of the state.
Having gained control of the state machine for the sole purpose of democratically dispossessing the capitalist minority, the state will be abolished immediately. There will be no socialist state. The government over people will give place to the democratically organised administration of things.