Modern History Sourcebook:
Vladimir Illyich Lenin:
State and Revolution, 1918
In State and Revolution, Lenin addresses the Marxist
notion that the state will whither away. He somewhat reinterprets
the idea, and makes prominent the idea of the "dictatorship
of the proletariat".
Class Society and the State
4. The "Withering Away" of the State and Violent
Engels' words regarding the "withering away" of
the state enjoy such popularity, they are so often quoted, and
they show so clearly the essence of the usual adulteration by
means of which Marxism is made to look like opportunism, that
we must dwell on them in detail. Let us quote the whole passage
from which they are taken.
The proletariat seizes state power, and then transforms the
means of production into state property. But in doing this, it
puts an end to itself as the proletariat, it puts an end to all
class differences and class antagonisms, it puts an end also to
the state as the state. Former society, moving in class antagonisms,
had need of the state, that is, an organisation of the exploiting
class at each period for the maintenance of its external conditions
of production; therefore, in particular, for the forcible holding
down of the exploited class in the conditions of oppression (slavery,
bondage or serfdom, wagelabour) determined by the existing
mode of production. The state was the official representative
of society as a whole, its embodiment in a visible corporate body;
but it was this only in so far as it was the state of that class
which itself in its epoch, represented society as a whole: in
ancient times, the state of the slaveowning citizens; in
the Middle Ages, of the feudal nobility; in our epoch, of the
bourgeoisie. When ultimately it becomes really representative
of society as a whole, it makes itself superfluous. As soon as
there is no longer any class of society to be held in subjection;
as soon as, along with class domination and the struggle for individual
existence based on the former anarchy of production, the collisions
and excesses arising from these have also been abolished, there
is nothing more to be repressed, and a special repressive force,
a state, is no longer necessary. The first act in which the state
really comes forward as the representative of society as a whole-the
seizure of the means of production in the name of society-is at
the same time its last independent act as a state. The interference
of a state power in social relations becomes superfluous in one
sphere after another, and then becomes dormant of itself Government
over persons is replaced by the administration of things and the
direction of the processes of production. The state is not "abolished,"
it withers away. It is from this standpoint that we must appraise
the phrase "people's free state"-both its justification
at times for agitational purposes, and its ultimate scientific
inadequacy-and also the demand of the socalled Anarchists
that the state should be abolished overnight.
Without fear of committing an error, it may be said that of t
his argument by Engels so singularly rich in ideas, only one point
has become an integral part of Socialist thought among modern
Socialist parties, namely, that, unlike the Anarchist doctrine
of the "abolition" of the state, according to Marx the
state "withers away." To emasculate Marxism in such
a manner is to reduce it to opportunism, for such an "interpretation"
only leaves the hazy conception of a slow, even, gradual change,
free from leaps and storms, free from revolution. The current
popular conception, if one may say so, of the "withering
away' of the state undoubtedly means a slurring over, if not a
negation, of revolution .
Yet, such an "interpretation" is the crudest distortion
of Marxism, which is advantageous only to the bourgeoisie; in
point of theory, it Is based on a disregard for the most important
circumstances and considerations pointed out in the very passage
summarising Engels' ideas, which we have just quoted in full.
In the first place, Engels at the very outset of his argument
says that, in assuming state power, the proletariat by that very
act "puts an end to the state as the state." One is
"not accustomed" to reflect on what this really means.
Generally, it is either ignored altogether, or it is considered
as a piece of "Hegelian weakness" on Engels' part. As
a matter of fact, however, these words express succinctly the
experience of one of the greatest proletarian revolutions-the
Paris Commune of 1871, of which we shall speak in greater detail
in its proper place. As a matter of fact, Engels speaks here of
the destruction o the bourgeois state by the proletarian revolution,
while the word about its withering away refer to the remains of proletarian statehood after the Socialist revolution. The
bourgeois state does not "wither away" according to
Engels, but is "put all end to" by the proletariat in
the course of the revolution What withers away after the revolution
is the proletarian state or semi state.
Secondly, the state is a "special repressive force."
