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Thoughts on "Sovereignty" and Lenin's Conception of the State

Recently, after yet another re-read of Lenin's State and Revolution, I found myself thinking about that post-Marxist/post-Heideggerian concept of "sovereignty" received from Agamben (with some origin in Foucault) and become doctrine for so many social theorists. Not that I haven't thought about this concept––or the way it has been linked to conceptions of biopolitics, governmentality, control, etc.––or bothered to think this concept before. I have taught it when I have had to teach those thinkers that use it, I have criticized it, and often I have dismissed it altogether. It's just that––and bare with me here because this will be a loosely structured meditation/intervention rather than the rigorous essay it deserves and that I might write at a later date––I haven't directly thought "sovereignty" in relation to Lenin's theoretical work on the state.


Some background: I return to classics such as State and Revolution quite frequently. Lenin is always a joy to return to because of the clarity of his thought, the way in which he draws clear lines of demarcation, and his skill in building arguments that possesses the rigour of an engineer. That's the kind of practice I was trained to see as essentially philosophical due to the predominance of Analytical Philosophy in the upper North American academy. This is not to say that Lenin is an analytical philosopher; the fact that he's also a brilliant dialectician excludes him from this category. Rather, it is to say he builds a text in the clear-minded and structured manner that analytics love, though most of this tradition's grey eminences wouldn't touch Lenin with the proverbial ten foot pole. In any case, as one of my students (who had never read Lenin) said in a class devoted to selections from What Is To Be Done and State and Revolution, "I've never read someone as clear minded and precise." Which also explains why I recently reread State and Revolution: I was teaching Lenin.

Some more background… The previous time I (re)immersed myself in State and Revolution, along with his lectures on the state, was when I was writing Austerity Apparatus. At that time I needed to think his conception of the state in relation to a number of the impoverished debt economy analyses of capitalist crisis and austerity. I attempted to use a number of synonyms to make the application of analysis fresh for those who just tune out Lenin once they hear his name (it's funny how that happens, how the tuning out is a priori, programmed by ideology), but the grounding was clear:
Let us return to Lenin's definition of the state, the clearest and most concrete conceptualization. […] the state is primarily a class dictatorship. That is, the machine for the suppression of one class by another. As long as there is class struggle there are states of class struggle, determined by those national boundaries that these [state] machine call into being. (Austerity Apparatus, 45)
What I didn't recognize when I was engaging with State and Revolution during this project was that I was indirectly dealing with the problematic of the concept of "sovereignty". That is, the theoretical work that Austerity Apparatus was setting itself apart from and against was work that was heavily indebted to the Agamben-inflected notion of sovereignty and yet I was dealing with this notion adjacently, through its symptoms, rather than confronting it head-on. Of course, Austerity Apparatus was not intended to be a critique of the concept of sovereignty and its focus was elsewhere; its adjacent treatment makes sense. I'm pretty sure I mentioned it in passing but only in passing. It really took my recent reread of State and Revolution, mediated through the class in which I taught it and the above student statement, to really bring these problematics into direct confrontation. After all, the student who made those comments about Lenin's clear-mindedness was also in a class, a semester earlier, where we discussed Agamben's theorization of sovereignty.


Just under a year ago I learned, from a close comrade, that in the discipline of Political Science Lenin's theorization of the state is classified as an "instrumentalist theory". I hadn't know this because, being in philosophy, I'm often unaware of the taxonomies used in other academic disciplines. The term is clearly pejorative, as if Lenin's conception is flawed because it is too simple in its instrumentality. The problem, though, as this comrade clearly agreed, was that all other conceptions of the state lack the precision and clarity provided by Lenin.

Honestly what are states if they are not instruments of class rule? Lenin dealt with the bourgeois alternative to his supposedly "vulgar" conception in State and Revolution itself: the conception that states reconciled individual and class contradictions (i.e. social contract theories), which is a senseless definition because it assumes that state formations in class societies can achieve general equilibrium when it is clear that this is not the case. States are rather evidence of disequilibrium because if class interests were reconcilable there would be no need for a state to force them into reconciliation? This logic is a throwback to Hobbes, which in fact is the origin of this "sovereignty" discourse but we'll get to that later.

