Lenin's State and Revolution: Striking Validation of Marxism

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One of the arguments favoured by bourgeois professors in their endless battle with marxism is their charge that it is a "pseudo-science" somewhat akin to phrenology and similar quackeries. The most sophisticated presentation of this idea can be found in Karl Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies, a classic "philosophical" justification of liberalism and the Cold War. According to Popper, marxism's claim to be a science of society is false, because its propositions can be neither verified nor refuted by practical experiment - a sine qua non of any truly scientific investigation.

In fact, marxism does not claim to be "a" science, of the same type as the natural sciences. It recognises that human social relations cannot be subjected to the same precise, controlled examination as physical, chemical or biological processes. What it does affirm is that, as the world view of an exploited class which has no interest in mystifying or occulting social reality, marxism alone is able to apply the scientific method to the study of society and historical evolution. To be sure, history cannot be examined under laboratory conditions. The predictions of a revolutionary social critic cannot be tested by carefully controlled, repeated experimentation. But if we allow for this, it is still possible to extrapolate from the past and present movement of social, economic or historical processes and outline the broad shape of the movement to come. And what is so striking about the gigantic sequence of historical events inaugurated by the First World War is precisely the degree to which they validated the predictions of marxism in the living laboratory of social action.

A fundamental premise of historical materialism was that, like all previous class societies, capitalism would reach a phase in which its relations of production, from being conditions for the development of the productive forces, would become fetters, throwing the whole political and legal superstructure of society into crisis, and initiating an epoch of social revolution. The founders of marxism thus analysed in great depth the contradictions in capitalism's substructure, its economic base, that would impel the system into this historic crisis. This analysis was necessarily a general one and could not arrive at precise predictions about the date of the revolutionary crisis. Despite this, even Marx and Engels sometimes fell victim to revolutionary impatience and were too precipitous in announcing the general decline of the system and thus the imminence of the proletarian revolution. Nor was it always clear what shape this historic crisis would assume. Would the general crisis of the system simply take the form of the cyclical economic depressions that bad marked its ascendant period, only more widespread and without scope for a new revival? Here again, only a general perspective could be put forward. Nonetheless, as early on as the Communist Manifesto, the essential dilemma facing humanity was expressed: socialism or a relapse into barbarism, the emergence of a higher form of human association or the unleashing of all capitalism's inherent tendencies towards destruction - what the Manifesto calls "the mutual ruin of the contending classes".

Towards the end of the 19th century, however, as capitalism entered its phase of imperialism, of unbridled militarism and competition to conquer the remaining non-capitalist areas of the planet, it began to become clear that the disaster towards which capitalism was leading humanity was not merely an economic depression writ large, but a full scale military catastrophe: global warfare as economic competition by oilier means, but increasingly taking on its own insane dynamic, crushing the whole of civilisation under its juggernaut wheels. Hence, in 1887 this remarkable 'prophecy' by Engels:

"No war is any longer possible for Prussia-Germany except a world war and a world war indeed of an extent and violence hitherto undreamt-of. Eight to ten millions of soldiers will massacre one another and in doing so devour the whole of Europe until they have stripped it barer than any swarm of locusts has ever done. The devastation of the Thirty Years War compressed into three or four years, and spread over the whole Continent: famine, pestilence, general descent into barbarism, both of the armies and the mass of the people; hopeless confusion of our artificial system of trade, industry and credit, ending in general bankruptcy; collapse of the old states and their traditional elite wisdom to such an extent that crowns will roll by dozens on the pavement and there will be nobody to pick them up; absolute impossibility of foreseeing how it will all end and who will come out of the struggle as victor; only one result is absolutely certain: general exhaustion and the establishment of the conditions for the final victory of the working class.

That is the prospect when the system of mutual one-upmanship in armaments, driven to extremes, at last bears its inevitable fruits. This, my lords, princes and statesmen, is where in your wisdom you have brought old Europe. And when nothing more remains to you but to open the last great war dance - that will suit us nicely. The war may perhaps push us temporarily into the background, may wrench from us many a position already conquered. But when you have unfettered forces which you will no longer be able to control, things may go as they will; at the end of the tragedy you will be ruined and the victory of the proletariat already achieved or at any rate inevitable" (15 December 1887, in Marx and Engels. Collected Works, Vol 26, p451).

The revolutionary fractions who, in 1914, maintained the principles of internationalism in the face of the war had good reason to recall these words of Engels. In the Junius Pamphlet, Rosa Luxemburg only has to bring them up to date:

"Friedrich Engels once said: 'Capitalist society faces a dilemma, either an advance to socialism or a reversion to barbarism '. What does a 'reversion to barbarism' mean at the present stage of European civilisation? We have read and repeated these words thoughtlessly without a conception of their terrible import. At this moment one glance about us will show us what a reversion to barbarism in capitalist society means. This world war means a reversion to barbarism. The triumph of imperialism leads to the destruction of culture, sporadically during a modern war. and forever. if the period of world wars that has just begun is allowed to take its damnable course to the last ultimate consequence. Thus we stand today, as Friedrich Engels prophesied more than a generation ago, before the awful proposition: either the triumph of imperialism and the destruction of all culture, and. as in ancient Rome. depopulation, desolation, degeneration. a vast cemetery; or. the victory of socialism, that is, the conscious struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism. Against its methods. against war. This is the dilemma of world history. its inevitable choice, whose scales are trembling in the balance awaiting the decision of the proletariat. Upon it depends the future of culture and humanity". Luxemburg, building on Engels' foresight, displays her own: if the proletariat did not do away with capitalism, the imperialist war would be only the first in a series of ever-more devastating global conflicts that would ultimately threaten the very survival of humanity. That indeed has been the drama of the 20th century, the most telling proof that, as Lenin put it, "capitalism has outlived itself. It has become the most reactionary brake on human progress" (Lenin, "Reply to questions put by an American correspondent", July 20, 1919).

