Archive for March, 2019

On Lenin’s The State and Revolution (1)

Over the following blogposts, I want to undertake a critical appraisal of Lenin’s The State and Revolution which, for better or worse, has constituted a fundamental reference point in Marxist thought for the past century. In this first post I’ll examine the genesis and significance of the text drawing heavily on Marian Sawer’s essay ‘The Genesis of State and Revolution’ – and I hope to extrapolate a particular significance of the pamphlet that I don’t think is often grasped. In the post that follows I’ll look a little bit more closely at some of the tensions and incoherences in the text and focus too on what I take to be the core myth of the Bolshevik Revolution – the frequently encountered claim/assumption, rooted in the major precept established by Lenin in The State and Revolution in relation to the necessity of the destruction of the bourgeois state apparatus, that the Bolsheviks under Lenin really did ‘smash’ the extant state institutions and replace them (however fleetingly) with soviet power. In the final post I hope to examine one of the most celebrated and conceptually sophisticated defences of the arguments Lenin establishes in The State and Revolution (and closely associated polemical texts such as The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky) – Etienne Balibar’s The Dictatorship of the Proletariat. I want to show in particular how this defence fails to overcome the incoherences in the original and indeed shows up more clearly some fundamental problems of ‘Leninist’ thought in relation to state power.


Lenin’s The State and Revolution is, as Ralph Miliband once remarked, one of the ‘sacred texts’ of Marxist thought – ‘sacred’ in the sense that the argument Lenin develops in relation to the question of the state and the socialist exercise of power has ‘enjoyed an exceptionally authoritative status for successive generations of socialists’ and indeed is ‘commonly held within the Marxist tradition, to provide a theoretical and indeed a practical solution’ to this question. Always something of an embarrassment for the Stalinist regimes given the relatively ‘libertarian’ (though this dimension of the text is often overstated and many have pointed to its at most only half-submerged authoritarian qualities) vision Lenin presents of a commune type workers’ state founded on mass participation, the text has been embraced much more enthusiastically, and with much less bad faith, by anti-Stalinist revolutionary socialist currents. Indeed we might say that the State and Revolution is the core canonical text within the ‘Leninist’/ Trotskyist tradition today – a text to which socialists of this type return again and again as the major point of reference for their strategic perspective.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that the historical significance of the text goes well beyond its status as a key point of orientation within Marxist thought and debate. It is surely no exaggeration to say that The State and Revolution is one of the few texts that fundamentally changed the course of modern history since it was in the process of preparing this pamphlet (he did the library research for it, it seems, in the first two months of 1917 in Zurich, only writing these up a few months later while in hiding in Finland after ‘the July days’ – the text was not published until early 1918) that Lenin made the core conceptual leaps and political breaks with his earlier assumptions without which the October seizure of power in Russia would almost certainly not have happened.  Lenin’s turn to the idea that the soviet organs that had spontaneously proliferated during the course of the February Revolution manifested revolutionary workers’ power and that , as such, Bolshevik strategy must pivot on the aim of transferring the entirety of state power from the institutions of the Provisional Government to the soviets was first enunciated publicly (much to the shock and disorientation of many of his party comrades) in his ‘April Theses’. But the genesis and gestation of this turn in his strategic orientation was clearly bound up with the research and thinking he put into the notes he made in Jan/Feb 1917 that would eventually be published as The State and Revolution.

Indeed the provenance of this text and what it reveals about Lenin’s changing thought is fascinating. Marian Sawer’s essay, ‘The Genesis of State and Revolution’ traces this process in detail, locating the development of Lenin’s thinking in relation to contemporary controversies among key figures in the Second International. As Sawer argues, the background to Lenin’s theoretical reappraisal of Marxist theory in relation to the state is to be found in the debates among socialists in the wake of the 1905 Russian revolution. For the left of the German SPD in particular, the organs of mass, participatory democracy that had spontaneously emerged in 1905 pointed the way toward forms of extra-parliamentary struggle on which socialists should orient their revolutionary strategy. Rosa Luxemburg took up this argument, of course, in The Mass Strike. But mainstream social democratic thought (before the first world war of course ‘Marxism’, ‘socialism’ and ‘social democracy’ were more or less synonymous terms) – epitomised by that of ‘the Pope of Marxism’, Karl Kautsky – rejected this, arguing that revolutionary struggle had taken the course it had in Russia, precisely because of the backwardness of autocratic Russian conditions and the absence of parliamentary institutions. As such the events of 1905 were ‘proof that political conditions in Russia were not yet ripe for proletarian revolution, rather than being a manifestation of a proletarian form of struggle or the form that a socialist revolution would take’ (Sawer).

