What is the state?

When people talk about “the state” in day-to-day conversation, they are usually referring to government agencies like civil services or any other service funded by taxes. Maybe, if the conversation is more directly concerned about politics, “the state” might be used to describe elected officials and their staffs.

For revolutionaries, understanding this term has special importance. After all, a real revolution defeats the existing state and replaces it with a new social force.

Russian revolutionary leader V.I. Lenin synthesized the Marxist view on the state in a 1917 pamphlet, “State and Revolution.” Just months after completing the pamphlet, Lenin led the Bolshevik party in the victorious October Revolution in Russia. Since then, every successful socialist revolution has been guided by his view of the state.

In the pamphlet, the state is defined as “an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another.” That means, first and foremost, having armed bodies like an army and police in order to enforce that oppression.

This definition is based on the fact that society is fundamentally divided into exploited classes and exploiting classes. In modern capitalist society, the workers on one side and the bosses, or capitalists, on the other represent the two main classes who have opposing and irreconcilable interests. The capitalists’ primary interest is the accumulation of profits through the greatest exploitation of the workers. The workers’ primary short-term interest is minimizing exploitation so as to receive the best wages possible in order to survive and support themselves and their families.

The capitalists, while small in number, are the ruling class. The workers, while being the overwhelming majority of society, are the exploited class. This lopsided situation can ultimately only be maintained by force and violence. Without the state to moderate this irreconcilable conflict, society would be in a constant state of class war.

Enforcing profits

The United States is a capitalist society, where the right of capitalists to make a profit is placed above all other rights, such as workers’ rights, the right to housing, jobs, food, healthcare, etc. This is reflected in the laws of society, in which the highest right is the right to own private property—property that generates wealth. But these laws would be just the fantasies of the rich if it were not for the soldiers and cops that enforce them and the courts and jails that administer them.

For example, real estate owners have the right to keep housing vacant while people are homeless. If homeless workers try to live in the vacant housing, the cops will defend the owner’s property rights by evicting them, using force if necessary. The courts will convict the homeless of the crime of destroying private property. The innocent will go to jail.

The real estate owners are never charged with the crime of hoarding such a needed resource. The cops are never seen forcing open the doors of the vacant housing and leading the homeless people inside. The cops are not trained to go to the real estate owners’ homes and arrest them for hoarding housing for profit. Only in the rarest of cases do the courts put landlords in jail for violating the rights of tenants—and even then, only when the violation is so public and blatant that masses of people threaten to take matters into their own hands.

The sharper the class struggle becomes, the more clearly the violent nature of the state is seen. For example, in the December 2005 strike by New York City transit workers that shut down city subways and buses, thousands of cops were called on duty to protect the transit authority’s property and to make sure that picketers did not deal out justice to scabs trying to cross picket lines. Union leaders were threatened with jail.

When the people’s struggle goes beyond the bounds of what police can contain—such as in the massive rebellions that swept cities like Los Angeles, Detroit and Newark in the 1960s or the mass Bonus March of unemployed veterans in 1932—the armed forces are called in to “restore order.”

Smash the capitalist state

What does all this mean for those who are trying to build a society based on the interests of working people, the vast majority of society? It means that a revolution involves smashing the state of the exploiting class and replacing it with new forces organized to defend the workers’ interests.

That is what happened in the 1959 Cuban revolution. The capitalist class was overthrown and the Cuban working class is now the ruling class. The old army, cops, courts and laws of the former Batista dictatorship were destroyed.

Those institutions have been replaced by a new state whose purpose is to protect the interests of the working class, the vast majority of Cuban society. Laws guaranteeing all Cubans a home, a minimum diet, free and universal education and healthcare have been enacted and enforced by the courts and police.

Should the U.S. government try to invade Cuba or try to aid Cuban counterrevolutionaries to rise up against the Cuban revolution, they will meet the organized resistance of the Cuban workers’ army and popular militias.

As long as there are exploiting and exploited classes on the planet, there will be the need for armies, cops, courts and laws that defend the interests of either the exploiting classes or the formerly exploited classes that have freed themselves from capitalist oppression. Only after the organized terror of the tiny elite of imperialist bankers and big business owners is defeated on a world scale will there be the possibility of building a society organized not on the basis of force but on cooperation and solidarity.

Articles may be reprinted with credit to Socialism and Liberation magazine.

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