The Bolsheviks did not ‘smash’ the old state

Whatever the ambiguities, silences and tensions in Lenin’s vision of the (withering) proletarian state to come in State and Revolution (see previous posts below) the core argument of the text is hard to miss – the old state must be destroyed and replaced with a new one manifesting the dictatorship of the proletariat. ‘The workers,’ Lenin is clear,  ‘having conquered political power will break up the old bureaucratic apparatus, they will shatter it to its very foundations, until not one stone is left upon the another and they will replace it with a new one’ (pp. 91-2). ‘A revolution’, he emphasises ‘must not consist in the new class ruling, governing with the aid of the old state machinery, but in this class smashing this machinery and ruling, governing with the aid of a new machinery’ (p. 96) – and further, this process of breaking up the old apparatus he indicates more than once in State and Revolution can and must begin immediately, within 24 hours of the seizure of power. We’ve seen that what specifically Lenin means by the bourgeois ‘state machinery’ (its boundaries, the exact range of its institutional components) is left rather imprecisely stated, but he is certainly clear that what is to be destroyed comprises two core elements – the standing army and what he calls ‘the bureaucracy’.

Most Marxists today seem to agree that whatever the later compromises, retreats and forms of degeneration, this is precisely what happened in the early phase of the Russian revolution under the leadership of Lenin’s Bolsheviks. In this sense then Marxists today tend to take Lenin at his word in State and Revolution, regarding the text as a more or less accurate guide to the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary practice. That is, it is often taken as an established fact, a truism indeed repeated time and time again, that the old Russian state was ‘smashed’ and replaced with a new one based fundamentally on soviet power. Take for example, Ernest Mandel’s comments in his (highly readable) Introduction to Marxism:

The old state apparatus and the Provisional Government collapsed. The Second Congress of Soviets voted by a large majority for the coming to power of the workers’ and peasants’ soviets. Over the vast territory of a great country a state on the model of the Paris Commune had been set up for the first time – a workers state. (Mandel, 1979, p. 109)

Or take Joseph Choonara’s and Charlie Kimber’s Arguments for Revolution where, after echoing Lenin’s argument that the capitalist state must be smashed and replaced ‘with a new kind of state’, it is stated; ‘[t]his is what existed for a period after the Russian Revolution of 1917’ (Choonara & Kimber, 2011, p. 63).

Of course, as the story normally continues the early hopes and intentions of the Bolsheviks were dashed with the revolution’s failure to spread internationally and under the weight of isolation, blockade, foreign intervention, and the brutalising consequences of famine and civil war – not the least of these, the drafting of many of the most committed Bolshevik workers into the Red Army and the wider militarisation of the regime, the exodus of vast numbers of the proletariat to the countryside (with the declassing effects this implied) and the atrophy of the soviets. The general degeneration of the regime it’s often added was directly reflected in its grim trajectory toward ever intensifying bureaucratic centralisation and top down authoritarian statism – a process that reached its apogee with Stalin’s consolidation of his grip on power in the years after Lenin’s death. Whether the Stalinist bureaucratic state apparatus is seen in orthodox Trotskyist terms as a ‘degenerated workers’ state’ or as an instance of ‘state capitalism’ (in Tony Cliff’s sense of this term rather than Lenin’s), it’s widely agreed that this was qualitatively different from what had gone before. And what had gone before was a definitely workers’ state modelled closely on the Paris Commune, with soviet power as its key characteristic – a ‘new kind of state’ built upon the smashed ruins of the old.

But whatever the merits of the argument that there was a qualitative difference between the practice and intentions of the Old Bolsheviks under Lenin on the one hand, and Stalinism on the other (an argument I largely agree with incidentally), the central claim here – that the old state was ‘smashed’ in 1917 and a new one based (however fleetingly) on soviet institutions set up in its place – is a myth.