As Sawer continues, in ‘1912 the theoretical differences between orthodox German social democracy and its left wing were clarified and sharpened in the course of debate conducted between… Anton Pannekoek and Kautsky on the relationship between the socialist movement and the state’. Pannekoek argued that in focusing its efforts on parliamentary representation, German social democracy ‘was fetishising organisational forms to which Marx had lent his authority in the pre-Paris Commune era’ (Sawer) – while these may have been appropriate while capitalism was still in its ascendant phase, in the ‘period of the decline of the bourgeois order, signalled by the growth of imperialism’ an orientation on parliament should now be seen a positive hindrance to proletarian struggle. Instead the workers’ movement should now focus on the construction, in the course of struggle, of a proletarian power structure that would constitute a real alternative to the bourgeois state – indeed it should seek the destruction of the bourgeois state. In response Kautsky (again, speaking for the orthodox view) stated that:

The goal of our political struggle remains the same as it has been up to now. The conquest of state power through winning a majority in parliament and raising parliament to be the master of government. Not, however, the destruction of state power. (Kautsky, cited in Sawer)

Sawer remarks that Lenin appears not to have been very attentive to this 1912 debate (though he would have been aware of it), but is also clear that Lenin regarded Kautsky’s views as Marxist orthodoxy right up until 1917. There is no evidence at all that before 1917 Lenin held any disagreement with Kautsky’s general position that the revolutionary process would involve the capture of the extant institutions of the bourgeois state by proletarian forces which would then use those institutions to build socialism. Indeed in a polemic with Nikolai Bukharin, Lenin stated in a piece published in December 1916 that:

Socialists are in favour of using the present state and its institutions in the struggle for the emancipation of the working class, maintaining also that the state should be used for a specific form of transition from capitalism to socialism. This transition is the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is also a state. (Lenin, cited in Sawer)

So here, less than a year before the October Revolution (and merely a few months before the ‘April Theses’ called for power to be transferred to the soviets), Lenin quite clearly envisages a very Kautskyan type revolutionary process. But, as Sawer shows, it was in the course of this polemic with Bukharin that Lenin came to a fundamental reappraisal of his thought hitherto on state power and socialist revolution.

The theory of imperialism Bukharin had elaborated in Imperialism and World Economy (1915) – foreshadowing, as Sawer points out, Lenin’s more famous pamphlet on the same theme, published the year after (and, actually, all of the best and most innovative ideas contained in the ‘classical Marxist’ approach to Imperialism were originally Bukharin’s and Hilferding’s not Lenin’s) – led Bukharin to work further on drawing out the implications of his concept of ‘state capitalism’ for socialist strategy. He seems to have worked quite closely with Pannekoek at this time and it was perhaps this connection that  convinced Bukharin that the proletariat could not capture the bourgeois state machine, but should instead seek to ‘smash’ it. It was possibly via this route, then, that what were originally fairly marginal left communist ideas as articulated by Pannekoek first really entered the Bolshevik imagination – it was almost certainly the route by which these ideas first significantly impinged on Lenin’s. Bukharin presented his ideas to Lenin in an essay in 1916 entitled ‘Towards a Theory of the Imperialist State’, to be met with scornful hostility. Already suspicious of Bukharin’s ‘Semi-anarchist ideas’, Lenin complained that Bukharin’s ideas on the state were ‘entirely muddled’, ‘un-Marxist and un-Socialist’ and indeed it was in a rejoinder to Bukharin’s essay that Lenin reiterated the orthodox Kautskyan view on the state quoted above. In the same rejoinder Lenin announced his intention to publish a full article on the subject and, as Sawer shows, it was in the course of conducting the research for this article in Zurich in early 1917 that Lenin became converted to Bukharin’s views and thus underwent a 180 degree reversal in his approach to state power. That is, it was the notes that Lenin produced in preparation for an intended refutation of Bukharin’s ‘semi-anarchist ideas’ that went on to form the basis of what was eventually published as The State and Revolution (and, not for the first time, Lenin was to take the credit for ideas that he’d originally encountered via Bukharin with a pamphlet that would overshadow the latter’s prior publication!!)

