The New Observer Book Reviews State and Revolution. V. I. Lenin

State and Revolution. V. I. Lenin

This revolutionary pamphlet was written by Lenin in August and September 1917, that is between the two revolutions in Russia. (The February uprising which led to the abdication of the Tsar and the October coup led by the Bolsheviks against the provisional government).  Lenin is a theoretician of the Revolution. The book is both theoretical and a ‘manual for the revolution’ at the same time. Lenin draws on Engels and Marx and is at pains to explain that he is offering the “pure” and correct interpretation of Marxism; against various “vulgar” interpretations which are used to justify “opportunism”. Opportunism is Lenin’s word for those who believed in parliamentary road to socialism. In this there is a certain element of religious fanaticism; only we (the Bolsheviks) are the true carriers of the faith. Of course; for Lenin, Marxism was not a faith but a theory which was based on concrete analysis of historical events which had been carried out by Marx with “the accuracy of observation characterising the natural sciences”.

The essential idea presented in this pamphlet is quite simple. The current state machinery in capitalist countries is a tool of the capitalist classes. Parliament is a “talking shop” which the gentry use as a stepping stone to subsequent careers in finance where they are rewarded for their assistance rendered to capital during their time in office. (On this point at any rate it is hard to argue with Lenin; the recent example of UK government ministers such as Blair, Osborne, Cameron and Brown enriching themselves by taking on lavishly paid “speaking engagements”, directorships and consultancies in the corporate world is a case in point). Socialism will not be brought in by winning a majority in parliament and implementing socialism through parliament. The route to Freedom and Communism is as follows: the armed proletariat must seize the current state; they must use this state power, albeit in a modified form, to suppress the oppressor class. This is now a case of the majority using state power to smash the power of the minority in contrast to the current situation where state power is used by the minority to crush the majority. Because of this difference the socialist state will be of a different type than the state under capitalism. The socialist state will be democratic rather than the false democracy of the capitalist state. Nonetheless it is still a state. After a period of this dictatorship of the proletariat because of a) an increase in productivity and b) a change in social conditions and relations it will no longer be necessary to have a state at all, of any kind. The state will “wither away”. There will be no more bureaucracy at all. Democracy itself will wither away – as democracy is, even in socialist form, only the tyranny of the majority over a minority, whereas in Communism everyone will naturally “observe the fundamental rules of social life” without any coercion at all. Under the socialist state production will be organised from the centre; workers will be paid according to how much they produce, with a deduction to maintain social infrastructure. However; while this is an improvement from capitalism in that exploitative economic relations will no longer exist (having been smashed by the armed proletariat along with the old state machinery) it still contains bourgeois ideas about individual remuneration. In the final development of the revolution, which is Communism, people will simply produce whatever they are able to and people will consume what they need to. The final goal then is Communism; no state, no standing army, no state bureaucracy, no managers, no police, everyone produces whatever they are capable of and everyone consumes what they need. All this is not proposed as a Utopia. It is inevitable. That this course of events is inevitable is the idea of applied dialectical materialism. While Lenin relies on this theory in this book he does not review the material in Marx and Engels or explain the idea. He simply accepts it. This is, after all, a short pamphlet.

Against this theory of the state and the revolution Lenin criticises “opportunists” and anarchists. The former, amongst which he includes the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries in Russia, promote the possibility of a parliamentary road to socialism. They are prepared to compromise with the bourgeoisie. In as much as the theoreticians of the “opportunists” rely on Marx they are distorting Marx. The Anarchists envisage the same end-goal as the Communists; a society without any state at all. But they have no idea how to get there. They have no understanding of the need to smash the existing state and no understanding that “it takes a state to defeat a state”.

Lenin is at pains to emphasise that his theory of the state and revolution is derived from the work of Engels and Marx, and that, in turn, this work was based on concrete analysis of historical events. It is not a Utopian theory. The events of the Paris Commune of 1871 were discussed by Marx in his book Civil War in France published in 1871. Lenin draws heavily on this work and on the forward to the work by Engels in an 1891 edition.

Chapter 1. Class Society and the State

Lenin explains that the state is the result of “the product and the manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms”. Once these antagonisms have been resolved the state will wither away. The state is used to “mediate” between economic classes. Naturally it serves the interests of the dominant class. In reality it is a repressive force.  Lenin, following Engels, explains the state entirely in terms of its role mediating class conflict. Lenin does not envisage that the state could have a role managing society quite apart its role mediating class interests. Lenin presents the idea of the eventual withering away of the state not as a Utopian suggestion but as an inevitable process. The underlying idea is that there are two phases of Communism. Firstly there is a phase, “the dictatorship of the proletariat” which immediately follows the Revolution. And this subsequently evolves into complete Communism. How does Lenin envisage the organisation of society and production in Communism? We shall see in a moment (Chapter 3) how Lenin, based on Marx and Engel’s work on the 1871 Paris Commune, has quite definite ideas about the state might look in the socialist or “dictatorship of the proletariat phase” (that is immediately following the revolution and before the withering away of the state). But he has somewhat less to say about how production and distribution might be organised in a fully developed Communist society without either owners (and their hired managers) or the state.  This would probably be explained by Lenin in the following terms: Marxist theory develops not abstractly but by the analysis of concrete historical situations. As yet there has been no lasting dictatorship of the proletariat so no historical example which could be analysed to see how this might give birth to the final condition of society – that of Communism. Lenin bases his work on the concrete historical analyses of Marx and Engels. 

Chapter 2. The experiences of 1848-1851

Throughout this work Lenin seeks to show that Marxism (the ideas of Marx and Engels) was established by analysis of concrete historical situations. In this chapter he examines how Marx analysed the 1848 Revolution in France which saw the end of the Orleans monarchy and the establishment of the Second Republic. (The Second Republic lasted for 3 years until Louis-Napoléon seized power in  a coup in 1851).