Although Lenin claimed, in his 1918 polemic against Karl Kautsky (in between colourful insults) that in Russia ‘the bureaucratic machine has been completely smashed, razed to the ground’ and, in place of the bourgeois parliamentary state, ‘far more accessible representation has been given to the workers and peasants; their Soviets have replaced the bureaucrats, or their Soviets have been put in control of the bureaucrats’, later pronouncements were quite different.* While it was true of course that the Constituent Assembly had been dispersed (January 1918), in reality much of the old state apparatus remained almost unchanged. A later statement by Lenin from 1923 is quite instructive in this respect (and completely at odds with his earlier declaration that the old bureaucratic machine had been razed to the ground):

Our state apparatus, with the exception of the People’s Commisssariat for Foreign Affairs, represents in the highest degree a hangover of the old one, subjected to only the slightest extent to any serious change. (Lenin, cited in Rigby, 1979, p. 51)

Indeed, as T. H. Rigby demonstrates in his (highly recommended) study of the formation of the ‘Soviet’ system of government in Russia, Lenin’s Government: Sovnarkom 1917-1922, Lenin’s later comments here provide a much more accurate guide to the reality of the system put in place after the revolution than his comments in State and Revolution or the Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. As Rigby comments, there was a ‘high level of continuity in the central administrative machine of the Russian state’, before and after the revolution – so much so, that ‘the structural changes’ put into effect by the Bolsheviks ‘were scarcely greater than those sometimes accompanying changes of government in Western parliamentary systems’. ‘The personnel changes were greater,’ he continues, ‘and could perhaps be compared with those occurring in Washington in the heyday of the “spoils system”‘ (Rigby, 1979, p. 51). While it’s certainly more than plausible to say that the old ‘standing army’ was smashed during the revolution (though, of course, a new one was soon built by Trotsky very much along the lines of the old, incorporating many of the same personnel and chains of command) that other core instrument of the old state Lenin identifies – ‘the bureaucracy’ – was not.

As Rigby shows, despite Lenin’s stress in State and Revolution on the non-bureaucratic character of the new proletarian state, ‘equipping itself with an effective bureaucracy was in fact the main preoccupation of the Soviet state during its initial phase’ and moreover, ‘predominantly this expressed itself in efforts to “take over” and “set in motion” the old ministerial machine’ (Rigby, 1979, p. 14). This, of course, was something that could not be achieved immediately and for the first few weeks after the insurrection the first steps toward asserting the authority of the new regime were coordinated by the body that had organised the seizure of power in the capital – the Military Revolutionary Committee. By December 1917, however, with the abolition of the MRC, central authority had passed to what would now form the political nucleus of the revolutionary state: Sovet Narodnykh Komisarov (Council of People’s Commissars) – known as Sovnarkom. Set up by decree of the Second Congress of Soviets within hours of the insurrection, Sovnarkom was tasked with ‘administration of the country up to the convening of the Constituent Assembly’ as a ‘Temporary Worker and Peasant Government’. Membership of Sovnarkom would comprise the chairs of various commissions, or commissariats, that would constitute governmental branches of the revolutionary state, with Lenin as the chair of this central council. Sovnarkom was to operate under the sovereign authority of the Congress of Soviets and its Central Executive Committee (CEC).

Even at this very early stage, at the time of this decree, the similarities between the proposed structure of commissariats and the old ministerial structure inherited by the Provisional Government from the Tsarist regime are very striking. For one thing the division of responsibilities between the various commissariats was virtually identical to that between the old ministries, and further, there seemed little to distinguish Sovnarkom from the pre-revolutionary government executive. Sovnarkom was essentially a ‘cabinet’ of ministers along surprisingly conventional lines. As Rigby comments only two (apparently) important innovations were incorporated into the new structure of government. Firstly, the head of each government department (‘People’s Commissar’) would share authority with a ‘commission’ of which he would be a chairman (and they were all men) – but in reality commissariats rarely functioned in this way. The second major innovation was in terminology. As Rigby puts it:

In calling their government the ‘Council of People’s Commissars’, the Bolshevik leadership were seeking to de-emphasise formal and structural similarities to ‘bourgeois’ governments and to proclaim and dramatise the revolutionary role and class content they believed it to embody (Rigby, 1979, p. 6)

But even here – at the level of mere terminology – differences with the old regime can be exaggerated. As Rigby comments:

That the title of the new government contained the word ‘soviet’ (sovet) some have seen as designed to identify it with the new revolutionary institutions of the masses, as the topmost soviet in a hierarchy of soviets. This supposition seems highly dubious, since sovet is simply the usual Russian word for ‘council’, and the pre-revolutionary government executive had been called Sovet Ministrov (Council of Ministers). Rigby, 1979, p. 7).