But if the war of 1914 confirmed this side of the historic alternative - the decadence of the capitalist system, its plunge into regression - the Russian revolution and the international revolutionary wave that followed confirmed with no less clarity the other side: in the terms of the Manifesto of the First Congress of the Communist International in 1919, that the epoch of capitalism's inner disintegration is also the epoch of the communist revolution, and that the working class is the only social force that can put an end to capitalist barbarism and inaugurate the new society. The terrible deprivations of the imperialist war and the disintegration of the Tsarist regime threw the whole of Russian society into turmoil, but within the revolt of a huge population comprised in the majority by peasants and peasants in uniform, it was the working class in the urban centres who created new revolutionary organs of struggle - the soviets, factory committees, Red Guards - which served as a model for the rest of the population; which made the most rapid strides at the level of political consciousness, a development expressed in the spectacular growth in the influence of the Bolshevik party; and which, at each stage of the revolutionary process, took the lead in determining the course of events: in the overthrow of the Tsarist regime in February, in foiling the plots of the counter-revolution in September; in carrying out the insurrection in October. By the same token, it was the working class in Germany, Hungary, Italy and across the globe whose strikes and uprisings put an end to the war and threatened the very existence of world capital.

If the proletarian masses performed these revolutionary feats, it was not because they were intoxicated by some millenarian vision, nor because they had been duped by a handful of machiavellian schemers, but because, through their own practical struggle, their own debates and discussions, they came to see that the slogans and programme of the revolutionary marxists corresponded to their own class interests and needs.

Three years into the definitive opening up of the epoch of the proletarian revolution, the proletariat made a revolution - seized political power in one country and issued a challenge to the order of the bourgeoisie all over the world. The spectre of "Bolshevism", of soviet power, of mutiny against the imperialist war machine caused crowns to fall and haunted the ruling class everywhere. For three years or more it seemed that Engels' prediction would be confirmed in all respects: the barbarism of war would ensure the victory of the proletariat. Of course, as the bourgeois professors never cease to remind us, "it failed", and of course, they add, it was bound to fail because such a grandiose project of liquidating capitalism and creating a human society is simply contrary to "human nature" . But the ruling class of the day did not sit back and wait for "human nature" to take its course. To exorcise the spectre of the world revolution, it linked hands across the world to combine its counter-revolutionary forces, through military intervention against the soviet republic, through the provocation and massacre of the revolutionary workers from Berlin to Shanghai. And almost without exception, the forces of liberalism and social democracy - the Kerenskys, the Noskes and the Woodrow Wilsons, whom the majority of professors point to as the embodiment of a more rational, realisable alternative to the impossible dreams of marxism - were the key leaders and organisers of the counter-revolutionary forces.

Twentieth century quantum physics has found it necessary to recognise a fundamental premise of dialectics: that you cannot study reality from the outside. Observation influences the process you are observing. Marxism never claimed to be a neutral "science of society" because it took a partisan stance from within the process, and by doing so defined itself as a force for accelerating and changing the process. Bourgeois academics may lay claim to impartiality and neutrality but the moment they comment on social reality their partisan interests also become clear. The difference is that while the marxists are part of the movement towards a free society, the professors who criticise marxism never fail to end up apologising for the bloodiest forces of social and political reaction.

  The proletariat on the brink of power   

From being a general, historic perspective, as it had been during the previous century, the communist programme had become very precise. In 1917, the burning question of the day was the question of political power - of the proletarian dictatorship. And it fell to the Russian proletariat to solve this problem, in theory as well as in practise. Lenin's The State and Revolution, The marxist theory of the state and the tasks of the proletariat in the revolution, written in August -September I 917, has already been referred to many times in these articles, since we have tried not only to re-examine much of its subject matter, but above all to apply its method. If we repeat what we have said before, so be it: some things are well worth repeating. Since State and Revolution has such a crucial place in the evolution of the marxist theory of the state we make no apologies for now making it the essential subject of an article in itself. 

As we showed in the previous article (International Review 90), the direct experience of the class and the analysis of that experience by the marxist minorities had already, prior to the war and the revolutionary wave, laid the essential groundwork for solving the problem of the state in the proletarian revolution. The Paris Commune of 1871 had already led Marx and Engels to the conclusion that the proletariat "could not simply lay hold" of the old bourgeois state but had to destroy it and replace it with new organs of power; the mass strikes of 1905 had demonstrated that the soviets of workers' deputies were the form of revolutionary power most appropriate to the new historical epoch then opening up; Pannekoek, in his polemic with Kautsky had reaffirmed that the proletarian revolution could only be the result of a mass movement which paralysed and disintegrated the state power of the bourgeoisie.