Before examining Marx’s work on the 1848 revolution in France Lenin looks at the works which Marx had written just prior to these events; The Poverty of Philosophy [1] and The Communist Manifesto [2]. Lenin quotes from the Communist Manifesto a passage which shows Marx’s formulation of the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat: “We have seen above that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise [literally “promote”] the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to establish democracy”.  Having seized power the proletariat will “centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state” and it will thus “increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible”. This last idea is important for Lenin. As we shall see (Chapter 5 ‘The Economic basis of the Withering Away of the State’) Lenin will explain that one of the reasons that will enable Communism to emerge from Socialism (the dictatorship of the proletariat) will be the increase in production. In Chapter 5 Lenin writes:  “This expropriation (of capital from the capitalists ed.) will make a gigantic development of the productive forces possible”. Thus Lenin takes on this idea from Marx. But, in reality, this is unlikely. Odious though it is capitalism probably does produce more overall than socialism (a planned economy). Markets do indeed allocate resources more ‘efficiently’ than planners can. Even the Bolsheviks found that some degree of market incentive was necessary to stimulate production. This was the rationale for the transition in the 1920s from War Communism (the nationalisation and state requisitioning characteristic of the Civil War period) to the New Economic Policy, under which some degree of free enterprise was permitted. At this point in his exposition however Lenin simply wishes to stress that Marx envisaged a stage when the proletariat would be “organised as the ruling class”. A consistent theme throughout this pamphlet is the theme that the path to socialism involves a revolution; a seizure of state power in the interests of the proletariat. Lenin wishes to insist on the necessity of this against on the one hand democratic socialists who believe in a path to socialism via existing constitutional means and, on the other hand, against the Anarchists who opposed all state power and authority on principal and who did not understand that it would be necessary to seize the state and use it against the capitalist class.

In this Chapter Lenin presents the classic Marxist idea that under capitalism the proletariat is concentrated together and thus can become conscious of its power to smash capitalism. The organised and armed proletariat will seize power, smash the capitalists and then be in a position for “guiding the great mass of the population – the peasantry, the petty-bourgeoisie, the semi-proletarians – in the work of organising Socialist economy”. Under Bolshevik power in the Soviet Union the peasantry were “guided” towards organising a socialist economy by being collectivised – a process which many strenuously resisted and which cost many their lives. Hundreds of thousands of others were removed from their land and deported to far-flung regions [3].  While some degree of collectivisation of farming had been attempted during the War Communism phase [4] it was under Stalin in 1928 that collectivization really got under way. Still; this did not happen under Lenin who had died in 1924.

Having established the idea of the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat and having grounded this in Marx Lenin next wishes to establish that Marx had dictated the necessity of breaking up the capitalist state machinery. It seems that on this specific point Lenin, in his citations from Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, has to slightly stretch matters. Lenin quotes Marx: “All revolutions brought this machine to greater perfection, instead of breaking it up. The parties which alternately contended for supremacy looked on the capture of this vast state edifice as the chief spoils of the victor”.  The series of revolutions which Marx had in mind were the changes of power in France in 1848-51; firstly the overthrow of the Orleans monarchy in 1848 and the establishment of the Second Republic and then the overthrow of this Republic and the establishment of the Second Empire by Louis Napoleon in 1851. From this Lenin asserts that Marx insisted on the breaking-up of the old state machinery. By emphasising this requirement for the breaking up of the old state machinery Lenin insists that the dictatorship of the proletariat can only come about by revolution. Again; Lenin is countering those “opportunists” who accepted the possibility of a non-revolutionary and parliamentary road to socialism. Lenin includes, with many scathing remarks, the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries of Russia amongst the opportunists. At the time he was writing this pamphlet the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries were working alongside liberal elements of the nobility in the Provisional Government. Lenin sees them as making themselves part of the old state machinery and acting against the proletariat. These theoretical ideas came to a decisive conclusion in the Bolshevik suppression of these parties in the years following the October revolution. But in this question of “breaking up” of the old capitalist state Lenin seems to go further than Marx. Whereas Marx had talked about “breaking up” the state machinery Lenin now talks about “breaking up and annihilating it”. The revolutionary fervor which Lenin is keen to ground in Marx seems at least to some extent to be his own augmentation of Marx. Lenin criticised the Mensheviks and Socialist revolutionaries in the Provisional government for being part of the bourgeois state machinery and for taking “cushy berths”. Certainly it appears that the Mensheviks did operate in the Provisional Government using the existing levers of power. But, at the same time, they used their position to make changes which could certainly be characterised as at least a start towards “breaking up” the old state machinery. Menshevik insistence led to a law which required that worker and employer disputes should be put to independent arbitration; there was an increase in state regulation of industry (that is the state taking on a new and more socialist form); there was an (albeit somewhat tokenistic) gesture in the direction of land reform with peasants being allowed to take over disused land. [5] Admittedly these reforms of the Tsarist state did not go nearly far enough to meet popular demand. This created the ground in which Lenin’s call for an ‘annihilation’ of the old state (i.e. a second revolution) met with popular approval.

While Lenin may have emphasised the revolutionary aspect, the basic shape of the idea of the State and Revolution which Lenin puts forward in this work can quite correctly be attributed to Marx. The quote comes from a letter from Marx to a fellow revolutionary Joseph Weydemeyer which was published in a magazine in 1907. This is the quote from Marx as given by Lenin:

What was new on my part, was to prove the following: (1) that the existence of classes is connected only with the certain historical struggles which arise out of the development of production [historische Entwicklungskämpft]; (2) that class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat: (3) that this dictatorship is itself only a transition to the abolition of all classes and a classless society.