The similarities with the pre-revolutionary, Tsarist structure at the apex of the revolutionary state were even further enhanced within a few weeks of the seizure of power with the emergence of ‘Little Sovnarkom’ – a committee set up to deal with minor administrative and financial matters in order to reduce the workload of ‘Full Sovnarkom’. Little Sovnarkom was a carbon copy of the ‘Little Council’ set up to perform a similar function on behalf of the Council of Ministers under the old regime – indeed, Little Sovnarkom may well have been set up on the advice of senior officials who had served in the Imperial government. The core organs of the revolutionary state were also serviced by a Chancellery – its role was mostly to provide secretarial services – not unlike the Chancellery that had performed similar responsibilities under the old system.

But it’s not just at the level of formal similarity that the revolutionary government was structured to conform to the main divisions of the pre-revolutionary administrative machine. Within a few months the new government had also moved literally to incorporate the extant administrative apparatuses (including most of their personnel) left over from the old regime. At first the various commissariats of the new government operated almost entirely from the Smolny Institute (where Sovnarkom was also based and where Lenin had his office) – but this only served as an initial headquarters from which the various People’s Commissars ventured out to seek to establish control over ‘their’ ministries (i.e. the old government departments), at first accompanied by Red Guards. The main task of the commissars at this time was persuade and cajole the old government officials – or at least significant sections of them – to return to work in the ministries under Bolshevik control (now renamed ‘commissariats’). With the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in early 1918, most of the initial resistance among old officials melted away and the People’s Commissars were able to transfer their offices and core support staff from Smolny to the old government department buildings – merging this new staff with the old one. This arrangement did not last long, since with the German advance in the period before Brest-Litovsk, followed by the territorial concessions made under the terms of that Treaty, the decision was made to move the seat of the government from Petrograd to Moscow – much further away from the German army. However, if anything, the shared experience among new and old staff of this transfer in March 1918 and of setting up offices in the new capital seems to have bound them closer together. The main point, here, is that what was transferred to Moscow and re-established there were, for all intents and purposes, the old ministries – their existing structures and much of their personnel more or less in toto.

None of this, of course, is to say that there were no significant changes to the state structures seized by the Bolsheviks. In the months following the revolution there were substantial reorganisations in several commissariats (including the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs mentioned in the 1923 Lenin quotation above) and, in addition, two new organs of government were set up which, as Rigby puts it, ‘were destined before long to assume great importance’ (p. 50)  – the Cheka (which first cut its teeth in bloody suppression of ‘anarchists’ in Moscow – against the vigorous protest of local soviet authorities – to establish ‘order’ in preparation for the transfer of the seat of government) and the National Economic Council (NEC). But even here in the case of the NEC, there were strong lines of continuity with the old Ministry of Trade and Industry in terms of its functions and structures. Several of the old institutions of the old imperial state were, of course, destroyed – the monarchy key among these of course. But, as Rigby puts it, when ‘it came to the apparatus of the executive arm of the government, however, destruction was far less apparent’ (p. 51).

What of the soviets though – those organisations of the masses thrown up by the revolutionary struggle? As we have seen, the decree setting up Sovnarkom declared that this organ and the commissariats it coordinated should have been answerable to the Congress of Soviets (represented between congresses by its executive arm, the CEC). Indeed the 1918 Constitution defined the Congress of Soviets as the ‘supreme authority’ of the new Republic. But in practice as Rigby demonstrates, the Congress was soon sidelined by Sovnarkom and indeed, in reality, the former ‘can scarcely be said to have acted as a constraint or even as a serious influence’ (p. 162) on the latter. As the new structures of government solidified after an early period of flux and a kind of power struggle between the CEC and Sovnarkom (resolved in favour of the latter in the first half of 1918 when various departments set up by the CEC were abolished on the grounds that they duplicated the functions of the People’s Commissariats), the role of the Congress had been reduced to that of merely rubber stamping the decisions promulgated by Sovnarkom and as a source of legitimacy for those decrees.

