Vladimir Lenin in 1917 struggled with the same question we do today: Is it possible to work within the capitalist state to further socialist goals?
By Alyson Escalante
Getting a candidate elected takes resources. The New York chapter of the Democratic Socialist of America mobilized members to register 20,000 new voters, rallied around traditional campaign promotion, and in the end successfully propelled Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to a successful election win.
If the end goal of the socialist movement in North America is simply to get candidates who identify as socialists elected, then this was a success. Ocasio now has a place inside the imperialist state institutions, now will be able to use some marginal amount of bourgeois sanctioned power to push her agendas, and has become a public face of socialist organizing in the united state. While a single democratic socialist will obviously not be capable of enacting systemic change from within the state, she might be able to use her platform to push socialist politics.
So what has Ocasio done with the platform she was elected?
She has denounced the attempt to end deportation, and argued that #AbolishIce means nothing more than replacing ICE with a new deportation agency.
She has critiqued the republicans for failing to be tough on crime and to uphold family values, typical right wing talking points.
In short, she has consistently publicly abandoned the principles of international socialism in favor of maintaining the imperialist deportation institutions, catering to right wing buzzwords used to criminalize people of color, and has failed to denounce the imperialist and settler colonialist Israeli state in concrete terms.
And so, we are left with a simply question: did the hours and hours that the New York DSA chapter dumped into electing this coward and imperialist do anything to further the aims of international socialism? The answer is obviously no. Ocasio has proven herself to be an opportunist who used the naivete of American socialists to win an election before immediately abandoning any socialist principles.
Let me state this clearly: American socialists who rallied around Ocasio made a huge tactical mistake by wasting their time and energy (which could have been used elsewhere) and by allowing the mainstream media to conflate socialism with the politics of the left wing of the democratic party. This whole undertaking has been a resounding failure for the socialist movement in North America.
So what can we learn from this failure?
The Limits of State Strategy:
In August of 1917, Vladimir Lenin was faced with a difficult question: Is it possible to work within the Bourgeois state to achieve socialist aims? In the wake of the February revolution, two powers existed in Russia. On the one hand, the official Provisional Government led by Kerensky represented the interests of the capitalist classes. On the other hand, the elected Soviets (councils) represented (to various degrees) worker and peasant interests.
Lenin and his faction the Bolsheviks quickly realized that the Soviets had the ability to offer a legitimate workers state, but that this could not be achieved while the Provisional Government maintained power. While the workers attempted to hand power to the Soviet’s in the July Days, the Soviets had refused power as the Socialist Revolutionary Party and the Menshiviks argued in favor of working alongside the Provisional Government; in effect choosing to be subordinated to and work within the bourgeois state.
And so, in August, Lenin sat down to write one of the greatest pieces of political theory of all time: The State and Revolution. In order to determine the proper course of action, Lenin attempted to ask “from a Marxist perspective, what is a state?” And so Lenin laid out a thorough and materialist theory of the state and its relationship to the movement for the liberation of the working class.
Lenin argues that we must understand the state as an institution which emerges out of class struggle. The ruling class cannot simply secure their rule through immediate seizure of private property. The capitalist class, for example, relies upon a whole host of state institutions to maintain its position as the ruling class. Police, armies, and various other state agencies maintain property relations and protect the power of the ruling class. The proletariat, of course, greatly outnumber the bourgeoisie. As a result of this, the ruling class requires state power.
Lenin summarizes this succinctly: “ The state is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. The state arises where, when and insofar as class antagonism objectively cannot be reconciled. And, conversely, the existence of the state proves that the class antagonisms are irreconcilable.”
The state exists because the ruling class and the subjugated class cannot exist in harmony. Class struggle is consistently being waged in a non revolutionary manner within capitalist society. Workers unionize, police break strikes. The struggle continues and the ruling class uses the state to wage it. This insight allowed Lenin to realize that the bourgeois state cannot be a venue for achieving socialist gains. If the state exists precisely to ensure the domination of the capitalist class, then the socialists working within the state will necessarily have to bend to the will of the capitalists or be expelled from the state.
This insight can explain the shift in Ocasio’s rhetoric from (admittedly tepid) socialist ideas to standard democratic party bourgeois politics. Upon gaining enternece into the institutions of the bourgeois state, Ocasio was immediately faced with a decision: hold her ground as a socialist and be incapable of functioning within state machinery designed to crush socialism, or continue to call herself a socialist while adopting the politics of the bourgeoisie. It is obvious which decision Ocasio has made.
Lenin was profoundly aware of these limits and forced compromises which working within the bourgeois state requires. As a result, Lenin and the Bolsheviks argued against working with the provisional government, and instead argued for its overthrow. Lenin wrote: “ all previous revolutions perfected the state machine, whereas it must be broken, smashed.”
If we, as socialists, truly fight for a classless world, we must smash the mechanisms which ensure class domination. We must smash the bourgeois state.