So far Lenin has clarified and insisted on the idea that the only path to Communism is through a period of dictatorship of the proletariat during which the proletariat will use state power against the capitalist classes. A violent seizing of power, a revolution, a sharp confrontation with the capitalists and all those “opportunists” who seek compromise with them in necessary. There can be no parliamentary road to socialism. The state machinery which was used by the capitalists to oppress the proletariat must be “broken up and annihilated”. It is not possible to institute socialism with this state machinery. Nonetheless a state power is needed to suppress the forces of oppression. Lenin is at pains to show that these ideas are grounded in the concrete historical analyses provided by Marx and Engels. He is at pains to show that Social Democrats who claim to be Marxists but who do not insist on the necessity of the armed revolution and the smashing of the capitalist state are imposters. In the next Chapter Lenin draws on Marx and Engels’ analyses of the 1871 Paris Commune to illustrate the form of state that we will see in the dictatorship of the proletariat phase, the transition and revolutionary phase between capitalism and Communism.

Chapter 3. Experience of the Paris Commune of 1871: Marx’s analysis

The key theme of this chapter concerns how the Communards of the Paris Commune of 1871 organised themselves. Lenin, based on Marx, takes this as a model for what the state might look like during the dictatorship of the proletariat (that is before it withers away).

Lenin quotes from a Preface added to the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels after the events of the Paris Commune: “One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that ‘the working classes cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes'”. From this and taken together with Marx’s comments about the necessity of “breaking up” (see above) the old state machinery Lenin derives the theory that the armed proletariat must not simply seize the existing state institutions. They must seize power, break up the existing state institutions and create new ones. The exact form that these new ones should take is derived from the example of the Paris Commune.

Marx analysed the experience of the Paris Commune in his book The Civil War in France. [6] It is necessary to understand that Marx saw the state bureaucracy in advanced capitalist countries as a “public force organised for social enslavement, of an engine of class despotism”. The state bureaucracy is simply the machinery necessary for keeping the workers down. It is a tool of the capitalists. This is why the proletarian revolution cannot simply seize the existing state and use that to implement socialism. The key elements of the administration of the Paris Commune which Marx highlights are: disbanding of the standing army and its replacement by “the armed people”; police becomes accountable to the people; all public sector officials paid the same as a working man; all public officials and judges were elected and could be revoked. The key point for Lenin is that because the capitalist state involved the oppression of the majority by the minority it was necessary to have special forces of suppression. But because the state in the period of the dictatorship of the proletariat is based on the majority no special forces of suppression are necessary. The functions of the state are no longer the possession of special forces (the police, the standing army) but of everyone. Lenin sees this as the first signs of the eventual withering away of the state altogether.

Lenin sees the proletarian state as being of a different quality to the bourgeois state. The proletarian state is democratic. It uses power to “suppress the bourgeoise and crush its resistance”. In explaining how it will be possible to run a state (the transitional state of the proletarian revolution) in a fully democratic way, with officials elected from the working people, paid the same as them, and subject to instant recall Lenin depends on the notion that the functions of the modern state have become very simple, little more than filing, and are thus easily within reach of any literate person. Thus Lenin explains that there is no need (in either the capitalist state or socialist state) for a specialised and higher-paid class of bureaucrats.

Lenin denies that state managers will have any role over the proletariat: “…we workers ourselves, relying on our own experience as workers, establishing a strict, an iron discipline, supported by the state power of the armed workers, shall reduce the role of the state officials to that of simply carrying out our instructions as responsible, moderately paid ‘managers’ (or course, with technical knowledge of all sorts, types and degrees).” It is the workers who will control the officials. It seems that in this passage with its reference to the armed workers Lenin is perhaps imaging a phase early on in the revolution when existing state bureaucrats will carry out the wishes of the workers at gunpoint. Then, perhaps, this will give way to a period of a democratic officialdom. And, in turn, even this democratic kind of officialdom will wither away as the functions of control are performed, increasingly, by each individual in turn. That is; management and bureaucracy becomes devolved and no longer a special function at all. In practice the Soviet Union found it necessary to secure the loyalty and commitment of specialists and senior officials themselves by giving them privileges (such as better flats).

One of Lenin’s aims in writing this pamphlet was, as we have already touched on, to distinguish Communism from, on the one hand, the “opportunists” who accepted the parliamentary route to socialism and, on the other, the Anarchists. Lenin explains that Communists and Anarchists both seek similar goals in the end, a society without any coercive structures at all, but that Communists understand that it is necessary to use state power to smash the resistance of the capitalist class and to organise production in the immediate post-revolutionary phase whereas Anarchists don’t. One challenge for Lenin on this point is to make it clear that Marx was not a federalist. Marx did not, says Lenin, propose a federalism of municipalities, like the Anarchist Proudhon. On the contrary Lenin insists that Marx was a centrist. However, with this, as on other points Lenin has to slightly stretch Marx to get him to say what he wants him to say. This is Marx, as quoted by Lenin, writing on the Paris commune:

The few but important functions which would still remain for a central government were not to be suppressed, as has been intentionally misstated, but were to be discharged by Communal, and therefore strictly responsible agents. The unity of the nation was not to be broken; but, on the contrary, to be organised by the Communal constitution, and to become a reality by the destruction of the state power which claimed to be the embodiment of that unity independent of, and superior to, the nation itself, from which it was but a parasitic excrescence.

Yes; Marx does refer to the “unity of the nation”; but, the reference to “few” functions for central government and a “Communal constitution” does sound to some degree, at least, like federalism. While this might not be a coalition of municipalities agreeing to cooperate (federalism)  but, rather a coalition of municipalities agreeing to adhere to a (slender) central power the distinction is a relatively subtle one. Lenin wishes to emphasise the centrist element in Marx’s ideas of how the revolutionary society should be organised.