But the weight of opportunism in the workers' movement prior to the war was too great to be dispelled by even the sharpest polemic. What had been learned through events such as the Commune had been unlearned through decades of parliamentarism and legalism, of growing reforrnism in the party and the trade unions. Moreover, the abandonment of the revolutionary outlook of Marx and Engels was by no means restricted to the open revisionists like Bernstein: through the work of the current around Kautsky, the fetishism of parliament and the theorisation of a peaceful, "democratic" road to revolution had actually come to present themselves as the final word of" orthodox marxism" . In such a situation, it could not be until tile positions of the left fractions in the 2nd International fused with the vast movement of the masses that the proletariat's amnesia about its own acquisitions could be overcome. This did not diminish the importance of the "theoretical" intervention of revolutionaries on this question, on the contrary. When revolutionary theory seizes the masses and becomes a material force, both its elucidation and its dissemination become more urgent and decisive than ever.

In an article in International Review 89, tile ICC has recalled the vital importance of the political-theoretical intervention contained in Lenin's April Theses, which showed the party and the working class as a whole the way out of the fog of confusion created by the Mensheviks, the Socialist Revolutionaries, and all the other forces of compromise and betrayal. At the core of Lenin's position in April was his insistence that the revolution in Russia could only be a part of the world socialist revolution; that consequently the proletariat could only continue its struggle against the parliamentary republic that the opportunists and the bourgeois left presented as the finest acquisition of the revolution; that the proletariat had to fight, not for a parliamentary republic, but for the transfer of power to the soviets - for the dictatorship of the proletariat in alliance with the poor peasants.

For their part, Lenin's political opponents, above all those who claimed the mantle of marxist orthodoxy, immediately accused Lenin of anarchism, of seeking to ascend Bakunin's vacant throne. This ideological offensive of opportunism required a response, a reaffirmation of the marxist alphabet, but also a theoretical deepening in the light of recent historical experience. State and Revolution answered this need, providing at the same time one of the most remarkable demonstrations of the marxist method, of the profound inter-action between theory and practise. Lenin had written more than a decade earlier that "there can be no revolutionary movement without revolutionary theory". Now, forced to go into hiding in the Finnish countryside by the repression that followed the July Days (see the article on these events in IR 90), Lenin recognised the necessity to delve deep into the classics of marxism, into the history of the workers' movement, in order to clarify the immediate goals of an immensely practical mass movement.

State and Revolution was a continuation and a clarification of marxist theory. But this has not prevented the bourgeoisie (often echoed by the anarchists, as usual) from claiming that the book, with its emphasis on soviet power and the destruction of all bureaucracy, is the product of a temporary conversion by Lenin to anarchism. This can be done from various angles. A sympathetic, leftish historian like Liebman (Leninism under Lenin, London, 1975), for example, talks about State and Revolution as the work of a "libertarian Lenin": the impression being that this expressed Lenin's short-lived enthusiasm for the creatiye potential of the masses in 1917-18, in contrast to the more "authoritarian" Lenin of 1902-3, the Lenin who allegedly distrusts the spontaneity of the masses and advocates a Jacobin style party to act as their general staff. But Lenin's ability to respond to the spontaneous movement, to the creativity of the masses - even to correct his own exaggerations and mistakes in their light - was not limited to 1917. It had already shown itself clearly in 1905 (see the article on 1905 in IR 90). In 1917, Lenin was convinced that proletarian revolution was on the historical agenda and was no longer constrained by the theory of a "democratic revolution" for Russia. This led him to count even more decisively on the autonomous struggle of the working class, but this was a development of his previous positions, not a sudden conversion to anarchism.

Others, more openly hostile approaches to State and Revolution see the book as being part of a machiavellian ruse to get the masses to line up behind his plans for a Bolshevik coup and a party dictatorship. Anarchists and councilists are well-versed in arguments of this ilk. We cannot refute them in detail here: this is part of our overall defence of the Russian revolution, and the October insurrection in particular, against the campaigns of the bourgeoisie (see the article on the October insurrection in this issue). What we can say is that Lenin's intransigent defence of marxist principles on the question of the state, from the moment he returned from exile in April, put him in an extreme minority and there was no guarantee at all that the position he put forward would eventually conquer the masses. Seen in this light, Lenin's machiavellianism becomes positively superhuman and we leave the world of social reality for the fantasies of conspiracy theory. Another approach - unfortunately contained in an article published by Internationalism, now the US publication of the ICC, over 20 years ago, when councilist ideology had a considerable weight on the re-emerging revolutionary groups - is to go through State and Revolution with a fine tooth comb and find "proof' that - unlike Marx's writings on the dictatorship of the proletariat - Lenin's book still expresses the standpoint of an authoritarian who carmot envisage the workers liberating themselves by their own efforts (see Internationalism 3, 'Proletarian dictatorship: Marx v Lenin').

We will not avoid dealing with the weaknesses that do indeed exist in State and Revolution. But we will get nowhere by creating a false dichotomy between Marx and Lenin, any more than by seeing State and Revolution as a point of connection between Lenin and Bakunin. Lenin's book is in complete continui ty with Marx , Engels and the whole marxist tradition before him; and the marxist tradition that followed him has in turn drawn immense strength and clarity from this indispensable work.

