Since Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the presidential election the Democrats have come up with a number of narratives to absolve Clinton and themselves of any faults or blame. There has been no attempt to critically understand their defeat. To them, Hillary was the most qualified candidate and deserved the presidency. She only lost because of the racist white working class, or because of James Comey, or because of Vladimir Putin, or because of the far left.
The latter two allegations might be the most outlandish, if only because they have converged and evolved into a true conspiracy theory that is being used to push Clintonites’ hawkish Russian policy and discredit the left.
Liberal pundits are peddling the idea that Trump is a Kremlin puppet and that Russia is in control of the U.S. government. This conspiracy theory is taken as fact by “the resistance” and has converged with the idea that the far left is responsible for Trump’s victory. In this scenario not just Trump, but also the left, was an unwitting pawn in Putin’s plan to destroy America. The left is responsible for the election of Trump, and by proxy the election of Putin. The conspiracy and those who expound it use much of the same language as the Red Scare and make a further claim beyond Vladimir Putin being in control of U.S.policy – they also claim that Trump’s top advisor Stephen Bannon is a “Leninist” in league with Moscow to destroy the United States government.
Bannon is rumored to have called himself a Leninist. Whether or not he did does not matter. Many Beltway pundits and members of “the resistance” have already taken the quote as fact, or at least agree with and use the comparison to vilify communism. This alleged statement by Bannon has been used to claim that the far right and the far left are the same, and even work together. It has spawned a number of articles demonizing communism and attempting to resurrect a version of the long discredited “horseshoe theory“. Think pieces and tweet storms alike are now comparing Lenin to Trump.
Here is the quote in question:
“I’m a Leninist… Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
It’s true that Bannon and his cohort wish to destroy the current establishment and claim to be against the state. Even Republicans to the left of Bannon pay lip service to the idea of dismantling the state. Additionally, Lenin, like any good socialist, did want to destroy the state. But these two things are not the same and only today’s liberals would believe such a comparison.
Popular Conception of the State
The common conception of the state that both liberals and moderate conservatives ascribe to is called democratic pluralism. It’s described by Ralph Miliband in his book The State in Capitalist Society:
A theory of state…with the assumption that power, in Western societies, is competitive, fragmented, and diffuse; everybody, directly or through organized groups, has some power and nobody has or can have too much of it…
…There are only competing blocs of interest, whose competition, which is sanctioned and guaranteed by the state itself, ensures that power is diffused and balanced, and that no particular interest is able to weigh too heavily upon the state.
…In short, the state, subjected as it is to a multitude of conflicting pressures from organized groups and interests, cannot show any marked bias towards some and against others: its special role, in fact, is to accommodate, and reconcile them all.
In the democratic pluralist conception the state is a neutral tool, a bureaucracy subjected to popular democratic pressures as well as elite interests that diffuses the power of both. It’s purpose is to take the input from every sector and create an output of compromises and solutions to societal tensions and problems.
U.S. progressives, like Bernie Sanders, see the expansion of the state as a publicly controlled instrument of problem solving. They believe the state is the most effective way to solve societal ills. It can be expanded to solve poverty and regulate capitalist interests.
Liberals, like the Clintons, do not want to expand the state. They prefer to use a small state to partner with private interests and deregulate the economy while retaining a bare minimum of safety nets to sustain the working population.
Conservatives want to eliminate most safety nets, and deregulate the economy to a larger degree than liberals. They claim that this process constitutes rolling back state power. To Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and their milieu even this is not enough. They do not want to limit state power, but to “destroy the state” by destroying the current political establishment. With the overthrow of the establishment their movement can take power and begin the process of destroying the “oppressive” regulatory bureaucracy that they believe stifles individualism and, most importantly, private profit. In their view once the state is reduced to a skeleton capitalism can operate to its full potential and create record profits for private enterprise.
Brief Marxist History of the State
Marxists do not see the state as a neutral actor regulating society and representing the interests of everyone. Marxists, including Lenin, see the state as a weapon used by one class to suppress another.
Engels explained in his Origins of Family, Private Property, and the State that the state is,
…a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. But in order that these antagonisms, these classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power, seemingly standing above society, that would alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’; and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state.
Democratic pluralism obscures the actual function of the state and the power dynamics that shape it. The state arose from the contradiction between classes. When classes came into existence it became necessary for a coercive instrument to be used by one class to oppress the other. Throughout history the existence of a state implied the existence of a class system.
