Government, state and the socialist revolution

The Activist Volume 17, No 3 2007
By Doug Lorimer (Sydney branch)

In his article on “Determining the class character of the state” (Activist Vol. 17, No. 2), Comrade Simon Butler argues that we should use a modified version of the method that Trotsky first proposed in 1937 for determining the class character of the state. In his November 1937 article “Not a Workers’ and Not a Bourgeois State?”, Trotsky argued that the class nature of the state is “determined not by its political forms but by its social content, i.e., by the character of the forms of property and productive relations which the given state guards and defends”.1 Comrade Butler modifies this by proposing to add to the criterion of the property forms the state “defends”, the property forms it “introduces”.

Government and state

I’ll come back below to the problems with such a proposal. First, though, I want to take up Comrade’s Butler’s blurring of the distinction between “government” and “state” when he argues that “the capitalist state is `a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie’ (Marx and Engels)”. This formulation is a truncated version of what Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto:  “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie.”2 By truncating this statement, Comrade Butler misrepresents what Marx and Engels were referring to — not the capitalist state in its entirely, but the “executive” body of the capitalist state, the “management” committee (the government) at the head of the state.

Comrade Butler also says that the capitalist state is the “apparatus of capitalist class rule”. This apparatus is much more than the government, “the committee [at the head of the state] for managing the common affairs” of the capitalist ruling class.  The DSP’s 18th  (January  1999) congress resolution on “The Class Nature of the People’s Republic of China” (available in the Resistance Books pamphlet of the same title), points out: “For orthodox Marxists, as Lenin explained in his 1917 work The State and Revolution, the state is a centralised organisation of force separated from the community as a whole which enforces, through special bodies of armed people and other institutions of coercion, the will of one class, or an alliance of classes, upon the rest of society.”3

This centralised organisation of force is the permanent apparatus of a ruling class’s political power, while the “executive” body of the state, the “committee for managing the common affairs” of the ruling class, may be periodically changed. In capitalist “democracies”, for example, this happens regularly through bourgeois elections. But in some circumstances, the capitalist ruling class makes this change through the use of its centralised organisation of force.

In his 1938 article “Ninety Years of the Communist Manifesto” (which is included in the Resistance Books edition of the Communist Manifesto), Trotsky noted that, “Whenever this `committee’ manages affairs poorly, the bourgeoisie dismisses it with a boot” — as, for example, the Chilean bourgeoisie did in 1973 to the social-democratic Allende government. The “boot” used was the bourgeois army.

The Venezuelan bourgeoisie used its “boot” (the Venezuelan bourgeois army) on April 11, 2002, to “dismiss” the Chavez government. However, because of the prior political work done by the Chavistas in the bourgeois army, this provoked a split in the bourgeois army along class lines, enabling the Chavez’s supporters to successfully defeat the bourgeoisie’s military coup through the April 13 revolutionary uprising of the working-class masses (including those in uniform)  — a revolutionary uprising that qualitatively transformed  the class character of the army and the government headed by Chavez.

Elsewhere in his Activist article, Comrade Butler wrote: “ During the Caracazo, he [Comrade Marce Cameron] argues, the armed forces (which he identifies as basically synonymous with the Venezuelan capitalist state) overwhelmingly comes down on the side of the ruling class policy of terror.” The capitalist state, of course, is not reducible to its armed forces (i,e., the military) alone. It also includes other “special bodies of armed people and other institutions of coercion” commanded by the bourgeoisie -- the bourgeois police forces, the secret police (the so-called security agencies like ASIO), prison guards, the judiciary (in so far as the police and prison guards enforce the judiciary’s decisions) and the “public service” bureaucracy (the privileged officials at the head of the “public service” —  again, in so far as the military, the police and secret police enforce their decisions).