This splendid and extremely profound definition of Engels is given
by him here with complete lucidity. It follows from this that
the "special repressive force" of the bourgeoisie for
the suppression of the proletariat, of the millions of workers
by a handful of the rich, must be replaced by a "special
repressive force" of the proletariat for the suppression
o the bourgeoisie (the dictatorship of the proletariat). It is
just this that constitutes the destruction of "the state
as the state." It is just as that constitutes the "act"
of "the seizure of the means of production in the name of
society." And it is obvious that such a substitution of one
(proletarian) "special repressive force" for another
(bourgeois) "special repressive force" can in no way
take place in the form of a "withering away."
Thirdly, as to the "withering away" or, more expressively
and colourfully as to the state "becoming dormant,"
Engels refers quite clearly and definitely to the period after "the seizure of the means of production [by the state]
in the name of society," that is, after the Socialist
revolution. We all know that the political form of the "state"
at that time is complete democracy. But it never enters the head
of any of the opportunists who shamelessly distort Marx that when
Engels speaks here of the state "withering away," of
"becoming dormant," he speaks of democracy. At
first sight this seems very strange. But it is "unintelligible"
only to one who has not reflected on the fact that democracy is also a state and that, consequently, democracy will also
disappear when the state disappears. The bourgeois state can only
be "put an end to" by a revolution. The state in general, i.e., most complete democracy, can only "wither away."
The replacement of the bourgeois by the proletarian state is impossible
without a violent revolution. The abolition of the proletarian
state, i.e., of all states, is only possible through "withering
The Economic Base of the Withering Away of the
1. Formulation of the Question by Marx.
The whole theory of Marx is an application of the theory of evolution-in
its most consistent, complete, wellconsidered and fruitful
form-to modern capitalism. It was natural for Marx to raise the
question of applying this theory both to the coming collapse of
capitalism and to the future evolution of future communism.
On the basis of what data can the future evolution of future
Communism be considered?
On the basis of the fact that it has its origin in capitalism,
that it develops historically from capitalism, that it is the
result of the action of a social force to which capitalism has
given birth. There is no shadow of an attempt on Marx's part
to conjure up a Utopia, to make idle guesses about that which
cannot be known. Marx treats the question of Communism in the
same way as a naturalist would treat the question of the evolution
of, say, a new biological species, if he knew that such and such
was its origin, and such and such the direction in which it changed.
The first fact that has been established with complete exactness
by the whole theory of evolution, by science as a whole-a fact
which the Utopians forgot, and which is forgotten by the presentday
opportunists who are afraid of the Socialist revolution-is that,
historically, there must undoubtedly be a special state or epoch
of transition from capitalism to Communism.
2. Transition From Capitalism to Communism.
Between capitalist and Communist society lies the period of
the revolutionary transformation of the former into the latter
To this also corresponds a political transition period, in which
the state can be no other than the revolutionary dictatorship
of the proletariat.
This conclusion Marx basses on all analysis of the role played
by the proletariat in modern capitalist society, on the data concerning
the evolution of this society, and on the irreconcilability of
the opposing interests of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie
Earlier the question was put thud to attain its emancipation?
the proletariat must overthrow the bourgeoisie, conquer political
power and establish its own revolutionary dictatorship.
Now the question is put somewhat differently: the transition from
capitalist society, developing towards Communism, towards a Communist
society, is impossible without a "political transition period,"
and the State in this period can only be the revolutionary dictatorship
of the proletariat.
What, then, is the relation of this dictatorship to democracy?
We have seen that the Communist Manifesto simply places
side by side the two ideas: the "transformation of the proletariat
into the ruling class" and the "establishment ol democracy."
On the basis of all that has been said above, one can define more
exactly how democracy changes in the transition from capitalism
I n capitalist society, under the conditions most favourable to
its development, we have more or less complete democracy in the
democratic republic. But this democracy is always bound by the
narrow framework of capitalist exploitation, and consequently
always remains, in reality, a democracy for the minority, only
for the possessing classes, only for the rich. Freedom in capitalist
society always remains just about the same as it was in the ancient
Greek republics: freedom for the slave owners. The modern wageslaves,
owing to the conditions of capitalist exploitation are so much
crushed by want and poverty that "democracy is nothing to
them," "politics is nothing to them"; that, in
the ordinary peaceful course of events, the majority of the population
is debarred from participating in social and political life.
