- Socialist Modes of Governance and the “Withering Away of the State”: Revisiting Lenin’s State and Revolution1
Written mostly in the wake of October 1917, State and Revolution remains Lenin’s most elaborate theoretical treatise on the architecture of socialist state governance. During a provisional liberal government with declining legitimacy and the imminent possibility of a government takeover by an alliance of the Bolsheviks with the Soviets of the Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies, questions about the function of the state in the making of the socialist order became a matter of urgent address. Expanding on Marx and Engels’ unsystematic thoughts on the socialist state, Lenin wrote State and Revolution to articulate in detail the Bolshevik position against the different fractions of the Social-Democrats and the anarchists. He famously speaks of the gradual “withering away” of the administrative, judicial, and executive institutions of the state—an evolution towards the state’s own self-annihilation, which will be paradoxically achieved through the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Even the most sensitive readings of Lenin’s work seem to share a consensus about Lenin’s formulations of state power: From his 1902 What Is to Be Done?, where he proposes an underground, centralized party structure as a strategic solution to the brutal crackdowns of the young Russian Social Democratic movement by the “political police” of the autocratic state, to his call for nationalizing banks and monopolizing grain production in his 1917 Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?, Lenin retains the category of the state unchanged throughout, seen as a repressive apparatus of class domination. Such readings see its logical conclusion in the authoritarian and repressive machine during Stalin’s regime. They also understand the socialist subject as positioned outside the party-state dyad, passively subordinated to a top-down authoritarian political regime. A close reading of State and Revolution speaks otherwise. Here I argue that by using the language of “withering away,” “disappearing” and “dying out” of the state, Lenin offers a vision of state power that functions by means other than violence and the law, a vision of a state that administers, regulates, and manages rather than rules by force. My interest, then, is in the ways the architects of socialism conceived of a radically different—socialist—subject in relation to the socialist state. The latter, by reorganizing property and state institutions, generated alternative practices of productive social subordination; they brought into reality subjective categories, self-understandings, and social practices and effects which we have yet to examine more closely.
What does State and Revolution say about the socialist concept of freedom and the socialist modes of subject production? What has often evaded the reader is Lenin’s observation that practices of autonomy and self-governance cannot exist independently from “authority.” Viewing authority as an exercise of power or some form of submission to an “order”—an “order” broadly understood and yet dictated by the industrial mode of production—he defines autonomy and authority as relational terms. Rather than being “absolute” or independent, Lenin sees them as mutually constitutive categories. Forging a self-governing social order—what he describes as the gradual transformation towards socialism—then requires a certain practice of subjection or subjectivation. Here I would like to suggest that through such relational formulation of the authority-autonomy relationship Lenin arrives at an understanding of freedom that cannot be thought outside of subjection—an understanding freedom that, because of the totalizing scope of the industrial mode of organization of labor, is a social, rather than a political category.
The relationship between such “non-political” freedom and the socialist states’ focus on reorganizing property, labor, and distribution of goods becomes crucial here. From the sweeping nationalization measures put into practice immediately after 1917, to the more experimental, hybrid forms of ownership and commodity distribution that followed during the NEP period, socialist states had put into motion the material domain—but not just to eradicate class divisions and deliver material equality “objectively.” If we understand the material domain as a relation-forming medium, as a means of interpellating the self in relation to a collective order, we may be able to reach a more adequate understanding of...