Theory & practice: Lenin on prisons and the state

By Vidya Sankar

Raleigh FIST

In order for a class society such as capitalism to exist, it requires a mechanism by which the ruling class can enforce its rule over the exploited class.  The workings of this mechanism, the state, were described by Vladimir Lenin in “The State and Revolution”, written in 1917. Lenin’s analysis of the state still stands valid today.  The state, which was first defined by Marx and Engels, was elaborated on by Lenin as encompassing all police, military, judicial and penal systems designed to protect the institutions of the capitalist class, such as private property and the bosses’ ownership of the means of production.

Lenin explains that, “According to Marx, the state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another; it is the creation of ‘order’, which legalizes and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the conflict between classes.”  When people are forced to work for wages, are forced into a life of being exploited in order to survive, a form of natural anger arises. Mass discontent with living conditions arises within the working class and oppressed. This natural anger represents an immense threat to the ruling class which utilizes the state to defend and perpetuate its rule.

In “The State and Revolution”, Lenin explains,Imperialism—the era of bank capital, the era of gigantic capitalist monopolies, of the development of monopoly capitalism into state-monopoly capitalism—has clearly shown an unprecedented growth in its bureaucratic and military apparatus in connection with the intensification of repressive measures against the proletariat both in the monarchical and in the freest, republican countries.”

In order for capitalism to flourish, there must be a way for the bosses to exploit efficiently and repress any resistance. As unemployment, poverty, hunger and homelessness impact workers and the poor, the state must be strengthened in order to protect the institutions of production and prevent the people from seizing power away from those who oppress them.

Working class youth are subjected to an economic draft that forces them to join the military and fight for U.S. imperialism abroad because of the lack of jobs and education opportunities in their communities. Millions are incarcerated either as the result of resorting to petty crime in order to survive or because of deliberate campaigns of fear and repression, such as those which the state has unleashed against undocumented workers and Black youth.

Laws are instituted and enforced by the police in order to protect the profits of the bosses, not human life and needs.  For example, a starving person can be incarcerated for taking the food which he needs to survive because he consumed the bread without yielding a profit to a boss. However, a police officer who kills a youth of color is not incarcerated because he does not represent a threat to the bosses’ profits.

Bosses can get away with killing millions in the form of racist wars and executions while workers are incarcerated for taking lifeless bread. As suffering and exploitation increase, the repressive instruments of the capitalist state grow in order to protect the ruling class from any potential backlash. The Leninist explanation of the state demonstrates that without the existence of the state, all means of production could be seized and capitalism would not long survive as a system.

The ruling class uses repressive forces such as the police, military, courts and prisons to maintain its system of exploitation in part by detaining and eliminating those who refuse to submit to the capitalist order.   The ruling class sees the state as a means to remove the most revolutionary elements from society

Fred Hampton was murdered because he represented a threat to the capitalists. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered because he represented a threat to the capitalists. Mumia was imprisoned because he represents a threat to the ruling class.  We must fight to free all political prisoners and to destroy the prison-industrial complex.  We must organize to smash the state.


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