The correctness of this statement is perhaps most clearly proved
by Germany, just because in this state constitutional legality
lasted and remained stable for a remarkably long time-for nearly
half a century (18711914)-and because Social Democracy in
Germany during that time was able to achieve far more than in
other countries in "utilising legality," and was able
to organise into a political party a larger proportion of the
working class than anywhere in the world.
What, then, is this largest proportion of politically conscious
and active wageslaves that has so far been observed in capitalist
society? One million members of the Social Democratic party-out
of fifteen million wageworkers. Three million organised
in trade unions-out of fifteen million.
Democracy for an insignificant minority, democracy for the rich-
that is the democracy of capitalist society. If we look more closely
into the mechanism of capitalist democracy, everywhere, both in
the "petty" - so called petty - details of the suffrage
(residential qualification, exclusion of women, etc.), and in
the technique of the representative institution, in the actual
obstacles to the right of assembly (public buildings are not for
"beggars"!), in the purely capitalist organisation of
the daily press, etc., etc.-on all sides we see restriction after
restriction upon democracy. These restrictions, exceptions, exclusions
obstacles for the poor, seem slight, especially in the eyes of
one who has himself never known want and has never been in close
contact with the oppressed classes in their mass life (and nine
tenths, if not ninety-nine hundredths, of the bourgeois publicists
and politicians are of this class), but in their sum total these
restrictions exclude and squeeze out the poor from politics and
from an active share in democracy.
Marx splendidly grasped this essence of capitalist democracy,
when, in analysing the experience of the Commune, he said that
the oppressed were allowed, once every few years, to decide which
particular representatives of the oppressing class should be in
parliament to represent and repress them!
But from this capitalist democracy-inevitably narrow, subtly rejecting
the poor, and therefore hypocritical and false to the core- progress
does not march onward, simply, smoothly and directly, to "greater
and greater democracy," as the liberal professors and petty
bourgeois opportunists would have us believe. No, progress marches
onward, i.e., towards Communism, through the dictatorship
of the proletariat; it cannot do otherwise, for there is no one
else and no other way to break the resistance of the capitalist
But the dictatorship of the proletariat-i.e., the organisation
of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling class for the purpose
of crushing the oppressors cannot produce merely an expansion
of democracy. Together with an immense expansion of democracy
which for the first time becomes democracy for the poor,
democracy for the people, and not democracy for the rich folk,
the dictatorship of the proletariat produces a series of restrictions
of liberty in the case of the oppressors, the exploiters, the
capitalists. We must crush them in order to free humanity from
wage slavery; their resistance must be broken by force; it is
clear that where there is suppression there is also violence,
there is no liberty, no democracy.
Engels expressed this splendidly in his letter to Bebel when he
said, as the reader will remember, that "as long as the proletariat
still needs the state, it needs it not in the interests
of freedom, but for the purpose of crushing its antagonists; and
as soon as it becomes possible to speak of freedom, then the state,
as such, ceases to exist."
Democracy for the vast majority of the people, and suppression
by force, i.e., exclusion from democracy, of the exploiters
and oppressors of the people-this is the modification of democracy
during the transition from capitalism to Communism.
Only in Communist society, when the resistance of the capitalists
has been completely broken, when the capitalists have disappeared,
when there are no classes (i.e., there is no difference
between the members of society in their relation to the social
means of production), only then "the state ceases
to exist," and it becomes possible to speak of freedom." Only then a really full democracy, a democracy without any
exceptions, will be possible and will be realised. And only then
will democracy itself begin to wither away due to the simple
fact that, freed from capitalist slavers from the untold horrors,
savagery, absurdities, and infamies of capitalist exploitation,
people will gradually become accustomed to the observance
of the elementary rules of social life that have been known for
centuries and repeated for thousands of years in all school books
they will become accustomed to observing them without force, with
out compulsion, without subordination, without the special
apparatus for compulsion which is called the state.