Lenin stresses, again, how Marx proceeded by way of analysing concrete historical events. He did not propose Utopias. In the Paris Commune of 1871 Marx saw the first signs of a truly “expansive” as opposed to repressive form of government. This expansive form of government was possible solely because it was the form of government implemented by the working class. The form of government taken by the Commune enabled the working out of the economic emancipation of labour. Marx emphasises that the towns and the “working man” – by which we assume he means the industrial proletariat – were to have formed the “intellectual lead” for the rural producers. The idea that the industrial proletariat (guided and informed by intellectuals such as Lenin) was historically destined to be the force that destroyed capitalism is clearly an idea of Marx’s. This idea was central to the Bolsheviks. With this idea as their explaining force for the revolution the Bolsheviks in Russia were set on a collision course with the Socialist Revolutionaries. The  Socialist Revolutionary programme included land redistribution but did not seek the subordination of agrarian production to the state. These were two visions of socialism which were fundamentally irreconcilable. Ultimately the Bolsheviks won the struggle (which was conducted outside of any democratic chamber) and remaining SRs were suppressed after the Civil War.

Chapter 4. Supplementary explanations by Engels

In this chapter Lenin, with reference to the work of Engels, pursues the theme of the nature of the state both before and after the revolution. Lenin discusses an 1872 work by Engels on Housing. [7] The text (of Engels) makes it clear that Engels understood the need for a state during a “transition period”. This state would hold all industrial and agrarian capital in the name of the “working people”. (Interestingly; Engels himself puts this phrase in quote marks). This would include the housing stock. The state would then rent out housing and land to the people. The difference with capitalism is that in capitalism rents are paid to rentiers and private owners. Whereas in socialism rents are paid to the state who represents the people. As Lenin points out this implies “the collection of rent, a certain amount of control, and some rules underlying the allotment of houses”. Again; for Lenin this particular socialist state is simply a transition on the way to the final withering away of the state: “Transition to a state of affairs when it will be possible to let houses without rent is bound up with the complete ‘withering away’ of the state”. The state of affairs which Lenin describes wherein state authorities own public housing and rent it out on the basis of a system of control is, of course, just the system of public housing still in use in the UK. (Though with the transfer of the housing stock from Local Authorities to Housing Associations since the late 1980s the state has tried as much as possible to privatise or semi-privatise the stock [8]).

A second theme emerges from Lenin’s discussion of Engels’ treatment of the Housing question. Engels, as reported by Lenin, is at pains to contrast the Socialist revolution with the Anarchist one. In the socialist revolution industrial capital is seized collectively by the working class. In the Proudhonist (anarchist) revolution ownership is taken back from the capitalists and given to individual workers and peasants. The problem with the the idea of “the taking possession of the whole of industry by the working people” and the necessity to have some kind of a state to manage that industry (even if only in a transition period) is that it creates the potential for alienation. Not an alienation based on power and money (capitalism) but an alienation based on bureaucracy. In his praising of the democratic elements of political organisation in the Paris Commune, for example the requirement for officials to be elected, Marx is perhaps alive to the danger of a socialist state becoming overbearing and detached from the people. In the idea that in the final state of the development of society, Communism, there will be no bureaucratic functions at all Marxism appears to be fully aware of the potential for a bureaucracy to become an alienating factor in society. But, at the same time, is it really viable to have a society with no bureaucracy at all?  And in as much as there is a bureaucracy is there not then the potential for alienation? How viable is a fully elected and democratic bureaucracy? There seems to be an element of naivety in these ideas. Though Lenin’s defence against the charge he is creating naive Utopias is always that his ideas are based on concrete historical analyses and the inevitable evolution of society.

Lenin reports that Engels made it clear that Marxists saw a role for authority and the principle of “subordination” for example in the management of industrial enterprises. This against the anarchists who were simply against “authority”. However; Engels (and Lenin with him) agreed that in the long-run they too, like the Anarchists, envisaged a society without any kind of a state. The difference is that Marxism believed that the way to this state (of no state) was only possible through class struggle, the seizing of the current state and the use of state power to “break down the resistance of the bourgeoise”.

Lenin discusses another work of Engels. A critical review Engels wrote in 1891 concerning a programme of the Social Democrats in Germany known as the Erfurt Programme. [9] The authors of this programme argued for a constitutional and peaceful path to socialism. Engels is critical of this idea and suggests that it was made under legal pressure; (the Social Democrats in Germany were afraid of the reenactment of a law against Socialism). Lenin quotes Engels as saying that one can “only conceive” of a peaceful development towards Socialism in republican or very free countries. Lenin emphasises “only conceive!” and adds an exclamation mark. Once again; we see that Lenin took Marx and Engels at their most bloodthirsty. Lenin does not wish to allow that Engels seriously considered the possibility of a peaceful path to Socialism. The key theoretical point here though is that Engels was saying that Socialism is only possible through a democratic republic. Thus it was simply not possible for there to be a constitutional path to Socialism in Germany which at that time was constituted as a federation of small states.

Lenin cites a passage from this text – Engels’ criticism of the Erfurt programme – in which Engels outlines the kind of democratic republic he envisages for Socialism. This republic grants a considerable degree of self-government to provinces and local areas – no local authorities are to be appointed by the state; they are all to be locally elected. The centre has very few functions. However; (and we saw the same idea in Chapter 3 where Lenin discusses Marx’s work on the Paris Commune) this is not a federation of independent and autonomous regional entities. Rather; the local areas combine in a (Lenin’s words) “voluntary defence of the unity of the state”. And here we can see why Engels has to “conceive” that a democratic republic albeit a capitalist one, could transform to Socialism without a revolution; because it already enjoys the political form that will prevail in Socialism – political democracy. At the same time; Lenin explains that in a capitalist democratic republic class antagonisms come into sharper focus than ever. The implication appears to be that a democratic republic is thus the most propitious form for the revolution. Taken all this together it is clear that the Marxist idea is that a democratic republic, even a capitalist one, is worth striving for. It is an improvement, say on federalism or monarchism. It provides the basis either for a peaceful transition to Socialism (as Engels allows) or (as preferred by Lenin) brings class conflict into such sharp focus that revolution is inevitable.