In ancient empires, such as Assyria and Persia, classes faced each other not as individual appropriators and producers, or large and small proprietors, but as Ellen Meiskins Woods points out, “collectively as appropriating states and subject peasant-villages”. The typical ancient state was a “bureaucratic kingdom in which the state exercised substantial control over the economy.” Peasant producers, as a class, were dominated by the aristocratic state bureaucracy, as a class. The aristocrats were state functionaries and acquired property through their state service. Peasant communities, whole villages, were collectively subject to surplus (profit) extraction by the state and its aristocrats in the form of taxes and compulsory services. Woods sums it up, “ancient states had constituted a ruling body superimposed upon, and appropriating from, subject-communities of direct producers.”
Rome, taking some inspiration from, though markedly different than, Athens, was unique in the ancient world. Beginning as a small city state the local aristocrats resisted the formation of a state bureaucracy, preferring to rule directly through the Senate. The Roman elite did not create their wealth through the state, but through private property. Instead of state owned land, individual aristocrats owned parcels of land which were worked by peasants. Eventually the peasant-producers gave way to slave-producers. Large segments of the peasantry became a professional army, the empire grew through conquest, and many slaves were used in place of peasants turned soldiers. It was not until Augustus that an Imperial State was formed.
Rome’s aristocrats used the state to expand their empire and keep the lower classes, peasant and slave, subdued, but their wealth was based on privately owned land as opposed to the state owned land of other ancient empires.
The decline of Rome gave way to the rise of feudalism. Lords were the successors to the private accumulation of land and wealth that Rome was built on. Woods, again, gives a simple and insightful summary of the process,
The Imperial state gave way to a patchwork of jurisdiction in which state-functions were vertically and horizontally fragmented. Domination by an overarching imperial state was replaced by geographic fragmentation and organization by means of local or regional administration…The administrative, legal, and military patchwork was generally accompanied by a system of conditional property, in which property-rights entailed jurisdictional and military service… In sharp contrast to those ancient civilizations where subject-peasants were ruled by monarchical states, the feudal state was fragmented by parcelized sovereignty; taxation by the state gave way to levies collected by lords and appropriation in the form of rent; and lordship combined the power of individual appropriation with possession of a fragment of state power.
Local state power fell to individual lords while wider state power extended to the monarchy. Their was a constant tension between lords and the monarchy as they competed for control of state power, but like the two cases mentioned above, both lord and king used the state to extract surplus value from their serfs- the productive class which had been tied to the land they tilled.
The French Revolution abolished feudalism in Europe and began the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie. It marks the beginning of our current epoch in which capitalism is the dominant economic and social system throughout the world. In the current era of global capitalism the state is used by the bourgeoisie (capitalist class) to suppress the proletariat (working class).
The state has never been neutral and has never served the interests of the majority. In every historical era, including our current one, the state exists solely for the suppression of one class by another. It is the very opposite of democratic pluralism.
Trump, Bannon, and the dismantling of the State
Trump and Bannon claim to view the state bureaucracy in a negative light. They pay lip service to the idea of the state being dismantled, but in reality they cannot mean this. They are capitalists. The state exists to protect the private property that Stephen Bannon and Donald Trump own and uphold.
Trump and Bannon’s feud with the establishment is not about the existence or size of the state. It is about how far the establishment is willing to go to extract profits. They aim to create a more efficient state machine that will lead to even greater profits for the capitalist class.
The administration’s proposals simply dismantle what’s left of the welfare and regulatory state. This is the only part of the state Bannon wishes to destroy- the parts of the state that constrain the capitalist class or benefit the working class. They aim to take back the concessions that workers have won from the capitalist state. They plan to revert back to a “purer” form of laissez-faire capitalism. In fact, Bannon and Trump want to strengthen coercive state power through increasing the budget of the military and through their support for police departments across the country- both of which make up the “special bodies of armed men” without which the state would collapse.
Communism and the State
Communism is the negation of class society. Without classes there is no use for the state. Engels explains,
At a certain stage of economic development, which was necessarily bound up with the split of society into classes, the state became a necessity owing to this split. We are now rapidly approaching a stage in the development of production at which the existence of these classes not only will have ceased to be a necessity, but will become a positive hindrance to production. They will fall as they arose at an earlier stage. Along with them the state will inevitably fall. Society, which will reorganize production on the basis of a free and equal association of the producers, will put the whole machinery of state where it will then belong: into a museum of antiquities, by the side of the spinning-wheel and the bronze axe.”
Trump and Bannon believe that their cuts to welfare programs amount to a reduction of the state. But it does not matter how much they cut, because without abolishing classes there is no abolishing the state.
Communists know that once we seize state power we cannot simply cut away at the state until it disappears. When communists talk about abolishing the state we are speaking about replacing the capitalist state with a workers state, which would eventually wither away as class differentiation disappeared. Lenin elaborates on Engels in The State and Revolution,
“As a matter of fact, Engels speaks here of the proletariat revolution “abolishing” the bourgeois state, while the words about the state withering away refer to the remnants of the proletarian state after the socialist revolution. According to Engels, the bourgeois state does not “wither away”, but is “abolished” by the proletariat in the course of the revolution. What withers away after this revolution is the proletarian state or semi-state.”