The onset of the civil war further reduced the vitality of the Congress and CEC. In part this reflected the atrophy of local soviets under civil war conditions (and the ascendancy of the Cheka, Defence Council and Trotsky’s Military Revolutionary Council as ’emergency’ organs of power), but it also reflected of course the emergence of single party dictatorship making it extremely difficult for other parties to gain representation in the soviets (incidentally, Sovnarkom initially included a small number of Left SRs – but they withdrew in protest at the terms of Brest-Litovsk). An attempt was made at the end of the civil war to revitalise the soviets which involved significant empowerment of the CEC vis-a-vis Sovnarkom (since it was realised that the latter had lost much of its legitimacy, particularly in the eyes of the peasantry, given that it was associated with the widely hated Cheka) – but as Rigby points out, the chief beneficiary of the decline in Sovnarkom’s power was the Communist Party which more and more began to act as an institutional factor of cohesion binding central government to local organs of power and increasingly imposing cohesion too in relation to the bureaucratic dysfunction of the central organs of the political executive of Lenin’s state. By 1921 the party’s Central Committee and its two chief inner organs, the Politburo and Orgburo, were ‘well on the way to becoming the true government of the Soviet Republic’ (p. 178) – a development that reached its culmination of course after Lenin’s death with Stalin’s consolidation of power.

It’s often assumed that the soviets were workplace organisations and that as such their proliferation in 1917 represented the beginnings of a new form of socialist political economy in which the bourgeois distinction between ‘politics’ and ‘economics’ began to break down, and in which these organs of proletarian power started, in embryonic forms at least, to displace the prerogatives of capital in terms of investment and production decisions. In fact, as Carmen Sirianni (1982) points out, though there was some overlap between them, the soviets were usually distinct from the organs of power that emerged within workplaces to challenge capitalist ownership and control – the factory committees. As Sirianni documents (see also Brinton 1975 for a Left Communist perspective), in the first months of the revolution hundreds of firms were taken over spontaneously from below by groups of workers forming factory committees, increasingly coordinated by a central organ – the Central Council of Petrograd Factory Committees (whose aegis in practice extended well beyond that city). Indeed, Sirianni argues that the evidence shows that the factory committees had notable successes in terms of improving productivity. But as we’ve seen in a previous post the Bolshevik leadership sought very vigorously to hold back and reverse this wave of spontaneous expropriations from below, informed by Lenin’s view that the immediate task of the revolution was to organise a transitional economy on the basis of ‘state capitalism’ – a situation in which a ‘workers’ state’ would superintend an economic base in which ‘the bourgeoisie would still retain most of the formal ownership and effective management of most of the productive apparatus’ (Brinton, 1975, p. 13).

In fact (after the October seizure of power at least) the Bolshevik leadership was overwhelmingly hostile toward the factory committee movement – Lenin wanting to restrict the involvement of workers in tasks of economic coordination to basic functions of ‘accounting and checking’ rather than anything approaching substantial decision-making power. Indeed the main function of the NEC (one of the new organs of government power mentioned above) was to rein in the factory committees, bringing them under the domination of the much more conservative and pliable trade unions, in a struggle to stamp out what the Bolshevik leadership regarded as deviant ‘syndicalist’ tendencies among the proletariat. The organs of mass struggle manifesting workers’ control of industry, then, fared even worse under Lenin than the soviets. Neither soviets nor (much less) factory committees constituted the real heart of power in the early months and years of the revolution – the major seat of power in this the ‘heroic period’ of the revolution was Sovnarkom and the commissariats.

The main structures of the ‘workers’ state’, then, that emerged under Lenin’s leadership looked very little like the description in State and Revolution. At its core were institutions and structures inherited directly and often more or less wholesale from the overthrown old regime. What might explain this? It’s very hard to account for it in terms of forced and reluctant compromises in response to civil war and the failure of the revolution to spread, because, as we have seen, the new regime’s efforts to consolidate itself were focused from the start on getting control of the extant machinery of government power and setting them in motion under a new leadership. Indeed as Rigby remarks, a ‘Russian revolutionary intent on “destroying the entire old state machine” might reasonably be expected to move quickly to the abolition of the august ministries inherited from the Tsars’ (p. 13) – but this is precisely what Lenin did not do. Of course one way of explaining all of this might be to say, along with the usual libertarian communist critique, that Lenin’s apparent turn toward a soviet, commune inspired vision in 1917 was merely a duplicitous ruse to broaden support for the Bolshevik party – part of a wider libertarian rhetoric soon dropped after the seizure of power once it no longer suited Bolshevik purposes.