The expression "the state withers away," is very
well chosen, for it indicates both the gradual and the elemental
nature of the process. Only habit can, and undoubtedly will, have
such an effect; for we sec around us millions of times how readily
people get accustomed to observe the necessary rules of life in
common, if there is no exploitation, if there is nothing that
causes indignation, that calls forth protest and revolt and has
to be suppressed.
Thus, in capitalist society, we have a democracy that is curtailed,
poor, false; a democracy only for the rich, for the minority.
The dictatorship of the proletariat, the period of transition
to Communism, will, for the first time, produce democracy for
the people, for the majority, side by side with the necessary
suppression of the minority-the exploiters. Communism alone is
capable of giving a really complete democracy, and the more complete
it is the more quickly will it become unnecessary and wither away
In other words: under capitalism we have a state in the proper
sense of the word, that is, special machinery for the suppression
of one class by another, and of the majority b! the minority at
that. Naturally, for the successful discharge of such a task as
the systematic suppression by the exploiting minority of the exploited
majority, the greatest ferocity and savagery of suppression are
required, seas of blood are required through which mankind is
marching in slavery, serfdom, and wagelabor.
Again, during the transition from capitalism to Communism,
suppression is still necessary; but it is the suppression
of the minority of exploiters by the majority of exploited. A
special apparatus, special machinery for suppression, the "state,"
is still necessary, but this is now a transitional state,
no longer a state in the usual sense, for the suppression of the
minority of exploiters, by the majority of the wageslaves
of yesterday, is a matter comparatively so easy, simple
and natural that it will cost far less bloodshed than the suppression
of the risings of slaves, serfs or wage laborers, and will cost
mankind far less. This is compatible with the diffusion of democracy
among such an overwhelming majority of the population, that the
need for special machinery of suppression will begin to
disappear. The exploiters are, naturally, unable to suppress the
people without a most complex machinery for performing this task;
but the people can suppress the exploiters even with very
simple "machinery," almost without any "machinery,"
without any special apparatus, by the simple organisation of
the armed masses (such as the Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers
Deputies, we may remark. anticipating a little).
Finally, only Communism renders the state absolutely unnecessary,
for there is no one to be suppressed-"no one"
in the sense of a class, in the sense of a systematic struggle
with a definite section of the population. We are not Utopians,
and we do not in the least deny the possibility and inevitability
of excesses on the part of individual persons, nor the
need to suppress such excesses. But, in the first place,
no special machinery, no special apparatus of repression is needed
for this; this will be done by the armed people itself, as simply
and as readily as any crowd of civilised people, even in modern
society, parts a pair of combatants or does not allow a woman
to be outraged. And, secondly, we know that the fundamental social
cause of excesses which consist in violating the rules of social
life is the exploitation of the masses, their want and their poverty.
With the removal of this chief cause, excesses will inevitably
begin to "wither away." We do not know how quickly
and in what succession, but we know that they will wither away.
With their withering away, the state will also wither away.
Without going into Utopias, Marx defined more fully what can now be defined regarding this future, namely, the difference between
the lower and higher phases (degrees, stages) of Communist society.
4. Higher Phase of Communist Society.
In a higher phase of Communist society, when the enslaving
subordination of individuals in the division of labour has disappeared,
and with it also the antagonism between mental and physical labour;
when labour has become not only a means of living, but itself
the first necessity of life; when, along with the allround
development of individuals, the productive forces too have grown,
and all the springs of social wealth are flowing more freely -
it is only at that stage that it will be possible to pass completely
beyond the narrow horizon of bourgeois rights, and for society
to inscribe on its banners: from each according to his ability;
to each according to his needs!
Only now can we appreciate the full correctness of Engels' remarks
in which he mercilessly ridiculed all the absurdity of combining
the words "freedom" and "state." While the
state exists there is no freedom. When there is freedom, there
will be no state.
The economic basis for the complete withering away of the state
is that high stage of development of Communism when the antagonism
between mental and physical labour disappears, that is to say,
when one of the principal sources of modern social inequality
disappears-a source, moreover, which it is impossible to remove
immediately by the mere conversion of the means of production
into public property, by the mere expropriation of the capitalists.