The state as an instrument of class rule

The first task of State and Revolution was to refute the opportunists' conceptions about the fundamental nature of the state. The opportunist trend in the workers' movement - particularly the Lassallean wing of the German social democracy - had long been founded on the idea that the state is essentially a neutral instrument which can be used as much for the benefit of the exploited class as to defend the privileges of the exploiters. Many of the theoretical combats waged by Marx and Engels towards the German party were aimed at demolishing the idea of a "people's state", at showing that the state, as a specific product of class society, is in, essence the instrument for the domination by one class over society, and over the exploited class in particular. But by 1917, as we have seen, tile ideology of the state as a neutral instrument which could be appropriated by the workers had assumed a "marxist" guise, particularly at the hands of the Kautskyites. This is why State and Revolution begins and ends with an attack on the opportunists' distortion of marxism: at tile end, with a long critique of Kautsky's main works on the state (and a defence of Pannekoek's polemic against Kautsky); at the beginning, with a justly celebrated passage about the way that the "bourgeoisie and the opportunists within the labour movement concur in this doctoring of marxism. They omit, obscure, or distort the revolutionary side of this theory, its revolutionary soul. They push to the foreground what is or seems acceptable to the bourgeoisie... In these circumstances, in view of the unprecedentedly widespread distortion of marxism, our prime task is to re-establish what Marx really taught on the subject of the state" (Lenin, S and R, in Collected Works, p 390-1).

To this end, Lenin proceeds to recall the work of the founders of marxism, Engels in particular, as regards the historical origins of the state. But although Lenin describes this as a work of "excavation" from beneath the rubble of opportunism, his inquiry is of more than archaeological interest. From Engels (Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State) we learn that the state arises as a product of irreconcilable class antagonisms, and serves to prevent these antagonisms from tearing the social fabric apart. But lest anyone conclude that this means that the state is some kind of social referee, Lenin, following Engels, is quick to add that when the state holds things together, it does so in the interests of the economically dominant class. It thus appears as an organ of repression and exploitation par excellence.

In the heat of the Russian revolution this "theoretical" question was of paramount importance. The Menshevik and SR opportunists, who were now increasingly operating as th left flank of the bourgeoisie, presented the state which succeeded the downfall of the Tsar in February 1917 as a kind of "people's state", an expression of tile "revolutionary democracy". The workers should thus subordinate their selfish class interests to the defence of this state, which, with a little persuasion, could surely be adapted to the needs of all the oppressed. By demolishing the foundations of the idea of a "neutral" state, Lenin was preparing tile ground for the practical overthrow of this state. To buttress his arguments against the so-called "revolutionary democrats", Lenin also recalls Engels' pointed words about the limitations of universal suffrage: "Engels is most explicit in calling universal suffrage an instrument of bourgeois rule. 'Universal suffrage', he says, obviously taking account of the long experience of German Social Democracy, is 'the gauge of the maturity of the working class. It cannot and never will be anything more in the present day-state '. The petty bourgeois democrats, such as our Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks (…) expect just this 'more' from universal suffrage, and instil into the minds of the people, the false notion that universal suffrage 'in the present-day state' is really capable of revealing the will of the majority of the working people, and of securing its realisation" (CW, p 398-99).

This reminder about the bourgeois nature of the most "democratic" version of the "present day state" was vital in 1917 when Lenin was calling for a form of revolutionary power that could really express the needs of the working masses. But throughout this century revolutionaries have had to make the same reminder. The more direct heirs of the social democratic reformists, today's Labour and Socialist parties, have constructed their whole programme (for capital) on the idea of a benevolent, neutral state that, by taking over major industries and social services, takes on a "public" or even "socialist" character. But this fraud is also ardently peddled by those who claim to be Lenin's heirs, the Stalinists and Trotskyists, who never cease to defend the notion that nationalisations and state welfare provisions are workers' conquests and so many steps towards socialism, even under the "present-day state". These so-called "Leninists" are among the bitterest opponents of the "revolutionary substance" of Lenin's work.

The evolution of the marxist theory of the state

Since the state is an instrument of class rule, an organ of violence directed against the exploited class, the proletariat could not count on it to defend its immediate interests, let alone wield it as a tool for the construction of socialism. Lenin shows how the marxist concept of the withering away of the state had been distorted by opportunism to justify their idea that the new society could come about gradually, harmoniously, through the existing state democratising itself and taking over the means of production, then "withering away" as the material bases of communism were laid down. Again returning to Engels, Lenin insists that what "withers away" is not the existing bourgeois state, but the state that emerges after the proletarian revolution, which by necessity is a violent revolution which has its task the "smashing" of the old bourgeois state. Of course Engels and Lenin both reject the anarchist idea that the state as such could be abolished overnight: as a product of lass society, the final disappearance of any state form could only come about after a more or less long period of transition. But the state of the transition period is not the old bourgeois state. That now lies in ruins and what takes its place is a new kind of state, a semi-state that enables the proletariat to exert its domination over society, but which is already in the process of "dying out". To strengthen and deepen this fundamental position of marxism, Lenin then goes on to examine the actual historical experience of "the state and revolution" and the development of marxist theory in connection with this experience (something that Pannekoek, for all his insight, had neglected to do, leaving himself more open to the opportunist charge of "anarchism").

Lenin's starting point is the beginnings of the marxist movement - the period just before the revolutions of 1848. Re-reading the Communist Manifesto and The Poverty of Philosophy, Lenin argues that in these works the key elements with regard to the state are:

  • the proletariat needs to take political power, to form itself into the ruling class, an act generally described as the result of a "more or less veiled civil war" and of the "violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie" (Communist Manifesto, cited in CW, p 406- 7);
  • the state formed in the revolution to suppress the bourgeoisie will give way to a classless association in which there will be no more need for political power.