The third text of Engel’s which Lenin discusses in this Chapter is Engels’ 1891 preface to Marx’s Civil War in France, the text in which Marx discussed the implications of the 1871 Paris Commune. Lenin quotes Engels as discussing how after every Revolution in France the bourgeois always made it its first task to disarm the workers. Lenin sees the same historical pattern at play in the events in Russia at the time he was writing, during the period of the Provincial government when the Menshevik Irakli Tsereteli issued an order to disarm the St. Petrograd workers. Certainly Lenin is true to his word in advancing by the concrete analysis of history. (One problem for the Bolsheviks after the October revolution was that this was the first successful workers’ revolution in history. No longer could they look to the Marx and his concrete analyses of historical events to tell them what to do. It is entirely out of the scope of this review but certainly the political history of the Bolsheviks in Russia after the revolution shows them veering from policy to policy without a clear idea of how to implement Socialism).

Lenin quotes extensively from Engels. The key idea is that in the Paris Commune the workers developed a new form of the state. It was not the same state as the state of the old bourgeois, simply repurposed. This new form of state was democratic. (As we have already seen) state officials were elected, subject to instant recall, and paid no more than the working man’s wage. Lenin adds that in addition it should be impossible for officials in the state to use their post as a “springboard to a highly profitable post in the banks or the joint stock companies, as happens constantly in all the freest capitalist countries”. (A phenomenon that any observer of contemporary “democratic” capitalism will be all too familiar with). The democratic socialist state, of which the Paris Commune is the model, is truly democratic. In the democratic socialist state the state is already beginning to dissolve. One aspect of this is that there is no longer a full-time and permanent class of specialized bureaucratic officials. In the democratic socialist state anyone can be an official. Lenin explains why he believes this is possible: “For, in order to destroy the state, it is necessary to convert the functions of public service into such simple operations of control and accounting as are within the reach of the vast majority of the population, and ultimately, of every single individual”. There are a number of truths here; such participation in the functions of running society by each and any member of society would help develop a more democratic society and foster a sense of social membership; indeed many functions of the state can be performed by just about anyone, or by anyone with a modicum of training; the doing away with a permanent class of bureaucrats who command from above also does away with the opportunity for embezzlement, opportunism and corruption of various kinds that this creates. Nonetheless; (arguments about the inevitability of the final resolution of class conflict aside) is it really viable? For example; does everyone want to take on a role in the state bureaucracy? Is it not inevitable that classes form? That some bureaucrats establish themselves as a permanent class?

Lenin quotes from an 1894 text by Engels [10] which makes it clear how Engels, and Lenin, saw the political programme they anticipated; Engels is discussing whether the term “Social-Democratic” is a suitable one for a political party which represents the “special point of view” put forwards by him and Marx: “…the word [“Social Democrat”] may perhaps pass muster, however unsuitable it still is for a party whose economic programme is not merely Socialist in general, but directly Communist, and whose ultimate political aim is to overcome the whole state, and therefore democracy as well”. Engels went on to accept Social Democrat as the name for the political party, albeit with some reservations. Lenin elucidates Engels’s comments which underly this question of the name of the party. Lenin explains that in the end even democracy will be overcome. The explanation is this: democracy means the subordination of the minority to the majority. This requires a state. The state acts with force, violence. However; after a period of Democratic Socialism people will “… grow accustomed to observing the elementary conditions of social existence without force and without subjection.” And, so, asserts Lenin, quoting Engels: a new generation will arise which “will be able to throw on the scrap heap all this state rubbish”. And democracy along with it. The programme of the Bolsheviks was Communist not Socialist. They saw the state not as a permanent political institution worth developing but as a specific political form associated with man’s underdeveloped state. Lenin, as we have discussed above, wished to seize the state, use it (in modified form) to secure the Revolution and repress the oppressors, and, then, it would “wither away”. Given this understanding of the state it is possible to see how Lenin and the Bolsheviks regarded all those who were prepared to work with the existing capitalist (or Tsarist) state in Russia in 1917, to modify it and move it gradually through democratic and peaceful means towards socialism, as traitors to the Revolution. The ideological gulf between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks was far too great to overcome. Engels was prepared to accept the name for the party of Social Democrat while noting that it did not do full justice to the idea of Communism. Lenin is happy with Bolshevik (which means ‘majority’ in Russian and was simply a name given to the Bolshevik faction when they won a debate in the Russian Social Democratic party in 1903) but suggests that maybe ‘Communist Party (Bolshevik)’ would be better.

Chapter 5. The Economic Base of the Withering Away of the State

In this section Lenin draws on an 1875  text by Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme. [11] The Gotha Programme was the political programme adopted by the German Social Democrat party at its Congress in 1875, held in the town of Gotha. The Gotha programme was a precursor to the Erfurt Programme (1891) which Engels criticised and which criticism provided another source for Lenin, as we have seen above.

Lenin quotes Marx: “Then the question arises: what transformation will the state undergo in a Communist society? In other words, what social functions analogous to the present functions of the state will then survive?” This presents a problem for Lenin because in this passage Marx clearly anticipates that some kind of a state will exist in a Communist society. This is why he spends a full page leading up to this quote explaining why it should be understood in context, as a passing remark etc. Lenin prefers Engels with his comment that a future generation “will be able to throw on the scrap heap all this state rubbish”.

Once again Lenin explains that there is no point criticising Communism on the basis that it is an unrealistic Utopia because the vision of a transition from capitalism to socialism (the dictatorship of the proletariat) and then to Communism is historically ordained. Lenin writes: “Marx treats the question of Communism in the same way as a naturalist would treat the question of the evolution of, say, a new biological species, if he knew that such and such was its origin, and such and such the direction in which it changed”.  Lenin has already commented that Marx discusses historical and political questions with “the accuracy of observation characterising the natural science”. Marx, says Lenin, based his views on the “data concerning the evolution of society” and the irreconcilability of the interests of the bourgeoisie and working classes. Lenin makes this point time and time again. Communism is not proposing a Utopia. It is a scientific (and, for Lenin, obviously true), theory of history, politics and economics. Capitalism will “give birth” to the industrial proletariat, the class, whose historical mission it is to overthrow the capitalists, crush their resistance, and then allow the arising of a classless, non-violent, society, free of subjugation and exploitation of any kind.