But there is perhaps one fundamental line of continuity between State and Revolution and the actuality of the revolutionary state under Lenin. As we have seen, Lenin’s argument rests on a distinction between ‘politics proper’ – the domain of force and class suppression – on the one hand, and ‘non-political’ revolutionary administration on the other. This in turn seems to pivot on a utopian telos in which it is assumed that the overthrow of the old ruling class and consolidation of a workers’ state should lead eventually but inexorably (at least as long as this overthrow was generalised internationally, presumably) to communist abundance and the abolition of ‘politics’. While there seems little indication (beyond the setting up of Rabkrin, the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate, in 1920 at least) of any real attempt to transform the administrative functions of the commissariats into ‘simple operations of registration, filing and checking’ to be performed by the masses themselves, Lenin’s understanding of ‘politics proper’ may retain its relevance. As Rigby suggests (though he also says this of Marxism more broadly), Lenin was supremely uninterested in constitutional or institutional forms – what really mattered was power: who held it, and which class forces did they represent. It may well have been, then, that for Lenin, as long as the Bolsheviks/ Communist Party held state power, and used this to hold down counter-revolutionary forces, the institutional forms in and through which this power was manifested really did not matter very much.

Nevertheless, it cannot be emphasised too much that the central argument of State and Revolution – a ‘revolution must not consist in the new class ruling, governing with the aid of the old state machinery, but in this class smashing this machinery and ruling, governing with the aid of a new machinery’ – was not followed through in practice by the Bolsheviks in power. Indeed the major strategic dichotomy that has been drawn by ‘Leninists’ ever since between, on the one hand, ‘reformists’, ‘left reformists’ and so on who seek to utilise existing state institutions, and, on the other hand, ‘revolutionaries’ who seek to ‘smash’ and replace that state machinery on the basis of what Lenin’s Bolsheviks are purported to have attempted (or briefly achieved), pivots on a misunderstanding/ misrepresentation of the historical reality. As we have seen the bureaucratic apparatus of the old regime in Russia was not smashed at all – in fact Lenin’s party sought, precisely, to ‘lay hold of’ this ‘ready-made state machinery’ and to ‘wield it for its own purposes’.

* Kautsky, incidentally, has Lenin’s measure in this respect in the exchange that followed. Though he seems to agree that the Bolsheviks had got rid of the old state machine, he is clear (in a 1921 response to Trotsky) that the state apparatus presided over by Lenin looked nothing at all like the Paris Commune in any respect save one. The only way in which the Bolsheviks had remained faithful to the Commune and the Marx of 1871 had been in their merging of executive and legislative powers – and even then, as Kautsky points out, this was the worst aspect they could have copied in the circumstances of party dictatorship, ‘since the Commune’s unified powers rested on popular representation elected by universal suffrage’ (Salvadori, 1979, 270). For more on this see Salvadori, 1979, pp. 267-77.


Brinton, M. (1975) The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control 1917 to 1921: the State and Counter-Revolution (Montreal, Black Rose)

Choonara, J. & Kimber, C. (2011) Arguments for Revolution: the Case for the Socialist Workers Party (London, SWP)

Lenin, V. I. (2002) The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. Available:

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

Mandel, E. (1977) Introduction to Marxism (London, Inks Links)

Rigby, T. H. (1979) Lenin’s Government: Sovnarkom 1917-1922 (Cambridge, CUP)

Salvadori, M. (1979) Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution 1880-1938 (London, NLB)

Sirianni, C. (1982) Workers Control & the Socialist Democracy: the Soviet Experience (London, Verso)

  1. #1 by David Jamieson on April 26, 2019 - 2:59 pm

    An interesting read Ed thanks.

    But isn’t it the case that it has traditionally been argued that the short-run nature of soviet rule – which would presumably have been the real basis for the smashing of the existing state machinery – was naturally disrupted and ultimately destroyed by the pressures of counter revolution and war in very historically and nationally specific circumstances?

    The Bolsheviks did not smash the state – but is that the role of the Bolsheviks as ascribed in your last paragraph? Lenin says that smashing the state is the task of the revolution. But Lenin repeatedly accepted that the revolution had been warped by the terrible circumstances.

    I’d agree that Lenin does seem to think up to a point that the Bolshevik dictatorship still applied a working class nature to the hijacked state, and that this would represent a re-conception of S&R. But I always rather assumed that those were formulations made in a state of utter desperation as national destitution made the NEP necessary – Lenin’s formulation as I recall was that Russia was a ‘bureaucratically degenerated workers’ state’ operating a capitalist economy. A haphazard formulation – but in any case I don’t know that anyone on the left – including a would-be ‘Leninist’ would understand this as desirable.

    Anyway – much food for thought, thanks.

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