But the military forces, particularly the army, are the ultimate and decisive instrument of bourgeois state power. This was clearly pointed out by the Bolsheviks in their commentary on their new 1919 party program — Bukharin and Preobrazhensly’s book The ABC of Communism. They wrote:

The state power is an organisation. The bourgeois state power is a bourgeois organisation, and in that organisation people are assigned their roles in a distinctive manner. At the head of the army are generals, members of the wealthy class; at the head of the administration are ministers, members of the wealthy class; and so on. When the proletariat is fighting for power, against whom and what is it fighting? In the first place, against this bourgeois organisation. Now when it is fighting this organisation, its task is to deliver blows that will destroy this organisation. But since the main strength of the government resides in the army, if we wish to gain the victory over the bourgeoisie, the first essential is to disorganise and destroy the bourgeois army. The German Communists could not overthrow the regime of Scheidemann and Noske unless they could destroy the army of White Guards. If the opposing army remains intact, the victory of the revolution will be impossible; if the revolution be victorious, the army of the bourgeoisie will disintegrate and crumble. This, for example, is why the victory over tsarism [in February 1917 – DL] signified no more than a partial destruction of the tsarist state and a partial decomposition of the army; but the victory of the November revolution denoted the final overthrow of the state organisation of the Provisional Government and the total dissolution of the Kerenskyite army.

Thus the revolution destroys the old power and creates a new one, a different power from that which existed before. Of course the new power takes over some of the constituent parts of the old, but it uses them in a different way.

It follows that the conquest of state power is not the conquest of the pre-existent organisation, but the creation of a new organisation, an organisation brought into being by the class which has been victorious in the struggle.4

The state and social revolution

Our 1999 China resolution, in its first section (“Theoretical Framework”), points out that, as a general rule, “the state is the organ of defence of the interests of the economically dominant class, i.e., the class that owns the decisive means of production”. However,  “for a certain period of time in a social revolution the revolutionary state power operates on an economic basis in which the old property relations still exist. Thus, for example, during the first few years of the Great French Revolution of 1789-93 the revolutionary state power created by the political representatives of the French bourgeoisie ruled over a society in which the feudal landowning nobility retained legal title to its landed estates; similarly, during the first eight months of the rule of the proletarian state power in Russia (November 1917 to June 1918) , the capitalists still had legal ownership of most industrial and commercial enterprises… The existence of a contradiction between the class nature of the state power and the prevailing property relations is a distinguishing feature of a social revolution or a social counterrevolution. The class nature of the state power during a social revolution or a social counterrevolution is, therefore, not determined by the property relations that are initially dominant , but by the measures that the state power adopts toward the antagonistic classes, i.e., by which class forces the state power attempts to organise and which class forces it attempts to suppress.” (my emphasis)

With regard to the socialist revolution, as the  Communist Manifesto explains, “the first step in the revolution of the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class”. Marx and Engels went on to point out that the “proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class and to increase the productive forces of society as rapidly as possible.” This fundamental law of scientific socialism has been confirmed by every socialist revolution.

In his Activist article, Comrade Butler wrote: “A workers’ state meanwhile organises the working class for a specific, not a general, purpose i.e., to introduce and defend socialist forms of property relations.” This, of course, is true; but how are “socialist forms of property” introduced? They are introduced into a pre-existing capitalist economy, as the Communist Manifesto says, through the centralisation of the means of production “in the hands of the state, i.e., the proletariat organised as the ruling class”.  But this means that the proletariat has first got to be organised as a state power, as the ruling class — through the establishment of a working people’s government resting on a working-class armed force that has replaced, through a revolutionary mobilisation of the masses, the bourgeois government and the bourgeois army.

There are thus two qualitatively steps in the socialist revolution — the first being a purely political step (the organisation of the proletariat as the ruling class), and the second being the replacement of capitalist property forms with socialist property forms.