According to Sawer, Lenin’s conversion emerged from a re-reading – a rediscovery – in January/February 1917 of Marx’s and Engels’ writing on the state in the wake of the Paris Commune. None of Lenin’s writings or speeches up until this point seem to show any awareness, for example, of the famous rider attached to the 1872 edition of the Communist Manifesto which states ‘… this programme has in some details become antiquated. One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” Nor does he seem to have paid much attention to the text from which Marx and Engels quote in that rider – Marx’s The Civil War in France. Nor, indeed does Lenin appear previously to have attached much importance to the last chapter of the Eighteenth Brumaire in which Marx, much earlier (1851-2), makes his first comments indicating the necessity of ‘smashing’ the bourgeois state machine – “All revolutions perfected this machine instead of smashing it”. Sawer comments that throughout the notebook Lenin used during his (re)reading of Marx and Engels on the state:

one finds Lenin heavily emphasising and annotating the comments he discovers in Marx and Engels on the need for the proletarian revolution to smash the existing state machine and substitute for it their own form of state, which is already only a ‘half state’ (substituting popular forms of administration for the old bureaucracy, etc.) and which will itself wither away as full communism is reached.

Further, there “are constant references to Kautsky’s (and to a lesser extent Plekhanov’s) suppression or over-looking of the need to smash the existing state apparatus”.

Lenin would, of course, go on to draw heavily on these texts in the middle chapters of the State and Revolution in which he brilliantly traces the trajectory of Marx’s thought on the state as it evolved in response ‘to the solid ground of historical experience’ (S&R, p 27) – ‘it was not logical theorising, but the actual course of events,… living experience’ of revolutionary struggle that allowed Marx to make his theorising in relation to the state and to the necessary form of the dictatorship of the proletariat progressively more and more concrete. In this respect ‘as everywhere, his teaching is the summing up of experience‘. What Lenin says he is doing in this text is presenting a ‘resuscitation’ of these teachings (‘our first task is to resuscitate the real teachings of Marx on the state’ (p. 7)) which have, over time, been obscured and adulterated by opportunism and in particular ‘by the present predominant Kautskyism’. He says of the 1872 rider that the real meaning of Marx’s and Engels’ comments (since, ‘distorted by the opportunists’) ‘probably, is not known to nine-tenths, if not ninety-nine hundredths, of the readers of the Communist Manifesto‘ (p. 33). But it is important to remember, here, as we have seen above, that Lenin himself seems to have been among these ninety-nine hundredths – and, indeed, was himself essentially a follower of the ‘present predominant Kautskyism’ right up until December 1916. There’s no indication of this at all in what Lenin says in The State and Revolution among all the (characteristically) invective denunciation of ‘opportunists’, ‘petty bourgeois democrats’ and so on hurled in the manner of a vengeful prophet returning from the wilderness. Lenin’s ‘resuscitation’ of these ideas came only after a very recent discovery of them on his part for the first time.

