The State Withers Away

P. Stuchka, The Last Act of the State: It Withers Away. 1926


Original Source: From Uchenie o gosudarstve proletariata i krestianstva i ego konstitutsii (5th ed. rev.; Moscow-Leningrad 1926), 288-91.

From our definition of the state as an apparatus of class domination it follows that the existence of the state will come to an end simultaneously with the disappearance of classes, i.e., with the introduction of a classless society. Engels used the expression “withers away” to describe the disappearance of the state. In doing this, he stressed the fact that the disappearance of the state will not be an instantaneous event but a protracted process.

This is simply a logical conclusion of the whole history of class society:

When at last the state becomes the real representative of the whole of society, it renders itself superfluous. As soon as class rule and the individual struggle for existence based on our present anarchy in production disappear, and along with them the collisions and excesses arising from this struggle, nothing more remains to be repressed, and a special repressive force, a state, is no longer necessary … State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous and withers away of itself. 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 (Engels, Anti-D hring).

Communists are not alone in demanding the abolition of the state. Anarchists, too, demand its abolition. However, as Lenin stated:

We do not at all disagree with the anarchists on the question of the abolition of the state as an aim. We maintain that, to achieve this aim, temporary use must be made of the instruments, means, and methods of the state power against the exploiters, just as the dictatorship of the oppressed class is temporarily necessary for the annihilation of classes. Marx chooses the sharpest and clearest way of stating his position against

the anarchists: when they have cast off the yoke of the capitalists, ought the workers to “lay down arms” or ought they to use them against the capitalists in order to crush their resistance? But what is the systematic use of arms by one class against the other, if not a “transitional form” of the state (State and Revolution).

From this it follows that there is a great difference between the “fall” of a bourgeois state and the withering away of the Soviet state. According to Engels, “The bourgeois state does not ‘wither away’ but is ‘destroyed’ by the proletariat in a revolution. And it is the proletarian state or semi-state that withers away after that revolution.”

The question of the inevitability of a transition period between capitalism and communism in a special state of the proletarian type, as well as the question of the transition period itself, etc., was elaborated for the first time by Lenin in his book State and Revolution. It is necessary for any conscious man (even a non-Communist) to read this book. I shall, therefore, say only a few words on this subject. Following Marx, Lenin divides the transition into two phases: socialism and communism. “The scientific difference between socialism and communism lies only in that the first word designates the first stage, arising from capitalism … while the second word designates its higher, further stage.”

What is the difference between the first and the second stage in the legal sense? Lenin explains:

In the first phase of the communist society (generally called socialism) “bourgeois law” is not abolished in its entirety but only in part, only in proportion to the economic transformation so far attained, i.e., only in respect to the means of production. “Bourgeois law” recognizes them as the private property of separate persons. Socialism converts them into common property. To that extent, and to that extent alone, does “bourgeois law” disappear. But it continues to exist as far as its other part is concerned; it remains in the capacity of regulator (determinant) of distribution of products and distribution of labor among the members of society … However, this is not yet communism, and this does not abolish “bourgeois law,” which gives to unequal men, in return for an unequal (factually unequal) amount of work, an equal quantity of products … To this extent, therefore, the state is still necessary, which, while maintaining public ownership of the means of production, would Preserve the equality of labor and equality in the distribution of products.

The withering away of the state and law is possible only in the second stage of development: “The state will be able to wither away completely when society has realized the rule: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,’ i.e., when people have become so accustomed to observing fundamental rules of social life, and their labor is so productive, that they will work voluntarily according to their ability.” “The narrow horizon of bourgeois law … Will then be left behind.”

Is it not a utopia? Lenin answers this question in the following way:

From the bourgeois point of view, it is easy to declare such a social order “a pure utopia” and to sneer at the socialists for promising each the right to receive from society, without any control of the labor of the individual citizen, any quantity of truffles, automobiles, pianos, etc. Even now, most bourgeois “savants” deliver themselves to such sneers, thereby displaying at once their ignorance and their self-seeking defense of capitalism.

Ignorance-for it has never entered the head of any socialist to “promise” that the highest phase of communism will arrive; while the great Socialists, in foreseeing its arrival, presupposed both a productivity of labor unlike the present and a person not like the present man in the street, capable of spoiling without reflection, like the seminary student in Pomialovskii’s book, the stores of social wealth, and of demanding the impossible.

Until the “higher” phase of communism arrives, the Socialists demand strictest control, by society and by the state, of the quantity of labor and the quantity of consumption; only this control must start with the expropriation of the capitalists, with the control of the workers over the capitalists; and it must be carried out, not by a state of bureaucrats, but by a state of armed workers.

… For when all have learned to manage and are actually independently managing social production by themselves, keeping accounts, controlling 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 the armed workers are men of practical life, not sentimental intellectuals, and they will scarcely allow anyone to trifle with them), that very soon the necessity of observing the simple, fundamental rules of every-day social life in common will have become a habit.

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.

But could this be the case in our country at the present time, when, after the assumption of power, the proletariat has had to make quite a few, if not many, steps backward; when the duration of the transition period is becoming apparently quite prolonged? Of course, these steps were taken under one condition, namely, that they not lead to the victory of the counterrevolution. Once again I shall use Lenin’s words for characterizing this process: “Even such questions are being raised: ‘Where are the limits of retreat We shall retreat as long as we lack the knowledge and the preparedness for going over to a solid attack …, for only if we get hold of something will we be able to go over to an attack … ” But “after the victory of the proletariat, though only in one country, there appears something new in the relationship of reform to the revolution … Before the victory of the proletariat, reforms are a byproduct of the revolutionary class struggle. After the victory, they … become, for the country in which victory is achieved, an inevitable and legitimate ‘respite’ … needed for stopping the retreat at the proper time and for going over once again to an attack.”

Since-as Lenin stated in one of his latest articles-under Soviet conditions “all means of production belong to the state authority, the real task remaining for us is only cooperation.” Indeed, Lenin did not fail to remind us about the possibility of brutal attack by our enemy. But here the power of resistance depends upon our success and that of the international proletariat.

After the proletariat’s victory, the idea of “growing into a new society of the future” and the idea of a gradual withering away of the function of political authority assumes, potentially, a quite real form. With the growth of the proletariat’s power and authority the necessity of real repressions, of the application of violence, decreases. On the other hand, as I have demonstrated in the chapter on electoral law, the number of persons with purely working qualifications increases until, ultimately, the whole population becomes a working population and at the same time acquires electoral rights. Then comes a true democracy; then, as Engels stated in the previously quoted passage, “the state becomes the real representative of the whole of society.” But at the same time it becomes unnecessary, superfluous.

All our People’s Commissariats are divided into two groups: economic organs (production and distribution) and organs of coercion (military, internal affairs, and judiciary) … It is quite apparent that the latter are gradually withering away and that they undergo atrophy, while the former, directing the economic orchestra, are growing. This development may ultimately result even in an “orchestra without a conductor,” but this is a matter of the distant future. One thing remains indisputable: the state, as well as the law in its class meaning, evaporates, i.e., withers away, together with the organs of coercion.

Source: Michael Jaworskyj, ed., Soviet Political Thought; an anthology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1967), pp. 240-243.


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