When the proletariat seize state power and become the dominating class they begin expropriating the bourgeoisie as they themselves had been expropriated. The workers state does, in fact, dismantle large portions of the state, though it is the bourgeois state which is dismantled. Unlike the proposals of Bannon and Trump, welfare programs and regulatory mechanism are not cut. On the contrary they are expanded and instead all aspects of the bourgeois state such as the police, the standing military, the Senate, and Executive office are abolished. Lenin describes this process,
The Commune, therefore, appears to have replaced the smashed state machine ‘only’ by fuller democracy: abolition of the standing army; all officials to be elected and subject to recall. But as a matter of fact this ‘only’ signifies a gigantic replacement of certain institutions by other institutions of a fundamentally different type. This is exactly a case of “quantity being transformed into quality”: democracy, introduced as fully and consistently as is at all conceivable, is transformed from bourgeois into proletarian democracy; from the state (a special force for the suppression of a particular class) into something which is no longer the state proper.
With the destruction of the bourgeois state and its replacement by the worker’s state the process of withering away can begin. It begins because the workers state brings about a true democratic republic, a democratic workers republic, whose goal is the abolition of the class system.
This form of radical democracy is impossible under capitalism. Lenin details:
In capitalist society, providing it develops under the most favorable conditions, we have a more or less complete democracy in the democratic republic. But this democracy is always hemmed in by the narrow limits set by capitalist exploitation, and consequently always remains, in effect, a democracy for the minority, only for the propertied classes, only for the rich. Freedom in capitalist society always remains about the same as it was in the ancient Greek republics: freedom for the slave-owners. Owing to the conditions of capitalist exploitation, the modern wage slaves are so crushed by want and poverty that “they cannot be bothered with democracy”, “cannot be bothered with politics”; in the ordinary, peaceful course of events, the majority of the population is debarred from participation in public and political life…
Democracy for an insignificant minority, democracy for the rich–that is the democracy of capitalist society. If we look more closely into the machinery of capitalist democracy, we see everywhere, in the “petty”–supposedly petty–details of the suffrage (residential qualifications, exclusion of women, etc.), in the technique of the representative institutions, in the actual obstacles to the right of assembly (public buildings are not for “paupers”!), in the purely capitalist organization of the daily press, etc., etc.,–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 never known want himself and has never been in close contact with the oppressed classes in their mass life (and nine out of 10, if not 99 out of 100, bourgeois publicists and politicians come under this category); but in their sum total these restrictions exclude and squeeze out the poor from politics, from active participation in democracy.
A true workers state would end this undemocratic rule of the minority. It would be the most democratic state in history. For the first time, the majority would rule over the minority. With the entire working class in control of this new form of state, with the majority of people participating in democratic control of production and governing of society, the bourgeoisie will eventually disappear and the proletariat will eventually cease to be the proletariat. People will run society through free association and democratic planning. The state will become obsolete and any remaining vestiges of it will be skeletal administrative functions, i.e. not a state.
By now it should be clear that Bannon and Trump have very different goals than Lenin and the Russian Bolsheviks did a century ago, and than the Left has today. No amount of liberal red-baiting can change this fact. It should also be clear that conservatives’ claim of hostility to the state is a fabrication.
Stephen Bannon and the Trump administration’s supposed hatred of the state is false for several reasons. They use the state to enrich themselves and their backers by expanding the police state, the surveillance state, the military, and other oppressive state apparatus. The only parts of the state they eliminate are the mild gains workers have won: social programs and regulatory measures. This expansion of the state in one area and contraction of the state in another is simply using the state as it has always been used- for the facilitation of profit extraction from the producing class to the ruling class.
The state, being an instrument of class rule, can only be eliminated when the class system is abolished. Again, Lenin wrote about this in State and Revolution-a book any good “Leninist” will have read- he comments, “Lastly, only communism makes the state absolutely unnecessary, for there is nobody to be suppressed–‘nobody’ in the sense of a class, of a systematic struggle against a definite section of the population.” This is not something Bannon and the Trump administration, is calling for. They call for the exact opposite: more state power for the capitalist class. Without the demand of communism Bannon is no Leninist, and the GOP’s declarations of hatred toward the state ring hollow.
If conservatives like Bannon were serious about dismantling the state then they would be communists. But this is not their intention, and liberals implying that both sides share the same goal constitutes an old, cheap, cynical attack on the Left.
The State in Capitalist Society by Ralph Miliband
The Ellen Meiksins Woods Reader, Ch. 3
The State and Revolution by Vladimir Lenin
Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State by Frederick Engels