As we’ve seen figures such as Bukharin and Pannekoek and (to some extent) Luxemburg had already held to something like the ‘real teachings of Marx on the state’ before Lenin’s sudden conversion, but it was only with his conversion in the wider context of the developing revolutionary process in Russia that these ideas in relation to the necessary destruction of the bourgeois state really make an impact. Where Lenin goes beyond Bukharin and Pannekoek (and Marx) is that he explicitly identifies the soviets as ‘structurally akin to the Commune’ (Sawer) and thus as the historically discovered (core) institutional form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Interestingly, Sawer argues that at the time Lenin was preparing the materials that would go on to become the State and Revolution he had not yet received news of the reappearance of soviets in Russia – and thus the theoretical leap he makes in drawing a connection between Marx’s analysis of the Commune and soviets specifically was informed by a reappraisal of the 1905 revolutionary process. The other major innovation Lenin makes at this time (though foreshadowed somewhat by Pannekoek) was to link Marx’s propositions on the necessary destruction of the bourgeois state with the emergence of dual power as the process that would build toward this outcome. Nevertheless it’s worth pointing out that soviets make only relatively fleeting appearances in Lenin’s pamphlet (far more references to ‘the communes’) – and, indeed, (as Sawer points out) Lenin’s (always rather ambiguous) enthusiasm for soviets would not last long beyond the October Revolution. In fact (as we shall see in a following post) little power was vested in soviet institutions even before their general atrophy during the civil war – within a few weeks of the October insurrection, government power was heavily concentrated in ‘commissariats’ (essentially the old state ministries, renamed and headed up by an appointed ‘commissar’) and by Lenin’s ‘cabinet’ of commissars, Sovnarkom.

Now, given all of the above, here’s my (rather unformed, tentative) suggestion. I’ve already written something see below about ‘reformism’ as a kind of phantom category. My argument was that ‘reformism’ in the sense of a coherent strategic worldview (rather than as an often under-theorised/ untheorised practice – an approach to day to day methods of struggle (clearly as a practical orientation it’s much more real and substantial)) – has never been more than a minority current in the socialist movement. But what if we can go further and say that ‘revolutionary socialism’ in the sense that we understand it today (and, again, as a coherent strategic worldview – a sort of global approach encompassing more than just an orientation to certain forms of struggle, but also to a relatively substantial vision of a particular process of transition to socialism/communism) was essentially invented by Lenin in early 1917? And what if, in the process of this discovery/ invention of a revolutionary tradition (as we understand it today) the necessary ‘other’ of this tradition, ‘reformism’ was also created essentially ex nihilo?

The usual story that’s told in relation to this clear reform/revolution dichotomy is that it can be traced back to the 1890s. That is, a cleavage between revolutionary socialism and reformism begins to open up (particularly within the SPD – the largest, most powerful socialist party within and around which most of the strategic debates of the time tended be concentrated) as a layer of full time parliamentary, party and trade union officials start to drift away from a definitely revolutionary Marxist orthodoxy, pulling with them the mass of passive party members and voters. Of course it’s often acknowledged that this cleavage was only indistinctly and incompletely grasped by many of the key interlocutors involved in the relevant debates at the time – mostly because of the ‘theoretical cover’ for the rightward drift of mainstream social democracy provided more than anyone else by the dissembling arch-renegade Karl Kautsky. It was only really with the double shock of the capitulation of most of the leadership of most member parties of the Second International to the military interests of their national states followed by their hostility to the Bolshevik seizure of power and, in the SPD leadership’s case, their collusion with the Freikorps to crush the Spartacist revolt that those maintaining fidelity to the cause of revolution fully grasped the reality of this long half-submerged divergence. Of course, no one could deny that clear differences of emphasis emerged between the mainstream of social democracy and what Charlie Post calls the ‘militant minority’ of revolutionary activists in relation to political practice – emphasis on parliamentary or extra-parliamentary activity, attitude toward the tactic of the mass strike, the attitude toward socialist politicians joining bourgeois coalition governments and so on. It would be difficult to deny too that these orientations implied certain consequences too in terms of general political trajectory (as Rosa Luxemburg grasped of course in her polemic with Bernstein). But none of this adds up to a clear divergence, at this time, between two coherent strategic visions of socialist transformation. They are much more disagreements about tactics than they are really about a confrontation between different strategies. Even in Luxemburg’s case, the emphasis of her disagreement with Bernstein is that the end of socialist transformation must be kept in view – inseparable from the means chosen – it’s not really the counterposition of coherent ‘revolutionary strategy’ as such with a coherent ‘reformist’ one.