Concerning the nature of this "violent overthrow", the exact relationship between the revolutionary proletariat and the existing bourgeois state, it was not of course possible to be precise, given the absence of concrete historical experience. But still Lenin points out that "since the proletariat needs the state as a special form of organisation. of violence against the bourgeoisie, the following conclusion suggests itself: is it conceivable that such an organisation can be created without first abolishing, destroying the state machine created by the bourgeoisie for themselves? The Communist Manifesto leads straight to this conclusion, and it is of this conclusion that Marx speaks when summing up the experience of the revolution of 1848-51" (CW, P 410-411). Consequently Lenin goes on to cite a key passage from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, where Marx denounces the state as "an appalling parasitic body" and points out that prior to the proletarian revolution, "all revolutions perfected this machine instead of smashing it".

As we mentioned in our article in IR 73, tile 1848 revolutions, as well as for the first time posing the question of "smashing" the bourgeois state, also gave Marx some glimpses of how in tile course of the struggle, the proletariat forms its own independent committees, new organs of revolutionary authority. But the proletarian content of the movements of 1848 was too weak, too immature to answer tile question "with what is tile old bourgeois state machine to be replaced".

Lenin thus moves on to the only previous experience of the proletariat taking power, the Commune of 1871. In considerable detail, he traces the main lessons that Marx and Engels took from the Commune:

  • First and foremost, as Marx and Engels express it in their 1872 introduction to the Communist Manifesto"One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that the proletariat cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes'''. The revolutionary movement must destroy the existing state and replace it with new organs of power. In the balance sheet of the 1848 revolution, this understanding appeared as a brilliant flash of insight. In their analysis of the Paris Commune, it had become a programmatic principle. For Marx and Engels in 1872, it was significant enough to warrant a rectification of the Communist Manifesto.
  • The Commune was tile specific form of this revolutionary "semi-state", a new form of political power that was already in the process of "withering away". Its most important features were:
  1. abolition of the standing army and the arming of the people. The need for suppression remained, but this was to be carried out by the majority against the old exploiting minority;
  2. to prevent the rise of a new bureaucracy, all officials to be elected and subject to immediate recall; no state official to be paid more than the average workers' wage. Constant supervision of state functions and participation by the masses through direct democracy;
  3. overcoming of bourgeois parliamentarism, both by replacing representation (MPs elected for four or five years by amorphous constituencies) with delegation (deputies to the Commune can be recalled at any time by permanently mobilised assemblies), and by tile fusion of executive and legislative functions in one body. Here again, Lenin applied the lessons of the past to tile struggles of the present: the critique of bourgeois parliamentarism, the defence of a higher form of direct democracy, was also a sharp polemic against the "Socialist parliamentarians" of his own day, against tile opportunists who wanted to tie tile workers to the defence of the existing state;
  4. the Commune is a centralised form of organisation. Contrary to the backward looking vision of the anarchists, who tried to claim the commune as their model, the Commune did not stand for disintegrating authority into separate local or federal units. While permitting the greatest possible local initiative, the Commune was the form for cementing the unity of the proletariat both at national and international level.

Lenin's historical survey was not able to go beyond the Commune experience. His original intention had been to write a seventh chapter of State and Revolution, demonstrating how "the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, indifferent circumstances and under different conditions, continue the work of the Commune and confirm Marx's brilliant historical analysis" (CW p 437). But the acceleration of history deprived him of the opportunity. "I had no time to write a single line of the chapter, I was 'interrupted' by a political crisis - the eve of the October revolution of 1917. Such an 'interruption' can only be welcomed; but the writing of the second part of the pamphlet (The experience of the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917') will probably have to be put off for a long time. It is more pleasant and useful to go through the 'experience of revolution' than to write about it" (Postscript to the first edition, CW p 497).

In fact, the second part was never written. No doubt that seventh chapter would have been of incalculable value. But Lenin had achieved the essential. The reaffirmation of Marx and Engels' teachings on the question of the state was a sufficient basis for a revolutionary progranune to the extent that the primordial issue was the necessity to smash the bourgeois state and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat. But in any case, Lenin's work, as we have already said, was never one of mere repetition. By returning to the past in depth, and with a militant purpose, marxists also take their theoretical insights forward. In this way, State and Revolution made two important clarifications for the communist programme. First, it identified the soviets as the natural successor to the Commune, even though these organs are only mentioned in passing. Lenin was not able to analyse in depth why the soviets were a higher form of revolutionary organisation than the Commune; perhaps he might have developed on Trotsky's insights in his writings about 1905, particularly when the latter points out that the soviets of workers' deputies, being based on workplace assemblies, are a form of organisation best adapted to ensuring the class autonomy of the proletariat (the Commune by contrast had been based on territorial rather than workplace units, reflecting a less mature phase of proletarian concentration). Indeed, later writings by Lenin indicate that this was precisely the understanding he was to acquire1. But even if Lenin was not able to examine the soviets in any detail in State and Revolution, there can be no doubt that he considered them the most appropriate organs for destroying the bourgeois state and forming the proletarian dictatorship: from the April Theses onwards, the slogan "all power to the soviets" was above all the slogan of Lenin and the reforged Bolshevik party.