There is always a time gap between the first step and the commencement of the second. This is particularly so where the new proletarian state power is born out of a struggle by the masses to carry out a bourgeois revolution in agrarian property relations and/or an anti-imperialist, national-democratic revolution. In Russia, for example, the time gap between the first step and the second was eight months (early November 1917 to the end of June 1918); in China, it was more than two-and-a-half years (October 1949 to mid-1952); in Cuba, it was 13 months (July 1959 to August 1960).

We have used the term “workers and peasants’ government’ (or “working people’s government”) to describe the class character of the political regime during the transitional stage between the “first step in the revolution of the working class” and the replacement of the dominance of capitalist property forms with the dominance of socialist property forms. The DSP’s 1985 congress resolution on Cuba (The Cuban Revolution and Its Extension) defines the workers and peasants’ government as “the transitional form of the state power of the proletariat and its allies preceding the consolidation of a socialist state”5, i.e., of a state that organises and defends a post-capitalist economy in which socialist property forms are dominant. That is, the workers and peasants’ government is a form of working-class state power.

The criteria used to determine whether such a government exists or not were clearly set out by the Bolsheviks at the fourth congress of the Communist International (November 1922), viz; “A government of this sort is only possible if it emerges from the struggle of the masses themselves, if it is based on working-class organizations that are suited for combat and formed by the broadest layers of the oppressed working masses.”6

That the Bolsheviks, in formulating the idea of a “workers and peasants’ government” as a transitional step toward creating a socialist state, were basing themselves on their own experience was made clear by Trotsky shortly after the Comintern congress. In a report on the congress delivered on December 28, 1922, to the Russian Communist Party fraction  of the delegates attending the 10th Congress of Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies, Trotsky said: “Under certain conditions, the slogan of a workers’ government can become a reality in Europe. That is to say, a moment may arrive when the Communists together with the left elements of the Social Democrats will set up a workers’ government in a way similar to ours in Russia, when we created a workers’ and peasants’ government together with the left Social Revolutionaries.”7 Indeed, the official name the Bolsheviks gave the new government they set up the day after the November 7, 1917 insurrectionary seizure of state power by the Petrograd Soviet’s Military Revolutionary Committee was the “Workers and Peasants’ Government”.

This government had emerged out the struggle of the masses themselves (the workers and peasants), and was based on workers’ (and peasants’) organisations — the workers’ and soldiers’ (peasants in uniform) soviets, the workers’ Red Guard factory militia, and the units of the tsarist army and navy that had been purged of their pro-capitalist officers — that were suited for combat, for fighting and suppressing the bourgeois state organisation. The class character of the new Soviet state organisation was qualitatively different from that of the  “state organisation of the Provisional Government”. As the ABC of Communism explained:

The Soviet power openly proclaims its class character. It makes no attempt to conceal that it is a class power, that the Soviet state is the dictatorship of the poor. The point is emphasised in its very name; the Soviet government is called the Workers' and Peasants' Government. The constitution, that is to say the fundamental laws of our Soviet republic, the constitution adopted by the third All-Russian Soviet Congress [held in January 1918 – DL], expressly declares: “The third All- Russian Soviet Congress of Workers', Soldiers', and Peasants' Delegates, declares that now in the hour of the decisive struggle between the proletariat and the exploiters, there can be no place for the exploiters in any of the instruments of power.” The Soviet power, therefore, not only proclaims its class character, but does not hesitate to deprive of electoral rights and to exclude from the instruments of power the representatives of those classes which are hostile to the proletariat and to the peasantry.8

Comrade Butler’s allegedly “traditional Marxist method” for determining the class character of the state (the property forms the state introduces and defends) would leave us either unable to determine the class character of the state power during this transitional stage between the overthrow of the bourgeois state power and the creation of a socialist state, or mislead us into categorising it as still an essentially bourgeois state.