Lenin acknowledges that modern capitalist states are democratic. But he explains that a number of factors mean that, in effect, it is a democracy for the rich only. The capitalists control the press. Many of the poor are too crushed by the pressures of daily life to be able to participate in politics. The rich raise up various barriers to entry to prevent the poor becoming involved in politics. (At the time Lenin was writing there were still gender and property exclusions on ‘democracy’ in the capitalist democracies. Women were still excluded from the vote in the UK. Indeed it was not until 1928 that women in the United Kingdom voted on the same basis as men). Other barriers exist based on class discrimination. It is at the core of Lenin’s view that capitalist democracy could not provide a path to socialist democracy. There is no viable parliamentary route to socialism. There had to be a violent revolution to “break the resistance” of the capitalist exploiters. We have already seen how he brushes aside the passage in which Engles countenances the possibility of a peaceful transition to socialism.

Lenin proceeds to discuss clearly two phases of Communist society. The first is the dictatorship of the proletariat which takes the form of a democratic socialist state. During this period state power, or something like it, is used to crush the last resistance of the capitalists. This state then “withers away”. It gives way to the “higher phase” of Communist society in which there is no state, no democracy and no classes (neither of capitalist and worker nor of mental worker and physical worker). At the core of the vision of a society without any state power is the idea that free of the pressures of exploitation people will just “become accustomed to the observance of the elementary rules of social life that have been known for centuries and repeated for thousands of years in all school books”. This idea, that people are only selfish because of harsh social conditions and once these conditions are replaced with benign and orderly ones they will automatically become social and unselfish was at the core of the 19th century Russian novel What is to be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Lenin had read this novel and thought very highly of it: “He [Chernyshevsky] plowed me up more profoundly than anyone else… After my brother’s execution, knowing that Chernyshevsky’s novel was one of his favourite books, I really undertook to read it, and I sat over it not for several days but for several weeks. Only then did I understand its depth… it is a thing that supplies energy for a whole lifetime”. [12] And J. Frank commented that “For Chernyshevsky’s novel, far more than Marx’s Capital, supplied the emotional dynamic that eventually went to make the Russian Revolution”. [13] There appears to be a direct line from this dreamy Utopian novel – in which the characters behave with unbelieveable self-denial and altruism – to Lenin’s idea that once the harsh conditions of exploitation characteristic of capitalism are removed people will naturally blossom into unselfish and social creatures. (He allows a few “individual persons” may be given to excesses and explains that these will quickly be dealt with by peer pressure. In passing we can note that the reliance on peer pressure than than authority to regulate society is a core anarchist idea). This (it seems to this writer) is one of the fundamental problems with Communism. It places 100% of the blame for human selfishness on external social conditions. In reality, we would counter, the problem of human selfishness is not so simply solved. Though we would agree that much evil can come from harsh social conditions – we would not see this as the sole ’cause’ of the problem.

In the “first phase of Communist society”, that is socialism, workers will receive “certificates” which will permit them to claim so many goods from “public warehouses”. The means of production will be owned by the “whole of society”, but workers are rewarded according to work performed. Lenin, following Marx, explains that this principle (linking rewards to contribution) is “bourgeois” and an “injustice”. In the “higher phase of Communist society” it will be possible:  “…for society to inscribe on its banners: from each according to his ability: to each according to his need”. This is Lenin quoting Marx. That is; the “injustice” that links rewards to size of contribution will be removed. Freedom will prevail. People will work voluntarily to the best of their ability and distribution will take place solely on the basis of need. There will be “no control of labour” – because everyone will gladly do their best and not complain that they may be doing more than their peer but receiving only the same. Democracy which is a feature of the first phase of Communism contains the seeds of its own overcoming. As democracy is implemented in the first phase of Communism so increasingly it renders the state more and more unnecessary. That is; more and more workers take on the business of managing production, keeping accounts and “controlling the idlers” so that there is eventually no longer any requirement for any kind of state apparatus of control. As this process proceeds, the state, even the Socialist state, will wither away. Lenin makes two major assumptions to explain how this state of affairs is possible. Firstly, he assumes that after the overthrow of capitalism and the institution of Socialism there will be a “gigantic development of the productive forces of human society”. (The implication almost appears to be that there will be so much to go round that quibbles about distribution will be irrelevant). Secondly; he assumes, as we have discussed above, that under the more benign social conditions of Socialism people will naturally become more accustomed to behaving unselfishly and according to the “fundamental rules of everyday social life”. Both these assumptions are probably somewhat naive. In the fully planned economy of the Soviet Union in the 1930s there was impressive industrial growth but this growth was not without problems. For example; a concentration on heavy industry left consumer demand unfilled. Health and ecological consequences were neglected. [14] Industrial growth under Stalin was achieved on the basis of a rigid labour discipline. And indeed on the restoration of the “bourgeois” system of higher pay for more skilled workers; [15] a step Lenin would certainly have regarded as retrograde and nothing to do even with Socialism.

It would appear that the “economic basis for the withering away” of the state was based on optimistic assumptions. These criticisms were made at the time; Lenin reports that amongst others the Menshevik Irakli Tseretel criticised the Bolsheviks for their “unreasonable Utopias”. As always Lenin’s defence to the Utopia argument is that he is not proposing to “introduce” Communism. Rather: he foresees Communism. Communism will inevitably evolve out of Socialism which will inevitably evolve out of Capitalism. This is made clear by the “profound” “genius” of Marx and his “doctrine of evolution” based as it is on the theory of dialectical materialism. Lenin does not present this theory in this short pamphlet but assumes its correctness.