What else is the state of affairs of a mode of production if not the structure that emerges around the latter so as to protect it with the formation of the former? A class in power requires a series of networked and protected institutions to keep it in power. All theorizations of autonomous civil society and statehood outside of this last instance instrumentality are anti-materialist. At best they are extensions of Hegel's notion of the state in Elements of the Philosophy of Right (an alienated analysis of society that influenced Marx and Engels but needed to be stood on its head), at worst they are forms of social contract theory that locate their origin, however distant, in Hobbes.

Although it may be the case that Lenin focused too much on the coercive aspect of the state this is only because we was examining the core logic of this social phenomenon, what it was in the last instance. He admits the ideological dimension in his discussion of states that take on the democratic form, which is why both Gramsci and Althusser were able to work out a more expansive conception of this so-called "instrumental" conception of the state without breaking from it at all.


And now for the concept of "sovereignty"––why has it become so central to contemporary analyses of state power? In many ways it allows contemporary theorists to side-step the meaning of what a state is. If it has any meaning it requires an analysis of the state formation, which is an analysis of how power actually accrues and becomes sovereign. Which is to say: the conception of sovereignty is a confusion of the ideology generated by state power.

Conceptions of "sovereignty" avoid the question of the whats, whys, and hows surrounding the object of analysis. What precisely is sovereign? Why and how is this what sovereign? Only a conception of what a state is can answer this question. Otherwise, all references to a bare sovereignty locate themselves outside of material reality and in fictional processes regarding natural conceptions of states, i.e. Hobbesian states of nature.

For example, Agamben speaks of sovereign power as a priori based on his reading of Greco-Roman law. But this requires us to ask the question: on what basis did this Greco-Roman law come to be––that is, what kind of state codified "sovereignty" based on what mode of production and thus on what kind of class struggle? How can we thus recognize that the conception of class struggle based on a state of the patrician class (against the plebeian class) as transhistorical? We cannot: sovereignty is class sovereignty; it does not exist in an historical vacuum. But all theorizations of sovereignty following Agamben presuppose this class vacuum and its corollary––an unwillingness to think the state as an instrument of class power. Sovereignty is an idealization of the state and unbounded from the state.


I'm getting ahead of myself so let's go backwards a bit in order to think the concept of sovereignty. The point, of course, was to examine power as it was inculcated in a ruler (or rulers), how this ruler (or rulers) possess the power to determine what lives can be lived, what lives can be sacrificed, and the meaning of living. The sovereign is of course an exception to this power, since the sovereign decides its meaning, and thus modern conceptions of sovereignty are concerned with the ways in which sovereign power is diffused, how certain subjects are permitted to have lives that are sovereign, which leads us into connected notions of biopolitics and governmentality.

(I know I'm rushing over a lot, painting the theory in broad brushstrokes, but this is not a rigorous essay.)

This all goes back, of course, to Hobbes and the successive liberal tradition. In the state of nature every individual is the sovereign of their own life but this sovereign liberty results in a war of all against all. The solution is the social contract where sovereignty is inculcated in the state, in the figure of a licensed sovereign who has power over life and death, so as to reconcile the differences of unbounded liberty. The state thus emerges as a solution to social tension with sovereign power as a conciliating force.

The post-Hobbes liberal tradition accepts the story of natural liberty and the sovereign state as the reconciler of its excesses but does not share Hobbes' cynical solution of sovereign absolutism. The sovereignty of individuals can be allowed and the state, no longer a great leviathan, is conceived as a solution to disputes between individuals according to what would be known as "the harm principle". Liberals still speak in this old language of sovereignty though as Bentham and Austin's conception of "command theory" makes clear: law is still the province of the "uncommanded commander", i.e. the sovereign that has power over life.