This expropriation will make a gigantic development of the productive
forces possible. And seeing how incredibly, even now, capitalism retards this development, how much progress could be made
even on the basis of modern technique at the level it has reached,
we have a right to say, with the fullest confidence, that the
expropriation of the capitalists will inevitably result in a gigantic
development of the productive forces of human society. But how
rapidly this development will go forward, how soon it will reach
`the point of breaking away from the division of labour, of removing
the antagonism between mental and physical labour, of transforming
work into the "first necessity life"- this we do not
and cannot know.
Consequently, we have a right to speak solely of the inevitable
withering away of the state, emphasising the protracted nature
of this process and its dependence upon the rapidity of development
of the higher phase of Communism; leaving quite open the
question of lengths of time, or the concrete forms of withering
away, since material for the solution of such questions is not
The state will be able to wither away completely when society
has realised the rule: "From each according to his ability;
to each according to his needs"; i.e., when people
have become accustomed to observe the fundamental rules of social
life, and their labour is so productive, that they voluntarily
work according to their ability. "The narrow horizon
of bourgeois rights," which compels one to calculate, with
the hard heartedness of a Shylock, whether he has not worked half
an hour more than another, whether he is not getting less play
than another- this narrow horizon will then be left behind. There
will then be no need for any exact calculation by society of the
quantity of products to be distributed to each of its members;
each will take freely "according to his needs."
What is generally called Socialism was termed by Marx the "first"
or lower phase of Communist society. In so far as the means of
production became public property, the word "Communism"
is also applicable here, providing we do not forget that it is not full Communism. The great significance of Marx's elucidations
consists of this: that here, too, he consistently applied materialist
dialectics. the doctrine of evolution, looking upon Communism
as something which evolves out of capitalism. Instead of
artificial, "elaborate," scholastic definitions and
profitless disquisitions on the meaning of words (what Socialism
is, what Communism is), Marx gives an analysis of what may be
called stages in the economic ripeness of Communism.
In its first phase or first stage Communism cannot as yet
be economically ripe and entirely free of all tradition and of
all taint of capitalism. Hence the interesting phenomenon of Communism
retaining, in its first phase, "the narrow horizon of bourgeois
rights." Bourgeois rights, with respect to distribution of
articles of consumption, inevitably presupposes, of course,
the existence of the bourgeois state, for rights are nothing
without an apparatus capable of enforcing the observance
of the rights.
Consequently, for a certain time not only bourgeois rights, but
even the bourgeois state remains under Communism, without the
T his may look like a paradox, or simply a dialectical puzzle
for which Marxism is often blamed by people who would not make
the least effort to study its extraordinarily profound content.
But, as a matter of fact, the old surviving in the new confronts
us in life at every step, in nature as well as in society. Marx
did not smuggle a scrap of "bourgeois" rights into Communism
of his own accord; he indicated what is economically and politically
inevitable in a society issuing from the womb of capitalism.
Democracy is of great importance for the working class in its
struggle for freedom against the capitalists. But democracy is
by no means a limit one may not overstep; it is only one of the
stages in the course of development from feudalism to capitalism,
and from capitalism to Communism.
Democracy means equality. The great significance of the struggle
of the proletariat for equality, and the significance of equality
as a slogan, are apparent, jf we correctly interpret it as meaning
the abolition of classes. But democracy means only formal equality. Immediately after the attainment of equality for
all members of society in respect of the ownership of the
means of production, that is, of equality of labour and equality
of wages, there will inevitably arise before humanity the question
of going further from formal equality to real equality, i.e., to realising the rule, "From each according to his ability;
to each according to his needs." By what stages, by means
of what practical measures humanity will proceed to this higher
aim-this we do not and cannot know. But it is important to realise
how infinitely mendacious is the usual bourgeois presentation
of Socialism as something lifeless, petrified, fixed once for
all, whereas in rea1ity, it is only with Socialism that
there will commence a rapid, genuine, real mass advance, in which
first the majority and then the whole of the population
will take part - an advance in all domains of social and individual
Democracy is a form of the state - one of its varieties. Consequently,
like every other state, itconsists in organised, systematic application
of force against human beings. This on the one hand. On the other
hand, however, it signifies the formal recognition of the equality
of all citizens, the equal right of all to determine the structure
and administration of the state. This, in turn, is connected with
the fact that at a certain stage in the development of democracy,
it first rallies the proletariat as a revolutionary class against
capitalism, and gives it an opportunity to crush, to smash to
bits, to wipe off the face of the earth the bourgeois state machinery-
even its republican variety: the standing army, the police, and
bureaucracy; then it substitutes for all this b more democratic,
but still a state machinery in the shape of armed masses of workers,
which becomes transformed into universal participation of the
people in the militia.