Chapter 6. Vulgarisation of Marx by the Opportunists 

In this chapter Lenin criticises two theoreticians whom he saw as diluting Marxism especially on the question of the state and the relationship of the revolutionary proletariat to the state. The first was the Russian Social Democrat Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov and the second was the Czech-Austrian Socialist theoretician Karl Kautsky. Kautsky has been a friend of Engels and had been assigned by him to the task of editing Marx’s Theory of Surplus Value. Kautsky argued against more constitutional socialists; he was in favour of revolution  However, despite this Lenin saw him as an “opportunist”. After the October Revolution in Russia Kautsky was highly critical of the Bolsheviks whom he regarded as having carried out a palace coup rather than a revolution. [16]

Lenin’s criticism of Plekhanov’s work Anarchism and Socialism is that in this work Plekanhov does not consider the essential difference between Socialism and Anarchism. That is the need for Socialists to seize the state and use it against the Capitalists; as Marx had shown actually happened in the Paris Commune.Plekanhov had criticised the anarchists but had, according to Lenin, failed, in doing so, to emphasise the key point; that socialists believe in the state – albeit as a transitory political form.

In discussing Kautsky’s refutation of another socialist, Eduard Bernstein, who had argued against the necessity of seizing the state Lenin’s criticism is that Kautsky’s criticism is not deep enough. Lenin says that Kautsky does not uphold the idea of the necessity of seizing the state with sufficient clarity and vigour. Lenin then discusses another work by Kautsky, The Social Revolution. Again; it seems that while Kautsky did support the idea of the necessity of conquering state power he did not make it clear that this could only be achieved through a violent revolution. Thus Lenin castigates Kautsky for allowing the “opportunist” possibility of a peaceful transition to Socialism. (Ironically we can note that Engels himself had allowed just this possibility. See Chapter 4. above). Another irony is that Lenin criticised Kautsky for the following “backward step” in his presentation of Socialism. Kautsky had written: “In a Socialist society there can exist, side by side, the most varied forms of economic enterprises – bureaucratic, trade union, co-operative, private…”. Yet this seems to be quite a good description of the state of affairs in the Soviet Union during the 1920’s when the economy was run under the New Economic Policy; a policy actively supported by Lenin. Lenin also criticised Kautsky for envisaging that industry could be run by parliaments of workers rather than by direct worker control. (Lenin explained that the the idea of elected bodies was still bourgeois in its flavour; he referred back to Marx’s reports on the Paris Commune. Direct worker control means that all officials are elected, subject to instant recall and receive the same pay as the working man. A “parliament of workers” seems, t Lenin, to imply a standing bureaucracy). Lenin thus sets out the pure line as being for direct worker control of industry. But in truth the experience of the revolution in Russia was that what worker control there had been during the revolutionary period was increasingly clamped down on as more power and management decisions were taken by the centre. Symbolic of this transformation was the crushing of a rebellion by sailors in Kronstadt in 1921. The sailors had demanded a return to the original goals of the Bolshevik revolution; a decentralised, democratic soviet state.Their slogan was “all power to the soviets not the parties”. The rebellion was crushed by armed force. The party prevailed. Or, again, in 1921 the metalworkers Union in the Soviet Union voted to support a faction in the Communist party which took a line against the official Bolshevik position. The Central Committee of the party responded by appointing its own men to lead the Union. According to the political scientist Ronald Suny the weakening of the soviets (workers’ committees) started almost immediately after the revolution; elections were postponed and the soviets were used as an apparatus of administration by the centre, losing their representative character. The Trade Unions were used to manage production and lost their character of protecting workers’ rights, and so on. [17] According to Suny: “The Left’s dream of worker management or union control of the economy had been deferred indefinitely”.

Lenin criticizes another work of Kautsky; the latter’s arguments with another socialist Antonie Pannekoek. The charge here is, again, that Kautsky “slurs over” the need to seize state power. Lenin says that by using the phrase “conquer” Kautsky allows for a peaceful and electoral transformation to Socialism. Furthermore; Kautsky allowed for the necessity of a bureaucratic function in the Socialist state. Kautsky, says Lenin, simply imagines that one can take over the existing state apparatus and operate it in a Socialist manner. For Lenin this is “opportunism”. Kautsky has not understood the lessons of the Paris Commune which, as Marx explained, showed the need to seize and at the same time transform the old state power. (See Chapter 3). But, again, in practice the ideas of elected and truly accountable bureaucrats subject to instant recall by the workers did not outlast the Bolshevik revolution by very long. Were Kautsky’s more moderate ideas not in reality more feasible?

Lenin explains that the failure of “primitive democracy” (a term used by the critic Bernstein and which equates to Lenin’s idea of direct worker control) in the Trade Unions movement (in England in the 19th century) does not show the failure of the idea; because this took place under capitalism. It will, he explains, be a different matter under Socialism when “all will take a turn in management and will soon become accustomed to the idea of no managers at all”. Lenin is fond of explaining that the only correct way to do political theorising is to follow the example of Marx and limit yourself to analysis of concrete historical examples. If we take the concrete example of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia however it does not support the theories which Lenin expounds and insists on in this pamphlet. Many of the principles of Marxism which Lenin castigates “opportunist” Socialists for abandoning in theory prior to 1917 he himself abandoned in practice once the Bolsheviks came to power. In the 1930s Stalin gave up even more of the theoretical principles of Marxism.