What I'm getting at, here, is that sovereignty is a reified conception of power regardless of how it was transformed by Hobbes and his successors. Although it is true that Hobbes' great insight was to grasp that the power of the sovereign is not a divine right ordained by heaven, he relocates it in a myth about natural liberty and the foundation of the state in social contract. The classical liberals go further by refusing to see liberty as monstrous, let alone accept absolute sovereignty as eternally necessary (though they do see it as historically necessary when it existed, and even more necessary for colonized populations), but they still cling to this reified notion of power. None of them grasp the materialist basis of power, let alone the meaning of the state. The former problem is dissolved in a liberalized conception of sovereignty, which is nothing more than a tautology: power is power. The latter problem treats the consequence as a cause: the state exists because it conciliates rather than, as Lenin grasped, arising because of a fact of irreconcilability––an irreconcilability that always lurks beneath and within the state despite all attempts to force conciliation.

All contemporary discourses of sovereignty, regardless of their claims to critique liberalism, cannot separate themselves from this reification. Hobbes and the classical liberals retained the notion of sovereignty because this was the only way they could comprehend power and the state; they could not fully break from the mystified notions of divine right from which we received the concept of sovereign. To persist in using this language is to remystify power and the state.


What contemporary discourses of sovereignty obscure is precisely what Hobbes and the classical liberals obscure: the economic and political basis of power. The fact that these discourses tie sovereignty to notions of biopower and cannot, aside from getting lost in an ideology of sovereign power without grasping it as an ideology, say anything about power beyond referring to it pejoratively demonstrates the limits of this discourse.

But these limits were already charted in Anti-Duhring, as I have long maintained, when Engels attacked Eugen Duhring's eerily similar conception of power. Duhring was still caught up in the liberal language of sovereignty and power which is why, using liberal appeals to Robinson Crusoe myths, he argued that the basis of ruling class sovereignty was simply violence/force/power. Crusoe with a sword dictating to Friday. Engels, as we know, mocked his nursery tale fable by asking what would happen if Friday showed up with a gun. The corollary was that neither guns nor swords grow from trees and thus all talk of power and its sovereignty must necessarily require us to ask about its origins: there are economic processes that make these weapons that are used to violently enforce power, there are political structures that enable and protect these processes. Power is not unqualified; it is economic and political.

Hence recourse to the discourse of the sovereign in contemporary theory only tells us something about the ideology of the class in power. Corollaries of biopower, governmentality, and control are equally meaningless if we cannot grasp the mode of production and the state form that enable particular class structures.


So let's return to Lenin's conception of the state. Against this mystified recourse to sovereignty we have a materialist analysis that provides us with a far clearer analysis of power as it is deployed and managed by a state. Indeed, the Leninist analysis emerges against the simplistic conceptions of sovereignty that found liberal state theories.

First of all, the state does not emerge as a social contract of reconciliation. Rather, the state emerges at that juncture of human existence where social classes emerge and, because class struggle is a fact, the state is founded on the fact that the interests of oppositional classes are irreconcilable. It is the political shell of a mode of production designed to protect this mode of protection in the interests of its dominant class. 

Secondly, what we can call "sovereignty" is the enforced will of the class in power. That class is sovereign according to the logic of the mode of production and maintains its so-called sovereignty because of a state that protects its class power. Hence, speaking of something called "sovereignty" without examining the meaning of particular states that instantiate a sovereign class, and grasping states as instruments of class rule, misses the point.

Thirdly, there is no social contract beyond its ideological deployment in class struggle. No state arose because of the desire to compromise; the state emerges at that juncture of human existence where compromise is impossible, where class power needs to be protected and the ruling class requires a political structure (which includes repressive and ideological institutions, both coercion and enforced consent) to promulgate its domination. But creating myths about social contract, about a sovereignty that obscures class struggle, is useful for the ruling class to propagate its hegemony as common sense.


In the end, these contemporary conceptions of sovereignty could be useful if they were understood as ideological instances of class power as it coheres in various state formations. There is no sovereignty but there are sovereignties, the latter being the story that the class in power tells itself about its right to dominate. Maybe it is the case that such a story is a variation on the same story that has been told by every class that has seen itself as sovereign in every mode of production.

Once we understand that the state is a machine wherein one class represses another we can grasp how stories about the dominant class's sovereignty emerge and are mythologized. Without this understanding we are stuck with vague conceptions of sovereignty that tell us nothing about what the state is and why it even exists, unless we are to lose ourselves in mystified notions of the state of nature.