Indeed, this is the absurd position that the US SWP (basing itself on Trotsky’s 1937 criterion that the class character of the state is determined by the property forms that it “defends”, i.e., still gives legal recognition to) asserted in its January 1980 National Committee resolution “Nicaragua: How the Workers and Framers Government Came to Power”. The resolution declared: “While the Nicaraguan workers and peasants government is politically independent of the bourgeoisie, the latter’s economic and social power have so far only been weakened… Capitalist ownership and control over major sectors of industry, commerce and agriculture has not been broken, which means the class character of the state remains bourgeois.''’9

The US SWP resolution also pointed out that the Nicaraguan workers’ and peasants’ government “is similar to the regime described by the Fourth International that arose and governed in Cuba from mid-1959 to late 1960 (when the expropriation of the bourgeoisie and the consolidation of the workers’ state10 was completed)”.  Applying the above cited argument about the class character of the Nicaraguan state, the logical inference would be that from “mid-1959 to late 1960” the class character of the Cuban state remained “bourgeois”. But such an argument would mean that “the expropriation of the bourgeoisie” (the centralisation of the decisive means of production in the hands of the state) was carried out in Cuba by a “bourgeois state”!

Clearly, Comrade Butler does not believe it is possible for a bourgeois state to replace capitalist property forms with socialist property forms. As he notes, a “workers’ state … organises the working class … to introduce and defend socialist forms of property relations”. But this means that the key institutions of a “workers’ state” – a working people’s government that is based on  working-class organisations that are suited for combat — must come into existence before these property forms can be introduced. But how would Comrade Butler propose we ascertain the class character of this new state organisation?  By trying to look for the property forms it has not yet introduced, or by the actual traditional Marxist method, i.e., by examining what class forces are being organised to exercise state power and what class forces this new state power is politically suppressing?

The criterion of the property forms that the state introduces and defends is useless as a guide for determining the class nature of the new state organisation at the beginning of the proletarian revolution precisely because of the time gap between the first qualitative step in such a revolution  (the purely political task organisation of the proletariat as the ruling class) and the commencement of the second qualitative step (the commencement of the introduction of socialist property forms).

Furthermore, socialist property forms are not synonymous with state ownership of the means of production. In the 20th century, there were countries in which the decisive means of production were centralised in the hands of the bourgeois state (for example, Egypt under Nasser, the Baathist regime in Iraq). What distinguishes socialist property forms from such examples of “state capitalism” is that socialist property forms are the result of the centralisation of the means of production in the hands of a working-class state power, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class.


  1. L. Trotsky, Writings, 1937-38 (Pathfinder Press, New York, 1976), p. 61.
  2. K. Marx and F. Engels, The Communist Manifesto (Resistance Books, Sydney, 1998), p. 47.
  3. The Class Nature of the People’s Republic of China (Resistance Books, Sydney, 2004), . 25.
  4. N. Bukharin and E. Preobrazhensky, The ABC of Communism (Penguin Books, London, 1969), p. 127.
  5. The Cuban Revolution and its extension (Pathfinder Press, Sydney, 1984), p. 101-102.
  6. Joseph Hansen, The Workers and Farmers Government (SWP, New York, 1974)., p. 39.
  7. L. Trotsky, First Five Years of the Communist International (Monad Press, New York, 1972), Vol. 1, p. 324.
  8. N. Bukharin and E. Preobrazhensky, The ABC of Communism, pp. 220-.221.
  9. New International, No. 9, p. 90.
  10. Beginning in the mid-1930s, the Trotskyists generally stopped using the term “socialist state”  to denote a state that organises and defends a post-capitalist economy in which socialist property forms are dominant (a state in which the working class is both the ruling class and the economically dominant class), using the term “workers’ state” instead. This was because the Stalinists proclaimed that the USSR had become a “classless” socialist society in which the socialist state represented and defended the interests of the “whole people”.  Prior to this, Marxists had used the term “workers’ state” to denote the state organisation in which the proletariat was organised as the ruling class. Lenin frequently referred to the Soviet state as a “workers and peasants’ republic” in order to underscore the alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry that this state was based on.