Secondly, Lenin was able to make some definitive generalisations about the problem of the state and its revolutionary destruction. In the section of the work dealing with the revolutions of 1848, Lenin had posed the question: "is it correct to generalise the experience, observations and conclusions of Marx, to apply them to a field that is wider than the history of France during the three years 1848-51?" (CW, p414). Was the formula "concentration of all the forces" of the proletarian revolution on the "destruction" of the state machine valid in all countries? The question was still of extreme importance in 1917 because, despite the lessons Marx and Engels drew about the Paris Commune, even they had left considerable room for ambiguity about the possibility of the proletariat gaining power peacefully through the electoral process in certain countries, those with the most developed parliamentary institutions and the least swollen military apparatus. As Lenin points out Marx specifically mentioned Britain in this context, but also countries like the USA and Holland. But here Lenin was not the least bit afraid to correct and complete Marx's thinking. He did so by using Marx's method: placing the question in its proper historical context: "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 extraordinary strengthening of the 'state machine' and an unprecedented growth in its bureaucratic and military apparatus in connection with repressive measures against the proletariat both in the monarchical and in the freest, republican countries" (CW, p 415). As a result: "Today, in 1917, at the time of the first great imperialist war, this restriction made by Marx is no longer valid. Both Britain and America, the biggest and the last representatives - in the whole world - of AngloSaxon 'liberty', in the sense that they had no militarist cliques and bureaucracy, have completely sunk into the all-European filthy, bloody morass of bureaucratic-military institutions which subordinate everything to themselves, and suppress everything. Today, in Britain and America too, 'the precondition for every real people's revolution' is the smashing, the destruction of the 'ready made state machinery'''(CW, p 420-1). Henceforward, there were to be no more exceptions.

The refutation of anarchism

The principal target of State and Revolution was opportunism, which, as we have seen, did not hesitate to accuse Lenin of anarchism the moment he began to insist on the need to smash the state machine. But as Lenin retorted, "the usual criticism of anarchism by present-day Social Democrats has boiled down to the purest philistine banality: 'we recognise the state, whereas anarchists do not!'" (CW, p 443). But while demolishing such stupidities, Lenin also reiterated the real marxist critique of anarchism, basing himself in particular on what Engels had to say in reply to the absurdities of the "anti-authoritarians": a revolution is just about the most authoritarian thing there could possibly be. To reject all authority, all use of political power, is to renounce revolution. Lenin carefully distinguishes the marxist position, which offers a realisable, historical solution to the problem of subordination, to divisions between leaders and led, state and society, from that of anarchism, which offers only apocalyptic dreams of an immediate dissolution of all such problems - dreams which ultimately have a most conservative result: "We are not utopians, we do not 'dream' of dispensing at once with all administration, all subordination. These anarchist dreams, based upon incomprehension of the tasks of the proletarian dictatorship, are totally alien to marxism. And, as a matter of fact, they only serve to postpone the socialist revolution until people are different. No, we want the socialist revolution with people as they are now, with people who cannot dispense with subordination, control and 'foremen and accountants '. The subordination, however, must be to the armed vanguard of all the exploited and working people, ie. to the proletariat ..... (CW, p 430-1).

The economic basis of the withering away of the state

Unlike the anarchists, who wanted the state to vanish as the result of an act of revolutionary will, marxism recognises that a stateless society can only emerge when the economic and social roots of class divisions have been dug up, have given way to the flowering of a society of material abundance. In outlining the economic basis for the withering away of the state, Lenin once again goes back to the classics, in particular Marx's Critique of the Gotha Programme, from which he draws out the following points:

- the necessity of a transitional period in which the proletariat exercises its dictatorship while at the same time bringing the vast majority of the population into the political and economic management of society;

- economically speaking, this transitional phase can be described as "the lower stage of communism". It is communist society as it emerges from capitalism, still severely marked by many of the defects of the old order. The productive forces have become common property, but there is not yet a condition of material abundance. Consequently, there is still inequality of distribution. The system of labour vouchers advocated by Marx constitutes an inroad against the accumulation of capital, but they reflect a situation of inequality, since some can perform more work than others, some have certain skills which others lack, some have children while others do not, and so on. In sum, there exists what Marx calls "bourgeois right" in matters of distribution - and to protect bourgeois right, there must still exist vestiges of" bourgeois law";

- the development of the productive forces makes it possible to overcome the division of labour and institute a system of free distribution: "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs". This is the higher phase of communism, a society of real freedom. The state no longer has any material underpinning and withers away; the radical extension of democracy leads to the ultimate extinction of democracy, since democracy itself is a form of state. The administration of people is replaced by the administration of things. It is not a utopia: even in such a stage, for an unspecifiable period, individual excesses may continue, and will need to be prevented; but "no special machine, no special apparatus of suppression, is needed for this; this will be done by the armed people themselves, as simply and as readily as any crowd of civilised people, even in modern society, interfere to put a stop to a scuffle or to prevent a woman from being assaulted" (CW, p 469). In short, "the necessity of observing the simple, fundamental rules of the community will become a habit" (CW, p 479).

When Lenin was writing State and Revolution, the world was poised on the brink of a communist revolution. The defence of Marx's positions on the economic transformation was no abstraction. It was seen as an imminent, programmatic necessity. The working class was being pushed towards a revolutionary confrontation by burning and immediate need - the need for bread, to end the imperialist slaughter, and so on. But the communist vanguard had no doubt that the revolution could not stop short at the solution of these immediate questions. It would have to go to its ultimate, historical conclusion: the inauguration of a new phase in the history of humanity.

