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Lenin on Worker’s Industrial Management, Government and the Withering Away of the State

December 24, 2018

One of the central tenets of Marxism is that the period of socialism ushered in by the seizure of power by the workers will eventually lead to the withering away the state and begin the transition to the period of true Communism. This will be the ideal, final phase of society when the government of people will be replaced by the administration of things.

Lenin seems to have believed that the transition to this ideal society would begin after everything had been nationalized and placed in the hands of the workers. The workers would then be able to manage the economy and society through the way capitalism had simplified the management of industry so that it could be performed by the workers themselves. This is explained in a passage from his The State and Revolution, reproduced in Lane W. Lancaster, Masters of Political Thought, Vol. 3: Hegel to Dewey (London: George Harrap & Co. Ltd 1959), pp.193-4.

Accounting and control – these are the chief things necessary for the organizing and correct functioning of the first phase of Communist society. All citizens are here transformed into hired employees of the State, which is made up of the armed workers. All citizens become employees and workers of one national state ‘syndicate’. All that is required is that they should work equally, should regularly doe their share of work, and should received equal pay. The accounting and control necessary for this have been simplified by capitalism to the utmost, till they have become the extraordinarily simple operations of watching, recording and issuing receipts, within the reach of anyone who can read and write and knows the first four rules of arithmetic.

When the majority of the people begin everywhere to keep such accounts and maintain such control over the capitalists (now converted into employees) and over the intellectual gentry, who still retain capitalist habits, this control will really become universal, general, national; and there will be no way of getting away from it, there will be ‘nowhere to go’.

The whole of society will have become one office and one factory, with equal and equal pay.

But this ‘factory’ discipline, which the proletariat will extend to the whole of society after the defeat of the capitalists and the overthrow of the exploiters, is by no means our ideal, or our final aim. It is but a foothold necessary for the radical cleansing of society of all the hideousness and foulness of capitalist exploitation, in order to advance further.

From the moment when all members of society, ore even the overwhelming majority, have learned how to govern the State themselves, have taken this business into their own hands, have established control over the insignificant minority of capitalists, over the gentry with capitalist leanings, and the workers thoroughly demoralized by capitalism-from this moment the need for any government begins to disappear. The more complete the democracy, the nearer the moment when it begins to be unnecessary. The more democratic the ‘State’ consisting of armed workers, which is no longer a State in the proper sense of the term, the more rapidly does every State begin to wither away.

for when all have learned to manage, and independently are actually managing by themselves social production, keeping accounts, controlling the idlers, the gentlefolk, the swindlers and similar ‘guardians of capitalist traditions’, then the escape from this national accounting and control will inevitable become so increasingly difficult, such a rare exception, and will probably be accompanied by such swift and severe punishment (for the armed workers are men of practical life, not sentimental intellectuals, and they will scarcely allow anyone to trifle with them), that very soon the necessity of observing the simple fundamental rules of every day social life in common will have become a habit.

The door will then be open for the transition from the first phase of Communist society to its highest phase, and along with it to the complete withering away of the state.

Lenin’s ideas here about industrial management and the withering away of the state are utopian, despite his denials elsewhere in his book. Lancaster in his comments on the passage points out that industrial management required to feed, clothe and house a society is far more complex than simply ‘watching, recording and issuing receipts’. Lenin in fact did try to put workers’ control into practice, with the result that industry and the economy almost collapsed completely. The capitalists and managers, who had been thrown out of the factories and industries in wheelbarrows by the workers, were invited back in afterwards, and restored to their former power. At the same, Alexandra Kollontai and the Left Communists, who wanted the workers to run the factories through trade unions, were gradually but ruthlessly suppressed as Lenin centralized political decision making.

Lancaster also points out that the administration of things nevertheless means government, and that it is very hard to convince a man, who has just been refused permission to open a new bus route or produce as many shoes as he can, that he is not being governed. Lancaster also argues that practice in both the democratic west and the USSR shows that a truly ‘stateless’ society impossible. He also states that the reduction of society to one enormous factory or office will repulse the normal mind, as it resembles a colony of insects, and that the similar routinization of the fundamental rules of normal social life into a habit destroys the autonomous individual and reduces them to a machine. He could also have mentioned, but doesn’t, the very sinister implications of ‘armed workers’ and the use of military force. The USSR was created by violent revolution, and maintained itself through force. Those attempting to set up their own businesses were arrested for ‘economic sabotage’ and sent to the gulags, where they were treated worse than ordinary criminals.

However, workers are capable of participating in government. One of the points Anthony Crossland made in one of his books was that the American unions had a large measure of industrial democracy, all though it was never called that. He was arguing against worker’s control, considering it unnecessary where there were strong unions, a progressive income tax and the possibility of social advancement. The unions have since been all but smashed and social mobility has vanished. And under Thatcherite tax reforms, income tax has become less progressive as the rich are given massive tax cuts, while the tax burden has been shifted on to working people. But the point remains: workers are capable of becoming managers. It was demonstrated by the anarcho-syndicalists in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War. And Red Ken, when he was once asked by a journo why he supported worker’s management, said that it came from his experience as had of the GLC. Livingstone was now the head of a vast local government system, but there was nothing special about him. So, he believed, could ordinary people run a business. I think Leninspart was probably too modest, and he possessed managerial talents others don’t have, but the point’s a good one.

If the ability to make managerial and governmental decisions were broadened, so that they included employees and members of the public, this would empower both groups. It would make the domination of the rich 1% more difficult, and lead to a more equal, less class-ridden society. A truly classless, stateless society is probably impossible, as the example of the USSR shows. But introducing a measure of workers’ control is surely worthwhile in order to make things just that bit better.

Of course, to do so properly might mean giving working people management training. Well, Thatcher tried to turn British schoolchildren into a new generation of capitalists by making business studies part of the curriculum. She stressed competition and private enterprise. But it would turn her ideas on its head if such education instead turned workers not into aspiring businesspeople, but gave them the ability to manage industry as well as the elite above them.

That really would be capitalist contradiction Marx would have enjoyed.

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