Moreover, the story that mainstream social democracy betrayed a clear and well-established and revolutionary orthodoxy is, I think, untenable. Whatever Marx’s and Engels’ not always consistent views about the possibility of a parliamentary road to socialism (there’s ample ammunition in various of their writings for either one of the ‘reformist’ or ‘revolutionary’ interpretations – although, for what it’s worth, the balance of the evidence, points much more convincingly toward the latter (and so on this Lenin, then, was absolutely right)), the idea that the major parties of the Second International were ever clearly committed in their official ideology to a non-parliamentary, insurrectionary road just isn’t true. ‘Leninist’ thought today tends to present Post’s ‘militant minority’ in the manner of a relatively small group of people holding fast to the established Marxist orthodoxy – keeping the flame of truth alive while others distorted and adulterated it in their drift toward opportunism and so on (just as Lenin tends to present himself as a stalwart of the revolutionary orthodoxy in State and Revolution, rather than somebody who actually has only very recently discovered that Marx thought that the existing state must be smashed). But when you look at the putatively ‘revolutionary’ orthodoxy of the Second International what you find is a widespread assumption that the revolutionary process would look something very like Kautsky’s description of revolution above – winning a majority in parliament, taking control of the existing state institutions and using them against the bourgeoisie and to abolish capitalism, perhaps in the process having to resort to defensive violence to put down a ‘slaveholder’s rebellion’ of the sort mentioned by Engels (referring to Marx’s comments on the US Civil War). So the longstanding ‘revolutionary’ orthodoxy apparently reneged on by the ‘reformists’ looks very much like…. the ‘reformism’ those renegades are said to have taken up. In reality the ‘reformism’ of the Second International ‘reformists’ was in many ways perfectly congruent the ‘revolutionary’ orthodoxy.

So perhaps in the course of producing the State and Revolution Lenin (brilliantly) originates the revolutionary socialist tradition as we understand it today. But in order for this tradition to be retrospectively read back as at least a definite, if not wholly complete, tendency within the Second International prior to 1917 clustering around an established orthodoxy, he must also retrospectively invent its ‘other’ cohering on a trajectory away from that orthodoxy. This is the function assigned to the figure of the renegade Kautsky.  Now whatever one thinks of Kautsky it’s almost certainly the case that, as Massimo Salvadori puts it, Kautsky is much ‘more vilified than read’ – indeed what many socialists think of Kautsky is probably coloured almost entirely by their main (very probably their only) encounter with him via Lenin’s polemic The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. In fact, as Salvadori amply demonstrates there’s very little evidence of any apostasy at all on Kautsky’s part – he remained remarkably consistent over time in his view that the parliamentary state provided the basic institutional framework for the ‘revolutionary’ transition to socialism. Even when he spoke of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ he was clear that he was referring to the exercise of proletarian class power via parliamentary institutions. Whether or not this was/is a realistic position to hold the fact is that this was the view to which Kautsky always openly cleaved – and what’s more, as we have seen, it is a position that Lenin himself seems to have had little disagreement with until a few months before he suddenly discovered Kautsky’s longstanding ‘apostasy’. Might we say then that the figure of the ‘renegade Kautsky’ provides a kind of dramatis personae in a newly innovated myth of orthodoxy and betrayal.

So, I suppose what I am suggesting overall is that the revolutionary socialist tradition (as we know it today) – and by extension its reformist other – was essentially invented by Lenin in January/February 1917 while researching a polemic against Bukharin in a Zurich library.

Main References

Lenin, V. I. (2011) State and Revolution (Mansfield Centre CT, Martino)

Miliband, R. (1983) Class Power & State Power (London, Verso)

Post, C (2012) ‘What is Left of Leninism? New European Left Parties in Historical Perspective’, The Socialist Register 2013

Sawer, M. (1977) ‘The Genesis of State and Revolution’, The Socialist Register 1977

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