The limits to Lenin's vision

We have already noted that State and Revolution is an incomplete work. In particular, Lenin was unable to develop on the role of the soviets as the "finally discovered form of the dictatorship of the proletariat" . But even if the work had not been "interrupted" by the October insurrection, it could still only express the highest point of clarity prior to the experience of the revolution. The Russian revolution itself - and above all its defeat - was to afford many lessons about the problems of the transition period, and we cannot reproach Lenin with failing to solve these questions in advance of the real experience of the proletariat. In future articles we will come back to these lessons from numerous angles but it will be useful to sketch in the three main areas in which subsequent experience was to reveal the inevitable weaknesses and lacunae in State and Revolution

1. State and economy

Although Lenin clearly defends the notion of a communist transformation of the economy - a notion which Marx developed in opposition to the "state socialist" trends in the workers' movement (see lR 79 'Communism versus State Socialism') - his work still suffers from certain ambiguities about the role of the state in the economic transition. We have seen that these ambiguities existed even in the work of Marx and Engels, but during the period of the Second International it was increasingly assumed that the first step on the road to communism was the statification of the national economy, that a fully nationalised economy can no longer be a capitalist one. In various of his writings of the time, while denouncing the "state capitalist trusts" that had become the form of capitalist organisation in the imperialist war, Lenin had a tendency to see these trusts as a neutral instrument, as a kind of stepping stone to socialism, a form of economic centralisation that the victorious proletariat could simply take over wholesale. In a work written in September 1917, Can the Bolsheviks retain state power?, Lenin is more explicit: "Capitalism has created an accounting apparatus in the shape of the banks, syndicates, postal services, consumers' societies, and office employees' unions. Without big banks socialism would be impossible. The big banks are the 'state apparatus , which we need to bring about socialism. and which we take ready-made from capitalism" (1961 Moscow edition, p 20). In State and Revolution a similar idea is expressed when Lenin says that "All citizens become employees and workers of a single country wide state syndicate" ( CW. p 478). It is of course true that the communist transformation does not start from scratch - its inevitable starting point is the existing productive forces, the existing networks of transport, distribution, and so on. But history has taught us to be extremely wary of the idea of simply taking over the economic organisms and institutions created by capital for its own specific needs, above all when they are such archetypal capitalist institutions as the big banks. Most importantly, the Russian revolution and in particular the Stalinist counter-revolution has shown that the simple transformation of the productive apparatus into state property does not do way with the exploitation of man by man - an error definitely present in State and Revolution when Lenin writes that in the first phase of communism "exploitation of man by man will have become impossible because it will be impossible to seize the means of production – the factories, machines, land, etc - and make them private property" (CW p 471). This weakness is compounded by Lenin's insistence that there is a "scientific distinction" to be made between socialism and communism (the former being defined as the lower stage of communism), In fact Marx and Engels did not really theorise such a distinction and it is not accidental that Marx in the Gotha Programme talks rather about lower and higher stages of communism, because he wanted to convey the idea of a dynamic movement between capitalism and communism, not of a fixed, 'third' mode of production which is characterised by "public ownership". Finally, and more significantly, Lenin's discussion on the economic transition in State and Revolution does not make explicit the fact that the dynamic towards communism can only get underway on an international scale, leaving room for the notion that at least certain stages of "socialist construction" can be achieved in one country alone.

The tragedy of the Russian revolution is adequate testimony to the fact that even if you statify the whole economy. even if you have a monopoly on foreign trade. the laws of global capital will still impose themselves on any isolated proletarian bastion. In the absence of the extension of the world revolution, these laws will defy any attempts to create the foundations of any “socialist construction", eventually transforming the proletariat's erstwhile bastion into a new and monstrous "state capitalist trust" competing on the world market. And such a mutation can only be accompanied by a political counter-revolution which will leave no trace of the proletariat's dictatorship.

2. Party and Power

It has been noted that Lenin does not say very much about the role of the party in State and Revolution. Is this further proof of Lenin's temporary conversion to anarchism in 1917? Foolish question: the theoretical clarification contained in State and Revolution is itself the preparation for the direct, leading role of the Bolshevik party in the October insurrection. In its' ruthless polemic against those who are injecting bourgeois ideology into the proletariat, it is above all a "party political" document, aiming to win the workers away from these influences and towards the positions of the revolutionary party.

The question, however, remains: on the eve of the worldwide revolutionary wave, how did the revolutionaries (and not just the Bolsheviks) understand the relationship between the party and the proletarian dictatorship? The one reference to the party in State and Revolution does not give us a clear answer to this, since it is phrased ambivalently: "By educating the workers' party, marxism educates the vanguard of the proletariat, capable of assuming power and leading the whole people to socialism, of directing and organising the new system, of being the teacher, the guide, the leader of all the working and exploited people in organising their social life without the bourgeoisie and against the bourgeoisie" (CW, p 409). It is ambivalent because it is not clear whether it is the party as such which assumes power, or the proletariat, which Lenin often defines as the vanguard of all the oppressed population. A better guide to the prevailing level of comprehension of this question is the pamphlet Can the Bolsheviks retain State power? The main confusion is seen straight away in the title: the revolutionaries of the day, despite their commitment to the soviet system of delegation which had made the old system of parliamentary representation obsolete, were still held back by parliamentary ideology to the extent that they saw that the party which had a majority in the central soviets then formed the government and administered the state. In future articles we will look in more detail at how this conception led to the fatal entanglement of the party with the state, and created an unbearable situation which helped to empty the soviets of their proletarian life, to set the party against the class, and above all, to transform the party from the most radical fraction of the revolutionary class into an instrument of social conservation.