In The Order of Things [18] Foucault analyses Marxism as a form of knowledge which is eschatological. Foucault sees a new episteme developing after 1800. On the one hand this new episteme, which took man as its starting point developed into positivism (of which phenomenology is a variant), and, on the other hand, there was an eschatological strand – of which Marx was a prime example. But this “dream of the end of history” which is certainly a “Utopia” is strictly based in the forms of thought peculiar to the 19th century and cannot exist outside these forms of thought. Reading Lenin’s State and Revolution we can observe the eschatological nature of Marxism. History is explained by the theory of the struggle of two opposing classes. The denouement takes the form of a final conflict. And, then; peace. It is an eschatological theory and the termination point of this eschatology is now; 1917. In reality; as history has shown; the Revolution happened, but history did not end. A certain kind of state was instituted. This state developed in a certain way. But the “higher phase” of Communism did not in fact evolve out of the dictatorship of the proletariat. And, arguably, the dictatorship of the proletariat (“first phase of Communism”) itself hardly got off the ground. In the Soviet Union it was the Communist Party who ruled rather than the proletariat. The latter increasingly found themselves dictated to by the Party hierarchy. Many aspects of Socialist democracy – such as workers’ Committees in factories – did not outlive the heady days of the revolution for very long. Finally, the state instituted by the Revolution collapsed and – history continues. In believing that the Revolution was some kind of inevitable process of historical evolution (a fact akin to facts of the natural sciences)  – and that he was living at that time in history when history itself was about to conclude Lenin was living in some kind of a dream. After the February Revolution, the Mensheviks were willing to work with the Provisional government and the liberals. They believed that a slower move towards socialism was preferable. And, as we have seen, they criticised the Bolsheviks for their implausible Utopias. The Bolsheviks suppressed them. But it was the Mensheviks who probably had more sense and whose ideas were more practical and realistic.

The basic idea of this pamphlet is this: the state is the product of class conflict. It is inevitable (akin to a law of evolution) that this conflict will be resolved. When it is finally resolved there will be no more state. This change can only come about by an armed revolution. In this revolution the proletarian class will seize the state by armed force and will suppress the capitalist class. This is the dictatorship of the proletariat. (First phase of Communism). During this phase a modified form of state power will continue to exist. The proletariat needs this to completely eliminate the capitalist class. This period is characterised by a full participatory democracy; for example all officials will be elected. The state will own all the means of production in the name of the people. Out of this will emerge (exactly when cannot be foretold) a new form of society. In this new form of society there is no state power at all. No bureaucratic function. No police or standing army. No wages and no rents. Everyone will produce to the best of their ability so that everyone can consume what they need. There will be very little need for social regulation as people, freed from the burden of oppression, will just know how to behave. Occasional individual aberrations will be immediately dealt with by the individual’s neighbours. (This is the Higher phase of Communism). This time (1917) is in fact the time in history when the Revolutionary victory of the working class is about to take place, decisively moving history onto a completely new phase. If the theoretical basis for these ideas is unsound then in the end all Lenin was doing was presenting various unrealistic Utopias.

Lenin’s attitude towards Marx and Engels is reverential. At times Lenin reads like a follower of a religious leader insisting on the absolute correctness of everything the prophet said. Opponents (from within the same Church) are criticised on the grounds that they are not following the master correctly. Only Lenin and the Bolshevik party interpret the true words of the master correctly. There can be no deviation from this. There is something in this of a religious nature.

As we have seen Lenin was almost more Marxist than Marx. He consistently takes a “hard line” and emphasises the revolutionary and violent side of the message. This pamphlet was written on the eve of the October Revolution. Lenin is putting theoretical revolutionary backbone into the Bolshevik party. He is especially keen to emphasise the need for a complete break with the capitalists. He is at pains to denounce the theoretical impurity and compromised position of all those in the broader socialist camp who saw the possibility or even the desirability of a compromise with the liberals and parliamentarians. It goes without saying that this is a text which justifies the subsequent actions of the Bolshevik faction in seizing power – firstly when they closed down the Provisional government and then, later, when they closed down the elected Constituent Assembly (in which they had lost out to the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries). This was theory over democracy. The theory justified violence and suppression of opposition – even of socialists who did not share the same revolutionary approach.

The overall sense of this pamphlet is that it is rigid and inflexible. The real events of history are understood not pragmatically but through the lens of a strict theory. This adherence to strict theory gave an inflexible cast of mind, which, in turn, paved the way, perhaps, for the justification of political terror. Rather than allowing elements of socialism to develop organically, and bringing people with them, the Bolsheviks, having seized power, tried to organise society from the top down. Ultimately this project failed. It is tempting to say that this was the proof of the pudding. (Apologists for Marxist-Leninism continue to insist that the ingredients were wrong; but this is no more than an endless postponement of the Second Coming).

State and Revolution is essential background reading for anyone trying to understand the political history of the Soviet Union.


1. Published in Brussels. 1847

2. Published in London. 1848

3. Ronald Suny. The Soviet Experiment. Oxford University Press 1998. Chp 3. p91.

4. Ibid. Chp. 9. p226

5. Robert Service. Russia. Penguin. 1998. Chp. 2 p37

6. Marx. The Civil War In France. 1871

7. Friedrich Engels. The Housing Question. London and New York 1933

8. Housing Associations can now seek private finance. Guardian

Professor David Mullins. August 2010 – see page 10

9. Neue Zeit XX-1 1901-1902 p8. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Critique of the Social-Democratic Programmes. London and New York 1933

10. Internationales aus dem Volkstaat. 1894. Friedrich Engels.

11. Karl Marx. Critique of the Gotha programme. In a letter to Bracke 1875 and published in Neue Zeit IX-I in 1891.

12. What is to be done? Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Trans. Michael M. Katz. Cornell University Press 1989. The citation is in the introduction by the translator and William G. Wagner and is from N. Valentinov “Chernyshevsky and Lenin” an article from Новый журнал (New Journal) no. 27 1951

13. Ibid. 12. Also quoted in the introduction. – From J. Frank N. G. Chernyshevsky: A Russian Utopia. Southern Review 3. 1967

14. Ibid 3. Chp 3. section: ‘Building State Capitalism’. Chp 10.

15. Ibid. 3. Chp 10. section: “Stalin’s working class” which discusses measures introduced in 1929 including: loss of trade union autonomy, managers received right to fire workers. In 1931 prison sentences were introduced for labour discipline infractions.


17. Ibid. 3. Chp. 5 section: The Weakening of the Soviets

18. The Order of Things. Michel Foucault. Routledge 1989. (First published as Les Mots et les choses in France in 1966)