Here "quantity turns into quality": such a degree
of democracy h bound up with the abandonment of the framework
of bourgeois society and the beginning of its Socialist reconstruction
. If everyone really takes part in the administration of
the state, capitalism cannot retain its hold. In its turn, capitalism,
as it develops, itself creates prerequisites for "every
one" to be able really to take part in the administration
of the state. Among such prerequisites are universal literacy,
already realised in most of the advanced capitalist countries,
then the "training and disciplining" of millions of
workers by the huge, complex, and socialised apparatus of the
postoffice, the railways, the big factories, largescale
commerce, banking, etc., etc.
With such economic prerequisite it is perfectly possible,
immediately within twentyfour hours after the overthrow
of the capitalists and bureaucrats, to replace them, in the control
of production and distribution, in the business of control of labour and products, by the armed workers, by the whole people
in arms. (The question of control and accounting must not be confused
with the question of the scientifically educated staff of engineers,
agronomists, and so on. These gentlemen work today, obeying the
capitalists; they will work even better tomorrow, obeying the
Accounting and control,-these are the chief things necessary
,for the organising and correct functioning of the first phase of Communist society. All citizens are here transformed
into hired employees of the state, which is made up of the armed
workers. All citizens become employees and workers of one national state "syndicate." All that is required
is that they should work equally, should regularly do their share
of work, and should receive equal pay. The accounting and control
necessary for this have been simplified by capitalism to
the utmost, till these have become the extraordinarily simple
operations of watching, recording and issuing receipts, within
the reach of anybody who can read and write and knows the first
four rules of arithmetic. [note: When most of the functions of
the state are reduced to this accounting and control by the workers
themselves, then it ceases to be a "political state,"
and the "public functions will lose their political character
and be transformed into simple administrative functions."]
When the majority of the people begin everywhere to keep
such accounts and maintain such control over the capitalists (now
converted into employees) and over the intellectual gentry, who
still retain capitalist habits, this control will really become
universal, general, national and there will be no way of getting
away from it, there will be "nowhere to go".
The whole of society will have become one office and one factory
with equal work and equal pay.
But this "factory" discipline which the proletariat
will extend t the whole of society after the defeat of the capitalists
and the overthrow of the exploiters, is by no mean our ideal,
or our final aim. It is but a foothold necessary for the
radical cleansing of society of all the hideousness and foulness
of capitalist exploitation, in order to advance further.
From the moment when all members of society, or even only the
overwhelming majority, have learned how to govern the state themselves, have taken this business into their own hands, have "established"
control over the insignificant minority of capitalists, over the
gentry with capitalist leanings, and the workers thoroughly demoralised
by capitalism-from this moment the need for any government begins
to disappear. The more complete the democracy, the nearer the
moment when it begins to be unnecessary. The more democratic the
"state" consisting of armed workers, which is "no
longer a state in the proper sense of the word," the more
rapidly does every state begin to wither away.
For when all have learned to manage, and independently
are actually managing by themselves social production, keeping
accounts, controlling the idlers, the gentlefolk, the swindlers
and similar "guardians of capitalist traditions," then
the escape from this national accounting and control will inevitably
become so increasingly difficult, such a rare exception, and will
probably be accompanied by such swift and severe punishment (for
armed workers are men of practical life, not sentimental intellectuals,
and they will scarcely allow any one to trifle with them), that
very soon the necessity of observing the simple, fundamental
rules of everyday social life in common will have become
The door will then be wide open for the transition from the first
phase of Communist society to its higher phase, and along with
it to the complete withering away of the state.
V. I. Lenin, State and Revolution (New York: International
Publishers Co., Inc., 1932), pp. 1517, 20, 70-75, 7885.
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