But these developments did not occur autonomously: they were above all determined by the isolation of the revolution and the material development of an internal counter-revolution. In 1917, the emphasis in all Lenin's writings, whether in the pamphlet just mentioned, or State and Revolution, is not on the party exercising the dictatorship, but on the whole proletariat, and increasingly the whole population, taking charge of their political and economic affairs, through their own practical experience, through their own debates, their own mass organisations. Thus when Lenin answers affirmatively that the Bolsheviks can retain state power, it is only on the understanding that the work of a couple of hundred thousand Bolsheviks will be part of a much vaster effort, the effort of millions of workers and poor peasants, who, from day one, are learning to run the state on their own behalf. The real power, therefore, is not in the hands of the party, but of the masses. If the early hopes of the revolution had been realised, if Russia had not been engulfed by civil war, famine, and international blockade, the evident contradictions in this position could have been resolved in the right direction, demonstrating that in a genuine system of elected and revocable delegation, it makes no sense to talk about any party holding onto power.

3. Class and state

In the Critique of the Gotha Programme Marx had described the transitional state as "nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat". This identification between the power of the working class and the transitional state is continued by Lenin in State and Revolution when he talks about a "proletarian state" or a "state of armed workers", and when he theoretically underlines these formulae by defining the state as being essentially composed of "bodies of armed men". In short, in the transition period, the state is no more than the workers in arms, suppressing the bourgeoisie.

As we shall see in subsequent articles, this formulation was rapidly shown to be inadequate. Lenin himself had had said that the proletariat needs the state not only to suppress the resistance of the exploiters, but also to lead the rest of the non-exploiting population in the direction of socialism. And this latter function, the need to integrate a largely peasant population into the revolutionary process, gave birth to a state which was not only made up of soviets of workers' delegates but also of peasants' and soldiers' soviets. With the start of the civil war, the armed workers' militias, the Red Guards, were not an adequate force to combat the full force of a military counter-revolution. The principal armed force of the soviet state was henceforward the Red Army, again comprised in its majority of peasants. At the same time, the need to combat internal subversion and sabotage gave rise to the Cheka, a special police force which increasingly escaped the control of the soviets. Within weeks of the October insurrection the commune-state had become something rather more than the "armed workers". Above all, with the growing isolation of the revolution, the new state became more and more infested with the gangrene of bureaucracy, less and less responsive to the elected organs of the proletariat and poor peasants. Far from beginning to wither away, the new state was beginning to swallow society whole. Far from bending to the will of the revolutionary class, it became the focal point for a kind of internal degeneration and counter-revolution that had never been seen before.

In its balance sheet of the counter-revolution, the Italian communist left was to pay particular attention to the problem of the transitional state, and one of the principal conclusions reached by Bilan and Internationalisme was that, following the Russian revolution, it was no longer possible to identify the dictatorship of the proletariat with the transitional state. We will return to this question in future articles. For now, however, it is important to point out that, even if the formulations of the marxist movement prior to the Russian revolution suffered from serious weaknesses on this point, at the same time this idea of the non-identification between the proletariat and the transitional state did not come from nowhere. Lenin was fully aware of Engels' definition of the transitional state as no more than a "necessary evil", and throughout the book there is a powerful emphasis on the necessity for the workers to subject all state functionaries to constant supervision and control - particularly those elements of the state who most obviously embody a certain continuity with the old regime, such as the technical and military "experts" which the soviets would be forced to make use of.

Lenin also develops a theoretical foundation for this attitude of healthy proletarian distrust for the new state. In the section on the economic transformation. he explains that because its role will be to safeguard a situation of " bourgeois right", it is permissible to define the transitional state as "the bourgeois state, without the bourgeoisie!". Even if this formulation is useful more as a way of provoking thought than as a clear definition of the class nature of the transitional state, Lenin has grasped the essential: since its task is to safeguard a state of affairs which is not yet communist, the commune-state reveals its basically conservative nature, and it is this which makes it particularly vulnerable to the dynamic of the counter-revolution. And these theoretical perceptions about the nature of the state were to enable Lenin to develop some important insights into the nature of the degenerative process, even when he himself was partly caught up within it: for example, his position on the trade union debate in 1921, when he recognised the need for the workers to maintain organs of defence even against the transitional state, or his warnings about the growth of state bureaucracy towards the end of his life. The Bolshevik party may have succumbed to an insidious demise, and the torch of clarification had to be taken from their hands by the left communist fractions. But there is no doubt that the latters' most important theoretical developments were achieved by taking as their point of departure the gigantic contribution of the Lenin of State and Revolution.


The next articles in this series will examine the revolutionary programmes drawn up by the communist parties in the period of 1918-20 and the degree to which these programmes corresponded to the actual practise of the working class during the revolutionary wave.

1 See in particular the "Theses on Bourgeois Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat". written by Lenin and adopted by the Communist International at its founding Congress in 1919. Among other points that will be examined in a future article. this text affirms that" Soviet power, ie the dictatorship of the proletariat (...) is so organised as to bring the working people close to the machinery of government. That, too, is the purpose of combining the legislative and executive authority under the soviet organisation and of replacing territorial constituencies by productive units - the factories" (Thesis 16).


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