Lenin, shortly before the October revolution, brilliantly explained the nature of the workers’ state in his book The State and Revolution:
Alongside of an immense expansion of democracy, which for the first time becomes democracy for the poor … the dictatorship of the proletariat brings about a series of restrictions on the freedom of the oppressors, the exploiters, the capitalists. We must suppress them in order to free humanity from wage slavery; their resistance must be crushed by force… but it is now the suppression of the exploiting minority by the exploited majority. A special apparatus, a special machine for suppression, the ‘state’, is still necessary, but this is already a transitional state.
The “dying away” or “withering away” of the state as a specialised organ of repression and control, as armed bodies of men separate from the mass of people – this is the political measure of workers’ rule. Lenin sums up what it means:
The exploiters are naturally unable to suppress the people without a highly complex machine… but the people can suppress the exploiters with a very simple ‘machine’… by the simple organisation of the armed masses (such as the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers Deputies…)
How would this “simple machine” work in practice? How can the working people keep control over the state they had created, and prevent the growth of a military and bureaucratic elite? Lenin’s basic guidelines are as valid today as on the day they were written:
1. No official to receive a higher wage than that of the average skilled worker…
2. Administrative duties were to be rotated amongst the widest strata of the population to prevent the crystallisation of an entrenched caste of bureaucrats.
3. All working people were to bear arms to protect the revolution against threats from any quarter, internal or external.
4. All power was to be vested in the Soviets. The composition of the Soviets, lay delegates from the workplaces subject to instant recall, obliged delegates to report back to mass meetings of their workmates… and thus ensure maximum mass participation.R. Silverman and E. Grant, Bureaucratism or Workers’ Power?
The revolution had smashed the old Tsarist state to the extent of driving out the most reactionary generals and nobles at the head of the ministries and the armed forces. Communists took their places wherever possible.
But a thorough-going transformation of the state apparatus was impossible with the resources of the isolated Soviet Union. The Bolsheviks numbered only 23,600 in February 1917. A minority of this number formed the cadre of the party, able to lead others in struggling for party policy. The state apparatus, on the other hand, numbered hundreds of thousands of officials.
“Specialists” and skilled administrators of the old regime could not be replaced; they had to be kept on, even at the cost of bribing them with privileges. In the town of Vyatka in 1918, for example, no fewer than 4,476 out of 4,766 officials were the same individuals who had previously served the Tsar.
Trotsky, in his book The Revolution Betrayed, explained the significance of what was taking place.
A workers’ state, he said, is “a bridge between the bourgeois [capitalist] and socialist society”. Its task is to create a society of abundance through the planned use of resources, through which class divisions – and the state itself as an organ of class rule – will disappear.
For the first period, the workers’ state has to operate with the economic means it has inherited from capitalism. It has to use the skilled people trained under capitalism and some of the methods of capitalism: the division of labour, the payment of wages, etc.
The whole development of the workers’ state is thus determined by “the changing relations between its bourgeois and socialist tendencies” – i.e., between the remaining elements of the old bourgeois apparatus and its methods of control from above, and the development of working class management from below.
Only the increasing command of the working people over society can eradicate the remnants of capitalism.
In backward Russia, however, the soviets had ceased to exist as organs of the armed people. Day-to-day administration was in the hands of an army of non-Communist officials, representing the outlook of the privileged layers in society.
Bureaucracy in a backward country, Trotsky explained, is a product of backwardness itself – the weakness of the working class, its lack of skills, and the position of power which the state officials enjoy:
The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of consumption, with the resulting struggle of each against all. When there are enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come when they want to. When there are a few goods, the purchasers can come when they want to. When there are a few goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the Soviet bureaucracy. It ‘knows’ who is to get something and who has to wait.The Revolution Betrayed
Thus the bureaucracy in an isolated, backward workers’ state does not simply become redundant and “die away”. To the extent that the “underdeveloped” working class is unable to take over its functions, bureaucracy acquires – at least for a period – an objective basis for its existence.
Through the bureaucracy, the pressure of the reactionary classes were exerted upon and within the Russian workers’ state. This became more and more obvious as the exhaustion of the soviets left officials with greater freedom to act as they wished.
The political representatives of the working class, organised in the Communist Party, were caught up in an increasingly hard-fought struggle against this bureaucracy.
Lenin, struck down by illness in the last two years of his life, became sharply aware of the dangers of the situation. At the fourth Comintern congress in 1922 he gave the international delegates this frank appraisal of the position in Russia:
Undoubtedly, we have done, and will still do, a host of stupid things… Why do we do these foolish things? The reason is clear: firstly, because we are backward country; secondly, because education in our country is at a low level; and thirdly, because we are getting no outside assistance. Not a single civilised country is helping us. On the contrary, they are all working against us. Fourthly, our machinery of state is to blame. We took over the old machinery of state, and that was our misfortune. Very often this machinery operates against us… We now have a vast army of government employees, but lack sufficiently educated forces to exercise real control over them.Lenin, The Fourth Congress of the Communist International
By “educated forces”, Lenin meant Communist workers, organised and able to control the “specialists”. Lenin could offer no immediate solution to the problem because, within Russia, there was none.
“In all our agitation,” Lenin said, “we must… explain that the misfortune which has fallen upon us is an international misfortune, that there is no way out of it but the international revolution.” (Quoted by Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution).
In other words, only the conquest of power by the working class in the developed countries, and the provision of large-scale technical assistance to their brothers and sisters in Russia, could remove the basis for bureaucratic power.