Law, Absolute Will, and the “Withering of the State”: Sovereignty at the Limits of Lenin’s “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”

  • Naveen Kanalu
Part of the Critical Political Theory and Radical Practice book series (CPTRP)


Lenin formulated the Dictatorship of the Proletariat as a phase of transition from the capitalist state-system to a communist society. The dictatorship was not a state. Moreover, it was neither legal nor illegal; instead it was characterized as extra-legal in nature. How are we to understand the legal character of the dictatorship? In this essay, I elaborate on the alleged juridical foundations as this quasi-state structure and the paradoxes it posed to early Soviet thinkers. I argue for the genealogy of the idea of the imposition of the proletariat’s absolute will in the political concept of “despotism” in Montesquieu’s Esprit des lois. Montesquieu’s despotism is a limiting concept of government, which is marked by an absence of legal institutions and the absolute force of the “prince’s” will, which is unhindered by law. This idea, which remained obscure in nineteenth-century theories of socialism, was resurrected by Lenin in the 1917 work, The State and Revolution. His formulation of the “withering of the state” helps us interrogate the ambiguous situation of the revolutionary context, which lacks any “state” form. Analyzing the conceptual arguments for the extra-legal nature of dictatorship among Soviet legal thinkers like Evgeny Pashukanis, the essay argues for a dialectical understanding of the paradox of law under dictatorship: the rule by decrees in the post-revolutionary context, the role of the soviets in decision-making, and the gradual juridicization of the Soviet state. Through these historical issues, I illustrate the difficulties in conceiving the relation between sovereignty and law in post-revolutionary transitions.


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© The Author(s) 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  • Naveen Kanalu
    • 1
  1. 1.University of CaliforniaLos AngelesUSA

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