Edgar Hardcastle

The Withering Away of the State –
From Marx to Stalin

Source: Socialist Standard, March 1946.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain.
HTML Markup: Adam Buick
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2016). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

Socialists from Marx and Engels onwards ha’ve always held that with the establishment of Socialism the State will disappear. The State, which exists where society is divided into an owning class and a propertyless class, and is a coercive institution through control of which the dominant class imposes its will on the subject class, would lose its function when society ceases to be divided into classes. The Marxian view was put by F. Engels in his Socialism, Utopian and Scientific:–

“The first act by virtue of which the State really constitutes itself the representative of the whole of society – the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society – this is, at the same time, its last independent act as a State. State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous and then dies out 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 dies out.” – Sonnenschein edition, 1892, p. 76 (The phrase “dies out” has sometimes been translated “withers away.”)

Claiming to be Marxists the Communists have repeatedly tried to explain away the continued existence of the coercive State in Russia, long after the alleged establishment of “Socialism,” when, according to the theory, it ought to have withered away. Before dealing with these “explanations,” it may be useful to point out that Socialists are in such quandary. Socialism (which, of course, will be international – “Socialism in one country” in the midst of a capitalist world is a myth) will see the withering away of the State. Russia is not Socialist and therefore no Socialist imagines that the State could wither away there.

The earlier Communist line was to claim that the Russian State was withering away. Thus the Communist Labour Monthly (Sept. 1931) wrote: –

“There are, in fact, in the Soviet Union to-day ... elements of this ‘withering away’ already perceptible ...”

Some six months later Molotov, Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, admitted that the class struggle in Russia had not ended, and of course the existence of a class struggle means that the State must still exist. He said:–

“Not only does the class struggle not end, but in some sections and at some periods it may and will become considerably sharpened.” – Labour Monthly, April 1932

The Labour Monthly went on to summarise Molotov’s further observations.

“The Thesis also considers the question of the ‘withering away’ of the State, but points out that while the establishment of the proletariat dictatorship has already transformed the State into a semi-State, the conditions of internal and external class-struggle demand a strengthening of the State in the immediate future ...”

Now comes the last chapter of this tortuous attempt to explain away an inconvenient truth. Having said that the State is withering away, then that it is not a State but a semi-State (whatever that means), and that it was getting stronger before it could get weaker, we are now told that the whole theory has been thrown overboard.

The Times correspondent in Moscow sent to his paper (1 Feb, 1946) a report of a speech made at a Lenin Memorial meeting by Aleksandrov, chief of the propaganda department of the Russian Communist Party. Referring to the Stalinist theory of “Socialism in one country.” he said:–

“There were two aspects of this policy. There were internal obstacles to be swept away and dangers from aboard to be met. To-day there was no force within the Soviet Union capable of preventing the further development of Socialism and its gradual transition to Communism. Vigilance against attack from without had necessitated the rejection of the Marxist theory of the withering away of the State, based on the assumption of international Socialism, and the adoption of the Stalin theory of building a strong State with a powerful army and its own military science capable of winning in war and of achieving the military and diplomatic consolidation of victory.”

It will be noticed that whereas in the earlier explanation the State was said to be necessary in Russia because of the internal class struggle, the reason now given is vigilance against attack from without.

In conclusion, it is interesting to see that the Marxian view of the State as essentially a coercive institution is shared, though from an opposite angle, by Mr. Winston Churchill. General Spears, in the Sunday Express (28 Jan. 1945) quoted Mr. Churchill as saying: “You cannot have a State without some sort of a national army.”

Last updated on: 3 September 2020