This realization led the Bolsheviks to reject the opportunism of the Socialist Revolutionaries and Menshiviks in the Soviets and they chose to overthrow the provisional government themselves. Shockingly, their revolution was successful. After months of compromise, the workers had grown tired of the opportunist bourgeois socialists. They had seen that the dual power of the soviets and the provisional government was not tenable. One side had to take unitary power. Most importantly, the workers saw that the bourgeois government had done nothing for them: it had smashed their printing presses, it had crushed their demonstrations, it had broken their strikes. Of course, it could do nothing else, the bourgeois state is designed to do precisely this.
The events of October, 1917 ought to have concretely proven that the strategy of infiltrating the bourgeois government is untenable. Lenin and the Bolsheviks proved that the workers are willing to throw the bourgeois state away in favor of a dictatorship of the proletariat. And yet, here we are 111 years later and large factions of the largest socialist organization in the United States echo the cowardly and worthless drivelings of the Menshiviks and Socialist Revolutionaries.
Dual Power Today
I am sure that at this point, the opportunists reading this have already begun to type out their typical objection: the world is different than it was in 1917, and the conditions of the United States in no way echo the conditions which enabled the Bolsheviks to achieve revolutionary success.
To this tried and true objection, there is one simple answer: you are entirely correct, and that is why we need to abandon electoralism and working within the bourgeois state.
What were the conditions which allowed the Bolsheviks to successfully revolt? The conditions were that of Dual Power. Alongside the capitalist state, there existed a whole set of institutions and councils which met the needs of the workers. The soviets, a parallel socialist government made up of individual councils, successfully took over many governmental responsibilities in some parts of Petrograd. In the radical Viborg district, the Bolshevik controlled soviets provided government services like mail, alongside programs that could meet the needs of workers. When a far right coup was attempted against the provisional government, it was troops loyal to the Bolshevik factions within the soviet who repelled the coup plotters, proving concretely to the workers of Petrograd that the socialists could not only provide for their needs, but also for their defense.
In short: the Bolsheviks recognized that instead of integrating into the bourgeois state, they could operate outside of it to build dual power. They could establish programs of elected representatives who would serve the workers. They would not bolster the capitalist state in the name of socialism, they would offer an alternative to it.
And so, when the time came for revolt, the masses were already to loyal to the Bolsheviks. The only party who had never compromised, who had denounced the unpopular imperialist wars, who had rejected the provisional government entirely, was the party who successfully gained the support of the workers.
And so, many of us on the more radical fringes of the socialist movement wonder why it is the the DSA and other socialist opportunists seem to think that we can win by bolstering the capitalist state? We wonder, given this powerful historical precedent, why they devote their energy to getting more Ocasios elected; what good does one more left democrat who will abandon the workers do for us?
The answer we receive in return is always the same: we want to win small changes that will make life for the workers easier; we want to protect food stamps and healthcare.
And do this, we reply: what makes you think reformism is the only way to do this. When the bourgeois state in California was happy to let black children go to school unfed, the Black Panthers didn’t rally around democratic candidates, they became militant and fed the children themselves. In the 40s and 50s, socialists in New York saw people going without healthcare and instead of rallying behind democratic candidates, they built the IWO to provide healthcare directly. Both these groups took up our pressing revolutionary task: building dual power.
Imagine if all those hours the DSA poured into electing Ocasio were instead used to feed the people of New York, to provide them with medical care, to ensure their needs were met. Imagine the masses seeing socialism not as a pipe dream we might achieve through electing more imperialists, but as a concrete movement which is currently meeting their needs?
The fact is, we are not nearly ready for revolution. Socialists in the United States have failed to meet the needs of the people, and as long as their only concrete interaction with the masses is handing them a voter registration form, they will continue to fail the people. Our task now is not to elect representatives to advocate for the people; it is much more gruelingly laborious than that. Our task is to serve the people. Our task is to build dual power.
The movement to do this is underway. Members of the DSA refoundation caucus have begun to move the left of the DSA in this direct, socialist groups like Philly Socialists have begun to build dual power through GED programs and tenants unions, many branches of the Party For Socialism and Liberation have begun to feed the people and provide for their concrete needs, and Red Guard collectives in Los Angeles have built serve the people programs and taken on a stance of militant resistance to gentrification. The movement is growing, its time is coming, and dual power is achievable within our life time.
The opportunists are, in a sense, correct. We are not where we were in 1917, but we can begin to move in that direction and dual power can take us there. In order to achieve dual power we have to recognize that Lenin was right: there will be no socialist gains by working within state institutions designed to crush socialism. Furthermore, we must recognize that the strategies of the electoral opportunists trade off with dual power. Electing candidates drains resources, time, and energy away from actually serving the people.
And so, we should commit to undertake the difficult and dangerous task of building dual power. We must reject opportunism, we must name the democratic party as our enemy, we must rally around power directly in the hands of the socialist movement. We do not have a parallel system of soviets in the United States. We can change that. Someday the cry “all power to the soviets” will be heard again. Lets make it happen.
Alyson Escalante is a Marxist-Leninist, Materialist Feminist and Anti-Imperialist activist.